My name is Dan Rogger and this is my blog (you can find out more about me at my About me page of my main web site). It aims to present my beliefs on how to live contemporary life in a philosophical way (or how I have tried to confront some of the challenges I face on an everyday basis). Every other week I aim to write a short piece on a topic of note from the weeks gone by.
The below are letters to my generation. They are, I hope, a collection of notes that explore the idea of a social philosophy - a philosophy anchored in the idea that society is the fundamental unit of philosophical analysis. Please send your thoughts and replies to email@example.com.
You act as though your journey was that of a river,
Bending the world to your passage.
But you are not the river, and so cannot pass.
You are society and are embedded in those waters.
You are a ripple on the river and must flow on.
Telling yourself your history is the creek that you have carved;
Limits your world to the physical borders you inhabit.
But your ripple is a moment in the river that carries on,
Ever changed by your existence.
A fine symbol for social philosophy is the jigsaw puzzle. Each piece of the jigsaw is different, either in the sense of what is painted upon it, or in the sense of where it fits and thus relates to the rest of the jigsaw. Whilst we treat each piece as a separate entity, it only makes sense as part of the wider whole. We conceptualise a jigsaw piece not as a relevant concept in its own right, but as making sense only as part of a wider whole. Similarly, we could think of the pieces of the puzzle being made of the same underlying components, but made unique by its place in the puzzle.
Reversing this logic, social philosophy does not diminish the value of the individual in the same way that changing a single piece in a jigsaw dramatically alters the completeness of the puzzle or the message it conveys. Each piece of the jigsaw puzzle is valuable to the whole. Changing a single piece in a jigsaw can transform the meaning of a puzzle in the same way that a change in a single individual can transform Truth within society. For example, when one person in society realises some truth about nature and can communicate that to her wider social community.
The puzzle analogy links to the discussion on why we should strive. We work at a puzzle to make it fit in the same way that we build society towards Truth. Our ambition is to produce a puzzle that is true to its underlying form. In the same way, we should strive to build a truthful society. And it is in the production of that society (that in the case of social philosophy is a constantly evolving object) that we find our meaning.
There was nothing. There was not even emptiness. For emptiness would have been something of worth.
It was like that for most of time.
At some moment a spark arose from that nothingness and burned. It burned brightly. It was, for that moment, a speck of light and warmth. A crackle of righteous difference that ebbed from the golden thread.
As quickly as it had come into existence it was extinguished.
Then again there was nothing. And from then on nothing reigned. There was not even an echo of that light. It had gone.
That spark did not have to come into existence. But it did. For a moment it shone.
That spark imbued the nothingness with a meaning. It transformed the past and enriched the future. Though it was immediately forgotten, it was light. And that light had meaning worthy of creation.
I am feeling emptier in my heart for a country I love and confused as to who the British are. As a self-identified technocrat, living abroad with an American wife and working for a global-facing organisation, the Britain I love and have most identified with is the global-facing, pan-European heart that throbs in London. The decision to leave the EU has drawn my country away from that part of its identity, and thus reduced my capacity to identify with that part of Britain. A part of me, perhaps the part of being British that I loved most, is now a relic of history.
As my sister told me this morning, when she heard the news she cried, not for her, but for my eight-month-old nephew Charlie. The reaction of my mother was typically British; that we shouldn’t worry and that we’d work things out somehow. But my sister was fearful of what is lost for Charlie. My mother, sister and I were fortunate to have been brought up in a UK of the 1960’s to 2000’s. It was a UK that was bursting with life, looking out for the role it could play in the world stage. It was that UK in which I, and even my mother (begrudgingly) would have identified solidly as a European. And that was a choice. We chose to think of ourselves as European. Charlie will have a harder time of doing so. Though we, as his family, will do our best to make him outward looking, his country has decided to be that much more inward looking and parochial. So for Charlie, the national narrative he will be immersed in will be a fundamentally poorer one than that of the last few generations.
Of course, someone like me thinks that Britain has been at its best when it mixed it’s traditional self with the rest of the world. It was at its best when it fought for Europe in both World Wars. It was at its best when it moulded the European Union from within. It was at its best when it was working closely with other countries, however frustrating that process might be. It was at its best when it understood that its traditions had origins across the world, woven together and nurtured off the north coast of Europe.
For working in the big bureaucracy many of us do, we all know how frustrating it can be to build a joint future with other partners. It seems so much easier to go it alone and have the flexibility of independence. But being alone means being forgotten. Every initiative I have ever been involved with that takes the easier, more isolated, path, has eventually died and been forgotten. That is the path my countrymen, or just over half of them, decided on yesterday. It is a path that substantially diminishes the contributions of thousands of men and women who spent their lives trying to build a better Britain within Europe. By doing so, we lose the legacies of some of the greatest Britains of the last few decades. We punish ourselves not just today, but yesterday as well as tomorrow. It is perhaps the greatest self-inflicted wound a country has enacted on itself in recent history.
And that is exactly how it feels. As though we have had an allergy that we did not treat. There was nothing wrong, but because we did not engage properly with those who voted for Brexit, parts of our society began to attack the whole. We did not know how to treat the allergy as it became more aggressive. Some people took advantage of our weakness and stimulated its effects further. But at its root was an inability to govern an increasingly polarized electorate. There is simply too little understanding of how to manage both Brexiters and people like myself within one nation.
We could say the same about liberals in the US and supporters of Trump. Or the French political elite and supporters of the National Front. As society moves towards a bipolar world, we have to identify a way that we can more effectively manage such large differences of opinion. Implicit in this is a potentially dangerous idea that my opinion is more valid than others. But managing the ‘anti-intellectual’ tendencies that Brexit, Trump or the National Front ride on is something I am happy to stake a claim in.
The referendum was further reaching, and thus more damaging, than a single election however. Being a part of the EU was a constraint on our policy making. That was its point. It was built to guide member states away from isolationism. That the Conservative party chose to put that constraint at risk was a mistake. That we no longer have that constraint makes the future of the UK a worse one than it would otherwise have been. We will now choose a more isolationist Prime Minister, we are likely to lose Scotland in another referendum, and our relationship with Northern Ireland is at stake. This will leave the UK’s median politician, let alone its median voter, a far less globally-oriented, forward-thinking individual. And they will not be constrained by the rigors of the EU.
In sum, this currently feels like the worst thing that has ever happened to me. I have had a very comfortable life, so that is not saying very much. It also sounds melodramatic. As my mum said, I shouldn’t take these things so seriously. But that ignores the counterfactual, something that will quickly be forgotten or said to be impossible to identify. That counterfactual is less about economics – British people will be OK – but rather about identity and who they want to be. This vote showed that half of Britain wants to be a small, inward looking, tend your own garden, kind of place. I suppose that’s fine, but for me it wastes a huge opportunity. For whatever historical or other reasons, Britain has spent the last few decades being a positive force in all kinds of aspects of global life. Yesterday it decided it would rather diminish its capacity to take on that role. That makes me very sad. Not angry like my sister, but very sad. The place that I loved to call home changed yesterday into a place I am not as comfortable being part of. I needn’t have moved to the US to feel isolated from Britain. My countrymen have done that job for me.
There is a silver-lining to every cloud. It will become apparent in the years to come. But I very much doubt it will ever make up for the shadow that cloud has cast over my increasingly small island. That is how I feel.
6th August 2016 follow up
For all that we are, we are.
Reflections of our past glories,
And our shames.
For we are one and all.
United in our Kingdom.
The Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery has a wonderful exhibition on at the moment with exhibits relating to the Gentlemen Artists of the Ming Dynasty. It was wonderful to see how closely the philosophy of these gentlemen poets echoed social philosophy. One example is Wu Kuan's poem, `Hearing Cockcrow',
Screech, screech, crickets sing at night
Cock-a-doodle-doo, roosters sing at dawn
Sharply I came to a profound realization
The two things are calling to each other
Vast and vague, down from the beginning
Since the start the greater half is gone
All of us in life have our ups and downs
Every age has periods of order and chaos
We live our lives here somewhere in between
For which one truly can only heave a sigh
In my heart I hope I have earned no shame
Aside from that, what else really matters
Social philosophy dictates that the self is carried along within many other persons. We influence and define others, and thereby embed some part of ourselves in them. People thus give life to our wider selves by transforming interaction into being.
In the same way that we carry with us those persons who have defined us, we also carry with us other aspects of the world that have defined us. In the same way that we provide life for those who have defined us, we provide life for the rest of the world that has helped define us.
Whilst a rock is inanimate in itself, those interactions with it that define us lead us to bring that rock to life, and carry it with us in who we are. We are heavily defined by the natural world around us, from our physical limits to the sustenance we are provided. Each of these interactions defines us in some way, leaving a trace on our selves that we carry with us in our further interactions with society.
This has several immediate implications. First, Nature is a fundamental part of our selves. It has defined our physical and social selves, and we carry the rocks, plants and animals of past generations with us in who we are.
Second, our treatment of Nature is reflected back to us by our being defined by its character. As Nature changes, it interacts with its past selves as embedded in human society. It’s current self may have a weaker grip on our selves than its past selves. However, our contemporary interactions with Nature ensure we continue to be forged by its character and the changes we make to that character.
Third, our wider self is embedded in our treatment of and interactions with Nature. When social philosophy nudges us to tend to our wider self, it is a statement that is as much about Nature as it is about other people.
Fourth, if we are defined by Nature, and make philosophical choices, then these are partly determined by Nature’s influence. Thus, Nature is involved in the philosophical choices we make, and is thus a philosophical actor, at least in its interactions with us. Together we make philosophical choices. So Nature is my partner in my philosophical search. Tending to Nature is tending to my philosophical search, and therefore to the core of who I am.
How should one identify one’s value? In a private sector setting one might believe that the profit one makes is an indicator of one’s value. There might be some objective, non-relative means of deciding what a ‘worthy’ level of profitability is. In endeavours where such a market signal is not available, one must rely on other signals of one’s worth. Again, there may be some non-relative indicator for which magnitude can be argued to be approximate to value.
These indicators could be argued to be more or less ‘worthy’ in philosophical terms. Perhaps an indicator that approximated value by how violent you were could be said in most settings to be less worthy. An indicator that approximated value by how happy you made other people might be said to be more worthy.
A clear criticism of this is the social context in which these indicators are embedded. A gang member whose violence is simply to prove her ability to generate fear in others could be argued to have little worth. However, a soldier may also be violent so to generate fear in others, but towards the end of reducing the aggregate amount of violence in society. If everyone (including the gang member) feared one person’s violence, this might lead to a far lower level of total violence in society. The soldier’s capacity for violence may then be argued to be worthy. The soldier could benchmark her value against her violence in a philosophically valid way that the gang member could not.
There seems to be interplay between societal value and an individual’s local society. Value seems to be an inherently social concept. ‘Being valued’ or ‘having value’ implies that there is something beyond yourself (in a physical or social philosophy sense) that benchmarks your value. In the violence example above, how ‘bad’ violence is seems connected to the society at large. The value propositions would change dramatically if we moved from perpetrating violence on real people to characters in a computer game. This implies that your value varies from one social setting to another.
I think that is false. If one takes value to be dependent on society, one faces the challenge of choosing which society to benchmark oneself against. Given the infinite number of societies one can be a part of, the choice of values will also be infinite. Unlike in determining one’s Truth, where one must balance across multiple social frameworks to understand truthful action, in the concept of value we demand a single number. This requires a single unifying means of judging value across societies and frameworks.
What constant can be claimed to be of value in all societies? What feature of all individuals would allow us to benchmark their value given the myriad ways in which they can be seen? Their commitment to Truth. The most salient assumption of my social philosophy is that I assume that there is a Truth. This is at the centre of a society and at the centre of overlapping societies. I have talked in the past about a ‘hierarchy of truths’. However, I assume that the notion of Truth runs through all societies. Corresponding to this is my relationship to it, and the link to my value. That there is a single truth may be of no consequence if I do not relate to it. However, I define my value by the single concern of committing to the truthful act in whatever set of societies I am in. That unified commitment, related to the unified notion that there is a single truth in the societies I inhabit, is at the core of my value proposition. The more closely I commit to acting in truth, the more valuable I am.
This proposition is at the core of the tension laid out at the centre of my philosophy, that a philosophical framework must both be anchored in a base assumption and flexible enough to balance the infinity of possible frameworks one can use to view the world.
This notion of commitment to truth as the measure of value does not imply that action will be the same across societies. Far from it. It is truthful to respond to the social conditions of a particular society. Thus whilst the commitment is the same, the implication differs. Two people may be of the same value but take very different actions. The gang member’s choice set may be substantially smaller than the soldier who represents the state. She must then take the truthful action within that set. It is the commitment to taking truthful action that defines the relative value of the gang member and the soldier, and not the action. Once committed to Truth, the gang member and the soldier would likely take different actions with regards violence.
Reading this blog should give you a sense of how difficult it must be to live with me sometimes. I try to mitigate this, but whatever persists, my wife has had to put up with. This Valentines, I'd like to deviate from my normal pattern of blog posts and just say thank you. Thank you to my wife for putting up with me. That you don't mind the way I organise myself has given me freedom and peace, some of the greatest gifts a person could give to another.
I miss constant exposure to my most enduring society - British society. The below photo is of an inconveniently parked van, taken by my sister on a walk through her local area and sent to me with the caption `Pure Britain'.
I recently let my frustration get the better of me at work. I was annoyed at a colleague working on a project I supervise, and let this be known in a meeting. We have talked it through, I apologised, and I think we have reconciled. However, in this reconciliation, he told me my greatest weakness was my arrogance.
In a social philosophy, it is quite plausible that one would conceive one's personal society as `better' than another. The physical and other constraints to society being fully smooth (see On Lumpiness) create islands of society that would underlie such a claim. However, I struggle with the notion that such proximate islands are so distinct (my colleague and I could be said in many ways to be very alike and I regard him as a good friend). For me, our selves are wrapped up together much more closely than almost any other society I inhabit. It was in fact that I felt his actions reflected poorly on our joint society that got me frustrated. So to come across as so detached was sad, as it is quite the opposite of how I feel. Our joint self, which is equally valuable in him and me, was at the centre of the dispute.
However, society is lumpy, and we do live on islands. I should always be aware and respectful of the fact that another may better understand our joint self in a way I do not. In fact, due to the lumpiness of society, this is a certainty. What was my right to be angry at another part of myself when I may not have appreciated the full features of that self? To know the island you inhabit requires others to help you map it out. Understanding that should make me hesitate the next time I feel frustrated at something I can never fully know, my wider self.
As part of my thirtieth birthday, I thought about and wrote to the thirty people I believed most defined me. As documented below, these ranged from my family, through teachers, to random acquaintances I met for a couple of hours. Who defines you is a key point of reflection for anyone who believes in social philosophy.
As part of my upcoming 34th birthday, I have thought back over whether this list has changed. Why might one expect it to change or otherwise? On the side of change, as I have moved country, expanded my family, and graduated from my PhD, my society has changed significantly. As someone who believes in social philosophy, it seems quite plausible that as my society has changed, so have I. Thus looking back over my history, some members of my past may now have less relevance for who I am today and other individuals have greater relevance. Similarly, with such a range of life changes, some individuals that have come in to my life may have changed me so significantly that they enter into the list at the expense of others.
In contrast, society seems sticky across place and time. Empirically it seems to organically generate constraints around a specific individual that fix her at some island in the sea of broader society. We change far less than we could. Even as I have moved continents, I am still very much a product of my history, and look to reinforce that by creating a society here that I feel comfortable and fit with. This precludes mixing with people particularly different from where I was at 30. The merits or otherwise of this is for discussion another time (though it relates to my blog On Home), but such stability seems to be something that happens to many people I know.
My reality seems to be somewhere between continuity and change. As I look through the list I wrote four years ago, I still see all of those individuals as especially pertinent for who I am today, but I would argue that the most relevant list is now a little longer. Perhaps as we grow and change, we become more complex and thus the appropriate length of list of those who 'most' define us lengthens. For example, the fact that I am now a father adds a layer to my identity and personality that simply did not exist when I was 30. Joshua certainly plays a significant role in defining who I am today, but it does not feel at the cost of who I was previously. He has changed my priorities and everyday activities as well as the way I see myself. But I don't feel that I have lost part of my former self. Rather, it is wrapped in a new layer of my current society. My society has gotten a little bigger.
Adding to that list would be my new boss. She has carved out a part of the World Bank that is a wonderful fit for what I want to do with my life. Her efforts over the last decade to create the unit of the Research Department that she has meant that I could move to it after my PhD. Without those efforts, I would be a different person, with different priorities.
In the last year, my sister-in-law has married my now brother-in-law. This discrete event has changed my conception of my family, but it isn't enough to substantively define me. However, the way that my sister- and brother-in-law have changed each other, and been an example to Caitlin and I in how to manage a relationship, means that my brother-in-law likely deserves a place. If he had been a different person, I believe I would be to.
When writing my list at 30, I felt that the degree of influence of individuals in my life beyond the list of 30 dropped substantially relative to those on the list. Once again, coincidentally my age seems an appropriate number of individuals to say define me on this day. So there is one more spot. At least one of my colleagues seems like someone who is currently and likely to continue to be so influential in the way I see my work, that they are changing who I am substantially. Their knowledge of the subjects I am interested in is better than anyone I have yet met, and so I gain another important teacher. (Teachers seemed an important part of my original list.) This final addition points to an unknown future. Whilst they have had a significant enough impact on me to warrant a spot on my new list, their legacy in me is fragile, and whether their influence is sustained will depend on the events of the next few years. To what extent can I predict the long term importance of those I believe are defining me today without knowing the challenges of tomorrow?
26th November 2015 follow up
I have talked to a few people about the exercise of identifying those people who most define me. I recently talked to someone whose list would have included few teachers or perhaps even family. His list would have been filled, he thinks, by friends. As I have noted, my list had only a single friend in it. Thus, it makes me even more fascinated to hear from others on who their 30, 34, or however many would be. As a quantitative researcher, I would love to have a data set of many people's choices, and look at what determines who is in your set. Just one more element to a quantitative philosophy.
Discussion: If you attempt an analysis of your self like that here, please do get in touch and let me know the results!
Sometimes, despite being part of a warm and loving family, and working at an organisation that cares about the same things I do, I feel quite lonely. I believe it is at those times when I focus on the specifics of my beliefs that I feel most distinct from other people. When I focus on the broad features of my thinking, it is copacetic with those around me.
In social philosophy, we are defined by our society, and society is lumpy. Thus, logically there will always be some distance between ourselves and others. Given this, loneliness is an integral part of society. This was quite remarkable to me when I realised it, as it seems counter-intuitive. Flowing from logic that has been expressed elsewhere in this blog, for society to exist it must be lumpy. If we are defined by that lumpiness, we will be distinct from other parts of ourselves and of other parts of our society. Thus, at some level of inspection, we are fundamentally different from others, or other parts of our society. For society to exist, it must be true that there are distinct parts of society that differ, causing one to be alone in some part of one's introspection.
In fact, the feeling of loneliness is the moment at which we realise those aspects of ourselves that make it so that society exists. The question is then what the response to loneliness should be as a society. It is certainly true that some parts of my societies have allowed loneliness to dominate in an untruthful way. In the UK, I am always pained by the loneliness that many of my countrywomen and men feel. At the same time, given that loneliness allows us to sketch out those features of ourselves that define our society, it does not seem truthful to never spend time in that aloneness.
What would a formal model of society look like? Understanding the nature of our societies and the societies we could have, but do not, experience requires an answer to this question. From a philosophical perspective, what characteristics define a society and what are the tensions between these characteristics?
The basic assumption of social philosophy is that society is the fundamental unit of philosophical analysis. Thus, any model of society must be made up of sub-societies, as this is the basic philosophical entity. Models of social philosophy therefore have a set of two or more societies as their basis. The model is then a characterisation of the relationship between those base societies. The societies we choose as our basic units could, of course, be thought of as having sub-societies, but implicit in the thinking just laid out is that we must choose a notion of society to act as the base unit in a particular model. (An example of doing this is focussing on the physical person, who in social philosophy is a society in themselves, but we frequently treat them as the philosophical unit of interest.)
Thus, a first choice in our modelling of society using social philosophy is to choose what societies should be the basic units of analysis (such as the physical person). This could be relative to a 'level of aggregation', such as a person or a household in a traditional framework. Aggregation is a term that would have to be defined in the framework of analysis that corresponded to the unit of society. (Note that there is nothing that stops us modelling society below the level of the physical person.) It could be symmetric, where all societies chosen are argued to have some common level of aggregation or defining characteristic, or it could be asymmetric.
This line of thinking pushes us to appreciate that since all societies could be broken down continuously to sub-societies, any analysis will always be one of multiple frameworks that can be imposed on the underlying 'sea' of society. The value of any single framework of analysis (that argues for a particular set of societies to be our basic units) should thus be weighed up against the insights of the other frameworks of analysis. Thus, a natural complement to any particular claim of a base unit of analysis is to understand its analytical appeal. For example, using the physical person as the fundamental unit of analysis might be argued to be of interest given the physical boundary to society it represents, but then what that physical boundary constrains in terms of society must be defended. A base unit of society will always have do to be defined for social philosophy (as argued in this blog post, all social philosophy analysis imposes a notion of 'lumpiness'). However, it will only be fully understood as a framework when it is compared to the other notions of base societies that could have been chosen.
Having chosen base units for a model, the modelling framework must then outline how the basic social units are considered with reference to one another. The nature of those comparisons is the second fundamental choice in the modelling of society using social philosophy. That they can be considered within the same framework, as components of the same meta-society (a society that contains other societies), is the fundamental assumption of social philosophy. Unless they can relate units within the same society, the basic assumption will not be met. Thus, any consideration valid within social philosophy is one that is complete, allowing for consideration between each basic unit. Otherwise, those parts that cannot be considered within the social framework are socially irrelevant, and thus philosophically irrelevant.
Whatever consideration is used to relate basic units, it must differentiate between them. If this is not the case, all units are judged the same, and we return to a single entity without social character that is no longer society. Modelling red and blue societies differentiated only by their colour must be done with a framework that differentiates based on colour. Importantly, it does not have to be based on connections. We only require that societies can be considered within the same framework. They do not have to interact and change each others nature. They can change the measure by which we understand them.
My transition to living in the US has not been the smoothest. It has been the biggest culture shock of my life, despite having lived in India, Nigeria, and elsewhere in the developing world. Perhaps this was because I expected it to be similar to the UK. It may also be because for the first time in my life, it is not clear that I will ever go home.
But where is my home? What do I mean by that, and as importantly, what should I mean by that? Is home not a concept for me to choose?
My initial response from a social philosophy perspective is that home is not where you reside, but where you fit. As society defines you, it makes a place for you in the wider social fabric. You define others and they define you, creating a mutually reinforcing structure for your place in your society. It is perhaps not the place that you are happiest, but the place where your social assumptions are most closely echoed in other peoples, or the wider society.
Walking to our house in Washington one afternoon, I became emotional as I sung to Joshua ‘we’re almost home’. ‘I’m not’, I thought. This isn’t where I fit. My wife’s response was that she felt something similar when she moved to the UK for me, initially finding it a difficult place to live. Over time, she was defined by British society, and found it an increasingly happy place to live. Her new residence became increasingly like home as she was defined by its society.
Being displaced also gave her a different sense of home. It was no longer a fixed location, but where Joshua and I are. We are so important to her definition that she best fits wherever we are. I felt something akin to this over my transition to the US. It brought home to me how how important my wife and son are to my new world.
However, I couldn’t say I still don’t see the UK as home. Recently returning, I stood on a street corner watching people pass, and simply felt like a jigsaw piece that had been clicked into place. The faces, the discussions, and the pace of life, all rang true with a significant part of me.
But there was something uncomfortable about it all as well. People seemed to be homogenous in a way I had never seen before. I clicked into this puzzle because it was made of the same cloth that I am, but it was a single sheet of cloth made of similar threads. Spending time in a new society that was redefining me provided perspective on my old home. It was comfortable, but had me sitting with those closest to me in form.
Does this matter? Should we live with the closest reflections of our own self? Social philosophy would have contrasting perspectives on this. It would argue that society shapes us to make us fit, so we can more easily live our particular life. Our truth is social, so having a more homogenous society might make debate more focussed on our set of social constraints. (A more homogenous society may not imply a more homogenous truth, but it likely means that debate on our common constraints are more relevant to each individual.) It is also where we have most joint understanding, and information on other’s societies.
Social philosophy would also argue that variation is fundamental to our understanding of Truth. By being taken outside of our society, and by being redefined there, we are given an opportunity to appreciate the boundaries of ourselves better than we would otherwise have been. We are forced to appreciate a new set of social constraints, and the truthful responses to these constraints. We are confronted by the challenges of other’s in our new society, and their responses. ‘By being redefined there’ is important, as if we successfully resist our new society’s constraints we are not truthfully responding to our new society, nor giving ourselves the possibility to truly appreciate truth there.
At the overlap of two society’s truths arises a truth that transcends either society. Social philosophy argues the importance of understanding this hierarchy of Truth. By making ones home elsewhere, we can appreciate this overlap perhaps more clearly than if we stay within a society in which we are defined.
This logic brings up the possibility that it is truthful to make your home outside of your society. The question I am confronted with is therefore, where is it truthful to make my home? The answer is surely where one can undertake the most truthful action. This might be in one’s original society, where a person has the most information, the greatest appreciation of other’s constraints, and a legacy. It might be elsewhere, where the mixing of societies brings out some higher truth. Perhaps there is some optimal balance, where one tends to ones roots, whilst allowing yourself to grow where the sun is brightest.
For me, this thinking has soothed my transition to the US. I do believe it is truthful to be doing the work I am. But it confronts me with a challenge - to understand the new society I am living in, and it’s relationship to that I have left behind. Choosing where to make your home is half the battle. The other half is to appreciate its truth, and to grow in that appreciation.
As a researcher, my basic response to my work is to question it. How much do I really know about the topics I explore? What evidence exists that there is an appropriate action to take? However, working in Washington DC, I meet a lot of people who are very confident that their way of seeing the world is correct. There is a real sense here that people are confident they know what they are doing and feel they should just be given the money to get on with it. I met a lady today who told me 'I don't evaluate things, I actually do them'. Others have said similar things to me, and when I ask them how they know what to do they tell me something along the lines of, 'Oh, I know'.
As someone interested in social philosophy, it is not the individual's confidence that is intriguing, but the general culture of confidence that pervades Washington's society. Very few people here seem to have many questions about what they should be doing, but rather confidently go about their jobs with faith that they are right.
My interaction with the doer this morning made me think about which societies could be characterised as having a questioning approach to life. Are their countries that are known for questioning? My own people, the British, are generally quite liberal, and don't question each other's ways of doing things, and are frequently quite content in the boundaries of their castles. There are certainly questioners within our society, but I could not say that the British as a whole questioned their fundamental assumptions on a regular basis. I struggle to think of any nation who are known for their questioning approach.
I then wondered if there was a profession who could be said to be questioning? The most religious people in society think a lot about how to act, but they do not question the fundamental tenants of their religion. The majority of religious people commit to an institutional religion, and must therefore limit the degree to which they question their fundamental assumptions. Perhaps academics have the strongest claim to being society's questioners, but modern academia is dominated by subject boundaries, restricting truly free questioning of a subject's assumptions.
I really couldn't think of any society, be it a nation or profession, that I could characterise as questioning. The world seems dominated by a general lack of demand for questioning. This is not to say everyone thinks, as the doer does, that they are right. Rather, the lack of questioning may also imply that people think it does not matter that much if they are right or wrong. Though this is all speculation, the lack of discussion in society about our fundamental assumptions would imply something in these sentiments.
Social philosophy provides two ways to think about this. First, it provides a reason to continuously question ones life. Since an individual is determined by their society, changes that are far outside the individual's own action space can have significant impacts on their truthful course of action. With any changes in society over time, the nature of individual and societal Truth may shift. One needs to question whether one's actions continue to be truthful as society changes around them. Suppose a society needed one great magician. If there was no such person, it would be truthful for an individual to train for that position. However, once such a person existed, or a glut of suitably qualified candidates existed, this would significantly weaken the need for any other person to become a magician. Introspective questioning would allow each of us to ensure we continue to take truthful actions in the face of a changing society. But since our society has imperfect information, we should also question publicly, to ensure that we share information about our actions with others who may inform us about their truthful content. By announcing I am to train to become a magician, others can relate to me the dynamics of the magical labour market that I may not otherwise have been aware of.
Second, social philosophy, taking society as the fundamental unit of analysis, may claim that society does the thinking and places us all on a truthful path. There is little questioning in individual lives because society does the requisite questioning and generates the appropriate social pressures to move people towards a more truthful course of action. This would require the assumption that society's natural equilibrium state is Truth, and without reasoned guidance, it directs itself towards that state. One might go so far as stating that individual questioning might derail that course, since it would be based on incomplete information, or incomplete reasoning. For example, if society is experimenting with individual lives (trying out different ways at getting at Truth), then any incomplete reasoning at the individual level that alters individual actions disrupts society's experimental analysis.
My response to this is that such an assumption is both hugely morally demanding and logistically impractical. It is morally demanding in that it tasks us to act only on impulse, with all the associated consequences. Our awareness of the possibility of society's guiding forces implies that we should set up systems to think and coordinate truthfully at the societal level. We should try to do as well as society, hoping that the dynamics of our collaborative efforts are of a similar quality to that of society's own thinking. Giving in to the idea that society is thinking and questioning for us should thus be benchmarked against these joint efforts. It seems morally demanding to decide that these efforts should be discarded. And it is impractical because it is not clear what societal impulses we should give in to. Society frequently gives us competing impluses to respond to, and it is our moral compass honed by questioning that charts our course between these. Without a clear understanding of how we should respond to which impluses, giving in to a higher social force seems impractical.
Thus, with individual questioning a morally defensible position, I hope I can portray and support a more questioning society in my life. I would, however, be very keen to hear others thoughts on who one might characterise as a questioning society, and how much a plane ticket there costs.
Social philosophy is based on the notion of analysing philosophical issues embedded within a society. However, there are no prior restrictions on what the nature of society should be. In particular, society could be organised such that the collection of information about a phenomenon, its communication, or the experience of it could be common across members of the society (figure 1). Whatever external stimulus arrived at a society, the experience and information of that stimulus would be immediately shared by all. At the opposite extreme would be a society in which, though member's experienced phenomena in a shared world, they could not interact; they could not share experience or the information gained (figure 2). As individuals or persons, we would be 'islands' in society, unable to communicate or jointly consider our philosophical states.
All other versions of society could be characterised as 'lumpy' (figure 3). These are societies in which individuals experience and consume some part of the world alone, and share other parts with their wider society. The degree of sharing would be characterised by the mechanisms, physical and social, that society had for sharing experience and information.
The first step in understanding the nature of the society we are in is to note that each individual is formed, and represents, their society. Thinking of individuals as units of society themselves is defeated by the basic assumption of social philosophy, that the basic unit of philosophical insight is society. Rather, individuals are combinations of the society that formed them (as argued as nauseam below). Thus, social philosophy rules out the islands theory by noting that we must be formed from society (and ignoring for now the notion of subsets of society). A more general perspective along the same lines is that once a part of society can no longer be jointly considered with its parent, it is no longer philosophically relevant to the parent, and is automatically excluded by the basic assumption.
The second step is to note that if society were fully common, such that all members experienced it and understood it equally, there would be no variation in society. If society did not vary, then its constituent parts would be undifferentiable, and it could no longer be understood in a framework of social philosophy. (At the extreme of all societies breaking down into a single entity, they lose their social character, and thus are no longer society.)
Thus, these statements combined are an argument for all societies within a social philosophy to be lumpy. It must be that to some extent society is the glue between individuals who experience the world or collect information on it differentially to their neighbours. Though we are all summaries of societies ourselves, there are gaps between those societies in a social philosophy.
Empirically, this feels intuitively correct. It is physically and socially unlikely that man fully shares his individual experience of the world with his wider society. Physically we experience place and time, and typically believe that all philosophical entities in a society cannot share the same place and time. Social constraints and other mechanisms that guide our action seem prevalent in our experience of the world.
Understanding lumpiness as a philosophical state requires us to understand the nature of informational and experiential flows, the mechanisms of these flows and an investigation into whether we can change them. Is it possible, or more importantly, philosophically truthful, to change the nature of the glue that holds us together, moving to a stronger sharing of our experiences and information? The benefits of such strengthening would include greater understanding of wider society, and thus a closer appreciation of Truth. The costs are that we reduce the heterogeneity in our society's form. As we are increasingly defined by the same experiences and information, we increasingly become more alike the rest of our society. That reduction in diversity may in fact push us further from appreciating Truth.
Thus, social philosophy's basic structure guides us to investigate the optimal balance between embracing the union with our wider society and restricting ourselves to some local world that only we experience and understand. In the hugely diverse world in which we find ourselves, such a balance is personal whilst being routed in the wider social good of identifying Truth.
At the top of one of the columns that surrounds the Library of Congress Reading room (lefthand picture), where I regularly work, is the following quote (righthand picture):
"One God. One Law. One element. And one far off divine event to which the whole creation moves."
It is from Lord Alfred Tennyson's `In Memoriam, Epilogue' (see blog post below on Ulysses). The poem questions the meaning of man's existence, and his relationship to God. A prevailing theme of the poem is the purity of God, something which man will never truly understand. There is an implication in the above quote, as well as the larger poem, of the universality of God, and man's distance from that universality.
I was reflecting on this quote this week, and what it implied for the nature of God. The question naturally arose as to what social philosophy implies for the Nature of God. The contrast between these two is the focus of this blog post.
Tennyson's quote and poem are highly representative of the classic vision of God. He is omnipotent and everlasting, having been the cause of creation and the only survivor of it. His nature is fully detached from the actions of humanity, and our actions do not affect it.
Social philosophy takes a very distinct view of the Nature of God. Respecting the fundamental assumption of social philosophy, without society God does not exist in anything but abstract form. He only exists in the sense of being the Truth at the centre of those societies that could exist. Once society is formed, He is immediately present in that society in the form of Truth. God is the personification of Truth. Thus, society is the physical birth of God. Without it, He exists, but does not breath.
This is a critical difference between social philosophy and the traditional view of God. Social philosophy would argue that God's nature is fundamentally tied to the nature of society. In each society, he has a distinct nature. Since Truth differs depending on the nature of the society, so does God's character. Individual truthful action increases the truthful nature of a society, and thus extends God's presence in that society. To be clear, our truthful action gives birth to a greater, more present God. It is not that we are a pure product of God, but that our joint existence is intimately intertwined. Our natures are shaped by the extent of Truth in society, and our truthful action extends the extent of God in our society. When we act in Truth, we make him more prevalent for our society.
A practical example is how our health is a function of the actions of huge numbers of other people in our society, from those who vaccinated their children so disease could not easily spread, through the doctors and nurses that treat us when we are ill, to those who drive safely to keep us safe on the roads. How healthy we are is the product of a vast network of decisions made by other people. Each truthful action extends God's presence in our lives by making our society safer and healthier. In the traditional view of God, one prayers to God to heal the sick. This God is external to society and acting upon it. In social philosophy, we pray to the God that permeates all truthful action in society, and that arises from our actions. He is the lifeblood of a truthful society, and fully connected with and dependent on it.
An important corollary of this line of thinking is that there is a topology of God throughout society. He is not equally present because of truthful action not being felt equally everywhere. He is more present in some lives than in others. As actors in society, we must therefore make choices over how we act and how we help shape and build society to spread God's presence to the greatest number in our society. It is surely a moral issue that the poorest in society, faced by more restrictive challenges, do not feel the presence of God as freely as those with the greatest capabilities. Unlike in traditional views of God, it is up to society to extend the greatest God to all its members.
This thinking does not alter some classical characteristics of God. He is still a force greater than the individual, since society is lumpy and no individual or sub-society contains all of society. Given this, we cannot comprehend his totality, and will never fully understand his total self. At the intersection of all societies is a version of God that could be said to be at the intersection of all humanity, and this may be a view of God that is believed to have a special place in our relationship to Truth. However, this intersection is still fundamentally determined by the characteristics of the societies of which it is made up. Society is thus crucial to both who we are and the God that is a reflection of our best selves.
The short story below on death stops short of discussing the implications of social philosophy for identity's relationship to death. As one builds a life, and an identity of achievement or output, a common refrain is to look back unsatisfied with how many things one hoped to achieve that one didn't. However, a social philosophy points to several flaws in this reasoning. They are all based around the idea that it is society that leaves the legacy, and not the individual.
Firstly, if truthful action is probabilistic, in the sense that there is some probability less than one that a constant set of actions will lead to the intended outcome, then it can be truthful to try but not to achieve. Such a problem may require multiple lives to be lived towards the eventual achievement of the intended outcome. The life that achieves the outcome is no more truthful in its actions than those lives that were lived in the same way but not chosen by Nature to achieve the outcome.
Related to this, there may be problems that require society to experiment with different ways of approaching that problem so to find the solution. This is distinct from the above in that it is truthful to undertake different actions from those who have tried before, and given that no set of actions is ex-ante known to be more likely to achieve the intended outcome than any other, each set of different actions is equally truthful. The lack of achievement is not a sign of failure for the individual, but rather an expression of society experimenting with different sets of actions.
This reasoning abstracts from the many nuances we must confront in our decisions on which actions to take. What if existing evidence indicates that one set of actions may be slightly more likely to achieve our desired outcome than another? Will everyone now follow this path, at the cost of all others? Such limited diversification is untruthful in many cases. The point I am making is that focussing on the truthful content of a single individuals' achievements does not capture the fact that it is society living through them. It is society's many failures and eventual success that is truthful. Everyone who is part of society's great experiments with Truth therefore share equally in its glory, independent of what outcomes arose from their actions.
How is death related to this thinking? Without death, there would always be the opportunity that the individual could change their legacy in society. Death provides a platform on which to reflect on the legacy of the individual. This is not a faulty task if that individual's place in their society is sufficiently appreciated.
However, misunderstanding the nature of legacy as a product of individual actions and outputs may tempt us away from Truth. This is true in terms of both truthful reporting and action. If one believes that our lives are discrete, as we near death we are tempted to retell our past in a way that secures the most promising legacy. We attempt a telling of our lives that rationalises our diminishing future options. This constrains our action. We are constrained in taking the truthful action, because we value those actions that rationalise the lives we have lived. If, instead, we realised that we are part of a broader society through which legacy persists, no retelling would be necessary, as each of our actions would live beyond our lives through the echoes of our actions in society. Thus, our aim would be to take the most truthful action at any point, like any other moment in our lives. The approach of death would not change that.
I do not talk enough about how broadly I believe philosophy and the wider contemplative world fits into the framework of social philosophy. Most of the world's thinkers seem to me to be social philosophers, whether they knew it/know it or not. I wanted to give one example here that has recently touched me.
I have been thinking a lot about the poem 'Ulysses' by Lord Alfred Tennyson (I think it's to do with me getting old). It jumps out at me how frequently the poem refers to how society has forged Ulysses. In line 18, he directly states, "I am a part of all that I have met".
The point of this post is to say how social philosophy is widespread, and those like I who want to better understand it can learn from this work. Tennyson brings forth a fascinating point when Ulysses claims that he will 'rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!' Is it true that to truly be the best of oneself, one has to return to the societies in which one's greatest self was forged? What becomes of those of us who are forged in battle but have to build a life in peace?
And yet, this post is not arguing that we should passively consume the social philosophy of the wider world. Taking social philosophy to its limit allows us to actively assess the consistency of other work. For example, I feel that social philosophy would hint that Ulysses was wrong 'not to yield' and not to stay at home and build a better world for his people. It might argue that the truthful action is not to search for the societies of the past, where Truth was clearer, but to battle at home to find Truth in that place. Is Ulysses simply too old to change to undertake the truthful path? That's not the tension at the heart of the poem, and it doesn't seem to be Ulysses key concern.
To question this poem is difficult for me, as it brings me so much to think about. I do wonder, however, what a fully developed philosophy of society would say to this poem, and to the many other fragments of social philosophy scattered across the world.
I opened the door with quiet anticipation. It creaked slightly on its hinges. There. A memory crystallized, with the dust moving slowly through the mellow shafts of sunlight.
The room was as I remembered it. Or mostly so. The plain desk without a chair. The bed nestled against the wardrobe hindering its use. And little else.
Ten years ago, almost to the day, I had left this room and gone home. The year away from home. The sadness forgotten; the warm glow of satisfaction remembered. The years since felt long and it was warming to be back here.
I stepped in and could taste the mustiness I always remembered. My wife would be coming from reception at any moment, so I took the opportunity to remember. The showers to relieve the heat. The many happy moments, unburdened by responsibility. The freedom of my youth.
My mind wandered over the last few days of that trip. The terrible sickness I had always told people of. The two days and nights where my diary was blank. The nausea. I could feel it coming on now. As the memory of those two days came flooding back.
The sweat. The movement from consciousness and back. The figure. That terrible moment. That choice. Locked away as part of the deal. I felt a heaviness building with every recollection.
And then I sensed that presence that would make it all real. I couldn't be remembering right. It had been the fever. Or a terrible dream. Or something unreal. So I turned to the corner behind the door, where I felt him.
He was there. The collection of half-memories solidified. It was as I remembered.
Cloaked in black and smaller than most men, Death is a presence rather than a figure. He is a coldness, an unknowing. The desire to run could not become whole, and stayed as fear. So I stood in front of him; him staring back at me.
I remembered. Our first meeting flowed back to me with a constance I felt nowhere else.
"You came back, as you promised." His voice was weak, but with a clarity of purpose. I was empty. "You have brought what you said you would."
Only then did I think of Gemma. My God. No. I began to fill. My desperation mixed with hate. What had I done? I was a child, inexperienced, stupid. How can I have brought her here, to this?
Death's stare was constant. He spoke softly. "Be at peace."
I had been so sick. I had never felt like that. On the second night I had woken with Death nearby. I should have gone to the hospital the day before but had been too weak. I was alone. Death had become my only companion.
He had had a calmness in his presence. A certainty. His was the only sure profession. His purpose was clear to him, and his place in the world certain.
He had approached me with his hand outstretched, ready to clasp mine. He seemed to have a purity about him. That purity. There was something about it that I could not recognise. Something that had made me uncomfortable.
It was that sense that gave me enough strength to mutter three words. "Deal with me." He stopped his reach. I had felt some new drops of life flow into me.
"What do you offer?" I lay there for some time. "My soul," and the only thing I could think of in my foolish youth, "and another."
"I collect all souls," he replied, "in time." I searched for an answer, and found he had given it to me as carefully as he felt he could. "Then I will give you their time."
He seemed to bristle. "I can only give you these terms. For a decade I will leave you in peace. After that time you will return here; you will bring a soul. You must cherish this soul as if it were your own."
"Once I leave this room you will not have memory of our meeting, but your destiny will be wrapped in the bond you make here. There is nothing but these terms. The soul you bring must have decades to live, so you trade their future for your present."
I paused to search inside myself. In the fondness of youth we do not understand what it is to truly love another as we are taught to love ourselves. I found peace in myself and Death melted as I raised my hand to his.
All this I had forgotten. All this had made up who I had been since then. I could not bear to think that this had motivated my time with Gemma. I could not believe that my life had been directed at this.
I quivered. Death motioned for me to sit down. I looked at him. There was nothing but certainty in his presence.
I slowly fell on to the bed, my shoulders hunched and my eyes filling with water. I must have looked as if hollow.
My thoughts turned to Gemma. She was beauty defined for me. I thought of the first time we met, at a picnic hosted by a friend. Her smile and the sun were how I remember that day. I thought of the day we were married and how we held each other as man and wife. I could feel her hand in mine and her head on my shoulder.
"I just didn't know," I stopped to choke back the tears. "I didn't know what I was doing. Please."
Death repeated, "Be at peace."
I thought of how Gemma and I held each other as we watched a movie on the couch, or how we loved to go swimming in the summer. I thought of our arguments. How she had taught me so much.
What would her family do when they heard? I could see her mother now, falling into her father's arms and he with the quiver of his lips Gemma had inherited. I saw my own parents and my sister, and I began to cry.
Death's stare fixed me through my tears and he blurred. I placed my head into my hands and wiped my eyes with my palms. He was still blurred.
"Whoever enjoys a moment of love," Death said softly, "has lived."
Somehow this gave me a little balance and I could feel my breath settle. I sat searching for something that would give me a grasp on the world I had created. I looked up at Death as he stared down at me.
"That love is our greatest window into life."
I stared into the figure that stood in front of me. I looked into his form and began to focus. I searched deeper and deeper into that form and its purity. The unease that purity had stirred in me ten years ago began to return.
I began to think about my own end and how it would drift like a whisper into that formless purity. This began to haunt me once again but I clutched onto my unease to steady my composure.
"I think back to the first time we met," I began to echo my thoughts to Death, "and think of who I was then." "I was scared of losing myself." "Then I think of how much I have changed since then, and," I almost breathed in a moment of relief, "and I realise how much Gemma has been a part of that." "In so many respects, she has become a part of who I am."
Death bristled at this, almost seeming excited. "Then I am gaining a mosaic of your two souls; a beautiful idea."
This caused me to come close to tears again. And I thought of our parents. I thought of all they had done to define who I was. I thought of my sister and all we'd shared.
I composed myself a little, hoping Gemma would never come to join us. "I am a mosaic of more than two souls," I said, fixing my star with Deaths. "I may be more than you are expecting." My thinking was flowing into my words.
Death stood back for a moment, my words seeming to affect him. I searched his expression for some sense of how. His eyes broke with mine and looked at the floor.
I took myself back into my thoughts to understand what was affecting him. His cracked lips had opened slightly and his dark eyes sat unblinking. I thought of all those who had shaped me. I thought of my father teaching me to saw, and how he'd let me make mistakes on a project he was working on just so he could say we'd made it together. I thought of how he'd disciplined us when we did things he didn't approve of. Thinking of this made me turn to Mum, who would hold us after Dad had gotten angry. I thought of all the advice she had given me as the years had turned, and how that advice had made me who I was. It felt as if they were with me now.
Then there was my sister who would boss my friends and I around all summer, only to come running for protection when she was scared. I thought of all the feelings this had given me, and how I always wanted to protect her from harm. I thought of how, many years later, I had felt it ever more strongly for Gemma.
My friends. How much mayhem we had caused as kids, and how they had been there since then. Their advice, their opinions, their ideas, all now mingled with who I was.
"It's not my life that is flashing before my eyes," Death looked at me, "but all those who make me up." Death's eyes widened. All those he had taken. It had always been so clear. Seemingly simple. This made things looked blurred. Look different.
The two of us waited, both thinking, hoping. To see Death vulnerable implied a chance. For Death, there had never been anything but certainty. There was always a purpose. That must be achievable again.
Then I thought of Gemma and her parents. She hadn't just been changed by them. She had changed them. Her father, it was said, had become a family man when Gemma had been born. 'The little girl that had melted her father's heart' was what her mother said she was.
Gemma was like that. She had made little changes in so many people. Her family was just the start. I and they were just the strongest examples of her impact. There were pieces of Gemma in so many people I knew. I had just never really thought of it until that moment.
"You cannot ..." Death interrupted me, "I know." He stepped softly over to the bed and sat down. His intent stare was now fixed upon the floor.
I could feel his coldness next to me against the warmth of the sunshine coming through the windows.
"You cannot," I persisted, "take Gemma's soul by taking her life." "She is part of me, her father, her mother, and all those she has ever touched. The changes she inspires ripple through her community."
Death shuddered. The suggestion that a person could be more than just an individual, more than just a soul, shook him. His purpose, his meaning, was based on the singularity of life. If a person lived on through all others, then ... He tried to shake the thought, visibly shaking. What had he done? What was his purpose if this was true? He sat in still thought as the moments passed.
After a long pause Death looked up at me. "You are right. And I have failed." Death looked into my eyes for a few moments. "You are free." His body seemed to shrink as mine had done only minutes before. He stared into the ground.
Gemma stepped into the room. She was visibly nervous from the sight of a figure that had an aura such as Death's sitting by me. She looked at me in confusion. "You are free? From what?"
Death looked up at her. With his certainty of purpose shaken, he was a shadow of his former self. "She does have a beautiful soul, whatever that might mean."
Gemma looked at me almost alarmed now. I stood up, realising I must get her home and safe immediately. I took her arm to leave and she asked, "What is going on?"
"Please trust me. We must go." She put her hand on mine and nodded. "Can we not help this mean at all?" Gemma said softly as we turned. I paused. The humanity of the question gave me a sense of protection from the harm I feared.
"We knew each other once," I said to her, "and he feels he has lost much of the reason that brought us together. Much of the reason for doing what he does."
Gemma squeezed my hand and looked at Death. "We can only ever really see ourselves in others," she addressed him, "and a world without you would, I'm sure, be a poorer one. Whatever you do, if it gives society and the people you effect meaning, then be proud of that contribution."
Death looked at her and raised his brow. "So there is hope for me."
Gemma looked at me and could see the concern in my eyes. We turned and moved swiftly out of the door, leaving Death in the beams of sunlight that lit up the room.
At the Martin Luther King Junior Memorial in Washington, DC, displayed amongst his many quotes is, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
In a social framework, the network of mutuality across others is a fundamental assumption of the philosophy. The assumption is that society must be taken as the fundamental unit of philosophical analysis. However, this assumption does not restrict the size of that society, such that it could be limited to two people. The quote above implies that i) all people 'anywhere' are members of our society, and ii) for each of these people, we should place a non-zero weight on an injustice done to them.
Interpreting this quote in the light of a social philosophy, a remaining question is how much weight to place on an injustice done to someone in our society. Everyone who believes in the above two statements must face the question of how much weight they should place on injustice 'anywhere'. In a social philosophy, there are many reasons why this weight might vary over individuals in your society. Such a framework allows for a measure of 'closeness' to sway the moral responsibility to others in our society. So we might be 'closer' to our children and our parents, and thus have a greater moral responsibility to them.
To define what we owe to each member of our society, we must consider at least the following things: What is the state of injustice against all of those in our society? To what extent are we ready to understand that injustice? How much are we ready to trade off our responsibilities across members of our society? And how do we take action given these trade offs?
Working in international development, let me work through an example from that setting. It could be argued in a social philosophy that I am philosophically distant from someone living in the poorest parts of the world. On the other hand, if economic injustice is greatest there, I must choose to weigh up the injustice they face against their distance from me. Suppose I have to decide how much of my income to donate to those facing economic injustice. The question is how much do I give? A fully utilitarian model would frequently argue that you should give everything you have beyond your own subsistence living allowance. A social philosophy allows you to weigh those philosophically close to you, such as your children, higher than those philosophically distant. But if you believe that even those socially very distant from you but still within your society should receive some of your income, you must decide what that number should be. So the question we must all make a decision on if you believe in i and ii above, is what number reflects our philosophical weightings of those in our society who may be most distant but who face the greatest economic injustice.
A social philosophy would argue that this number is not just something that reflects who you are, but also defines who you are. By living by a number, that number becomes part of your society and so defines you. So perhaps the question should not be what number reflects you, but rather what number are you?
This weekend I have had to look after my son completely on my own for the first time. There is a very regular routine, and my wife kindly left a timetable for me to follow and notes on activities we could undertake. I have only blown up one egg and caused a small international incident, so things are going OK.
As I spend time with Josh, I think of what we know about how to influence our children in a positive way. By keeping them healthy, talking to them about the interactions they have in the world, and teaching them the basic principles around which our world is organised, we change who they are. Then there are the passive influences we can appreciate, such as our habits, the language we use, and the rhythms of our lives, that are passed on to our children. We are less likely to modify those to be focused on bringing up our children, but we likely give these thought.
Then there is everything else about our interactions with our children that we do not typically appreciate as playing a role in their definition. For me, this might be how I dress, how much I talk, when I talk, how others respond to my talking, how much I hold hands with my wife, or whether Josh observes us praying or having moments of reflection in our lives. Or it might be a host of other things I simply do not understand.
Our defining role is regarded by most people as partly economic, partly social and partly spiritual. In a social philosophy it is also partly philosophical. The way we define our children fundamentally determines their philosophical future as it shapes the society they are embedded in and thus the philosophical choices they will face.
The catch with our children, is that we care for their future more deeply than most peoples. We must therefore shape their current selves to be philosophically ready for the uncertain future they face. There are relative constants as one generation moves to the next it seems, but what about those aspects of society that are not constant? How can we be sure we are preparing our children philosophically for the future in the face of such uncertainty?
Rather, it seems most truthful to embed in them the capacity to respond to the uncertainties. Give them the machinery of us. Teach them how we would face such uncertainties, so that our voice, be it among many, is part of their conversation when they face those new worlds.
A big question my wife and I have had to face is how to build a life together when I am so committed to a particular world view. My belief is to always act in Truth, whether you are acting with others or alone. This requires any action you take with others to conform to your belief of what is truthful. With many actions and relationships, you can simply choose which actions to take with whom so to meet this requirement.
This is a more complex task when you commit yourself to someone to build a life with. In this case, you are committing to a huge range of joint decisions that are not specified in advance, from what to do as a family activity on a particular weekend to what home to buy. This intense degree of collaboration requires compromises by both parties, as perhaps the pair do not have exactly the same likes and dislikes. A commitment to truthful action, however, is a non-negotiable. It has to be adhered to for the committed party to be involved.
So when there are partners or other group members who do not believe in such a framework, how does collaboration work? A first response is to reflect on the comment made in this blog that social change can arise from changing yourself. You are reflected in others and are a reflection of your wider society.
A different response would be that one must choose collaborators (or life partners) who complement your own place in society in a way that will lead you to move towards Truth. By looking for a partner through the lens of social philosophy, you are looking for someone with whom you can undertake the most truthful action. This doesn't necessarily mean they have to be as committed to Truth as you. Rather, your joint interaction should foster the truthful path in your self, and your pair. In my case, having found a partner who is more grounded in reality than me has given me a better sense of the society we live in.
One might argue that with a sufficient commitment to Truth, whoever you are matched with you will jointly move towards Truth. However, in societies so characterised by social constraints, it seems unlikely that this approach is the most truthful. The original match matters because the society we live in is currently too constraining to lead us all to the same truthful path.
I can believe theoretically that the most truthful partner is someone actively resisting your commitment to Truth (perhaps this constant questioning of your fundamental assumptions will strengthen them). However, my partner's support of my beliefs, whilst not necessarily agreeing with them fully, has been a foundation for us to work together towards a more truthful life.
At the heart of social philosophy is that we are made up of those in our society, and in reverse, we are reflected in a host of people in whose societies we have played a part. Each time we make a change in ourselves, therefore, that change is reflected in those who we make up in the future. So personal change, in a social philosophy, is social change. As an aside, this is also true in the sense that we embody the sum of societies that we reflect, and thus any personal change we affect is a reflection of a social process of change that goes on within us. The societies that make us up must combine in a way that allows the change that we enact.
The notion of social change as it is commonly used is therefore a matter of degree. The changing of ourselves is a social change, and the degree to which it is passed on depends on the processes of society. Our changing of the next person is, by the same logic, also a social change. And the next person. And so on. Changing others is changing the societies that will reflect them in the future. Thus, undertaking social change is equivalent to changing just one person, including yourself. The extent of social change is then determined by how society sets itself up to promulgate that change.
I regularly fast. One day a week. A friend recently asked me why I do this. Partly, it is for reasons that I have heard from across the major religions. Giving up something allows us to better understand the value of it. Most of my life I try to keep myself away from hunger of any type. This implies I have a constant engagement with the world. This constancy limits my ability to appreciate the value of that lack of hunger, and the value of what I consume.
There is also the reverse rationale. Not only does fasting allow us to understand the value of the thing we give up, but also their transient nature. If I feel full today, this has little bearing on how full I feel in a week. Physically, our society is one in which we have a demanding schedule of eating, but each meal is relatively transient in itself. This is in direct contrast to the constancy of Truth. Fasting is as much about understanding the transience of the thing that is given up as understanding its value.
Fasting for more prolonged periods, such as Lent or Ramadan, has another benefit. Giving up food in particular allows the body to be in a more meditative state. This is particularly true in my society, in which there is too much food consumed, and many pressures to consume it.
However, my reason for fasting goes beyond these reasons, to a rationale embedded in social philosophy. Within the context of a such a philosophical framework, our experience of the world - our society - influences who we are. Unless I choose to go without something on a regular basis, in my case food for a day, my experience of the world is both constant and satisfied. This limited variation in an important aspect of my life defines me. This is true for those things directly related to fasting, for example my awareness of the value of food. But it can also be true for how my days relate to each other, with constancy bringing about little distinction between one day and the next.
By fasting, my experience of the world becomes more variable within a controlled setting, and my broader perception of the world becomes richer. I am connected to an aspect of the world that is important for understanding the true nature of things - scarcity - and that variation provides greater distinctions between the times I fast and those I do not. My perception of the world certainly changes when I fast, varying my society.
Sometimes the variation brings unexpected benefits, such as realisations about the nature of change. Without the variation that underlies all creation of knowledge, I would be unable to appreciate Truth. And the more closely my search for Truth echoes the realities of the world, including scarcity, the closer I am to living a truthful life.
I've seen a number of people in my life for whom their interaction with society is at the core of their mental health. Though not philosophy, this topic extends the idea of a social philosophy to our capacity to formulate philosophical thoughts.
The perception of one's society is a key ingredient to how one formulates one's actions, which define one's experience of the world. I've known a number of people who perceive the world as relatively disappointing. They feel that other people typically let them down, and have an approach to other people that implies there do not exist individuals to whom they can look up to, or that inspire them. This perception of society changes their actions, which in turn changes their society, changing them. By not being inspired by the world around them, they seem to create an environment that reinforces this view. The world therefore becomes uninspiring, leading to degrees of depression.
This chain is simply my assessment of a few people in my life. However, it brings up an idea; that we should choose to have inspirational people in our societies that sustain our interest in our world. As I have discussed below, the frameworks we use to assess the world, and therefore other people, are in large part a matter of choice. We should therefore aim to include in our views of the world a means by which to find other people inspiring. By not doing so, we endanger our passion and thirst for the world, and thus the drive that keeps us mentally healthy and keen to seek out Truth.
19th April 2015 follow up
One perspective social philosophy brings to mental health is the notion that we are made up of others. It is the interaction of these others within us that makes up who we are and, importantly for this issue, how we experience the world.
One can see this as a conversation between all those who make us up. The interactions between those selves that make us up will have the features of the interactions of those people from who we were defined. So mental health is a feature of that conversation. We must resolve the conversation between all the voices of those who define us in a way that allows us to stay stable within ourselves. An inspiring voice corresponding to the inspirational people described above helps us resolve that conversation in a more truthful way.
A corollary of this line of thought is that the love affairs and disputes between people that define us are raging inside us to. A social philosophy would argue that the resolution of these interactions in the wider sense would not be limited to the group that initiated them, but to all those persons that were affected by, and thus defined by, those interactions. To this end, we must build a society that can resolve issues socially, in all those an interaction affected, rather than just individually.
When I was talking to my wife about my last post, On the Interactions of Others, she talked to me about how one route to impacting on the interactions of others is through your relationships with the others. By being a strong friend to two people in a relationship, you may help them strengthen their relationship. There are many ways to define strong in the previous sentence that would feel satisfactory. It might simply be shared experience, so that 'the three of us always do stuff together, and it wouldn't be the same if any of us dropped out'. It might be a shared commitment, so sharing that commitment with them both allows them to share that commitment together.
A next step in this chain of logic is that any relationships you support may support others. Perhaps the shared commitment of your friends inspires others to commit. You echo on through society. To what extent it is possible to think through this chain is specific to the context at hand, but it provides a further layer of philosophical consideration for those of us who believe in a social philosophy.
I look after Joshua, my son, on Sunday mornings. At the end of the morning, I sat with Josh and prayed. It was my normal prayer but recast as to regard Joshua's relationships with the people I pray about. I typically think through key members of my society, long ago coming to the belief that their state is a key part of mine.
Thinking about Josh's relationships with my parents, my sister, my wife's family and so on, solidified a part of my world I have not thought enough about - the relationships between members of my society. These relationships are philosophically important to me, for they may go on to shape who I am. By relating with and changing each other, members of my society change that society, and thus what shapes me.
The relationships of others in my society - that of my parents for example - are independent of me in a few ways. First, I don't understand those relationships in the way I do any that involve me. I know less about their content and take less time to think about them. Second, it seems truthful for each relationship to have some degree of privacy, and so there will always be boundaries to the extent I can involve myself in others relationships.
But do I not also have a responsibility to understand and support these relationships? Partly, they are parts of me talking to other parts of me, in the sense that I have defined all of those in these relationships. And thus I have a responsibility to ensure my selves interact truthfully. Beyond that, I am faced with a multitude of opportunities to support these relationships, and these are reasons to support.
In many ways we already do this, by connecting people for example. It is, however, an important new area of reflection for me. How far do I and should I support those in my society in their relationships outside of those with me.
It is good, every so often to restate my philosophy. Here is the November 2014 edition.
There are an infinite number of frameworks ... [well that took long]
This implies that a more satisfactory treatment of philosophy is one in which differential philosophical frameworks can co-exist within a society, and within an individual.
A framework is a set of constraints on thought ...
Individual is the physical life whilst person is the wider social sense of the self.
[see 'On Modelling': However, it will only be fully understood as a framework when it is compared to the other notions of base societies that could have been chosen.] To be able to assess the value of a framework of analysis.
It's my birthday again. It's a time I typically reflect on life. And increasingly over the last few years I have reflected on the same things. One, that my deepest regret is that I have not done more to develop my understanding of my philosophical foundations. Two, that I have produced so little relative to my ambitions. The two combine beautifully in my ongoing inability to keep this philosophy blog alive.
So I shall try again. With this year all about productivity and discipline, let us see whether I can hold myself to this task: every two weeks I will write on some aspect of social philosophy. I shall also go back and try to tidy up some of the half-finished and missing entries that I had hoped to write.
This poem by Billy Collins, 'On Turning Ten', really touched my wife and I as we think about the process of our son growing up:
The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I'm coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light--
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.
One morning I ran into work and was stretching outside my office. One gentleman, who'd I'd never seen before, was outside the main offices talking on his mobile phone. He was quite audible as he was using his hands free kit and had both headphones plugged in. I thought it quite amusing to be forced to share in his conversation but wasn't bothered by it.
However, you could see those people working on the ground floor of our shared offices were getting increasingly frustrated and after a while were shouting to try and get his attention. Because he had both earplugs in, he couldn't hear them. So, feeling bad for my colleagues, I went up to just ask if he could talk away from the window. He didn't like it.
"That's there problem", he grumbled, and then stormed off saying to ???
Text. Have spent a lot of time thinking about my place in my society - the persons and organisations that define me, how I am perceived by others, and how I define others. The most natural extension of all this is to survey others on their own responses to each of these questions and create a data set of responses across individuals.
how does the world look from other parts of society? stuck on islands.
At the end of the Preface to the book I made out of the my thirty letters to my society, I wrote, "The next step is to reverse the question, and ask the extent to which I have defined others. This will paint a picture of the wider conception of me. It will define the borders of my social self, and ask me whether the character I find is in line with my intentions and my conception of Truth."
At first, I thought that I would be as systematic in identifying my role in others lives as I had been in understanding others roles in who I am. However, I have struggled to identify my social self
Social philosophy teaches us that an individual's relationship with any other individual is embedded in a unique society. Since that relationship is therefore defined by that society, no two relationships will be the same unless the underlying societies are the same. The differential between the societies will characterise the difference between the relationships.
???The past two years worth of posts have focussed a lot on the definition of a single me???
This implies that a person is experienced differently by all those in their society. You can only know someone up to the society in which you are embedded. The margins along which this matters are unclear to me, but I thought that for this birthday I would explore the extent to which my closest friends and family characterised my personality differentially.
To get at their perception of me from multiple angles, I used a multi-variate personality test, the Big 5 test, that ...
For my thirtieth birthday, I wrote to the thirty people I felt had most defined me. However, I was careful in the introductory post to that exercise to say that individuals were key vessels through which society moved. Society can also move through organisations. For my thirty-first birthday, I would like to switch the lens to the thirty one organisations which I believe have most defined me. To introduce this train of thought, and the 31 blog posts discussing the corresponding organisations, I want to describe why I think the notion of organisation differs from that of the individual, and why it is a useful framework to understand ones self.
Given the multiple frameworks we could view individuals and organisations through, it is important to begin by recognising there are frameworks in which individuals and organisations are the same. Both are social actors, collections of individual influences, and a product of social constraints that bind them. One can think of instances in which they are both philosophically relevant entities, such as having the ability to take moral action and responsibility. Organisations can collect information, process it, and act upon it. These frameworks act as a reminder that in a social philosophy there is a sliding scale between individuals and organisations, and variation in the proximity of the two conceptions.
However, there are ways in which we might characterise them as distinct, or in social philosophy, as facing distinct social constraints. The physical nature of the person creates social constraints that organisations do not share and that play a key role in a persons individual lives. For example, the inability to be in multiple places at one time, so that a person cannot collect data or communicate in physically distant places constraints the person and not the organisation. Similarly, there seem to be actions that an individual or organisation can take that the other cannot. For example, for many the ability to fall in love is a significant component of the personal experience. On the other hand, critically for sustaining much of human achievement, the organisation persists beyond the boundaries of the single lifetime.
Reflecting earlier posts, it seems that using organisation as a distinct conception to an individual requires us to outline how their social constraints differ. For the exercise I want to undertake, I can provide a sketch of the constraints I use to classify an organisation. Organisations are entities that can simultaneously and consciously coordinate across multiple distant points at once (such as government's capacity to defend multiple physical points and thus protect its citizens). In the sense that I feel organisation is typically used, this coordination is consciously defined, rather than simply willed by God. There are corollaries of this definition, such as the organisation being able to persist beyond human interaction (for example a company still exists in law even if it is not active), but that stands as my description of the characteristic of an organisation.
It is important to note the difference between my conception of the individual, the physical life, and of the person, the wider self reflected across society. It is not that organisations are distinct from persons because they can be in physically distant places. In my social philosophy, persons live across many individuals, and thus can be in physically distant places. Rather, it is the simultaneous and conscious coordination of actions across a distance beyond the physical boundaries of the individual. This could be criticised as an artificial boundary. There is certainly room for further clarifications as to what exactly determines the boundary of the person and the organisation.
Discussion: How could we effectively characterise the difference between organisations and persons?
Last week's entry, On Tension, asked to what extent my freedom to choose my life's central tension should reflect the wishes of those who had given me that freedom. I focussed on my grandparents, but could of course talk of my wider ancestry and the debt I owe them.
I focussed on my grandparents because ...
has made me think of the wider debt I owe to my society, and the
All of my grandparents were defined by a central tension in their life. My paternal grandfather always fought between his love of the good life and his wish to do the right thing. He had a strong sense of social justice, and gave away almost everything he had to those he thought more deserving. This jarred with his love of beauty and luxury. Staying in a nice hotel in Eastern Europe one winter, he couldn't stand to see so many people hungry outside. He wrapped up all the bread he could find in a tablecloth and threw it outside to all those who couldn't find a meal.
My paternal grandmother wanted deeply to study medicine, or to live a more academic life than she did. The chance to be a doctor was taken away by her father as he believed women shouldn't study to the degree she wanted to. And then the war left her with an everlasting fear that she would never be safe again. She was torn between her hopes of another life, and those who would take it away.
My maternal grandfather wished for a better world. He was angry at the injustice in the world around him and the resistance to his efforts to make it more just. He wished to create a community around him that would be an island of values in an otherwise indecent world. Such a plan had within it the seeds of its own unravelling, as his children had their own hopes for a different future.
My maternal grandmother, although immensely commited to her family, always though of what could have been. A young man she had fallen in love with had died in the second World War. Whilst she had been happy enough with my grandfather, it was clear she always wondered what her life would have been with her first love.
We can view each of my grandparents as having had a tension that was a defining pillar of their life. To differing extents, these tensions were defined by external forces. The second World War had played a central role in each of my grandmothers' lives, robbing one of her security, the other of her love. My grandfathers were both torn between their sense of social justice and their other ideals, be it luxury or capitalism, with the war challenging both of these.
These thoughts make me consider viewing my own life this way, and asking what the central tension of my life is. It is certainly one that I have chosen for myself. That I am free to choose the defining feature of my life is quite remarkable. Through so much of history, the central tension of a person's life has been chosen for them. Be it the search for food, the submission to or resistance of an authority, or the boundaires of culture.
My own generation has huge freedom to define the central tension of their lives relative to those who have gone before us. The external world asks less of and provides more to us than it has before. The opportunities that come with this relative plenty rests on the shoulders of all those who have gone before us. What debt do we owe them? How do we choose the central tension in our lives so to recognise that debt? Like some religious or cultural practice dictates actions that intend to respect their ancestry, what are we to do to respect ours?
An obvious first choice is to use part of the newly gained freedom to undertake actions that would please or satisfy those whom we owe our debt. In some religions this would take the part of a sacrifice. Rather in my life, I have to ask whether I am living in the way that my grandparents would believe is right.
As I understand it, I am fortunate. My grandparents were all motivated to some extent by social justice and academic pursuits. That I am following a path that respects each of these makes me feel that they would be at least satisfied with my path.
If I find we are at odds however, to what extent do I subjugate my own will to my perceptions of their preferences? For example, my religious beliefs are certainly distinct from those my paternal grandmother would wish I had, and not in the tradition she would have wished. How far do I shape my religious practices so to satisfy my understanding of her hopes for me? Should I conciously try to bend my beliefs towards hers?
Then there is the case in which my grandparents only wish me happy and well. Does this give me the freedom to choose my path within these broad constraints, or should we look beyond their wishes and organise my life so as to reflect important pillars of their lives that have relevance for my society today?
My answers to this final set of questions are not well defined. So far my response has been to at least try the path they would have wished when it is not the one I would have chosen. It may give me an appreciation of their point of view. I have even smoked a cigar or two in honour of my grandfather. I don't think that will be an ongoing legacy.
Discussion: These are certainly not questions I have been equipped to deal with in my upbringing so far. Have you answered them for yourself? It seems that other traditions have investigated these questions. Have they found answers?
My wife is currently reading Caitlin Moran's 'How to be a Woman'. On a train journey with her I picked it up and had a little look. Ms Moran is very funny. "If I've gone from being wholly undesirable (then), to being looked down upon as a slag (now), this is, surely, a bit of a promotion? Becoming a woman has to be done one step at a time and this is, in its own way, considerable progress." (p.127)
She is also angry. Angry with the way women are regarded and influenced by society.
And so am I. When close female friends tell me of their common insecurities with other women, it angers me. Someone who believes we are defined by society, as I do, is faced by the notion that women are being defined to feel insecurities in a way that men are typically not.
So I looked into whether the feminist movement has been populated with any males, as I was interested in their perspective. Male feminists exist, but it seems that the relationship with feminism and feminists is complicated. So let's side step those issues by saying I am a femanist, someone who believes in society's responsibility to support women to reach their capabilities as it does men. Whether this overlaps with feminism or not, let's say this is a descriptor of what I'm for.
Agreement with feminist or femanist ideals is only one part of why someone who believes in a social philosophy would care about feminist/femanist issues. When I look down at the list of the 30 people I feel have most defined me, a substantial portion of them are women. And therefore, I am made up in large part by women. A misguided approach to women will end up being a huge part of who I am through the females that define me.
If I am a mixture of the people I have described over the last year, and all the others I have not described, there are two reasons why the way women are regarded and influenced by society matters directly to who I am. First, they are the raw ingredients of my person. Suppressing the potential of women therefore directly suppresses my own potential. Second, in the mixing of those ingredients, if society is set up so to suppress the contributions of women, then the mixing itself is biased. I suffer again from being less of a person than I could have been had I had the full contribution of the potential of the women who make me up.
This social philosophy perspective says that not only do I want to protect the full contributions and freedoms of women, but I want to be the fullest person I can be. When society is biased against a group in an untruthful way, I myself suffer in becoming less of a man than I could be.
The relationship between feminism and femanism that I read a little of in the past few days could be stated as follows. The claim could be that I am unable to appreciate the issues that Caitlin Moran talks of because they are things I would have very little understanding of, and that my experience is ill-equipped to empathise with. An imprecise approximation to an experience will add little to its analysis if a precise appreciation already exists. I could respond that I may have a slightly different, not just poorly understood perspective. In the same way that multiple perspectives or more data allows us to better understand a scientific phenomenon, surely the male perspective on the female experience is useful.
One could also claim that as being a key part of the discrimination against women, men are critical in understanding feminist issues. A male perspective allows us to better understand the drivers of half of the society these issues occur in, and often the half implicated as the source of feminist grievances. It seems funny science to try to understand male behaviour without asking any of them. It also allows us to draw society's boundaries more clearly. Whether a woman's constraints are artificially imposed or those of humanity can only be understood by looking at men as well. By the logic that a woman best understands the boundaries of her world, a man is likely to understand the boundaries of his. Finally, if men don't get to talk about woman's issues, how will we learn?
But these are not what a social philosophy contributes. It says that feminist issues are all persons issues in a very direct way. We are all partly defined by the biases against women that prevail in society, so the impacts of these biases arise through all persons defined by that society.
So a new birthday, and a year of reflecting on who I am made up of. The last 30 posts have hopefully given a sense of who I am. As importantly, they are a reflection of how an individual is formed in the framework of a social philosophy.
Social philosophy teaches us that we are defined by those who make up our society. One way to see this is in a fully disaggregated way of society flowing through us all. Another framework takes more seriously the fact that there are physical and conceptual boundaries to these flows. Persons, the physical individual, are key vessels through which society moves. They are thus a useful level of aggregation to think about when trying to understand society.
The question then becomes who are the people that define me? And who are the people who most define me? At the level of the individual (rather than fully disaggregated society), we are not exposed to all persons equally, such that some will have a greater effect on who we are than others.
As part of my thirtieth birthday, I want to explore who I believe are the thirty people who most define me. I will write a letter to each of them describing why I think they are of such importance, and summarise these thoughts in this blog. Each letter will begin with the following paragraphs,
As part of my 30th birthday, I have spent some time reflecting on those people who have had the greatest influence on me. People who have guided and shaped who I am.
My philosophy is embedded in the idea that we are made up of the society in which we live. Those who shape an individual's society define who they become.
Most of what influences the make up of an individual is subtle and disparate. However, as I look back over the past thirty years, there are a few people that emerge as uniquely influential. I am thus writing to the 30 people I feel have played the most important roles in defining my society. Celebrating my first thirty years is, for me, about celebrating the people who have made me who I am.
I hope that this exercise comes across as the very opposite of self-centred. For me, the process of introspection is to realise the society within you, and thus to realise the very opposite of self: that we are made up of everyone else. I hope that this exercise comes across as a celebration of those who have made me up, and of my wider society.
This week I heard a fantastic quote from the musician and composer, Terence Blanchard:
“Beethoven said that music is deeper than philosophy. Ludwig, what do you mean music is deeper than philosophy? He says well in the end we finite creatures, we don't have a language or even a linguistic eloquence that can begin to be fully truthful to the experiences that we have the short time we're here in time and space. So therefore we need some sounds, even some noise, organised noise, we need silence between the notes and the sounds that get at the deeper truths of who we are.”
It struck me as a perfect summary of the power of music. It is a language that extends our capacity to express. Good music tells the best stories. But it can also express important philosophical emotions that are difficult to communicate through words. This links to my conception of Truth: whilst we can determine a structure from which our presuppositions can be analysed, the core assumptions of our beliefs come from what we intuitively feel about an issue. Music makes me feel a broader range of and more in touch with those instinctive emotions, emotions that seem connected to my intuitive sense of what is good, bad, right, and wrong.
Discussion: Do you think of music as having these features? Can words do justice to the feeling music gives us (and if so, can you give me some examples)? My wife has just asked me how one could debate with music, and if you couldn't, how useful music would be as a philosophical tool?
"It is in our lives and not, fundamentally, in our conscious experiences that we find the memories of those who are gone. Our consciousness is fickle and not worthy of the task of remembering. The most important way of remembering someone is by being the person they made us - at least in part - and living the life they have helped shape. Sometimes they are not worth remembering. In that case, our most important existential task is to expunge them from the narrative of our lives. But when they are worth remembering, then being someone they have helped fashion and living a life they have helped forge are not only how we remember them; they are how we honour them.”
I am finding it unusually difficult to motivate myself to do my work. This is typically not a problem for me, as I enjoy what I do. Poor motivation is a Catch-22 as you are not motivated to snap yourself out of it. So you keep on working poorly, potentially compounding the reason for your lack of motivation.
I recognise this cycle, and so need to focus my energies on revitalising my enthusiasm for work. I stopped work to concentrate on why I might be uninterested in what I am doing, made a list of potential causes, and
This week I heard two great things about a colleague, and relayed them to him when I next saw him. I was inspired by a wise man I met when I was in India. I had been working in a little village alone for a few months and felt throughly overwhelmed by the experience. The night before I was going to leave he sat on a rock with me and said "You know people say you have done well”. This came as quite a shock, as I imagined I was generally thought of as the fat little white man who sleeps too much and can't throw very well. The message I took home was what he said next; "Too often people speak well of a person to others, and others amongst themselves, but the circle is never completed. I wanted to complete this circle.”
I heard a song this week in which the singer describes a memory from his childhood. He walks down to the river with his father, who scoops a cup of water from the river with his hand and has his son drink it. The event is vivid in the singer’s memory, “as if it were yesterday”. It seemed an important moment in their relationship, though the details of its symbolism were left to the listener.
It got me thinking. What are those memories most vivid in my childhood? In particular, what are those memories associated with my parents? And which of these have symbolic significance like that described in the song?
I remember my father watching over me when I was very small, and that my Mum used to make a ‘castle’ out of the giant boxes that my sister’s nappies came in. I remember my first rally with my Dad, and watching TV with my Mum. Then there is lots about school, and my childhood best friend.
It surprised me how little there was in the way of ‘rites of passage’, like that described in the song. I remember not talking for a day as a challenge to get a penknife, but that’s not really the same. I wonder how many of my friends have vivid memories of rites of passage like described in the song, or in books, or that exist in more traditional societies.
The absence of such memories reflects, for me, the sense of linearity I have had growing up. Life is always comfortable, always measured, and typically understood. My sporting, academic, and even romantic moments in my life don’t ring with the kind of energy that make these songs so vivid.
The song goes on to relate a memory of when it was going to rain one day, so the neighbours came over to ensure the hay bails all got into the barn before it rained. Again, a vivid memory of community vibrating with energy that I’m not sure I possess. I doubt many people I know would have such memories.
None of this casts a shadow on the amazing things my family provided. It just seems a part of life I might want to provide for my own children. Rites of passage may be part of our lives today, but by not marking them in anything but the most superficial or subtle ways, they lose some of their weight in our lives. Bringing back a little of the structure to our rites of passage may mean something to our children.
I'll finish with a quote from a book about the wisdom of aboriginal elders:
“Traditionally we didn’t celebrate birthdays, nor the silver anniversary for husband and wife. You were born and not measured by years. It wasn’t about how long you were married, but who you were in that family unit – Mother, Father, children, Grandfather, Grandmother, Auntie, Uncle. Our celebration was about living; age was about wisdom and knowledge, not how old you were.”
We seem to be hard-wired not to take criticism well. For a long time, I would fume if anyone criticized me. At school, I always thought I knew better than the teachers. (Once I was dragged out of class by the vice-principal for telling my teacher I could do a better job than he could and then trying to do so.) At work, they just didn’t understand how right I was. And I’ve had a reputation in my family for ‘getting on my high horse’ and telling everyone just how it is (ironic that I am admitting this in a blog post).
However, the older I get, the more I realise how foolish this all is, and that criticism is a healthy part of a good life. One can get so wrapped up in what you are doing, you forget all the paths you could have taken, but didn’t. Since you can only see the world from one perspective, another is a gift. And if there is a way of getting a bit of reflection going, then I'll take it.
Criticism is often delivered poorly, so one has to be strong enough to cut through the delivery to the useful stuff at the centre. That might mean getting home and saying, 'you know what, she had a point'. It can be even more productive if you can realise it at the time.
If one can become strong enough to do this, I believe one should go out hunting for criticism. First, you can criticise yourself. I’ve been trying to stop and reassess more recently: what part of that mix up was my fault, and what can I learn to do better next time? I don't want to run round in circles second guessing myself, but I am usually far enough from that for it to be a worry.
Second, you can get others to criticise you (in a sweet and constructive way of course). I'd love to know what my friends do when faced by everyday problems, and in my experience there is limited discussion of such things. I'm talking about real nitty gritty debate about what is the right or wrong thing to do in a situation, or whether such concepts are relevant. No one should mind a bit of 'street ethics' or '. I have tried doing this, and it seems most productive when you are clear in your mind what your general position is, and what the most important logical leaps and assumptions in your argument are. You can then have people have a go at each one.
I aspire to take criticism in a way that will ensure the provider will be ready to give it again. Many people seem to react, quite understandably, either defensively or by being silent and fumey. This doesn’t make the deliverer feel useful, just sorry they said anything (or proud they got at you). I try to be ready to take criticism well. A friend of mine I had asked to look over some work asked me ‘How critical can I be?’ “As much as you like,” I replied, “I am able to take a lot of criticism.” “Good,” he said, “I have a lot to say.”
Whatever religion you are, whatever form you believe God takes, and even if don't believe in God, prayer is fantastic. Prayer makes you focus for a time on what you most want to say to God, or to yourself. If you start with thanks, as I do, it focuses your mind on all the things you have, and can thus make you more satisfied. If you include aspects of your recent past, it helps you reconsider them, contemplate lessons learned, and reignites a dedication to commitments made. If you go on to request, it makes you reflect on what you can do to achieve your aim, and gives you determination to achieve it.
For those who believe in an omniscience presence in the world, the rationale for prayer is simpler: a communion with God. I want to focus here on prayer by those who are agnostic, atheistic, or uncertain. In this case prayer is a ritualistic engagement with the personification of your basic principles and beliefs. So few people, at least that I've talked to, feel that this sort of interaction is useful unless you believe in God.
But why? Why does giving thanks or asking for things we care about have to be directed towards anyone but ourselves? I don't believe it does, and think prayer can be just as powerful a force in the lives of those who do not feel responsible to pray. It has played the following 'non-divine' roles in my life:
It gives me a regular time to reflect and be grateful for what I have. It is very refreshing.
Praying when I'm nervous calms me down as I vocalise the challenges and realise their limitations. Since I associated pray with peaceful, meditative time, it is soothing.
In being a practice, prayer helps us engage with what we are happy about, fearful of, and committed to without distraction, haste, or uncertainty. It is not the only way to engage, but it is a good one.
It can focus the mind and make me driven, as if I had given myself a pep talk.
Discussion: Does anyone reading this prayer for non-spiritual reasons? If you don't prayer, why not?
I start my blog with what I think of as my founding story. Most of my teenagehood was a classic British teenagehood, complete with irresponsibility on as many margins as I could find, unless there was something good on television.
One night, I was on a train coming back from a weekend of mild debauchary. We were pulling into a station when a load of friendly British lads started throwing bottles at the train and screaming. The lady across from me seemed scared, so I said she could sit next to me and they wouldn't bother her. She did. We started talking, about many things, and our conversation turned to religion. As we were about to part, she gave me a little book, and, having written her phone number in it, said we should keep talking. When I opened it to find it was a bible, I almost felt duped into talking about Christianity.
The little book sat on my table for weeks, until one night, having thought about the things that lady had said to me, I opened it. I started to take it everywhere, and read it voraciously. It said so many things that strengthened the doubts I had been having about my lifestyle. And it gave me immense food for thought.
I didn't stop there. I talked to a friend of the family, and he gave me a passage from Khalil Gibran's 'The Prophet'. This had an instant and momentous impact on me. It was, in the terminology of my teens, absolutely wicked. I found as much Gibran as I could get my hands on, read 'The Teachings of the Buddha' compiled by Paul Carus, then as much Buddhist doctrine as I could find. Having made it through all the major religious texts, I found a book of Socrates, and then took up reading philosophy. This was much slower, and was more at the level of 'Sophie's World' and 'The Children's Companion to Nieztsche', but I loved it.
I gave up on what had been my closest circle of friends. One night at a lock-in my best friend at the time pulled himself a pint and wouldn't pay for it; so I did. He reacted badly to this and told me to "$£@$ off". I thought 'what a bloody good idea'. I walked the whole night to get home, and thought the whole way. You can do much better than this Rogger. Change. Change for the better.
The rest of that year at school I was increasingly thought of as a total geek. No one really knew what I was doing, and I was too embarrassed, and had too little courage to argue otherwise. But looking back on that train journey, and the change it has since inspired, I thank God for that lady. I call her my angel.
My generation and I entered this world at an amazing time. Never has there been so much wealth, so much freedom from want, and so many opportunities to enjoy and experience the world. With these opportunities we can do basically anything we want.
At the same time, we sometimes feel overwhelmed with choice, and continue to face many of the same challenges, of direction, partnership, and balance, that every generation preceding us have had to face
Of particular importance to me is how to deal with the fact that there are so many people in the world materially poorer than I. However, I will not write about that inequality here. That is what the rest of my web site is about.
Here I want to develop a better understanding of how I, and people like me (my generation), should try to live the best life we can. How do we deal with the freedoms and capacities that we have been granted, unique in history as we are? What philosophy do I turn to having been brought up tied only weakly to any individual religion? What can we learn from our distinctive perspective on the past to enrich our present? I would also like to hear from others on all these questions, and on the topics to come.
Why have a blog? It is a great thought pad. My commitment to writing regularly means I have to think regularly. It helps me concretise my own views. I also hope it will inspire conversations with others, so my beliefs can be independently assessed. Finally, given how little discussion I hear about the philosophy of today, I hope I am developing a little useful food for thought.
Discussion: Is it a good idea to have a blog of this sort? What can I do to make it better?