Saturday, May 18, 2019


423. Objects and events

Objects have components with properties, in what DeLanda called ‘assemblages’.[i] The components and properties are actual, and yield a potential or capacity that is virtual, actualized in interactions with objects in the environment, in events.

I agree with DeLanda that objects have a history, with a beginning and an end. Certain conditions have to be met for the object to retain its existence. In particular, to live, an organism must keep its metabolism (temperature, fluids, feeds, waste) within certain bounds of tolerance.

For potential, DeLanda used the example of a knife, which can be used in different ways: for cutting meat or for fighting. One enabling feature is its sharpness, which determines how and what it can cut.

In item 420 of this blog I proposed that the identity of an object is determined by its potential, which is open to unforeseeable actualisations. A screw driver may be used to drive in a nail, in the absence of a hammer. Potential is also limited, in unforeseeable ways, by the object’s composition and its properties, and conditions for survival, as indicated above for an organism. 

According to DeLanda potential cannot be enumerated, is open-ended, contingent upon conditions, but actual properties can be listed. I disagree with the latter. There are two problems with it.

First, how deep into the object does one go to specify its components? A physical object may be analysed into its molecules, but those can be analysed in its atoms, and those, in turn, are made up of fundamental forces that physicists have been unable to agree upon for 50 years.

Second, what criterion or perspective does one use to look at components or properties? Which would be relevant? Can one always know what is relevant? Encountering new contexts may shift the way of looking at components and properties.

So, I remain in agreement with Harman that one cannot enumerate all properties; some remain ‘hidden’.        

Potential is open-ended, in its actualization, and actualization can feed back into properties. Thus there is upward causation, where the object affects its environment, or the wider object it is part of, and downward causation, where the environment affects the properties of the object, within limitations imposed by composition and properties.

This is in contradiction to DeLanda, who proposed that downward causation does not affect the object’s composition and properties. That, the underlying idea is, would jeopardize the independent, enduring existence and identity of the object, and hence realism.    

The sharpness and design of a knife may be adapted depending on needs and opportunities encountered in its use. Serration may be added to the blade. Design may be differentiated for different uses, as DeLanda acknowledged. He used the example of stone tools, first used for cutting, boning, scraping meat, and for fighting, and differentiated for different uses.

To turn to an example of a non-material object, consider language. In a sentence, in an action context, words actualize one of their potential meanings (here meaning in the sense of reference), but new meanings may be added to its repertoire.

That is most pronounced in poetry, where meanings are shifted or new meanings arise.

In upward causation, the meaning of a sentence is a grammatical function of the words in it. In downward causation the sentence actualizes a possible meaning of a word in it.

In an earlier item in this blog (36) I used the hermeneutic circle to analyse this upward and downward causation of meaning. Insertion of universal concept (‘paradigm’) in a sentence (‘syntax’) actualizes one of several possible meanings, and the context can add a new meaning to the repertoire of meanings of the universal.  

The actualization of an object’s potential is an event, but can that also be an object in its own right? Harman saw events as higher order objects.

A word actualizes its possible meaning in a sentence, but the sentence is also an object, indeed of a higher order. But events do not necessarily produce objects.

Whether something is to be considered as an object or an event depends on the context, in particular the time frame (but not only on that). An organism is an object in the time frame of its life but in the time frame of evolution it is an instant, an event, in the actualization of the potential of a genome.

So, one condition for an object is continuity relevant to the context at hand.

Harman used the example of a crash between airplanes as a higher order object. I doubt that. There is hardly a coherence of parts relative to the time frame at hand, let alone an enduring coherence. Also, it is a bit of a stretch to see it as the realization of a potential. It is more the destruction of it. Can one meaningfully say that the crash has components that yield its potential?

However, the coherence between components can be intermittent, discontinuous but recurring. Earlier, I gave the example of the design of a house, to be built in projects.

DeLanda used the example of the constellation of warrior, horse, and bow with arrows that was used by nomad tribes (such as the Mongols conquering Europe). For that coherence to persist, the warrior does not have to sleep and eat on the horse (though they have been reported to do so).    


[i] Manuel DeLanda, 2016, Assemblage theory, Edinburgh University Press.

Saturday, May 11, 2019


422. Major and minor science

From Deleuze and Guattari, DeLanda[i] adopts the distinction between ‘major and minor science’. Major science is characterized as a more or less tight deductive, axiomatized system, preferably formalized with mathematics. Minor science lacks that, is looser, less structured, and is more inductive, messy.

DeLanda showed how chemistry, in contrast with physics, used to be minor, with a proliferating population of chemical substances, and became major with the adoption of the Periodic Table, formulae for molecular structure and nomenclature of substances based on that. 

In economics one finds the contrast between mainstream, neoclassical economics, which is highly deductive, axiomatic and mathematical, and more inductive, informal, economics of institutions and organization.

Interestingly, part, and perhaps the crux of the difference, offered by DeLanda, is that major science is oriented at the stable, and minor science towards the dynamic, processes of change. I find this interesting in the light of an experience I had as director of a research/PhD school at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, in the 1990’s.

I was given the task of aligning the faculties of economics and business in a joint organization. It was an almost total failure, but an interesting one, since it raised the question why this was so.

One feature was, I discovered, that business/management is oriented towards processes, of production and development, while mainstream economics is oriented at equilibrium outcomes.

Mathematization and quantitative, econometric testing were possible for the second  but not for the first. Therefore, neoclassical economics carried the most prestige, and won. The process led not to integration, a coupling between the two faculties but to a take-over by economics, but by that time I had left.

There was a similar outcome concerning a Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Economics in Jena, which was abolished in favour of a take-over by established, mainstream neo-classical economics.

Evolutionary economics, similarly to organization theory, is process-oriented. Rather than being oriented at equilibrium outcomes, it is oriented at evolutionary processes that may or may not, and in general do not, yield equilibria. As a result, predictions and implications were less clear and unambiguous, depending on details of the evolutionary processes of variety generation, selection and transmission of success. That was less respectable. It was a minor science. 

A way out for process research is computer simulation, enabled by the development of appropriate hard- and software. There, one can model and simulate out-of-equilibrium processes on the basis of what is known as ‘agent-based simulation.[ii]  

The problem there is lack of determinacy, with outcomes sensitive to small changes of parameter settings, and an explosion of complexity of what is going one with an extension of the number of interacting variables. With n variables there are n(n-1)/2 possible binary combinations, so that for ten variables there are 45 possibilities. And to that one must add triple and more interactions, and ranges of the values the variables can take. 

Therefore, to make sense and allow for interpretation, simulations need some anchoring in the use of analytically derived equilibrium outcomes of different settings, as a benchmark to compare the simulation outcomes with.

With that, process study becomes more ‘scientific’, in the sense of determinacy and rigour of interpretation, but it does not thereby become a ‘major’ science in the sense of axiomatic, deductive structure. 
    



[i] Manuel DeLanda, 2016, Assemblage theory, Edinburgh University Press.
[ii] I had a PhD project and a postdoc project in that area.

Saturday, May 4, 2019


421. Research programmes and organizations: examples of non-material objects.

In the preceding item in this blog I proposed that the identity of objects is determined by their inner structures of components and properties, and the capacity they yield to produce novel properties in interaction with outside objects. Here I give examples of objects and their potential outside the realm of physical objects.

In the philosophy of science, Imre Lakatos proposed the notion of a research programme, consisting of a hard core of basic assumptions and methodological principles that is taken as unassailable, in the gative heuristic, plus a protective belt of subsidiary assumptions and tools, with the positive heuristic of seeking to deal with anomalies met by a theory by tinkering in that protective belt. I propose that this is a case of a capacity, here to generate different theories within the programme, with elements picked up along the way. This is an improvement on Kuhn’s notion of paradigm. The programme ceases to exist when the hard core is broken up.

Generally, cores form a coherent whole that cannot be broken up in some remix from different cores. This resembles the reproductive isolation of species in biology. However, some principles may be shared across programmes.

For example, in the research programme of mainstream, neoclassical economics the core contains the assumption of rational choice and autonomy of the individual, is oriented to the efficient use of scarce resources and markets, and holds the methodological principle to model optimal or equilibrium outcomes, preferably (or exclusively?) in mathematical models. The different programme of evolutionary economics also considers markets and allocation of resources, but allows for limitedly rational individuals that develop in social interaction, and studies processes that may not achieve equilibrium. 

The notion of a programme can also be used to illustrate the nestedness of objects. Going ‘upwards’, different programmes in economics all deal with markets in some form or other. Going ‘downwards’, a programme embraces different theories, such as, in economics, theories of labour markets or international trade, in different ways in different programmes.    

Another example of (largely) immaterial objects is that of a firm or business. What, if anything, constitutes its essence or core that determines its identity, yields its continuity, while allowing for change, adaptation, as it moves along, in markets and technological development?

In earlier work[i] I proposed the notion of ‘the firm as a focusing device’, yielding a focus on its central purpose. That guides what are the causes of its action: its efficient cause: the people employed, its final cause: the markets and products it aims at, and its moral perspective, and its formal causes: knowledge and technology. This notion of focus is more specific than the wider notion of ‘organizational culture’. The focus determines its capacity to act and develop. By definition, the focus is constraining, and complementary competencies need to be found outside, in alliances with other organizations.

Part of the capacity to develop lies in absorptive capacity: the ability to understand what others say and do, which enables and constrains ability to collaborate with others. That capacity is subject to development, in the accumulation of knowledge, partly coded in patents, and experience in dealing with people who think differently.   

An orientation towards radical innovation, or ‘exploration’, requires a wider focus,  more internal variety, or ‘cognitive distance’, with weaker ties, within the firm, while an orientation to the efficient exploitation of existing resources requires a tighter, narrower focus. Particularly in the latter situation, a firm needs outside complementary sources to deal with changing conditions, in alliances or other forms of collaboration.

Firms have learned not to dilute their focus too much, in a conglomeration of diverse activities, and to stick to their ‘core competencies’. A firm loses its identity when it loses or substantially changes its focus. This is akin to the reproductive isolation of species in evolution.

This happens in a merger or acquisition. There, firms find it hard to survive and adapt their identity in trying to develop a new coherent focus from different foci from the component firms. This is easier the more they operate in similar markets, countries and technologies, i.e. have a similarity of focus. It is also difficult to successfully change from a narrow focus of exploitation to a wider one of exploration.

Sometimes, large firms with a dwindling capacity to innovate try to inject new variety by taking over a new, more innovative firm. The result most often is that the exploratory capacity of the acquired firm does not re-invigorate the large firm but gets squashed in it.

Here also, there are multiple levels of objects. Within the firm there are different departments, with foci that are differentiated, within bounds. Too many different foci within the firm dilute the identity and potential of the firm. Between firms there are network constellations of collaborating firms, of users, suppliers, specialists, advisors, mediators, etc. What would constitute identity of such assemblages? At the minimum some shared ethic, skill, practice and style of collaboration, with the ability to develop and maintain requisite trust.        


[i] Bart Nooteboom, 2009, A cognitive theory of the firm, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Saturday, April 27, 2019


420. Types of objects
As discussed earlier, I define an object as having components that cohere more or less, in some ‘assemblage’, as DeLanda calls it, for some duration, and have a potential to manifest themselves outside, generate response, new properties, in interaction with other objects. That potential is limited by the object’s components and their properties, as well as by the potential of outside objects, and principles of logic, design, natural laws, legal laws and other institutions. 

Objects are often nested, with components being objects in their own right, and the object being a component of a larger object.

Here I consider different types of objects.

One distinction is that between material objects, such as bridges and molecules, objects that are largely immaterial but have some basis in matter or energy, such as organizations, institutions, and thoughts, and objects that are entirely immaterial such as characters in a novel, and notions of heaven and hell. The types of components and their coherence vary widely.

-          For a bridge: the assemblage of parts, depending on properties of materials and principles of construction and design.

-          For an organism: the assemblage of organs, made from cells constructed from amino-acids, guided and conditioned by genes, depending on the presence of foods, temperature, etc. Continuity of the organism is conditional upon homeostasis, keeping variables of metabolism within limits, such as temperature, nutrition, oxygen, waste disposal, …

-          For a species: the gene pool, generating life forms in interaction with the selection environment. Its potential is limited by reproductive isolation. Horses can mate with donkeys, but the offspring is infertile.

-          For a molecule: the composing atoms, with bonds between them from sharing electrons from the shells of waves orbiting their nuclei, depending on the composition of those nuclei of protons and neutrons, depending on external conditions such as temperature, pressure, …...

-          For thought: patterns of neuronal connectivity in the brain on the basis of adapting thresholds of firing, in electro-chemical processes.

-          For a firm: a constellation of people, machinery, and processes of design, production, sales, purchasing, and collaboration inside and outside the firm. In the following item in this blog I will consider what its potential and essence may be.

-          For a language: words and connecting devices of grammar, syntax, rhyme, metre, depending on the context of discourse.

-          For communities and institutions, such as markets, industries, economies, legal systems, parliament, etc.: a structure consisting of different levels of professions, materials, physical connections, communication channels, laws and regulations, cultural and social norms and habits, etc., and networks of interaction of people and organizations.

-          In the following item in this blob I will discuss scientific fields.

-          For a novel: its plot, and characters in it, with their positions and roles. Much is left unspecified, left to the imagination of the reader.

-          For heaven and hell: religious doctrine, symbols, rituals, etc.    

The connections between components need to have some persistence in time, across contexts, but need not be continuous in the sense of being uninterrupted. In building construction, actualisation of a given design is project based, actualized intermittently. 

For a number of objects I have used the notion of a script, as a model of an object’s identity.  A script is a network of nodes connected by directed ties (also called ‘edges’) that may represent temporal sequence, logical implication, causation, collection, sharing of resources, communication, … Thus, a script may represent a theory, argument, story, production process, bridge, molecule, …Nodes harbour a repertoire of subscripts from which a selection can be made according to conditions, and the script is itself a component of a wider superscript.

The script models the potential, the capacity of an object, which constitutes its identity.

The classic example is a restaurant, with a sequence of nodes for entering, seating, ordering, eating, paying and leaving. Each of those can be done in a variety of ways, in alternative subscripts in the node. Thus, one can pay cash, by card, or cheque. The restaurant is a node in a superscript of location, roads of access, parking, and a supply chain.  

An object can change in a minor way, locally, in nodes, with new subscripts and the shedding of old ones, while preserving the ordering of the nodes. For example, for payment cheques are no longer in use, and there is a new way of payment by smart phone. That applies to restaurants as well as shops, hotels, etc.  

A larger change of the object is that of the order of nodes, and an even larger one that of new structures with old and new nodes adopted in interaction with outside objects. The latter, frame breaking change I would see as a breakdown of identity and the emergence of a new object.

For example, the shift from a service to a self-service restaurant involved a change of the order of nodes, to arrival, food selection, paying, eating and leaving. However, this does not leave the nodes unaffected. For example, selection now entails carrying a tray with selected foods. So, a self-service restaurant is not the same type of object as the service restaurant.

The principle of self-service has been adopted by other kinds of objects, such as stores and hotels.

The script is one way of representing an assemblage. I don’t know how far its validity or  usefulness reaches, but I found it enlightening in studies of innovation.[i]

In the following item I will consider in more detail some immaterial objects, such as science and firms.         


[i] Bart Nooteboom, 2000, learning and innovation in organizations and economies, Oxford University Press.

Saturday, April 20, 2019


419. Essential capacity

A central issue in ontology is whether in order to exist a thing must have an essence, something that it must have to be what it is. At several places in this blog I discussed the question whether essences exist. Here I sharpen my arguments, based on reading a debate between Graham Harman and Manuel DeLanda[i], and a book by DeLanda on ‘assemblage theory’.[ii]

I am suspicious of essences, for ontological but especially for moral reasons.

The essence of swans was their whiteness until black swans were found. The essence of cars was that they burn some form of gasoline, until electric cars came about. The human being was defined as a rational animal until its irrationalism became clear. The essence of democracy was elections, until autocratic regimes manipulated them.

Too often, essentialism imposes a familiar category on unfamiliar contexts. The freedom of markets is imposed as the essence of democracy. Essentialism feeds the identity politics that present society is suffering from. It reduces people to membership of a category, with a corresponding imposition of shared views and conduct. It hides, even disqualifies, variety between individuals.

There is a distinction between the general essence of a universal, or general concept, say that of ‘chair’, and the specific or individual essence of a specific chair, say the one I am sitting on. In earlier items in this blog (e.g. 36, 416) I rejected the notion of a general essence. Here I focus on the possibility and nature of a specific essence.

The most straightforward idea of such an essence is that of a quality that an object actually has and always has had, in fact or by necessity, during its existence. But this is open-ended: if the object has had the quality until time t, this does not prove that it will have it at t+1. In that sense one can never know for sure whether any quality is essential. In that sense one cannot know (for sure) what an essence is (as Graham Harman has argued).

This problem is similar to that of causality. As David Hume argued, consistent sequence does not prove ausality. For a claim of causality, or essentiality, one needs an argument, or theory, of why or how it arises as causal or essential.

Now, how about a feature that is not actual but virtual, a potential to manifest a quality, or a range of them, depending on the context in which the object manifests itself. Could that be the essence of an object? I adopt the argument from DeLanda that an object has actual properties that yield the potential to produce features, in events of interaction with other objects. 

Now there are several possibilities. One is that the range of possible manifestations is pre-established, as a repertoire of possible qualities from which one is selected according to the context. DeLanda talks of tendencies, understood as repetitive, limited in variation.

Another possibility is the capacity to produce new qualities, depending on the context. This more flexible and adaptive than a tendency. As Delanda noted, and I agree, this requires that the capacity to affect is coupled to the capacity to be affected.  

Harman objected to potentialities and capacities because they would yield an excess of possible manifestations, a ‘slum of possibilities’ as Harman called it (quoting Quine). DeLanda accepted capacities only if one had a way of clearing the slum by separating ‘significant from insignificant’ manifestations. That seems a bit odd to me. What is significant appears to depend on purpose and context, and so one would quickly repopulate the slum with possible significances.

I see the problem of the slum only if one postulates that all possible manifestations have to be there (where?) from the start. But in my view possible manifestations are not predetermined but produced in context, in interaction with objects, while the range of possible interactions and their effects is open-ended, open to new interactions, and appearance of new objects and forms of relations.

However, the potential of capacity is limited by the structure and properties of the object’s components and those of objects it interacts with, and laws of nature, logic or mathematics, legal laws and other institutional conditions. I think this may have to do with DeLanda’s notion of ‘relevance’.

One of DeLanda’s proposals is to think of capacity in terms of possible trajectories in the state space of the object. The dimensions of that space are features the object can have. There is some process or logic that determines trajectories.

This notion of possible and actual trajectories in some space of possibilities is the kind of notion needed for the dynamic ontology that I try to pursue.      

It is this constrained potential, I propose, that constitutes identity, the continuity of an object across contexts and relations. Perhaps one can call this constrained capacity its essence, if one wants.

DeLanda used the example of water. It has the capacity to be a fluid, which can have different structures, a piece of ice or a gas (steam), depending on outside temperature and atmospheric pressure, but it cannot turn into gold.

Earlier in this blog (item 8), I associated the identity of a living thing (human, animal, plant), with the coherence of different features in the ‘body’, needed for the body to exist. It must maintain homeostasis, keeping metabolic variables (temperature, fluids, feeds, disposals) within certain ranges for the organism to maintain existence. DeLanda also used that example.

The genome is a good example of a capacity, with neurons generating amino-acids, yielding cells, building organs, and thereby ‘expressing’ themselves, in interaction among neurons and their local metabolic environment as well as external conditions of the organism.


[i] Manuel DeLanda and Graham Harman, 2017, The rise of realism, Cambridge UK: Polity Press.
[ii] Manuel DeLanda, 2016, Assemblage theory, Edinburg University Press. 

Saturday, April 13, 2019


418. Identity within and between communities

At several places in this blog I have argued for substantial decentralisation of governance to small local communities. The gaol is to involve citizens as much as possible in political decision making, and that is more feasible on a local than on a national level.

This goes back to Athenian democracy, it was proposed by Rousseau, it is part of African political philosophy (item 414), and it is being tried out in several countries, in a variety of forms.[i]

However, the virtues of local ties should not be exaggerated. They can have a downside of rigidity, constraint, social pressure and closure, exclusion, lack of liberty in choosing relations, and, consequently, economic stagnation, and internecine strife between communities.

So, how can the virtues be realized while avoiding the drawbacks? For this I offer a solution taken from network theory. Here I connect with my earlier proposal to associate identity with networks and collective enablers of relations, rather than with characteristics of individuals.   

In sociology there has been a debate between the view that strong social ties favour societies and the view that, on the contrary, weak ties do.

Strong ties entail frequent, durable, and ‘multiplex’ interaction (concerning a variety of resources or issues). Typically, they go together with strong trust and relation- or community-specific investments (in knowledge, skill, construction, solidarity, mutual support and trust).

Specific investment is a concept from economics, and was used before in this blog (59). It is investment tailored to specific relations and therefore has value only, or mostly, there, and has to be made anew in new relationships. They make for high quality of a relationship, but also create dependence. They create power dependence when the investment is one-sided: the least dependent party can threaten to exit, leaving the more dependent side with a useless investment, unless incentives are granted to make him stay. Such power play may be sanctioned by social pressures, but those can contribute to the rigidity of relationships, causing stagnation.

Weak ties entail less frequent interaction, limited content, and less specific investment. They are less enabling but also less constraining. They can be more easily broken, making for greater flexibility. They are more transactional than relational. They are used for trade, for diplomacy, for exploring networks, to find out about the resources and opportunities involved, and to develop entry to them, building contacts and reputations.

Network theory offers the notion of ‘small worlds’, which I used before in this blog (209): small communities with strong internal ties and weak ties between such communities. And that, I propose, is the solution to the problem of small communities. The strong ties make for internal coherence, solidarity and trust, and the weak ties between communities yield access to a greater variety of knowledge, skill, and other resources, prevent internal rigidity, and may serve to contain misunderstanding, rivalry and strife between communities. Those links may also yield avenues for exchange of people, which favours the turnover of population that prevents biological, intellectual and spiritual inbreeding.

There is evidence that the small migrant communities of hunter-gatherers, during the long period (400.000 years) of evolution of the human species before its settlement into agrarian communities (some 7000 years ago), engaged in this practice, with strong ties within the tribes and weak ties, in occasional contacts, between tribes.

In an earlier item (414) I noted the African idea and practice of ‘Ubuntu’, which implements the idea that individuals are constituted socially, requiring a sufficient degree of solidarity, and favours small communities. I now aim to find out whether this also has been combined with weak ties between those communities, and how that worked out. In how far was it able to contain inter-tribal strife?

Note the remarkable solution adopted in the past, if I am correct, by Australian aboriginals: let potential rival tribes reside at one’s own holy sites. One does not attack one’s own holy sites, and hence not the rival tribes. Unless they damage those sites, and this yields an incentive to maintain them well. This has the same logic as offering a hostage.      


[i] See, for example, the community of Frome in the UK, and Saillance in France.

Saturday, April 6, 2019


417. Networks, credence and identity

In this blog I used the distinction between specific/individual and general/cultural identity and discussed the relation between them. The crux was that people develop individual identity in interaction with others, in given culture.

I denied that cultural identity entails some essence, some property that all members of a nation share, identically, and all non-members lack.

I proposed to see cultural identity in terms of roles people play and positions they have in different networks of relations. Those can overlap, for different people, and hence are shared more or less. There are, for example, networks of family, neighbourhood, region, job, profession, sport, religion, political affiliation and, yes, also nation or state.

Note that individual identity is not fully determined by relations in networks. The individual retains its identity as an actor operating in such networks. While its development depends on action in networks, the actor has its own constitution that is continuous across those relations.

The network view of cultural identity allows for European next to national identity. Less educated and less globally involved people have fewer network extensions across borders, and hence their identity is more nation-bound.

What, then, remains of national identity? For interaction between people in networks more is needed than the mere structure of those networks. There needs to be a behavioural basis to enable interaction. The task now is, in my view, to specify what is needed for that while allowing for as much diversity as possible. One thinks. in particular, of the need to have common laws, language and institutions. Some of those will not apply to a nation as a whole but to specific industries or markets. And some will be shared between nations.

What I object to is national identity in terms of religion, race, ethnicity, provenance (land of birth), and ideology or set of ideas, such as the ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’, or the Enlightenment. Systems of thought are too diverse and mixed for that. Note the division, in Christian heritage, between Catholicism and Protestantism, and rival streams within them. English is a mix of Saxon, French and Latin. European cultures have further sources, next to religion and enlightenment, such as Romanticism, and Roman, Germanic and Keltish, even Arab influences.

Reading Francis Fukuyama’s recent book on identity[i] I came across the notion of ‘creedal identity’, identity based on a ‘creed’, apparently going back to Samuel Huntington.[ii] A creed is a set of opinions and directions for action, or a philosophy of life (so I read in the Oxford Dictionary). It is not the same as ‘belief’ or ‘faith’, but something more oriented towards practical conduct. It can follow from a belief, but it can also arise as no more than some pragmatic rules of conduct. For the US, it would include, for example, a work ethic, personal initiative and responsibility, civic and family values.

This is rather broad and vague, and here I want to make it more specific. Again, I aim to make it as sparse as possible, reduced to what is needed to enable relations.

Here, I connect with the discussion, at several places in this blog (items 96, 289), of Aristotelian multiple causality, which I have used as a causality of action.

To recall, the different causes are:

Efficient cause: who are the actors (here: where do they come from, who is recognized as
a citizen)
Final cause: with what aims (material, intellectual, spiritual, existential, ..)
Material cause: what are the resources used (land, water, energy, finance, ….)
Formal cause: how (with what knowledge, competence, skill, language, … )
Conditional cause: under what enabling and constraining conditions (markets, laws and
regulations, infrastructure  
Exemplary cause: with what models (role models, symbols, myths, …)

I need to separate the formal cause into two types: the behavioural, which needs to be widely shared, and the cognitive/spiritual, which can be and preferably is diverse.

I now propose that what is shared, nationally, more or less, lies in the following causes:

The behavioural/formal: what enables human interaction, mostly in morality: trust, honesty,
openness, loyalty, empathy, ..
The conditional: climate, laws, regulations, institutions, public services, a constitution, and,
for liberal democracies: freedoms of expression, association, religion, voting, and
separation of powers (judicial, executive, parliamentary).
The exemplary: some canonical examples of good conduct. Nelson Mandela, Ghandi.

I think every country will be distinct, have its own creedal identity, when scored on these dimensions. However, this still does not constitute an essence that all people within a nation share and outsiders do not. In continental Europe, for example, in a number of countries law is based on Roman law, imposed by Napoleon. Liberal democratic norms are still widely shared, though authoritarianism is eating away at it here and there (Poland, Hungary). Moral principles and moral role models are widely shared.      

Within a country there is variety in the following causes of action:
The efficient: the provenance of people, access to citizenship, ..
The material: resources that come in an flow out, in trade
The final: what aims, goals and other values people have
The cognitive/formal: knowledge, competence, skill, morality, …

In sum, I see important commonalities within nations, but I still do not see any national essence.

I grant that next to this utilitarian approach to culture as enabling relations, culture also has an intrinsic value in giving people a sense of belonging, of community, with local roots. However, I think that is stronger on a regional and local than on a national level. Consider France. I had a house in the department of the Corrèze, south of Limoges, in the region of the Limousin. The department, I learned, yields a strong sense of identity, stronger perhaps than feeling French. At some point there was a policy initiative to abolish the level of the departments, but that yielded an outcry of protest, with this argument of identity.    


[i] Francis Fukuyama, 2018, Identity; Contemporary identity politics and the struggle for recognition, London: Profile Books.
[ii] Samuel Huntington, 2004, Who we are; The challenges to American national identity, 2004.