Saturday, November 26, 2022

 556. Decline of civilisations

 Generally, the decline of civilisations is faster than their laborious rise. This is called the ‘Seneca effect’, after the Roman philosopher, who said something in that vein. (Bardi, 2020).But every decline is unique, gradual or short and calamitous. The decline of the Roman empire lasted two hundred of the thousand years of the empire, but it was gradual. There were several causes. One was the loss of martial spirit and the sense of civic responsibility that was strong in the Roman republic, since people were later more inclined to savour the fruits of prosperity. This created a problem in defending the long border of the empire. At first, the Romans tried to compensate the paucity of troops by concentrating them in fortifications, ready to rush to where fighting was needed. This was not adequate due to the slowness of communication and travel, and there were invasions of Germanic tribes.

 The account in this piece borrows heavily from Cantor (1993).

Among the invaders, the Visigoths were on the run for the Huns that threatened to overrun their original territory. They had no hostile intent, and first simply sought refuge in the Roman empire, but when that was not readily granted, they resorted to violence. Later, they fled to Spain, where they instituted a not very effective kingship. Not very effective, because they could not halt the Islamic invasion from the south. After the Visigoths came the Ostrogoths, who had been occupied by the Huns. They, invaded the Roman empire, where they sought to install their own kingship.

 The Roman empire had a Western and an Eastern part, the former centred in Rome and the latter in Constantinople. The Eastern empire held on longer, defended by the fortress Constantinople. Its emperor Justinian sought to restore the whole Roman empire, but failed. Germanic tribes from the north were partly conscripted in the Roman army, but this kindled their ambition for independence.

 The Romans left a Gallo-Roman enclave in south-west France, and it took until around 700 until that was fully integrated with the northern rule of the Franks, with their Merovingian kingdom.

 Roman law was codified under Justinian, and came to be the legal framework for the whole of continental Europe. It is different from original Germanic law in that it codifies the will of the emperor, while the old German law was a ‘folk law, ‘determined by the people. which is still present in the ‘case law’. in the UK and USA. That law is still in force in the Entire European continent. Some old Roman roads in France are still in use.

 In contrast with the long decline of the Roman empire, the Frankish kingdom of the Merovingians met with a sudden and calamitous collapse. It had a bad name for bringing mentally backward and deficient family members to power. They considered their kingdom as private property, and had no social or educational program for their society. They were succeeded by the Carolingian kingdom, which, under Charlemagne, who usurped power with papal aid, who did have a social and educational programme, but that rise also collapsed after Charlemagne, in the eighth century. The Frankish kingdoms were vulnerable to decline. Their system was a king with a tiny elite, and if the king died, the country receded into a primitive society of uneducated, illiterate peasantry. That applied also to the Carolingians.

 The Russian Tsarist empire fell to the communist revolution, but held its coherence under that radically different ideology of Communism. Later. under Putin, it rekindled the old Tsarist authoritarian suppressive ideology of a holy mother Russia that was now deemed superior to the degenerate western cultures.

 Other societies across the world were usurped by western colonial powers. I cannot begin to describe the rise and decline of powers in China and Japan.

 What I wanted to show in this item of the blog, is that indeed there has been a widespread pattern of the rise and decline of civilisations, but with a wide variety of the patterns of speed, and depth of decline and loss.

 Bardi, U. 2020, Before the collapse: a guide to the other side of growth, Springer.

 Cantor, N.F. 1993, Civilisation of the Middle Ages, New York: Harper Collins.


Friday, November 18, 2022

 Blog 555. Between subjugation and authenticity

 One of the problems in human life is to find a way between subjugation to the powers that be, institutions, and authenticity. Michel Foucault showed how people have to submit to authority in, prisons, clinics and scientific communities, to discipline even if they are victims of it. Such subjugation occurs in all organisations. There has to be a shared mission, ways of conflict resolution, reporting procedures and handbooks to achieve a goal. That seems to leave no room for authenticity. Michel Foucault despaired, and  could not say more than that pne should live one’s life ‘like a work of art’.

 For philosophers Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Buber, whom I have discussed before, in this blog,  the individual was not primary, but its relation to the other, which comes first and then constitutes the self. The self does retain its separateness and is to be respected in its unicity, and unification is impossible. For Levinas the relation was asymmetric, with the self being subject to the other, to whom unconditional surrender and care was required  For Buber the relation was more reciprocal, where self and other needed each other to establish their identity. Hartmut Rosa spoke of ‘resonance’ between people, as between tuning forks that adopt each other’s vibration even at some distance.

 Philosophers Lacan and Žižek rebelled against this subjugation, and claimed that one can always break away from the ties with established power and institutions. They did not explain how this is to be done.(Ruti, 2015)

 Spinoza held that life is driven by ‘conatus’, the will to survive. The ancient Greeks had the notion of ‘thymos’, the urge to manifest oneself, next to passion, to be held in check by reason. Nietzsche propounded the ‘will to power’ as the fundamental drive. Next to the ‘Apollonian’ drive for balance and harmony, he promoted the ‘Dionysian’ exuberance in transgressing boundaries. He claimed that this drive for power was stronger than the instinct of survival.

 The answer to this predicament of subjugation versus autonomy is simple. One can break away and be authentic, but usually at the cost of being punished by derision, exclusion, ostracism, isolation and loneliness. This is not only hurtful, but stunts one’s development, for lack of interaction. Thus it takes courage, strength and robustness. Most people prefer to stay tucked away in the group they are taken to belong to. But one cannot completely cut loose from one’s history of relations that built identity.

 Ostracism may take many forms. I once witnessed that an employee was not just ignored, but people turned their backs to her when she entered the room. As a scientist, one may no longer be invited to meetings and conferences, and no longer have access to scientific journals. It may take a long time to get recognition, and that may never happen.

 Ruti, M. 2015: Between Levinas and Lacan, London: Bloomsbury.


Sunday, November 13, 2022

 554. The freedom of vagueness

 Ambiguity and vagueness are not synonyms ( Solan & Tiersma, 2012). In ambiguity there are many specific manifestations of a general concept, such as many examples of ‘cat’, including my cat who shreds my furniture and speaks to me, and it is not clear which is at issue. The context offers disambiguation In vagueness there are dubious boundary cases. Lions and tigers are clearly not cats, but a lynx might be a dubious case

 Vagueness may be a bother, but it allows for boundary cases that permit some deviation from a norm, satisfying it partly, but deviating from it to some extent. I used this before, I don’t recall where, in a discussion of Michel Foucault’s struggle for authenticity under the institutional pressure to conform. This applies in all organisations, for example, where one is expected to conform to the organisational ‘focus’ of a shared purpose, ways of reporting and communication, conflict resolution, and operating procedures. Vagueness is needed to belong. Deviation can allow for some authenticity.

 This connects with ‘parole’, discussed in earlier items of this blog, that lives in the flux of more or less deviation from established ‘langue’, as that is applied in some specific action context, where in bumping into other ambiguous concepts, it is disambiguated, specifying which manifestation of a general concept is active, and possibly showing vagueness in idiosyncrasies that only partly satisfy the order of langue.

 The interaction between the order of langue and the flux of parole can create sifts of langue, when the idiosyncracy of parole is increasingly shared, and what used to be a dubious boundary case comes to belong to the core of a concept.

 An example is a human being who was excluded from a group, out of racism or other discrimination, and now comes to be accepted as a full member.

 There is vagueness everywhere. I propose that it is due to deeply ingrained habit of our language and thinking to expect things to be like objects in time and space, with clear identities and sharp boundaries. That is a result of human evolution, when the human being was hunter-gatherer, and the priority for survival was the correct identification of objects moving in time and space, such as a predatory animal one needs to flee from, or a prey one wants to pursue in hunting, or the shelter one seeks. This led to an ‘object bias’ in thought and language, as discussed earlier in this blog. This is not adequate for abstractions one now has to deal with. We try to understand abstractions, such as democracy, happiness, meaning. justice, guilt, right and wrong, and so on, in metaphor to objects in time and space (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980).

 This may yield what is called ‘epistemic vagueness’ (Posher, 2012): vagueness due to a discrepancy between language and extralinguistic reality. I prefer a process ontology, where everything is a process, where boundaries are fluid, and unexpected meanings come in continually. Even a stone is a process, of buzzing atoms, heat exchange with the environment, and decay into dust, though this is much slower and less visible than the development and decay of an organism. In abstractions’ there is ongoing vagueness, of shifting boundaries, and I cannot think of an abstraction without it.

 In law, in particular, vagueness abounds, and lawyers don’t only apply the law, but develop it. The fabric of law frays continually. It encounters knots, and the knitting of it goes on.

Lakoff , G. and M. Johnson. 1980, Metaphors we live by, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Posher, R. 2012, ‘Ambiguity and vagueness in legal interpretation’, in: L. Solan & P. Tierstra (eds.), Oxford: Oxford handbook  on language and law,

Saturday, November 5, 2022

 Blog 553. Universality and individuality.

 In this blog I have repeatedly struggled with the old philosophical conundrum of universality and individuality. I still struggle with it. All people are born and die, and in between those are unpredictably vulnerable. That sounds universal, but they occur in an infinite variety of ways.

 The contrast arises in the tension between ethics, in the recognition of individual character and conditions, and the universality of justice, equal for all. This came up, for example, in the philosophy of Immanuel Levinas. He held that one should recognise the irreducible individuality and authenticity of the other, with his ‘visage’ that calls forth unconditional care and dedication. This yields the problem that the other might hurt third parties. Justice requires that this is prevented, which destroys the unconditional acceptance and dedication to the singular other.

 One way to mitigate the contrast between universality and individuality is to distinguish between universality in place, where something applies to everyone everywhere, and universality in time, where something applies forever. One can hold on to universality of something in the first sense, and grant that it may change, as culture changes.

 Another approach is to deny the universality of the property of something, which I call the first degree of universality, because things change, and the second degree of universality of a dynamic principle that always applies to change, or a rule of conduct.

 An example is the development of intelligence in children according to Jean Piaget, where across stages there is ‘decentration’, where the child gives up its focus on one dimension of time or space, to include other dimensions. This happens in the famous example of pouring water from, say, high, narrow glass into a low, wide one, where the child first says that now there is less (or more) water ‘because now the glass is lower’, or more ‘because the glass is wider. To catch on to the preservation of matter, the child learns to consider all dimensions of the glass, triggered by pouring the water back from the second glass into the first. In puberty, the child learns not to focus exclusively on itself, but recognizes that others may have different views.

 Another example of universal principles of development is that of evolution. It has thrown up an incredible variety of different species, but is governed by the same evolutionary principles of variety generation (in biology mutation of genes and chromosome crossover), selection and transmission. In evolutionary economics the same principles apply, but somewhat differently, with variety generation by invention and innovation, selection by markets and institutions, and transmission by imitation, education and training.

 How about ethics? If it is not universal, it has no bite, and one can always come with special pleading of circumstances. But if it is not geared to the unique individual and its circumstances, it does not seem ethical. This is the problem of ethics for the individual versus justice for all that Levinas bumped into.

 Aristotle also was confronted with this. His solution was to recognise the universality of virtues, but to enact them according to the specific circumstances, which he called ‘phronesis’, and which he considered the highest virtue.

 In linguistics, de Saussure proposed a duality of universal, stable, intersubjectively shared concepts in ‘langue’, and their subjective, variable and changing ‘parole’, loaded with personal experience. In the ‘Hermeneutic Circle’, the two feed into each other, introducing shifts of meaning. The general concept (say horses) covers many specific cases, and which is intended depends on the context, where the concept bumps into other concepts, as in a sentence, specific to the context, but thereby injects personal parole, in all its variety, which may shift usage, generating new ‘langue’. Meaning develops according to this dialectic of langue and parole.

 If this dialectic is applied to virtue, it would mean that enactment of a universal, public virtue, with phronesis, in specific conditions, could in time shift the public virtue

 This account was pieced together from bits from a book I just finished, and for which I am now seeking a publisher.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022


552. Inscrutability and Trust

 One has a right to opaqueness, not always being open in what one says and thinks. However, inscrutability can be a basis for power (Ruti, 2015). In earlier items in this blog, I claimed that trustworthiness requires openness. Then, inscrutability can be a hedge, keeping options open for breaking trust. The openness required for trust is not unlimited but restricted to intentions towards actions that might harm the trustor.

 In personal relations one can be expected to be open about intentions that harm the personal bond; are contrary to the justified expectations of the partner, built up from past interaction and vows expressed in it. Ruti claims that males tend to be more inscrutable, and women have to muster the tolerance and forgiveness for it. Women may even find the strong, taciturn man attractive, I add. Forgiveness and tolerance of inscrutability may be irritating, in the victimisation of not standing up for oneself, as a real man does.

 Excessive openness, however, can be irritating, and may be exhibitionism, express narcissism, an urge for attention. Excessive openness may come across as a lament, which is considered to be unmanly, bees buzzing around a piece of shit.

 When a relationship is governed not by trust but by control, in a legal contract, what one divulges is regulated by law, in compulsory reports, which is more precise and circumscribed than openness under trust. This may seem a relief, but can fall short, in not covering unforeseen contingencies, and thus leaving risk and vulnerability. Legal ordering of a personal relationship is often seen as degrading and even indicative of a lack of trust, where it becomes counterproductive.

 As a result, for trust relations the scope and extent of openness are  uncertain, in particular because they depend on experience with the relation. In a relation that went well, the demand for openness decreases, and the supply increases, becoming more personal, also beyond the matter at hand, developing into friendship, perhaps into irritating garrulousness, and if the relation has been bumpy, demand increases and supply decreases, in the extreme case petrifying into legal enforcement.

 Mari Ruti 2015, Between Levinas and Lacan, London: Bloomsbury.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

 551. Varieties of freedom

In the previous item in this blog, I indulged in the gloomy view of democracy apparently sliding inevitably into an autocracy or junta. I hate that outcome, and want to give another try to avoid that conclusion.


What do we value in democracy? One will likely say ‘freedom’. What does that mean? I have often used the well-known distinction between ‘negative’ freedom, as the absence of intervention in one’s actions, and ‘positive freedom’ as access to resources needed for a good life. De Dijn (2020) made a different distinction: between freedom from slavery or bondage, and influence on one’s government. The latter allows for regulations imposed on citizens, provided the government that imposes them is elected by the people. It can thus violate negative freedom?

An illustrative example is the current rebellion of farmers in the Netherlands, who refuse to conform to measures to reduce nitrogen composites from manure, which are destroying grasslands and forests, and with those numerous plants and insects needed to pollinate them, because the measures compel the farmers to reduce their livestock or sell out and give up farming altogether. They go to vehement extremes to block the measures.

Does this yield an escape from the feared slide into autocracy? Only if people evaluate candidates for government on their performance in enabling benefits for society as a whole, such as effective environmental protection, the provision of benefits to the people, such as safety, protection, food, and cultural manifestations, in other words positive freedom. But there lies precisely the problem I identified before. Many people now focus on their own personal satisfaction, regardless of others or society as a whole.

Again, I can see that turning around only on the basis of upbringing and education, which takes at least a generation, and which I don’t see happening, unless by the initiative of young people seeing the light, or rather the impending darkness. There are young people not caring about material goods beyond what is necessary for living, such as good public transport, adequate housing, healthy foods and health care. Will that be enough? There are also young people who follow the pernicious example of their elders of thirsting after wealth for itself and after conspicuous consumption, if necessary to the detriment of others and of nature. Which juniors will predominate?


Sunday, August 7, 2022

 550. A slide into autocracy

There is much warning against the. external threat of autocracies such as China, Russia, Turkey, Brasil, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, etc. , but the real threat comes from inside, in an internal slide into autocracy. I see three causes of it.

The first cause is cultural. Citizens have gravitated en masse to a self-centred, hedonistic life style of consumption as a perceived right,. a right not only to an opinion, but also the right to be right, regardless of arguments, on the basis of counterfactual conspiracy theories and fake news, claiming that every opinion is as good as any other. Arguments on the basis of facts and science are branded as part of one’s pet conspiracy. Above all, disastrous for democracy, one has lost the civic duty of contributing to society, and listening to opinions and arguments of people with contrary opinions, and respect them.

A second cause is a systemic failure of unmanageable complexity facing limited budgets and civil service capacity. These are the problems of institutional crowding, and the dilemma of benevolence and justice, which I discussed before, in this blog.

A third cause is the perverse lure of autocratic leadership. Many people are ripe for autocracy, in their admiration of the decisiveness and speed of its decisions, in contrast with the bumbling indecisiveness and problem avoidance and the ineffective to and fro of government and opposition in a parliamentary democracy. The readiness for autocracy is often enhanced by the projected safety and sense of belonging of nationalism. Apparently, people are blind to its loss of free elections and freedom of expression and association.

Currently, every measure taken for the sake of society is met with vociferous blocking by interest groups, in the face of their having to accept a fall of prosperity or established ways of life. Think of measures for protection of the environment, with repercussions for farmers and fishers, reduction of traffic, for reducing congestion and emissions, for alomst everone. How many more roads can one build before the whole country is road. A stiff price for CO2 emission will greatly raise prices of airline travel, blocking associated holiday travel. The current congestion of Schiphol airport near Amsterdam hardly deters consumers to fly, and is now leading to court injunctions to maintain, i.e. increase capacity. Scarcity of energy will force people to isolate their homes, which only the well to do can afford. And so on.

One can now object that in the past the progress of knowledge and technology, together with the dynamics of markets, have solved many problems of scarcity and coordination, and will do so again.

Will there not be technological fixes to ameliorate the problems? Indeed, the problem is not inevitable, but the solutions one can think of are not primarily technological

A major fix would be to resist the accumulation of wishes citizens claim to have a right to, and to make regulations fewer and simpler, and with that more vulnerable to misuse. Will people accept this, or will discontent rise to the point of uprisings and sabotage? Culture will have to change, in a re-emergence of civic responsibility, in order to make room for policy for the good of society. That is a matter of education and upbringing, which will not happen soon, if ever. Increasingly. measures will have to be imposed on farmers, fishers, car drivers, holidaymakers using air travel, obese people, drug users, and compulsory inoculation against new viruses that will emerge. Since no parliamentary majority will be found for such draconic measures, this will gravitate to an autocracy or junta.

I am not advocating this drift into autocracy, but see it as difficult to stop or divert.