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Human, Not Quantum, Relationships Matter

quantum field

As is quite frequent, I begin with a comment based on a David Brooks column. Today, he is talking about the movie, Interstellar. Based on the publicity, I had decided to skip it, but now I will have to see it. The nub of his thoughts show up in these few paragraphs:

More, it shows how modern science is influencing culture. People have always bent their worldviews around the latest scientific advances. After Newton, philosophers conceived a clockwork universe. Individuals were seen as cogs in a big machine and could be slotted into vast bureaucratic systems.

But in the era of quantum entanglement and relativity, everything looks emergent and interconnected. Life looks less like a machine and more like endlessly complex patterns of waves and particles. Vast social engineering projects look less promising, because of the complexity, but webs of loving and meaningful relationships can do amazing good.

I have had a long-standing conversation (some would call it an argument) with a colleague and friend about the reality of quantum entanglement and the idea that everything is connected through some universal, but mysterious even to scientists, field. Although not explicitly related to the film, the NYTimes just ran an article on this subject.

Bell’s paper (one of the most cited papers of all times) made important claims about quantum entanglement, one of those captivating features of quantum theory that depart strongly from our common sense. Entanglement concerns the behavior of tiny particles, such as electrons, that have interacted in the past and then moved apart. Tickle one particle here, by measuring one of its properties — its position, momentum or “spin” — and its partner should dance, instantaneously, no matter how far away the second particle has traveled.

The key word is “instantaneously.” The entangled particles could be separated across the galaxy, and somehow, according to quantum theory, measurements on one particle should affect the behavior of the far-off twin faster than light could have traveled between them.…Entanglement insults our intuitions about how the world could possibly work. Albert Einstein sneered that if the equations of quantum theory predicted such nonsense, so much the worse for quantum theory. “Spooky actions at a distance,” he huffed to a colleague in 1948.

I argue in my work that relationships and the connections between whatever is related is critical and necessary for flourishing to become possible. But, I stop short of resting my arguments on the existence of some quantum field that permeates the universe. There may be some valid theory about the interaction of two sub-atomic particles over vast distances, but human behavior clearly does not follow such a law. I assert that simultaneous variations of human behavior are so uncorrelated that it is impossible to deduce any containing force field that is governing their actions. And so, I see any attempts at invoking any kind of universal field in the background as a distraction from the key point, that of living and acting out of a conscious acknowledgment of interconnectedness.

What counts is a belief that humans live in an interconnected world. We act on our beliefs whether they are grounded in science or not. (see, for example, any entry for Religion). But if they are to be effective in a collective sense, that is, producing a world that works over time, such beliefs must be shared by a preponderance of the individuals. As Brooks points out, modern science, itself, in its mechanistic model of reality, has shattered an earlier, widely held belief that humans were bound together in an organic, holistic system. In place of some mysterious scientific principle explaining systemic behavior, pre-modern societies invoked multiple and singular Gods as the cause of human actions.

In place of any scientific proof, I rely on a humanistic model, largely created by Heidegger and other phenomenologists. Using philosophical, not scientific, rigor, he posits that human existence, the unique way of describing our species life cycle, is fundamentally based on care. What makes us unique among other animal species, which also have nervous systems, is that we ask questions about our experiences. We are are conscious of and care about them. Further, we discuss care and other meaningful responses to our questions in language, without which we could not ask or answer questions or enter meaningful relationships with any being, even ourselves.

Language, to me, must have arisen through attempts to explain human endeavors, that is, actions, so that they could be repeated and routinized. But human actions always involve a relationship: an actor or agent and a target object, which could be another human or some other being. Without a sense of connectedness, language would not have arisen as it has. Language, the medium through which today we live meaningful lives is embedded through and through with that sense of connections. Care is another name for those actions deemed implicitly to be important enough to show up in language. (I am here laying my interpretation of Heidegger’s philosophy on you.)

Language, the house of Heidegger’s Being, has like Being itself become cold and mechanical, as scientific explanations have displaced our earlier organic views of life. We can design the world according to our formulas and on technology based on those formulas. The resulting machine will churn out everything that is important to us: money, security, justice, etc. In essence, this is the credo of modernity, just as Brooks tersely expresses it. As so often is the case, I criticize Brooks for taking us only part way to where he seems to be going at first. While criticizing (I think he does) modernity, he waffles when he says, “but webs of loving and meaningful relationships can do amazing good.”

Flourishing depends strongly on “What webs of relations will, not can, do.” I am more confident in the results than “can” suggests. We cannot wait until scientific evidence (if it ever arrives) displaces our current beliefs about our mechanical place in the world, just another mechanism in the whole. There is plenty of evidence around already that we got as far as the modern era because we took care of the world around us in a connected, organic manner. Without the rigid laws of modernity, we may not have created our world of smartphones and skyscrapers, but is possible that we would be flourishing, expressing the fullness of our species potential without having so badly damaged both the world and ourselves.

ps. I know that Stephen Pinker argues in The Better Angels of Our Nature that we are today much less violent than in earlier times, but omits, in his arguments, violence to the earth and non-physical violence to ourselves.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 21, 2014 11:55 AM ::


spam I have again deactivated the comments function, at least for the time being. I started to get a few thousand spam messages every day. I do still want to hear from you. Instead of using the comment link, please send an email to the link at the bottom of archive list. I will paste your comments into the appropriate post. I hope this will defeat the spammers.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 21, 2014 8:48 AM ::

The Agency Moment


My favorite blog source, David Brooks, turns out to be an existentialist. Who would have thunk it? His column today (11//14/2014) is about finding agency, a fancy word for discovering and taking on a self, and acting from that center. The central theme in virtually all existentialist writing is agency although few of the existentialists use this word, for good reasons. Agency carries too many meanings. The simplest refers to any intentional act without reference to the cognitive source. Brooks, I think, is being more explicit, using agency to refer to acts coming from free choice: from the self to use a common, but confusing, metaphor, or the soul to use another similarly confusing metaphor. Agency has a particular meaning in management theory and refers to workers acting out of their own interests rather than that of their manager or principal.

Brooks writes about the novelist, George Eliot, who led an “emotionally needy” life, until, upon being spurned by one she hoped would develop an attachment to her, found her “self.”

After the years of disjointed neediness, the iron was beginning to enter her soul and she was capable of that completely justified assertion of her own dignity. You might say that this moment was Eliot’s agency moment, the moment when she stopped being blown about by her voids and weaknesses and began to live according to her own inner criteria, gradually developing a passionate and steady capacity to initiate action and drive her own life.

Brooks goes on to wrote of other examples of people who had such agency moments. But he generally finds its lack everywhere.

I’ve been thinking about moments of agency of this sort because often you see people who lack full agency. Sometimes you see lack of agency among the disadvantaged. Their lives can be so blown about by economic disruption, arbitrary bosses and general disorder that they lose faith in the idea that input leads to predictable output. You can offer job training programs, but they may not take full advantage because they don’t have confidence they can control their own destinies.…Among the privileged, especially the privileged young, you see people who have been raised to be approval-seeking machines. They act active, busy and sleepless, but inside they often feel passive and not in control. Their lives are directed by other people’s expectations, external criteria and definitions of success that don’t actually fit them.…So many people are struggling for agency. They are searching for the solid criteria that will help them make their own judgments. They are hoping to light an inner fire that will fuel relentless action in the same direction. (my emphasis)

I agree with his observation that our society is populated by inauthentic life, that is, life dictated by external forces of all kinds. More and more clearly for me, I see that way of Being as the fundamental problem lurking behind almost all of our dissatisfaction. Inauthentic existence is life without what Brooks is calling agency. Sartre refers to this mode of Being as “bad faith.” I also interpret this mode as “going along with the flow.” Our present society is dominated by an economic set of values, values that permeate all of the primary social institutions. It’s getting close to Thanksgiving and the evening news is already full of stories about the coming Black Friday sales craze. Money is everywhere in the news. With the recent election just over, the effect of huge spending sprees on the outcome is top news. The authenticity of any vote is highly questionable. Who pulled the lever, some “I” or some anonymous ad agency spending another anonymous billionaire’s lucre. Inauthenticity is everywhere.

On closer reading, he may not be an existentialist after all. In the bolded sentence, he refers to some free-standing criteria on which to make life choices. A true existentialist would never go there! There is no source of ignition out there. That’s the whole point. Free choice means just that, choice with no apparent source other than some “force” inside the body. Any action that can be explained by some rational argument is not an expression of existential agency. The only reason that ultimately grounds free acts is, “I did that because I did that.” There are two distinct “I”s here. The first one is the observable actor; the second is a mysterious metaphorical person hidden away in the body somewhere. Our materialist, essentialist history tends to equate the two. That’s the error Brooks makes here.

He often has the courage to raise questions about the condition of our society. I almost always resonate with his columns when he does this. But he mostly stops short of asking the important critical questions about why are we in such a state. I looked up his bona fides; his academic degree is history. As a columnist, as least as exhibited in the one I am writing about, he is being inauthentic. I am not making a value judgment here although I often do about the values I discover in his writings. It’s just a observation, the same as he is making, that most of our lives in America today are inauthentic, without agency. In his case, he is being swept along by social science, adopting its presuppositions without questioning them. Here, the presupposition is that external criteria exist which, if adopted, will flip inauthenticity over. Such criteria always exist. We follow them without thinking about them or owning them as ours. Cultural life is always only about following norms. Agency comes when we adopt some norm as our own, and that takes reflection and continuing commitment. Brooks makes it sound too easy. Exchanging an accepted, legitimate cultural norm for one that is legitimate only because “I say it is.” is full of anxiety and fear. But only such a move to authenticity is truly freeing, opening a path to one’s center and to the engine of a caring, satisfied, flourishing existence.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 15, 2014 2:10 PM ::

A Role for Psychotherapy


I continue to slowly, very slowly, work on the next book about flourishing. I have been and will continue using this blog to try out ideas about it. I would greatly appreciate comments from you. You will have to send them directly to me using the email link on the right hand side of this page below the archive of previous entries or to my regular address if you know it. I am deep into the existentialist world these days, delving for ideas and language to use in my work. As I read, I am more and more convinced that “solutions” to the cultural malaise (unsustainability) are buried there.

Besides reading the so-called existential philosophers—Sartre, Heidegger, etc.—I have discovered other disciplines that have incorporated an existential flavor against the mainstream theories. The major social sciences—sociology, anthropology, economics— all have branches based on existentialism. I even found entries through a Google search for existentialist political theory. Existential theology has a rich tradition. I have yet to dig deep enough to say anything definitive about what is common in all these that label themselves as existentialist, but I think it is a common belief that human existence cannot be described by a single theory or even by any theory at all. This alone means that any discipline with the suffix “ology” is suspect.

Any such discipline is based on the foundation that behavior of human beings can be reduced to abstractions or rules, and individual beings can be placed in categories based on the theories. Theology leads to categories, like saints and sinners. Economics puts all humans into a category of rational, utility (pleasure) maximizers (or perhaps optimizers). And so on. I want to focus here on psychology and one of its practical offsprings, psychotherapy. Psychotherapy assumes that there are personal and societal norms that separate acceptable from aberrant behavior. Personal norms come into play when any individual determines that he or she is not living up to their own standards and is suffering as a consequence. Serious mental illness, insanity in its many form, describes behavioral patterns that contravene societal norms.

In recent years, another application of psychology has come into being alongside those focusing on deficiencies in or departures from normal behavior: the field of positive psychology. Here the target is not the removal of abnormalities, but the achievement of some positive state, typically happiness or flourishing. Marttin Seligman, the best known figure in the field, rejects happiness as a useful measure and uses flourishing as a more comprehensive, organic description of a fully functioning person. I have started to read his very popular “self-help” book, Flourish. For what should be obvious reasons, if not more to try to see why one book with “flourish” in the title should do so very much better than another—mine. As for any self-help book, it is built on a model or theory of flourishing that ignores to some extent the concreteness of individual existence. (Aside: I haven’t finished this book and may have misinterpreted what Seligman is saying. But unless I find some way to apply his theory in a fundamentally individualistic manner, my quick assessment will stand. To the extent that he draws from any basic psychological model of the “mind,” he cannot meet that criterion for existential thinking.)

This last sentence, before my aside, is the existential critique of any theory of human beings. Any practice that is based on an abstract, categorical model of humans is incapable of representing the concrete experience and “structure” of the individual under the lens. Human behavior is complex, incapable of being represented exactly by abstract rules. Perhaps if one had access to the brain, we might find idiosyncratic rules present there manifest in the structure of a particular brain that determine behavior, but so far such access has been denied. Now for the key leap in my work. The normal behavior of an individual can be related to a story told by that individual when asked to explain their behavior. Sometimes the explanatory story can be found close to the surface, but often the story lies beneath layers of trappings, much as the plot of a novel can be hidden by the writer’s embellishments.

This jump is not arbitrary or of my own invention. It lies at the base of C. S. Pierce’s pragmatism and early psychology. Alexander Bain, a founder of the New Psychology in Britain wrote: “Belief is that upon which a person is prepared to act.” William James wrote in 1890: “The whole plasticity of the brain sums itself up in two words when we call it an organ in which currents pouring in from the sense-organs make with extreme facility paths [habits] which do not disappear.” Modern cognitive science is confirming this observation. Pierce wrote: “The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit, and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise.” and “Beliefs are to be distinguished by the habits resulting from them. Belief is, or contains, a resolve to act in a specified way under certain conditions.” More from Pierce:

The whole function of thought is to produce habits of action [beliefs]…To develop its meaning, we have, therefore, simply to determine what habit it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves…What the habit is depends on when and how it causes us to act. As for the when, every stimulus to action is derived from perception; as for the how, every purpose of action is to produce some sensible result. Thus we come down to what is tangible and conceivably practical, as the root of every real distinction of thought, no matter how subtle it may be, and there is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice.

But what are beliefs but stories in language that express some configuration of the brain. When the story in some part of the brain is not accessible to the motor functions of the brain that produce linguistic behavior, we cannot discover the basic story. Psychoanalysis, in particular, and psychotherapy in general seek to uncover whatever story is driving behavior that the patient or a societal arbiter deems abnormal and seeks to change it. Analysis assumes that the “true” story lies under a vast pile of veils emplaced to hide the truth from the human agent. The most basic story that underlies action is the class of “beliefs.” The are the ultimate answer to the question of “Why did you do this or that.” More generally, “Why did that happen?”

Talk psychotherapy, that is, therapy directed to ease suffering and/or change behavior without use of drugs, works by changing the beliefs somehow. When one’s story changes, so may/does behavior. The challenge of psychotherapy is discovering the right story to change. Now, please do a small thought experiment. Think of a society or organization as a person. This shouldn’t be too hard since that’s how the Supreme Court thinks. Then think that the “person” seeks relief from some behavior that is producing “suffering” or some failure to produce the desired outcomes persistently. By analogy, the cause of the suffering or failure lies in the underlying story that drives normal behavior. Kuhn might call it a paradigm. Giddens calls it structure and includes beliefs, norms, and resources that actually produce the normal outcomes in the social world. In both, beliefs, a particular kind of story, lie at the base of behavior. Change the beliefs, change the outcomes.

Cognitive behavioral therapy goes at it a bit differently. They work on behaviors first, presuming, I guess, that, if behaviors change routinely, so do the underlying beliefs. Ether way, the key is the connection between beliefs and behaviors. As I reflect on what I have been doing for the past 10 or so years, it is some form of societal psychotherapy. Much of the first few years were spent on “psychoanalysis” probing the societal persona to reveal the underlying beliefs on which primary societal institutions are based. That’s the core of my first two books. Now I have moved to the psychotherapy phase offering up a set of different beliefs that I anticipate will reduce the suffering and produce more desired outcomes. In individual therapy, the patient often has the job of coming up with the beliefs, but in this case the patient is too unconscious and addicted to the current set that only an intervenor (me) can supply them.

This is where existentialism comes in. The basis of the field is that human existence is unique for every individual. No categorical, abstract models have the certainty to serve as generalized predictive models to be used in designing practices and institutions. We really do have a form of free will; we can and, according to existentialists, should make our own life choices, drawing on our experiences in life, but not conforming to them. The authenticity that comes from such free choices is freeing, the real kind of existential freedom. Such existential freedom is, however, subject to the constraint that everyone is capable of similar choices and, so, the ethical consequence of acknowledging the other is immediately obvious. Living authentically does not mean always coming from the inside person; we cannot avoid conforming to norms from time to time. But if we generally put ourselves on a path following our life choices and carry out the projects necessary to stay on the path, we are living up to our human potential and can say we are flourishing. Even on the bad days.

Back to the analogy with society. The idea of free choice doesn’t work quite exactly, but if we look at the grounding documents of the US, for example, we can see a vision emerge. If we look back even further to the beginning of the modern era, we can see more clearly, the set of fundamental beliefs that will put us on the progressive path to human perfection. If one believes we are still on the original path to reach perfection, then all we need to do is tinker here and there. If however, one believes we have strayed far off the path beyond the point where tinkering can put us back, then it is time for some social psychotherapy and the introduction of new foundational beliefs. This is where I am now, with some efforts to sharpen the analysis. Other models of design may also workl. Kuhn’s paradigm model of change is similar, but anticipates that new ideas will perforce be needed. I believe that such “new” ideas already exist.

One big difference, however. An individual can make new choices freely in the course of a therapeutic regimen. While the metaphor of society as a person may be helpful in thinking about change, there is no single mind to change. If fact, unless you are a Jungian or similarly believe in the collective unconsciousness, there is no mind to change at all. Only the appearance of a “mind” that represents the concatenation of consciousness of many individuals operating from the same set of ideas. What this realization means to me now is that I have been writing as if society was a single person, but any change in its metaphorical mind, can only come individual-by-individual until that critical moment when the combination pushes the system into a new world. So, if you are convinced by my work aimed at the system, please begin by working on the individual: you. A final realization, most self-help and coaching is some form of tinkering and is subject to the above limitation. It cannot put you on the path to flourishing.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 10, 2014 1:52 PM ::

The Scourge of Individualism


If you asked any heroin addict what they would like to sustain, they would answer something like, “My high.” If you could imagine asking this question to a business, it might answer, “Growth and my competitive edge.” If you asked the US government, the answer would probably be, “Growth. Then if you ask them how the world is treating them right now, you would get a very different answer. The heroin addict might say, “His or her body is falling apart and needs ever more of the stuff.” The government might say, “The natural and social worlds are falling apart so fast I can’t keep up any more.” Business might answer, “My risk levels are rising and my supply chain is becoming threatened.”

The week’s elections are said to be a repudiation of the government for not solving the problems that face both blue and red Americans.We are not growing fast enough. We are taking too much of my hard-earned money. The TV ads that blared for weeks before the election highlighted growth and more jobs. If they did not do that, they said something like get the government out of my face.

I know I am greatly simplifying the underlying dynamics of political life in America, but I see two features of our political economy at play: growth and individualism. We all heard about or read Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas, asking how come people vote out of alignment with their self-interest. The two topics after the colon in the last sentence are strongly related. The self in the hyphenated phrase is assumed to be that of an insatiable, need-satisfying, pleasure seeking, rational subject, capturing an objective world in the mind through some transcendental process. An economy with growth as its central value is nothing more than this individual model placed in a collective context.

Individualism also arises from the same model of human beings. I am separate from the world and its assemblage of all other objects, including human beings. I find this short passage from James Collins, The Existentialists, a powerful argument why this foundational model creates the strongly individualistic, self-interested feature of our culture.

Every entity other than myself figures in my consciousness as an object in my world. My native inclination is to order all the objects I encounter according to the pattern of my private project. Some of these objects are recognized as being other selfs, but they must also submit to the general law of the subject and its subordinate objects. However, the resistance of selfs to my imperialistic design is different than that of things, since other people are also centers of consciousness and freedom. Each man has his own subjective perspective within which he tries to fit other men as facets reflecting a central brilliance. Thus there an inevitable clash class of private worlds and the personal projects. (p. 237)

This tale explains the argument for the Hobbesian “state of nature” as the natural human condition, and the absolute need for some sort of social contract that respects the presence of the other as having the same desires for domination. The language of politics today is full of dominating words and phrases. We are returning to a state like Hobbes envisioned. All the trappings of civil society cannot hide that trend, hard as the media and our own awareness tries to to do just that.

Voting is an act toward creating a future world just as sticking a needle full of dope in one’s arms is. The irony of the way we vote today is that we are merely feeding our addiction to individualism and approaching closer to a Hobbesian world. The trappings of civility we claim as a society, just as those in the Congress claims to own, cannot hide the fundamental drivers of our society. Neither political party can cure the ills of our society. At best they can produce economic growth, but, without the necessary context of the consequential face of Hobbesianism, that is, the social contract. Everyone who has studied or senses the system dynamics of addiction know this. It is and we are in a vicious cycle still built on the domination of both humans and nature.

The ultimate irony is that we are not destined to act this way either as an individual or a society. Both liberals and conservatives of all stripes, as the names get very fuzzy around election periods, are ideologues at bottom. So are we all. We have our creation stories about how we got here and about is our essential nature. We may not invoke these stories in our everyday activities, but they are always there embedded in the personal and institutional structure that shapes virtually every act we perform. They are but only a story, and that means they can be rewritten and edited as we get a better understanding of the world.

As every addict knows, our stories and their manifest consequences are very hard to cast off. But throw them away, we must. We are free to make existential choices during our lives. As Sartre says, “We are condemned to be free [to make such choices]” Today’s entry is another small chapter in what I have been writing and am still working on. Nowhere in the political talk was there any mention of flourishing or anything close to it. We are still bickering about how to preserve our individualism and reduce the governmental constraints upon it, but can’t see that individualism is what prevents us from being truly free. As Collins implies above, it is impossible to be free until one recognizes the existential legitimacy of every other human being.

Individualism brings negative freedom, the right to be let alone, but that freedom is illusory for it lacks positive freedom, the freedom to choose who one is to be in the world. To enjoy such existential freedom, one must recognize that everyone else has the same freedom. We cannot ignore the existence of other humans by thinking of them merely as objects like rocks and trees that intrude upon “me.” That’s a good description of a state of nature where humans act just as every other living species, surviving according to some essential nature. We can escape by telling a different story: that we are free to choose our essence, that we are fundamentally conscious, social animals, interacting out of concern for the world that envelops us, that our collective endeavors enable, not constrain, the existential freedom that only humans can enjoy.

(Image: Thomas Hobbes)

ps. Andy’s and my work has gotten some great reviews lately. You can find them on the book’s Facebook page. If you haven’t read our book, please do, and, if you have, tell your friends or use it in teaching and at work.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 6, 2014 3:12 PM ::

The Wrong Meaning of Fulfillment

happy baby

Today’s (October 24. 2014) NYTimes Sunday Review had an article about fulfillment by Emily Fox Gordon that might be a literary gem (She is a writer.), but didn’t ring true to me. Here is, as I read it, the story, entitled “The Meaning of Fulfillment,” in the first few lines:

AT 66, I find myself feeling fulfilled. I didn’t expect this, and don’t know quite what to make of it.…Fulfillment is a dubious gift because you receive it only when you’re approaching the end. You can’t consider your life fulfilled until you’re fairly sure of its temporal shape, and you can’t get a view of that until you’re well past its midpoint. The realization that one’s life has been fulfilled is a good thing, but freighted with the weight of many days and the apprehension of death. It’s also quite useless, truly a white elephant. It can never be exchanged or redeemed, because everything has been exchanged or redeemed to make its purchase possible.

I think she has been looking for the wrong signal to assess one’s life. What’s the point of waiting until one is on the wane? And does the assessment that one has been fulfilled mean that it is all right to stop living? I think the economic metaphor used in this paragraph is dreadful and simply a sign of how deep the economic model of human Being penetrates even one belonging to the creative, artistic domain. She appears to have been measuring her life in terms of “successes,” “achievement,” and “accomplishment.” Success is not enough, she writes, “Years are a requirement.”

She seems to have the idea that there is some void inside her body that needs to be filled up at considerable cost. Filled up with what is not clear, but I think she is talking about forms of public acknowledgment. She, like almost everyone in America, is valuing the worth of their life by the wrong measure. If it takes most of a normal lifespan to become fulfilled, does one have to be unfulfilled until that time. Later she asks is their any difference between fulfillment and happiness? Are we condemned to wait until we are old to find happiness? I suppose so if the author is right, but I disagree.

As I learn more and more about existentialism in its philosophic, literary, and pop formats, one can flourish at any time in his or her life. Life is a process bounded by birth and death. Surely we undergo very different and distinct phases as we make that journey, but it is possible to flourish at any time along the way. Flourishing is Being who who choose to be or until we are capable of making life choices fully expressing what self is evolving. Babies flourish because they simply do what all babies do. They are expressing the human potential latent in their genes. Adolescent children struggle with flourishing because they are loathe to make adult choices. One definition of a teenager is someone who cannot make choices about life.

Gordon is focused on life choices that are conventionally measured by public acknowledgments of success. For creative artists like her, it is usually some critical acclaim or economic milestone in terms of sales. For many MBAs and others, it is how much they earn or own. In her terms, could a carpenter be fulfilled? Not according to her thinking. Most human Beings live outside of the public limelight. Only they and a few close friends and family and satisfied clients/bosses and other that benefit from their life choices, that is, who they are, can recognize their “accomplishments.” I find too much inauthenticity here, to much of life coming from the outside.

In what I see as related, David Brooks wrote the other day:

In our meritocratic culture, satisfying and stretching work has become a psychological necessity. More than ever before, we are defined by what we do. If you are of prime age and you are not in the labor force, or engaged in some deeply stretching activity like parenting, then you will begin to feel drained inside. If you are in a dysfunctional workplace with bad personal relationships and no clear purpose, a core piece of you will begin to degrade. If you are not earning enough money so you can feel respected, and live without desperate stress, you will begin to lose confidence and élan. (emphasis added)

I think work that pays is an economic necessity in our market-based system, but to connect it to a psychological need is a grave error. Out-of work people certainly do not often flourish or lead positive lives by other measures, but that is largely due to the lack of resources or capabilities to take actions that would constitute their Being. Obviously you will feel “drained inside,” because you are drained inside.Their situation is an existential, not psychological, failure.

Gordon’s choice to be a writer is both existential and economic. One can flourish the moment such a choice is made. Flourishing is a sign of Being, the fulfillment of one’s human potential. Fulfillment here refers to a dynamic relationship with Being, that will continue as long as one maintains a commitment to Be their choices in actuality. Her fulfillment is an endpoint that fails to recognize that life is a continuous journey. Do you stop living once fulfilled? Do you suffer until you get there, wherever that is?

She throws in this about half way through the column:

At any rate, by now I’ve racked up enough achievements that I feel I can stop trying. Paradoxically, of course, I find I don’t want to stop. Now that not much is at stake, I’m more ambitious than ever, or at least more conscious of my ambition. Liberated from an anxiety I’ve struggled to suppress, I feel a new energy. What is fulfillment made of? Mostly relief.

She is dead wrong, maybe even dead existentially. Authentic life and the flourishing it brings is very much at stake. If she stops being the writer she has chosen to Be because the world has acknowledged her, she risks stopping Being the authentic self she has been. She may bask in the glory of her past successes but I suspect she will find her sense of fulfillment fading. There are points in everyone’s life when new choices are appropriate, but flourishing requires that some authentic choice be made right up to the day on one’s death. Coasting won’t work.

ps. I found this clear, clean definition of authenticity the other day. It’s from a book by Philip McGraw, better know as Dr. Phil. I think Emily Fox Gordon might have written a different column if she had read it. I like this except for his use of fulfilled.

The authentic self is the you that can be found at your absolute core. It is the part of you that is not defined by your job, or your function, or your role. It is the composite of all your unique gifts, skills, abilities, interests, talents, insights, and wisdom. It is all your strengths and values that are uniquely yours and need expression, versus what you have been programmed to believe that you are “supposed to be and do.” It is the you that flourished, unself-consciously, in those times of your life when you felt happiest and most fulfilled. (McGraw, P. C. (2001). Self Matters: Creating Your Life from the Inside. New York, Simon and Schuster, Inc. p. 30.)

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on October 26, 2014 10:04 PM ::

Everyone A Philosopher?


The German philosopher, Johann Fichte, was a strong proponent of 19th century idealism, but wrote this in a letter to a colleague, “We philosophize out of need for our redemption.” Unlike the abstract nature of idealism, this one-liner of his might be taken as an early expression of existentialism. If one can put brackets around the religious sense of redemption, it would seem to make a strong argument that clear, reflective, systemic, critical thinking, that is, philosophy, is the way out of the broken modern cultures that, in the name of progress, are destroying the very system in which we exist. We must redeem ourselves from the modern way of thinking and the workings of the cultural institutions based on our foundational beliefs if we are to preserve that system in such a way as to enable it to create the possibility of flourishing. The way out is not being generated by science, and, to a significant degree, science is responsible for the paradoxical dilemma in which we find ourselves. The more we seek a path to flourishing through science and technology, the further away it becomes.

So, following Fichte, perhaps we can find the way out in philosophy, and, in particular, the utterances of existential philosophers. Existential philosophy grew out of a frustration with the abstract nature of much of philosophy ever since Plato and Aristotle. The abstract nature of science and much mainstream philosophy fails to capture the concreteness and complexity of reality as considered to be the world we can sense and describe. If our descriptions of it are incomplete, then our plans based on that knowledge will always potentially lead to outcomes we did not forecast and frequently do exactly that. The ideas of modernity, principally one that scientific knowledge will inexorably pull humanity forward to some state of perfection, are now stuttering and, in the sense that our health depends on that of the whole earth system, pushing us in the wrong direction.

Existentialism, while focused primarily on human existence, starts with a premise that we must seek to understand the concreteness, not the abstract qualities, of the world in which we act, particularly in which we act intentionally. Intentionality means that we have a consciousness of the passage of time and some kind of understanding about the consequences of our acts. If we are ever to understand what being human is all about, we have to examine the concreteness of existence, not some abstract theory about it. We must bridge the chasm between the working of our minds, our intelligence, and the experience of life itself. This should be the goal of philosophizing. Carrying this to the next obvious step, existential thinking always has a practical or pragmatic quality. Our understanding of human existence comes from questions raised by examining life itself, from both the wonders and the misery that everyone encounters from time to time. And, armed with such understanding, we can live our lives more fully and authentically as human beings, not merely as other living creatures. James Collins writes in The Existentialists, “The only way to pass from everyday, deceitful living to authentic human existence is become aware of man’s proper situation.” (p. 218)

Why existentialism, and not other philosophies? Yesterday I attended a lecture by Eric Chivian who received a Noble Peace Prize in 1985 for his role in co-founding Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in 1980. Chivian, like many others including myself, believes that the deterioration to the natural world is caused by human activities, not as the result of natural variations. As for both the goods and ills of human societies, the ultimate cause is human actions by definition. Given many signs that human cultures are not working as we wish them to, it is clear that, if we intend (there’s that word again) to restore both the natural world and our cultural worlds to healthy, flourishing states, we must look to the human being as the ultimate causal agent. Existentialism, more or less alone among philosophical ways of thinking, deals with the concrete, the situated, the temporal-all those features that express the practical reality of existence-avoiding the abstract, context-free expression of the world that forms the basis for the way we design life in the modern era. If we are to do this, that is, begin to see the world through an existential lens, we will have to give up some of our ideas about how we get to know what that world is all about or at least array that knowledge alongside another body of understanding or maybe even down a rung on the ladder of beliefs.

Truth, the belief that there are foundational facts or beliefs about the world, including the humans that inhabit it, that are universal and appropriate on which to choose what we do, needs to be put into a box reserved for only a particular set of situations that fit the methods used to produce it. Shifts toward accepting existential beliefs will come slowly and with great resistance since such “truths” are the only acceptable, legitimate operands within our modernist structure. Boxing them up will cause much pain, anguish, and avoidance in virtually all societal institutions. But, as I have written, I believe it is imperative to start now to make the effort toward understanding a few foundational beliefs and working with them in everyday life.

I have discussed these existentially based concepts in my books and this blog at quite some length. I will continue to do so. Today I am trying to make the need for such thinking (philosophizing) clearer and compelling, not to go over the key ideas. If we can agree that human action, or in other words, human agency, is responsible for situations in the world we choose or intend to change by design, then we must go directly to the source, that is, understanding what human existence is all about, why we act the way we do. We must stop tinkering further up causal chains. We must go further than all our scientific and analytic philosophical inquires can take us. These inquiries are limited by the methodologies that require abstracting from what is always a constantly changing, complex, concrete world. Only then can we dream about a flourishing world for all life on it. Only then can we act in ways that have the possibility to get us there.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on October 23, 2014 12:28 PM ::

Back to Work


I have just returned from a conference/workshop titled, Flourish and Prosper. It is the third triennial Global Summit organized by the Fowler Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit, a unit of the Weatherhead School of Management. The title is drawn from the recent publication, Flourishing Enterprise, the main product of a project there and is coauthored by myself and eight others. Over 600 people attended, coming fro business, both profit and non-profit, academia, and other places.

On the first day, I gave a workshop (twice) with my colleague and collaborator, Chris Laszlo. Titled, Dare to Flourish, it presented ideas from both Flourishing Enterprise and my book Flourishing. It was a chance to throw out ideas like Being, caring, flourishing, and get some feedback. From the comments after the class and later around the conference, people did resonate with them. The conference, itself, was organized around David Cooperrider’s Appreciative Inquiry (AI) model. For those unfamiliar with AI, here’s a short blurb from Amazon:

[Appreciative Inquiry is] an approach to organizational change based on the possibility of a more desirable future, experience with the whole system, and activities that signal “”something different is happening this time.”” That difference systematically taps the potential of human beings to make themselves, their organizations, and their communities more adaptive and more effective. AI, a theory of collaborative change, erases the winner/loser paradigm in favor of coordinated actions and closer relationships that lead to solutions at once simpler and more effective.

I chose a working session about creating consciousness of connectedness in the workplace. We were not one of the finalists presenting to the whole audience.

I found the experience extremely gratifying. Here were many of the ideas I have championed for a long time being showcased from the podium and in the hallways. I was recognized from the podium as “Mr. Flourishing.” Nice feeling to see both the emergence of the ideas and a recognition of my contributions. Flourishing showed up over and over again in the speakers and table conversations. Cooperrider used my mantra that reducing sustainability does not create flourishing (or sustainability) in his remarks. The sense that “sustainability” has played out its power and intent was palpable. People are really looking for a different path forward.

I saw many very longstanding friends that I haven’t seen for quite a while. I am not going to many such conferences these days. Another new kind of experience was meeting a student in person who I had gotten to know only through an online classroom. Much nicer in real life. This encounter reinforced my critique of technology. It does many wonderful things, but people do not show up in their fullness.

Just a short blog today to signal my return to these pages. I had taken a short break to care for a series of family matters that took all of my energy and focus.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on October 18, 2014 4:53 PM ::

Shades of [Alice in] Wonderland

mad hatter

David Brooks did me another favor today in writing a column so far off the mark that I could not pass by the opportunity to comment. I checked the several hundred comments already pouring in and saw that adding another there would be contribute very little that was not already said. But since the topic he presented, pragmatism, is one of my central themes I feel compelled to write something here.

He pulled a column written by Lewis Mumford for the out of the dustbin and treated it as if it were written yesterday. Here’s Brooks:

For example, The New Republic, which turns 100 this year, made a series of superficially contradictory demands on its readers. To be a well-rounded person, the magazine implied, it is necessary to be both practical and philosophical, both politically engaged and artistically cultivated. The magazine offered, and still offers, short practical articles on politics and policy in the front of the book and long literary essays on philosophy and culture in the back.

In 1940, the magazine published a stunning critique of those who refuse to embrace both kinds of knowledge. The essay, called “The Corruption of Liberalism,” was written by the unjustly forgotten writer Lewis Mumford. It’s been revived by the magazine’s current editor, Franklin Foer, in “Insurrections of the Mind,” a collection of essays from the magazine’s first century.

He makes several serious mistakes. First, he takes what Mumford wrote at face value. Mumford was condemning liberals for an overly passive response to totalitarianism, but the biggest liberal of all, FDR, was quietly pulling the nation into confronting this threat. I just finished watching the NPR series on the Roosevelt families (a must see). He also dissed the same group for lack of pragmatic action.

A core problem with pragmatists, Mumford argues, is that they [liberals] attach themselves so closely to science and social science that they have forgotten the modes of insight offered by theology and literature. This leads to a shallow, amputated worldview.

Roosevelt was pragmatic at heart, not relying on theory to drive his policies and programs. The usage of the term, liberal, has changed over time, but I believe Mumford meant about the same thing as we do in using liberal today. Both Brooks and Mumford have it upside down. If there is a dichotomy to be made, it is better to contrast theory and practice, rather than philosophy and practice. Every actor is at heart a philosopher without knowing it, most of the time. Every action that they are able to explain has a philosophical basis. If they say they are merely acting rationally, that can be traced back to the Greek philosophers’ notion of human nature. If they invoke scientific knowledge as the basis, they are merely recalling Descartes and his view of an objective reality out there. If they say they are acting out of the heart and cannot put it into some rational framework, they are merely resting on many philosophers who saw human nature as split between reason and passion or some other form of irrationalism. All of these argue that they access “truth” and that truth is what counts in legitimating action.

Pragmatism is unusual in that it conflates theory and practice. John Dewey who wove the philosophy of pragmatism into the political sphere argued that it was the best way to address complexity by leaving theory behind. Theory, no matter on what philosophical basis it rests, is always a reduction of the complexity and concreteness of the world out there to fit the bounds of the theory. Dewey claimed that the best way to proceed was to establish an action-intended inquiry, manned by a democratically organized group of concerned citizens. His form of pragmatism which was put forth in the same time as Mumford wrote presumed action as the end. It is implicit that those involved had some sort of moral imperative driving them. The polar opposite would have been a group of technocrats using scientifically based theories to underpin action. Hardly the foundation of Roosevelt’s New Deal. This runs opposite to Brooks cut:

Pragmatists also have trouble rousing themselves to action. They try to get rid of emotions when making decisions because emotions might lead them astray. But, in making themselves passionless, they always make themselves tepid and anesthetized. That leads to passivity. Everything is too little too late.

Today the call for science is the domain of the conservatives. In matters like climate change, complete clarity is impossible given the fundamentally complex nature of the situation. By demanding a certain outcome through science, conservatives hope to continue an eternal stalemate. Similar strategies have been employed for a long time in opposing regulations of all sorts. Committed pragmatists would seek the best path available after a careful inquiry and move. Pragmatism and action are married within the philosophy itself.

His next statement is almost ludicrous. Pragmatists eschew theory as a rule! That’s what makes them pragmatists in the first place. If they applied theories, they would be technocrats.

Pragmatists often fail because they try to apply economic remedies to noneconomic actors. Those who threaten civilization — Stalin then, Putin and ISIS now — are driven by moral zealotry and animal imperatives. Economic sanctions won’t work.

Pragmatists do often fail because even the most rigorous inquiry by the most morally dedicated group lacks the certain power to make the problem disappear. But dedicated pragmatists go back to work again with the additional understanding of the situation they lacked the first time around. Those who would have used some theory that failed now have to cast about to find a whole new theory and start all over. They lack the understanding that pragmatism adds through both failure and success.

Pragmatism involves a method, based on the philosophical belief that the real, concrete world is not reducible to abstract theories, certainly, in the messy situations that the leaders Brooks either mentions or implies face. Pragmatists explicitly strive to avoid what Whitehead calls the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Whenever a messy problem is reduced to fit some theory, Whitehead’s fallacy is at work. Most refractory problems are messy or as, Rittel and Webber called them, wicked.

In the last paragraph quoted above, Brooks seems to be criticizing Obama for combatting Putin’s encroachment in the Ukraine with mere economic sanctions. Sanctions are not aimed at the leaders, but at the people who arguably will take out their unhappiness by deposing or otherwise controlling the leaders. It’s much easier to write a column than stop a war.

Then he closes with an almost laughable depiction of pragmatists:

Pragmatists also have trouble rousing themselves to action. They try to get rid of emotions when making decisions because emotions might lead them astray. But, in making themselves passionless, they always make themselves tepid and anesthetized. That leads to passivity. Everything is too little too late.

Again, he is completely, not just a little, wrong. Pragmatists dive into the fray expressly because they care about the situation being faced. There is nothing in pragmatism that argues that those in the game should be or must be objective. They must be rigorous, or the understanding they seek may be fleeting. Again he should look at FDR. It is the technocrats that carry the flag of objectivity and moral neutrality, and they are spread among virtually all partisan flavors. It’s the ideologues who carry the banner of truth without recourse to any method at all.

I could go on and on here because he has done a great disservice to those who care about the state of the world, and those who believe that pragmatism is a far more effective “philosophy” to pursue than the mindless ideology so present in the political scene in the US today. Ideology of any sort gets in the way of finding truth in the world itself; and that’s always where the problems rest. What he did not say anything about is the difference between philosophy and theology. When the latter is the basis for political action as it is becoming, philosophy or pragmatism or any other system for seeking “truth” as a basis for action goes out of the front door. I would love a shot at countering this column in the same pages of the New York Times. I’ll see if I can slip an oped in.

(Image: Arthur Rackham illustration)

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on October 3, 2014 4:23 PM ::

Snap Out of What?


A week or so ago, David Brooks wrote one of his looking down his nose, scolding articles that instantly (or a week later) drives me to respond. With the headline, “Snap Out of It,” Brooks argues that life really couldn’t be much better.

The scope of the problems we face are way below historic averages. We face nothing like the slavery fights of the 1860s, the brutality of child labor and industrialization of the 1880s, or a civilization-threatening crisis like World War I, the Great Depression, World War II or the Cold War. Even next to the 1970s — which witnessed Watergate, stagflation, social decay and rising crime — we are living in a golden age.

He should read his colleague, Paul Krugman’s column today about the invisibility of wealth in the US today. He would have better deemed our time in history as another gilded, not golden, age. The allusion to a golden age took me back to ancient Greece age the time of Pericles. I cribbed this short discussion.

The so-called golden age of Athenian culture flourished under the leadership of Pericles (495-429 B.C.), a brilliant general, orator, patron of the arts and politician—”the first citizen” of democratic Athens, according to the historian Thucydides. Pericles transformed his city’s alliances into an empire and graced its Acropolis with the famous Parthenon. His policies and strategies also set the stage for the devastating Peloponnesian War, which would embroil all Greece in the decades following his death.

I can find not a scintilla of comparison. Our influence has steadily declined in economic terms, but perhaps not in military strength. Our dominant position in the world has stagnated in many ways leading to an apparent decline by comparison with the rest of the world. But I do not think that is particularly relevant anyway. What have we done to erect a modern-day Parthenon. The closest I can think of is the Internet. The only difference is that we are worshiping the Gods of Technology, not those who inhabited Olympus. I am not at all certain that this is an improvement.

I looked at some data for our Defense expenditures over time. The trends since 2001 would argue against Brooks’s claim that all is quiet and peaceful in the world, and we have little to worry about from the outside.


Our global enemies are not exactly impressive. We have the Islamic State, a bunch of barbarians riding around in pickup trucks, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, a lone thug sitting atop a failing regime. These folks thrive only because of the failed states and vacuums around them.

Our politics doesn’t accurately portray how the people would apportion spending priorities, so that a plebiscite might spend our national wealth differently, but there is no way to argue that we live in a peaceful, serene period in history. Our roads and bridges are crumbling. If our highway system is our Parthenon, it is nearly in as bad a state of disrepair and it is only about fifty years old, not 2500.

Brooks wrote this because he said he listened to a mood of despair and pessimism this summer. I am not sure whom he was tuned into. My guess is it is the punditry that surrounds him. It cannot be the poor; they have been downtrodden and hopeless for decades. Nothing especially new for them. Red Sox fans, perhaps. How could we slip from first to last in such an ignominious manner? The Koch’s? They are on a roll since Citizens United. Wall Street? The Market is setting records. He says, “We are living in an amazingly fortunate time.” He is using my teenage granddaughter’s favorite jargon word, amazing, with the same banal significance. He uses this to argue that we are having a “leadership crisis,” but fails to mention what leaders he is referring to. I think it is the seat of power in Washington DC, particularly the Congress and the Presidency.

He offers four fixes:

First, we need to get over the childish notion that we don’t need a responsible leadership class, that power can be wielded directly by the people.

Second, the elite we do have has to acknowledge that privilege imposes duties. Wealthy people have an obligation to try to follow a code of seemliness.

Third, discredit political bigotry.

Fourth, put congressional reform atop the national agenda.

It ain’t Nike here. These folks can’t or won’t just do it. These are not just a few nits in the system. If we do have a malaise, (and I think we do, but I am just one voice,) it is not about to be fixed by tweaking the system. Our values are wrong at the core. We have skidded to the extreme individualistic end of the me-community/others axis. We have pushed it beyond belief. Bigotry is just a form of extreme individualism. We cannot stop of thinking of the US as separate and different from the rest of the world. See climate change. Wrong! We are simply one piece of the planet and we are connected to the rest in a systemic mesh if interrelationships.

That’s enough. I still am unsettled by his column and I still am not sure why. Maybe it’s because the elite is scolding the elite, but trying to rise above the fray.

ps. One of the candidates running for the Democratic nomination for Attorney General called the remarks made by his female opponent, “unseemly.” He lost. The word was taken to be patronizing as I also read it here.

(Image: Raphael, The School of Athens)

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on September 29, 2014 5:25 PM ::