Showing posts with label modern culture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label modern culture. Show all posts

Saturday, September 30, 2023

What's wrong with people?

 


This question is posed in the title of Chapter 10 of Steven Pinker’s book, Rationality: What it is, Why it Seems Scarce, Why it Matters.


I enjoyed reading the previous 9 chapters but didn’t learn much from them. Those chapters were a painless way to refresh my memory about definitions of rationality, rules of logic, probability, Bayesian reasoning, rational choice, statistical decision theory, game theory, correlation, and regression analysis.

I particularly liked the approach Pinker took in discussing the research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky which documents many ways in which people are prone to fall short of normative benchmarks of rationality. Pinker makes the point:

When people’s judgments deviate from a normative model, as they so often do, we have a puzzle to solve. Sometimes the disparity reveals a genuine irrationality: the human brain cannot cope with the complexity of a problem, or it is saddled with a bug that cussedly drives it to the wrong answer time and again.

But in many cases there is a method to people’s madness.”

A prime example is loss aversion: “Our existence depends on a precarious bubble of improbabilities with pain and death just a misstep away”. In Freedom Progress and Human Flourishing, I argued similarly that loss aversion helped our ancestors to survive.

Pinker doesn’t seek to blame the propensity of humans to make logical and statistical fallacies for the prevalence of irrationality in the public sphere. He is not inclined to blame social media either, although he recognises its potential to accelerate the spread of florid fantasies.

The mythology mindset

Pinker argues that reasoning is largely tailored to winning arguments. People don’t like getting on to a train of reasoning if they don’t like where it takes them. That is less of a problem for small groups of people (families, research teams, businesses) who have a common interest in finding the truth than it is in the public sphere.

People tend to have a reality mindset when they are dealing with issues that affect their well-being directly – the world of their immediate experience – but are more inclined to adopt a mythology mindset when they are dealing with issues in the public sphere.

When economists discuss such matters, they may refer to the observation of Joseph Schumpeter that the typical citizen drops to a lower level of mental performance when discussion turns to politics. They reference the concept of rational ignorance attributed to Anthony Downs and Gordon Tulloch. They may also refer to Brian Caplan’s concept of rational irrationality. (For example, see Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, pp 114-115).

Pinker doesn’t refer to those economists’ perspectives but offers interesting insights about factors that might lead people to adopt mythology mindsets. In summary, as a consequence of myside bias, attitudes to the findings of scientific studies often have less to do with scientific literacy than with political affiliation. The opposing “sides” are sometimes akin to “religious sects, which are held together by faith in their moral superiority and contempt for opposing sects”. Within those sects the function of beliefs is to bind the group together and give it moral purpose.

What can we do?

Pinker’s suggestions for combatting irrationality in the public sphere are summed up by his subheading “Re-affirming Rationality”. He advocates openness to evidence, noting the findings of a survey suggesting that most internet users claim to be open to evidence. He suggests that we valorize the norm of rationality by “smiling or frowning on rational and irrational habits”.

Pinker identifies institutions that specialize in creating and sharing knowledge as playing a major role in influencing the beliefs that people hold. Since “no-one can know everything”, we all rely on academia, public and private research units, and the news media for a great deal of the knowledge which forms the basis of our beliefs. Unfortunately, these institutions are often not trustworthy.

In the case of the universities, Pinker suggests that the problem stems from “a suffocating left-wing monoculture, with its punishment of students and professors who question dogmas on gender, race, culture, genetics, colonialism, and sexual identity and orientation”. News and opinion sites have been “played by disingenuous politicians and contribute to post-truth miasmas”.

It is easy to agree with Pinker that it would be wonderful if universities and the news media could become paragons of viewpoint diversity and critical thinking. However, movement toward that goal will require large numbers of individuals to enlist for a ‘long march’ to re-establish norms of rationality in institutions that specialize in creating and sharing knowledge.                                                                    


Monday, April 10, 2023

Can cottage industries exist in a machine age?


 J C Kumarappa posed that question his book, Economy of Permanence, which was first published in 1945. He argued that in the final analysis “values and valuation” would determine the direction to be taken. He viewed the choice between cottage industry and large-scale production as an ethical choice as to which type of economy would be preferable. He associated cottage industry with “permanence and non-violence”, and large-scale production with “transience and violence”.


Kumarappa has been described as an ecological economist. He was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, who wrote a foreword to his book.

Some of Kumarappa’s views seem to have been largely a product of the context in which he lived, but others resonate more broadly. Similar views have been taken up by many affluent consumers in high-income countries. In what follows, I will discuss first why Kumarappa associated large-scale production with violence before considering why he associated it with transience.

Violence

Kumarappa recognizes the potential for specialization and market transactions to be mutually beneficial for the people involved. On that basis, readers might expect him to view wealth accumulation via specialization, trade, and market competition to be a peaceful process.

However, Kumarappa argues that large-scale production prompted industrialized countries to hold other countries in political subjection to obtain materials. He also suggests that large-scale production “is the root cause of wars”. He claims that machines must make full use of productive capacity, rather meet market demand. That results in surplus production. Wars are started to capture markets.

I see several problems with that line of reasoning, but I will only focus on the most obvious one here. Kumarappa seems to assume that manufacturers have control of armies that can be used to ensure access to raw materials and markets. That seems to me to be a strange assumption to make, but I can understand why an Indian economist might see things differently in the light of the history of British colonial rule.

Transience

Kumarappa argues that an economy based on large-scale production is built on the “quicksands” of “profit, price, purchasing power, and foreign trade”. He suggests that material standards of value and personal feelings of consumers cannot have “any degree of permanence” because people change and are perishable. For permanence to be achieved, the standard of value must be objective and controlled by ideals that have enduring qualities. He claims that civilization had endured in China and India because it was based on altruistic and objective values.

The value that Kumarappa places on permanence may require explanation because Hinduism, the dominant religion in India, shares with Buddhism the doctrine that everything is in a constant state of change. Kumarappa was a Christian, but I don’t think that explains as much as his reverence for what he describes as “the secret of nature’s permanency”.  He was referring to ecological factors which “function in close cooperation to maintain the continuity of life”.

Kumarappa was particularly concerned about the impact that the products of large-scale production were having on traditional village life. He argues:

“We are often led away by low money prices ignoring the great gashes in our economic and social organisation made by such short-sighted choice of ours.  … Money value blinds the vision to a long range social view, so that the wielder of the axe fells the branch on which he is standing”.

Kumarappa argues that moral values are attached to every article sold in the market. We should not ignore such values and say “business is business”. Accordingly, anyone who enters into a commercial transaction has a grave responsibility to ensure that she does not become party to circumstances that she would not consciously support. He believed that the consumer is only able to bring her scale of values into play when goods are made locally.

Different views of progress

Kumarappa had a very different view of economic growth than is presented in my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing. It may be worthwhile to try to pinpoint the reasons for this.

I don’t think Kumarappa would have any problems with my definition of progress as the growth of opportunities to obtain the basic goods of a flourishing human. He would probably agree, more or less, with my list of the basic goods – wise and well-informed self-direction, health and longevity, positive relationships with others, living in harmony with nature, and psychological well-being.

Kumarappa would probably begin to object at the point where I assert that economic growth counts as progress to the extent that people aspire to have the goods that it offers. He might suggest that people who aspire to have those goods are mistaken because they could flourish to a greater extent by maintaining a simple lifestyle. The more powerful argument he would offer is the one presented above - that the products of new technology are disruptive to existing economic and social organisation.

I would respond by referring to what Deirdre McCloskey has referred to as the bourgeois deal. People in industrialised countries have been willing to accept the possibility that the introduction of new technologies might disrupt their lives because they have good reasons to expect that they, and future generations, are likely to benefit from the expansion of opportunities that it provides.

If that line of argument had been presented to J C Kumarappa in 1945 I imagine he would have viewed it as “pie in the sky”. I am less sure that he would hold the same view today.

Cottage industry

I don’t know much about the economic health of cottage industry in Inda today, but it does continue to exist. The photo shown at the top of this article was taken at Kalra’s Cottage Industry in Agra, when I visited there last year. (By the way, the service offered was excellent. The hand-knotted floor rug I purchased was delivered to my home in Australia without any problems, and in perfect condition.)

My point is that as their material standard of living rises, many people are willing to pay more for high quality products of cottage industries than for mass produced items. Many people also become increasingly concerned about such things as the levels of remuneration of workers who produce the products that they buy and potential environmental damage of production methods. People tend to pay greater attention to such concerns when they feel that they can more readily afford to do so.


Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Do women value equality and security more than freedom?

 


Some things I have read recently led me begin to wonder whether there is a general tendency for women to value equality and security more highly than freedom.  As a social movement, feminism has obviously been more strongly associated with egalitarianism than with libertarianism. It might also be possible to construct an argument that the traditional roles of women in society might also make them inclined to have greater concerns for ‘sharing and caring’, and hence have a bias toward egalitarianism. The role of women in caring for children might also be expected to lead them to place high value on economic security.

However, such speculation does not shed much light on the question of whether there is a general tendency for women to value equality and security more highly than freedom.

As it happens, the World Values Survey has relevant data on the relative values placed on freedom, equality, and security for 59 countries, from surveys conducted over the period 2017 to 2022. The relevant questions were worded as follows:

  • “Most people consider both freedom and equality to be important, but if you had to choose between them, which one would you consider more important?”
  • “Most people consider both freedom and security to be important, but if you had to choose between them, which one would you consider more important?”

That wording leaves some ambiguity about the specific meaning that survey respondents attach to freedom, equality, and security. Nevertheless, the charts I have constructed using this data show some interesting patterns.

The chart presented at the top of this article plots the percentage of women who place higher value on freedom than on security against the percentage who place higher value on freedom than on equality. What do I observe?

  • First, there seems to be a general tendency for the value that women place on freedom relative to both equality and security to be higher in the high-income liberal democracies than in other countries.
  • Second, the percentages who view freedom as more important than equality are generally much higher than the percentages who view freedom as more important than security.
  • Third, some of the outliers are interesting. For example, in Zimbabwe a high percentage of women say that freedom is more important than equality, but only a small percentage say freedom is more important than security. Perhaps that reflects the existence of tyrannical government and distrust of egalitarian ideology, combined with a desperate economic situation and a high incidence of crime which leads women to place high value on security.

Are women less inclined than men to place a high value on freedom? The next two charts shed some light on that. Gender comparison 1 (below) shows the percentages of females and males who view freedom to be more important than equality. The comparison suggests that women have a tendency to place a slightly higher value on equality, but the differences between women and men are small in most countries.

 


 Gender comparison 2 (below) enables a comparison to be made of the percentages of females and males who view freedom to be more important than equality. This chart shows a much different pattern to that shown in Gender comparison 1. The chart shows that women have a tendency to place a much higher value on security, and that the differences between women and men are substantial in most countries.

 


Conclusions

In most countries, the percentage of women who value freedom more highly than equality is much higher than the percentage who value freedom more highly than security.

In general, women are only slightly less inclined than men to value freedom more highly than equality. However, women are much less inclined than men to value freedom more highly than security.

The results suggest to me that women’s support of liberty may be dampened by their concerns about economic security (if they perceive a trade-off to be required). However, the results do not support the view that there is a general bias towards egalitarianism among women in the high-income liberal democracies. 


Thursday, July 21, 2022

Who was Erasmus and why should we care?


 After I stumbled across that quote a few days ago, it struck me that Erasmus might have something relevant to say to people living today.

However, before I discuss the context in which Erasmus made that statement, it might be helpful to provide some relevant background information about him.

The man and his vocation

Erasmus was born around 1467 and died in 1536.  William Barker, the author of a recently published biography, Erasmus of Rotterdam: The Spirit of a Scholar, tells us that Erasmus had become famous by the time he reached his mid-fifties. Erasmus was a prolific author. The rise of the printing press helped him to establish an international reputation during his lifetime. At that time it was possible for a humanist scholar – one steeped in the literature and culture of ancient Greece and Rome – to have fame equivalent to that of an Einstein or Stephen Hawking in more recent times.

Although Erasmus was a priest, he remained independent of the church hierarchy. Patrons offered gifts and allowances, which he accepted, but he was not dominated by any person or institution. He had an aversion for scholastic theology, believing that the words of the Bible show the message of Jesus more clearly than could any scholastic commentator. He based his famous translation of the New Testament on ancient Greek manuscripts because he believed that some of the original reports written by followers of Jesus had become distorted in the official translation used at that time.

In addition to his Translation of the New Testament, Erasmus’ famous works include The Praise of Folly, and his compilation of Roman and Greek proverbs. The Praise of Folly takes the form of a speech by Folly, seeking to persuade us that she is basic to all our lives. Barker sums up the book as follows:

“The work begins with social criticism, a kind of genial mocking, but it ramps up to direct attacks on various interest groups in the political, intellectual and religious worlds, and, in the amazing final move, suddenly turns inwards, and pulls the reader towards the abyss found in the complete loss of self through a total religious faith.”

As I see it, theological disputes were a particular focus in this book. Erasmus wrote:

I [Folly] am often there, where when one was demanding what authority there was in Holy Writ that commands heretics to be convinced by fire rather than reclaimed by argument; a crabbed old fellow, and one whose supercilious gravity … answered in a great fume that Saint Paul had decreed … “Reject him that is a heretic, after once or twice admonition.” And when he had sundry times, one after another, thundered out the same thing, … at last he explained it thus … . “A heretic must be put to death.” Some laughed, and yet there wanted not others to whom this exposition seemed plainly theological … . “Pray conceive me,” said he, “it is written, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’ But every heretic bewitches the people; therefore …”.

Erasmus’ book of proverbs was also a vehicle for social criticism. For example, in his revised version of this book, his commentary on the proverb, “War is a treat for those who have not tried it”, is a passionate essay praising peace and condemning war. Barker notes, however, that Erasmus’ condemnation of war was not unbounded. He approved of war against the Turks during the 1520s when they had reached the outskirts of Vienna.

Context of the quote

The context of the passage quoted at the top of this article is explained by Paul Grendler in his article, ‘In Praise of Erasmus’ (The Wilson Quarterly 7(2) Spring 1983). The plea, “Let us not devour each other like fish” was in response to an attack by his former friend Ulrich von Hutten, who had become an associate of Martin Luther. Erasmus welcomed Luther as a fellow reformer in 1517 when he began to criticize greedy churchmen and the worship of relics. However, as Luther’s criticism of Catholicism became more abusive, Erasmus counselled moderation. Luther would have none of it:

“You with your peace-loving theology, you don’t care about the truth. The light is not to be put under a bushel, even if the whole world goes to smash”.

The papacy was not inclined to stand idly by while Luther “led souls to hell”. So, Europe went to smash!

Erasmus continued to try to mediate between Catholic and Protestant, asserting that he found much to admire in Luther while disagreeing with him about predestination. The Catholic response was that “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched”.

Unfortunately, Erasmus was unable to persuade the contending parties to refrain from warfare. If political institutions had provide greater support to Erasmus’ message at that time, perhaps it would have been possible for Europeans to have avoided a few centuries of pointless religious warfare.

Contemporary relevance of Erasmus    

William Barker laments that the old discourse of humanism seems to have been eclipsed:

“Something has happened to the humanities and the old discourse of humanism in our time. The ideal of Erasmian humanism – a cosmopolitan, well-educated Republic of Letters – has moved to the margins of our cultural life. A shift in political, ethnic, gender and ecological values has led to a change in the cultural hierarchy.”

Nevertheless, he still sees Erasmus as relevant to the culture of our times:  

“Despite our hesitations and the new trajectories in our literary culture, there are aspects of Erasmus that still survive for us, that take him outside his historical moment and the programmatic frame of humanist education. We can still turn to him for his irony, laughter, and the free exercise of social criticism.”

I agree with all that, but I also see Erasmus’ message about refraining from war over theology as being highly relevant today. When Erasmus was alive, contending parties engaging in theological disputes were obviously willing to use coercive means to impose their will on their opponents. Today, not much has changed. Extremists among contending parties engaged in ideological disputes are still willing to use coercive power to impose their will on their opponents.

Few people who live in the liberal democracies have any difficulty condemning the authoritarianism of dictatorships which seek to prevent individuals from exercising freedom of conscience in their religious observance. However, there are many people among us who unwittingly engage in similar authoritarianism themselves. I am thinking particularly of politicians who are so certain of the correctness of their ideological beliefs that they struggle with the idea that those with opposing views are entitled to exercise freedom of conscience.

The exercise of freedom of conscience over the status of human embryos is the example that comes most readily to mind. I wrote about his in the preceding post. At one extreme, we have politicians claiming that pharmacists who refuse on conscientious grounds to supply medications that could be used to induce abortion are guilty of some kind of civil rights violation. At the other extreme we have politicians arguing that under no circumstances should it be lawful for a woman to exercise freedom of conscience to terminate a pregnancy.

Will this conflict end in open warfare? The only reason I can see for ideological and theological authoritarianism to result in less violent outcomes today than occurred 500 years ago is the existence of democratic political processes. Unfortunately, in some liberal democracies those processes may no longer be sufficiently robust to provide contending parties with appropriate incentives to moderate their extremist agendas.

at this time, those who regard freedom of conscience as of utmost importance should remember the efforts of Erasmus to promote peace 500 years ago, and endeavor to be more successful than he was. “Blessed are the peacemakers …”.


Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Did Enlightenment thinkers believe that reason could illuminate all phenomena?

 


When I began to think about David Friedrich’s painting “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog”, there seemed to be something odd about it. The painting reminded me of a TV news report I saw recently showing an Australian politician walking along a beach wearing a business suit. Both the politician and the “wanderer” seemed out of place. Perhaps the politician had a busy schedule which prevented him from changing into beach attire, but how can we explain the symbolism of the painting?

László Földényi, a Hungarian essayist, has suggested that the painting reflects the longing of Romantics to retreat from the fog of prosaic life “and find in nature that universal connection which civilization was supposedly unable to provide”. Földényi implies that, contrary to their intentions, the Romantics’ view of nature was similar to that of Enlightenment thinkers who viewed it as the object of rational and scientific thought:

“If we look at the wanderer in Friedrich’s painting, he appears to be giving himself over to nature, and yet at the same time he is decisively isolated from it. And this indicates to us that the Romantic “deification” of nature, its enlargement into a metaphysical category results in a tendency leading toward the violation of nature just as much as the openly technicist viewpoint does. For there too in the background lurks the intention to call to account, to seek proof and persuasion, the desire for nature to become the likeness of humanity, to be the mirror of our soul. In a word, the desire for nature to be pliable to their conceptions of it—even if, in certain cases, these conceptions differ from those of the natural scientists.”

The quoted passage is from Földényi’s book, Dostoyevsky reads Hegel and Bursts into Tears. The book
consists of 13 essays in which the author seeks to examine “the experience of inscrutability to be found in depths of all cultural phenomena.” He is attacking the “belief in the omnipotence of reason that illuminates all phenomena” which he believes to be “the great inheritance of the Enlightenment”.

Hegel is a prime target.

The title of the book comes from an essay in which Földényi speculates that Dostoyevsky may have read Hegel’s lectures on the philosophy of world history while exiled in Siberia and writing The House of the Dead. Hegel viewed world history as having a rational purpose and argued that the character of some nations is such that they don’t belong within the purview of world history. He ruled out Siberia as a setting for world culture.

Dostoyevsky suffered greatly in Siberia but felt his estrangement from world history to be a form of redemption from the gray rationality of European civilization. Exile enabled him to obtain a better understanding of other Russians and of himself.

Hegel is also the target of criticism in the final essay which discusses Elias Canetti’s book, Crowds and Power.  Földényi discusses the difficulty of attributing a genre to this book, telling readers that it is distinguished by its openness to metaphysical questions - particularly the ancient question, “What is man?” - and a capacity for amazement at the world.

Földényi suggests that “Canetti almost appears to be sending a message” to Hegel. Canetti was disturbed by “the arrogance of concepts” and held examination of individual phenomena to be more important that generalizations. He claimed that the conceptual interested him so little that he had not seriously read either Aristotle or Hegel.

Hegel believed in the fulfillment of history, but Canetti’s book is “a great pessimistic expression of the viewpoint that man is irreparable”, as he continually repeats brutal acts “while employing ever more refined means”. According to Canetti, Europeans live in an ocean of myth, mistakenly thinking that their rationalism is the fulfillment of history.

I am glad that we do not have to choose between the views of Hegel and Canetti. In Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I argue that although the roots of liberty run deepest in countries that recognize Western civilization as providing their cultural heritage, history gives us no grounds for complacency about the future of liberty in those countries.

The old horizons

The essay I found most illuminating is the one on belief in the devil. Földényi suggests that beliefs about God and the devil “took leave of their traditional metaphysical theater” toward the end of the 18th century. He illustrates the metaphysical theater with Goethe’s description of the demonic situation that Faust observed within himself of being torn between the sensual and the non-sensual. He suggests that Faust was “perhaps the last emblematic figure of European culture who … represented his own endangered mentality without losing sight of the Great Plan as envisioned by Pico della Mirandola.”

After that, Földényi claims that the “Good” lost its transcendental constraints and became limited to concepts of utility, advantage, and pragmatism, and “Evil” came to be understood as “anything impeding what general belief proclaimed as advantageous and useful.”

So, what was Pico della Mirandola’s Great Plan?  In the 15th century Giovanni Pico della Mirandola suggested that the goal of man - the reason God created humans - was to love the beauty of the world or to admire its greatness. However, man can do this in his own way. He can shape himself in whatever form he prefers. He can degenerate into a lower, more brutish, form of life, or “be reborn into the higher orders, those that are divine”.

It seems to me that the essence of the Great Plan can still be followed by those of us who are uncomfortable with the theology of Pico della Mirandola if we take care not to lightly dismiss intuitions that to be fully flourishing we need to transcend a focus on utilitarian considerations. My personal view is that such intuitions deserve to be taken seriously because they stem from fundamental aspects of human nature. Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing offers the suggestion that we may take pleasure in seeking to transcend utilitarian preoccupations “whilst rejecting the idea that it is appropriate to employ the metrics of pleasure and pain to assess the worth of our endeavors.”  

Final comments

I have selected only a few of Földényi’s essays to discuss here. Some readers might be interested to follow up his challenging views on melancholy and anxiety, or the sad story of Heinrich von Kleist who features as prominently as Hegel.

In my view, the author is successful in illustrating the poverty of rationalistic approaches in explaining cultural phenomena. However, in asserting that the Enlightenment is responsible for widespread belief in the omnipotence of reason, he is taking a Eurocentric view. Scottish Enlightenment thinkers certainly did not believe that reason could illuminate all phenomena. Modern followers of Frances Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Adam Ferguson are unlikely to feel that their views are under attack in this book.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Are social movements drivers of progress?

 




In considering this question my focus is on Mikayla Novak’s recent book, Freedom in Contention, Social Movements and Liberal Political Economy.

Mikayla describes social movements as “sustained collective engagement by multiple participants … aiming to effect change within society”. Mikayla provides an enlightening account of the nature of social movements, the role of entrepreneurship within them, the tactics they use, and of factors that contribute to their success. I focus here on Mikayla’s view that social movements have played a critical role in the realization of liberties enjoyed today in the Western democracies. That line of argument is central to the book, and closely linked to the question posed above.

Before going further, I should note that Mikayla uses an “entangled political economy” framework to examine social networks. That framework, developed by Richard Wagner, views individuals and groups as being intertwined in overlapping relationships of different kinds - collaborative or competitive, or consensual or exploitive. In pursuing their goals, social movements have an irrepressible tendency to entangle with other movements, and with economic and political organizations.

In making the case that social movements have contributed to expanding economic, political, and social freedoms, Mikayla discusses the historical role of some important social movements. The American revolution is discussed as the culmination of a movement resisting imposition of unfair taxation. The Anti-Corn Law League is discussed as a movement rallying public support in opposition to agricultural tariffs that benefitted landowners at the expense of consumers. The movements involved in progressive extension of the voting franchise, including female suffrage activism, are discussed as part of a struggle to gain recognition that all individuals should have equal standing to participate in politics. The success of the American Civil Rights Movement in expanding economic, political, and social freedoms is argued to have inspired subsequent movements including anti-war, environmental and feminist movements.

The author’s coverage of contemporary social movements highlights responses to regulation limiting voluntary productive entanglements of an economic nature. Movements discussed include the Tea Party and the campaign to counter restrictive effects of regulation on availability of medication for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Mikayla also highlights the ongoing challenges posed by cultural-institutional environments that fail to prevent those with political influence using it to obtain benefits at the expense of others, and which repress social movement activities. She paints an alarming picture of rising illiberalism:

“Economic freedom has waned, minorities and many other groups around the world are victimized by violent, reactionary backlash dynamics, and, increasingly, we are meeting the end of a police baton or are being haunted by the constant eye of the surveillance state. All in all, the disturbing trend is that illiberalism appears, again, on the rise.” (p 136)

However, that is followed immediately by a more optimistic message about the future of freedom:

“Nevertheless, it is our position that great encouragement should be taken from the demonstrated self-organizational abilities of ordinary people, worldwide, to formulate social movements to demand their liberties and human rights.” (p 136)

Progress

Although Mikayla does not discuss the concept of progress to any great extent, she makes the important point that social evolution tends to be discordant and discontinuous. As a liberal, she focuses on the role of social movements play in the evolution of free and open societies, and expresses strong opposition to “totalizing schemes (drawn up by social movement participants, and by others) aiming at wholesale change to society”.

I believe that social movements have been an important driver of progress, as the concept is defined in my book Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.  I define progress as growth of opportunities for human flourishing – that means growth of opportunities for all individuals to meet their aspirations more fully. I don’t discuss the role of social movements explicitly, but note that social changes accompanying economic progress have played an important role in improving the opportunities available to women and members of minority groups.

My view of cultural evolution as largely benign and emancipative is consistent with the view of social movements that Mikayla presents. There is, however, a slight difference in emphasis. I view cultural evolution as the net result of progressive struggle and conservative resistance, and argue that conservative resistance serves a useful purpose in averting social changes that might later be widely regretted. Mikayla recognizes that counter-movements may be informed by ideological commitments rather than being reactionary, but she leaves the impression that they are more likely to oppose liberal freedoms than to advance them. (See pages 90-91.)

There is also an interesting difference between the items that Mikayla and I discuss as illiberal tendencies. As noted above, Mikayla emphasizes the tendency for minorities and many other groups around the world to be victimized by violent, reactionary backlash dynamics. The things I write about under this heading include cancel culture, attempts to suppress views of opponents, and terrorism. I think we are both right!

Summing up

Mikayla’s book makes an important contribution in reminding readers in the Western democracies of the emancipative role of social movements in realization of economic, political, and social freedoms that they now tend to take for granted.  In that context, social movements have been important drivers of progress, including the spreading of opportunities for more people to meet their aspirations more fully. Although I am somewhat concerned about the illiberal tendencies in some contemporary social movements, I share Mikayla’s optimism about the abilities of ordinary people to formulate social movements to advance and protect liberty.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

What purpose is served by utopian thinking?

 


If your immediate response is that no good purpose is served by utopian thinking, it may be because you have the wrong kind of utopianism in mind. Perhaps what has come to mind is the description of an ideal society which could only exist if all humans were angelic, or perhaps it is the failure of some utopians to consider the human costs of attempting to achieve their visions.

Anyone who considers the nature and characteristics of an ideal society is engaged in utopian thinking. In my view, there is one particular type of utopian thinking that has contributed massively to advances in opportunities for individual human flourishing and has potential to continue to do so.

Before I make the case for that kind of utopian thinking, however, I need to discuss the rise of anti-utopianism.

The rise of anti-utopianism

The main threat to discussion of the characteristics of an ideal society seems to be coming from people who view such discussion as irrelevant to the world in which we live. These anti-utopians argue that it is a waste of time to consider whether public policy is consistent with principles that should apply in an ideal society. They see such ideals as irrelevant because outcomes are determined by power struggles.

Anti-utopians do not necessarily subscribe to the view that “might is right”. Their belief that outcomes are determined by power struggles may just lead them to argue that “right” is irrelevant. Their beliefs differ somewhat depending on whether they come from the conservative or progressive side of politics.

Anti-utopians who inhabit the conservative side of politics tend to focus on contests between nations. They argue that such contests are inevitable, and that victory depends primarily on the ferocity of the warriors. They sometimes recognize that religion and ideology have a role in motivating warriors by reinforcing nationalist sentiments. However, they tend to view notions of human rights and morality as “rationalizations of philosophers” that weaken the ferocity of warriors.

Anti-utopians who inhabit the progressive side of politics tend to focus on power struggles between different groups in society - different ethnic and religious groups, women and men, people with different sexual orientation, and so forth. People on the progressive side of politics have traditionally presented a view of an ideal society where everyone has equal opportunities as well as equal rights, but the anti-utopians engaged in identity politics seek affirmative action to be carried far beyond the provision of equal opportunities. Ethical principles are downplayed in the struggle of particular groups to advance their interests at the expense of others.

The arguments of the anti-utopians can be challenged within the framework of the power struggle paradigms they present. For example, conservative anti-utopians tend to overlook the extent to which people are motivated to contribute toward national defence by considerations such as protection of human rights. Progressive anti-utopians tend to overlook the potential for single-minded advocacy of their own interests to encourage other groups to retaliate.

The purpose of utopian thinking

 The best way to challenge the arguments of the anti-utopians is to present some defensible utopian views.

  1. Since human flourishing is an inherently self-directed activity undertaken by individuals, an ideal society must recognize that individuals have the right to flourish in the manner of their own choosing provided they do not interfere with the similar rights of others.
  2. The flourishing of individuals depends on their ability to follow personal values, visions and aspirations that make their lives meaningful. Some of the most basic personal values of individuals – including respect for the lives, property, and liberty of others - are widely shared by people throughout the world.  
  3. Progress toward an ideal society occurs when individuals have greater opportunities to meet their aspirations.

If you would like to see those points explained more fully, please read my recently published book “Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing”. The concept of utopia is only referred to a few times in the book but, as I have just realized, much of the thinking that went into the book is utopian thinking.

Utopian thinking is intrinsic to human flourishing.  

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Who should read "Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing"?

 


I have dedicated the book to those who reflect on what it means to be a flourishing human.

When individuals think about their own personal development, they are reflecting on what it means to be a flourishing human.  I believe that reflection on what it means to be a flourishing human also holds the key to understanding the importance of liberty, and its role in economic development.

What is the book about?

The book explains how freedom (liberty) enables individuals to flourish in different ways without colliding, how it fosters progress and enables growth of opportunities, and how it supports personal development by enabling individuals to exercise self-direction.

The importance of self-direction is a theme of the book. The introductory chapter explains that wise and well-informed self-direction is integral to flourishing because it helps individuals to attain health and longevity, positive human relationships, psychological well-being, and an ability to live in harmony with nature.

Part I discusses natural rights and the evolution of freedom since ancient times. It explains how most people living in the liberal democracies today came to enjoy greater freedom than their ancestors.

Part II discusses progress. It explains how cultural change made economic progress possible by supporting the rule of law, liberty, and interpersonal trust, as well as the advance of knowledge, respect for innovators and tolerance of diversity. It notes that progress has led to increasingly widespread opportunities for people to meet their aspirations. It also discusses reasons for apprehension about the continuation of progress.

Part III considers how it is possible for individuals to meet the challenges of self-direction and to enhance their potential to flourish by investing in personal development. It explains that while the exercise of practical wisdom has always been integral to the flourishing of individuals, it has become commonplace for people to aspire to exercise meaningful self-direction over their lives to a greater extent than has ever been possible in the past.

The main message of the book is that people who live in Western liberal democracies should count their blessings. They have many blessings to count!

What are reviewers saying about the book?

Doug Rasmussen, a philosopher, and joint author with Douglas Den Uyl of a trilogy of books about liberty and human flourishing writes:

“Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing is a highly informed, but not an unduly technical, account of human flourishing and the need for a political/legal order that has the primary goal of protecting individual rights. This work is informed by not only philosophical but also by psychological and economic studies. This work provides an excellent entry point for deeper discussions of these fundamental claims.”

Readers who are seeking deeper discussions will find much to think about in the books by Rasmussen and Den Uyl: Norms of Liberty, The Perfectionist Turn, and The Realist Turn: Repositioning Liberalism.

Ron Duncan, a distinguished Australian economist with particular expertise in the economics and governance of developing countries, writes:

“With so much attention on identifying issues we should be unhappy about, Winton Bates' book is a welcome relief, given its emphasis on how much the lot of most people—particularly those in western liberal societies—has improved, why the improvements have taken place, and why they should continue. Its historical coverage of the philosophical issues underpinning the role of liberty in western progress should delight all serious thinkers.”

Ed Younkins, author of Flourishing and Happiness in A Free Society and Capitalism and Commerce writes:

“This masterful feat of integration of a wide range of literature from philosophy, economics, political science, and the social sciences will inspire scholars to bring their disciplines together to advance the argument for a free society.”

What are my qualifications to write such a book?

I am an economist. I first became professionally involved in broad issues concerning human flourishing in the early 1990s. Before then, my career focused on public policy relating to economic development, international trade, productivity growth and technological progress. Whilst retaining my professional interest in such matters, I have become increasingly interested in economic history, happiness economics, behavioral economics, self-help psychology, politics, and Aristotelian philosophy. I have written extensively about freedom and flourishing and have been blogging on this site for about 12 years.

How do I perform when interviewed about my book?

Potential interviewers who need to make such an assessment should take a look at me being interviewed by Leah Goldrick. The interview entitled “Freedom Helps us Flourish” has been published on Leah’s Common Sense Ethics channel on YouTube. The interview is also a useful source of background information about the book and its author.

Where can the book be purchased?

The book has been published by Hamilton Books and can be purchased at the Rowman and Littlefield web site: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9780761872665/Freedom-Progress-and-Human-Flourishing

It is also available from Amazon and some other booksellers.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Does evolutionary psychology shed light on the source of human intuitions?

 



I have difficulty thinking of Aristotle as a blank slate theorist. The view that evolved psychological adaptations play no role in determining human behavior seems impossible to reconcile with Aristotle’s teleological view that living entities contain in themselves the principle of their own development. It is worth remembering, however, that Aristotle saw personal development as linked to formation of good habits – he saw roles for both nature and nurture in human flourishing. In order to make sense of the passage quoted above I need to allow myself to imagine a blank writing tablet that has functional specialization allowing information relevant to the flourishing of our pre-historic ancestors to be most readily written upon it. (Incidentally, the quote is from On the Soul, Book III, Part 4.)

Evolutionary psychology has promoted the view that evolved psychological adaptations play a role in determining human behavior. To consider the light it sheds on the source of human intuitions I will begin with Steven Pinker’s list of the cognitive intuitions (also referred to as modules, systems, stances, faculties, mental organs, multiple intelligences, and reasoning engines), and then move on to Jonathan Haidt’s list of ethical intuitions. I will then consider whether attacks on evolutionary psychology should cause us to be wary of the evolutionary reasoning associated with such lists.

Pinker suggests that we are equipped with a range of different cognitive intuitions that evolved through psychological adaptations to keep our ancestors in touch with reality. These intuitions emerge early in life, and are present in every normal person. His list includes a basic intuitive grasp of physics, biology, engineering, psychology, and economic exchange. It includes a spatial sense, and senses of number and probability. It also includes language, and a mental data base and logic that are used to represent ideas and infer new ideas from old ones. These intuitions are suitable for the lifestyles of small groups of illiterate people living several thousands of years ago. They do not give people a spontaneous intuitive understanding of modern science, technology, or economics. (Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate, 2002, 219-21)

Haidt argues that moral intuitions evolved to meet various adaptive challenges faced by our ancestors. He suggests that moral intuitions relating to care and harm evolved to protect children; intuitions relating to fairness and cheating evolved to reap benefits of cooperation; intuitions relating to loyalty and betrayal evolved to protect groups from challenges; intuitions relating to authority and subversion evolved to obtain benefits from hierarchies; and intuitions about sanctity and degradation evolved to avoid contamination and disease. (Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 2012, 123-127)

The views of Pinker and Haidt seem to me to be plausible, but can this kind of reasoning withstand the criticism that evolutionary psychology consists of “just so” stories?  


In his book, Rethinking Evolutionary Psychology, Andrew Goldfinch, a philosopher, tells readers that critics view evolutionary psychology explanations “as shockingly naked in historic and scientific detail”. Massive modularity has been a particular focus of criticism. The strongest form of massive modularity claims that there are no systems or mechanisms that are not dedicated to particular problems.

I came to Goldfinch’s book with the idea that the concept of brain plasticity was opposed to modularity. I had thought that evidence that brains “rewire” themselves in response to experience as people transition from infancy to adulthood would tend to count against modularity. However, many cognitive psychologists stress that when they talk about modules what they have in mind is functional specialization which is consistent with overlap between processing areas of the brain. Plasticity enables brains to develop so that individuals normally have intuitions that are common among adult humans.

However, Goldfinch also makes it clear that the existence of innate knowledge does not require massive modularity. It is possible for domain-specific knowledge to be generated by domain-general processing. Both domain-specific and domain-general mechanisms are compatible with evolutionary theory. I think it follows that the issue of whether the lists of intuitions compiled by Pinker and Haidt are evolutionary adaptations does not depend on the validity of the theory of massive modularity.

The main point that Goldfinch makes is that leading evolutionary psychologists have brought their research program into disrepute by packaging it as a paradigm shift. The research program became identified with claims of a strong form of massive modularity as leading proponents argued that evolutionary adaptation implies the existence of strong massive modularity. Leading proponents used the concept of strong massive modularity to challenge conventional social science based on the foundation of domain-general knowledge and processes that are exclusively social. This prompted excessively critical responses that sought to discredit the entire research program as “just so” stories.

Goldfinch argues that strong massive modularity is not integral to evolutionary psychology. He suggests that evolutionary psychology should be viewed as an exploratory research program aimed at generating and testing hypotheses about psychological mechanisms. Viewed in that light, evolutionary psychology explores whether psychological traits that are observed across cultures could be adaptations, and has potential to guide researchers into identifying new behavioral patterns and mechanisms.

Goldfinch summarizes his view as follows:

“Initial evolutionary psychology hypotheses aim, or should aim, not for the last evolutionary word on a given phenomenon, but the first. They are in constant adjustment—both with the research programme’s own findings and findings from adjacent research programmes and disciplines. If this is done, this should generate sophisticated hypotheses, as well as generate progressive increments to our understanding of psychological and social phenomena.” (200)

I can see the wisdom in Goldfinch’s suggestion that evolutionary psychologists should not be aiming to have the last word. Should any scientist ever be aiming to have the last word? However, I think it is inevitable that a good number of the hypotheses advanced by evolutionary psychologists will challenge beliefs that human behavior is wholly attributable to simple mechanisms of learning and can be modified readily by changing social arrangements.  

Even if the views about human intuitions put forward by evolutionary psychologists only have the status of plausible speculations, they can still help us to comprehend aspects of the world we live in. For example, Pinker’s views provide a provisional understanding of why people tend to perceive the world they live in much the same way as their ancestors who knew nothing about the processes that modern physics describes. Haidt’s views provide a provisional understanding of why people hold ethical intuitions that cannot be readily explained in terms of current social circumstances. The paucity of historic detail supporting such speculations should not cause them to be dismissed unless more plausible explanations are offered. Those seeking truth should find plausible speculations more satisfying than implausible speculations and mysteries.    


Tuesday, April 13, 2021

How can we comprehend the emergence of consciousness?

 


It seems common for consciousness to be viewed either as an inexplicable mystery or as something we will only be able to comprehend if advances in science can explain how thoughts – a rich inner life - can somehow be created from matter. However, the problems we have in comprehending the emergence of consciousness may stem from our habit of thinking in terms of a separation between mind and body.

The idea of mind as separate from body has been part of Western philosophy for a long time, but is commonly referred to as Cartesian dualism after René Descartes (1596–1650). Descartes who famously said, “I think, therefore I am”, concluded “I knew that I was a substance, the whole essence or nature of which is to think … [that] does not depend on any material thing”. These days, not many people believe consciousness to be a substance, but dualism still seems to linger on in much discussion about consciousness.  

Descartes reached his conclusion after going through a process of considering what sources of knowledge could not be doubted, and discovering that he could not doubt that he was thinking. In his book, The Metaphysics of Emergence, Richard Campbell suggests that Descartes was on the right track in observing that he was unable to doubt that he was thinking:

“If I seriously think that I am not thinking, what I am thinking is pragmatically self-refuting.” (283)

Descartes error arose when he asked himself, “What then am I?” after observing that he could not doubt he was thinking. As Campbell points out, that question “presupposes that he takes himself to be some sort of thing”.

(Campbell’s discussion reminds me of the part of the long speech Ayn Rand had John Galt make in Atlas Shrugged in which Galt proclaims the axiom that “existence exists”, and that consciousness is “the faculty of perceiving that which exists”. Galt adds “a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms” (1015). Readers who are allergic to Ayn Rand will be pleased to note that Campbell’s book contains no references to her, or to Objectivism.)


Before going further I should note that Richard Campbell is an emeritus professor of philosophy at the ANU. The Metaphysics of Emergence was published in 2015.

Campbell asks what conclusion we can draw from the observation that we cannot doubt we are thinking. His answer:

“Thinking that one is thinking, being aware that one is aware, has to be at least a meta-level operation, interacting with the processes of more basic awareness.

To understand what Campbell is getting at here, it may be helpful to have some knowledge of the general line of argument he develops in his book.

  • In the preface, the author explains that he has come to the view that any satisfactory account of the emergence of complex phenomena has to begin with recognition that “processes underly what seem like stable enduring entities, and therefore should be accorded priority over them”.
  • Campbell argues that everything is fundamentally in process. That line of argument is opposed to the dominant tradition of Western intellectual history (began by Parmenides) which views entities as the norm. The view that everything is a process presents us with the challenge of explaining the emergence and apparent stability of enduring things, whereas under the dominant tradition change requires explanation.
  •  Campbell suggests that Plato may have misrepresented Heraclitus in claiming he said, “You cannot step into the same river twice”. Heraclites may have been trying to convey the insight that the river stays the same even though it consists of changing waters. Campbell suggests that rivers exemplify “that the continued existence of things depends on their continually changing”.
  • The view of stability as the norm led to a focus on particular entities and the “matter” of which they were comprised. Since matter itself seemed to be comprised of entities (atoms and sub-atomic particles) it seemed to follow that everything was composed of entities (countable things). However, advances in physics make that view no longer tenable.  Although sub-atomic particles are often still talked about as though they are well-defined micro-entities, they behave more like processes than entities. Entities can no longer be accorded the role of the primary way of being.
  • Entities, including living things, can be best understood as special cases of generic processes constrained in certain explicable ways. Entities are minimally homomerous – they exist in fixed portions or units. If you cut a cow in two the result is not two smaller cows.
  • Many types of dynamic system retain their distinctive properties even though their constituents are replaced over time. That points to the importance of the constituent processes in maintaining the system.
  • Living creatures perform actions. Interactions between internal and external processes binds them together as cohesive entities and enables them to behave as integral wholes. Their actions are an emergent phenomenon – resulting from the interaction of many processes.
  • As Aristotle recognized, talk of actions carries implications of teleology – actions are directed towards some goal or end. In the case of simple multi-cellular organisms, goal-directedness is directed toward survival, but does not carry any implication of conscious choices or purposes. “The recursive self-maintenance of an organism is what requires the category of action to be predicated of it as an integrated action system and provides the necessary condition for other kinds of action which are directed at ends other than survival.” (176)    
  • As evolution proceeds, living creatures become capable of performing selective actions in response to differences in their environments. In relatively simple organisms, those actions are instinctual rather than choices involving deliberation or calculation. Selection becomes more significant in more complex creatures which need to choose between fighting and fleeing, or whether to search for food or find a mate. Complex organisms can learn by detecting that some action they have performed is in error.
  • The appropriate question regarding motivation is what makes an organism perform one action rather than another, rather than what makes it do something rather than nothing. Living organisms cannot do nothing, or they cease to exist as living beings.
  • When an organism has the ability to learn which kinds of action yields rewards and to select actions on the basis of that learning it seems reasonable to say that it can evaluate the projected outcomes. As organisms become more highly developed, goal-seeking activity becomes increasingly self-directed, more flexible, and more generic (not confined to specific task routines). The behaviors of many species of non-human animals indicates that they have some awareness of their surroundings.
  • The consciousness of humans evolved from the awareness displayed by other animals. Primate awareness includes elaborate event representations in which experience across many sources including bodily feelings are integrated and can be remembered. However, primates seem to lack the “fundamental defining capacities” to develop language skills (unless raised by humans) and do not express any kind of self-description.
  • Human evolution went through several stages: a mimetic culture employing the whole body as an expressive device; the mythic stage in which spoken language evolved (arguably to meet specific cognitive and cultural needs); and the theoretic stage beginning around 5,500 years ago with invention of the first writing systems. The theoretic stage is characterized by “institutionalized paradigmatic thought” – using external symbolic devices to store and retrieve cultural knowledge.
  • One’s sense of oneself is an aspect of consciousness that seems to be distinctively human, although some species of apes and elephants can recognize an image in a mirror as their own. “Our individual self-understandings are informed by our autobiographical memories, whose meaning depends on a shared oral tradition.” (290) Our consciousness of ourselves has been shaped by cultural and institutional factors that influence how our brains develop and function. While we talk metaphorically of the evolution of modern humans, this is not evolution in the Darwinian sense. A child born today differs little genetically from one born 60,000 years ago.
  • The development of human brains is strongly influenced by personal experience. Cultural interactions play an important role in determining the way the brains of children develop. They do not reach their mature architecture until adulthood. 

Some further explanation can now be given of what Campbell meant by writing that being aware that one is aware has to be at least a meta-level operation, interacting with the processes of more basic awareness. He is suggesting that when he detects something with one of his five senses there is more than one operation going on:

I am actively eliciting and processing those sensory inputs, and at the same time reflectively experiencing the qualities of that awareness. If that is right, then the way many philosophers today pose the issue of experience – how is it that certain complex physical systems are also mental – is misconceived. The situation is not that there is one phenomenon which has two aspects: one physical; one mental. Rather, experiencing is an on-going self-organizing activity which involves two distinct types of process: exploratory sensory activity (which is both bodily and neural); and another higher-level process operating upon the former. Being self-organizing, these interactions essentially involve feedback. That is why humans’ consciousness is reflective, reflexive, and thereby self-aware.” (283-4)

Before concluding, I should make clear that I prepared the above summary to improve my own understanding of the line of argument in Richard Campbell’s book. I hope it is a reasonable summary, but it not a substitute for reading the book. I am publishing this article in the hope of encouraging others to read the book.

I would also like to mention that I was prompted to read The Metaphysics of Emergence by a comment made by Robert L Campbell, a psychologist, in his review (published in JARS) of Harry Binswanger’s book, How We Know. I am pleased that I was given that prompt to read the book because I have a long-standing interest in explanations of consciousness - for example, see my comments on Alva Noё’s book, Out of Our Heads, published on this blog over a decade ago.

Conclusion

We cannot doubt that we think. That seems to me to be a profound observation. We may have reasons to doubt that what we are thinking at any moment is related to reality, but we cannot doubt that we are thinking. We are aware of both the flow of inner experiences – thoughts and feelings – and of our experience of the world in which we live. Thinking about our experience of the world enables us to contemplate the goals we seek, to make choices in pursuit of those goals, and to learn from experience. Our observations of the world tell us that many other animals also engage in similar processes - which imply an awareness of their surroundings. We have no problem in understanding that their awareness emerged/evolved to help them to survive and reproduce. Our human consciousness is just another step in that evolutionary process. Awareness of our own awareness has emerged to help us to flourish as individuals in the cultures in which we live.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Does T S Eliot provide useful hints about the resilience of Western culture?


 

The quoted passage comes near the end of T.S. Eliot’s poem, Little Gidding, which was written in Britain during the Second World War. Eliot goes on to use vivid imagery to describe the beginning:

“At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.”

The theme of the poem is:

“All shall be well, and

All manner of things shall be well”.

The author urges us to view history as a pattern of “timeless moments”. We celebrate those who died as a consequence of sectarian strife even though they were not “wholly commendable’. We do not celebrate them to “revive old factions”. We celebrate them because of what we have inherited and taken from them. They now accept “the constitution of silence” and are “folded into a single party”. They have left us with a symbol “perfected in death” that “all shall be well”.

The poem seems to me to offer hope for the future of Western culture, despite the author's experience of the “incandescent terror” of bombing raids while it was being written.

Eliot elaborates his views on culture in his book, Notes Toward the Definition of Culture. The first edition of that book was published in 1948, but he began writing it at around the same time as Little Gidding was published.

At one point, Eliot suggests that culture “may be described simply as that which makes life worth living” (27). He views culture as linked to religion: “there is an aspect in which we see a religion as the whole way of life of a people … and that way of life is also its culture” (31).

Eliot claims that it is an error to believe that “culture can be preserved, extended and developed in the absence of religion”. Nevertheless, he acknowledges: “a culture may linger on, and indeed produce some of its most brilliant artistic and other successes after the religious faith has fallen into decay” (29).

The author saw Western culture as already in decline at the time of writing, by comparison with the standards 50 year previously. Eliot “saw no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further” (18-19).

Although I am skeptical of such sweeping claims, I think Eliot makes an important point about the potential for cultural disintegration to ensue from cultural specialization:

Religious thought and practice, philosophy and art, all tend to become isolated areas, cultivated by groups with no communication with each other” (26).

From my perspective, one of the most interesting aspects of this book is Eliot’s suggestion that “within limits, the friction, not only between individuals but between groups”, is “quite necessary for civilization” (59). In discussing the impact of sectarianism on European culture he acknowledges that “many of the most remarkable achievements of culture have been made since the sixteenth century, in conditions of disunity” (70). Perhaps disunity helped by encouraging artistic freedom of expression.

My reading of Notes Toward the Definition of Culture left me feeling optimistic that Western culture can survive the current culture wars. The culture wars seem to me to be akin the historical sectarian disputes between Catholics and Protestants.

Western culture has previously survived attempts of dogmatists to silence their enemies, so it can probably do so again.