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September 14 2012 6 14 /09 /September /2012 02:59

This post attempts to show the common tensions apparent in three seemingly rather different arenas of activity. It is motivated in part by my need to return to the issue I insufficiently addressed in the post "Self and Society", in part by the concerns expressed in a recent issue of the blog of the Norbert Elias Foundation as to how to make Elias's ideas more easily available to the general public, and in part to follow through on the partial insight into the role of my own profession I commented on in the "An Anniversary Moment" post. Each of those posts is better understood in the light of the significance of the others.


It may already be apparent to some readers, I suspect, that I was rather too easily inclined to jump into criticism of Bauman's address to the School of Social Work in Amsterdam. It's retroactively impossible to disagree. To explain how that critical misunderstanding came about, I need to return to a slightly more detailed account of the incident I've already talked about in the "Anniversary Moment" post. That account should lead to a somewhat more thoughtful response to those expressing concerns on the Norbert Elias Foundation blog about how to make their ideas more easily available, but also to examining more carefully the manner in which social processes come about, and themselves lead to our preference for particular choices.


What I did not reveal in my earlier account of the faculty meeting I described as critical to my own thinking (in "An Anniversary Moment") was that that meeting occurred after a series of other meetings by faculty that had been undertaken specifically in order to help us come to terms with our own disagreements and understand them better. We were, in fact, ostensibly searching for a unified definition of the role of social work in society which we could all justify as consistent with our own moral concerns, and which would also having clear indications for the practise of our profession. After several inconclusive meetings, that effort was aborted, and shortly afterward the meeting I have already described occurred. In effect, we weaselled out of our disagreements, and "agreed to disagree." The meeting I've already described was simply an initial outcome of that failure to see the importance of the pattern of our differences. (I should hasten to add that the meetings described occurred some thirty years ago. . .)


The relevance of that earlier posting to my subsequent response to Bauman's article in the International Journal of Social Work is that Bauman was directly alluding to a presumed mandate for social workers in society that basically denigrated and humiliated those needing social work services. It is indeed apparent that many people who use those services do find

the experience humiliating. It's also evident that services are often structured in such a way as to convey that, at least in relation to the issue of adequate income, each of us is individually responsible for our inability to provide sufficiently for ourselves and our families.

This was, of course, the point that Bauman was trying to make in his article, particularly in so far as attempting to alert social workers to the possibility of their own collusion with such an attitude.


Unfortunately, and certainly without Bauman's awareness or intent, his description of the situation facing social workers, and indeed all of us who are concerned with our own responsibilities in relationship to our fellowship with other people, tends to resolve into the polarities of a "Which-side-are-you-on?" argument.


And that nicely portrays the nature of our problem . . .








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September 6 2012 5 06 /09 /September /2012 19:03

I was a bit disconcerted yesterday to discover that the post I had just completed appears in the complete list of posts out of the actual chronological order. It was in fact completed after the "Lynx envers nos pareils" post. (The problem arises because each post is dated from the time that its first drafting began. It was a long time before I was satisfied that "Self and Other Revisited" was in a fit state to be launched into cyberspace.)


Anyway, as the title of this post indicates, I have by no means exhausted what needs to be said about our relationship to ourselves, to one another, and, indeed, everything else.


This was particularly apparent to me after ruminating on the final sentence I quoted from Elias's book. In referring to Bauman I was attempting to show that Elias's statement required consideration of a different way of thinking. In this post I'll try to extend the implications of that statement even further . . .


Perhaps a good place to start is with the question that is implied, but never directly asked by Elias in those final sections of his book. Here's one way of asking it: "Why does humankind persistently turn away from concerns about our survival?" Another way might be: "Of what service is it to us that we disregard dealing with the processes that might lead to our extinction?"


Bauman's concerns obviously indicate at least one part of the answer: We define ourselves in large part by dissociating ourselves from what feels alien to us. When we do so, we affirm that to which we feel we belong. The sense of belonging is strengthened if there is an apparent rejection of that to which, and those to whom we feel affiliated, by those whose identities are attached to a different affiliation. Such affliations may, however, not be to a particular coherent readily identifiable group, but rather to a different set of beliefs about process. Possibly it's wrong to think of these conflicts as conflicts between affiliations, but people with similar beliefs do tend to congregate together, and feel that their identities of belief are supported by those who think and feel similarly.


If, in consequence, large numbers of human beings depend for their sense of continuous meaning on consciously or unconsciously being preoccupied with questions of the "Which side are you on?" sort, they exclude consideration of the possibility that such a question already constrains reality to the two predetermined possible answers. The very asking of the question itself affirms the belief that any identity (that is, one's sense of self as inherently meaningful and valuable) is vulnerable to attack.


A logical consequence of this state of affairs is that people who primarily define themselves in opposition to others, and those others who reciprocally define themselves similarly, share a fundamental belief in the inevitability of alienation on the one hand, and the need for protective affiliation on the other. Ironic, eh? But tragic, too.


Because such attitudes are widespread, it is perhaps helpful to consider the pervasive continuities of belief that promote them. The most fundamental of those, I think, is that all human beings are vulnerable to feeling alienated from the universe, primarily because of our apparent meaninglessness in relation to it. Well, it's clearly overwhelming constantly to be preoccupied with meaninglessness in the large. Much easier to assign responsibility for it to the motives of others . . . At least we can fight against that, and them. We might well consider ourselves helpless in relation to the universe, but not in relation to one another.


In short, it's not only easier to feel we are frustrated by other people than by our failure to come to terms with our very existence, but it's helped by the unknowing collusion of those others with us. This is not to deny that there are widespread inequalities in our world, and that exploitation, disregard, humiliation and victimization of one another are also pervasive. Those final sections of Elias's book, however, correctly indicate the possible outcome for humankind if we stubbornly remain committed to denying the potential of our species to collaborate in not only fostering a positive future, but one whose potential for contributing to a larger meaningfulness than any of us can currently envisage evades our awareness.


In several earlier posts I've commented similarly on our joint responsibility for failing to register the dynamics that have resulted in this state of affairs. No deus ex machina is going to emerge to rescue us from ourselves. I think Richard Dawkins is profoundly wrong in defining altruism as doing good to others that is necessarily costly to ourselves, although his justification of that definition is cogent. ("An entity . . . is said to be altruistic if it behaves in such a way as to increase another entity's welfare at the expense of its own." . . . You may also find the post "The Prisoner's Dilemma: Ugh!" relevant to this statement.) By contrast, Elias's position, I believe––and also my own–– would be that doing good to an "alter" (an "other") is a way of doing good to our communal "we". That is, it depends on our defining our group identity in relation to a "we" that is indeed meaningful in the universe. If we continue to fail to recognize our common responsibility in relation to one another, then our extinction as a species will have been amply deserved. (A lot more needs to be said on this issue. I'll return to it in a later post.)


(Appendix note . . . Lurking in the background of this post, and indeed, several others, is my unwillingness to become embroiled in the denigration of others who, for reasons that make very good sense to them, hold to beliefs that are contrary to my own. In my own view, the whole point of Elias's final section quoted in the "Self and Other Revisited" post, is that such personal attacks and counter-attacks are themselves indicative of the polarization into "enemy" and "friend" that epitomize the very problem we need to confront.)


















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August 2 2012 5 02 /08 /August /2012 23:02

The title of this post comes from La Fontaine. In English, it translates as "A lynx towards our fellows; moles towards ourselves." In short, then, the whole line dramatizes that we are eager to see the deficiencies of others, and are blind to our own.


The line, rarely absent from my overall awareness, nevertheless came quickly to mind upon hearing today, August 2nd. of Koffi Annan's resigning from his UN position as special envoy charged with negotiating for a cease-fire in Syria's civil war. His reasons recall poignantly the despair felt by Canadian Roméo Dallaire at the UN's failure to respond to his plea for assistance in preventing the massacres in Rwanda. Those reasons amount simply to the recognition that Nation-states are unprepared to co-operate effectively to call a halt to hostilities when they feel their own interests are threatened. The BBC's report on Annan's decision makes the point that different nations were arming and supporting different factions in the internal conflicts in Syria, such that, in a sense, they were using the conflict as a kind of proxy war to protect their own interests.


Today (now August 3rd.) the UN General Assembly is debating a motion to censure the Security Council for failing to achieve agreement on a decisive course of action. It seems we might well be in for a belated recognition that, once again, our world conscience has failed us.


These events once again also betoken the inability of humankind's institutions to transcend the distinctions made in La Fontaine's fable. The issue is thrown into dramatic relief by the book I have recently been reading, Norbert Elias's The Society of Individuals, and most relevantly in its final section, "Changes in the We-I Balance." Elias's book draws our attention to the manner in which social and individual identities reciprocally influence each other. He is concerned with the constantly renewed dilemmas characteristic of that interaction.


In slightly different language, I drew attention in MSOU to the way we define our identities in relation to the groups with which we are affiliated. In some cases we not infrequently act as if our I or We depend(s?) on how we differ from others (that is, by concentrating on what is "alien" about them rather than what is common to us all). As Norbert Elias points out, our awareness that the "we" comprises all of humankind is rarely evident. He asserts, and I agree, that our failure to recognize in one another the possibility of a common more egalitarian future constitutes the major crisis facing us. Sadly, it must be admitted that very little of our sociological and political science literature is concerned with issues that transcend the parochial assumptions of national, ethnic, economic or regional identity and concern.


Having left this post in draft form for several days (I am unsure why) it now seems important just to get it out. In the meantime, I'll try to rediscover what it was that was holding me back. I think it was probably something to do with tieing it in more strongly with those sections in MSOU exploring the motivations directing dissociative processes.


An exchange between two well known "sociobiologists" in two recent Discover Magazine articles is very relevant, since it touches on the fatalistic thinking I have remarked on in other posts. Both articles are available at 3quarksdaily, or at
















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July 27 2012 6 27 /07 /July /2012 18:52

My last post took its theme from the article by Helen Sword referenced in that post. It also reminded me of an issue that I had intended to return to after posting on it indirectly in at least two other posts. The issue is one that I am by no means comfortable in confronting, and that is possibly my best clue as to why it is that humankind as a whole seems constantly to retreat from engaging with it.


The issue has to do with how we define the limits of our own ability to affect events. In MSOU I referred to Kevin Lynch's observation that the size of the world in which we conceive of ourselves as being active, effective participants is critically affected by our prior experience. For those of you who have yet to read the book, the full quote from Lynch reads as follows: "Uprooted persons, those who suffer shock, or those whose realistic futures are terrifying or completely unpredictable, will withdraw into a narrow present. . . . It is when local time, local place and ourselves are secure that we are ready to face challenge, complexity, vast space, and the enormous future." (Kevin Lynch. What Time is this Place? M.I.T. Press, 1972)


Undoubtedly, and as was discussed in the previous post, our ways of defining the size of the world with which we are able to deal are strongly affected by the vocabulary of concepts we have available for defining it. It is no accident, I suggest, that the "zombie noun" language so widely found in sociological, political science and philosophical works itself contributes to our perception that our realistic futures are indeed terrifying and unpredictable.


In an earlier post ( "Free Will and Responsibility") I also spoke of the manner in which the nominalizations and, indeed, the personifications of abstract conceptualizations make dealing with them almost impossible. If we define people themselves as de facto "undesirables" (as referred to in the "De-familiarization" post), we have already dissociated ourselves from them in an attempt to cut our world down to a conceptual size that we find it easier to deal with. On the other hand, if we frequently think in terms of consumerism, capitalism, communism and other large-scale abstractions, we almost inevitably see ourselves having no significant potential to affect their impact on us.


It seems, then, that there are two fundamental ways of disqualifying ourselves from being effective: defining others as essentially different and therefore "unreachable", and defining the forces to which we are all subject as so large as to be unamenable to change. In so doing, we not only victimize others; we also victimize ourselves.


I think I'm going to allow you to meditate on that for a while. In the meantime, READ THE BOOK!






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July 26 2012 5 26 /07 /July /2012 01:47

I've just been reading the excellent article in the Opinionator section of The New York Times, also posted today, July 25, on the 3quarksdaily site. It can be found also at



I have posted a comment on this at 3quarksdaily, but there is more to be said . . .


When I had finished the first draft of Making Sense of Us, I received two rather different responses from two of the earlier readers. One was critical of the way I wrote, specifically because he found it hard to create in his mind any "pictures" that would enable him to grasp the content more easily. The other remarked that the writing was "as clear as a bell."


I tried to pay attention to both comments in my subsequent drafts, but as I did so, became painfully aware of how I myself felt that my thinking was stodgy. At times, in fact, I felt that it was as if I were wading through mud. (Not an encouraging thought just prior to publication!)


Subsequently, and shortly after beginning my postings on this blog, I was alerted to the relevance of a great deal of theoretical writing from sociologists, political scientists and philosophers in Europe, and spent quite a few hours attempting to decipher the turgid translations of much of their work. It seemed to be almost a given, in fact, that the translations from German, Polish, and French were almost impossible to understand adequately, even after two or three readings.


I'm not sure that it was completely reassuring, then, to find, from several of the excellent entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the internet, that confusion as to the "real" meaning of a given author's output was controversial, and that even those authors themselves were inconsistent in their understanding of the apparent content of what they were saying. It was not simply a problem of translating from one language to another, then, but the problem of representing in any kind of verbal language at all one's own understanding and even intent.


This should, I suppose, have meant that I could relax about my difficult trudge through my own thoughts, but that seemed to me, and still does, a far too easy "cop out."  Those of you who have read MSOU in its entirety may remember my reference (on pages 36-37) to the comments made by Einstein and by Whitehead on their own thinking processes, and the role that language did or didn't play in them.  Some of you may even be familiar with Von Humboldt's (I think!) comment, that any language statement at all is itself a translation from the reality of what it attempts to represent. Elsewhere in MSOU I tried to take that observation into account when exploring the possibilities of other symbolic forms, but I feel now that that content has more the quality of an alert than an adequate summary of an absolutely critical aspect of our sensibility.


In sum, then, it's not surprising that we, as a work in progress, could be characterized as having thinking sensibilities that are themselves in process of development. I suppose what I am now saying, then, is that we must not assume that our thinking possibilities are curtailed by their currently existing symbolic avatars.


Relax! I'm not at all sure that I understand that yet myself . . . I'll keep trying. However, it is clear to me that none of us should feel absolutely secure in the meaning assumptions unwittingly incorporated into the very structures of our different languages, especially, perhaps, those commonly assumed about the meanings of those of others. There is a most interesting discussion by Peter Singer in his "Very Short Introduction to Hegel" (Oxford University Press) about the interpreted meanings of Hegel's use of the word "geist," and how it might be best translated. I have a special interest in the significance of Peter Singer's own choice in that regard, because it has powerful implications for my assertions about the meaning of human existence in the last chapter of my own book. Singer opted for "mind", as do I.


More to come!







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July 21 2012 7 21 /07 /July /2012 20:50

After recently reading Peter Singer's excellent appraisal of the ideas of Hegel and Marx in the "very short introductions" series published by Oxford University Press, I became acutely aware of the assumptions that the particular style of thinking of both authors unknowingly encourages. Both thinkers, of course, engage consciously in considering the great scheme of things, but they do so in a manner that stresses the evolution of societies, rather than that of our species. In so doing, they perpetuate the belief that survival depends on conflict between groups competing for access to resources, and not necessarily only material ones; they disregard the manner in which different modes of interdependence affect the trajectory of humankind as a whole.


Further, in reading Norbert Elias's The Society of Individuals, and accepting, albeit with some provisos, the limitations of an analysis that is curtailed by its having been written before the Gaia hypothesis was adequately understood, our tendency to define ourselves in opposition to, and in dissociation from the total matrix constituting all existence can be seen clearly. Elias was himself trying to break free from the parochialist modes of thought that are almost inevitably characteristic of particular disciplines as they reflect particular moments in their own historical evolution. It is indeed a feature of the circumstances in which they were written, I suspect, that the work of  Elias and Bauman, both Europeans with, in Elias's terms, a habitus, a "second nature" that is profoundly affected by their socialization, should itself be reflective of a life-long attempt to find an identity for themselves in relation to the theories of social order that victimized them both. If we can in thought accept the usefulness of the idea that there are conceptually three different levels of social interaction––macro, micro, and mezzo––then the preoccupations of both authors can be seen as concerned primarily with mezzo processes, rather than with macro or micro ones; or, perhaps, concerned with micro or macro processes only insofar as they can be shown to affect mezzo ones. 


This is, perhaps necessarily, an inadequate conceptualization of the almost infinitely complex network of possible relationship factors, but it does have the advantage of suggesting the ways in which that complexity has hitherto influenced the manner in which any of us has been able to think about it. Our "second natures" steer us into a consideration of the interactions that seem to affect our lives most immediately . . . that is, the network of relationships fostered and enabled by the different societies in which we live. A consequence of this in the works of both Bauman and Elias is that their preoccupations can in the first instance be traced to their not dissimilar encounters with the social situations into which they were born. In the writings of both there is undoubtedly a very "European" tinge, even though both did (and do, in the case of Bauman) try to take account of that kind of prediliction.


I'm not at all sure that I (or anyone else!) can yet do justice to the deft intellectual footwork required of themselves by both authors, but it is certainly possible to identify (or at least hypothesize about) the manner in which each has attempted to break free of the constraints of prior habits of thinking.


Because I am myself currently more attuned to Elias's work, I'll for the moment set that of Bauman aside (although I shall return to it later).


I am nevertheless in a quandary about how to comment meaningfully on what I believe to be Elias's major contribution, since any commentary must necessarily for its full effectiveness depend on the reader's prior knowledge of the main thrust of Elias's work. Accordingly, I'm going to cheat more than a little, at least in this present post; I'm simply going to present what to me are the most incisive of Elias's concerns in his own words, albeit knowing that I am unlikely to represent them adequately, with the objective of returning to their wider significance in a later post. My chosen source for what follows is the final section of the 1987 segment of the book for which in 1988 Elias received the European Amalfi Prize for Sociology and the Social Sciences, The Society of Individuals.


Although present convention may well accept that copyright is not infringed by selected brief quotations, I am trusting that my intent in relation to what follows does indeed constitute "fair use." I shall, in effect, be extrapolating from Elias to justify ascribing a very specific connection with my own thinking, particularly that expressed in the last three chapters of MSOU. Fortunately, although such a connection is only likely to be fully understood by those who are already familiar with the final chapters of MSOU, the central thrust of Elias's concern is unlikely to be misundertood.


In the final third of The Society of Individuals, Elias suggests a direction for humankind that is derived from his awareness that the present human situation transcends the preoccupations that were a feature of the evolving processes that led to the absorption of particular "We" identity groups into larger groupings that emphasized concern with "I" identity matters: namely, states and nations. The dynamics of those processes are discussed most effectively in the early parts of the book and only briefly in the final pages, but  Elias's concluding insight, and the one to which I attach the greatest importance, is, just as in my own book, expressed tersely, and without further development, in the final sections. His concluding insight was expressed as follows:


On close examination, we see clearly that the welfare or otherwise of the citizens of a single state, including the Soviet Union and the United States [He is writing in 1987, remember], no longer depends on the protection which this state –– or even a potential state like Europe –– can afford them. Even today the chances of survival depend largely on what happens on the global plane. It is the whole of mankind which now constitutes the last effective survival unit.


I spoke earlier of the increasing impermanence, interchangeability and voluntariness of many we-relationships, including, within certain limits, national status. Only the highest level of integration, membership of humanity, has remained permanent and inescapable. But our ties to this all-embracing we-unit are so loose that very few people, it seems, are aware of them as social bonds. (pp.226-7 in the Blackwell's edition. The emphasis is mine)


And, further, this:


The consciences of people, particularly the leading politicians, officers and businessmen throughout the world, are almost exclusively preoccupied with their own individual states. The sense of responsibility for imperilled humanity is minimal. (p.228 Again, my emphasis.)


And this:


The concept of humanity still has undertones of sentimental idealism. (p.232)


And the book's final sentence (The first word, a conjunction, is omitted):

Freedom from the use and threat of violence may so far have received too little attention as one of the rights which, in the course of time –– and against the opposing tendencies of the state –– will have to be asserted for the individual in the name of mankind. (p.233)


In retrospect, I think that all I have actually managed here is to whet your appetites, particularly since there are subtleties in Elias's overall approach that have eluded my selected excerpts. Even more troubling is that my choice of the final sentence seems to shortchange many of the concerns that Bauman has already identified for us––particularly the stifling of we-identifications brought about by the disempowering, humiliating and marginalizing of large segments of humankind. Lots more to open up! There's no "end" to this! Stay tuned . . .





P.S. Elias's book is very expensive in North America. It is, however, readily available at a 20% discount from its current publisher, the excellent University College of Dublin Press. It should be noted, however, that the UCD version of the book is paginated differently than the Polity edition from which I have quoted. The formal text of the Polity edition ends on p. 233, as referenced above. The formal text of the UCD edition ends on p. 208. J.




















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July 19 2012 5 19 /07 /July /2012 19:54

(For those of you who have ready access to a copy of MSOU, the following post refers to and extends the discussion of collusive ploys that are identified on pages 102-106 of the book. For those who are unfamiliar with those pages, I should explain that I use the word collusion to define different sorts of interpersonal ploys that are used without awareness to protect a particular continuity of belief––that is, to protect one's identity.)


As noted in an earlier post (now deleted; I was embarassed by my threshing around in it) I had been struggling to make sense of the particular personas that the Marxist thinker Slavoj Zizek assumes in his various interviews with those who are trying to make sense of him in the journalistic media.


I now have come to think that Zizek conceives himself as the very sort of social "gadfly" that Plato informs us that Socrates himself conceived himself as being. The metaphor stresses the social role of such a gadfly as stinging the ponderous horse of state into activity. A necessary feature of the metaphor is that the state and the gadfly be separate and distinct from one another. The metaphor does not unfortunately pay attention to its other necessary element, that is, that the motive of the horse or the state that has been stung is to get rid of (or indeed kill) the offending biter. This was, as we know, the actual response of the Athenian democracy to Socrates, whom it condemned to death. Socrates' own collusion with that decision is lucidly discussed in I.F. Stone's book The Trial of Socrates. Is Zizek consciously trying to produce something dramatically as powerful in playing up to the media's expectations of his being outrageous?


Well, it's unlikely that in the modern era Zizek would be treated as his hypothesized predecessor in ancient Athens was. He is, after all, safely ensconsed in the University of London, and a pillar of the conversational forum represented by The London Review of Books. It is his very gadfly stance, however, that makes him vulnerable to the symmetrically collusive responses of other thinkers, such as those itemized in pages 140-143 of my book. Shocking people fairly often, as Zizek (ambivalently, I think) does, isn't a very productive strategy, since his opponents already have a number of dismissive characterizations of his activity readily available to them.


Zizek's posturings remind me of the poet Baudelaire's rather similar behavior in late 19th century Paris. I suspect the motives are similar, too. I think they go something like this: "I'll fulfill your fantasy image of me; indeed I'll caricature it in order to show my contempt for it, and for you." If I am right, this particular indulgence is a way of dissociating oneself from one's interlocutor, and thus giving up on any kind of more productive exchange. It thus perversely affirms Zizek's alienation from the very people who might benefit from a more honest engagement with the issues that he ostensibly cares so much about. It is, in short, a way of contributing to the very problem that it was designed to dramatize.


In that earlier (now deleted) post, I believe I contrasted this with Zygmunt Bauman's consistent efforts to prevent his being placed in the kind of conceptual box that assures that his ideas will be easily dismissed. He knows, in fact, that all of us are faced with similar dilemmas, and that contributing to symmetrical collusions with one another is not a satisfactory way of engaging with them. 


There are further issue to be addressed in relation to this, though. More, later . . .



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June 22 2012 6 22 /06 /June /2012 06:08

It's probably apparent (at least I hope it is!) that all of the previous posts have been circling around an issue that undoubtedly needs a clear and unequivocal statement in its own right. In part, I think I have been avoiding providing such a statement, as it might seem unnecessarily crude for any of you who have not read the book whose existence is the prime organizing reason for my writing this blog. After writing the previous post, however, I don't see how I can avoid at least attempting a statement that sets all those previous posts in their essential overall context.


That context is of course the life and lives we are all living. The essential question all of us are attempting to answer, possibly much of the time without realizing it, is "How do I want to live my life?" (The implied underlying question––also frequently unacknowledged––is  "What is a good life?") The point I am making is that for human beings, the central concern can always be summarized as a moral one. It is in fact the existence of moral concerns that could be considered a fundamental distinguishing characteristic of human beings. Although we can (and do) attribute moral values to other animals, we usually realize in our calmer moments that no other animals on earth are capable of the conceptual distinction between good and bad that is a requirement for "moral" choosing. Moral choice necessarily requires that conceptual distinction, and is thus apparently beyond the range of mental representations that are available to creatures other than ourselves.


The choosing that is characteristic of all other eukaryotic life forms (see below) has two major variants, depending on whether that form is organised around its efficiency for personal survival and that of its offspring, or around its conforming to the overall functioning of the group of which it may be seen as simply a necessary functioning unit. The latter kind have been defined as "superorganisms" in the biological literature, and the apparent individuals who comprise them are defined by their particular specialised functions, as, for example the "worker", "warrior", "caregiver" and "womb" forms that together constitute the identity of a particular termite "community."


Those distinctions may seem clear enough, but they only describe characteristics that can be seen as typical of two kinds of eukaryotic life; they are inadequate as descriptions of prokaryotic life forms (the bacteria and archea), but they are also inadequate for describing  us.


It is this last distinction which needs a good deal more attention given to it, particularly since the pioneering work of Ernst Cassirer, Alfred North Whitehead, Susanne K. Langer and Kenneth Burke on human symbolic systems, and that of Carl R.Woese, Lynn Margulis and others on horizontal gene transfer, and its crucial significance for the very evolution of eukaryotic life.


In earlier posts I have commented on the shortcomings of attempts to absorb the implications of the work of Cassirer et al. into a post neo-Darwinist formulation of evolution. Those attempts unfortunately retain many of the erroneous assumptions about motive that Richard Dawkins was struggling to come to terms with––in my view unsuccessfully––in The Selfish Gene. Indeed, my last post commented in part on how motives themselves have been transformed over the course of evolution, and thus, of course, the very ways in which we are enabled or dis-enabled to take them into account.


It's probably been obvious, too, that all of us are faced with a fundamental dilemma––how to reconcile individual expression and fulfillment with the sometimes contrary needs of others of our own species. Unfortunately this is a dilemma that is frequently expressed rather in polarity and conflict between human beings than in cooperation and joint enterprise. The dilemma, or perhaps more significantly, our awareness of it, nevertheless also contains the means of its resolution.


The critical point we have reached in our own development, then, is that, while cooperation within eukaryotic life forms like ourselves is clearly essential for individual survival, lack of cooperation between us is justified by our attributing it to our genetic predisposition––that is, to our widespread preference for seeing others as competitors for survival rather than companions in furthering the fulfillment of our species.This can continue to occur only if we attach our identities rather to the very different groups with which we are affiliated, than to our common identity as human beings.


Bottom line?


Our survival may depend on the degree to which we can step back from the polarizing assumptions rooted in Darwinian era competition, and use our shared existential experience to realize the moral potential of our ability to comprehend and take into account the different ways in which we discern meaning in our lives. Morality itself depends on the ability to comprehend not only the motives of others, but also their source. Morality, in short, derives from understanding that others have needs similar to our own, and that we thus may be resources to one another rather than antagonists. It also takes into account an understanding of the responsibility that is necessarily a component of the capacity to choose. The choices available to all other forms of eukaryotic life are determined by their genetic endowment. Ours are not.


Again, it bears saying that all of this is more lucidly argued in the book itself !


Cheers . . .






























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June 19 2012 3 19 /06 /June /2012 21:18

Oh dear! I'd hoped I could delay any comment on this almost indefinitely, but I apparently must not. (A new posting today on the Edge.org site "raises the ante"–– so I cannot any further delay comment.) Today's entry can be found at 



For those of you who are unfamiliar with the issues involved, it is probably most useful to go way back to Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene for an extensive discussion. The idea involved in using the prisoner's dilemma as the prototype anecdote for Darwinian evolutionary process pervades the entire book, but for its specific discussion it's probably simply best just to go to chapter twelve, which is devoted to a succinct summary of its relevance (and very nicely done, in fact).  


The underlying assumption of the prisoner's dilemma is that it accurately portrays the advantages and disadvantages of cooperation and conflict in affecting evolutionary outcomes. There are several different versions of the anecdote, but all are based on appraising the advantages and disadvantages of betraying ("snitching" on) a former cooperative partner; that is, of determining how to choose between the likelihood of reward and the risk of punishment, without regard for any concern for the effects of that choice on others.


 The "programmed" context of the prisoner dilemma situation thus precisely constrains the options available to the hypothesized participants, but there are also imported into the definition of the situation some unquestioned and highly problematic assumptions. The presumed participants are already identified as criminals who have been caught in a particular offence. Each is not only in consequence presumed to be primarily motivated by self-preservative concerns, but also by lack of concern for the effects on his partner of his decision to snitch. There is also presumed to be no concern about the consequences on society of the criminal activity that got them both arrested in the first place. In sum, then, the whole situation is defined in a way that takes as a given that each prisoner will be primarily motivated by exclusively selfish rather than cooperative concerns.  This assumption, of course, is the one that pervades Dawkins' definition of the driving force in evolution itself. (Ironic, then, that the participants in the prisoner's dilemma situation don't evolve. Their criminality is simply not at issue, any more than is their place in any possible larger scheme of things . . .)


Dawkins himself clearly was (and is) ambivalent about a view of evolution that can characterize it as an "arms race." Indeed, the title of the chapter cited above is "Nice guys finish first." It's not yet known, however, how he reacts to the findings about a new solution to the iterated version of the prisoner's dilemma that are summarized in the article––referenced above––that prompted my decision to write this post.


That article is summarized by William Poundstone (in response to a request from Edge.org) as follows: "Robert Axelrod's 1980 tournaments of iterated prisoner's dilemma strategies have been condensed into the slogan, Don't be too clever, don't be unfair. Press and Dyson have shown that cleverness and unfairness triumph after all." 


Whew! Perhaps this is a good moment to step back a bit, and take a breather––or at least a moment to come at the underlying issue from a different direction. Such a different direction is at least suggested by another Edge.org offering, which is at




Here's some background . . . The discovery by Lynn Margulis and Carl R.Woese of the importance of horizontal gene transfer and endosymbiotic processes in evolution resulted in a rush to reconcile the new information with traditional views, and thus to find a place for cooperation in evolutionary theory that would leave intact the "selfish gene" hypothesis. Much of that activity resulted in new hypotheses about the importance of altruism in evolution, and to articles, such as the above, that argue the pros and cons of the alternate hypotheses.


Perhaps it is too crude to suggest that the whole situation is one in which various of the participants are attempting to retain the hypothesis of a "mindless" algorithm for evolutionary processes, since the only viable alternative might seem to be a capitulation to the possibility of a "god-like" final cause.


Readers of MSOU will already have discerned another possibility (developed perhaps over-simply in the last chapter of the book). Since the universe has now evolved to the stage of itself manifesting the presence of mind, and since there is evidence of a directionality in its gradual (although in terms of astronomical time, sudden) emergence, it no longer makes sense to act as if that mind itself is fated to be inevitably stuck in Darwinian era competitiveness. Indeed, the implications of Woese's and Margulis's work suggest otherwise. And it is not inconceivable that a continuing refusal to accept the responsibilities that a self-observing mind is capable of recognizing would be amply sufficient to assure its extinction. It would amount to evidence of our own unfitness to survive. 


N'est-ce pas?















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June 10 2012 1 10 /06 /June /2012 23:42

The thrust of my last post, I think, is possibly open to misinterpretation, largely because of my lack of clarity in relation to what Zygmunt Bauman was in fact expressing in the article referenced there.


I should clarify. Most people who may be considered as "doing" social work are mandated by the societies in which they live to "do something" about the troubles that have brought particular groups to the attention of the various authoritative agencies in those societies. Not surprisingly, those designated groups and the people who comprise them are likely to see social workers as primarily responsible to the state, and therefore as potential antagonists. Not surprisingly, also, the various authoritative agencies of government are prone to see social workers as not fulfilling their designated function if they advocate on behalf of those groups. Social workers are often, in fact, disaffirmed in their activities, both by those who have mandated them, and by those they are mandated to serve.


Part of the problem, I believe, is because social workers are in the unenviable position of knowing in detail the specific consequences of how the societies in which they function don't work. What social workers specifically experience in all their activities, then, is the particular assignments of causality made by the mandators on the one hand and their "clients" on the other. Each group thus has ready-to-hand explanations for the activity and attitudes of the other, and little motive to redefine the total situation more accurately. The collusive interactions these attitudes produce are discussed in detail in Making Sense of Us, as are also the measures for creating dissatisfaction with them.


It may also be worthy of note that, in an effort to dissociate from the collusiveness of contrary definitions, many social workers choose to work in agencies that are independent of authoritative bodies, as, indeed I did myself in working for the Quaker-inspired agency "Family Service Units"  in London in the early part of my career.


The importance of the Bauman article discussed in that earlier post is that the tendency of both groups to accept traditional definitions of the responsibility of the other becomes itself a major sustaining factor in the prevention of any move to understand those very definitions as causative of social dissaffiliation and unrest. The latter part of the commentary on the article by Jacobsen, Marshman and Tester comes very close to dramatizing the dilemma, but neither those commentators nor Bauman himself seem to have come to grips with the unknowing collusive dynamic which is the central problem. 


As Susanne and I agreed in our conversation many years ago, and referred to in the "Three marvellous moments: three remarkable people" post, we all need to learn how to "know better." The major question now, as then, remains––What do we do about it?


There! Now I feel better!



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