Saturday, September 23, 2017


334. Crossing distance or crossing it out

In this blog, and elsewhere, I have discussed the benefits and problems of what I called ‘cognitive distance’, variety of thought. Too much distance makes collaboration difficult, too little distance can yield boredom and stagnation. Therefore, there is ‘optimal distance’: large enough to make contact potentially interesting, but not so large that this potential cannot be realised. Crossing distance requires effort and experience in dealing with people who think differently. As this ability grows, one can deal with greater distance.

One of the problems of present society is that people isolate themselves in segregated groups, with different group identities, as discussed in the preceding item in this blog. They become unable and unwilling to engage in reasonable debate, giving and assimilating constructive criticism, and see difference as an assault on their identity. Rather than crossing distance, distance is crossed out.

This due, in part, to the development of the ‘filter bubbles’ created by internet companies (Google, Facebook Amazon, ….) who tailor information, in the form of news, gossip, and product offerings, to the profiles of people constructed on the basis of past choices and contacts. People get served with what they are used to. This reduces cognitive distance.

Partly, the development is due also to people seeking their identity in culturally homogeneous groups, as discussed in the preceding item of this blog.

The romanticism of being nested in a culturally homogeneous group, with shared blood, soil, and national mythology, wins out from the romanticism of transcending boundaries and engaging in adventures of the new.

The process becomes a vicious circle, with lack of trust and understanding further tightening the noose of cultural identity, and people nestling deeper in their cultural cocoons. .

Lacking practice in dealing with people who think differently, at larger cognitive distance, one unlearns how to cope with it. People neglect to learn to give and absorb constructive criticism. Differences of view condense and harden in differences of identity, which are less open to compromise and negotiation.

This cultural entrenchment is to the detriment of both individuals and society. Individuals suffer from a narrowing of perspective that stints intellectual and spiritual development. Society loses its ability for reasonable debate, to reconcile different views and interests in peace and trust.

Saturday, September 16, 2017


333. The curse of identity

I my treatment of identity in this blog (in item 8) I distinguished between individual and collective or cultural identity. Note that the term ‘identity’ entails sameness, in being identical to oneself, or identical to others belonging to the same cultural identity.

It is becoming a curse how people take collective identity as the basis for life, and for their outlook on society. The trouble with such identity is that it is exclusive: excluding, judging, discriminating, rejecting those that do not belong to that identity.

The notion of identity steps into the trap of essentialism, which, I have argued in this blog (in item 10), derives from an ‘object bias’ in thought (item 29). That bias bases abstractions such as identity, culture, justice, human nature, good and bad, virtue, etc. on metaphors of objects in time and space.

Particularly catching is the container metaphor: one treats a concept as a box in which something is in or out. Here: you have a certain identity or not, and if you do that is because you partake in some essence belonging exclusively to that identity. You are an Aryan or Jew, white or black, male or female, member of a nation or not. You cannot be in two boxes at the same time, or partly in and partly out.

As I argued earlier in this blog (item 209), an alternative conception of identity might be that of a node in networks that is more or less distant from other nodes, in terms of connections that are shared directly or indirectly, yielding a notion of identities that overlap more or less.

As I argued in item 265, individual identity is formed in interaction with other people, and their being different helps us to escape from prejudice and myopia.    

I proposed that human cognition has adopted the object bias as a result of a long evolution where adequate identification of things moving in time and space was a prerequisite for survival. In present society it is working against us, jeopardizing the survival of humanity.

Psychologically, and also as an outcome of evolution, identitarianism arises from, and enhances, the ‘parochial altruism’ that I also discussed in this blog (in item 205). Humans have an instinct for altruism within their group, at the price of suspicion against outsiders.

In the notion of identity, I propose, parochial altruism and the container metaphor form a vicious pair. You belong to a identity or you do not, and if you don’t you are suspect.  

We should try to loosen the noose of parochial altruism with cultural means, extending the perceived boundary of the group, to extend the reach of altruism, but we are doing the opposite, in the present re-emergence of nationalism and other forms of identitarianism.

There are several ideas of identity formation. One is that of the autonomous individual, emerging from the Enlightenment and liberalism, as a footloose, cosmopolitan, hedonistic individual from nowhere and anywhere. Another form is that of identifying with some single-issue group: pro- or anti- abortion, white supremacists, black supremacists, gender supremacists, animal rights activists, environmental activists, and so on. A third form is identification with a nation’s mythical ‘blood and soil’. On the whole, then, individualism is either supreme or it is lost in group identity. If you are not black you carry the guilt of slavery, if not a female the guilt of male domination, and so on.

What happened with tolerance, recognition and acceptance of differences of opinion, race and religion, with empathy and solidarity across groups, needed for democracy? That was found in forms of both liberalism and socialism that now both seem to be in eclipse. Now, tolerance of other identities comes to be seen as betrayal of one’s own identity. 

There is more to identity groups becoming segregated and inimical. I will discuss that in the next item.

Saturday, September 9, 2017


332. Truth as a trojan horse

From the classical Greeks, western thought has inherited an urge towards truth at all cost. But that drive has turned out to be a trojan horse. As in the work of Nietzsche, for example, it has been shown that, to tell the truth, there is no truth.

A dominant view, for long, has been that truth is reference to something in reality, representing reality. According to one tradition this lies in elementary observation statements that refer to objective reality as we see it. Here, facts form the rock bottom of truth.

This view was demolished by Kant, who claimed that observation is formed by mental frames, such as those of space, time, and causality, that do not reveal objective reality as it is in itself.

Another tradition, going back to Plato, is to see reality as we observe it as confused, chaotic and in flux, while real reality lies behind that, in the form of universal, eternal ideas. This was also the recourse that Descartes took to ‘clear and distinct ideas’ as the basis for truth, and Spinoza with his ‘adequate ideas’.

Both forms of truth as reference have been taken down in postmodern thought, in the idea that human beings, and different people in different ways, mentally construct both observation and ideas, which eliminates objective truth. Ideas and words do not represent reality but constitute it, making what we see as reality. Yet we secretly maintain belief in the myth that we see the world as it is. It is difficult to act in the world without it.   

Also, many have shrunk back from the resulting relativism exhibited by postmodernism. If there is no objective truth, is there any difference left between mere opinion and truth? Then every opinion is as good as any other, and the basis for rational debate seems to disappear. And if there is no basis for debate, what remains to settle differences is violence.

Is there a way out? Can we save facts while acknowledging that they are not (fully) objective. As noted by Kant, facts without theory are blind, theory without facts is empty.   

There is a way out, in the notion of truth as ‘warranted assertibility’, taken from American pragmatic philosophy, which I have been using in this blog.

For a theory to have the best possible truth value, it must be shown to ‘work’ in terms of logic, purported facts, and application. While facts can be disputed, because they are informed by theory, they are still often, though not always, more reliable than theoretical speculation.

A case where facts depend on theory is that of black matter. It has never been observed, but its assumption is needed to account for movements of galaxies. Releasing the notion does not become an option until an alternative theory for accounting for those movements is found, as may now be happening, in an emerging information theory of the universe.      

With truth as warranted assertibility, counter to postmodern relativism debate becomes more important than ever. Precisely because we cannot grasp objective truth, the only chance we have of correcting our errors is debate, in confrontation between different views constructed by different people along different course of life, in different environments.  

Also, there is an evolutionary argument for a form of realism to remain. If we assume that the world exists in some form, even if unknowable to us, and we construct ideas on the basis of interaction with it, then in evolution and personal development ideas that are not to some extent adequate to that world would not have survived. False ideas obstruct survival.

That argument is not air-tight, however. I have speculated before, in this blog, that human thought operates on the basis of an object-bias: we think of things and abstractions, such as truth, and identity, as if they are objects, of concepts as if they are containers. That may have served humanity well for a long stretch of its evolution, as hunter-gatherers, but may now be working against survival.

Lacan characterized philosophy as love of truth, not truth as power but as weakness, a lack. I would revise that as follows: love not as closure, as terminal, but indeed as a lack, but a shifting one, imperfection on the move.

Saturday, September 2, 2017


331. Just reward and allocation

What is a just reward or remuneration? A soccer star or pop star earns many times more than, say, someone in nursing. Is that justified? The soccer player and pop singer have a talent that they have developed with great commitment end effort, and that is an accomplishment. They also have the luck that their particular talents are scarce and in demand. Here we find the economic argument of utility as satisfaction of demand. People are prepared to pay more for a good soccer match or pop concert than for medical care.

Then, it is necessary to recognize other values than only success in a market, such as value for society, in contributions to society. However, one can also argue that the soccer player or pop singer have cultural, symbolic value. The soccer player as symbol for the hero who takes risks and overcomes pain and opponents, and does that together, in a team. One can see the singers song as an expression and celebration of human emotion.

One can argue that talent is mere luck, but one can also argue that everyone has talent for something, however modest, and that utilizing talent not only has instrumental, economic value, as a source of income, but also intrinsic value: it is satisfying to do something you are good at, and for that one should be willing to sacrifice at least some economic value.

Justice also requires the virtue of moderation: one can be immoderate in ambition and
excellence, but not at the cost of others, and should be willing and able to engage in give and take.

Also, economic success arises not only from talent and commitment, and supply and demand, but also builds on a vast heritage of institutions (rule of law), culture (knowledge), and infrastructure (roads, technology, etc.). That heritage has been produced at the cost of blood, sweat and tears of many generations, who had to conquer it all. This calls for some modesty, and the willingness to share the returns from that heritage with those who were less lucky in the lottery of genes and birthplace.

Next to remuneration for work, how about allocation of scarce resources? Is that to be left entirely to markets? The argument for markets is to let scarcity lead to higher prices, which evokes new supply that resolves the shortage. That does not apply when there are hard constraints, for example from nature. Temporary shortage can lead to extortion, as in the supply of water after a disaster.

Markets cannot cover everything. Alternative forms of allocation are a lottery, queue, rationing, and ‘attribution’: allocation according to certain criteria. A degree or Nobel prize requires attribution of merit, and would lose its value when sold to the highest bidder.

Some measures are debatable for other reasons. How about letting rich dentists shoot a rhino at an exorbitant price, to use the proceeds for protecting rhino’s? What if due to a ban on child labour people die from hunger? Perhaps one should first abolish hunger and get children to school, and then forbid child labour.  

Markets are clever in circumventing non-market allocation. Michael Sandel[i] recounts the story of the mayor of New York who wanted to offer a free concert to the citizens, rich and poor, in the park, but because of limited capacity they had to queue for free tickets. An entrepreneur had vagrants stand in queue to collect tickets which he then auctioned to the rich.  

An example of attribution is attribution of merit, as in a contest or a prize. Another is attribution according urgency, as the triage in hospitals, with a waiting list in case of equal urgency.      


[i] Michael Sandel, What money can’t buy, Penguin 2013, p. 79.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


330. How to discriminate

Discrimination happens all the time. Some people get better jobs than others, more reward for the same job, more civil rights, and rewards while not doing anything for it. Discrimination has a bad name, but in some cases it is defensible, even laudable. What is what here?

When defensible it is better called distinction. One gets more according to clear criteria, such as accomplishment, as in winning a prize, or in selection based on talent. How about looks? Why not, if there is selection according to height or strength?

Looks and talent are based on luck, a draw in the lotteries of genes and location of birth. Accomplishment also requires courage, commitment, endurance, sacrifice, resilience, and absorbing pain. Mere looks do not.  

When, then, does distinction switch into discrimination? Looks may not require effort but are at least individual. Discrimination arises, I think, when distinction is based on mere membership of a group, according to race, religion, ideology, gender, or age, regardless of individual characteristics or actions.

Is that always to be condemned? What about membership of the Ku Klux Klan, a fascist or a terrorist group? Usually, discrimination is considered all right when politically correct, in a certain community. Its moral acceptability depends on what form it takes. It is wrong when resulting in unequal civil rights, such as refusing fascists the rights to a fair trial, or freedom of expression short of inciting violence or hatred. It is not necessarily wrong if n those rights are maintained and, again, people are treated as individuals, not merely as members of a group.

Is profiling all right then, according to race, for example, where group membership is not used by itself, for judgement, let alone conviction, but only as a trigger for attention, based on crime statistics, say, for further investigation of individual conduct,?

In this blog I have argued for virtues far beyond economic merits of efficiency or utility, but efficiency is still one of many considerations. There is an argument of efficiency here: given the statistics and scarce resources of control, it is efficient to focus on certain groups. But is that the practice? What if people were profiled as bankers, say, for further investigation of ethical conduct, given the experience of unethical banking? Or are statistics used selectively as an excuse for unethical, discriminatory profiling?     

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.

Saturday, July 1, 2017


322. Reference and constitution

In this blog a leading principle is that of philosophical pragmatism. It can be summarized as follows: the human being perceives, senses, feels and thinks according to mental processes that guide actions but are also formed by them, in interaction with its environment, especially other people.

As a result, the human being is socially constituted. However, every individual is also unique in its mental construction along its individual life path.

In other words, to connect with the preceding items in this blog, the individual is emergent, in its mental construction. Its parts constitute an identity, as a coherent subject, which is not present in its parts. And while its path of development is constrained by genetic potential, its outcome cannot be predicted. It is uncertain as a result of interaction between self and other. Hence relationships also are emergent.

This presents a major challenge to economic science, as will be argued in later items.

Here I want to add to previous discussions of meaning (items 32, 168 in this blog). There I used the distinction between reference and sense (derived from the work of Frege), but with a twist. Reference is what an expression refers to. The word ‘cat’ refers to the collection of all cats. Sense was defined by Frege as ‘The way in which something is given’, the way it presents itself. I turned that into ‘the way in which we identify’, i.e. how we identify something as something. How we identify some animal as a cat.

I argued that the latter, sense, is idiosyncratic, with largely personal connotations attached to the concept, collected along one’s path of life. We have all had a variety of experiences with different cats. This connects with the distinction that de Saussure made between ‘langue’, the given shared understanding of meaning, at any moment, and ‘parole’, idiosyncratic language use that varies between people and over time.

Here I want to add to that discussion, using an insight from Jerome Bruner[i], a philosopher who has been an important source of inspiration in several aspects of my work. The idea I want to pick up from him here is that in much of our thought and talk we ‘do not refer to the world but constitute it’. That captures well the idea, originating with Kant, that we cannot observe the world as it is in itself, but construe a virtual reality, a rendering of the world and our position in it. That is how we make sense of the world.

Much of that is not conscious, not a matter of rational reflection, let alone a testing of hypotheses.

Let’s face it: this constitution of our view of the world entails prejudice. Among other things, that yields a problem concerning claims of objective scientific knowledge. That claim lies not in individual objectivity but in debate between scientists, and is imperfect also there.    

It also fits with the idea that the knowing and sensemaking subject is not an objective, outside onlooker of the world, but part of it, constituting itself in it. That is found, for example, in Heidegger’s notion of ‘being in the world’.

So, there is constitution in a double sense. The individual is constituted by action and interaction in the world, and in the process it constitutes a representation, a virtual reality of that world. Since it is done in interaction with others there is some commonality, some shared sense and understanding, shaped in part by shared language (langue) and other forms of culture, as well as idiosyncrasy (parole), which yields the variety that feeds renewal of sense and purpose, both private and public. This is a crucial thing about humanity and society.           


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

Saturday, June 24, 2017


321. Adaptiveness

In the preceding item in his blog I discussed emergence, where elements produce wholes with properties not present in the elements. Emergence is studied as ‘adaptation’ in the research field of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS). A subfield of that is that of Agent-Based Computational Models (ABCM). There, interaction and adaptation of agents is simulated in computational models. I have used that, with a PhD candidate and a postdoctoral researcher, to study whether and how trust can arise in markets.[i]  

In general, such a model has at least the following elements: properties of agents (such as capabilities, preferences), a representation they make of relevant elements in their environment, rules for decision making, a mechanism whereby they observe and evaluate each other, adaptation, i.e. strengthening or weakening of rules and preferences, depending on perceived success, and the invention of new rules.

In this case the central question was under which circumstances, if at all, trust can emerge in markets, even while profit is the criterion of success, and agents can choose between competition and collaboration. They form an opinion on the trustworthiness of partners on the basis of loyalty in collaboration. Next to profit, trust may form part of the value of collaboration. The weight attached to trust relative to profit is adaptive, depending on realised profit. Their own trustworthiness is also adaptive. It is modelled as a threshold of defecting from a relationship: the higher the threshold, he greater the loyalty. In adaptation there is also a random element.

De model enabled us to investigate when and how frequently trust may grow even though success is measured as profit. The aim was to test claims from economics that under competition trust cannot survive. According to the simulations with the model, often trust does indeed grow, but it depends on the circumstances, governed by the settings of parameters of the model.     

Beyond this modelling, here I give a reflection on traits that help adaptiveness. If through the uncertainty of emergence it is not possible to determine ahead of time what may happen, then one must be prepared for the unexpected. There are several ways for his.

In robustness one chooses a way that is not sensitive to unexpected turns. Then one may lose some benefit in some cases but avoids heavy loss in others. Robustness can be explored in scenario analysis. There, one invents different possible futures (scenarios) to investigate how sensitive options are to differences between them.

In flexibility one choses a way that can easily and quickly be replaced by another, to adapt to circumstances as they arise.

In resilience one is resistant, able to incur and absorb adversity. One form of that it is create slack: excess capacity to absorb unforeseeable shocks, in money, time, space, reputation, or cognitive capacity.    

In Inventiveness one learns to learn, to invent new ways, depending on experience, and to analyse the conduct of others for their success, and to deliberately seek novel challenges by which one can discover new ways. That is found in the theory of invention that I discussed earlier in this blog (items 31, 35). 

Diversity is important for the evolution of a group (such as a species, in evolution, or an industry, in markets), and for discovery. It increases the chance that at least ome of the various forms fits whatever emerges.



[i] See: T. Klos & B. Nooteboom, Agent-based computational transaction cost economics,
Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control, 25 (2001): 503-526, Alexander Gorobets & Bart
Nooteboom, Adaptive build-up and breakdown of trust: An agent-based computational approach,
Journal of management and Governance,10 (2006): 277-306.

Saturday, June 17, 2017


320. Emergence

Reductionism is a form of scientism: the idea that natural science is the only respectable form of knowledge, on the basis of experimental facts and rigorous, preferably mathematically formalised argument. Reductionism is analytical: it decomposes phenomena into fundamental elements that together explain the whole.  

The opposition claims that ‘the whole is more than the sum of its parts’. In the formation of the whole something is added that cannot be found in the parts. That is called emergence. Aristotle already talked about it.  

Emergence is akin to self-organization. That arises in nature, as in evolution, where forms do not arise from ‘intelligent design’, but from random trials that are selected out when they do not function well enough to survive and replicate.

More generally, in emergence elements have a potential to unfold properties, in interaction with each other, and develop collective properties, depending on the environment.  

The fundamental theoretical argument for the novelty that is added in synthesis is the following. The whole, be it an organ, an organism, a brain, a sentence, an organization, a market, or a society, must achieve some coherent functioning to survive in its environment, which determines what works and what does not, and it must incorporate the conditions for it. As a consequence, not everything comes ‘from inside’, from the components, but also from outside, the functional conditions for survival. In that, the whole reflects the external conditions, which did not lie in the parts.  

Emergence arises widely in nature and society, on many levels. Chemistry arises from physics, biology from chemistry, evolution from genes, consciousness from neurons, organizations from people, markets from firms, consumers and institutions, societies from people, communities, culture, language and institutions.

In language, the meaning of a sentence depends on the meanings of words in it, but also, the other way around, word meaning also depends on sentence meaning. Earlier in this blog, I used the hermeneutic circle to analyse this (items 36, 252 in this blog). Concepts are embedded in sentences, where they obtain one of several potential meanings, but in the action context they can also acquire a new meaning, which shifts the concept. Here, the outside selection lies in the language community, and in what Wittgenstein called language games.

Meanings and ideas arise from action in the world. I proposed (in item 29) that this yields an object bias in our conceptualization of abstract notions as if they are like things moving in time and space, and in terms of ‘what you can do with them’ (affordances). That also connects with the idea from pragmatist philosophy that truth can be seen as ‘what works’.

Relationships are emergent. If individuals develop their perception and ideas, and their judgements, in interaction with their physical and social environment, then the course of  relationship is fundamentally uncertain. That means that it is not known beforehand what can happen. One may have expectations about what people may do, but one is regularly caught by surprise. One cannot even reliably predict one’s own responses.

In groups, social constellations, complexity increases further, in on he ne hand mimicry of conduct and on the other hand rivalry and rebellion, in agreement or conflict. As discussed elsewhere in this blog (item 205), it looks like people have both an instinct for survival, by protecting their interests, and an instinct for altruism, at least within one’s own group, where one is prepared to make sacrifices at the cost of self-interest, in what is called ‘parochial altruism’.

Organizations and institutions can lead to what I have called ‘system tragedy’ (items 109, 159, 187 in this blog). The culture of an organization, the (international) markets in which it finds itself, and the public institutions of laws and regulations, form expectations, positions, roles, interests, and entanglements between them, which routinely yield outcomes that were not expected or intended, and where guilt cannot easily be attributed to single individuals, who often could not, or did not dare to act otherwise, given their positions. An example is that of ‘the banks’.

History is even more complex. It anything is unpredictable it is that. Look at what has happened in just one year, with the rise of populism, the election of Trump, Brexit, and the rise, apparently out of nowhere, of Emmanuel Macron. With each of those one would have been declared a lunatic if one had predicted it. Where does that complexity come from?

In an earlier item in this blog (item 100), concerning the nature of causality, I analysed the emergence of the Dutch United East India Company (VOC) in the 16th-17th century, as a mix of causal factors of different kinds: accidental conditions of climate and geography, entrepreneurial action, eclipse of competitors, technological and organizational innovations, in more or less accidental ‘novel combinations’, and conditions of war. If any of those factors had been different, or occurred at another moment, nothing or something entirely different might have occurred.