Beauty: more than the eye of the beholder (part 2)

Changes in the apperception of the beautiful across historical time and the very individuality of the experience of beauty, have led to a false doctrine of the relativity of beauty and the negation of the idea that there is anything essential, constant or communicable regarding beauty. In fact, the history of the development of knowledge supports an alternative view, that the variability across time and place of the experience of beauty is the possibility for the discovery of what is essential, constant and transmissible.

One of the oldest and most mysterious of artefacts, known as the Willendorf Venus, is a hand-sized nude statuette of a woman of considerable rotundity. Scholarly evaluations of the artefact differ, but the traditional view is that it represents a goddess of fertility. Perhaps not to modern sensibilities, but the assumption is that for the Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer peoples, this would have represented a figure of beauty. The comparative abundance of such fertility figures distributed throughout the world has, in part, led some to conclude that the basis of our sense of beauty lies in the evolutionary advantage of sexual attraction (Ryan, 2018). There is undoubtedly truth in this proposition, but having rejected the relativism of a wholly subjective account of the beautiful, it would be a mistake to fall into the trap of accepting a wholly deterministic one either. While sexual attraction intersects with our experience of the beautiful, it does not exclusively define it.

The sexual attraction thesis, though, does illuminate a fundamental point about beauty: that it is an emotional response to an experience of something in the world, that is something objectively existing.1 As a basic proposition it is unarguable that beauty is related to the physical attributes of the object of perception and our appreciation of those attributes, how the form of the thing becomes something which is valuable to us. The question then follows: in what regard and through the agency of what does the form become valuable to us in the particular way that we refer to as beauty, in other words, that stimulates the emotional response that we recognise as our being in the presence of beauty? This has been the subject of philosophical speculation and scientific and even mathematical analysis throughout history until today.

The evolution of the perception of the beautiful2

From an evolutionary perspective, the precursors of the human appreciation of beauty lie in the development of a perceptual apparatus that can identify and discriminate among signals being apprehended by an organism in relation to its environment. Among those signals, the most fundamental visual ones must be shape, movement, light and shade, depth and colour. There is no unanimity about when perception evolved into an aesthetic sense, but a critical point appears to have been around 30-40,000 years ago, when cave art made its appearance in the archaeological record in different locations around the world. This is also reckoned to be the time at which ritual and more complex social forms emerged (Pfeiffer, 1982).

From the moment homo sapiens began to represent perceptions of the world and – later, we assume – ideas about the world, is the moment when we can meaningfully begin to speak of cultural history as an existential phenomenon rather than a retrospective historiographical reconstruction. It may be, although we lack, presently, any data on whether further changes in the genetic underpinning of brain structures are responsible, that this moment of the creative explosion is when cultural evolution superseded biological evolution, and the development of an aesthetic sense proceeded through the cultural assimilation and refinement of the fundamental perceptual signals received through the senses.3

Almost certainly the first of these signals to be refined and pressed into use were shape and colour. The perception of form, probably as the distinction between light and dark, is the most primitive form of perception (Gehring, 2014). Interestingly, this matches a fundamental assertion of most creation myths, although why this should be so is, when one thinks about it, puzzling. The evolution of perception was a response to the emergence of autonomous movement and predation, as a defence mechanism: movement equalled potential danger. The first proto-art, before even painting, was probably ritualistic dancing,4 evoking the movements of the real and imaginary denizens of heaven and earth. I think it likely the roots of our aesthetic sense were forged here, in the intoxicating immersion in the play of movement, colour and sound.

The discovery of colour is particularly intriguing. The evolution of the visual cortex to perceive colour has a two-fold purpose: to refine the perception of danger and to render the necessary attractive (Jacobs, 2009). Again, it interesting how often the ancient myths linked attraction with danger. Flowering plants, which are the most coloured, were the last group to evolve and co-evolved with pollinating insects and birds. They evolved to stand out for reproductive purposes, and colour plays a central role in the mating rituals of many animals. So, it would be reasonable to assume that in the evolution of human species colour plays a similar role. The colour red, especially, seems to function as an indicator of reproductive health (Davis, 2013).

However, sex and danger are not the whole story about colour. The transformation of life through ritual enactment into vicarious representation, as in cave art, was probably only possible through the discovery of a technology to represent images in colour, namely pigments. The loss of lived-experience involved in a static creation, as well as the investment of time necessary to execute such designs, necessitated a compensatory gain, the possibility of the representation and transmission of a felt idea, and that could only be given force through the use of colour, even of a rudimentary type and limited range. Such creations, I surmise, presaged the advent of cultural history, allowing the reflective appropriation and multiplication of ideas and images.

Although I use the terms cultural transmission and cultural evolution, their definitions, their connection and their relationship to the beautiful cannot be fully explored here. Biological evolution proceeds through the transmission of variability at the genetic level and specifically rules out acquired characteristics; cultural evolution proceeds by a hypothesised mechanism of cultural transmission that is considerably more context-dependent than genetic inheritance, more prone to errors in the transmission process and depends on the accumulation of individually-acquired knowledge.5 Among the many things not known are whether biological evolution continues to contribute changes that affect cultural evolution. The argument I make here is a simple one, that the perception of the beautiful is rooted in our biological nature, but refined by the accumulated wisdom of historic cultures.

The first advances in the formalisation of the aesthetic sense was made under the Greeks, with the development of ideas about symmetry and proportion. Symmetry is a design feature of many animals and plants. Most higher creatures are bilaterally symmetrical, and a high degree of symmetry has come to represent health and attractiveness, to humans as well (Grammer & Thornhill, 1994). To this natural propensity, the Greeks gave a mathematical basis through their exploration of two- and three-dimensional geometry.6 Pythagoras additionally identified what we call ‘the golden mean’, roughly equivalent to the proportion 1.618, that creates a balance which is most pleasing to the human eye. It is found throughout nature wherever an iteration of the proportion of whole to parts occurs, such as the in structure of animal and plant bodies, and in the spiral formations of snail shells. In the 12th century this was recognised as equivalent to a mathematical series we now know as the Fibonacci sequence.

Symmetry and proportion were recognised in cultures other then Greece and incorporated into their monumental architecture and decorative arts. The Egyptian pyramids are highly geometrical and necessitated the development of mathematical and engineering tools; however, their art was functional within a systematic religious worldview and, as far as we know, not created for aesthetic pleasure (Mark, 2017). In the later Islamic world highly stylised and complex forms of symmetry were utilised in the calligraphy that adorned public spaces, an art form that flourished to fill the niche left by the prohibition of human and animal images, and one that clearly had an aesthetic purpose. Muslim architects also developed intricate patterns of tiling that have been likened to the contemporary tessellations of Escher and Penrose.

The evolution of binocular vision and depth perception in mammals and some birds imbued an evolutionary advantage for hunting which was bought at the cost of the loss of panoptical vision found in herbivores, most birds, reptiles and insects. The loss of this survival ability was compensated, in mammals at least, by the emergence of complex social systems involving common defence of the group. Depth perception also became a fundamental component of aesthetic appreciation, a form of contrast that complemented that of shape and colour.

Although three-dimensional representation, in statuary, for example, existed in the ancient world, and various techniques for representing objects in space, it was the Renaissance that saw the emergence of perspective in two-dimensional painting – which in previous cultures had been rendered flat – adding depth to the representative arts. In the fifteenth century the first treatises on perspective were written, drawing on the reborn appreciation of nature and the human form at the centre of Renaissance sensibility, the practical issues to be solved in making a realistic representation, and the search for mathematical rules. There are speculative theories that rules of perspective existed in the ancient world, but not to date any evidence to support this idea (Anderson, 2007, p.15)

Depth seems to be one of the qualities that renders landscape beautiful. Those living on reclaimed flatlands, such as the Dutch, and the dwellers on the Eurasian plain may beg to differ, but most of us consider a landscape with variations in height provided with mountains and valleys to be more beautiful than a completely flat landscape. Villages and cities that exhibit variations in height and elevation of buildings are more attractive than those which are built at a single elevation – just consult the property market.7 In the early 90’s I travelled from Moscow to Sevastopol in the Crimea by train through Ukraine, when such a thing was still possible (and for a cost equivalent to about £1). My impression of the landscape was one of unremitting monotonous flatness consisting of grassland, agricultural fields and endless birch forests. Perhaps – it is not entirely unreasonable hypothesis – dwellers of the world’s flatlands experience aesthetic depth in a different, less obvious, way: the depth to horizon; the depth of the broad expanse of sky. Perhaps, as the phenomenologist Mikel Dufrenne proposes of that paradigmatic flatland, the ocean, aesthetic depth is not to be sought in any external dimension, but in our sense of its “corporeal unity” and “unfathomable totality” (Dufrenne, 1973, p.412), that is the overlaying of metaphysical narrative on the landscape.

One the earliest metaphysical narratives applied to reality concerned the nature of motion and change. According to Parmenides the appearance of movement and development is an illusion; reality is continuous, undivided, immobile Being. Influenced by Parmenides, Plato and his Christian interpreter, Plotinus, established the orthodoxy in Western culture of beauty as a stable quality, that is to say, it inhered in permanence and unchangeability. The alternative view put forward by Heraclitus, that all is in a state of flux, virtually disappeared, but this insight has re-emerged with the advent of Chaos theory.8 The theory refers to ‘the edge of chaos’ as being the most creative place, where a certain amount of destruction is taking place, but where order is preserved, which suggests that a degree of instability has a place in beauty. The beauty of nature is that it is neither wildly chaotic or static, but that its forces are constrained by natural law and by human ordering, while at the same time, this constraint does not suppress development. The Japanese have a very distinctive view of beauty as passing and impermanent, which is why they fetishize the spring cherry blossom, which fades within a few days, but which nevertheless returns each year and is incorporated into the social ritual. Japanese poetry and calligraphy, by contrast with that of other cultures, also esteems the spontaneous over the mannered. This aspect of movement and change within the perception of beauty brings it into the moral realm, which is why we can speak of the beautiful also as the good.

The Beautiful as Balance and Variance

Beauty is both complex and simple. The fundamental property seems to be a balance between opposites, the finding of the harmonic centre between extremes; yet it also exists in the departure from this balance and the enrichment of the centre with the new and innovative. Beauty can flirt with the extremes, but it can never be wholly committed to the extreme and it must always seek to reinvigorate the centre. If this seems to anthropomorphise beauty, that is because beauty is ultimately a human creation and an aspiration of the human spirit. It is, however, a creation rooted in nature, which our biology and psychic parameters reflect. For beauty to exist chaos must be resolved, even momentarily. However, as an evolutionary function, variability, selection and adaptation play an important role.

For each component of the aesthetic experience the perceptual apparatus for appreciation evolved in the cause of survival and reproduction, then found a subsequent use within a medium of communication. In this medium a set of skills were honed over generations before being formalised, for example in mathematics, and this formalisation entering the ongoing and evolving cultural discourse, to add order, reason and depth to the emotional force of working in a particular medium. In the process, this discourse has been continuously bent back upon nature itself, which has become an aesthetically interpreted reality.

Nature manifests the interplay of movement and rest or durability, which is mirrored by the cultural categories of performance and tradition. The performance would be a moment lost in time unless it were recorded and communicated, becoming, in the process, part of our social bonding. This is also true of the appreciation of natural beauty. A few weeks ago, walking with family in the countryside, we crested a hill to be confronted by a spectacular sunset. Few words were said, but as the sky moved in performance from blinding vision to glowing embers we stood and absorbed this moment, tried to capture it in some photos, but knowing above all it was a shared experience that bound us more closely.

 

Part 3 will consider the philosophical discussion around beauty

 

Notes

  1. We are not in the habit of labelling our own internal states as beautiful, although I would concede the possibility of ‘clear and distinct’ dreams, visions and drug-induced hallucinatory states also being so-valuated. This much is uncontroversial and is the source of the relativist dogma that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, which our culture has largely come to accept.

There is a problem with this, though. Unless we accept that the beautiful is ineffable and, moreover, hold to the Wittgensteinian position that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”, discussions of and exclamations about the beautiful enter naturally into public discourse. Utterances to the effect that something meaningful is being communicated must do so with certain criteria in mind, which lie in the realm of objectivity. The beautiful must have the potential to be universally judged as such, so even a valued internal state must be objectified and brought into the public domain.

  1. This essay will focus on the visual sense. While beauty, or its closely related values, can occur through the other senses – touch, smell, taste and hearing – the visual sense is paradigmatic for beauty. The other sense routes for aesthetic appreciation, though, have also gone through a process of development and refinement in history like the visual sense.
  2. In speaking of the evolution of the perception of the beautiful it is important to make some basic distinctions. Evolution is fundamentally a theory of the development of the biological form of life, through variation and selection. Any extension of the term to society and culture is, at best, allegorical. There is, however, the possibility of a range of human abilities and skills that are subject to evolutionary pressures that bridges the divide between the biological and the cultural. These have been explored in sociobiology and, more recently in evolutionary psychology. The central argument advanced here is that there has been an evolution in our perception of the beautiful, which is fundamentally biological but knowledge of which has unfolded in historical time through human discovery, through the arts and through the scientific analysis and evaluation of the arts. This knowledge has itself contributed to the refinement of the sense of beauty.
  3. For example, the prehistoric art at the Bhimbetka rock shelter in India, reckoned to be 30,000 years old, depicts dancing figures, which suggests that that art form precedes its depiction.
  4. Beginning in the 1970s a considerable body of theoretical work has amassed on the evolutionary basis of cultural transmission. One of the most prominent hypotheses is known as the Dual Inheritance Theory, which claims that human nature and behaviour can best be understood as an amalgamation of genetic inheritance and cultural transmission (McElreath and Henrich, 2007). The main contributors to the field have been Lumsden and Wilson (1981), Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) and Boyd and Richerson (1985) who all developed mathematical models of how genetic and cultural factors can reinforce each other. Slightly predating these, and far better known, Dawkins (1976) proposed a theory of memetic evolution (cultural transmission though ‘memes’, a cultural analogue of genes).

For example, Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) developed a theory of cultural transmission based on an epidemiological model of viral diffusion. That model drew on four evolutionary factors (ibid, pp. 65-67) as the driving forces of evolutionary change, the two classical Darwinian notions of variation and selection and the later neo-Darwinian concepts of drift and migration. Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman utilised the first two to create a basic typology of cultural change akin to genetic variation. As in epidemic spread, they identified three transmission routes (ibid, p. 54): vertical, from parent to offspring; horizontal, from peer to peer (non-related individuals of the same generation); and oblique, between non-related or distantly-related individuals of different generations.

  1. The relationship between the instinctive recognition of the attractive and the mathematical formalisation of symmetry or proportion is not a necessary one. However, the felt-experience of attraction can be augmented by the wonderment felt at the mysterious order and simplicity underlying so much complexity.
  2. The favelas of Rio de Janeiro are an exception to this widespread observation, where the slums have come the occupy the slopes of the city and the wealthier districts the low-lying areas.
  3. Chaos theory is a relatively new branch of mathematics concerned with non-linear complex systems, which are not modelled well in traditional applied mathematics. Its principal insight is that the output of recursive equations yields results that are analogous to chaotic systems in nature, such as the weather, turbulent flow and population changes, to economic behaviour and social fashions, and to complex geometries such as that exhibited by landscapes (fractional dimensionality) and vegetation, such as trees.

The branch of chaos theory most closely associated with beauty is fractal geometry, pioneered by Benoit Mandelbrot, which posits complexity and self-similarity as a fundamental property of the beautiful. While there is a grandeur in some modern skyscrapers with their endless and uniform glass fronts, most people recognise the architecture that incorporates intricate design and detail as being more beautiful, in the same way that we recognise the baroque work of Bach to be more transcendentally beautiful than a work of minimalism (although there is more at work here than mere detail).

 

References

Kirsti Anderson (2007). The Geometry of an Art: The History of the Mathematical Theory of Perspective from Alberti to Monge. Copenhagen: Springer.

Boyd, R. and Richerson, P. (1985). Culture and the evolutionary process. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Cavalli-Sforza, L. and M. Feldman. (1981). Cultural transmission and evolution: A quantitative approach. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Stephen Davies (2013). The Evolutionary Value of an Aesthetic Sense. Aisthesis. Pratiche, linguaggi e saperi dell’estetico, 6(2), 75-79, (Dec. 2013). Available at: <http://www.fupress.net/index.php/aisthesis/article/view/13770/12802&gt;.

Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mikel Dufrenne (1973). The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience [trans. Edward S. Casey, Albert A. Anderson, Willis Domingo and Leon Jacobson]. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Walter J. Gehring (2014). The evolution of vision. WIREs Dev Biol 2014, 3:1–40. Available at: http://www.smithlab.net/courses/biovis_2014fall/Lecture4-reading2-Swamynathan.pdf

Grammer, K., & Thornhill, R. (1994). Human (Homo sapiens) facial attractiveness and sexual selection: The role of symmetry and averageness. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 108(3), 233-242.

Gerald H. Jacobs (2009). Evolution of colour vision in mammals. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. (2009 Oct 12); 364(1531): 2957–2967. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2781854/

Lumsden, C. and E. Wilson. 1981. Genes, mind and culture: The coevolutionary process. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Joshua J. Mark (26 May 2017) Ancient Egyptian Art, Ancient History Encyclopedia (online). Available at: https://www.ancient.eu/Egyptian_Art/ [accessed 01/03/2019]

McElreath, R. and Henrich, J. (2007). Dual inheritance theory: The evolution of human cultural capacities and cultural evolution. In R. Dunbar and L. Barrett, (Eds.), Oxford handbook of evolutionary psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 555-570.

John E. Pfeiffer (1982). The creative explosion. An inquiry into the origins of art and religion. New York: Harper & Row.

Michael J. Ryan (2018). A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

 

 

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Beauty: more than the eye of the beholder (part 1)

In my estimation there is no more perverse doctrine than that which states that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. Not because it is not true that the experience of beauty is apprehended and appreciated at the level of individual perception, which is, in some sense, a redundant observation, but because of the reductiveness of identifying beauty itself with its mere apprehension. It is perverse, and not just mistaken, precisely because it refuses to accept the reality – and by that, I mean the real existence – of beauty and therefore its possibility of being analysed and understood, communicated and becoming once more a central part of our cultural narrative, repudiated as it was for a large part of the twentieth century.

The perversity of the reduction of beauty extends beyond ontological and epistemological concerns, though, into the social; it implies that we cannot refine our own sense of the beautiful through meaningful interaction with others; and it suggests – or even mandates – that we dare not teach the young about what is beautiful, as this would imply a denigration of some culture and cultural forms as inferior. The abandonment of a commitment to beauty can be seen in the parlous state of our culture in the West today, which increasingly celebrates the ugly in all its forms, or else, in reaction to that, the twee and insipid. It is perhaps an artefact of the infantilisation of our culture that the space for the mature appreciation of beauty is being squeezed to the margins, displaced by the unenviable choice of teen rebellion or kindergarten sensibility.

It is true that the apparent relativity of the beautiful seems to be confirmed, not only by the fact that we individually assert different things to be beautiful, but by the change in the perception of beauty over historical time. I will argue, however, that this is best understood as the process of the discovery of beauty, in the unfolding of the nature and structure of beauty’s constituents with the passage of time, to which various civilisations have contributed their own insights. I will also argue that the beautiful cannot ultimately be separated from notions of the true and the good and predict that the closer we come to an encompassing theory of beauty, the more that will become apparent.

The historical semiotics of beauty

Some time ago, while out driving, my wife and I witnessed a glorious full moon, hanging clear and limpid above the horizon. My wife was the first to spot it and commented how large and beautiful it was. We decided to pull over and spend some time just contemplating it. Being so inclined and interested in things astronomical, I mentioned that sometimes the moon is closer to the Earth, which makes it appear larger to terrestrial viewers, referred to as a supermoon. She refused to be impressed by this information and merely wondered whether such a sight had been seen in the remote past. I was not quite sure what she meant by this, but set forth again what I considered to be the interesting and salient fact that in the past the moon had been much closer to the Earth, that Earth’s day had been much shorter and that over time the drag of the moon’s gravity had caused the Earth’s spin to slow down and days to become longer. The imparting of this wisdom was received in silence.

Looking back and reflecting later, it became apparent that compared to the empirically-rooted but rather banal information I was supplying, my wife’s question was far more perceptive, as it could be excavated to reveal a richer stratum of ideas. For example, a thousand years ago, in what we for so long have referred to as the Dark Ages, would people have seen such a sight? The question is not about the physics of light or the biology of perception; it is about meaning, interpretation and social possibility. In our modern intellectual sphere, we have the possibility of a choice of epistemological perspectives: instrumental or structuralist, phenomenological or evolutionary, for example. For a medieval peasant, we suppose, not only did those terms, or their equivalents, not exist, but we doubt whether even those perspectives, which those terms denote, existed.

In all probability, the medieval peasant, farming a strip of land on the estate of the local lord, had a well-developed semiotics, but it was one rooted in the cycles of nature and of the agricultural cycle, tied in to the festivals of the Church. The priest as the most educated local would have been on hand to explain, or dismiss, the questions of the curious, almost certainly with reference to church teachings. According to Eco (1986): “The Medievals inhabited a world filled with references, reminders and overtones of Divinity, manifestations of God in things. Nature spoke to them heraldically: lions or nut-trees were more than they seemed; griffins were just as real as lions because, like them, they were signs of a higher truth.” Nature was full of signs, and in many ways the medieval peasant, being much closer to the natural world than we are generally today, would have had a more detailed knowledge of its practical processes and warnings, but not the theoretical insight to the interconnectedness of all nature that we would perceive today through our embedding in a scientific worldview. However, for the medieval peasant the signs were infused with symbolism through which they lived simultaneously in a mythopoeic reality, a Christianised revival of the sense of awe and wonder that had so characterised the Classical period of antiquity (ibid).

Could a peasant farmer appreciate the beauty of a full moon or a sunset? The barrier to such knowledge is almost as impassable as the attempt to recreate the prehistoric mind, or that of another species. As peasants were universally illiterate, they did not record their thoughts; as they were uneducated, poor and powerless, neither did anyone evince any interest in what they thought or experienced. Today, revealing the prejudices of our own age, we assume their consciousness was similarly constructed to our own, but we have no evidence for this. The closest we can get is through the theologians and poets of the era. This reveals some differences from modern consciousness. According to Myers, Pastoureau and Zink (2017), medieval nature poems “combine a myopic attention to what is close by – branches, blades of grass, the banks and hedgerows – with the pleasures of the other senses – the song of the birds, the rushing waters of the spring, the scent of the flower, the caress of the breeze – that are made possible by this very proximity and intensified by the limited vision”.

This suggests that the medieval idea of beauty was less conceptualised than that of the Greeks (at least the Greek philosophers) and less holistic than today, but sensually richer. The medievals saw the underlying unity of things in theological terms, the ‘Great Chain of Being’ and their own immersion in nature, but they lacked the framework of objectivity, to the extent of lacking the concept of ‘landscape’ (ibid). We surmise that the medieval peasant, in common with most pre-modern peoples, would have been in awe – that curious mixture of apprehension, wonderment and intoxication – at the sight of a supermoon or anything that strayed from the mundane and regular and, lacking knowledge of causes, would have fallen back on a supernatural explanation. This could be totally wrong; perhaps they were simply indifferent to nature or incapable of an aesthetic appreciation. It is unlikely we will ever know.

Part 2 will consider the evolution of the perception of beauty

References

Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (Originally published as: Sviluppo dell’estetica medievale, in Momenti e problemi di storia dell’estetica, vol. 1, 1959.) [Trans. Hugh Bredin] New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

Nicole Myers, Michel Pastoureau, Michel Zink (2017). Art and Nature in the Middle Ages. New Haven: Yale University Press

A Resolution of the Problem of Absolute Values in Transcendent Individualism

Since antiquity, and particularly after Plato, philosophers have pondered on the question of the absolute values, of truth, beauty and goodness. Now, just as then, there have been advocates of their status as real, as well as sceptics. The twentieth century was mostly a sceptical period, although I predict a revival of interest presently, given the generally calamitous state of public discourse, awareness of human depredation of the natural environment, and rising international and societal tensions. The concerns of philosophy have never been, throughout its history, entirely devoid of influence by or relevance to the social world in which philosophers are embedded. Nevertheless, the foundational issue of their ontological status must be addressed. I propose that the problematic status of absolute values finds its resolution in social structures founded on an anthropological concept of transcendent individualism.

The concept of value as a distinct theoretical concern of philosophy has its roots somewhere between the Enlightenment and the late 19th century when the first writings on value theory as a distinct branch of philosophy appeared in the writings of Brentano, Lotze, Meinong and others, though it has precursors in the medieval scholastic concept of the ‘just price’ and the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, among other sources (Werkmeister, 1970). The modern idea of values (in the plural), the ordinary language usage we make of the word when we are not wearing our philosophical hats, however, emerged with the advent of the modern science of society, or sociology, in the writings of Max Weber, in which values are judged to play an important mediating role in social interaction and institutional viability. It is precisely the existence of a realm of shared values in any given society which, according to sociologists, enables the social discourse between proponents of even profoundly different experiences, beliefs and views.

Weber took the view that values were functional aspects of social structures, largely irrespective of the actual moral force of particular and specific values, skirting around the fact-value dichotomy identified by Hume, wherein it is impossible – according to Hume – to derive a value judgement from the accretion of any number of facts. No one has yet advanced a plausible argument that Hume is wrong. In reality, though, in all social contexts (apart from conventions of philosophers possibly) we indiscriminately mix facts and judgements, even if there is no logical transition between the two. Weber put values on a new footing, ontologically, by assigning them a function while being mute about their fundamental nature. The influential mid-twentieth century American sociologist Talcott Parsons, put it thus: ‘An element of a shared symbolic system which serves as a criterion or standard for selection among the alternatives of orientation which are intrinsically open in a situation can be considered a value’ (Parsons, 1951, p.112).

While I am in general agreement with Parsons’ description of values as ‘an element of a…. system’, this describes their place from an ‘outside’ perspective only; their essential nature as conceptually specific, experiential and immanent in the emotions is ignored in sociology. Perhaps the best exponent of this view of the interiority of values is the Romanian anthropologist Mircea Eliade, who links the root of value even in the modern secular world to an experience of the sacred and for whom ‘even the most desacralized existence still preserves traces of a religious valorization of the world’ (Eliade, 1957, p.24). For Eliade, to hold firmly a value or set of values involves a hierophany, a ‘manifestation of the sacred [that] ontologically founds the world’ (ibid, p.21). While this may seem to imbue values excessively with meaning, they have the quality of remaining invisible and mysteriously opaque to inspection (Hechter, 1993) while inspiring and regulating social action (Kluckhohn, 1951, p.399).

A philosophical analysis of values can demonstrate that they can manifest as both conceptualisations of broadly agreed standards and an intense inner experience, though they do so under different conditions. Within normal societal discourse in open social circumstances we have frequent recourse to value terminology, which commits us to nothing more than a general assertion that we have a preference for one thing or perspective over another (Rokeach, 1973, p.5) or an interest in a specific thing (Perry, 1926). But there is another kind of discourse, which takes place within closed social groupings, in which a strong sense in in-group and out-group consciousness is maintained (Tajfel, 1974), in which value concepts take on a highly symbolic invocatory function and in which the experiential nature and sacred manifestation of the value is shared, or, at least, held to be shared. We can speak, therefore, of values as a conceptualised shared experience, conceptualisation or shared experience being uppermost depending whether the social context is open or closed.

The objection could be raised that the very disparate social conditions under which this dual nature of values manifest itself, as information with an ethical subtext in open society and highly symbolised medium of shared experience in closed community, undermines the coherence of the philosophical concept, that is, of value as a single entity with a dual nature. I would argue, though, that the modern idea of value has co-evolved with the form of society in the post-Enlightenment period characterised by individualism, in which an individual can freely move between multiple belongings, each form of life having the nature of a closed group built around a core of shared values, but in which the hard distinction of in-group and out-group is mitigated by a tentative membership and complex, self-assumed identities. Such societies – the liberal democracies – are, in theory at least, committed to maximising the freedom of the individual, while leaving the pursuit of meaning and happiness to the individual.

Individualism is one of the most misunderstood socio-political and philosophical concepts. This is partly because it does not feature or not feature highly in most non-western cultures, which favour some form of collective identity and almost certainly privilege the collective over the individual. Dumont (1973, p.34) makes a distinction between the ‘empirical subject of speech thought and will’ which is common to all cultures and ‘the independent, autonomous and (essentially) non-social moral being’ who is the inhabitant of modern societies. Thus, Dumont distinguishes between the facticity of individuality – as singular body and capacities – and the belief that one is free and the essential equal of all other human beings. It is this latter concept, which has evolved in the crucible of European history and its Hellenistic and Judeo-Christian inheritance, that has enabled the forms of society that we characterise as open to exist. Individualism, though, is not a peculiarity of Western culture; it is a periodic human discovery that has been made a number of times in history, notably by the Greek city states, but also in ancient Zoroastrian Persia and in medieval Islam. However, in the West individualism has probably had its most sustained form, allied as it has been to the rise of science and modern market economies, which have improved human life considerably over the past few centuries. Thus, although individualism is not peculiar to western thought and western ways of life, a case can be made that it is fundamental to modernity. If so, this entails that as collective cultures modernise, they will have to grasp the issue of individualism, otherwise progress will stall.

In my estimation, the major world religions have a relatively sophisticated and enlightened concept of the individual, which has enabled humanist outlooks to emerge in religious cultures as diverse as Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. Indeed, the typical view of the individual found in the sacred texts of the great religions mirror a contemporary humanist view, attributed to a 19th century scholar Lysenkus-Popper, that with the death of a single person, a whole universe disappears. Moreover, the sacred texts contain significant statements of existential value, in which each individual man and woman is accorded the opportunity to stand as a figure of moral significance, by taking up a significant historical role. This accords with the contemporary views of many social psychologists that we find meaning in life through assuming our burden of responsibility (Peterson, 2018). Thus, religions’ views of the individual accords unique value both ontologically and as a social actor.

Nonetheless, a view of society is not complete by just its anthropology. One criticism I have of religions as a basis for social theory is that they have an underdeveloped notion of freedom. This can be accounted for somewhat by their origins in strongly hierarchical cultures. For example, in its hermeneutics of the origin of evil, the standard Christian analysis of the story of Eden in Genesis 3 emphasises the Fall from God’s grace and alienation from God’s presence, without sufficiently, in my opinion, contextualising that within the creation narrative of the autonomy of the original ancestors, most obviously represented by the retrograde Catholic concept of felix culpa, the predetermination of sin in order that salvation be granted.1 In the moral narratives of religions, freedom is frequently minimised and bounded by conditions, particularly the idea of responsibility, which again is found to be bound up with the ideas of duty and obligation prevalent in closed communities and hierarchical societies. I believe this cultural loading perhaps prevents a more enlightened understanding of the relationship between freedom and responsibility. Rightly understood, responsibility is not the inhibitor of freedom, it is its complementarity and its guarantor.

First, the responsible person must accept that they are free, in both an existential sense and as a social actor making choices. Without this affirmation there can be no responsibility, only obedience, and at worst, slavery. The great tragedy of much of human history and still much of the world today is that social conditions do not allow people to be free and, therefore, not responsible, rather than duty-bound, though this number is, arguably, diminishing. The human thirst for freedom is unquenchable; we always choose it as an alternative to the burden of excessive societal expectation and to other forms of oppression, especially when we have experienced them.

Secondly, the responsible person must accept that their choices and the acts that flow from them all have consequences, for good and ill, for which they reap the benefits and the costs. With experience comes a greater ability to discern between the two and the wise person will not only make better choices but also choose to impose limits on their actions. The actions that destroy, deplete and offend are the ones that are most likely to result in a reaction that aims to curtail the freedom of the individual for the protection of the common good. For this to happen, the power of the community or the state must be invoked. Every invocation of the power of the greater collective or its authoritative representative entails a diminution of the freedom of the individual, which itself informs the state of freedom of the society. Consequently, that which guarantees the freedom of society is an act of self-limitation imposed on oneself for the sake of the greater good.

Thirdly, the responsible person should work for the common good, which is another way of saying social justice. A commitment to justice in this sense is not a commitment to equality, but it can be compatible with a commitment to reducing inequality, particularly of opportunity. Justice, we might say, is relative freedom, rather than absolute freedom. Justice is the addressing of actual injustices, where there is the absence, limitation or oppression of freedom. It is not attempting to equalise everything by limiting the freedom of the majority in favour of a minority. People are not, and never will be equal in freedom, but it is not unreasonable to address that issue by increasing the freedom of the less free.

From the perspective of a social theorist, absolute values can only be broached in a society which is committed to freedom based on individualism, partly because there is a strong case that the concepts have co-evolved. As the twin forces of religion and monarchy have been weakened in the modern period, individuals have become empowered, science, art and humanism have flourished, and the concepts of the true, beautiful and good have become dissociated from religious doctrine. Religions are, and will continue to be, though, an important mythic narrative source of local and universal values and an important agent in community structure and civil society. However, they can never be the model of a free, individualist and humanistic society, such is their penchant for otherworldliness (at worst apocalyptic nihilism), schism, persecution of supposed heretics and dogmatic control of thought. Their social utility, if that is the right word, lies in the deconstruction of their myths into moral narratives that pose existential challenges for individuals in secular societies, not in forming the authorised template for individual behaviour.

Nevertheless, individualism is clearly declining in the West. It is now routinely ignored in educational establishments, being replaced by postmodern values of equality, diversity and inclusivity, for which groupthink and commitment to collective political activism are required. Additionally, its foundations and the fundamentals of modernity such as evidence-based knowledge and logic, are being undermined, accused of being merely expressions of Western hegemony. But individualism is also declining because over time it has drifted from its roots in the spiritual iconoclasm of such figures as Francis, Luther, Kierkegaard and King and become all too often a justification for selfishness, indifference to suffering and greed. It has the appearance of a spent force whose ideals no longer inspire a civilisation. As Arthur Miller more cynically put it, ‘an era is over when its basic illusions have been exhausted’. The survival and reinvigoration of modernity will depend on the transformation of individualism into what I call transcendent individualism, which draws on the religious and secular heritage of the world’s cultures for the highest values that sustain the human conscience, lust for discovery and the instinct to altruism. These values will in all likelihood turn out to be universal and culminate in the absolute values of truth, beauty and goodness.

One can argue about the ontological status of absolute values, depending on whether one is inclined to Platonism or some form of instrumentalism. Work by Russell, Carnap, Wittgenstein, Quine and others laid bare the logical basis of mathematical and linguistic truth, fundamental science has added enormously to our knowledge of the universe, work on chaos theory has added to our knowledge of the constituents of beauty – such as symmetry, proportion and depth – that of creative instability, and the research of psychologists is building a slowly growing picture of what constitutes the good personality. There is little doubt about the existential force of these values in the lives of individuals and cultures for betterment, prosperity and peace, nor the minatory power afforded by awareness of the proximity of the disvalues of falsity, ignorance, ugliness and evil.

I believe I have made a case based on societal development and social expectations that absolute values and transcendent individualism are mutually supporting concepts. There is still a requirement, though, for some philosophical justification and underpinning for this argument. I believe this can be found in Munsterberg’s concept of the actualisation of absolute values through stages, culminating in the ‘self-assertion of the world’ (Munsterberg, 1909, p.74). I take this to mean that the only world that can be asserted by individuals in a world of individuals as constituting an identical experience of the world is a world of absolute values. However, it can additionally be interpreted as the assertion by the individual that they as an individual constitute a world-in-potential determined by absolute values, which is exactly what transcendent individualism implies. Absolute values provide the metaphysical space for the concept of transcendent individualism, which in turn embeds them in realistic societal conditions.

Because they are absolute, truth, beauty and goodness are, in principle, unattainable. Yet, the human condition is such that, under favourable conditions, it strives against its limitations spurred on by the prospect of the absolute – despite suspecting that it is unattainable – because glimpses of the ineffable are had from time to time. A society of freedom liberates individuals’ creative capacity to pursue truth, beauty and goodness and in pursuing these the individual ensures that the society remains free. The transcendent individual is moving outwards from themselves. Being in themselves, consciously and bodily, they nonetheless attempt to dissolve the boundary of self and other to achieve social solidarity and justice. They challenge themselves to transcend themselves in every dimension of their being: physically, intellectually, emotionally and socially to ensure their social attributes – such as compassion, hospitality, empathy and altruism – are continually being extended outwards. Above all there should be respect for the unique value of the individual and a recognition that everyone has a unique contribution; at the same time, the society of such individuals should be attuned to empowering those who are less able – as a result of natural or social disadvantage – through the progress of knowledge and technology.

The world today is a confusing mixture of optimism and pessimism, potentialities and threats of great magnitude. The idea of transcendent individualism grounded in the aspiration to absolute values could provide the vital nudge the world needs at this time. Our institutions – such as the press, the judiciary, the arts, the sciences, and politics – pay lip service to truth, beauty and goodness, though they frequently fail, both institutionally as well as in the actions of their constituent members, to uphold them. It is high time they were awoken from their constitutional slumbers.

 

NOTE

  1. The lesson of the myth of the Garden of Eden, to my understanding, was that the first ancestors did not protect their freedom and did not accept responsibility for their lives and their actions, but sought to play the victim, just as today (as throughout history) many seek to blame others or ‘society’ for their personal misfortunes. The victim mentality which seems to be sweeping so much of the West today is not the result of individualism, but the result of the decline of individualism and the retreat into polarised collectives characterised by philosophical incoherence, hysteria and addiction to blame and conflict.

 

REFERENCES

Dumont, L. (1970). Homo Hierarchicus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Eliade, M. (1957). The sacred and the profane: The nature of religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Hechter, M. (1993). Values research in the social and behavioural sciences. In M. Hechter, L. Nadel and R. E. Michod (Eds.), The origin of values. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, pp. 1–28.

Kluckhohn, C. (1951). Values and value-orientations in the theory of action: An exploration in definition and classification. In T. Parsons and E. Shils (Eds.), Toward a general theory of action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 388-439.

Munsterberg, H. (1909). The eternal values. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Parsons, T. (1951). The social system. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

Perry, R. B. (1926). General theory of value. New York.

Peterson, J. B. (2018). 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. London: Penguin Random House.

Rokeach, M. (1973). The nature of human values. New York: The Free Press.

Tajfel, H. (1974). Social identity and intergroup behaviour. Social Science Information, vol. 13, pp. 65-93.

Werkmeister, W. H. (1970). Historical spectrum of value theories. Lincoln, Nebraska: Johnsen Publishing Company.

 

Dialectic of the Good: the structural containment of tradition in the establishment of virtue

As I write this, England will or will not be on the way to the finals of the World Cup, and that matter, like the fate of Schrödinger’s cat, will have been settled by the time this article is posted. Although I played (badly) as a boy, I have assiduously avoided following football as it seems an invitation to either adulation of bought success or perpetual disappointment à la Fever Pitch and, ultimately, always the latter. Moreover, the present games began inauspiciously, being located in a country that is an emerging threat to Western Europe, and through a process of tender that has come to be viewed in retrospect as highly suspect. However, like many others, I have been impressed by the shape of the England squad, less for their potential in lifting the Cup (though I would admit this is not entirely a negligible matter) than the character of the England manager, the care he demonstrates towards his players, the cohesion as a team and the attitudes they demonstrate on the pitch. This has inspired some thoughts on a topic not always considered these days, that is the nature of virtue.

According to Aristotle in Book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics:

Every art and every investigation, and likewise every practical pursuit or undertaking, seems to aim at some good: hence it has been well said that the Good is that at which all things aim.

Clearly, football, like any other pursuit, has an intended goal (no pun intended) of being played well. But what is it to play the game well? Aristotle makes a distinction between an art in which the goal is the pursuit of the practice itself and that in which the practice is productive of some tangible outcome. Aristotle’s examples are flute playing and house building respectively. Which one is football? For some this will be a ridiculous question, as the answer would clearly be that football is a productive activity, the product being scoring goals, winning matches and, at the professional level at least, winning cups and achieving eminent status. This much is not really in doubt. But as football has become increasingly wealthy, with the corruption that wealth can bring, the image that people have had is not so much that of ‘the beautiful game’ but something more akin to Game of Thrones.

Aristotle argued that every practice has an intended end, or telos, which is the cultivation of virtue; by which he meant the cultivation of the human character. This concept of the realisation of virtue through the cultivation of an expertise was also found in the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s teaching on the Tao – literally ‘the way’ – which persists today in various oriental arts, the do in Japanese martial arts (Judo, Aikido) and in the tea ceremony, Cha-do, for example. That is to say, the point is not merely to win, or more broadly to achieve success in something, although it is also that, but also to develop a virtuous character in keeping with one’s expertise.

The question then arises: what do we mean by virtue? The two great proponents of virtue in the history of philosophy are probably Aristotle and Confucius. There is some convergence between their thoughts on virtue, but important differences between them. For Aristotle the cultivation of reason (logos) was paramount, as this is what differentiates us from the animals, but this is mitigated to some degree by our sociality (ethos), what Aristotle calls our being a ‘political’ animal, that is one embedded in human society and its norms. Ultimately, though, Aristotle retains what today we would call a ‘critical distancing’ from the contemporaneous social form. By contrast, by today’s reckoning Confucius appears highly conservative. For Confucius virtue consists in obedience to the laws and rituals (li) of the past Zhou dynasty, which he considered to have embodied ‘the mandate of Heaven’. However, mere obedience to li without ren – literally ‘love’, though I prefer the translation ‘humanity’ – is empty of meaning.

Both Aristotle and Confucius, therefore, have a binary concept of virtue, consisting of an internal virtue and an external virtue, an individual response and an external conformity. I would argue that this essentially balanced and cohesive idea of virtue was sundered in Christianity, something which has haunted the idea of virtue in the West ever since, though it also added another dimension. Jesus, who according to Karl Jaspers, is one of the great ethical teachers of history, came with the radical demand that people leave behind worldly concerns and focus on the kingdom of God. Asked whether the Jews should pay the Roman tax, Jesus took a denarius and asked whose image was on it:

They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. (Matt 15:21)

There are various interpretations of what this might mean, but subsequent history was strongly influence by St Paul’s insistence that the spirit has precedence over the law, underlying the split between the sacred and the secular in the West.

For Confucius ren was the love within the family, particularly of the son for the father (filial piety), which he saw as the basis for good citizenship and the model of the relationship between the king and his subjects (benevolence and loyalty). Jesus, however, took a radically different turn:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… (Matt 5:43-44)

What it means exactly to love your enemies – specifically – is not elucidated, though there are extraordinary cases of those who have been the victims of bestial crimes finding in themselves the power to forgive. I think more generally, particularly within the modern context, though, loving one’s enemies can be interpreted in a twofold way: the call to universality; and the call to empathy, both emanating from the implicit deracination implicit in Jesus teaching.

Both Aristotle and Confucius, as far as we know, saw their duty as delimited by that which was close to them, for Aristotle the polis, which at the time would have numbered a few tens of thousands and for Confucius the State ruled over by the king. Universality was not within their conception. The world that Jesus inhabited was already much wider and interconnected; in Palestine the Egyptian, Graeco-Roman and Semitic-Hebraic cultures collided. Literally collided, that is, as Palestine was a vassal state under the dominion of the Roman Empire. Through exhorting his disciples to love their enemies, Jesus was extending the range of their concern from the local to the universal.

Despite its Greek linguistic roots, empathy is a modern term coined in the nineteenth century, developing out of German Romantic philosophy. It has no analogue in the ancients, which could be taken as evidence for humanity’s continued spiritual development. However, I would argue that the seeds for the development of the concept of empathy are in Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemy, and that, therefore, it is more likely to have arisen in a civilisation based on Christianity. There is no historical evidence for this, of course, as empathy arose from the romantic school of interpretation of the artwork, as Einfühlung, literally ‘feeling into’, and it was only later translated into social theory by Theodore Lipps as an explanation of our ability to identify the emotional life of others. But it is at least plausible that the Christian context allowed the development of the idea that it is worthy to understand the world from the perspective of minds other than our own.

Is it possible, though, that the teaching of loving one’s enemy, rather than extending the idea of virtue, has fatally undermined it? Nietzsche certainly thought so; he saw through the supposed Christian virtues of meekness and forgiveness an underlying corruption of the spirit and the values underlying European civilisation. His solution was a radical transvaluation and a return to the warrior codes of aristocratic society.

The moral philosopher Alasdair McIntyre in his 1981 book After Virtue, though no less aware of the demise of virtue, targeted the humanism that emerged in the Enlightenment. According to McIntyre the concept of virtue was lost when thinkers such as Hume and Kant attempted to reconstitute virtue in purely sentimental or rationalistic terms, undercutting the notion of tradition – whether religious or cultural – that had always been a part of it, as can be seen in the case of both Aristotelian and Confucian ideas of virtue. For Hume the good was no more or less than human feeling. Kant attempted to explain virtue in terms of the categorical imperative, the admonition to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”, which while it is mirrored in the teachings of the great religions, is itself devoid of any particular content or transcendental cultural grounding. For McIntyre, modernism has so etiolated the notion of virtue that it is now virtually impossible to reconstitute it, unless through a return to classical notions of the community such as found in Aristotle.

I am not as pessimistic as either Nietzsche or McIntyre about the influence of Christianity or the Enlightenment project on Western civilisation. Both in their way have the potential to release us from the stultifying weight of tradition, as demonstrated historically by periodic episodes of reform and revolution. However, the discussion of virtue in the ancients placed an emphasis on what I have termed an external virtue, which can only be some form of social norms, as well as an internal attitudinal virtue. This, of course, is none other than a tradition.

Can we and, if so, how do we, reconcile these seemingly incompatible facets of a tradition, as an obstacle to aspiration and as a context to aspiration? It is, in effect, to achieve the seemingly impossible of a synthesis between the critical and the conservative approaches to tradition. There is in fact an activity with a long pedigree within religion, law, aesthetics and more recently in philosophy that sets out to accomplish that, which is the art of interpretation, the study of which is known as hermeneutics. Interpretation is premised on the assumption that the text – a general term for any object of interpretation, though frequently a written text – is given and indissoluble; that the interpretation extends the meaning of the text, but does not replace it. Interpretation, therefore, steers a middle course between literalism, which allows of no interpretation, and deconstruction, for which every interpretation has the same literary or aesthetic value as the original.

Interpretation offers a bridge between an Aristotelian more intellectual and critical approach to tradition based on the rules of the community and the Confucian one of loyalty to a tradition mediated by humanity. Interpretation allows the preservation of a tradition – in fact, insists on it – while seeking that which is essential and profound within it, not merely an external observation or observance. Virtue, then, can be understood as a variety of interpretation, one in which the telos of the activity is the acquisition of the good. The hermeneutic philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer likens interpretation to ‘play’ and cites the poet Rilke:

Catch only what you’ve thrown yourself, all is

mere skill and little gain;

but when you’re suddenly the catcher of a ball

thrown by an eternal partner

with accurate and measured swing

towards you, to your center, in an arch

from the great bridgebuilding of God:

why catching then becomes a power—

not yours, a world’s

Which is perhaps an apposite moment to return to football. According to Bill Shankly, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that”. Perhaps not, but neither is it as mundane as kicking a ball around a field. Like all serious sports it is a game bound by rules that represent a tradition within the sport, but one that is symbiotic with the traditions of civilised societies. Some interpretations may push the rules to the breaking point in a winner-takes-all attitude; while this may appeal to a narrow sporting fan base, it does not command widespread public respect. A truer – certainly a more virtuous – interpretation, one which we have seen inklings of this time round, sees the rules as the occasion for exemplifying the values of sportsmanship – courage and fairness, magnanimity in victory and resilience in defeat. Sport at its best humanises and civilises us.

 

Selected Bibliography

Aristotle (2000) Nicomachean Ethics (tr. And ed. Roger Crisp). Cambridge: CUP. Online at: http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/samples/cam032/99036947.pdf

Hans-Georg Gadamer (1994) Truth and method. London: Continuum Publishing Group.

Alasdair MacIntyre (1981) After virtue: A study in moral theory. London: Duckworth.

Karsten Stueber (2018) ‘Empathy’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2018/entries/empathy/&gt;.

Jiyuan Yu (1998) ‘Virtue: Confucius and Aristotle’. Philosophy East and West, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Apr., 1998), pp. 323-347.

Zeno and the philosophical conundrum of pure reasoning

 

Zeno_of_Elea

It was the pre-Socratic thinker Parmenides who first mooted the idea (as far as we know) in a document, only fragments of which survive in the writings of later philosophers,1 that all movement and development is illusory. His disciple Zeno developed this insight through a series of subtle paradoxes, over which philosophers and logicians have been arguing ever since, but there is no doubt that he made a unique contribution to the form of argument known as reductio ad absurdam, the pursuit of an argument until it confounds all common sense by resulting in a contradiction.

One of famous paradoxes is known as Achilles and the tortoise. Achilles is in a race with a tortoise and gives the tortoise a head start. Zeno maintained that logically Achilles would never be able to catch up, showing that movement is illusory. He reasoned thus: in order for Achilles to catch the tortoise he would first have to pass the point the tortoise had reached when he (Achilles) began running; but by the time he had reached that point, the tortoise would have advanced further to a new point; and by the time he had reached that point…and so on ad infinitum. A variation of this paradox is that in order to walk a given length of path, one must first reach the halfway mark; but in order to reach this point, one must first reach the halfway mark of the halfway mark, and so on in an infinite regress. Thus, Zeno argued, movement is an illusion as it defies reason.

From a purely logical point of view, it seems that the paradoxes are insoluble.2 That is because they are a product of pure reasoning. To illustrate this, consider a variation on this theme, a Zeno-like paradox: the impossibility of getting anything whatsoever done.3 Take a simple, everyday action, such as making a cup of tea. In order to make a cup of tea, I must first fill the kettle; in order to fill the kettle, I must first turn on the tap, before which I must reach out to the tap, preceded by the decision to reach out to the tap; between these two events there is a number – undetermined and possibly infinitely extendible – of describable stages involving neurons, nerves, muscles, sinews and various bodily appendages. And this is to get only as far as filling the kettle; actually, only as far as turning on the tap.

The ‘solution’ of the paradox in this example should be fairly obvious; the labelling of each stage of the process (a stage being, moreover, a somewhat arbitrary choice) requires a conscious amassing, ordering and expressing of verbal information to describe actions most of which take place unconsciously. To carry out a simple action in the real world takes a finite amount of time. To undertake a detailed description of every possible stage, both conscious and unconscious, of that action in the real world (and descriptions can only be undertaken in the real world) takes potentially an infinite amount of time, and certainly much longer than actually carrying it out.

A similar objection can be levelled at Zeno’s paradoxes. Zeno takes an everyday action – I think we can stretch our credulity a little to accept a race with a tortoise an everyday action – and divides it infinitesimally, not into descriptive utterances in this case, but into fractional expansions ordered in mathematical series, which are infinite. Zeno and his protagonists do not even have to enumerate them beyond the first, as denoting the function is sufficient, such is the invariable rigour of mathematics. Pure reasoning can be preserved without, however, any relationship to the real world.

No one doubts the extreme usefulness of logic and mathematics in underpinning the natural sciences. However, the foundations of logic remain unchanged after 2500 years and are rooted in the ontological suppositions of antiquity regarding the nature of reality. This has determined the course of Western philosophy, allowed an extremely sophisticated dialogue to take place within its parameters, but also limited its applicability to describing the real world and solving real world issues. It is extraordinary, for example, that within the Western philosophical tradition categories such as movement, change and – particularly – relationship are difficult to discuss, despite the fact that they constitute essential elements of all reality.4

To some extent, the same problem exists with mathematics, perhaps even in a more extreme form. Mathematics is pure Platonism: forms or ideals bearing no relation to objects in the real world. As pure abstraction mathematics has enabled explanations of the nature of reality in an unsurpassed level of sophistication, which has also unlocked unprecedented levels of mastery of the world through technological innovation. Pure reasoning, though, gives rise to paradoxes, as both Kant and Gödel in their own ways have demonstrated.5 Moreover, technological mastery is limited by the theoretical conception of reality, and this is limited in a more profound and perhaps insoluble limitation: that even the most exquisite mathematical models can only ever be an approximation of reality.6

 

NOTES

  1. Details of the historical transmission of the Parmenides’ and Zeno’s views can be found at: Palmer, John, “Parmenides”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/parmenides/&gt;.
  2. Mathematicians would hold that the paradox has been solved by integral calculus, which sums an infinite series and thus models the real world.
  3. Many in the modern workplace would probably say that this is a fact of life rather than a philosophical conundrum, given our ever-expanding capacity for generating and consuming information.
  4. For example, the law of contradiction, which states that p and not-p cannot be true of the same thing, is rooted in a very concrete and reified conception of reality: a thing cannot be the same a something else which is not the thing. Except of course, when it is an element of a system, something of which the ancient Greek world had no understanding. Taoism, by contrast, has concepts of relativity and relationality at its core.
  5. Kant’s antinomies, discussed in The Critique of Pure Reason; Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.
  6. Discussion of the status of scientific theories in the mid-to-late twentieth century was dominated by the ideas of Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. Popper, reacting against the logical atomism of the Vienna Circle, declared that theories could only ever be tentative as they were permanently awaiting falsification. Kuhn, a historian of science, noted the fact that every theory was in time superseded. They differed, though, in their interpretation of this transformation. For Popper, old theories existed as limiting cases of better theories, while for Kuhn a fundamental reconceptualization of fundamentals was required, which meant the change was stochastic .

The value of the self: three views on privacy in the digital age (part 1)

Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men. (Ayn Rand)

In this essay I want to consider three interconnected ways in which we can view privacy: its meaning in organic society; its potential monetisation in a digital era; and the existential threat that the digital state poses to the potentialities of individual value and the concomitant protection of privacy. Privacy rests on the idea of the sanctity of the individual person, whose roots lie in a transcendent concept of human nature, one shared by both religious persons and humanists. However, privacy in the age of the local, determined by historic place and blood relations, takes on a different complexion in a globalised digital age. The concept of privacy is necessarily complex; however, it can be usefully thought of as comprising three distinct but interrelated aspects: the protection of intimacy, the concealment of transgression, and the nurturing of identity. These all have implications in the dialectic of the individual self and the collective and the boundary between them, which is where the notion of privacy is located and finds its meaning.

The meaning of privacy in organic society

Before exposing the concept of privacy to the glare of our increasingly digitised society and economy, it is necessary, and certainly useful, to explore its meaning in simpler, largely unmediated social forms, constituted by physical proximity, shared space, kinship, local knowledge and a predominance of direct address, reading and writing (as simpler forms of mediation). I have called this organic society, although with a different meaning to Durkheim’s use of the term, by which he denoted societies marked by a high degree of division of labour. In the sense I am using it, it does not necessarily imply an earlier stage of development – although it can also be, and often is, that – but a state that continues to coexist, albeit to a diminished degree, with the highly mediated and networked digital culture that we are living in.

Regarding the basis of privacy, philosophers tend to make a distinction between autonomy and freedom. Autonomy is the self as distinct from others, capable of taking decisions. Freedom is either the self freed from constraints on making decisions or the environment in which meaningful decisions can be made. Privacy on that basis can be considered a decision by the autonomous individual about where the boundary between the legitimate realm of the individual life and the life of the public expectation lies. However, like freedom itself, privacy is not a matter of individual diktat, but a negotiated settlement; that is, the decision needs to be mindful of the public sphere.

The public discourse on the self, only on the foundation of which can claims about the meaning and limits of privacy be legitimised, is constituted in the received narratives of a specific culture, yet there is a surprising universality to the mythological, poetic and literary analogues of the self in such cultural narratives: the sacred garden of the Hesperides wherein the gods derived their immortality; the temple of Solomon, with its holy place and holy of holies, of which Jesus said (referring to himself) “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19); the Secret Garden of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s imagination, a metaphor for the lost innocence and happiness of childhood. In many such depictions an inner sacred self is separated from a profane outside. In the story of the garden of Eden, which is foundational to the civilisations of the West and the Middle East, the self harbours not only the intimacy of communion with God, but also the guilt of sin, for which the self is cast out into the profane world.

These mythopoeic depictions of the self are pertinent to the idea of privacy, for how can one approach the idea of privacy, which exists solely at a psychological and deontological level, unless it is through a historiography of narratives, both sacred and secular. The genesis of privacy is in the self and sense of identity and is projected out into the surrounding sphere of possession, so that it encompasses all (and everyone) that one ‘touches’ that are considered belonging to oneself and creating the larger context of the value of the self. It is more than that identity, though; it is the protection of that self and its possessions from jealousy, avarice, theft and murder, both literal and symbolic. For this reason, the narratives of the self depict a protective boundary – a wall or supernatural deity, such as the Hesperides or the Cherubim – between the self and a hostile ‘outside’. Indeed, this narrative becomes tangible in our decision to live our lives behind walls, the walls of our homes, that extends the very meaning of privacy.

What is it that privacy protects? It is not essentially the differentiated self, even thought it is also that, for the individuated self is difficult to separate from that which it perceives and dwells among. It is most pertinently the realm of intimacy with those with whom we share our relative isolation. All of us have lives in which we want to preserve the most precious and sacred things from the public gaze. What constitutes the sacred will be determined by culture to some extent, though in the end each person makes a determination of what that actually is. For many people and cultures it centres on the sexual act, which is carried out beyond the prying eyes of the world. Family life, as a place of intimacy, also largely takes place beyond the gaze of the world. In the family we can be most ourselves without fear of public judgement. The most intimate and sacred place, though, is our own mind; our thoughts, memories and deepest held beliefs are often not on display to the world; they are masked by the face we show to the world, what Jung termed our persona.

Ironically, the concept of intimacy has a strong relationship to the concepts of disgust and shame. There are areas of our lives – bodily functions spring to mind – that we would rather people not know about, and certainly not witness, though they are perfectly natural and about which we might not ourselves feel disgust to the extent that we imagine other people might do so. That association extends to family life. In the family there are many instances of bad behaviour, by adults as well as children that we may feel ashamed of and wish to remain private, hidden from the judgmental eyes of public view. The same is true of our thought processes; we entertain thoughts which we would not like to be known to others, even those closest to us. Disgust and shame, and their association with intimacy, tell an important truth about human life: that the sacred is contiguous with the profane, not merely the opposite of it.

Beyond disgust and shame, transgression must not be hidden merely for the sake of propriety, but from the judgment of social norms and the law. For reasons that are difficult to fathom, transgression and the sacred are closely associated. This association is indicated in the myths of every culture, most prominently for us, of course, in the myth of Adam and Eve, wherein their transgression was followed by knowledge ‘of good and evil’, shame and the concealment of their nakedness and concealment from divine sight. They withdrew from God, so to speak, into the realm of their own privacy. A cynical reading of the tension between the sacred and transgression would be that religions set up impossible ideals, effectively turning everyone into hypocrites, pace Augustine’s prayer, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet”. Yet secularists are no less committed to preserving their privacy and the concealment of their moral transgressions.

The relationship between transgression and privacy is more complex than the moral tales derived from biblical or other sources would suggest. Adam and Eve hid themselves, but Milton’s Satan defiantly declared that it was “better to rule in hell than serve in Heaven” and made a virtue of his transgression. We have this expression ‘hiding in plain sight’; many transgressors openly proclaim or display their transgressive behaviour, seemingly attempting to normalise it in the eyes of the public. But a normalised transgression is no longer a transgression and the transgressor craves above all the thrill of transgressing the norms of the society, so must secretly affirm those norms and desire their being continued to be upheld in order to continue secretly, but openly, transgressing them.

Each of us in some way is a transgressor, both metaphysically against a supposed divine order, but more prosaically against the conventional rules of the collective of which we are a part, and we conceal our transgressions in an existential hide and seek in order to avoid punishment. This is not merely an observation of some contingent fact; it is also a claim that such transgression is fundamental to our nature and our true social functioning. For Kant we are ‘the crooked timber of humanity’. We like to believe we are gods and portray ourselves as such to the world, but we also have the demon in us and take refuge behind the walls of our privacy to conceal this fact. Part of our transgressive nature is also our hypocrisy in calling out and exposing the monstrosity in others. In such a way we maintain the social order in which our own transgression is embedded.

I am not quite claiming that transgression is acceptable, nor that the collective does not have a right to punish us for our transgressions. Nevertheless, it is normal to infringe the rules of society from time to time; it is what makes us human. We should not be surprised or indignant, though, if we are found out and punished; ultimately, that is what makes human societies just. Having said that, while it may look as though it is the right and duty of society to punish wrongdoing, there is no absolute moral pivot upon which social order turns. Instead, there is the continual struggle of human societies to solve the problems of continued existence in a fundamentally hostile world and adapt to change. All dramatic breakthroughs, whether in science, culture, politics or in social justice, come from transgression of the established rules. To transgress the moral rules and laws of society is liberating and a source of joy for the individual, and arguably necessary for human sanity. However, the rules exist for a reason –  the common good – and must, therefore, be preserved – paradoxically also for the continued possibility of transgression.

In transgression can be seen a fundamental dialectic at the heart of privacy, between concealment and exposure, between the power of the individual and that of the social collective, between the preservation of rules for the common good and their flouting for the individual benefit. But concealment also confers a power for strategic self-exposure of transgression for the common good, although this is a strategy with considerable risk. Privacy is the realm of the secret, one of life’s currencies that the wise spend with discretion.

Ayn Rand suggests, in the quotation given at the head of this essay, that civilisation is in part the process of moving from societies in which every aspect of our lives is public, to those in which we are granted increased levels of privacy. I think this is open to question, depending on how privacy is defined. In the past, in what I have termed organic society, people undoubtedly lived their lives more publicly and their identities and actions were relatively known and observable; however, the public realm was much smaller than it is now. Outside of immediate family and the immediate vicinity little was known about persons. Communication was limited, slow and largely unmediated. Therefore, one could argue that, by comparison with today, there was a relative contextual privacy. There was a limited state and a correspondingly underdeveloped bureaucratic machinery and, therefore, little requirement to be registered; a person could live their entire lives without being known to the authorities (this was still possible in most countries until about 100 years ago).

As the state and its bureaucratic requirements have grown, and now especially with the development of digital technology, so the concept of privacy has also changed. Where once identity was a matter of visual recognition and reputational transmission, now it is a complex process of substantiation by documentation and a record of accessing the state’s services, increasingly digitised. In organic society privacy meant hiding in some manner, physically placing a barrier or distance between oneself and others. In a world of state intrusion, whether overt or covert, intentionally or incidentally, into the lives of citizens, the meaning of privacy has shifted – and has necessarily had to shift, to forms of resistance such as non-compliance. Moreover, as technological advance has yielded an increasingly digital economy, new layers have been added; privacy has become increasingly commodified, an issue that I want to explore in the second part of this essay.

So, what is the baseline view of privacy, if we strip away all the accoutrements of modern society and the contemporary treatment of this as an ‘issue’? For Wittgenstein it was the experience of an interior monologue, essentially a private language, and “The essential thing [being] … not that each person possesses his own exemplar, but that nobody knows whether other people also have this or something else”.1 Wittgenstein himself hints at the problematic nature of such a private language: “sounds which no one else understands but which I ‘appear to understand’ might be called a ‘private language’”.2 There is, in my estimation, no such thing as a private language, only a shared language; for either we share it and explain the ruminations of our interiority, in which case it is not – or no longer – private, or we keep it private, in which case whether we can speak of language or not is ineffable. We can, though, speak without contradiction, I believe, of a ‘shared experience’, one that comes to us through universal narratives.

While the experience is purely part of our interior world, our subjectivity, we are able to communicate the experiential nature of our reaction through shared language and through shared cultural symbols, which are embodied in the narratives of our cultures. The critical myths are those through which we imbibe our understanding of the value of the self. There is, in fact, no other way to experience the self and to understand the nature of the self than through these narratives. Privacy, essentially then, is the protection of the value of the self established through such cultural narratives. Such protections are already encoded in the allegorical appropriation of existing modes of protection (such as walls and weapons) and then reproduced and reinforced through cultural transmission, adding the value of a received mythologised tradition to such mundane devices.

Notes

  1. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, note 272.
  2. ibid., note 269

Selected Bibliography

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1958). Philosophical Investigations (translated by G. E. M. Anscombe). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Vladimir Propp (1984). Theory and History of Folklore (translated by Ariadna Y. Martin et al). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Carl Jung (1953). Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Rod Barnett (2007). Sacred Groves: Sacrifice and the Order of Nature in Ancient Greek Landscapes. Landscape Journal, 26 (2), pp.252-269.

Sir James George Frazer (1925). The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. London: MacMillan and Co.

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza & Marcus W. Feldman. (1981). Cultural transmission and evolution: A quantitative approach. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Has the postmodern revolution gone full circle?

By Colin Turfus

While discussions about the philosophical foundations of judgements of right and wrong are often framed in terms of rational versus irrational perspectives, viz. those based on the enlightened values of science and reason as opposed to those based on authority or faith, this is not altogether an accurate view of where the real centre of moral debate currently lies. The game-changer has been the arrival of postmodern ideology and the hegemony which it has established over most debate about public policy and morality. This assertion may come as a surprise to many who are aware of the existence of a philosophical perspective called “postmodernism” but do not see it as having much to do with how they frame their moral judgements or how society around them is ordered. They would I suggest probably be wrong to believe so.

In understanding postmodernism, it is important to recognise that it arose not as a logical corollary of the efforts in the “Enlightenment” period to establish a rational foundation for addressing moral dilemmas and resisting the tyranny of religious and traditionalist worldviews in the 18th and 19th centuries, but as a rejection of that project. While Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, Hume, Kant, Hegel and Feuerbach vied with one another to provide a theoretical foundation for moral discourse, ultimately none was able to prevail.

The great prophet who was ultimately to sound the death-knell of the enlightenment was probably Friedrich Nietzsche in his portrayal of the madman running around with a lantern proclaiming that God was dead. His suggestion was that the madman represented the enlightenment philosophers who, in their critique of traditional values, looked to construct in their place a system of values which pared away the superstition and retained the essence; but that there was no such essence. Freed from the constraints of the prior expectations of our peers, we are free to steer whichever course we choose.

Postmodernism builds on this insight pushing the corollary that there are no objective standards of right and wrong, only differences of perspective. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

Reality, knowledge, and value are constructed by discourses; hence they can vary with them. This means that the discourse of modern science, when considered apart from the evidential standards internal to it, has no greater purchase on the truth than do alternative perspectives, including (for example) astrology and witchcraft. Postmodernists sometimes characterize the evidential standards of science, including the use of reason and logic, as “Enlightenment rationality.”

This point of view is often portrayed as moral relativism, but to do so is to miss an important feature of the postmodernist position: although it holds that there is no one correct point of view on questions of right and wrong, all points of view are not necessarily equal in validity. Indeed, echoing Orwell’s critique of communist society in his Animal Farm, some points of view are in practice “more equal than others.” For, as stated above, values are seen as arising in practice in “discourses” taking place in different social groups or communities. And some groups have greater power or “hegemony” to impose their view on other relatively disempowered groups. Without taking a position on whose views are more correct between the relatively more or less powerful group, postmodernists argue that it behoves us to take the side of the relatively disempowered group so as to help redress the intrinsic injustice of the situation.

So, the conversation moves from one about being right to one about having rights. While a traditional perspective on human rights would be to argue that all human beings possess rights equally, the postmodernist position is that greater rights have to accrue to the relatively disempowered and so greater emphasis given to defending their values. Thus, is born the concept of group rights: women’s rights, gay rights, transgender rights, black rights, Muslim rights, etc. It is one of the great achievements of the postmodernist agenda that, without any need for moral discourse, it has become possible to dismiss almost any moral position which is portrayed as disrespectful of any of those group rights, particularly if that moral position can also be portrayed as promoting the interests of some relatively more powerful group.

Not surprisingly, this approach leads quite quickly to inconsistency and even incoherence. For example, it is often argued in the corporate environment that “diversity” policies are necessary to ensure that the best people are chosen, by which is meant a sufficient number from relatively disempowered groups. But if that is one’s position, one needs to argue that members of different groups bring different talents and perspectives to the table by virtue of their belonging to those different groups, so there is a fundamental inequality between groups that demands to be recognised. This it would appear is acceptable if one were to suggest, say, that women bring a greater degree of empathy into leadership than men and should on that basis be favoured more than at present. But if one were to say something suggesting that men by virtue of being men are more likely to have some quality or qualities that qualify them for leadership, there would be outrage and claims of sexism or misogyny. Whether any of the supporting claims has a basis in truth or not is entirely irrelevant. The morality of the issue is determined by whose interests are served by taking a claim seriously.

Thus, is the new irrationalism born, where matters of fact and evidence are swept aside in favour of identity politics which is elevated as the determining principle in all disputes between competing moral perspectives. Just as within 19th century European society, as Nietzsche argued, Christianity exercised hegemony on the basis of authoritarian structures enforcing a morality which society internalised as the natural order of things, postmodernism has, by virtue of backing up its strictures with laws and regulations which carry stringent penalties and ensuring that its point of view is taught in all educational institutions, often even to the exclusion of parental rights to assert an alternative position, achieved a similar hegemony.

Basing its power on an enforcing authority backed up with persistent indoctrination, it has effectively managed to marginalise dissenting opinions and severely curtail moral debate in the public space. It is the new orthodoxy with divine-like authority to make truth claims on the basis of consistency with its asserted principles which are immune to disproof or falsification by reason or evidence. Indeed, those seeking to bring evidence to contradict its claims are routinely vilified and marginalised. Thus, have we come full circle in recreating the very conditions that the Enlightenment set out, but on its own terms failed, to address.

Happily, the inconsistency and incoherence of the postmodernist perspective is increasingly being challenged by a new generation of thinkers from across the political spectrum. For example, Ken Wilber in his Trump and a Post-Truth World notes how postmodernism has played itself out and in attempting to create a new basis for determining truth has ultimately undermined it:

And thus, postmodernism as a widespread leading-edge viewpoint slid into its extreme forms (e.g., not just that all knowledge is context-bound, but that all knowledge is nothing but shifting contexts; or not just that all knowledge is co-created with the knower and various intrinsic, subsisting features of the known, but that all knowledge is nothing but a fabricated social construction driven only by power). When it becomes not just that all individuals have the right to choose their own values (as long as they don’t harm others), but that hence there is nothing universal in (or held-in-common by) any values at all, this leads straight to axiological nihilism: there are no believable, real values anywhere. And when all truth is a cultural fiction, then there simply is no truth at all—epistemic and ontic nihilism. And when there are no binding moral norms anywhere, there’s only normative nihilism. Nihilism upon nihilism upon nihilism—“there was no depth anywhere, only surface, surface, surface.” And finally, when there are no binding guidelines for individual behaviour, the individual has only his or her own self-promoting wants and desires to answer to—in short, narcissism. And that is why the most influential postmodern elites ended up embracing, explicitly or implicitly, that tag team from postmodern hell: nihilism and narcissism—in short, aperspectival madness. The culture of post-truth.

Wilber looks forward to an evolution beyond postmodernism to a developmental model which is more “integrated” or “systemic”. His view is that when a system is broken, as ours currently is, it reverts back to the last point at which it functioned effectively. Let’s hope he is right. Such ideas are a welcome breath of fresh air in a political culture in which the discourse revolves less and less around facts and evidence and consists more and more of ad hominem attacks on detractors and dissident voices launched from within the relative security of group identity siloes. Voices of those who like Wilber are critical of the failings of postmodernism and emphasise the need for new ideas are increasingly being heard, particularly on social media where many of the new currents in popular thought are increasingly finding receptive audiences. It will be interesting to watch how all this plays out.

Reflections on the Nature of Truth in a Post-Relativist Age

If a man says that there is no such a thing as truth, you should take him at his word and not believe him. Roger Scruton

In classical times there were considered to be three absolute values: truth, beauty and goodness, which were considered to be rooted in the unbroken order of things, the relationship of mankind to the cosmos and the gods. In the period of modernity a spirit of relativism pervaded and these values were no longer considered to be absolute. Hume and the sceptical tradition epitomised by Moore’s Principia Ethica have considered the good to be merely the preference of the individual, and aesthetic relativism beauty to be ‘in the eye of the beholder’. However, recent scientific work on altruism and perception suggest that there are objective correlates of subjective feelings of value, in these cases actions and structural disposition. In the case of truth, the feeling of ‘trueness’ should be matched to an objective correlate, which in common with the philosophical tradition I take to be actual existence.

It could be said that our relationship to truth has changed over time. In a simpler age there were the truths of religion and there were the truths of the voices of authority, often those who transmitted the sacred words or who represented divinity on earth, such as kings and emperors. With the Reformation and the Enlightenment those truths began to lose their grip on the imagination of greater numbers and be displaced by the secular truths of science and the provincial voices of a community of experts in various fields such as law, politics and economics. It may be that in our time, under the twin influences of postmodern philosophy, with its radical de-centring of subjectivity and deconstruction of all forms of authority, and the technology of the information society, exemplified by the Internet, we are entering a post-relativist age, one not characterised by the tolerance and compromise fostered by recognising the limitations of knowledge in a relativistic milieu, but one in which, paradoxically, extravagant claims to truth are made in a nihilistic one.

It might be surprising that the notion of truth is still taken seriously, many believing it to have been displaced by a thoroughgoing relativism with regards to omniscient claims. But one of the long-recognised problems of relativism is that it logically undercuts its own suppositions: it cannot be a true statement that there is no such thing as truth. Perhaps the purveyors of relativism have something more specific in mind, the non-existence of ‘Truth’ as an absolute, allied to moral absolutism, and though they might not be entirely out of the woods, this is a known category: that of the assertions of theology, sovereignty and metaphysics. We have become inured to the debunking of authority in these fields. What might be less well known is that science has also lost its privileged place as a purveyor of truth; scientific theories are now generally considered to be useful creations rather than discoveries of the iron laws of nature. It is only in logic and in mathematics that the notion of truth remains largely intact, although even here outriggers of postmodernism, such as feminist theory and ‘queer’ theory have been transvaluating rational thought’s central tenets into the will to dominate and deploying the gambit of victimisation.

It is, though, in the field of politics that the most obvious manifestations of post-relativism are found: the assumption of, and attribution of, bad faith to whatever and whoever takes a different perspective, regardless of the evidence; the concoction of ‘alternative facts’ and the accusation of ‘fake news’ in a zero-sum game in which the rules of civilised discourse and the arduous responsibility of arriving at something like the truth in a complex social world have been laid aside; and the grandstanding assumption of indubitable infallibility based for the most part not on knowledge and experience but on tenuous sources within cyberspace. Today, many people seem content to outsource their thinking and behaviour to the social media corporations. In a more scripturally literate past this was known as building your house on sand.

While not the source of the problem, it does not help that current theories of truth within philosophy are based on very narrow criteria. The two prevailing models of truth are the correspondence theory of truth, in which statements made about reality correspond to the facts as they are known and the coherence theory of truth, in which statements have logical coherence with other validated propositions. The correspondence theory of truth goes back to Aristotle but has had modern exponents in Russell and Austin. Russell, for example, stated that for a statement to be true every linguistic element in the statement, such as the relationship between a subject and object must correspond to a factual reality. While commonsensical for many mundane, concrete descriptions, this would seem inadequate for any state of affairs in which interpretation is called for; for example, how would one determine that even the simple judgement that a particular road was a long road was objectively true?

A sister theory of correspondence theory is Tarski’s semantic theory of truth, which states that a proposition of the form /“snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white/, the two occurrences of the phrase belonging to the primary language and metalanguage respectively. This establishes the condition of whether a ‘true’ or ‘false’ truth value can be attributed to a statement cast as a tautology, but not whether the referent of the statement is true or not. A parallel example would be the statement /“kryptonite is green” is true if and only if kryptonite is green/. The conditions for attributing a truth value are the same, but the referents have a different ontological status. Since kryptonite does not exist outside of the imaginary world of the Superman comics, kryptonite is neither green nor any other colour. So although this would satisfy Tarski’s conditions for attributing a false truth value to the statement, it seems to me that that would not be evaluated on a par with a statement such as “sulphur is blue” in which an attributive error, rather than a category error, had been committed.

Both these versions of correspondence, to my mind, suffer the same limitations. The first is that they limit themselves to so-called real (i.e. physical) objects, whereas many of the things that language speaks of are non-physical, abstract or imaginary. The problem is their positivistic notion of existence, the reduction of reality to basic fundamentals over which they claim there is no dispute. However, there is no existence which is not problematic. Take, for instance, the proposition that the earth is round and orbits the sun. It was once consider heretical to make public such a belief.  Today the denial of either of these accepted facts is considered a mark of eccentricity or perversity. But how has the proposition “the earth is round and orbits the sun” been established as true*, since very few have had the opportunity to experience this directly? It is on the basis of an established intellectual tradition that the word has percolated down even to the least intellectual through school textbooks and popular culture. Every piece of so-called evidence could have an alternative explanation. We take it in good faith that the experts who assert that it is so have the means to evaluate the evidence and the theory that binds the evidence into a coherent explanation as fundamentally sound. For all that, the emergence of the internet has spawned and hosts a multiplicity of flat-earth conspiracy theorist websites and other alternate ways of seeing reality, from committed ufologists to millenialist movements and crackpot therapeutics, that have eroded faith in reason and empirical evidence among much of the public.

“The world is all that is the case”, according to Wittgenstein at the opening of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, according to which whatever is true must be an existing object or an existing state of affairs, such that stating Y of X must be true if X exists and Y is a quality that pertains to X. However, in order to address the divergence between ordinary language and the range of objects or events found in the phenomenal world of human experience, it is necessary to part company with positivism and its insistence on ‘atomic facts’ and take a phenomenological position that whatsoever we speak of has a proper mode of existence. In other words it is necessary to expand the range of fundamental ontology, over which truth values can be asserted, to include at least social ontology and the ontology of the psyche. It seems to me that there are six categories of knowledge to which the label ‘truth’ can be attached, though I am not dogmatically committed to this: the truth that nature, great art and great acts reveal to us; the truths contained in sacred texts and institutions; authority, the mystique surrounding it and its pronouncements; matters of fact encountered in the everyday; theories, such as those of science, the humanities and philosophy; and tautologies, as in mathematics and logic. The only thing that binds these together is the requirement that their ‘truth’ be conceived as related to a mode of existence. That is to say, that nothing can be said to be true unless it is held to exist in some manner.

This brings me to the second limitation of these theories: that they do not establish the conditions upon which correspondence between a statement and the actual state of affairs described can be said to hold or not to hold, other than to affirm or deny that they do. In fact, the conditions of truth for an object or state of affairs can be said to be met when they are defined in a dialectic of conceptualisation and evaluation, that is, their mode of existence is both conceptualised and incorporating – even implicitly – a method by which the assertion of existence can be judged. For example, if a unicorn were to be defined as a horned horse, then any statement that contained a reference to unicorns, such as “I encountered a unicorn in the forest” would be easily refuted as no such creatures exist; however, if it were defined as a mythical horned horse, then the same statement would be taken allegorically or dramatically. Less obviously, we do this with everyday objects. How would one know that a particular object was a cup unless we had imbibed a concept of a cup that was continually validated in our everyday experience? Contrast this, then, with the bafflement or indifference with which we encounter unfamiliar objects for which we have no conception or understanding of their use.

The conflict between religion and science is largely about conflicting ideas of truth and the misapprehension from both sides of the nature of the truths that they are promoting. A less restrictive ontology could broaden our conception of what we consider part of the real. A case could even be made for the existence of God as an object of faith that can only be apprehended through a life of faith. However, both religion (at least of the more fundamentalist varieties) and science (allied to atheistic fundamentalism) believe that religion is advocating truths that are evidentially demonstrable, as an alternative or equivalent to science, for example about the origin of the universe or the origin of life. But this was not the view of truth that was promulgated by classical religion, such as the theologies of Augustine or Averroes (Ibn Rushd), nor indeed by the more open-minded modern commentators. The palaeontologist and evolutionary theorist Steven Jay Gould has spoken of the ‘nonoverlapping magisteria’ of science and religion, in which both address the same realities from different perspectives. Simply put, we could say that science addresses the facts of reality through theory and data and religion addresses the meaning of reality through stories and metaphor. Even though atheists experience the awe-inspiring nature of cosmic reality, they are hampered in expressing this in the reductive language of science and frequently take refuge in the spiritual language of parable and metaphor.

Of course, definitions are not always attached to statements, nor should they necessarily be, as this would be an imposition on the beauty and simplicity of language. Most statements are understood in context anyway. This favours a coherence theory of truth in which statements are anchored in others which are verifiable, though I have argued that we need a broader range of the conditions in which verification takes place. I think one of the great dangers of the post-relativist age of information overload and reductive horizons is that we are losing the ability to contextualise the utterances of those with whom we may not share the same outlook in a broader framework of accommodation, and instead are tempted to defend our small islands of privileged truth in bouts of hyperbolic rage.

*Or approximately true, as the earth is flattened at the poles, and it is more accurate to say the earth and sun revolve around a common axis.

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.

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.