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April 8 2012 1 08 /04 /April /2012 19:59

At one point in Making Sense of Us, I spoke of the inadequacy of language for being able to represent to others, and even to ourselves, the enormous significance of a sudden insight into the nature of our reality. In his lovely short novel Kleinzeit, author Russell Hoban represented such moments as akin to a personal conversation with a wonderfully conceived God, whose wry sense of humour was perfectly adequate to the task of showing Kleinzeit, the eponymous hero, just how lucky he was to experience them.


Since in my own book I did not explore the specifics of the kinds of circumstances in which such insights might occur, I thought it might help now to recall three such incidents from my own experience, and celebrate them more publicly than I have previously been able to.


All three are events that occurred in my encounters with students during the time that I was teaching at the University of British Columbia over twenty years ago. All are marked by the personal honesty and courage of those students, each of whom took the risk of exposing to me their own doubts. When I think of them now, I also think of Alfred North Whitehead's wonderful statement in The Aims of Education that a teacher can do no better than reveal to his listeners what it is like to be "an ignorant person, thinking." Each of these students did that in relation to me, and I shall always be grateful for it.


The first remarkable person, Susanne, was at the time of our connection probably in her early twenties. Like many students first experiencing the  challenges of a demanding profession, she was seriously questioning her choice of career, and doubting her own ability to respond to its challenge. Part of that challenge to her arose from her awareness that the very people from whom she was expected to learn were themselves capable of backing off from challenges they were unwilling to confront. She shared these thoughts with me over coffee during one of the breaks in my regular weekly seminar. "But, John, they should know better!" she said. We both knew that she was not simply thinking about her ostensible teachers. I was (and still am!) very proud of the response I was able to give . . . "So they should" I said,"but so should we all. The question is, what are we going to do about it?" (In retrospect, that's not a bad reflection on the current state of humankind, eh?) Susanne was a quick learner, and I didn't have to stress the point further. It is also a matter of great satisfaction to me that Susanne subsequently distinguished herself by her commitment and the subtlety of her understanding, and finally graduated with a superb record, and an end of the year prize for it. I am proud to have known her.


I'm afraid I have totally forgotten the name of the second student, whom I otherwise recall with great clarity. He also, I think, was in his early twenties, and his doubts were similar to Susanne's, although his personal tasks in relation to them were very different. The incident I remember most clearly occurred also in one of my seminars, this one at the very beginning of the academic year, when I was circulating materials about my course and its demands, and preparing students for what they could expect from me, and should expect of themselves. I can't remember the specific remark of mine that triggered my student's response, but I do remember both my sense of wonder at what he was able to say, and my own trepidation that I might not have an adequate response to it. It was, (and is still!) truly a moment to celebrate. "Why" he announced firmly, "should I believe you?" WOW!  Again, as in Susanne's case, I was indeed able to conjure up a response that both accepted the importance of the question, and enabled its asker to go beyond its immediate significance to its larger context, and indeed the universality of the issues it raised. The important point, though, is that my student's taking on the risk of asking the question at all took our whole seminar group into an initial phase of work together that might have been achieved only later with great difficulty if the question had not been asked.


The third marvellous moment occurred in a somewhat different context. This was in the late 1970s and early eighties, when I was struggling to put together the ideas that eventually appeared for a wider public, later, with the publication of MSOU. In all of my courses I had the habit of requiring of students a weekly reading that would then be used by all of us conjointly for discussion in that week's seminar. After much heart-searching, I had at last decided to share my own ideas, rather than those of some other more distant authority, for I felt that much of what was considered authoritative in my field was based on assumptions that needed questioning. For my seminar's use I had circulated a very dense short statement that essentially contained the ideas that were subsequently to take a longer presentational form in the book. This was the context in which I was confronted by the reaction of the third of these remarkable people.


My student's name was David. He, too, was in his early twenties. I rather imagine the relevant incident occurred at some point in the middle of the academic year. David and I had already scheduled an individual tutorial session in which we would review our work together and his own individual learning tasks. The tutorial session had scarcely begun when David confronted me in no uncertain terms about my hand-out. "Do you really know what you are asking of us?" he said. Those of you who have read MSOU will probably share an instinctive understanding of David's response to the reading I had required. I was asking of my students, as I would later ask of readers of my book, that they take out and examine the very basic assumptions that all of us unknowingly make about our engagement with one another, and indeed with life itself. I was asking of them an engagement with themselves for which David felt that neither he nor his fellow students were yet sufficiently prepared. In part they were unprepared, of course, because the commonly held basic assumptions of many students at University were then, as unfortunately they remain still for so many, "Regurgitate what the teacher tells you, and you'll be OK." David's confrontation of me reminded me of the importance of the overall context of our encounter with each other, and it took both of us further into collaborative learning than either of us had expected.


Is there a common moral to be derived from all this? Clearly, none of us can be totally responsible for determining whether or when such moments can occur, but it's also pretty clear that it's we who can promote or sabotage the opportunities for them to happen. Our ability honestly to confront ourselves is a major factor, and we certainly have a lot to do with that . . .


Bottom line?


It's in facing our own doubts that we enable others to encounter theirs . . .


Thanks for reading this!











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April 6 2012 6 06 /04 /April /2012 20:30

In one of my earlier posts I expressed considerable concern about the various speculations that enable so many of us to justify our neglect, disregard, exploitation and indeed destructiveness of one another by using a variety of ploys that allow us to claim that it is not we who are responsible for the effects of what we do. Such denials can quickly polarize us along the lines of what, in MSOU, I characterized as symmetrically collusive activity.  (For those of you who have yet to read the book, I should explain that symmetrically collusive activity refers to our tendency to protect our continuities of identity––that is, who we define ourselves to be––by pointing an accusatory finger at another or many others, whom we see as obstacles to our own fulfillment, and who then reciprocally point their own fingers back at us. I guess an even more powerful term might be "reciprocal blaming." (Bear with me . . . the book itself is much more lucid!)


With respect to reciprocal blaming, I won't retrace the history of reactions to Zygmunt Bauman's thesis about the Holocaust, which resulted in disputes about ultimate responsibility, but I think it is important to register the way in which his formulations on "liquid modernity" tend to support another unfortunate polarity, that is, one that permits us to lump together outcomes of goal-determined activity, and outcomes that result from unintended "emergent" processes. It is hard to escape the conclusion that emergent social processes are indeed beyond our ability to control or predict them. Are we necessarily, then, truly responsible for the unintended consequences of our attitudes and our actions?


I believe we are, but our responsibility for them must not only take into account our absence of intent; it must also deal with the very ignorance or denial of our ability to produce unintended consequences.


Many years ago, in a meeting with my colleagues at the University of BC, a very senior colleague expressed his frustration with the prescriptive limitations of "systems theory." I can't remember the exact words, but I do remember the exasperation . . . It went something like this; "It's all very well to declare that everything is connected to everything else, but where does that leave us?" The outcome of such exasperation is often, I suspect, a jump into activity of some kind that does seem to contain the potential of having a significant effect. In a profession such as mine, in which one's very identity is connected to whether or not one can make a difference in our society itself, this can be a very powerful determinant of action.


It doesn't do to overstate the specifics of the case, however. All of us define ourselves in relation to our effectiveness in achieving the goals we set. It is for this very reason that what we conceive as do-able or not do-able is so important for us–– and that takes us directly into the issue of what we have power to affect.


This is the overall context, then, in which we define ourselves as having or not having "free will." Bauman draws our attention to the social consequences of people having no significant ability to affect the direction of their lives, but his message easily distracts us from paying more attention to the manner in which so many of us acquiesce in socially determined definitions of what does indeed constitute an effective life. Bauman's major thesis seems to be that we are relatively helpless to refute the validity of those definitions, or rather, perhaps, that we have now gone far beyond any viable opportunity to do anything about them. One particular outcome of such thinking is that large "social" forces, like "consumerism" can take on the same kind of aura as factors in Nature itself that are simply "givens" of our lives.


Here's the nub . . . In spite of John Stuart Mill's warning in the first paragraph of On Liberty, many of us still confuse the constraints on the choices available to us with a constraint on our capacity to choose. All of us are of course constrained by different circumstances in our lives, including those resulting from the actions of others, but none of those constraints is a constraint on our capacity to choose. On our willingness or unwillingness to consider particular choices it clearly is. However, in such circumstances, we are still choosing. One of the most moving documentations of this is to be found in Viktor Frankl's wonderful book Man's Search for Meaning, which dealt with the very different manner in which occupants of the Nazi concentration camps defined their own identity as responsible actors. Frankl himself is a prototype example of how such attitudes contributed, not always to survival, but almost certainly to the survival of those who did.


To bring the issue of the freedom to choose into our crucial present, it's useful to consider Tauriq Moosa's commentary on the issue at:




The context in which Moosa frames his commentary is very much a Hobbesian one, in that he is concerned with how external controls, exercised in the first instance by the state and then more indirectly by established majority opinion, affect what we actually decide to do. Unfortunately he does not explicitly consider attitudes themselves, and how they are derived. Implicitly, he does, and, correctly, I think, urges us to expose those attitudes to scrutiny and criticism. What he does not pay sufficient attention to, I think, is the manner in which we ourselves are served by our collusions to protect belief. His language still seems to be attached to the necessity to identify an enemy which is outside ourselves. I deal with this particular attachment to attitude in MSOU, but it needs to be constantly kept in the forefront of our awareness if we are to engineer a more humane world than the one we have at present.


I guess what I really want to stress in all this is that it is we, together, who determine the overall context of our lives. It is we who constitute both our immediate and our global society. It is our choices that have led to rampant consumerism, and acquiescence in the global processes that put our whole species at risk. And it is we who together need to take responsibility for finding the way to change them.


To claim that we are no more than helpless victims of providence, our genes, or the gods, is dangerous nonsense.


More soon . . .








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April 6 2012 6 06 /04 /April /2012 03:13

Oh, dear! I did in fact get "carried away" in my earlier post. (Interesting metaphor that allows me to deny responsibility, eh?)


What I had intended specifically to mention was in reference to a posting on the 3quarksdaily site today, April 5th, in which there is a video from a science conference that took place a year ago on Darwin's birthday at the University of Southern Arizona. It is worth watching, for some really heavily qualified scientists, including at least two Nobel prize winners, were responding to questions about the nature of life and our knowledge of it.


In the event, my own interest was piqued by the almost knee jerk negative reaction by several of the participants, including Richard Dawkins, to a question about the Gaia hypothesis. Lovelock's hypothesis was specifically rejected as a whole by several, because it claimed for Gaia the character of an organism. Now, it is true that Lovelock did so characterize it, but my suspicion is that he did so in order to alert the general public to their own role in constituting a part of that system, and thus, I suppose, accepting some responsibility for their own part in contributing to its development. Clearly, this was strategically a serious error on his part, because it immediately enables people to put the theory into a box labelled "flakey new age nonsense," as a number of the panel members did in fact do. Thank goodness for the one panel member (Chris McKay, a scientist from NASA), who pointed out the solidity of the scientific basis of Lovelock's work, and its long term significance to our understanding of the interacting elements that together constitute our reality on earth. I was particularly glad (not only because he was from NASA)  but because he almost exactly re-stated the position that Lynn Margulis took on this very issue in the last chapter of her book Symbiotic Planet. Margulis makes it pretty clear that the use of the word "organism" was a ploy on the part of Lovelock with which she disagreed. One could also speculate, I suppose, that Lovelock was enamored by the lovely metaphor of a Goddess world that is so powerfully evoked by William Golding's suggestion of the word "Gaia." Ironic, isn't it, that Dawkins and those others could not extend to Lovelock the same "poetic" licence that Dawkins had so eagerly allowed himself in The Selfish Gene so many years before?


Enough! More again soon.



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April 5 2012 5 05 /04 /April /2012 00:29

A recurrent "motif" throughout much of MSOU is the importance of our choice of metaphors in enabling us to approach a true understanding of the world. What I primarily wanted to emphasize was that metaphors can both enlighten us, and lead us astray; In some cases dangerously astray, as Herbert Spencer's portrayal of competing human groups struggling for "the survival of the fittest" did. (That mode of thinking contributed both to the worst manifestations of eugenics, and eventually to the Nazi-engineered Holocaust. It's also significant that Wallace himself warned Darwin of the dangers inherent in the metaphorical extension of the word "selection" in explaining his theory to the general public.)


In view of their potentially harmful effects, then, it doesn't hurt to give a bit more attention to how we actually choose the metaphors we use. One of the absolute virtuosos of metaphorical thinking was clearly Einstein, whose thought experiments eventually led to the special and general theories of relativity. (Riding on a light wave, indeed!) Perhaps, too, we should consider Schrodinger similarly gifted, for his thought experiment of the cat either dead or alive in the box, depending on when we might have chosen to open it, certainly dramatizes the logical difficulties involved in coming to terms with the implications of quantum theory.


Currently, pace Schrodinger, though, we are almost daily over-exposed to the metaphor of "thinking outside the box." Over-used or not, however, the "box" metaphor itself gives a clue as to what metaphors actually do for us––they enable us to break free from unproductive modes of thinking, and they are triggered by, if not frustration, then at least by dissatisfaction with a prior mode of conceptualizing the world. That sense of dissatisfaction is less likely to be a factor for those whose experience of the world is an eager engagement with it, or those who. like Blake, characteristically "think" in visual imagery, or poets, like Shakespeare, whose associative genius is of the type so beautifully illustrative of Einstein's own defiinition of genius itself as "the ability to see connections."


How, then, do metaphors lead us astray? I think it is when the primary motivation for them is dissatisfaction––of the sort that betrays a yearning for greater simplicity. The fact is that the metaphors that lead us astray are those that oversimplify the complexities that frustrate us. Blake's wonderful metaphor of the tiger "burning bright / in the darkness of the night" is an example of one that rather takes us deeper into the experience of complexity itself.


It's possible, I suppose, that Richard Dawkins was insufficiently attentive to the widespread tendency for us to have interpreted his idea of the "selfish gene" in an oversimplfying manner, for, after the publication of the book with that title, it took him quite a while to backpedal on the initial assertions of which Mary Midgley was so scathingly critical. I won't attempt a chapter-and-verse history of the dispute, and it's unfortunate that, of course, feelings were badly hurt, but the long-term effects of the Dawkins metaphor have undoubtedly been seriously negative, in that many of us clearly felt that our responsibility for our effects on the world could be simply attributed to forces in the face of which we ourselves were powerless. I rather think that I am spending so much attention on this because the issue of whether we do or do not have free will is still an unanswered question for many of us. It is astounding to me that here in the early years of the twenty-first century there are still so many of us prepared to believe that our future, both immediate and long-term, is determined by factors that are beyond our responsibility to confront. My book is of course part of my own conviction that our responsibility for our future belongs to us. Any of you who have read Zygmunt Bauman's book on the Holocaust, or Tony Judt's devastating final chapter in Postwar, will be well aware of the almost universal human tendency to rationalize and justify the disregarding of our obligations to one another. It wasn't only Anne Frank who was betrayed.


There are many ways to engage in such justifications, but I'd better leave my discussion of them to another time. I find myself getting fiercely angry about it, and that's an ample sign that I'd better cool down a bit! In the meantime, would you consider sharing your own perspective on these issues?  Thanks! More, soon,








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April 4 2012 4 04 /04 /April /2012 23:42

Hello, again!


In my haste to get my first post out into cyberspace, I omitted any mention of the book that I am curently reading, and which has a great deal to say that is relevant to the issues with which MSOU is concerned. It is a hefty book, and, to do it justice might take at least a year or so (!) but the part I want to draw people's attention to primarily is right at the end of the book, and  even a short perusal of it will suggest many different directions of enquiry.


The book is called Postwar, and its subtitle is A History of Europe since 1945. (Penguin Books, 2005. ISBN 0-14-303775-7) The author is Tony Judt (sadly, no longer with us) and the relevant section, "Epilogue" is subtitled "From the House of the Dead." Be prepared! This is grim stuff, for the epilogue is a detailed and incisive summary of the impact of the Holocaust, not simply on postwar Europe, but rather more trenchantly on the manner in which we as a collective human culture fail to face up to what our attachment to particular belief systems can bring about. It offers a somewhat different analysis than the one for which Zygmunt Bauman is famous, so reading Judt in conjunction with Bauman is both demanding and enlightening. Those of you who are already familiar with my own analysis of affiliation and disaffiliation in MSOU will find many points of common relevance.


That's it! More soon . . .  



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April 4 2012 4 04 /04 /April /2012 20:55



A lot has happened since September 2011, which was the ostensible "official" date of publication for Making Sense of Us (hereafter simply MSOU). Talk about 'the best laid plans...", though! Our attempts to get reviews in the major critical sources both here in Canada, and also in the UK and the US were unsuccessful, so the book became available in both hard copies and an e-book version (Kindle) without any prior helpful publicity. UGH!!


Never mind. With the help and encouragement from both David Litvak and the people at Granville Island Publishing. (Thanks, Jo, and Alisha and Pat!) I proceeded nevertheless with public readings, first at the Vancouver Public Library (Kitsilano branch; thanks, Michelle!) and subsequently in Kamloops (Thanks, Andrée!), then at Village Books in Fairhaven, Washington, and that wonderful bookstore, Third Place Books in Seattle. The outcome of all this actvity was a grand total of fifteen books sold, (!) but also a wonderful connection with some delightful and thoughtful people . . .


I think you can probably guess how difficult it is to have something important to share with the world, and then find that very few people seem to want to know about it!


It's interesting and ironic that much of the content of the book itself deals with issues of open- and closed-mindedness, so I should have been amply prepared for the lack of public interest. There's quite a difference between being cognitively prepared and emotionally prepared, though!


Enough of the personal interest comment, however . . . It's more important to share with you more about the issues dealt with in the book, and their connection with a great deal of other thoughtful activity that is occurring all over the world, and yet is probably invisible to all but a relatively few people. The rest of this post is about making connections with those people. Read on!


One of the most important developments in thinking that I have (although only belatedly) come across, is contained in the various published works of the truly great British moral philosopher, Mary Midgley. Her publisher, Routledge, produced a wonderful compendium volume of her works in The Essential Mary Midgley, but what I have found most immediately useful is her splendid 2010 publication (not included in the compendium collection) called The Solitary Self : Darwin and the Selfish Gene (Acumen Books, ISBN 978-1-84465-253-2). It is a dense discussion of the manner in which the polarities of thought exemplified in Hobbes, and subsequently neo-Darwinism, have contributed to our alienating us both from ourselves and from one another. (You may want to take these comments with a pinch of salt, though! Mary very generously allowed me to use her initial reaction to my own book as an endorsement that now appears on the back cover.)


Pretty much simultaneously with my encounter with Mary Midgley, I discovered the work of one of the premium sociological thinkers in the world today, Zygmunt Bauman. (I had discovered him through trying to find out more about the riots In England in August 2011. Not only has he written extensively, but there is now a substantial critical literature commenting on his work. The best way of starting to become connected with his ideas is probably simply to go to Google . . .)


Not surprisingly, Bauman's work takes a rather different slant on the issues identified in MSOU than I do, but he is eminently worth reading. The easiest entry into his constantly evolving world view is probably via The Social Thought of Zygmunt Bauman by Keith Tester (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, ISBN 1-4039-1271-8). Another excellent overview is Peter Beilharz's Zygmunt Bauman: Dialectic of Modernity, (Sage Publications, 2000. ISBN 0-7619-6735-4 (pbk)) More up-to-date developments are continuously posted on the Zygmunt Bauman Institute website.


Well, I guess that's about it for this first dabbling my toe into the world of internet communications! As those of you who have indeed read MSOU know, I am of a generation that finds this explosion of potential communicability almost overwhelming, but I must say it is wonderful to be able to share my thoughts with potential (and actual) readers more informally, and without the stress of constant editorial revising! Please believe me when I say that the ideas in my book are important enough for all of us to participate in debating them. I trust that this Overblog will encourage you to join in. It will help enormously if you've become acquainted with the book first, but by all means ask your questions here first if you are uneasy about what your $20.00 Canadian or US will buy you!


In the meantime, very grateful thanks to my daughter Wendy for helping me to overcome my conditioned fear of wider exposure!


More to come . . .





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June 17 2011 6 17 /06 /June /2011 01:22

!John Deakins1


Welcome to my author page!  I would like to introduce my new book "Making Sense of Us." It is now available through normal bookstores, and from Amazon.com.  An ebook version is available from Kindle. For more information, see the following posts!



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