Saturday, August 19, 2017


329. Art and hope

Recently, Rudi Fuchs, curator for a sculpture exhibition in Amsterdam, associated art with hope. For art, things are not necessarily as they are, can be different. Art offers new ways in and new ways out. Liberation, escape from stagnation or despair. That intrigued me.

To hope is to have a goal, with positive and realistic expectations of ways to get there, and confidence in agency, ability to do it. Without the realism hope becomes false, wishful thinking. Hope entails an expectation that ‘things will be all right’, depending in part on one’s own actions, but also on outside forces that one cannot control. This brings the notion of hope close to the notion of trust, as I discussed in item 107 in this blog.

What of that applies to art? The new ways in and new ways out. Escape.

A good illustration is a strophe from a poem by Baudelaire, from the section Spleen et ideal of his bundle Les fleurs du mal (the flowers of evil). Spleen here is heaviness of spirit, existential anguish, disgust, boredom, paralysis. The hope lies in escaping from it into the ideal, perfection. The title of the poem is Elevation. I first give the French text and then my English translation.

Derrière les ennuis et les vastes chagrins
Qui chargent de leur poids l’existence brumeuse,
Heureux celui qui peut d’une aile vigoureux
S’elancer vers les champs lumineux et serains.

Behind the troubles and the vast griefs
That weigh down misty experience,
Happy is the one who with a powerful wing
Can launch himself into fields luminous and serene.

Is this picture of art too pretty? How about the Marquis de Sade, Celine, Dostoyevsky? Do they yield hope? Such art also can be seen as an escape, in liberation from constraints of morality and law. But hope is positive, and how positive are those? How, if at all, can this be seen as escape into an ideal? Dostoyevsky said that without God humanity is irreparably evil. Does art here show hopelessness rather than hope?

Art is creative destruction. Perhaps destruction may need to take place first, to make room and create an incentive for the new. Is that how de Sade may be seen: destroying old morality to make room for a new one?

How about the sublime? Think of a hurricane, thunderstorm, or a forbidding mountain. Those inspire awe, astonishment, respect, fear perhaps, transcend the beautiful, and are beyond human grasp and influence. According to Kant it is beyond art, which would only yield a bad imitation of the sublime in nature. It transcends but cannot be achieved, and then lies beyond hope. Yet it is sometimes applied to art, such as a work of Bach or Beethoven, say.

If hope is required for trust, and art can produce hope, one might expect that art can help trust. However, when producing novelty, new ways in and new ways out, art also yields uncertainty, and can produce broken expectations, yielding broken trust. Given its uncertainty, trust requires courage, and that would seem to apply also to art. Art may be an exercise in courage, and thus may help people in learning to manage trust.

So, apart from the intrinsic value of art, it has value for society in bringing transcendence, Baudelaire’s ‘elevation’, and in developing and exercising hope, courage and trust.
   

Saturday, August 12, 2017


328. Aversion to love’s labour loss

Social psychology has discovered ‘loss aversion’: people go to greater length to prevent loss (‘loss frame’) than to achieve gain (‘gain frame’).

This is being used in incentives to perform (‘nudging’). Rather than giving a reward after good performance, according to the logic of loss aversion it is more effective to give the reward in advance, on the condition that it will be revoked in case of bad performance (loss frame). People try harder to prevent loss of the reward than to gain it.

Here, I want to connect this with a previous discussion (items 120/121 in this blog) of forms of love. I discussed the idea that love in the form of eros, passionate love, is needed engage in a love relationship, as a basis for developing into the more robust philia, loving friendship. Why not go straight to the second and avoid the sound and fury of passion?

I speculated that the function of initial eros is to blind one to the risks of dependence, conflict and disappointment that relationships bring. Without the passion we would not so easily take the plunge.

Here I add, as a second possible reason, the effect of loss aversion. Being rewarded at the start, with the bliss of passion, one is more dedicated to the relationship, under the penalty of losing the love when not committing to the relationship and making sacrifices for it, in love’s labour being lost. 

The alternative of gradually building up a loving relationship to attain loving friendship in the longer run, making the necessary sacrifices and compromises, would, according to the principle of loss aversion, yield less commitment.

There is yet a third possible line of argument. Recently, it has been confirmed, what was really known earlier, that scarcity, the limits of some resource, can have a positive motivational effect. For example: To make more effort to save when money is getting short, or to finish a project as the deadline nears. Under the pressure of looming scarcity, people focus on efforts to deal with it, solving the problem.[i]

However, and this is a newer  insight, if scarcity persists, focus can turn into dysfunctional obsession. People then get so absorbed by persistent scarcity that in the panic of not being able to cope, they disregard other things that also matter, or flee into actions that only make matters worse. For example: take out a loan at an exorbitant interest, or disregard family and novel work opportunities to complete the project.   

That may also arise in love. Under a looming loss of love, one can focus on restoring, repairing it, paying more attention, committing to it. But if that does not yield satisfaction, it can degenerate into obsessive demands for attention or forced imposition of attention that are perceived as a cloying, and hinder rather than help the flourishing of love.

To return to the first explanation of eros as blindness to risk, the initial abundance of eros may limit the focus on getting love, which now gushes freely, but that may make the relationship more relaxed, less forced, less obsessed, less stressed for getting love, laying the basis for developing philia.       



[i] Sendhil Mullainathan & Eldar Shafir, Scarcity; The true cost of not having enough, 2013, London: Penguin.

Saturday, August 5, 2017


327. Truth, nature, culture, and morality

Is morality a matter of absolute, objective, ‘outside’ truth? And if so, is it bestowed by God or by universal reason (as with Kant)?

Or is it contingent, relative, ‘inside’, an outcome from evolution of human nature. Or is it a product of culture, and hence variable across civilizations?

I think that the human being is not made by God, but that the human being has made God, as Feuerbach first said. But that does not mean that the notion of God is nonsensical. He is made with good reason.

Of course, it depends on what one means by ‘God’. It can be as in deism: a label attached by reason to the origins of the world. God as the prime mover, or as the totality of nature, with its laws, as in the philosophy of Spinoza. Or it can be the God of theism, personal, all-knowing, omnipresent, omnipotent, and providential, having designs with humanity and individual people.

Or is God cultural, as an idealization we make of morality, a guideline rather than an objective truth?

A growing body of research indicates that the human being has an instinct for morality, next to other, more self-interested instincts. There appears to be a natural, unreflected, subconscious inclination towards solidarity, equitability, and benevolence, next to an instinct for survival and protecting one’s interests, guarding one’s resources, if necessary at the expense of others. It is part of our constitution, not based on reflection and argument.

Frans de Waal showed that primates have it, in their nature, and some other animals seem to have it as well.

As I discussed earlier in this blog (item 205), there appears to be ‘parochial altruism’: altruism and solidarity within groups one feels oneself to belong to, at the price of suspicion towards outsiders.

That seems to form the basis for feelings and emotions of group identity, and of nationalism and discrimination.

Thus, morality is coloured, or tainted, if you want, by group identity. However, none of this means that there is no room for reason.

One can appreciate rationally that virtues of benevolence, regard for others, empathy, and a good measure of altruism, serve the good life, which is helped by agreeable and fruitful relations of collaboration and give and take.

And with such cultural means one can try to widen the group one identifies with, thus reaching for some form of universality without quite achieving it, and promoting ideas of equal rights.

This may help to sustain and nurture the natural sense of solidarity with the group and limit outside suspicion. This may be supported by an ethic of virtues such as reasonableness, moderation, justice, and the courage to stand up for them.

In sum, morality is a combination of feeling and reason, and does not need to claim to be absolute, which only breeds intolerance that obstructs the virtue of reasonableness.          

Monday, July 31, 2017


326. Values, identity and democracy

An individual is socially constituted, from interaction in its environment. Thus, individual identity feeds from cultural, group identity, and is loaded with shared values one holds dear and is prone to protect.

Democracy aims to achieve compromise, settling differences in interest. In liberalism (in the European, not the American sense), values are not a matter of public concern, but are to be left to individual choice. Behind liberalism and economics lies a utility ethic, looking only at outcomes, regardless of underlying intentions and processes that lead to outcomes. This focus on outcomes facilitates democracy, avoiding conflicts of values that may obstruct negotiation on interests.

However, the increasing sway of neo-liberalism, leading to effects of globalization that are perceived as unjust, perverse effects of markets, and self-interested conduct of leaders (‘elites’) in politics and business, have bred growing protest, and demands for a role of values, and attention to process and intentions, as a matter of public debate. And with that, politics is becoming more a matter of cultural identity. 

The problem with an identity-based politics, however, is that to the extent that the values concerned are more absolute and exclusive, identity becomes sacred, and compromise on the sacred is sacrilege.[i] That obstructs democracy, which requires sober, reasonable debate, in moderation, in search of a golden middle. Identity politics does not seek the middle, but hails the extremes that demand its recognition.

In this blog I also have pleaded for a shift from an ethics merely of outcomes to an ethics also of process and intentions, in the form of a virtue ethics. Now the question is this: does the  problem indicated above undermine my plea for a virtue-based politics? After all, ethics is informed by values, associated with views of what ‘the good life’ is. Is there a danger, then, that my plea intensifies the problems of an identity-based politics? I have a solution to this potential problem. It is twofold. 

First, as I argued early in this blog (in item 10), identity should not be seen as having some essence, which you either have or don’t have, being inside or outside. That makes identity unique and exclusive, blocking democratic debate. Instead, identity is to be seen as multiple, with partial overlaps, and subject to development.

One is member of a variety of groups to identify with, to a greater or lesser extent. Family, neighbourhood, profession, organization where one is employed, sports club, etc., and, yes, also of a nation with its language and history. I proposed (in item 209 in this blog) to see identity as a node in a network of relationships that overlap, more or less, with those of other people.

Those relationships yield access to resources[ii], and people with more sparse, constrained networks have less access. The narrower the network, as in the case of economically, cognitively, socially, culturally and symbolically less endowed classes, the narrower and more pronounced the focus of identity is.

The point here is that when identity is not seen as corresponding with an essence, but as being multiple, there is a basis for openness to others with partly overlapping sources of identity.     

The second part of my answer to a possible problem for virtue politics is as follows. I define virtues as competencies for living what one thinks is the good life. Now, not to provide an obstacle to democratic debate and negotiation, the virtues should be procedural, not substantive, about how people deal with each other, not about what the true good life is. That is indeed, and here I preserve a core of liberalism, to be left to individual choice.

And that is, in fact, as I argued before (in item 305), what the classical, ‘cardinal’ virtues are: reasonableness, courage, moderation, and justice, which are procedural, leaving open the choice of the good life.

Now, formerly society was also segregated, even more radically than now, in blocks, according to religion or political ideology, each with their own churches, schools, unions, regions, neighbourhoods, even shops. Was that not a problem? Somehow the elites at the top of those blocks managed to compromise, run democracy, in varying political coalitions.[iii] 

I wonder: could it be that the old ‘elites’, whose job it was to negotiate democracy, had those cardinal virtues, but have been losing legitimacy as a result of losing them, in unwillingness to be open to other views, lack of courage to take political risks of not satisfying the prejudices of their constituencies[iv], lack of moderation (in pursuing excessive remuneration), and lack of justice (in looking mostly to self-interest, as they were told to do in the economics classes that gained them a position).     


[i] I pick this up from a comment made by Ian Buruma in a discussion, on Dutch TV, on the future of democracy, on July 2nd 2017.
[ii] And to different forms of capital, as suggested by Bourdieu: economic, cognitive, social, cultural, and symbolic. He looked at identity in terms of positions in ‘fields’. I think that networks is better, more specific.
[iii] This is another comment I pick up from Ian Buruma, made in the debate mentioned above.
[iv] Made more difficult, I must admit, by demands for transparency of political deliberation, which earlier could be more secluded.

Friday, July 21, 2017


325. Causes of a crisis of trust

Trust is said to be like clean air: one does not talk about until it is no longer there. And now there is a lot of such talk. The word ‘trust’ careens across daily discourse. Why? Where does the smog of distrust come from?

There is, I propose, a pernicious combination of three conditions: a great need for trust, a lack of courage for it, and a lack of trustworthiness to merit it. I consider each in turn.

First, an increased need for trust arises from an increasing complexity and interdependence in society, in division of labour that went global, with fluid capital and labour, yielding shifts of production and employment, waves of refugees, tax evasion, and pressures on governments to accommodate the demands of multinationals. Lack of trust on these matters has led to revolt against free trade and ruling elites, intolerance regarding refugees, a re-emergence of nationalism, and shelter sought in authoritarian regimes.

In communication, opportunities for connection have exploded on the Internet, with social media, such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc. There, lack of trust leads people to cocoon in bubbles of the likeminded, and to blast invective across the media.

Second, there is a lack of courage for trust. Trust entails giving room for actions of others, which yields risk, in room for action against your interest. Without risk there is no relation. It requires courage to accept that, and also resilience, to cope with setbacks and disappointments. I discussed this in an item on adaptiveness (item 321). To cushion courage, one needs some slack, a buffer of time, money and attention, to absorb setbacks. Trust is not being nice to each other: Precisely because there is trust one can give the other ‘a piece of one’s mind’.

Present society, at least in highly developed Western Europe, has become accustomed to risk avoidance. Conditions have to be safe. This leads to the excessive, perverse control of professional work, discussed in the foregoing item in this blog.

To connect with earlier item in this blog (323, 324): Control may be based on scripts, as a generalized frame, but must allow for interpretations and variations depending on the context, as narratives.          

Third, there is a lack of the trustworthiness that is required to deserve trust. In economics classes, prospective managers and politicians have been told that self-interest is a virtue, ‘greed is good’, and efficiency is the basis for prosperity and happiness. But trust requires give-and-take, with openness and awareness of the interests of the other, and some appreciation of the intrinsic value of trust-based relationships. 

Liberalism has won the day, and in liberalism virtue is a private, not a public concern. Debate on morals is seen as a stifling moralism that hampers markets, but trust requires virtues of reasonableness, empathy, openness to others, moderation, and justice, as argued earlier in this blog.

Here, a problem also is the following. In more complex organizations and institutional structures, with division of labour, intertwining interests, roles and positions, responsibilities become diffuse, and blame can be dissolved, across people, and that also undermines trustworthiness. This is part of what earlier I have called ‘system tragedy’.   

Saturday, July 15, 2017


324. Perverse control

In the absence of trust, in present society, professional practice is widely plagued by perverse, excessive, counter-productive control. Oversight is often necessary, but it has gone too far, become perverse, locking professional workers, including teachers, medical doctors, scientific researchers, etc. into protocols, with the goal of preventing accidents, malpractice, cheating, incompetence, and opportunism.

That has perverse effects of failing to achieve the stated objective of efficiency and quality, and indeed achieving an opposite effect, in high costs, decline of motivation, inevitable loopholes, loss of a sense of own responsibility, strategic conduct ‘to beat the system’, resulting in less quality, and lack of room and incentive for experimentation needed for innovation.

In the business literature there is a stream on ‘communities of practice’. There, it is a received wisdom that professional practice is too rich, i.e. too complex, context-dependent and variable, due to accumulating experience and innovation, to be caught in fixed protocols.

Here I aim to dig a little deeper, using the preceding items in this blog. In those terms, the argument against rigorous, formalized, top-down control is that they entail the pretention that practice can be governed by scripts, while in fact it should be seen more in analogy to narrative. The script constitutes the canon, and remains guiding, but should allow for individual variation in interpretation, depending on context and experience. In other words, work should be conducted according to the spirit, not the letter of a script, taking the script as a platform for deviation even if it looks like deviance.

This does not entail full release of control, but room for deviance, subject to argument and subsequent demonstration of success.

There is nothing new in this. It is found also in legal litigation, where law is to be interpreted with allowance for special circumstances and varying perspectives.

In philosophy one finds it in the practical wisdom, ‘phronesis’, proposed by Aristotle.

Earlier in this blog (item 75) I pleaded for ‘horizontal control’, where vertical, top-down imposition of protocols is replaced by debate and negotiation between controller and controlled, where the latter can bring in experience and evidence of deviations from rules that work. By taking part in this, the controller deepens its insight into what works, and thereby becomes an increasingly attractive partner in debate. The aim also is to reduce controls to a minimum, to reduce costs of control, and to ensure that they are feasible and functional, in line with practice.

This yields a concrete form of the otherwise perhaps remote notion of narrative as opposed to scripts. This also connects with the role of ‘voice’ in relationships, mentioned several times in preceding items in this blog.

So, the excess of top-down control is explained, in part, by a misapprehension of the nature of professional work.

Another part of the explanation is cultural, in an excess of risk avoidance, due to lack of resilience, inability to absorb disappointments, setbacks, to fall and get up to go on. A lack of adaptiveness, to connect with a previous blog: lack of flexibility, robustness. Hence the lack of trust. Trust is giving room for action, and that carries risk. Without risk life is lifeless, society stagnates, without trust. 
    

Saturday, July 8, 2017


323. Script and narrative

In this blog (item 31) I presented my theory of invention, in the form of a ‘cycle of discovery’.  To clarify it I used the notion of script (item 35). A script is a structure of connections between nodes that represents and guides action. The nodes represent constituent actions, linked into a coherent whole of a practice. The links represent a sequence, logical implication or causal action, or transfer or sharing of resources. The classical example is that of a restaurant, with nodes of entering, seating, selection, ordering, eating, paying and leaving.

The notion of a script is useful to illustrate the difference between different forms of innovation: change of nodes, the sequence of nodes, the connections between them. Thus the innovation of self-service restaurant entailed a change of sequence: selection, ordering and paying precede seating and eating.  

It also illustrates how there can be levels of innovation, embedded in each other: nodes have their own subscripts: different forms of paying in the payment node, for example. They also have superscripts: how the restaurant is embedded in its environment, in its location, access and parking, in arrival and departure of clients and supplies..

Here I want to elaborate on the notion of scripts, again using an insight from Jerome Bruner, as I did in the preceding item.[i]

Ever since I started using the notion of a script, I have been reflecting on what the ontological status of it is. Is it something given objectively, documented in some written operating procedure, as used for training personnel, perhaps, or as the printed script of a theatrical play? Or is it a mental representation of the process, built by participants in it, perhaps not even deliberate but subconsciously, forming part of ‘tacit knowledge’? In that case, how rigorous or even definite is it? And how idiosyncratic?

Bruner contrasted the script with what he called a ‘narrative’. That has the following features:
1.      It is ‘diachronic’: developing and varying in time
2.      It is particular, not universal but context- and individual-specific
3.      It refers to ‘intentional states’ (belief, desire, fear, ….) and how they are affected by events. It is not a logical or causal explanation. It indicates reasons, not causes.
4.      It is hermeneutic: subject to a variety of interpretation. It does not carry a single ‘true’ or ‘correct’ meaning but yields an intuitively appealing account.
5.      It is not only the case that he meaning of the whole depends on that of the parts, but also the other way around: the meaning of the parts depends on that of the whole, depending on the context. Bruner notes that this narrative comprehension is one of the earliest moves of mind to appear in the young child.

Concerning the last point Bruner also refers to the ‘hermeneutic circle’, which I discussed (in item 36 of this blog) and used as an example of the emergence, in the emergence and shift of meaning, in the preceding item on emergence.

And now the point is this. Narratives require scripts as necessary background, but those do not constitute the narrative itself. Scripts are often implicit, and may be breached ‘from a precipitative event’, which leads one to see things in a different light. Narratives vary with context and individual while ‘maintaining complicity with the canon’.

Two things, now. First, this is strongly reminiscent of the distinction de Saussure made between ‘langue’, which is the canon, and deviations and variations from it, in ‘parole’, which I mentioned in the preceding item in this blog.

Going back to invention, there is a canon of established ‘normal practice’, in a script, which may or may not be written down, as the ‘langue’ of the practice, but it allows for idiosyncratic and contextual variation, the ‘parole’ of invention, and that is what drives invention from application in novel contexts, as argued in my ‘cycle of discovery’.   


[i] Jerome Bruner, The narrative construction of reality, Critical Equiry, 18/1 (1991), 1-21.