Saturday, April 30, 2016

259. Voice and parrhêsia

In this blog, I have used the notion of voice, proposed by Albert Hirschman, in a discussion of the practical wisdom of trust. Here I make a connection with the notion of parrhêsia, discussed by Michel Foucault in his late work (in the form of lectures at the Collège de France, in 1984).

Parrhêsia is a form of truth telling, different from other forms, such as confession, prophecy, teaching, reporting, scientific and philosophical discourse. Those forms mostly entail technical or factual matters (techne, in ancient Greek), and they are mostly one-directional, keeping distance, staying aloof.

Parrhêsia, by contrast, is a matter of morality (ethos), requires commitment, and is bilateral, interactive. It accepts the uncertainty of what one effects in the other, and of his/her response. In being honest, it puts the relation at risk, the risk of a break, or of a defensive, aggressive response, or exit, to adopt that other notion from Albert Hirschman. Hence, it requires courage.

This makes it very much like voice, if not identical. Perhaps the notion of parrhêsia deepens the notion of voice. But also the other way around: voice complements parrhêsia.

Voice/parrhêsia is a form of benevolence and requires benevolence also on the part of the interlocutor, to be open to criticism, extending benefit of the doubt rather than jumping to conclusions and falling into suspicion when meeting opposition, or running away from it.

In other words, voice/parrhêsia requires trust and reciprocity in openness and benevolence. Trust is a condition for it as well an outcome of it. When voice meets voice it deepens.  

I propose that it does not entail ‘telling it all’, as Foucault suggested. Trust should not be blind and openness has its limits, to limit relational risk, for oneself and the other, and not to overtax the absorptive capacity and benevolence of the interlocutor, and indeed also one’s own. It is fragile and requires care.

Foucault also discusses the extreme form of cynicism, in the classical sense, of a brutal, offensive, uncompromising telling of stark, naked truth, often combined with an exhibitionist renunciation of worldly goods. If that is a form of voice, it is an exit form of it.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

258. System power and self-indoctrination

In the preceding item in this blog I discussed a position of liberal communitarianism, where I recognized the problem of getting imprisoned by indoctrination in a community.
Foucault opened my eyes to how institutional environments (prisons, medical clinics, insane asylums) and social arrangements (sexuality, scientific disciplines) can condition those involved to take for granted what happens, to accept what goes on as normal or even the way it should be, even if they are in fact victims of it. I mentioned this earlier in this blog, in items 50, 159, and 244. In his later philosophy, Foucault moved from coercive arrangements to ways of forming oneself. There, he seemed to move from a system perspective to a perspective of bilateral interaction between individuals. Towards the end of his life Foucault offered the notion of ‘shaping one’s life as a work of art’.

How can one escape from institutional power? In item 244 I offered a linguistic analysis, connecting with Žižek’s analysis of the ‘symbolic order’. Here I take an approach from my analysis of cognitive development as a construction of mental structures by assimilation and accommodation.

Institutional power arises more widely than in the more or less closed and coercive environments discussed by Foucault, in what earlier in this blog I called ‘system tragedy’. I used the case of banking as an example. Not only people who suffer from perverse institutional power but also those who implement it or direct it are caught in the system, against their preference or conscience, in ‘prisoner’s dilemma’s’.

In some of the environments studied by Foucault people are more or less locked in, with little or no alternative (prisons, asylums). Elsewhere (scientific communities, banks) the lock-in is more voluntary. In all cases, what seems to be going on is something like self-indoctrination. It is not so much that people are told or pressured to think in a certain way but develop it themselves by assimilating the practice in which they live, and accommodating to it. Cognitive dissonance may also play a role: blinding oneself to the negative not to feel guilty about accommodating.

What way out? In his discussion of ‘technologies of the self’, Foucault recognized that in human relations power is inevitable and can be positive, in creating options and opportunities, but one should avoid the negative power of domination, coercion, in both the submission to it and the practice of it, taking freedom for counter-power or exit. From the present perspective of self-indoctrination in a social system, I would add that one should always maintain windows on outside views and practices, as a source of variety, an opportunity to differ from inside doctrine, a basis for saying ‘no’ to the system.

For bankers that should be relatively easy: listen to your customers and to criticism from society. For inmates of prisons or asylums it is a different story. I wonder: could the function of gang formation and mutual violence in prisons be their way of saying no, of maintaining some basis of their own for escaping full accommodation to the system?

And what about practices on the internet? It appears that people voluntarily lock themselves up in virtual communities of agreement, even on the most absurd, fabricated claims to truth, thus shielding themselves from disagreement, from saying ‘no’, thus indoctrinating themselves and robbing themselves of sources of authenticity. 

Refusing to be locked up in the closure of a community requires an act of social or civic courage, with the risk of losing social legitimacy and getting isolated and ostracised, becoming an outsider. But there is a compensating joy at crafting authenticity, taking responsibility for developing one’s self. Indeed, perhaps like creating one’s life as a work of art, as Foucault said. 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

257. Liberal communitarianism

There is a usual opposition between liberal individualism and communitarianism. Here I argue for a position in between: liberal communitarianism.

Colin Bird[i] argued that the apparent unity of liberal individualism is a myth. In fact there are two fundamentally different brands: the ‘aggregative service view’ and the ‘associative expressive view’. The service view is utilitarian, looking only at outcomes in terms of utility, regardless of goals or intentions, and the expressivist view is Kantian, deontological, i.e. looks at intentions and goals.

The service view assumes a variety of autonomous agents with a multiplicity of values. It is the task of the state only to provide conditions for the realization of those values, not to interfere with them in any way. For example: the state supplies schooling, and it is up to people to make use of it. Mainstream economists adhere to this view, though mostly implicitly. Here freedom is purely negative: freedom from outside interference.

The expressivist view assumes an ideal individual that should seek to realize corresponding ideal, universal values. It is a task of the state to provide conditions for realizing those values, even if the individual is not aware of them. If people do not utilize schooling because they are not aware of their potential, they are to be made aware. Here freedom is positive: providing access to self-realization.

Both views run into problems. The problem with the service view is that different values or utilities cannot easily be aggregated and often conflict. To safeguard religion one may have to limit freedom of expression. And vice versa. The problem with the expressivist view is this: who determines what the ideal individual is? During the French revolution, the Jacobins and Robespierre enforced their view of the free citizen, with ‘virtuous’ terror.

The communitarian view, in contrast with both liberal views, takes as its point of departure the social constitution of the human being, as argued at length in this blog. Like the liberal service view it adopts a view of diverse individuality, rather than the universal ideal of the expressivist liberal view. Like the expressivist liberal view it recognizes that individual values may have to be shaped to some extent by education or other forms of guidance. However that is a social, not a political activity.  

The problem with communitarianism is that it can fall into the view that there is some collective spirit, rooted in history and expressed in myth, a shared cultural identity inculcated into individuals, which takes over their autonomy, yielding totalitarianism. We see that in forms of nationalism. Colin Bird, who pleads for a form of expressive individualism, also asks, quite rightly, ‘which community’? The family, municipality, nation, race, or what? If it does not fall into totalitarianism, communitarianism falls into relativism. He also notes that social constitution is not always a good thing. One may be misformed into perversity. Hence, according to Bird, the need to adopt and defend the notion of an ideal individual.

One can avoid those problems, up to a point, with the constructivist view of individual identity argued for in this blog. As Colin Bird noted it is an error to think that non-liberal or anti-liberal thought must be non-individualistic. There is an individualistic form of communitarianism, as follows. The individual constructs its mental and spiritual identity on the basis of its unique genetic endowment, from action in specific social, economic and cultural environments, in individual life history. The answer to the question ‘Which community’ is: all of them are part of the environment that provides the ‘input’ of the construction of the self. The self is not autonomous in its social formation but it builds some degree of autonomy, or at least individuality, in its construction of the self. The role of the state includes concern with the means and conditions for such development.

Concerning the underlying ethics, it is neither utilitarian, as in the liberal service view, nor deontological, universalist, as in the liberal expressivist view. In this blog I have proposed virtue ethics as an alternative to both.

I grant that there remains a problem of indoctrination of individuals by the institutional environment they are in, to the point that even victims of it take it for proper and justified, as shown by Michel Foucault, with his work on prisons, clinics, and mental institutions, and power exerted in knowledge systems. In this blog I have discussed the notion of ‘system tragedy’. It is a serious issue how one may escape from such binds. The liberal expressivist will claim that for it one needs some universal ideal of human individuality. I would rather reserve it for the striving of the individual, who may tap from a variety of sources to seek its own ideal. In that, being a communitarian, I am more liberal than the liberal expressivist.    

[i] Colin Bird, The myth of liberal individualism, Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

256. Rest and restlessness

This is the last item in a series on time, duration, inspired by the work of Henri Bergson.

Is restlessness good, or not? Without restlessness there is no development and no creation. But according to the philosopher Schopenhauer we are driven by a restless will to satisfaction that is never achieved, and if we think we have achieved it, we experience insufferable boredom. We may be relieved from that race of craving, but only temporarily, by an aesthetic experience, a piece of Bach, say. For Schopenhauer a genius is able to escape from personality with its frenzied will, literally in ecstasy, stepping out of the self. So what is creation: restlessness or rest?

Ignaas Devisch[i] defines restlessness as an impassioned striving for what one considers meaningful. Here the positive is built into the definition. It implies voluntariness, not being dragged along in what one sees as senseless. That would not be restlessness but unrest. It yields negative stress. But passion also means suffering (as in the passion of Christ). The passion of creation can be painful. It gives stress, but in a positive sense. It can also be a surrender to a ‘flow’, an effortless transport, as if arising out of itself.

In the famous film Amadeus, about Mozart, there is a scene where Salieri, rival of Mozart, choking with envy, reads through a manuscript by Mozart in which there is no a single correction or strikeout, ‘as if God himself whispered it in his ear’.

Serendipity is the apparently unprepared and effortless reception of an illumination, as a strike of lightning, out of nothing. That is only apparent. It presents itself only to the prepared mind. The impression that it is as if there was no preceding thought or effort arises from the fact that much of our mental activity is subconscious, in ‘tacit’ knowledge. Much learning, doing and thinking breeds mental structures without one’s knowing about it, and those provide the capacity for sense making and receipt of an illumination.

But learning also requires rest and contemplation, a settling of the dust, relaxation of impulse. Uninterrupted change, without that, derails in neurosis, a directionless bounding from one hunch to another. I think in letting go also lies the importance of sleep: the mental digestion, sifting, and association of  impulses in the brain produced by the action of the day, to settle into stabilized circuits in the brain. Rest, release of control, surrender to that process, is also needed to allow for chance that generates the illumination. That is how dreams somehow yield nonsensical sense.

This is part, I think, of the more general principle, discussed also elsewhere in this blog, that development and invention require an alternation of stability and change, rest and restlessness, of assimilation and accommodation.      

In his early work on aesthetics of Nietzsche offered an opposition and combination of Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo is harmony, equilibrium, rest. Dionysus is orgy, the unrestrained, the destruction of equilibrium, creative destruction, restlessness. Nietzsche was inclined to the Dionysian, but recognized the need for the Apollonian.

People usually have more aptitude for the one or the other, and then the combination of the two requires collaboration or taking turns. In organizations we see that, for example, in the separation of a department of R&D and one of production. In development, exploration, less is fixed, there is more room for surprise, a wider scope, more faces in different directions. In production the perspective is tighter, more oriented to efficiency and fine-tuning, in exploitation of existing knowledge, skills and means.

Here one sees that combination or alternation of the two is needed also for economic reasons, but I think that applies also in the mental and bodily economy of personal development. Without stability there is no functioning for short term survival. Without change and development there arise stagnation and falling back. Another reason is epistemic: one needs to apply what exists in order to learn about its limitations and to gather elements for renewal, and gain inspiration for possible directions for it.      

[i] Ignaas Devisch, Restlessness, plea for a boundless life (in Flemish), De Bezige Bij, 2016.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

255. Continuity and discontinuity: Bergson, Derrida and Bachelard

Gaston Bachelard criticized Bergson on two connected points[i]. First, in his ‘philosophie de repos’ (philosophy of rest) Bachelard claimed that Bergson assumes continuous change too much, in his concepts of duration and ‘creative evolution’, neglecting the discontinuities where development temporarily halts. That criticism would apply also to Derrida. Second, connected to that, in his ‘philosophie du non’[ii] (philosophy of no) he claimed that Bergson neglects the role of destruction, creative destruction, in development, assuming too much cumulative confirmation. That criticism does not apply to Derrida, with his notion of deconstruction in processes of transformation.

I am not sure Bachelard’s criticism of Bergson is entirely justified. Bergson did recognize an alternation of maintenance and renewal of forms. But as in Derrida, there is limited recognition, or at least limited discussion, of the role of pause in flux, of discontinuity in continuity.

It seems plausible that in his endeavour to escape from the metaphor of objects in space that distorts our cognition, in what I call an ‘object bias’, and the crux of ‘duration’ that it connects past, present and future, Bergson neglected the role of stability in processes of change. He even doubted the stability of objects. In the preceding item in this blog, I indicated the possibility of ‘relative stability’. Some things are more stable than others.

After all, my argument for the object bias was my claim that it helped humanity to survive in a world of stable objects moving in space. This still allows for instability in the longer run. In the end even stones will decay. And when one looks at the atomic level of stones one encounter the buzz of elementary particles, or forces, or ‘strings’.

Or think of the pressure of a gas. The pressure is stable, but is caused by a ‘Brownian’ movement of gas molecules hitting the walls of a container.      

So, the question now is how much discontinuity there may be in processes of change.

Bachelard offered the apt notion of rhythm, and different rhythms interacting, in nature and thought. Think of the diurnal and seasonal rhythm of life and nature. The circulation of blood has a pulse. Light is a wave (of particles; this is one of the mysteries of modern physics), and as such has a pulse. 

I refer again to my ‘cycle of invention’, where pauses of consolidation are needed, some stability to reflect, to explore the limits and possible alternatives for established practice. Ongoing change without pause would throw us into neurosis, into a blind groping about.

But how are we to understand this: what is it that pauses, remains relatively stable, and how can something be stable while still moving? Here, as I did before, I seek recourse in the notion of a script.

To recall: a script is a structure of nodes, which may represent component activities, elements in a theory, or words in a sentence. The classic example is that of a restaurant, with nodes of entry, seating, ordering, eating, paying and leaving. In a self-service restaurant the nodes are similar (though not identical), but occur in a different order.

Now the point here is this. Nodes in their turn also have scripts, called subscripts, or repertoires of subscripts, such as ways of paying in the node for payment. While the restaurant may be stable, maintaining its overall script, there may be drastic changes in a subscript, such as, say, in the payment node the replacement of a check subscript by bank cards and credit cards, with their very different scripts.

One can change the composition of fixed parts or maintain the composition of changing parts. But in change of composition parts will not remain identical, though they may be stable relative to the composition, and changing parts will change the composition at least in its potential action, in what it can do.

In sum, there is discontinuity in continuity, and continuity in discontinuity. Perhaps Bergson neglected the first, while focusing on the second.

[i] In La dialectique de la durée, PUF, 1950.
[ii] La philosophy du non, PUF, 1940.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

254. How stable is reality?

Bergson adopted the view, taken from phenomenology, proposed by Husserl, that somehow we can ‘bracket’ our cognitive or linguistic predilections to see reality ‘as it really is’. That appears to be a reversal of the Kantian doctrine that we cannot observe reality ‘as it is in itself’. I cannot go along with such reversal.

But to what extent are we caught in biased conceptualization? If indeed, as I have proposed in this blog, we are caught in an ‘object bias’, conceptualizing everything by analogy to objects in space, is this inescapable?

Bergson claimed that his notion of ‘duration’, of flux, a process of emergence, yields insight not only into our subjective experience of time, and our thought, but also constitutes the true nature of the world around us. Things are processes. He defined intuition as duration in action, with the ability to dodge the object bias, to grasp the process nature of all things.

I think that perhaps with much trouble we can escape from forms of conceptualization, but while that may bring us into another way of seeing things that may in some sense be better, and we have good arguments, this will be a step in an ongoing ‘imperfection on the move’. That we can escape has been proven by modern physics, that managed to escape by means of mathematics, yielding results that are confirmed by experiment but are utterly baffling to our intuition.

Not to be imprisoned in the object bias, we might take metaphors for our thought from other things than objects in space. Earlier in this blog, I suggested to conceive of identity in terms of networks rather than some essential substance inhering in an individual or culture. But I grant that this still entails the basic notion of things (people) taking up positions in such networks. Yet, it allows for insight into the social embedding and development of identity, as opposed to the intuition of the individual as an autonomous object in space.     

Now, is ongoing process, rather than enduring substance, the reality of all things around us? Is the apparent stability of objects, as they move in space, an illusion?

In the preceding item in this blog I argued for a combination of stability and change. And then we can grasp a notion of ‘relative stability’: a greater or lesser stability relative to the speed and nature of change.

Living beings grow, age and die as they move around as distinct things in space. Earlier in this blog, in a discussion of identity (items 8-12), I argued that there is no fixed essence of identity that gets ‘expressed’ in life. Identity is not unitary, has multiple, possibly conflicting, aspects, and is subject to ongoing development, or Bergsonian duration, if you like. Yet, counter to David Hume, for example, there is some coherence and stability of identity, with the body as a focal point for perceptions, thought and emotions.

How about lifeless objects? Bergson noted that a cube of sugar changes as it is dissolved in water. How about a stone, say?  Chemistry and particle physics teach us that there of molecules and atomic, and sub-atomic processes of all matter.

With human beings it is not only physical growth and aging, but also development of identity, personality, in interaction with the world, especially the social world.

And how about changing mood, as a person moves about, acts and speaks?

Finally, as discussed before in this blog, the meanings of abstract concepts, such as happiness, identity, meaning, etc. have yet more instability. The example I gave was that the meaning of a words changes as it is shifted from one sentence to another. The stability of the form of the word, and its pronunciation, is misleading. 

In novels, meaning is more fluid than in established scientific discourse, and in poetry more fluid still.