‘The Re-Enchantment of the World’ as Social Theory and Critique

Introduction

‘The re-enchantment of the world’ emerged as a concept in the 1980s in the work of Maurice Berman, in a work on the philosophy and psychology of science of that name, and became adopted as a tellingly evocative motif among certain environmental writers and theologians. Ironically, until now it has not featured much within the social sciences; ironically, that is, because the expression was a challenge to the sociologist Max Weber’s characterisation of the predicament of post-Enlightenment societies through a phrase he had borrowed from the poet Schiller, ‘The Disenchantment of the World’. Through ‘disenchantment’ Weber had in mind, the distancing from the immediate experience of nature – and, indeed, the experience of the sacred in nature that had predominated in the medieval mind – through the emergence of the modern scientific viewpoint, and the increasing rationalisation and bureaucratisation of society enabled by the technological and economic advances of the age, which together created a sense of alienation of the individual, from the natural environment and the social other.

We may ponder the extent to which Weber’s characterisation of his own day has, in fact, become more pronounced over the intervening century, with the rise of consumerism, digital technologies, managerialism, big data and the threats to the environment. The aim in this essay is to begin a discussion about the sociological dimensions of re-enchantment as a critique and alternative to the disenchanted state of modernity. This is not a call for a return to a prescientific, magical or mythical view of the natural and social worlds. Rather, it attempts to undergird theoretically the idea that progress is only measured by advances in the empowerment of the individual, spiritually and materially, against those forces that attempt to block or suppress it. It begins with an exposition and critique of the theory of orthogenesis proposed by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1890-1955). Teilhard was not a sociologist, but a Jesuit priest and anthropologist. Nevertheless, his fusion of the religious and scientific insights gained through his life experience is a good point of departure for grappling with the idea of re-enchantment.

This essay explores and critiques another theme fundamental to the Western outlook and literary canon, which is the transformative moment in human history. This is biblical in origin, in the narrative of a divine providence, from the myth of the expulsion from Eden to the final judgement of the world. However, this narrative also finds expression in secular eschatologies, such as the Marxist conviction in the appearance of (or return to) a perfect communist society, driven by inherent contradictions in the economic structures and relationships in every hitherto existing form of society, or those social philosophies inspired by Hegel, such as that of Fukuyama, who believe that an ‘End of History’ will be achieved when the social form matches closely that in which the restless desires of humanity can be achieved. Teilhard himself foresaw such a moment, in which the material and divine will be fused, which he referred to as the ‘Omega Point’. I will contrast these perspectives with another, that of the evolution of both nature and society as stochastic, that is, open and random.

I have chosen to focus on these two thinkers – Teilhard de Chardin and Fukuyama – for another reason. Teilhard represents what could be called the enchanted view of the world, one of nature suffused by divinity, one of predestination and essential goodness. However, Teilhard’s vision was marred by his political naivety and his inability within his thought of dealing with the reality of human evil, a just criticism of his Catholic superiors in an otherwise unjustifiable suppression of his teaching and writing. Fukuyama, if anything, presents the completely opposite view: a disenchanted world in which the culmination of historical progress is a disinterested political state, which facilitates its citizens to pursue their individual means to alleviate their ennui. Fukuyama was heavily influenced by the Hegelian philosopher Alexandre Kojève, who saw in the establishment of the European Union, that epitome of a faceless and unaccountable bureaucracy, a political terminus, and so renounced philosophy to join its ranks. In addition, a discussion of re-enchantment would be incomplete without a consideration of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose ideas constitute an important precursor. Therefore, finally, I will examine four tenets of his doctrine of the will-to-power, a critique of whose principal motifs will help characterise the scope of re-enchantment.

Differentiation and Integration in Nature and Society

Teilhard proposed the idea, known as orthogenesis, that the evolution of the cosmos, life, consciousness and human history were all linked and guided by the immanent presence of the divine in nature and the human mind. He saw evidence for this in the appearance of increasingly complex forms of life, in the appearance of increasingly human-like forms in the fossil record, and in the appearance of increasingly large brains and resultant rise in intelligence, processes which he referred to, respectively, as complexification, hominisation and encephalisation. Teilhard theorised that evolution had passed through three qualitative stages, that of existence, life and consciousness, and proposed that this foreshadowed a fourth and final stage, that of super-consciousness, in which the divine and human become fused, in what he termed the Omega Point. Powering these developments he asserted the agency of two types of energy, which he termed radial and tangential. Radial energy he surmised was responsible for the radiation of the complex variety of life from a single point of origin, while tangential energy bound matter into more complex arrangements that allowed the emergence of higher order

Teilhard considered that he was advancing a scientific account of evolution, albeit one that incorporated a theological perspective, and at the time he wrote The Phenomenon of Man, his ideas were considered an important contribution to the debate on science and religion and sufficiently influential that the prominent evolutionist Julian Huxley wrote an effusive introduction to the book, perhaps despite reservations. Today, Teilhard’s ideas on evolution are largely discredited, and almost universally so by evolutionary biologists. Evolution is asserted to be a stochastic process, guided only by the principle of differential survival through adaptability to changing environmental conditions, underlain by natural, random variation. I would add two caveats to this. While natural selection explains in a very satisfactory manner the adaptability of nature, it does not explain – without a great deal of apparent fudging and speculating – the appearance of new forms of life and the transition between forms, for example reptiles to birds, or the appearance of bipedalism. That is not to argue for creationism or a form of guided evolution, only to point out that our understanding of these processes is still incomplete.

However, while Teilhard may not have succeeded in adding to our scientific knowledge of the evolutionary process, there is a case that he has contributed to an understanding of human nature. In the concept of the emergence of the human mind/brain as ‘evolution understanding itself’, Teilhard has distilled the idea of humans as quintessentially and uniquely spiritual beings, even as we are continuous with the rest of nature. This brings me to the second caveat; even those who maintain a strict agnosticism and reductive interpretation of human biology – even those who advocate a forthright atheism – fail to be unmoved by the sacredness (their terminology) of nature and of the highest human cultural achievements. This does not constitute evidence for the existence and intervention of a divinity; it is, however, an argument that human nature represents a qualitative discontinuity with the rest of nature.

Furthermore, while the concepts of radial and tangential energies owe more to the ideas of vitalism and the evolutionism of Herbert Spencer than to empirical science, they are a useful tool for thinking about human social change, particularly in the more generic and less loaded terminology of differentiation and integration. These are widely observable tendencies in all societies throughout history; moreover, they are principles which tend to stay in balance. If differentiating tendencies, for example the desire for freedom, independence and personal glory, become too strong they result in social fracture, but tend to provoke moves towards greater integration, such as solidarity or cooperation. On the other hand, if integration becomes over-dominant, as it does in authoritarian and totalitarian states, this tends to provoke moves towards liberation and secession. However, differentiation and integration should be seen as analytical categories, not as predictive ones.

Freedom and Belonging as Interdependent Values

Shortly after communist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe were tumbling, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama produced a seminal essay entitled ‘The End of History’ in which he declared that the cold war had been won and the victor was liberal democracy. This seemed prescient at the time as dictatorships of the left continued to fall and to transform into at least nominal democracies. This declaration was in essence an update of a thesis advanced by Hegel that the liberal state of Prussia represented the terminus of historical development. Over the next decade, developments were to prove that Fukuyama’s assertions were just as premature as Hegel’s had been, with the rise of political Islam, a newly assertive Russia and the persistence in China of a one-party communist state, despite its growing affluence.

Despite these predictive failures, there is a core of powerful reasoning behind this school of thought. Hegel saw the liberal state of Prussia as resolving the inherent dialectical struggle between the spirit and the material. Perhaps more pertinently, Fukuyama saw in liberal democracy the system in which the eternal struggle for freedom and recognition could be realised most fully. Quite rightly, he saw that human historical destiny is driven by fundamental values that define our human nature, and that any system that thwarts these desires is bound to fail.

Fukuyama asserted that in fact liberal democratic societies manifested the necessary conditions for the realisation of freedom and recognition and that while history, as the unfolding of human events, would continue, ‘History’ as the struggle for a just and equitable society was basically over. This did not mean that he saw liberal democracy as a perfectly good society in which everyone achieved happiness. On the contrary, he saw it as a spiritual wilderness in which we are all responsible for instituting the activities which contribute meaning to our otherwise meaningless lives. While some criticise Fukuyama for being overly optimistic about the prospect for the triumph of liberal and democratic values, I find his view of the destiny of humanity to be deeply pessimistic. Although I accept the premise that social evolution is driven by deep-seated values, I believe that Fukuyama identified the wrong values, and that contributed to his vision of the end of history as disenchanted.

The ideal of freedom has been central to almost all discourses on the nature of our social being, but particularly those that have championed individualism. This has, of course, been primarily a discourse that has occurred in the tradition of Western thought, stretching from the ancient Greeks, through Augustine, Aquinas, Erasmus and Luther, the Enlightenment philosophers to the modernists and post-modernists of our contemporary world. Yet even in those cultures that have not traditionally emphasised freedom, the desire for freedom and the yearning to express individuality and to break out of oppressive social constraints or hidebound customs lies dormant or quietly seethes below the surface. Therefore, freedom is arguably more than just a western idea, but a universal value for all cultures and a prime differentia from all other mammals.

But Fukuyama, like others in the rationalist and individualist tradition, committed the error of ignoring the other prime value of humanity, which is the need to belong. Belonging is something that we share with animals, because we are also animals, in our origins and in our instincts. Belonging, to return to the socio-political motifs explored earlier, is the most fundamental way in which the integrating factor manifests itself in human society. Unlike animals, though, our sense of belonging is not limited to an immediate family or troupe, but ranges over a far more extended span of groupings, including imaginary, abstract and mythic associations and constructs, such as organisations, nations, religions and concepts such as humanity.

Human belonging, therefore, is not primarily instinctual – even if it is instinctual in origin and basis – but deontological. That is to say, the forms of life to which we belong are structured by laws, rules, traditions, customs and beliefs, which are ultimately the expression of shared values; values to which we ascribe through willing association. This is as true for those forms of life which we may consider to be instinctive, such as family and tribe, as it is for the more abstract forms. Belonging, therefore, partakes of the freedom which we have already asserted to be a principal value; there is no belonging where this belonging is not fundamentally voluntary. I say ‘fundamentally’ because we are not normally in the habit of reminding ourselves of this on a moment by moment basis, bound as we are by other considerations of belonging, such as love and friendship, respect, duty, dependence, and so on. But any association (between adults, who are morally autonomous) which is not at its basis voluntary, is a form of servitude.

A moment’s reflection will suggest that this relationship between freedom and belonging is not one way. As our spirituality emerges from and matures based on our animal instincts, so freedom, as the basic expression of our spirituality, is given shape and density through our forms of belonging. Freedom without belonging, to the extent that it could exist, would be an evanescent quality, for the nature of our freedom is that we willingly sacrifice a degree of our moral autonomy as free beings for belonging, so that our freedom can find expression in forms of belonging, which might include such transcendent forms as belonging to a loved one, a deity or a country, and will almost certainly include such mundane forms as a profession and leisure pursuits.

Progress and Empowerment

Progress is an idea that comes in and goes out of fashion. It defined the Victorian era, both in terms of technological advance and in social welfare. For much of the past fifty years it is a term that has been associated with the Left, particularly in the areas of social justice. Still the question remains whether there is such a thing as progress, or is there simply change, as one set of ideas, concerns, technologies and problems gives rise to another. That would be compatible with the idea of social evolution, like biological evolution, being open, random and purposeless, in contradistinction to the ideas considered earlier – those of Teilhard and Fukuyama – who see an underlying teleology in human affairs.

Progress is a creed adopted by optimists and by optimistic ages, whereas one would probably characterise our times as pessimistic, despite the huge advances in technology. This pessimism is perhaps a manifestation of the ‘revenge effect’, whereby every advance seems only to create new problems; indeed, much of our pessimism arises precisely because of advances in technology and their arguably deleterious effects: on our health or safety, on our environment, or on our social being. There is a view, championed, for example, by James Lovelock, the proponent of the Gaia hypothesis, that as an evolved species we are constrained by the self-regulating system of the biosphere of which we are a part, and that being out of kilter with nature will only hasten our own demise or, certainly, diminution. In such a view, all our pretence to progress amounts to nothing; we in the developed world have not advanced in evolutionary terms beyond the tribes of the Amazon.

Failing a catastrophic failure of human civilisation, in which case Lovelock’s hypothesis would be vindicated in a world which would no longer comprehend it, I propose a more optimistic view, based on a phenomenological account of the reality of the accomplishments of the human spirit in science, art, religion, politics, economics and technology, one in which our experience of progress can at least be put to the test, rather than simply dismissed. That test would be the extent to which change actually empowers us as individuals. I see this as the single vector by which progress can be judged to have occurred or not. Looking at the scope of historical development, societies emerged in which the role of the individual came to play a greater role and in which, from an objective viewpoint, individuals became more equal and thus more empowered. Clearly, this remains an unfinished task, not only on a global level, but even within developed societies. In fact, I believe this will forever remain unfinished, as it is intrinsically impossible for human beings to be equal by any measure that we care to apply. However, inequalities and the conditions for disempowerment continually arise as society changes, whether that be in life chances, longevity, suffrage, wealth and poverty, health, education and skills, social status and wellbeing that need to be challenged at the individual and the societal levels.

Re-enchantment at this societal level can be understood as the recovery of the heroic and mythic views of human nature, from literature and religion, for example, and their reinterpretation into modernity. However, rather than a Nietzschean interpretation of mythic heroism as the will to power based upon pure physicality and warrior virtues, re-enchantment constitutes a counterpoint in terms of human spirituality and individual empowerment. It is explicitly an anti-Nietzschean stance.

Re-enchantment as an anti-Nietzschean programme

Nietzsche is notoriously difficult to pin down, as his most influential work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which developed some of his earlier themes, and presaged some of his later ones, was written in dramatic aphorisms, which are open to multiple interpretations. There is no denying Nietzsche’s influence on the twentieth century, as different aspects of his ideas contributed directly or indirectly to eugenics, National Socialism, the sexual revolution, liberal theology and postmodern philosophy. The four ideas to be considered are the Übermensch, the transvaluation of values, the death of God, and the eternal recurrence. Briefly, each will be contrasted with what I understand the implications of re-enchantment to be.

The Übermensch is Nietzsche’s anthropological prototype, a heroic figure, nominally based on the pagan gods of German folklore, who rejects the values of the contemporary society to live entirely by their own chosen values. The Übermensch – talented, ruthless, aristocratic and this-worldly – is the opposite of the stereotypical bourgeoise middle class person that Nietzsche despised. The middle classes are always a target for elitist figures, despite embodying many of the virtues of stable societies and their cultural values, and the mentality of the Übermensch has undoubtedly seeped into the attitude of the totalitarian ideologues of left and right of the past century and their intellectual apologists. Re-enchantment, by contrast, is the empowering of Everyman, the individuals who inhabit real societies, through addressing the symptoms and causes of disempowerment as they occur under existing conditions.

Surveying the conditions of his day, Nietzsche called for a transvaluation of all values, particularly those derived from Christianity, such as meekness, humility, love and forgiveness. It was not that he necessarily saw these values as wrong in themselves, but that he perceived European civilisation as weakening through the predominance of these values, and a belief in the afterlife, and in danger of sliding into nihilism. Christianity was effectively emasculating the will to power of the populace. The anti-Christian rhetoric of Nietzsche has been effectively transmitted into today’s western liberal societies, particularly through postmodern thought, which has come to dominate leftist academia and politics. This ignores the significant cultural inheritance of Christian beliefs and history to the development of the ideas of freedom and belonging, referred to earlier, along with the contributions of humanism, which belong to Everyman, not exclusively to the West. Through undermining the foundations of belief in freedom and authentic belonging, the modern Nietzscheans are disempowering Everyman, in preparation for becoming a vassal of the elites and the state.

As part of his critique of Christianity, Nietzsche, through the mouthpiece of Zarathustra, spoke of the death of God, meaning that belief in God and in an afterlife no longer had any power to motivate European civilisation to greatness. Ironically, though, Nietzsche invoked the pantheon of ancient deities in the mythical Übermensch in an attempt to re-enchant the world. This is also notable in the existential philosophy of Heidegger, a disciple of Nietzsche, who in his late works came to deify the concept of Being. It is in the nature of Everyman, as a spiritual being, that we seek the transcendent, whether that be in the religion of our civilisation and forefathers, in a new religious, philosophical or political movement, in great art, literature and music, in the experience and contemplation of nature, in creative pursuit or in surpassing human achievement in sport and adventure. Seeking transcendence is not only an expression of our freedom but also our desire to belong to the community of our peers.

Nietzsche despised the Christian morality founded on the idea of sin, the apologia for life as lived and the abasement of the self before God, as a fatal weakness. His riposte was the doctrine of the eternal recurrence that is best understood as a thought experiment: imagine that if we had to live each moment of our life over and over again eternally, would it be possible to live without a single regret? Nietzsche was not advocating living a blameless life in a conventional sense, but a Dionysian existence of indulgence, and one without shame. There are several things to say about this. First, there is an implicit fatalism in the idea of eternal recurrence, which hearkens back to pre-Christian paganism, although if my interpretation is correct it was probably postulated as an ironic rhetorical device. Secondly, it advocates a form of life entirely without thought of the consequences of one’s choices on others, except inasmuch as the other is the object of the will to power. Thirdly, the recognition of fault, apology and remorse, punishment, mercy and forgiveness are among the intricate processes that have evolved in all human societies to mend breaches in the state of belonging.

By contrast, re-enchantment posits an eternal resistance to the forces of disenchantment in a world which is constantly changing in a manner beyond anybody’s control. Specifically, it is a state of permanent resistance to the forces of disenchantment that are embedded in those institutional structures which suppress human freedom and interpose ersatz forms of association in place of authentic belonging. However, resistance is a subtle stance, in which benefits and risks have to be carefully considered, as do the consequences for oneself and the greater whole. There are selfish rebellions that seek to assuage an immediate discomfort or satisfy a pressing desire, but do not result in long-term benefit to the individual and may add to the bureaucratic burden borne by others if pursued in law. There are revolutions in the name of the liberation of the people, which strip all freedoms from the people and deliver them into penury and totalitarian nightmare. It is impossible to know the exact outcome of our actions, and this should be the first principle of resistance.

Not all institutions are disenchanted, and our resistance may take the form of testing a moral community before immersing ourselves within it. In other cases, we may seek to empower ourselves by evading the reach of certain oppressive powers. In yet other cases, we may seek to challenge those powers by agitating for fundamental change in vested interests, seeking to empower larger swathes of society. In all cases, though, it is the empowerment of the individual in the balance of freedom and belonging which is sought; this should be the second principle of resistance.

Conclusion

The re-enchantment of the world is rooted in a cultural hermeneutics: the reinterpretation of the enchanted myths of origins and heroic figures of the distant or the recent past, for clues to the transcendental meaning and purpose of our lives and the disenchanted state in which we often find ourselves. By way of a detour through a critique of evolutionary determinism (natural and historical) and the Nietzschean will-to-power it has also taken on social theoretical dimensions.

Accepting the view of social evolution as open and random and that, therefore, there is no finality and no determined course, nevertheless it is possible to assert that there is a definite telos to human societies, which is that they should be structured in such a way as to facilitate the empowerment of the individual in an incremental sense. Re-enchantment is not a terminal event in human history, except inasmuch as all desirable outcomes are declarative, if not historical, termini; nor is it, in any real sense, a process, for that also implies an inevitability and a course. Rather, it is a state of perpetual resistance to historically sedimented or newly emerging forces of disenchantment, which prohibit or threaten the individual expression of freedom and the free experience of belonging. The position of women and minorities in various societies is an example with a long history; the societal dangers posed by digital technologies is one that we are beginning to be aware of.

The re-enchantment of the world clearly has sociological and political dimensions, as a critique of, and policy for reform of, social institutions, respectively. In highlighting the central role of the empowered individual, it also has a moral dimension, a duty that falls on every person to resist, in however large or small a measure, the obtrusion of the disenchanted world upon our lives.

 

Further Reading

Maurice Berman (1981). The Reenchantment of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Francis Fukuyama (1996). The End of history and the Last Man. New York: the Free Press.

Richard Jenkins (2000), Disenchantment, Enchantment and Re-Enchantment: Max Weber at the Millennium. [MWS 1 (2000) 11-32]. http://maxweberstudies.org/kcfinder/upload/files/MWSJournal/1.1pdfs/1.1%2011-32.pdf

Friedrich Nietzsche (2005). Thus Spoke Zarathustra: a book for everybody and nobody (translated by  Graham Parkes). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1961). The Phenomenon of Man. London: Harper & Row, Publishers.

The Limits of Tolerance

Attacks like the one we saw in the heart of London last week always set in motion a series of political spasms on the right and the left, the right decrying the lack of calling a spade a spade in the establishment media, in that the danger is posed not just by Islamist terrorism, or by fundamentalist Islam, but by Muslims in general who are here in too great numbers, the left by denouncing any questions or criticism directed to Islam or the customs and practices of Muslims in the UK or elsewhere as ‘Islamophobia’ and thereby beyond the pale and to be dismissed without consideration.

Beyond this predictable ruckus, the response of the country, the political classes and the media by and large have been measured and proportionate. But for the long term to preserve the peace and the arc of social development the nature and role of tolerance needs to be explored and buttressed with more considered arguments and perspectives than are normally encountered in political soundbites and the media.

This issue has become one of some urgency for democratic cultures which are under assault from two very different sources. One is the more obvious influx and settlement of cultures with a rapidly growing demographic profile – specifically, though not uniquely, Islam – which have little or no tradition of liberal democracy, have a generally low tolerance for dissent, and at their most extreme actively call for the abolition of secular institutions and the imposition of religious or other alien laws. The other is a hypertrophied form of tolerance ideology which has taken over large parts of the left, displacing the traditional championship of the working class with that of ethnic and lifestyle minorities, and threatening fundamental rights such as freedom of conscience and free speech, and thereby eroding the basis of real tolerance. Both these threats have been cited as important factors in the rise of populism.

Tolerance has long been touted as a particularly British virtue; however, all established democracies by their nature must have learned to value and to nurture it. A democratic culture cannot really be embedded in a nation unless people have made accommodation with fundamental difference of belief, outlook and lifestyle for the sake of a higher good – that is social peace and stability, which are fundamental conditions of prosperity. To underscore that point, it is only necessary to look at the lamentable state of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the institutions and practices of universal suffrage instituted by the Americans and their allies are permanently undermined by tribal affiliation and ethnic hatred based on religion, which reflects the broader conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam. Throughout the region this hatred spills over into local and regional wars, mostly proxies for the major Islamic powers.

Clearly, then, tolerance is a good thing for society. But are there any limits to tolerance? The philosopher Karl Popper claimed that for the sake of tolerance it is necessary to be intolerant of intolerance. This perhaps establishes a logical benchmark without, however, taking us very far along the road of realistically understanding what tolerance is as a positive concept. This, however, has become the fundamental stance of British politicians in the post-9/11 era and time of mass immigration.  As the historian Eliane Glaser notes: “In recent years… the celebration of British tolerance has carried a coercive undertone. Indeed tolerance bears a growing resemblance to intolerance, as in a 2006 speech by Tony Blair in which he warned: ‘Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain, Britain. So conform to it; or don’t come here’” (Glaser, 2014).

The situation is made more complex by that other form of intolerant tolerance on the political left, which embraces multiculturalism and identity politics. This form eschews the term ‘tolerance’ altogether, preferring words like ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’. This terminological difference is important for two reasons. One is that it separates these political standpoints from the older, religious context in which notions of tolerance developed in the UK, that is a specifically Christian context, and so frees them from the theological and moral baggage which that carries. Secondly, it is able to divest itself of the tone of disapproval implied by ‘tolerance’ and promote the virtues of acceptance, ‘embracing’ and even celebration.

Having, as it supposes, established an unassailable moral position, the advocates of multiculturalism and identity politics feel justified in compelling absolute conformity to its dictates and denouncing, with an endlessly extendable bastard lexicon, even the mildest criticism or deviation as forms of intolerance: racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia , disphobia, and so on. This denunciation even extends to welcoming and genuinely embracing the customs and traditions of outsiders, as ‘cultural appropriation’. This latter, if nothing else, reveals the Machiavellian heart of its politics, which is to champion distinction and separation, to perpetuate and elevate the status of victimhood, and to fragment the normative sense of national cultural identity.

For the reasons outlined above, I find the notion of tolerance defined as the negation of intolerance unsatisfactory. To understand the nature and limits of tolerance we can do worse than start with Aristotle’s concept of the golden mean. For Aristotle every virtue lies on a midpoint between vices defined by paucity and excess; for instance, bravery between cowardice and foolhardiness, or generosity between meanness and extravagance.  Tolerance, then, can usefully be understood to lie between the extremes of hatred of the other – genuine intolerance – and licentious indulgence of that which is exotic or transgressive.

It is also necessary though to explore the meaning of tolerance from the inside. It is often – it has become – confused with approval, but this is certainly not what tolerance implies in its original meaning. One may strongly, even violently, disapprove of someone’s beliefs or lifestyle, but suspend the impulse to coerce conformity, or even in extremis eradicate the irritant, for the sake of the greater good. It is a fact that the impulse to identify difference, which is the basis of all prejudice, suppression, oppression and ultimately ethnic cleansing and genocide, is unquenchable. Since this impulse cannot be eliminated individuals, communities and nations must learn and implement the practice of managing and controlling it. This is fundamentally what tolerance is.

Tolerance, though, does not exist in a vacuum, or without certain conditions. Interestingly, Japan, which is a stable democracy, one in which freedom of religion and political belief is institutionalised, is nevertheless not particularly tolerant of dissent at a societal level and a high premium is placed on conformity. Japan is almost an entirely monocultural society, whose religion is syncretistic, and has very low rates of immigration. This is definitely one route to stability, though it is increasingly rare in a highly mobile world; moreover, in the case of Japan this social stability is being maintained at the cost of economic stagnation and a moribund society. However, there is an important lesson to be learned from Japan: conformity to certain cultural values seems to be entirely compatible with tolerance of idiosyncrasy in other areas of life – indeed, there is a rich tradition of eccentricity in Japan, as there is in Britain, though it is rarely commented upon – and a case can be made that such conformity may be one of the important conditions of tolerance.

In this regard, it is sometimes said that Britain – particularly England – lacks a visible national culture to which we cleave, which is not true, although we do not have the overtly vibrant and colourful panoply of costume, dance, food and music that others share. However, Britain does have a democratic culture which goes much deeper than the periodic ritual of voting in elections, which even autocratic regimes mimic in an attempt to legitimise their uninterrupted rule. This culture rests on three largely invisible pillars of our culture which uphold our democratic way of life, and the democracies which have derived from the British tradition: the scientific method, individual liberty and the rule of law. In fact, these are not uniquely or characteristically British (although Britain was, by historical happenstance, an important crucible in their development), but requirements for anything that pretends to being a universal culture. They are also the foundational principles around which a debate about tolerance and intolerance can be drawn up.

Around these three principles I would say, there is absolutely no discussion and they should be the bedrock of our educational system and social institutions without compromise. However, while affirming those principles absolutely, that does not mean that there is no movement within them. Participation within the life of society means contributing to the actual content that they embody, ensuring the continual development of the society and its culture.

For example, there is a clear distinction between the scientific method and scientific knowledge. The content of scientific knowledge is continually updated based on research, and even longstanding and respected theories are challenged and overturned. There is no sacred knowledge in science. However, the scientific method is fundamental to the acquisition of valid knowledge. Although there are philosophical debates about the exact nature of the scientific method, there is no dispute about the fundamental role of theory and evidence, developed and applied with a rigour concomitant with the character of the research in question.

Similarly, we uphold the principle of the rule of law, which means that no one, however privileged, wealthy, famous or powerful, is above the law or beyond its reach. Yet, clearly the law evolves over time to reflect the changing complexion of society, its priorities and developments brought about by new technologies and changing demography, to update the concept of justice. While never perfect, there is a system of checks and balances in place, which means that the law attempts to serve the common good rather than the interests of vocal minorities. Clearly injustices occur, and sometimes these are systemic, but the system is self-correcting over the long term.

Democratic societies are by their nature highly individualistic. Contrary to the criticisms of some collectivist cultures, this does not mean that they are selfish and hedonistic; in fact, democratic societies are marked by a highly developed spirituality and morality in which respect is conferred to the individual soul, which is considered free and responsible. It is this concept, though, which is continually under attack from the enemies of democracy, who believe we must act and even think in accordance with their precepts, whether they be religious or political. For example, a lot of religious and political capital – on both left and right – has been invested in the hijab, as symbol of women’s oppression or expression of religious freedom. To this I would only comment that if designers were to make the hijab a fashion choice freely and widely adopted by British women based on beauty, style and convenience, I cannot see how anyone could reasonably object.

What should we do in the face of intolerance, of the kind that believes that a life not dedicated to their ideology is a life of no value, such as we saw demonstrated last week on Westminster Bridge? We should do as we have done: review our security arrangements and carry on as normal. Apply the law rigorously in the prosecution of illegal action. We should continue to apply our scientific reason to illuminate the dark areas of the soul in which irrational superstition can fester. Above all we should carefully apply the principle of individual liberty. Individuals are free and responsible for their actions, not their family, community, religion or ethic grouping. Even if all terrorists were Muslims, which is not the case, this does not carry the implication that all Muslims are terrorists. To reach that false inference is not just a breach of logic, but does violence to our democratic culture and its belief in individual liberty.

Are there limits to tolerance? Fundamentally, I would say no, as tolerance defines the sort of society we would like to continue to live in. Tolerance does not mean we agree and it does not mean we approve; but it does mean that we keep our disagreement, dislike or disgust of the other in check for the greater good of peace and stability in society. It is the function of the law, not my conscience, to determine where acts against the common good have been committed and to prosecute such acts. I also have my prejudices and my ignorance, which it is the role of evidence-based inquiry and rational discourse to dispel. But no law should compel me to love my neighbour, respect his beliefs or approve his lifestyle. These may come through engagement with individuals from diverse backgrounds, which any rational education should encourage us to do, but compulsion is toxic to the very concept and social realisation of tolerance.

 

Reference

Eliane Glaser, ‘Tolerance and Intolerance’, History Today Volume 64 Issue 2, February 2014.

 

 

 

 

Adam Smith and the Rationality of Self-Interest

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Since Adam Smith the prevailing view in economics has been that the free market operates through a principle of rational self-interest. Much as Darwin later identified the underlying mechanism for the variety and dynamism of nature operating at the individual level, so Smith atomised the creation of wealth to the individual’s self-interest: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”. The notion of rational self-interest, though, needs to be subject itself to rational scrutiny, as it may contain assumptions about human nature which may limit the idea of the type of society which is possible.

Taking Smith’s own assertion at face value, what is it that constitutes the traders’ “own interest”? Clearly, making a living for themselves, which means the buying and selling of goods to and from others, the point being that trade presupposes the existence of others going about their business. Although we can safely assume that Smith had in mind an economy of more than three or four persons, and sustained by more than meat, beer and bread, pleasurable and sufficient as that may sound to some, for the purpose of this thought experiment let us assume a minimal economic model of four players, the butcher, the brewer, the baker and “I” representing the expectant diner. In such a model, it seems clear that whatever the self-interest of each individual is, it cannot be considered in isolation, but only in relation to the self-interest of others. The three traders and “I” rely on each other and can only participate in the market if each is solvent. Therefore, logically, trade in this state is not a zero-sum game, but depends on a certain level of parity, in which only incremental competitive gains are allowed.

Now, suppose that one of the traders defects from this cooperative model in order to gain an economic advantage over the other two. This could be due to simple greed, or it could be due to a fear that one of the others will jump first. In game theory, a branch of mathematics concerned with the logical outcomes of people behaving rationally under given conditions, this is known as the prisoners’ dilemma, based on a specific example, but generally states that when a player has more to gain individually by cheating than by cooperating with a partner, but more to gain by cooperating with a partner than by them both cheating, they will nevertheless both end up cheating and so end up with the worst result. The reasoning runs as follows: if I cheat I will end up with the best result (even though the other person will end up with little or nothing); I would like to cooperate, but if I can think of cheating so can my partner, and if my partner cheats I will end up with little or nothing; therefore, it is in my interest to cheat. The logical result of rational self-interest is that both partners cheat and end up with less than if they cooperated.

Suppose that the baker, in order to gain a competitive advantage over the butcher and the brewer, starts selling meat and beer, judging that “I” the customer will flock to his store for all my necessities; if he succeeds and drives the butcher and baker out of business, he will have gained all my custom and “I” will have gained a more convenient shop. On the downside the baker will have to diversify the business, which will require more work and may result in a loss of edge in the former area of expertise, opening the potential for targeted competition. The baker will also have lost two important suppliers and customers, and potentially made two enemies. From “my” perspective, disregarding the loss of esteem “I” may have had for the baker (for the moment), this places me in a more vulnerable position economically as, if the baker were to go out of business, “I” would have nowhere to buy my victuals.

There is another scenario: in this one the brewer and the butcher do not fold but respond to the baker by similarly diversifying, thus depriving the baker of any advantage gained by jumping first. They gain no advantage over the former cooperative scenario and take on the disadvantages that the baker had previously assumed; there is not even the prospect of my undivided custom. However, there is a payoff if the brewer, butcher and “I” conspire to deprive the baker of trade. Some experiments have looked at the relationship between our sense of fairness and spite. They turn on adding a new element to the prisoners’ dilemma. If the option for the exploited to pay for the punishment of those who defect is added the outcome is very different. Despite the exploited losing even more, they experience satisfaction at seeing the exploiters punished. Moreover, in future rounds group cooperation is far more common.

In real economies, as opposed to simplified models or experiments, there is a huge capacity to absorb the effects of defection, to the extent that the both perpetrators and victims might imagine that there are no consequences for the defector, hence no justice. This capacity is not unlimited, however, and the timescales for restitution – at least for exposure – are growing shorter in this increasingly connected world. Humans are highly attuned to fairness or the lack of fairness in a situation. This may be one of the reasons for the continuing appeal of socialism; it responds at a deeply atavistic level to the inherent injustice of so much of the world’s economic poverty and institutionalises grievance against those who are seen as unjustly favoured (such as bankers in the current climate). The same is probably true of the wave of populism sweeping the developed economies which harness, similarly through partial truths and vicarious appropriation, the dispossessed’s resentment against the winners from globalisation.

Keynes was one of the few economists who attempted to integrate human irrational impulses into his economic theory. Mostly, though, they have been ignored in the pursuit of pure rationality, exemplified by the extreme mathematization of orthodox economics. Rational self-interest as a real-world strategy does not exist in a solipsistic vacuum, however, but must take account of human feelings and sociality, even absorbing short-term disadvantages for longer-term benefits. Most economists despair at the irrationality of voters who turn their backs on the benefits of the free market, specifically global free trade, in favour of the planned economies of socialism or the protectionist policies of the right wing populists. In light of the scenarios considered, though, this does not necessarily violate the principle of rational self-interest, but it reveals that in open societies the concept is more complex and subtle than often thought. Swings in political culture, while manifesting irrational tendencies, may from a broader perspective be reinforcing economic rationality by reining in the irrational outcomes of defection from cooperation, that defection being entailed by supposedly rational objectives.

 It is a fact that free trade has had a beneficial effect on a global level by bringing millions out of poverty, but also that in doing so it has had a devastating effect on traditional jobs and communities in the developed world, not to mention the effect it is also having on the environment. It is little comfort to be told the truth midway through life that one must retrain for a new career in the digital economy because your job has been exported and be prepared to uproot oneself, family and community. These people vote; and in line with rational self-interest they will, in sufficient numbers, vote for those who promise an end to such deprivation, for this is less about declining standards than about economic survival. Among these voters there are true believers; yet probably many more vote with suspended disbelief to punish those in power and the rich even at the cost of punishing themselves. When the euphoria of populism dies down and the reality of broken promises sets in, there will be a reaction and hopefully this will see movement towards a more cooperative economic culture, in which social concerns are integrated into the market ethos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Defence of the Open Society against its Enemies

No rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude (Karl Popper)

It is just over 70 years since the publication in 1945 of Karl Popper’s most widely known and influential book, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Written during the war years while in exile from Austria, Popper considered it to be his contribution to the war effort, as it sought to expose the faulty philosophical foundations of totalitarian ideologies such as fascism and communism. Popper identified, in particular, the tendency to historical prediction or ‘historicism’ that proclaimed the inevitability of the social forms advocated by these ideologies according to supposedly scientific laws of historical development. Thus his criticism can be considered an extension to political philosophy of his earlier and more important work on epistemology, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (published in German in 1934), that is, a critique of the epistemological foundations of these ideologies, and indeed of all ideology. The open society, exemplified by liberal democracies, Popper considered the only form of government able to effect political change without bloodshed and to undergo evolutionary (rather than revolutionary) development through piecemeal change and problem-solving. Notwithstanding the debates within scientific and political philosophy having moved beyond Popper’s contemporaneous concerns, his central epistemological concept of falsifiability, with its entailment of transparency and truth-seeking, has particular relevance to this information age, but is a principle which is markedly absent from interactions within the present political, economic and social fields. Some commentators see in this the demise of liberal democracy. I believe that while open societies have vulnerabilities, they are both more robust than these commentators allow and need to be more strongly advocated than we seem willing to do at present.

To drop the anti-historicist baton for a moment, if history has any point, or purpose, it is the struggle for human freedom. While freedom can be variously defined, all freedoms reside in empowerment, whether that be political, economic or moral freedom. What is certain is that all people, everywhere, desire these freedoms, even if, in some cases, that appears to be the freedom to relinquish their freedom by merging into the collective, the rigid, the backward, the insular, the dysfunctional and of course the criminal. These are the enemies of the open society that must, paradoxically, be tolerated even as they are resisted, even those who utilise the freedom of open societies to proselytise their diatribes against freedom. This paradox nevertheless elevates open societies above all other, for they enable the conditions that – given enough time – expose false theories and beliefs, false promises, false policies and false lifestyles to scrutiny and the unremitting evidence of consequences. Freedom involves risk and risk-taking; open societies can seem chaotic, but it is the chaos of dynamic disequilibrium from which innovation and change emerge. However, to reaffirm the anti-historicist perspective, it would be wrong to assume, pace Fukuyama, that liberal democracies represent the end point of history; they embody, imperfectly, a principle of the growth of knowledge that has had precursors in history that were prematurely extinguished, but appeared fully-fledged in Europe in the eighteenth century: that is the scientific method.

The scientific method is not exclusively about the accumulation of scientific knowledge in a narrow sense that is the specific concern of scientists; it is rather a generalised account of how we learn, which is given specificity in the scientific context. Knowledge as such is the interaction between ideas, in the form of theories, beliefs or opinions, and information, in the form of facts and data about the external world that constitute evidence. This much was practiced by Aristotle and the Arab scholars of the golden era of Islamic civilisation, but it was Francis Bacon who systematised it as a method and laid the groundwork for modern experimental procedures. After Bacon the general assumption was that gathering sufficient data was the basis for sound theorising. Popper however pointed out the logical error in such an inductive approach, in that no number of confirmatory examples was sufficient to verify a theory, but a single counter-example was sufficient to falsify it. Instead, he insisted bold imaginative conjectures should be subject to repeated attempts at falsification. This raised the epistemological threshold considerably for the acceptance of theory, to such an extent that practicing scientists, like the rest of us, largely ignore these strictures in the pursuit of knowledge, and accept the balance of probabilities. Popper’s deductive theory is more like a theory of truth; truth which, according to philosophers like Kuhn, can never be realised, but only approximated more closely. Nevertheless, it remains as a reminder of the standard to which, logically, we should subject our beliefs, opinions and theories.

There are numerous implications of the theory of knowledge for the open society. First, we should be free and educated sufficiently to think boldly and imaginatively about any subject. Secondly, individuals should be free to express any opinion and respect no orthodoxy in the pursuit of truth. Thirdly, beliefs, opinions and theories of whatever kind, whether philosophical, religious, moral or scientific, should be considered tentative, however plausible or implausible, until there is confirmatory or disconfirmatory evidence. Fourthly, while persuasion is a legitimate means of transmission of ideas, coercion never is. Fifth, there should be some presumption of respect for people as individuals as free and rational, though not necessarily for their beliefs. Sixth, society as a whole, and at regional and local levels, should be attempting to manage conflict and be committed to finding solutions to problems. Seventh, there should be transparency and the free flow of information. Eighth, there should be a universal commitment to the recognition of and correction of error. Ninth, open societies should empower their citizens, economically, socially and politically, that they can participate fully in the life and development of their society. Tenth, we as individuals should be committed to the improvement of our lives and our societies. These seem the most obvious corollaries.

Modern liberal democracies are not paragons of the open society; it remains something of an ideal. They are rather experiments, each of which have particular virtues and are grappling with particular vices. Yet they embody enough of the principles to be far preferable to any other social form. This alone explains why millions of people are on the move to escape persecution, war and poverty, or the grinding weight of custom and inequality, and make their way to developed countries. This creates problems for open societies, but by their nature they are solution-generating and self-correcting. It is, of course, on this basis impossible to determine what the solution to any particular problem, for example mass immigration, should be. In the short term I suspect there will be a number of solutions, some more viable than others, and hopefully we will learn from the best and improve our strategies. In the long term, the only solution is to transform all societies into open societies. This, though, can only be accomplished on the basis of the principles outlined in the paragraph above, not through military conquest. We have sufficient problems of our own to address. This naturally gives space to the enemies of the open society, the ideological opponents of freedom, to attack the very idea. They cannot do this, of course, resorting to the principles and strategies outlined above, but rather by misinformation and coercion, and, more subtly, by undermining belief in freedom (and its attendant responsibilities) and restricting opportunities for free speech.

Reason justifies open societies as the only desirable future for mankind and reason is their guiding operative principle. Passionate concern, dogmatism and pessimism are inimical to, and are inevitably generated by ideological opposition to, open societies. Nevertheless, attacks on reason come from some surprising places. Universities, which once were bastions of academic freedom, now incubate extremism on one hand, but on the other, under the influence of anti-rationalist postmodern philosophy, forestall the expression of unpopular or challenging opinions by ‘no-platforming’ certain speakers lest some people feel ‘unsafe’ or ‘uncomfortable’, though more probably lest they be disturbed from their dogmatic slumbers.  The law is another area where decisions taken on purely legalistic technicalities can have far-reaching and chilling consequences for transparency. A law being considered at the moment would effectively end the free press in the UK, at least their ability to investigate potential scandal and corruption, by creating a no-penalty right to sue a newspaper if someone considers their privacy to have been invaded. Welfare is another system that seriously endangers individual empowerment and initiative. Compassion, which is a human virtue, experienced by the strong for the weak, can become a vice when it is institutionalised and merely perpetuates that order of power rather than ending it. Low educational ability, despite universal education, much of it free, is strongly indicative of poor life chances in employment, physical and material well-being, prospects for marriage and social status. In many developed countries we are too tolerant of poor educational outcomes and economically supportive of their attendant lifestyles and the subcultures that perpetuate them.

The aggregate enemy of the open society is collectivism and group-think. The foundation of open societies and our freedom is individualism. If for the moment we strip away all the cultural accretions, we are all fundamentally the same in sharing a human nature, as opposed to an animal nature. The frequent assertion that we are ‘nothing but’ animals, specifically mammals, results in a peculiar type of contradiction: the application of reason to cloak its own phenomenology. For reason is what defines us as human and not as animal. There is a qualitative difference; however much we see a spectrum of intelligence in the animal kingdom, there is, as Marxists would say, a tipping point at which the quantitative becomes the qualitative. Therefore, when talking of individualism, this is not to focus on the individual physical body, which is an adaptive form created by the forces of genetic mapping and environmental pressures, but the mind which is embodied. Reason finds the value of the individual in the unique individual mind and this is the foundation of freedom and equality, which are fundamental to the open society. Cultures and sub-cultures that exhibit the trait of differential evaluation of human worth, whether that is as someone to be controlled, as a possession, as a means to economic or social advance, or a sexualised object, exist still within the sphere of slavery and need to be transformed.

For some, individualism has a bad name. It is associated with selfishness and hedonism, as a denial of spirituality, altruism and collective duty, whether to the family, an institution or the nation. The first thing to say is that these arguments have been used throughout history by powerful individuals and elites to crush the aspirations of people everywhere, and they are also advanced by the ideological enemies of the open society. The second point is that, from a rational perspective, selfishness and hedonism are intrinsically inimical to individual flourishing which is both a pillar of, and a desirable outcome of, the open society. Laziness, greed, addiction, irresponsibility – the besetting sins of all societies – are harmful to the individual and to society, and a rational society should be doing all it can to curtail them. Selfishness, though, should not be confused with self-interest. Our life-long project should be the improvement of our selves. It is the nature of this self, though, that it is of interest, not just to us, individually, but to society as a whole. Society is not more than the sum of its parts, or at least only to the extent that it is an emergent property of social interactions. Therefore, society in the abstract has a vested interest in the flourishing of the individual, which means that as individuals we also have an interest in the advancement of others. This is different to the perspective accepted and encouraged in our present economic culture here in the West, which is implicitly a zero-sum game based on the Darwinian-Spencerian idea of the survival of the fittest, which in reality optimises outcomes for neither the individual nor the society.

Therefore the individualism which is suited to an open society has a transcendent quality, in that the self is continuously engaged in a project to extend its abilities. That transcendence can be counted on at least five major fronts: physical, intellectual, professional, emotional and social, which emerge from aspects of our evolved human nature: survival instinct, sexuality, sociality and spirituality. Each of the fronts  necessitates development centred around a cluster of values, for example – and this is merely a limited selection – ‘health’ and ‘fitness’ for the physical, ‘knowledge’ and ‘reason’ for the intellectual, ‘reliability’ and ‘expertise’ for the professional, ‘resilience’ and ‘warmth’ for the emotional and ‘companionship’ and ‘generosity’ for the social. These fronts are not isolated or competing aspects of the individual, even if in the past they may have been seen as such; they are complementary and collectively reinforcing. As our knowledge grows we are beginning to see a more rounded and more extensive picture of human possibilities. No one ultimately need be excluded from this vision. We already see, through events like the Paralympics, the range of possibilities that are opening up even for the disabled. New technologies promise the eventual elimination or circumvention of blindness and paralysis and the emancipation of their sufferers.

Open societies are not perfect, nor will they ever be; they are imperfect by definition. The difference to other social forms is that this fact is universally acknowledged, and this acceptance sets the stage for a programme of continuous improvement through problem-solving. The defence of open societies is ultimately the defence of a process, not a thing. Some people find this threatening, as they would like to retreat to a closed, unchanging world of certainty. Most of us at some time, if the truth be told, feel like this, but the enemies of the open society experience this as perpetual existential crisis. They should be tolerated but kept on the fringes. The growth of knowledge has enabled us to survive so far in a hostile environment and has succeeded in making human lives better, freer and happier. That is definitely something worth defending.

Mythopoeic Memory and the Oral Tradition

6

Memory is not a passive depository of facts, but an active process of creation of meanings. (Alessandro Portelli) 1

The relationship of memory to reality is something that we have all, at one time or another, had to face, not just the fact that our memory is unreliable, but that even our most cherished memories can turn out to be partly – even sometimes wholly – figments of our imagination.2 Dreams are an obvious case in which what we remember never actually occurred. Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, probably his most famous painting, plays on the themes of dreaming, time, space and memory. Its most noticeable feature is the number of timepieces and the fact that they are visually distorted. Being what it is, it has been variously interpreted,3 but one persuasive reading is that it is suggesting allegorically that in memory time itself becomes meaningless, that there is a collapse of the past and the present (also represented by the eternal landscape of the desert in the background), and that the passage of time itself distorts the actuality, the facticity – if indeed there can ever be such a thing – of the events through which we pass as we remember them.

While not disputing the Dalian insight into memory, there is another perspective that can be added, which is that the passage of time rather than simply distorting the reality of events, by blurring the detail allows their true significance to emerge. This is what Hans-Georg Gadamer refers to as the ‘temporal distance’ established between a historical event and the present moment, mediated by a history of interpretation, which is the basis of our own understanding,4 or what Heidegger refers to as ‘the fore-structure of understanding’5. What we understand by a particular event is not ultimately a solitary act of comprehension, but is constructed from the collective discourse around the event, and not simply a contemporary discourse but one located within a historical framework: an interaction with one’s peers, with one’s elders, and with the historical record.

I recently attended a school reunion. Many years have passed and everyone has grown older. It is particularly poignant because the school closed a couple of years after I left ending a history of 500 years. So my year group is among the youngest at the meeting, and over the years the roll-call has become noticeably shorter. Since leaving school we have dispersed over the country, in some cases the world, and have made our own lives and have mainly stayed in contact through this annual gathering. Therefore, most of our shared memories, and certainly this is so collectively, are of the time we spent together at school. It is as if when we meet we are still schoolboys and not grown men with families and careers, in some cases grandchildren. Anecdotes about school life are shared, the reputations of faded or former athletes, scholars and villains resurrected and burnished in the glow of reminiscence.

The strange thing is how different our memories are; even though we were passing through many of the same experiences, we recall them differently; some things we remember – or think we remember – that others have no recollection of at all, until what we remember is no longer an individual act but a shared act of collective narration, and vicarious recollection, in which we no longer discern (or wish to discern) the difference between personal memory and folk memory. Given the impossibility of omniscient grasp of an event, this is how many memories are constructed: through a contemporaneous retelling of collective narrative. Memory is, therefore, linked to the significance of events;6 but whereas memory is the construction we retain within our own experience of the world, the significance of events is more apt to exist at an institutional level into which we contribute and from which we draw. This takes place whenever and wherever people come together, whether in a family, a school reunion, a gathering of colleagues, friends sitting around a campfire and the young or novices initiated into the event. In such cases, an event is no longer singular, but becomes part of a tradition.

Oral traditions and the collective memory are fundamental to social ontology, to the sense of meaning that we acquire as individuals and to the continuing existence of social institutions. According to the anthropologist John Foley: “oral tradition stands out as the single most dominant communicative technology of our species as both a historical fact and, in many areas still, a contemporary reality”.7 If I ask my students what they consider to be the greatest invention of all time, I can guarantee that most of them will say the Internet. I can understand why they think so, to a degree; the Internet has transformed totally the functional aspects of our lives, lightening much of the drudgery: shopping for goods and services, waiting around for something to happen, or spending time in pointless travel. However, the Internet also poses an existential threat to human societies by privileging information over human intercourse and discourse, for which presence, Heidegger’s Dasein,8 is a fundamental prerequisite.9

In all cultures an oral tradition preceded the creation of a written one. In some cultures a written culture never developed, and this underlies our tendency to think of these cultures as inferior or ‘primitive’. The advent of writing is considered to mark the transition to history from pre-history, as records preserve details of societies that we would otherwise struggle to understand. There is no doubt that there is much that is fascinating in the information we can learn from the study of the past, and our whole education and much of our civilisation is built upon such knowledge. However, I think that we are living through a time of the excessive focus on information and that has made us undervalue the living history of oral traditions. Even when the literary remnants or artefacts of the past remain, in the absence of a living tradition they are like the fossils of some prehistoric beast that we can imagine but never truly know. Contrast that with the preliterate folk memories of the Australian aboriginals who still gather to speak of and act out their mythopoeic memories of the Dreamtime, the creation of the world, as they have done for up to 100,000 years.

Some traditions, like lost tribes, will die out, as our school reunions will end when there are too few survivors to continue them any longer. God forbid that anyone writes a book about them in the meantime; that would really be the last nail in the coffin and we would know that we had already passed into history.

Notes and References

  1. Cited on p.77 of Alistair Thomson (2011), op. cit.
  2. A considerable amount of research has centred on the reliability of witness statements in court cases. A spate of well-publicised ‘recollections’ of satanic abuse in the 1980s and 1990s turned out to be entirely fictitious. The resulting ‘moral panic’ reached government level in the US, spread to Britain and resulted in a number of innocent people going to prison. Daniel Yarmey (2001). Does eyewitness memory research have probative value for the courts? Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, Vol 42(2), May 2001, 92-100; Nicholas P. Spanos , Cheryl A. Burgess & Melissa Faith Burgess (1994). Past-Life Identities, UFO Abductions, and Satanic Ritual Abuse: The Social Construction of Memories. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 42 (4), pp.433-446.
  1. For example, as evidence of Dali’s mental instability, or as a comment on Einstein’s theory of relativity.
  2. Hans-Georg Gadamer (1994). Truth and Method. London: Continuum Publishing Group.
  3. Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time. (Trans. by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson). New York, NY: Harper & Row.
  4. Alistair Thomson (2011). Memory and Remembering in Oral History. In Donald A. Ritchie (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Oral History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.77-95.
  5. John Miles Foley (1999). What’s in a Sign? In E. Anne MacKay (Ed.), Signs of Orality. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, pp. 1–2.
  6. Heidegger, op. cit.
  7. We all know the corrosive effects of human isolation, both psychologically and for society. This undoubtedly underlies the unrestrained aggression encountered on the internet, when views are aired unmediated by any presence. By contrast, many conflicts can be resolved by meeting and discussing differences with others.

The role of community in the creation of value: the contribution of Stakeholder Theory

By James Walker

The weakness of traditional business ethics

The raw power of the markets, whether under mercantilism or capitalism, has always tussled with other powerful institutions, be they churches, philanthropic movements or governments, which have attempted to bring another set of values to bear, more human, social and compassionate. Today we talk about business ethics, but this idea, though fine in the abstract, is liable to be itself marketised, in the hierarchical world of corporate life, when the intrinsically spontaneous nature of human communal life is overridden.

Let me share a couple of imaginary workplace scenarios. In the first, a company holds a competition for staff each year in which they are told they must nominate some of their colleagues for a number of awards that have been created to show staff that they are valued. One of the awards is for the employee who best embodies the ethos of the company. The staff resent being forced to nominate colleagues. There is a high turnover of staff which means it is becoming increasingly difficult to build up relationships with each other or know each other on a personal level. Lots of people have had to reapply for their jobs due to the yearly restructuring of departments, and job titles have changed so much that nobody actually knows who does what anymore. The senior management team are insistent that all staff vote and when they don’t, they become angry.

In the second, another company is independently assessed for its ‘green’ values on a yearly basis. These ratings are vital in the sector for attracting new customers. When the auditors come to the company on Monday morning, the workplace has been transformed, much to the shock of the employees. Some ‘locally sourced, fair trade’ coffee has suddenly appeared in the kitchen. Posters appear in the hallway highlighting the importance of switching off computers at the end of the day. Projectors in meeting rooms are switched off. Once the auditing has been done the posters are taken down, the lights go back on, and the ‘locally sourced, fair trade’ coffee is replaced with the more familiar mass produced variety. The company is awarded a gold rating. The bosses are very proud and inform everyone by email.

The above scenarios highlight the kind of problems that arise when staff, who constitute a real community at the heart of every business, and the wider community in which the business thrives, are undervalued. In the first case none of the employees want to vote for a colleague as embodying the ethos of the organisation because they do not believe in the values of the company. These values are deemed duplicitous and the awards feel disingenuous. Senior management feel let down by their staff when there is a poor response and this is made known. In the second case the management are not concerned with living the principles of being a green company or encouraging their employees to do so as a contribution to the wider community. They just want to gain a high ranking so that their customers perceive them to be green. In both cases ethical principles have effectively become subservient to a short-term tactical advantage.

Stakeholder Theory attempts to address these shortcomings in business ethics by recognising the intrinsic communality of human interaction within the business world and incorporating the encouragement of this communality into long-term strategy. I will give a brief overview of Stakeholder Theory and then explain how I am attempting to apply its insights in my own work with large-scale digital literature projects.

An overview of Stakeholder Theory

A stakeholder is anyone with an interest or concern in something, especially a business. Therefore, stakeholders can be individuals, groups or organisations that are affected by the activity of the business. In terms of a traditional business we could define stakeholders as having the following roles or interest:

  • Business owner – concerned about profit and in some cases appeasing shareholders. They are aware of competitors. They are responsible for key decision making.
  • Managers – concerned about salaries and putting in place processes to achieve the owner’s goals.
  • Workers – want job security and good wages.
  • Customers – expect a certain level of service.
  • Suppliers – rely on the success of the business because they need organisations to buy their products.
  • Lenders – need paying on time.
  • Local community – the business could affect them in a variety of ways.

In addition to this we could also classify stakeholders as being internal or external to the organisation.

The key thinker on this subject is R. Edward Freeman of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. He argues: “You can’t look at any one stakeholder in isolation. Their interest has to go together and the job of a manager is to figure out how the interests of customers, suppliers, communities, employees and financiers go in the same direction.”

Most importantly, he emphasises that business and ethics need to work in harmony. Whereas old school industrial capitalism had a faceless approach to business whereby ‘stakeholder’ really meant ‘stockholder’, Freeman argues that Stakeholder Theory gives a ‘face’ and ‘name’ to individuals. It brings in the human element that has long been missing from the workplace. He even goes as far as to suggest:  “What makes capitalism work is our desire to create value for each other. Not our desire to compete. Capitalism is the greatest system of social collaboration ever invented. It’s about how we cooperate together to create value for each other.”

This idea of ‘value creation’ is vitally important, particularly in that all stakeholders need to create value through their respective roles. This suggests equality, as well as an interconnectedness in the workplace. Value is not something that can be imposed or, as per my opening examples, fabricated. Through respect for each other and an awareness of how value is created, I believe the insights of Stakeholder Theory have the potential to turn any negative into a positive.

Applying Stakeholder Theory to a digital literature project

I am currently creating an interactive memory theatre (or cabinet of curiosity) that celebrates the life of a controversial writer from Nottingham. It will include artefacts in each drawer that tell the writer’s story. The writer in question lived a nomadic life, travelling the world in search of a community of like-minded people. Therefore, our memory theatre will retrace his journey, stopping off in the same cities and countries he visited. Audiences will be able to engage with the memory theatre through digital screens, adding their own memories and reactions to the selected artefacts, thereby enabling the memory theatre to gain in provenance as it journeys along.

The writer in question was born in a town northwest of Nottingham towards the end of the 19th century. During this period the area was highly prosperous due to growing industries and the development of the Midland Railway Company that enabled goods, such as coal, to be transferred across the country. Many people flocked to the area for work and the population soon began to expand.

Nowadays, local people resent the success of this author because he turned his back on his community and was highly critical of what he perceived to be the dehumanising effects of industrialisation: The mining industries at the time were the main employer. His novels contain many references to real people and real situations, many of which he barely attempts to disguise. This personal betrayal continues to anger generations of those affected.

Despite this, locals cannot escape him. A pub, café, community centre, school and roads bear reference to his name, as does the surrounding area. Given that his birthplace town is now a relatively deprived area, his success is constantly thrust at people and consequently he is resented by many. By applying stakeholder theory we have the opportunity to rectify this.

In October 2016 I got a call from a funding body saying that a local MP was interested in further commemorating the writer by putting a statue up of him in his home town and asking what I thought. I admitted I couldn’t see the point, as there were already two statues of the author located in Nottinghamshire. I am also sceptical of the gesture as the local Council has recently sold off a property associated with the writer. One more statue creates no additional value as far as I am concerned and would most likely involve commissioning a sculptor who does not live in the local area.

Stakeholder Theory positions ‘community’ as having equal say in how meaning is produced and value is created for all. The memory theatre project has the potential to repair damage in the affected community by employing a local joiner to help build the memory theatre as well as sourcing materials from local suppliers. In doing this, we open up the conversation from a different perspective. When we work with trades people we have the opportunity to explain why the memory theatre needs to be built in a particular way. We can discuss elements of the writer’s life that need to be drawn out in the design in a way that is not prescriptive but via consultation. We will put money in their pockets, something I am sure locals will be more pleased about than a random statue imposed on their town. They in turn will talk about the project with friends, in the pub. Culture, as Raymond Williams and many others have shown us, comes from below, not from above.

The writer at the heart of my project lived an incredible life. He suffered persecution and censorship for nearly everything he wrote. He lived large parts of his life in absolute poverty, often being put up by friends. He consistently defied authority and was highly critical of those in power. Post-2008 working conditions have produced a new class of worker – ‘the precariat’ – for whom every area of life lacks security (Standing, 2011), the writer’s message bears even more relevance. Consulting, listening and empowering the local community on my project is one way of getting this message across. Thrusting a static statue on them will only do more damage.

References

R. Edward Freeman (2009), Stakeholder Theory Youtube lecture https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ih5IBe1cnQw

Guy Standing (May 24, 2011). “The Precariat – The new dangerous class”. Policy Network.

 

James Walker is a lecturer in Digital Humanities at Nottingham Trent University. He specialises in digital literary criticism. He is the editor of The Sillitoe Trail, which explores the enduring relevance of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and more recently Dawn of the Unread, a graphic novel serial exploring Nottingham’s literary history. www.dawnoftheunread.com

 

 

A Darkening Horizon: the Surge of Irrationalism

According to a news item not widely reported, rioting university students in South Africa are calling for a wholesale revision and ‘Africanisation’ of the curriculum, including the teaching of science. A few months ago they demanded the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, and after an extended period of disruption the authorities complied, perhaps understandably but unwisely in my view (see my post of December 2015). This time Newton’s theory of gravity in particular seems to have incurred their wrath, which while purporting to be a universal law is now apparently considered merely an expression of a Western imperialist mindset that takes no account of the indigenous beliefs about the nature of reality. In a wider context, these demands are not just the rage of a few radicals inspired by post-colonialist rhetoric, but seem part of a semi-coherent if uncoordinated movement to dismantle the intellectual and social achievements of humanity of the past several millennia.

We are used to attacks on science in the West, and there are continual attempts to downgrade the theory of evolution to a hypothesis on the same level as whatever the latest version of creationism is. But evolution has always been controversial, and although its central tenets of variation and adaption have remained largely undisputed for the past 150 years, theoretical insight into its exact mechanism is both ongoing and disruptive. However, this is no more so than the rest of science. There are few, if any, theories several centuries old which have remained intact, with the possible exception of optics. It is the fate of all theories to be eventually replaced, although the best live on as approximations or limited cases of more general rules. Few people today, outside of the school classroom, believe that Newtonian physics is true, having in the twentieth century been superseded by Einstein’s theory of relativity on the universal scale and quantum mechanics on the atomic and smaller scales. However, Newton’s theory of gravity was still accurate enough at the macroscopic scale to take Apollo to the moon and send Voyager’s 1 and 2 to the outer planets. It will get us to Mars if we ever decide to go there, though probably not to even the nearest stars, for that will demand the type of speeds at which relativistic effects will have to be taken into account.

The achievement and the universality of science is not in the truth of any particular theory, which taking a historical perspective will always show to have been incomplete, but in its ability to give an ever more accurate picture of reality, one, moreover, that has allowed a deeper and more penetrating mastery of that reality in the form of technology. It is that technology, which has transformed human lives over the past few centuries, that allows us to live longer and healthier lives, which keeps the lights on and allows us to live social lives beyond the diurnal cycle and in numbers beyond the natural capacity of the earth. Presumably, this is not what the rioting students are complaining about, or if they are, that individual rioters themselves would probably not prefer to be the ones to forego these benefits. Like most protesters who take a knowingly anti-scientific stance – rather than those who are just ignorant of science as such – they are in thrall to an intellectual colonialism that has its roots in nineteenth century European philosophy.

This anti-rationalist stream of thought began with Schopenhauer, but has its most complete expression in the writings of Frederick Nietzsche. Nietzsche was a brilliant and penetrating thinker, to the point of madness. He sought to unpick the intellectual consensus and received values of the Western tradition, in particular its technocracy and Christianity. He detested what he perceived to be the insipid weakness of character promoted by Christianity and championed the heroic and mythical age of the ancients in the form of the Übermensch . The Übermensch is an ideal of the human who lives entirely by their own values rather than the received values of society. As well as being one of the strands of National Socialism, Nietzsche’s ideas fed into existentialism (Heidegger and Sartre) and through existentialism into post-modernism. The philosophers of this school have inherited Nietzsche’s mode of radical critique, extending it to the entire Enlightenment project and, like many philosophical trends pushed to the limit, it has had some paradoxical consequences, creating the intellectual climate not only for leftist and nationalist militancy, but for the resurgence of fundamentalism and nativism.

Luce Irigaray, the Belgian postmodern theorist and feminist writer, took issue with Einstein’s theory of mass-energy equivalence E = mc2, not because of inconsistencies with new data, but because she considered the concepts of energy, mass and the speed of light to be an expression of patriarchal presumption and the dominance of phallocentric rationalism. Outside of the small world of French intellectual society and radical feminist theorising, such assertions would have escaped the notice of the general public and practicing scientists, and to the majority of that small number to whose attention they had been brought, occasioned mirth followed by a deserved oblivion. But since that time there has been a gradual trickle-down and acceptance of postmodernist thinking, particularly in shaping the form of that political activism that seeks to identify, nurture and advocate the rights of ‘victims’ of social norms; and the attack on science and even on mathematics is one of its hallmarks. Under pressure from student groups some American universities’ mathematical textbooks now censure Euclidean geometry for privileging the straight over the non-straight as a form of homophobic violence.

The world seems to be embarking on a retreat from the universalist ideal of the last century, that vision of a peaceful and prosperous global society underpinned by scientific advance and humanitarian ideals, into a world of enclaves defined by shared illusions and resentments which trump knowledge and empathy. The Middle East, which until a generation ago was at the forefront of  modernisation, and produced some of the finest scientists, intellectuals, novelists and artists (although many of them had to travel to the West in order to flourish) is entering a new dark ages in which fundamentalism is gaining sway over humanism (and, ultimately, brutalism over both). There is a space for traditional views, of religion and custom, within a scientific worldview; I would even say a necessity at the human dimension, to anchor us in the quotidian, while providing reassurance and a transcendent dimension to our existence. However, so disparate are the truth claims of these perspectives on the world that they cannot be reconciled within actual social institutions. Rather, this process is intensely personal and requires a high degree of reflectivity or pragmatism. Some scientists like Einstein or the Jesuit anthropologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin moved in the direction of a mystical pantheism. Others have moved in the direction of ironic belief or suspended disbelief, what Paul Ricoeur refers to as ‘second naïveté’. These build upon, accommodate or attempt to reconcile the inner life of the individual with the knowledge, traditions and accomplishments of human civilisation; they do not subvert or attempt their destruction.

There is a point of contention regarding Africa and science, but not the point made by the protesting students: it is that on the world stage there are very few African scientists, and certainly none of the stature of a Newton or an Einstein. If one looks at pictures of meetings of physicists they have been predominantly white affairs, with a few Indians thrown in, and nowadays increasingly a Chinese contingent. Fundamental research into nature is only a priority when more basic needs are met such as good governance and a thriving economy. These students have been denied that until now. At the end of the era of white rule South Africa was the richest country in Africa, with the most vibrant economy and the strongest institutions, which despite the monstrosity of Apartheid were able to deliver a peaceful transition to majority rule. The country had a new constitution, which the people themselves had had a role in writing, a much-loved and inspirational president and the good will of the rest of the world. After twenty years of uninterrupted rule, the ANC presides over a country with a stagnant economy, high unemployment, one of the highest murder rates in the world, and rampant corruption. Rather than address these problems, the response has been to blame the problems on colonialism. We may sympathise with these students’ plight, but we do not have to believe for one moment that their or our interests are going to be served by a retreat into a cultural and intellectual backwater.