Monday, 18 October 2021

On the Appeal of Authoritarianism — and Its Risks


On March 30th, Hungary's populist leader, Viktor Orbán, obtained the indefinite recognition of special powers from his parliament, to the shock of many in Europe, and indeed in Hungary

By Keith Tidman

Authoritarianism is back in fashion. Seventy years after the European dictators brought the world to the brink of ruin, authoritarian leaders have again ascended across the globe, preaching firebrand nationalism. And there’s again no shortage of zealous supporters, even as there are equally passionate objectors. So, what has spurred authoritarianism’s renewed appeal? Let’s start by briefly looking at how authoritarianism and its adversarial ideology, liberal democracy, differ in their implied ‘social contract’.


One psychological factor for authoritarianism’ allure is its paternal claims, based on all-powerful, all-knowing central regimes substituting for the independent thought and responsibility of citizens. Decisions are made and actions taken on the people’s behalf; individual responsibility is confined to conformance and outright obedience. Worrying about getting choices right, and contending with their good and bad consequences, rests in the government’s lap, not in the individual’s. Constitutional principles start to be viewed as an extravagance, one that thwarts efficiency. For some people, this contract, exchanging freedom for reassuring paternalism, may appeal. For others, it’s a slippery slope that rapidly descends from the illiberalism of populists to something much worse.


Liberal democracy is hard work. It requires accountability based on individual agency. It requires people to become informed, assess information’s credibility, analyse arguments’ soundness, and arrive at independent choices and actions. Citizens must be vigilant on democracy’s behalf, with vigilance aided by the free flow of diverse, even contentious, ideas that enlighten and fill the intellectual storehouse on which democracy’s vibrancy depends. Often, individuals must get it right for themselves. They bear the consequences, including in their free and fair choice of elected representatives; ultimately, there are fewer options for offloading blame for bad outcomes. The rewards can be large, but so can the downsides. Constitutional bills of rights, the co-equal separation of powers, and the rule of law are democracy’s valued hallmarks. There’s likewise a social contract, though with allowance for revision to account for conditions at the moment. For many people, this model of democratic governance appeals; for others, it’s disorderly and ineffectual, even messy.


It requires only a small shift for the tension between authoritarianism and the personal agency and accountability of liberal democracy to end up tilting in authoritarianism’s favour. Individual perspectives and backgrounds, and particular leaders’ cult of personality, matter greatly here. With this in mind, let’s dig a bit deeper into what authoritarianism is all about and try to understand its appeal.


Authoritarianism was once seen more as the refuge of poor countries on far-away continents; nowadays we’ve witnessed its ascendancy in many developed nations too, such as in Europe, where the brittleness of former democracies snapped. Countries like Russia and China briefly underwent ‘liberal springs’, inquisitively flirting with the freedoms associated with democracy before becoming disenchanted with what they saw, rolling back the gains and increasing statist control over the levers of power. In other countries, what starts as extreme rightwing or leftwing populism, as in some quarters of Asia and Central and South America, has turned to authoritarianism. Strongmen have surrounded themselves with a carefully chosen entourage, doing their bidding. Security forces, like modern-day praetorians, shield and enforce. Social and political norms alter, to serve the wishes of centralised powers. It’s about power and control; to be in command is paramount. Challenges to officialdom are quick to set off alarms, and as necessary result in violence to enforce the restoration of conformity.


The authoritarian leader’s rationale is to sideline challengers, democratic or otherwise, turning to mock charges of fraudulence and ineptness to neutralize the opposition. The aim is structural submission and compliance with sanctioned doctrine. The leader asserts he or she ‘knows best’, to which flatterers nod in agreement. Other branches of government, from the legislature to the courts and holders of the nation’s purse strings, along with the country’s intelligentsia and news outlets, are disenfranchised in order to serve the bidding of the charismatic demagogue. Such heads of state may see themselves as the singular wellspring of wise decision-making, for some citizens raising the disconcerting spectre of democratic principles teetering in their supposed fragile balance.


Authoritarian leaders monopolising the messaging for public consumption, for the purpose of swaying behaviour, commonly becomes an exercise in copycatting the ‘doublespeak’ of George Orwell’s 1984: war is peace; slavery is freedom; ignorance is strength (slogans inscribed by the Party’s Ministry of Truth). Social activism is no longer brooked and thus may be trodden down by heavy-handed trusted handlers. Racism and xenophobia are ever out in front, as has been seen throughout Europe and in the United States, leading to a zealously protective circling of the wagons into increased sectarianism, hyper-partisanship, and the rise of extremist belief systems. In autocracies, criticism — and economic sanctions or withdrawal of official international recognition — from democracies abroad, humanitarian nongovernmental organisations, and supranational unions is scornfully brushed aside.


Yet, it may be wrong to suggest that enthusiasts of authoritarian leaders are hapless, prone to make imprudent choices. Populations may feel so stressed by their circumstances they conclude that a populist powerbroker, unhampered by democracy’s imagined rule-of-law ‘manacles’, is attractive. Those stresses on society might range widely: an unnerving haste toward globalisation; fear of an influx of migrants, putting pressure on presumed zero-sum resources, all the while raising hackles over the nation’s majority race or ethnicity becoming the minority; the fierce pitting of social and political identity groups against one another over policymaking; the disquieting sense of lost cohesion and one’s place in society; and a blend of anxiety and suspicion over unknowns about the nation’s future. In such fraught situations, democracy might be viewed as irresolute and clogging problem-solving, whereas authoritarianism might be viewed as decisive.


Quashing the voice of the ‘other social philosophy’, the ‘other community, the ‘other reality’ has become increasingly popular among the world’s growing list of authoritarian regimes. The parallel ambiguous wariness of the pluralism of democracy has been fueling this dynamic. It might be that this trend continues indefinitely, with democracy having run its course. Or, perhaps, the world’s nations will cycle unevenly in and out of democracy and authoritarianism, as a natural course of events. Either way, it’s arguable that democracy isn’t anywhere nearly as fragile as avowed, nor is authoritarianism as formidable.


Sunday, 10 October 2021

A Moral Rupture

by Thomas Scarborough

Virtually all of our assumptions with regard to ethics are based on theories in which we see no rupture between past, present, and future, but some kind of continuity

If we are with Aristotle, we hold out happiness as the goal, and assume that, as this was true for Aristotle, so it is for me, and forever will be. Or if we are with Moore, we believe that our moral sense is informed by intuition, always was, and will be in the future. If we are religiously minded, we assume that God himself has told us how to live, which was and is eternal and unchanging. 

I propose, instead, that ethics is not in fact constant, and at the present time we are witnessing a fundamental moral rupture. This is based upon a distinct ethical theory, which runs like this: 
As we look upon the world, we arrange the world in our understanding. Depending on how we have so arranged it, we act in this world. A concise way of putting this is that our behaviour is controlled by mental models. Since no one person so arranges the world in quite the same way as the next, our ethics are in many cases strikingly different. 
In past ages, people arranged the world in their minds in such a way that this was largely in keeping with their personal experience of the world. They based it on the people they met, the environment which surrounded them, and so on. Of course, people had access also to parchments, listened to orators, or explored new ideas, so that various influences came to bear upon them. Mostly, however, they interacted with a real world. 

In more recent history, the age of mass communications descended upon us. We invented the printing press, the postal system, then radio, and TV. And certainly, increased travel exposed us all to broader ideas. However, we still understood our world largely in terms of personal experience. Our personal experience, too, informed our interpretation of events and opinions further afield, and we had the leisure to ponder them, and often make sport of them. 

Since the turn of the century, however, we have increasingly been involved in instant, two-way communications, and in many cases dispersed communications, where many people are included at the same time. The result is that, for the first time in history, many (and some say most) of our interactions and reactions are electronic. 

One could list any number of implications. In terms of this post, our arrangement of the world in our understanding is changing. In fact, change is not the word. There is a rupture. The basis on which we arrange the world is not at all what it was. 

Images of the world swamp our experience of it.
The consequences of our views dissipate in the aether.
Feedback to our words and actions often eludes us, and
Ideology is little tempered by direct observation.

If we accept that mental models drive our behaviour, all older notions of ethics are uprooted. It may only become clear to us just how in the decades to come. Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1962, in his landmark The Gutenberg Galaxy, "There can only be disaster arising from unawareness of the causalities and effects inherent in our technologies."

Monday, 4 October 2021

Picture Post #68 The Sitting Room

by Martin Cohen

Photo credit: Micelo

There's something a little spooky about this picture, emphasised by the face in the mirror above the fireplace – but there too in the ‘empty chairs’. Where are their proud occupants? What did they talk about or do those long evenings in their high-ceilinged castle? For this is a room carefully restored (if not quite brought back to life) by some French enterprise or other.

Indeed the French – and English too – do seem to live in an imaginary past, of posh families in big chateaux / country houses with not much to do except count their silver cutlery. I think it's rather a sad way to live, and so perhaps it is appropriate that this picture seems to me to speak only of a rather forlorn and empty existence.

Monday, 27 September 2021

The Recounting of History: Getting From Then to Now

Double Herm of Thucydides and Herodotus

Thucydides was a historian of the wars between Athens and Sparta, in which he championed the Athenian general Perikles. Herodotus travelled and wrote widely and tried to be more impartial.

Posted by Keith Tidman


Are historians obliged to be unwaveringly objective in their telling of the past? After all, as Hegel asserted: ‘People and government never have learned anything from history or acted on principles deduced from it’.


History seems to be something more than just stirring fable, yet less than incontestable reality. Do historians’ accounts live up to the tall order of accurately informing and properly influencing the present and future? Certainly, history is not exempt from human frailty. And we do seem ‘condemned’ to repeat some version of even half-remembered history, such as stumbling repeatedly into unsustainable, unwinnable wars.


In broad terms, history has an ambitious task: to recount all of human activity  ideological, political, institutional, social, cultural, philosophical, judicial, intellectual, religious, economic, military, scientific, technological and familial. Cicero, who honoured Herodotus with the title the father of history’, seems to have had such a lofty role in mind for the discipline when he pondered: ‘What is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?’ The vast scope of that task implies both great challenges and vulnerabilities.


History provides the landscape of past events, situations, changes, people, decisions, and actions. Both the big picture and the subtler details of the historical record spur deliberation, and help render what we hope are wise choices about societys current and future direction. How wise such choices are — and the extent to which they are soundly based on, or at at least influenced by, how historians parse and interpret the past  reflects how ‘wise’ the historians are in fulfilment of the task. At its best, the recounting of history tracks the ebb and flow of changes in transparent ways, taking into account context for those moments in time. A pitfall to avoid, however, is tilting conclusions by superimposing on the past the knowledge and beliefs we hold today.


To these ends, historians and consumers of history strive to measure the evidence, complexities, inconsistencies, conflicts, and selective interpretations of past events. The challenge of chronicling and interpretation is made harder by the many alternative paths along which events might have unfolded, riven by changes in direction. There is no single linear progression or trajectory to history, extending expediently from the past to the present; twists and turn abound. The resulting tenuousness of causes and effects, and the fact that accounts of history and human affairs might not always align with one another, influence what we believe and how we behave generations later. 


The fact is, historical interpretations pile up, one upon another, as time passes. These coagulating layers can only make the picture of the past murkier. To recognise and skilfully scrape away the buildup of past interpretations, whether biased or context-bound or a result of history’s confounding ebb and flow, becomes a monumental undertaking. Indeed, it may never fully happen, as the task of cleaning up history is less alluring feature than capturing and recounting history.

Up to a point, it aids accuracy that historians may turn to primary, or original, sources of past happenings. These sources may be judged on their own merits: to assess evidence and widely differing interpretations, assess credibility and ferret out personal agendas, and assess the relative importance of observations to the true fabric of history. Artifacts, icons, and monuments tell a story, too, filling in the gaps of written and oral accounts. Such histories are intended to endure, leading us to insights into how the rhythms of social, reformist, and cultural forces brought society to where it is today.

And yet, contemporaneous chroniclers of events also fall victim to errors of commission and omission. It’s hard for history to be unimpeachably neutral in re-creating themes in human endeavour, like the victories and letdowns of ideological movements, leaders, governments, economic systems, religions, and cultures, as well as of course the imposing, disruptive succession of wars and revolutions. In the worst of instances, historians are the voice of powerful elites seeking to champion their own interests. 


When the past is presented to us, many questions remain. Whose voice is allowed to be loudest in the recounting and interpretation? Is it that of the conquerors, elites, powerful, holders of wealth, well-represented, wielders of authority, patrons? And is the softest or silenced voice only that of the conquered, weak, disregarded, disenfranchised, including marginalised groups based on race or gender? To get beyond fable, where is human agency truly allowed to flourish unfettered?


Therein lies the historian’s moral test. A history that is only partial and selective risks cementing in the privileges of the elite and the disadvantages of the silenced. ‘Revisionism’ in the best sense of the word is a noble task, aimed at putting flawed historical storytelling right, so that society can indeed then ‘act on the principles deduced from it’.

Monday, 20 September 2021

The Cow in the Field and the Riddle of What Do We REALLY Know?

i looks at a wide range of things that go well beyond the scope of academic philosophy, but that shouldn't mean that we can't occasionally return to the narrow path. Talking with existentialists at a new website (that I would recommend to everyone) called Moti-Tribe,  brought me back to thinking about one of my favorite philosophical problems,

This is the story of ‘The Cow in the Field’ that I came up with many years ago at a time when the academic (boring) philosophers were obsessed with someone who had some coins in his pocket but weren’t sure exactly what they were, and calling it grandly, the ‘Gettier Problem’.

You’d have been forgiven for being put right off the issue by how the academics approached it, but indeed, the riddle is very old, can be tracked back certainly to Plato and is indeed rooted even further back in Eastern philosophy where the assumption that we don’t know things is a part of mysticism and monkishness that we don't really understand anything about.

It’s a kind of koan, which as I understand them, the point of which is to startle you out of your everyday assumptions and oblige you to think more intuitively. The conventional account is that they are a tool of Zen Buddhism used to demonstrate *the inadequacy of logical reasoning* - and open the way to enlightenment.

Well, once you explore the origins of Western philosophy, and the ideas of people like Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Socrates and Plato, you soon find out that there is a lot of riddling actually going on. And the reason why is exactly the same: in order to demonstrate this inadequacy of logical reasoning and provoke enlightenment.

Slightly bizarrely, conventional books and courses on philosophy seek to reinvent ancient philosophy to make it all about ‘the discovery’ of logic! But Western philosophy and Eastern mysticism are two sides of the same coin, we can learn from both.

So on to the puzzle!


Imagine a farmer who has rather fine cow called Daisy. He is so proud of his cow that he often checks up on her. In fact, he is so concerned that one day, when he asks his dairyman how Daisy is doing, and the Dairyman tells him that Daisy is in the field happily grazing, the farmer decides that he needs to know for certain.

He doesn’t want to just have a 99% idea that Daisy is safe, he wants to be able to say 100% that he knows Daisy is okay.

The farmer goes out to the field and, standing by the gate, sees in the distance, behind some trees, a white-and-black shape that he recognises as his favourite cow. He goes back to the dairy and tells his friend the dairyman that he knows Daisy is in the field. 

Okay, so what’s the ‘problem’? Simply whether, at this point, does our farmer really ‘know’ it - or does he merely think that he knows?

Pause for a moment and ask yourself what your intuition is. Because we have to allow that the farmer not only thinks that he knows, he has evidence - the evidence of his eyes we might say - for his belief too.

Anyway, you maybe still think that there’s some doubt about him really knowing, but then we add a new twist. Responding to  the farmer’s worries, the dairyman decides that he will go and check on Daisy, and goes out to the field. And there he does indeed find Daisy, having a nap in a hollow, behind a bush, well out of sight of the gate. He also spots a large piece of black-and-white paper that has got caught in a tree. Point is, yes, Daisy WAS in the field, but the farmer could not have seen her, only the piece of paper.

So the philosophical debate is, when the farmer returned from the field after (as he thought) checking up on his cow, did he really KNOW she was in it?

Because now you see, it seems that Farmer Field has satisfied the three conventional requirements for ‘knowledge’.

• He believes something,

• he has a relevant reason for his belief,

• and in fact his belief is correct...

Philosophers say that he had a ‘justified true belief’. And yet we would not want to say that he really did know what he thought he knew. In this case, that his cow was in the field...

It's a simple story, okay, silly if you like, but entirely possible. And what the possibility shows is that the three conventional requirements for knowledge are simply not enough to give certainty. What THAT implies, is that we know nothing!

Which is back to the Eastern philosophies, which put so much more emphasis on what we don't know - and seek exotic ways to compensate.

Monday, 13 September 2021

The Play of Old and New

by Andrew Porter
In trying to figure out what's valuable in the old and the new, what should we keep or discard? Should change be invited or checked?
We know there is a relationship between the old and the new. It's both complex and fascinating. What is established may stay in place, or it may be replaced and perish.

If we want to help change society, or government, or ourselves for the better, how much of the old should we keep, and how much discard? Is modest reform in order, or a revolution? Should the depletion of, say, rain forests be allowed or prevented?

Aristotle delineated 'potential' as material, and 'actual' as form. We gather, therefore, that what exists is often on its way to completion, whereas the goal is the actual. This contrasts with the view that what exists is the 'actual', while future possibilities are 'potential'. Added to this is the fact that the old was once new, and the new will become old.

It might help us clarify the relationship if we can articulate the flow of old to new in real time.

Should we see it as a flow, or as a fixed contrast? What does a dynamic tension mean in this case? Is the new a rejection of the ossification of the old, or is it in harmony with it? How do old and new relate to the metaphysical principles of Order and Freedom? Are the old and the new in a dance with each other, the new emerging from the potentiality which already exists? Does novelty merely help advance and develop what has been?

Something that goes on throughout nature may sort much of this out. We regenerate skin and bone and muscle tissue, while certain sets of brain cells endure past these changes. It is all us. We are old and new.

Take a reformer, in politics or elsewhere, who wants to enact significant change. They have to deal both with the old and with the new. Existing patterns to overcome, new ideas to consider and implement. How will society change? How much hold ought it to have? The old is a mixed bag. How justified is the new? Potential beckons, but is it in that which exists, or in the ends at which a process aims?

Old and new act as permeable membranes to each other, each in flux in relation to the other. Novelty is in the potential of current things. A reformer usually tries to jettison a large chunk of the old, but, like their own body, must keep a substantial part of it. Imagine if both current existents and new emergences followed a reason. Would it be different in nature than in human life?

I'll skip away now with the questions. I blithely leave the answers to you.

Photo credit GharPedia

Monday, 6 September 2021

Picture Post #67 Unperturbed

by Nada Spencer *

Sculpture by Nada Spencer, 2020.

It was the first of three COVID-19 lockdowns which moved me to create this sculptural piece. 

The ropes bind tightly around the figure, thereby symbolising the anxiety we feel while facing a worldwide pandemic. Not only do the ropes wrap tightly around the torso, but they have become part of the figure, punching deeply through the skin. These ropes are the same colour as the skin, which further blurs the lines of external struggles and internal personal identity. 

The face, however, is thoughtful and calm, and not in anguish, as we might expect. This signals that, despite the pressures and struggles of life, we can retain hope and persevere. ‘Sometimes even to live is an act of courage,’ wrote Seneca, but ‘he who is brave is free.’

* Nada Spencer is a ceramicist in Cape Town.

Monday, 30 August 2021

On the Terrorism of Suicide

by Chengde Chen *

Approaching the 20th Anniversary Commemoration of 9/11, Pi is pleased to bring you a poem which originally appeared in The Guardian, in 2001. It is as relevant now as it was thena poem, wrote Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, to help us commemorate and try to understand.

When released from the fear of death

men can be MC² times more powerful

Once they turn their mass into energy

the power is as great as our fear

The terrorism of killing with suicide

is different from that of only killing

Killing is terror

while suicide is a philosophy


Men who don't fear death are dead men

because fearing death is part of life

But by cancelling this premise of psychology

they have invalidated all we can do


We may talk to ordinary terrorism with war

but it makes the suicidal one more suicidal

If a death sentence is a home-delivery gift for them

cruise missiles would answer the wrong question


The way to conquer the suicidal

is to make them fear death again

That is to find the reason why they don't

and to eliminate it as a psychiatrist would


* Chengde Chen is the author of Five Themes of Today: philosophical poems, and of the novel: The Thought-read Revolution.

Monday, 23 August 2021

The Case of Hilbert’s Hotel and Infinity

In Hilberts infinite hotel, a room can always be found for newly arriving guests.

Posted by Keith Tidman


‘No vacancies. Rooms available’. That might as well be the contradictory sign outside the Hilbert Hotel of legend. Yet, is the sign really as nonsensical as it first seems?


The Hilbert Hotel paradox was made famous by the German mathematician David Hilbert in the 1920s. The paradox tells of an imaginary hotel with infinite rooms. All the rooms were occupied by an infinite number of guests.


However, a traveller wondered if a room might still be available, and approached the receptionist. The receptionist answered that the hotel could indeed accommodate him. To make the solution work, the receptionist asked all the current guests simply to move to the next room, making it possible to assign the new guest to Room 1.


This was a scalable maneuver, accommodating any number of new lodgers, whether a hundred, a hundred million, or far more. Because of the infinite rooms, importantly there was no last room; the receptionist could therefore keep moving the current guests to higher room numbers.


But the challenge was to get a bit harder. What showed up next was an infinitely large coach occupied by an infinite number of vacationers. To accommodate these guests, the receptionist shifted people so that only the infinite even-numbered rooms were occupied. 


Increasingly complex scenarios arose. Such as when an infinite number of coaches, each carrying infinite travellers, pulled into the hotel’s infinite parking lot. But we don’t need, for our purposes here, to delve into all the mathematical solutions. Suffice it to say that any number of new travellers could be lodged.


The larger significance of Hilbert’s thought experiment was that an ‘actual infinite’ is indeed logically consistent, even if on the surface it’s counterintuitive. As with Hilbert’s hotel, the infinite exists. Infinity’s logical consistency has further consequence, tying the thought experiment to the cosmological notion of an infinite past. 


That is, a beginningless reality. A reality in which our own universe, like infinite other universes, is one bounded part. An unlimited reality that extends even to the ‘far side’ of the Big Bang that gave rise to our universe almost fourteen billion years ago. A universe located within the continuum of the infinite. And a universe in which change gives us the illusion of time’s passage.


A common argument in cosmology (origins) is that the string of causes must start with the Big Bang. Or, rooted in a theological origin story, that it must start with a noncontingent divine creator, or so-called ‘first cause’. The claim of such arguments is that reality doesn’t reach back indefinitely into the past, but has a starting point.


‘Our minds are finite, and yet even in these circumstances of finitude,

we are surrounded by possibilities that are infinite’.

Alfred North Whitehead, philosopher and mathematician

 There are no grounds, however, to believe that our universe, with its time-stamped beginning (the Big Bang) and its one-way life-cycle toward net disorder, is the entirety of existence. Rather, an infinite history before the Big Bang, or beginningless reality, does make sense. As does the other bookend to that reality, an endless future, where infinity describes both before and after the fleetingly present moment, or what we might think of as the ‘now’. Nothing rules out or contradicts that unlimited scope of reality.


With an unchangeable beginningless reality, there is no need to evoke the concept of ‘something coming into being from nothing’; there is no need to interrupt the different laws of physics, or of time, governing each universe’s own separate reality; there is no time zero or insupportable moment of all creation. It’s infinity ‘all the way down’, to paraphrase British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s whimsical reference to infinite regress.  


We ought to avoid conflating the emergence of things within our bounded universe (like the making of new galaxies, of which there is a finite number) with the emergence of things within the infinite (like the formation of new universes, of which there is an infinite variety, each with its unique properties, life cycle, and natural laws).


‘No other question [than the infinite] has ever moved so profoundly the spirit of man; no other idea has so fruitfully stimulated his intellect’, declared David Hilbert. Our bounded universe is simply one part of that infinite, that is, part of beginningless reality. Our universe existing among infinite others, like the infinite rooms in Hilbert’s hotel.

Monday, 16 August 2021

New Critical Theory

by Thomas Scarborough

Critical theory has been all in the news of late. In fact it goes back a long way. First developed in the 1930s, I myself studied critical theory in the 1970s. I may own the first paperback edition, too, of a dictionary of critical theory, published in 2001.

Critical Theory has become increasingly important. This is theory which ‘reveals and challenges power structures’, which is oppression. It is ‘critical’ because it is not neutral. It is normative. Professor Robert M. Seiler of the University of Calgary writes that ‘criticism involves ... judgments for the purpose of bringing about positive change’.

I here propose that critical theory, in fact, goes back to the ancients, in its core characteristics—and to something both deeper and broader than we have supposed.

Socrates, in defining the virtuous life, said, ‘Choose the mean, and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible,’ while Aristotle thought of ethics as ‘the golden mean’—the balanced life. Thus ethics represents the achievement of balance in the human person—and, of course, in society. Balance between unity and diversity, novelty and tradition, thought and feeling, economy and community, and so much more. It is not hard to see how this coincides with critical theory—which seeks to bring balance to social inequalities of various kinds.

What is this balance, so beloved of the ancients? It stands to reason that, as we seek to balance all things, we have knowledge of those things. We are informed of them before we begin. In fact, if information is lacking, as we make judgements about our society, our resulting balance must be askew. While imbalances may come about simply through apathy, they may come about deliberately, too. In the case of lies, deceit, and propaganda, one simply removes information from the balance—or adds it. Or, worse, if one cannot get one’s way, one turns to violence and oppression, eliminating unwanted individuals, or seizing control of systems, to neutralise the information which is not wanted.

Oppression therefore rests on the suppression of information. Alternatively, it rests on the failure of an uptake of information. One may have systems which seem perfectly friendly towards all information, yet in practice fail to take it up. Information itself goes hand in hand with its reception, incorporation, and, of course, pursuant action.

This has three implications for critical theory.

Firstly, where information is suppressed, this may not in every case happen along recognised class lines—or lines of race, gender, privilege, and so on. This is my first reservation concerning critical theory today. In reality, information is suppressed along all kinds of lines, which critical theory may fail to identify—because it fails to identify and analyse the suppression of information. It may miss oppression which we had not imagined, or which lies beyond familiar categories. This should not be understood as a rejection of critical theory. Rather, critical theory as we know it does not drive deep enough.

Secondly, when one speaks in terms of the suppression of information, one broadens the scope of critical theory. One may also speak of such suppression—therefore oppression—in connection with the environment. Where we fail to include the environment in our thinking, we oppress wetlands, insects, elephants, forests, fish, and so much more. Critical theory today is not equal to such forms of oppression, precisely at a time where they threaten the ruination of our world. Again, this should not be understood as a rejection of critical theory. Far from it. Current critical theory, I maintain, does not go broad enough.

Thirdly, critical theory has often been associated with ‘cancel culture’. The purpose here is not to discuss the merits or demerits of cancel culture, but to note that one should be careful that cancel culture does not limit the freedom of information. The loss of such information to the system could signal oppression.

Let us now notice: in terms of philosophical categories, my view goes down to bedrock. It goes down to the things-relations distinction, which originated with the ancient Greeks. This is a distinction which philosophers have accepted almost universally, among them Aristotle, Hume, and Wittgenstein—with some exceptions.* According to such philosophers, philosophy deals with things and the relations between them—at best, expansively and holistically. Therefore we oppose the suppression of information.

Oppression may now be defined as a loss of information to the system, through various kinds of pressure, including physical coercion. In short, this describes critical theory, which exposes oppression—yet more than critical theory, it goes to the very heart of reality, which is the relatedness of all things. It goes beyond human oppression, too, and includes our long and sorry oppression of the environment, where we failed to take into account all the information we should have done. I shall call this New Critical Theory. 

An important exception is F.H. Bradley, perhaps the foremost philosopher of the 19th Century. 

Monday, 9 August 2021

Poem: Speculating on Providence

Posted by Chengde Chen

Woodcut by Hans Schäufelein, Augsburg 1513.
Christ and Mary as intercessors /
God the Father shooting plague arrows.


Besides the known causes of the Covid pandemic

I suspect that God had a few more intentions

A coincidence cannot be counted as providence

But causality deserves logical proof nevertheless


He must have wanted to help us fight climate change

Otherwise why did Covid bring a hidden green hope?

We had almost lost our confidence in reducing CO2

The pandemic dropped it decisively to an ideal level


Galileo’s telescope showed Jupiter’s satellite system

Letting people 'see' how the solar system works

Isn’t Covid like a low-carbon possibility experiment

Demonstrating the non-inevitability of global warming?


He must have wanted us to cope with the lockdown

Otherwise why did Covid arrive behind the Internet?

People of the Net can be isolated without isolation

Meeting across the Earth redefines time and space


The lights of myriad families light up screens wherever

The digitalised joys or sorrows are shared whenever

Without the personal contacts in this semi-real space

The half-dead world may have been dead completely!


He must have also wanted Covid to warn science

Otherwise why was it as massacring as bio-weapons?

If a virus can turn the world upside down like this

Won’t genetic engineering threaten our existence?


Inside those labs capable of manipulating molecules

They are full of the scientific urge to take such risks

Human self-destruction has been a matter of time

Can the Creator not worry if His work is to be wasted?


It's hard to say if these were really His thinking

But, believing or not, you'd better so assume

So as to understand the philosophy of providence –

Turning empirical logic into the rationality of faith!


(Chengde Chen is the author of Five Themes of Today: philosophical poems, and of the novel: The Thought-read )

Monday, 2 August 2021

Picture Post #66 What a Can Can Do

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be
neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl

Malaga, Spain  2021

Unlike randomly dropped trash, this Coca Cola can seems to have been placed in cardinal Ángel Herrera Oria's hand very carefully. Tiny gestures, what thoughts do they provoke? The photo seems to conjure up three phases in time:

  • Materially, the alloy metal of the bronze statue and the aluminium can link together. The originally clay molded figure reveals striped structures on the cloak of the statueand somehow striped movements are very human gestures indeed. These connect to the stripes of the bar code on the industrial can.  
  • The deformed horizontally placed can offers more dynamism to the inclined direction of the Cardinal’s hand. The sky, a stone church in the background, the bronze statue, the can and the bar code together offer a kind of idea about a tangible timeline. So far, we can follow it.
  • But lately, when thinking of algorithms, or something like crypto currencies, digital data creates ‘new images’ which are mostly only comprehensible to programmers, and for a vast majority of people remain invisible. No tiny tangible innocent gestures can interfere there, and perhaps we’ve come to the time in which: what a can, cannot do…

Monday, 26 July 2021

Identity: the Interminable Struggle for Right

by Thomas Scarborough

Social psychologist Peter Weinreich wrote that one’s identity is ‘the totality of one's self-construal’. To put it in the simplest philosophical terms, it is about the way that individuals relate things to things. Therefore, identity is ordinary. It lies neither in great things, nor in special characteristics, but in all the detail of my daily existence.

In former times, the subject of identity was not much considered. A hundred years ago, the very concept ‘identity’ was virtually unknown. The reason for this is simple. In former times there was, by and large, no other race, no other religion, no other language, no other role to play. Further, there was little choice in the matter. The very survival of the family, and of the larger clan and society, often depended on fairly fixed identities.

Today, this has changed. A global mix of cultures has driven the diversification, even proliferation of identities, while at the same time, economic and social necessity has retreated.

An obvious question now arises: what should we do with identities? More than that, what should we do with conflicts of identity?

As things stand, we have set ourselves up for serious conflict. On the one hand, we have embraced social pluralism which, according to philosophy professor Calvin Schrag, may be described as ‘diversity rather than homogeneity, multiplicity rather than unity, difference rather than sameness’. On the other hand, we have adopted the doctrine of absolute rights, which in the words of philosophy professor Carl Wellman, ‘always hold, that is, disadvantage some second party, within their scope’.

Such pluralism, writes the sociologist Ronald Fletcher, makes 'the problem of preserving order and freedom very great'. On our current views, we set ourselves up for interminable wrangling and conflict.

Within the limited space which is afforded to me here, I propose an alternative to our present, call it ‘trench warfare’.

On the one hand, we must reject the levelling of identities—if that was ever possible. This, on the basis that identity is about the way that individuals relate things to things. It is about the arrangement of the world in our minds—therefore identity represents a kind of virtue ethics. It comes from within. We reject, too, the policing of norms by the state, since authoritarianism skews the way in which things are naturally ordered, and so can prove perilous. Nor can groups or institutions, of course, compete with the state. 

This has the following corollaries.

  • A citizen, as a citizen, has the right to their identity, and the right to protection from abuse. Such ideas are familiar to us today. 
  • An identity-bearer, as an identity-bearer, has the right not to be involved in another person’s identity, or to have their own identity transgressed. This differs from the present status quo, which regularly penalises or disadvantages some second party. 
  • Beyond this—apart from this—the state applies principles which transcend identity, and provide a sense of security to all identities. Within reason, of course.*

Someone may object. These corollaries, these principles, may solve some problems, but potentially leave discrimination in place. Conflicts are inevitable. One or the other identity must yield, or suffer the consequences.  Punitive measures are essential.  No one may refuse, on the basis of their beliefs, culture, traditions, ethics, or conscience, to be involved in another person’s identity, or to have their own identity transgressed. 

This is 'problematic', writes Oxford researcher Alberto Giubilini—namely the 'freedom to act, or to refrain from acting'. He advances, as examples, the refusal of military service or the denial of medical procedures—conversely, the compulsion which brings about the objection in the first place. There would be many more examples, involving event catering, child discipline, traditional rites, or censorship, among other things.** 

We may, however, imagine a different scenario. While the state continues to protect identities against abuse, as it generally does, where there is loss for reason of identity—which need not be synonymous with abuse—the state may develop a system of equality benefits. That is, in cases where there are penalties today, benefits may take their place, which are provided by the state. Thus losses would be offset by the state.***

The approach is a positive one, to help and enable those who could be disadvantaged by their identity. In theology (it is a theological problem, too), this may be reconciled with common grace—a grace which applies to all humankind, regardless of their identity, or what one may think of it. More than this, it affirms the value of diversity and mixing, and enriches the common experience. Perhaps such principles would help turn down the temperature. 

* In some cases, identity may not serve the common good—alternatively, will do harm to all. Where this becomes apparent, the state will need to act in the interests of the greater good. 

** One modern justice system (South Africa) puts it like this: No one, on the basis of identity, may 'impose burdens or withhold benefits or opportunities'. The proposal here is that the state alleviates burdens, or provides that which is withheld.

*** If one is faced with loss without warning, however, this may cross the line of discrimination. Identities need to be sufficiently transparent to prevent conflict by surprise.

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