Monday, 29 June 2015

Death, Philosophically

By Thomas Scarborough

'While I thought that I
was learning how to live,
I have been learning
how to die.'
Leonardo da Vinci

It would seem to be an all-important philosophical subject. Humans, wrote anthropologist Ernest Becker, contribute all of their waking actions to avoiding it or distracting themselves from the complete thought of it. No surprise, therefore, that philosophers tend to do the same.

The philosophical debate about death, whatever one might believe about it oneself, is most basically defined in terms of whether our present life is related to an afterlife, or not. The operative word is “related”. If indeed it is related to an afterlife, then we may ask on what basis this might be. And if not, then we may ask what the absence of such a relation might imply. With this in mind, we shall explore the subject of death from the point of view of Homo sapiens as a relation-tracing being.

Relation-tracing is what makes us human. We have the special ability to arrange our world, conceptually and materially. In fact, it is our relation-tracing ability which enables us to transcend space and time, to pursue ambitions and aspirations which lie completely beyond the scope of the animal kingdom. Such relation-tracing, further, has everything to do with motivation. Most basically, wherever we find that things are not arranged as we think they ought to be, we are motivated to act.

In thinking about death, it is important to understand that, if our relation-tracing has no reasonable prospect of fulfilment, this may ruin our motivation. Plans and ambitions generally need to have some prospect of completion, or we do not undertake them. And death, it need hardly be noted, may rob us of such fulfilment. While it may not take away every motivation in life, it would seem to take away any ultimate motivation we have. Philosopher Thomas Nagel writes, with this in mind, that we should best not let thoughts about such things enter our heads. 'The trick,' he writes, 'is to keep your eyes on what's in front of you.'

An important fact about death is that its moment is nearly always uncertain, more or less. As much as we might hope that we can control it today, we do not know at what point death will intervene in our lives. Therefore any arrangements which we make for the future (which is relation-tracing) will almost inevitably be cut short by death at some point. We are not going to finish all that we began. In fact, the bigger the ambitions we have, the more likely they are to be cut short by death. To this, philosopher Simon Blackburn comments: 'That might reasonably bother me a great deal. 

Unless, that is, it should be possible in some way to continue our present activities after death. Rarely is it assumed that we will, but one does encounter the idea. More often than not, it is assumed that the story will continue in some other kind of way. Assume, for instance, that the real story of our life is not one of hopes and plans, but it is really one of sin and righteousness. What would matter then, for any continuation of the story, is whether I was a person of virtue in this life. Or, by way of contrast, the real story of our life may be one of faith and apostasy – and so on. Thus one may view continuation in a variety of terms.

This view would seem to present us with a respectable answer to the puzzle of death. With such prospects of continuation, we would retain our enthusiasm over the things of this life. Nothing would ever be lost – which is, nothing that really matters. It would not matter to us, therefore, if our hopes or our plans should be cut off in this life. However, there is an obvious difficulty with this view – for philosophers at any rate. There is no evidence – not that we can agree on anyway – as to whether there is continued consciousness after death.

But there may be other ways, in which we might find a continuation. Our plans and ambitions might leave a valuable legacy in this world. We might live on through our children, and their children again. And if we should want to be romantic about it, Edvard Munch (the Norweigian painter) wrote that we live on through the flowers which grow on our grave. This, too, might provide the motivation to carry on with the purposes of life, even though we might not personally survive to see them fulfilled. Of course one assumes – although it might seem presumptuous to some – that our purposes are worthwhile.

But perhaps we should not think too deeply on this option. No legacy lasts forever. No family line is eternal – and some have been short, with brutal ends. In fact, whatever might lie ahead of us, the stars, they say, will one day all go out. Realistically, we should think of our continuation merely for the time being, however long that might be. Yet this would seem to serve as a disincentive for anything that we might do. Let us perform a simple thought experiment. Would we continue to do what we do now if we knew with certainty that an all-powerful police state would frustrate and destroy it? Probably not.
We have a further possibility, however. Perhaps we may lose our own person, even while we are living. We may have no thoughts which are our own. We may lose ourselves in our society, or in our culture – to the extent that we do not exist. Our hopes, our desires, our intentions might not belong to us. The notion of death is, after all, a very personal thing, and would seem to be infinitely accentuated by our own self-awareness and self-importance. Might it not be possible to blend with a stream of consciousness from generations past to generations future? Or perhaps – it might not be culture with which we may blend, but the very universe. 'Forget yourself,' writes Yayoi Kusama. 'Become one with eternity.'

Is this a viable option? Is it potentially possible, not to take death into the heart of our reality? As Homo sapiens, we have said, we transcend space and time with our relation-tracing. We think all the time in terms which transcend our lives. We see beyond our beginnings and our ends. Not only this, but any escape from our individuality would seem to necessitate an exit from our society as we know it. Not only is our society dependent throughout on individualism: my rights and freedoms, my intentions and actions, apart from the group. It is so variegated and fragmented that any attempt to reunite it in a fusion of histories and beliefs and purposes seems beyond possible. The individual, say the philosophes, is prior to the group.

And then there is, of course, the option simply of living in tension – in terror, for some, of the end of all our dreams and designs. This is, after all, what many people do with death. 'Men fear it,' said Socrates, as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.' The fear of death may well be born of a rejection of death – in the sense that we decide to carry on with life with disregard, even defiance, in the face of death. The only way to carry on, we might say, is to forge ahead with all of our plans and ambitions, yet with terror, if we grasp the full reality of it. Unreconciled is how we should die, wrote philosopher Albert Camus.

Or perhaps there is a way – which the ancients could not have imagined. We may enter a phase of life, at the end of life, which we call retirement – in which there is nothing more to be done, nothing left to lose. This is the time of life where we deliberately set it all behind us, burn our bridges, and enjoy the afterglow. We have already died the coward's death – so that if we should die tonight, we might only miss a cup of filter coffee in the morning, or a game of golf in the afternoon sun.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Philosophers and Truthiness

By Matthew Blakeway

The comedian and political commentator Stephen Colbert coined the term truthiness* . This is a way of mocking politicians who claim to know something intuitively but fail to put forward any evidence to support their assertion. Too often in political rhetoric, truthiness presents as fact what is merely an ideological belief – not a real truth, but a truth that we want to exist. As Colbert put it ‘Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.’

Over the last few weeks, academic economists have started the share the fun. The equivalent term that Paul Romer coined to mock his less-than-rigorous colleagues is mathiness. This, he says, is an argument that looks like robust mathematics and sounds like robust mathematics, but actually isn’t. Sloppy economists create arguments that use terms that are mathematically defined elsewhere but which have subtly different meanings in the argument presented. In this way, an ideological position (e.g. if welfare is cut, the unemployed will all find jobs) can be presented as a solid economic argument. As Romer says: 
‘Academic politics, like any other type of politics, is better served by words that are evocative and ambiguous, but if an argument is transparently political, economists interested in science will simply ignore it.’ 
Mathematical theories, like those created by academic economists, should only be trusted when each term is precisely defined and consistently used. Only then can the conclusions of such arguments be empirically demonstrated to be either true or false. The example that he gives is growth theory, where competing versions all appear to be clearly stated, yet show no converging consensus.

And now that creating words to mock woolly thinking is in danger of becoming an epidemic. It occurs to me that the humanities need one of their own. Or, as Stephen Colbert might say, ‘truthiness’ and ‘mathiness’ just don’t feel right in our context. So I propose that we adopt the word ‘explaininess’ because I think this is a problem that is pervasive throughout writing in philosophy and human sciences. Explaininess is an intellectual Ponzi scheme where one nebulous notion is needed to explain another nebulous notion, but the cumulative whole is presented as an explanation.

For example, in connection with a current project of mine, I recently spent a two miserable weeks reading all the recent academic theories explaining various forms of mental illness. In one paper summarising four theories of borderline personality disorder, I was left struggling to succinctly state the difference between Theory B and Theory C. These used terms like ‘maternal imprinting’, ‘suppressed memory’, ‘learned anxiety’ and ‘secondary emotion’. At least an example was given for the last one: anger turns to shame. But I was left asking: is that normal? I certainly don’t think it happens that way with me, so if we are to talk about how that happens at all, we at least need a box and arrow diagram with meaningful things in the boxes and understandable causal relationships. Otherwise, the existence of secondary emotions is questionable and their causality is entirely unknown. Yet in the world of explaininess, this is a theory of a mental illness where competing theories don’t converge towards consensus because none of them are empirically verifiable.

In philosophy, explaininess is rampant. A particularly egregious example is Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction, based around two terms that Derrida coined differance and presance. These are two perfectly reasonable words intentionally misspelt by just one letter. Geddit? But he tells us that these terms can’t be defined; so how am I supposed to know that my understanding of them is the same as his? After a period of hair-tearing frustration, I was reassured to discover that Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault had both stated that they didn’t understand it either. In this case, if you admit you don’t understand it, then you are in more elite company than if you pretend that you do.

Derrida is famous for his obscurity, but explaininess exists everywhere in philosophy. There are hundreds of books on ‘freewill’, for another example, but few of them offer a robust hypothesis as to what it is. If you are writing a book claiming that this concept is useful, then the burden falls on you to explain to your readers what it is. Too often, writers just presume that I understand the term, but actually I don’t. If freewill is a piece of brain hardware, then that is alright because eventually a neuroscientist will find it in the hypothalamus or somewhere. And if it is a piece of mental software, then eventually some mathy person will build a model of it so that we can all understand how it works; so that is all good as well. But if it is a part of your aura or something that is beamed to you through the aether, then I suggest that some academic philosophers should be seeking alternative employment. Oh, the joys of tenure!

The problem is that if we ban explaininess in philosophy, then there isn’t much left for us to talk about. But I think this points to the real objective of philosophy. Too often, people say that philosophy’s role is to ask questions, but it ends up with us talking ad infinitum about all the questions that can’t be answered – the things that scientists can’t be bothered with. If, on the other hand, philosophy’s objective is to answer questions, then we would all have given up in the 3rd century BC, by which time it was already clear that almost no progress would be made in concrete terms. My suggestions is that the objective of philosophy should be to take unanswerable questions and try to change them into ones that can be addressed in a scientific fashion. For example, if nobody can tell us what freewill actually is, then maybe we should change the question into ‘what is the cause of a human action?’ Already that is starting to sound like a scientific question, rather than a philosophical one. I'd say, pull off that trick, and true progress will have been made.

* More on 'Truthiness'  and on 'Mathiness' - as a PDF*

Monday, 15 June 2015

BREAKING NEWS! Three ignominious Greek 'firsts'

Posted by Martin Cohen

Unfortunately, Icarus flew too near the sun, and the heat caused the wax and feathers to melt. The feathers fell off, and Icarus plummeted to the sea.

Here are Three Ignominious Greek 'Firsts'.
1. In a diplomatic first, March 2015, the Greek defence and foreign ministers threatened to unleash a “wave of millions of economic migrants” and jihadis on Europe unless the eurozone backed down on austerity demands.

2. In an international grade, damn lies and statistics, first, the country was only able to enter the currency bloc after brazenly claiming its deficit was less than 1 percent of gross domestic product, cocking a snook at the bloc’s 3 percent threshold. However, European Commission reports  reveal that Greece’s budget hasn’t been within the 3 percent limit a single year since its accession. Financial tricks have included failing to count gigantic military expenditures, or billions in hospital debt. Other countries fudged the figures to gain entry to the euro, but ten years on the Greeks had turned into a fudge factory - the deficit had expanded to 12 per cent. Part of the methodology for achieving this financial disaster in the face of the European Union rules, was expensive advice on concealing its trail from investment banks like Goldman Sachs. Goldman, who also played a helpful role in bringing the US banking system to its knees, arranged complex currency swaps for the Greek government which on magicked the debts off into the future.
3. And now the third unfortunate first is to be the first country excluded from the Euro.

Long, long ago, I wrote a piece (for the Guardian*) on how ethics - not economics - was the real sticking point on solving the Grexit Euro crisis...

Well, time has moved on and really now all the facts are in and the answer is that Greece is on the way out of the single currency, as Reuters posted on Sunday 14th June -  bar a theoretically possible change of heart amongst the Finance minsters in Luxembourg on Thursday. But there won't be a change of heart and here's why.

My take (as a philosopher and social scientist)  is very different from what the academic economists like Andrew Farlow even last week insisted was the logical situation.

Yes, the Greeks are victims - but not of the ECB or Germany - of their own splintered and dysfunctional society. 'Austerity' never touched the military budget, at 2.5% one of Europe's highest, and  the wealth of the Greek Orthodox Church remains, well, sacrosanct - the church is exempt normal taxes.

The fact is, that Greece is one of the most unequal societies in Europe, and one of the most corrupt. It has money for the Generals to have new warships, and to pay train drivers on rural routes that in the rest of Europe would long ago be closed down, salaries of $130 000 and retire at 50. It is both very poor and very affluent - with some of the highest rates of second home and luxury car ownership in Europe - indicators harder to falsify. But not entirely!

A few months ago, (per reports) the Greek traffic police caught Michalis Liapis, a former transportation minister, driving his luxury sport utility vehicle through a stop sign in the seaside town of Loutsa outside of Athens.

It turned out that the former 'New Democracy' minister was driving with fake plates and no insurance, characteristic of the tax avoidance endemic in Greece

“I am a pensioner, and I, too, have been affected by the crisis,” he told reporters, prompting Greek papers to print their own estimates of Mr. Liapis’s net worth, which appears substantial and certainly includes owning 20 properties. A mock “Free Liapis” Twitter campaign sprang up, and the former minister was jeered as he came to court in December. But in the West, too many take such self-serving accounts uncritically.

Okay, but wouldn't it be the end of the Euro if the Greeks go bust? Why should it be? The Greeks are tiddlers in this fishpond - a mere Bear Stearns or Northern Rock or Halifax. Crude geopolitics allowed them into the Euro despite not meeting the criteria, it must not try to keep them there.

Update, Thursday 18 June 2015 - the day of the Luxembourg Showdown

There's an old Eastern European joke that gives a profound psychological insight into the Greek mindset. Part of the problem with the interminable Greece-Eurozone negotiations has been that it is Western Europe talking to Eastern Europe - Mars to Venus!

Anyway, here's the joke:
A man receives a visit from his fairy godmother and she says he can have whatever he wishes for. But of course, there's a catch, which is that whatever it is that he wishes for... will be given to his worst enemy two-fold – twice as good! (So if the Greek President wishes for a new car - the German one will have two lovely new cars...)
So what does the man request? Why, that one of his eyes be gouged out.

And here's todays quote from Dimitris Stratoulis, the Greek Social Security Minister, for comparison:
“If we are forced to say the big no the difficulties will last for a few months …. but the consequences will be much worse for Europe.”

See also:


Monday, 8 June 2015

Picture Post No. 1 : 'Chien derrière camion'

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

Posted by Tessa den Uyl

Route N10 Skoura-Ouarzazate, December 2014
“The privileged position of one who is behind
A change of perspective can mean that the way that you look at something can change radically. It can upturn how you actually perceive a reality that -  all of the sudden - appears illogical. Meanings can become twisted yet open up sparkles of hope demanding renewed attention. (Exchanging the direct interpretation given to words, that in their proper nature are ambivalent.)

What this photo gives to me, is not a renewed tradition (where dromedaries have made place here for a truck), but rather, what it communicates about the loss of contemplative thinking.

Finding a dog travelling like this, in front of your car, explodes in a moment of bewilderment: the dog resets the ethical aspects innate to wonder. Does the dog hand back to us an ethics of principle that moves beyond tradition? Then, we might say that:
“The ethical home fulfils itself in the space of its non-identification

Wednesday, 3 June 2015


It is reason which modifies our conceptual arrangement of the world. Our conceptual arrangement of the world, in turn, feeds our visceral feelings. In this way, both reason and passion are central to action.

Reason is simply something that we do. We do not tend to ask what it is for, or how it may function. Like an axe in our hands, we use it, we don't contemplate it. Nonetheless, each of us has likely made observations such as these: We know that reason is a conscious activity. We know that we use it to make sense of things. It seems to define us as human beings. And if we should wish to be more philosophical about it, we know that we (puzzlingly) apply it to a variety of seemingly disconnected fields: science, ethics, and art, among others. Having said this, we may already, in the course of this metaphysic, have solved two classic problems in connection with reason:

THIS PRESUPPOSES my writing on Motivation:

The first is the conflict between reason and passion. John Locke considered that the passions ought to be kept in check by reason, while David Hume considered that reason is merely a slave to the passions. These two poles of thought have since been held by many people. Having said this, however, we have already covered enough ground in this metaphysic to find these apparently opposing views reconciled. Reason is both master and slave – depending on one's point of view. It all begins with our conceptual arrangement of the world – which reason empowers us to put in place (we shall expand on this in a moment), while this conceptual arrangement of the world (in terms of Part VII of this metaphysic) generates visceral (“gut”) responses. That is, we are ultimately driven neither by reason nor by passion, but by our conceptual arrangement of the world.

THIS PRESUPPOSES my writing on the Fact-Value Gap:

A second conflict arises from the fact that reason seems to work in a similar way across various (seemingly) incompatible disciplines: above all, practical and theoretical reason – or to put it too simply, matters of the heart and mind. Yet we feel that there must be something basically the same between, say, our conclusion that the sun will rise because it always does (a factual observation), or that we shall triumph because we always do (a value judgement). It is not hard to see that the logical structure is similar, if not the same. Our metaphors, too, tend to jump across boundaries. We say, for instance, that a scientific experiment was a blind alley, or that my school teacher went ballistic. Therefore in a sense, reason itself would seem to loom larger than the various fields to which we apply it. The answer to this puzzle lies in our discussion of fact and value in Part VI, which ran like this: whether it is about fact or about value, we are basically doing the same. We are judging how things ought to be.


How then shall we describe the function of reason? Reason, when viewed from the point of view of this metaphysic, has everything to do with relation-tracing. Given a pre-existing web of conceptual relations, which each of us has uniquely arranged in our minds, reason is that which serves to modify our conceptual arrangement of the world. With this in mind, we may cast our minds back to Part III, where we described the broad characteristics of relations:

Relations, we noted, are infinte, while we ourselves are finite. Reason, in a sense, works at the edges of our arrangement of the world, to push its boundaries. But with our arrangement of the world already having definite limits, so do the powers of reason. Reason may be applied, for instance, to the building of a log cabin, or even to the construction of a space probe. However, it cannot reasonably be applied to the weather next winter, or to the path which a snail will take on my wall – although one might try. In fact, in real life, there is not much that reason can be applied to with real certainty and accuracy. Therefore reason must be applied in specific and bounded areas, or it overreaches itself and breaks down. It is well appreciated in our scientific age that the more ambitious a theoretical project, the more vulnerable it becomes. Reason yields diminishing returns. However, we are not to mind, say some – a theoretical project will have its uses anyway.

Apart from the limits of reason, in terms of the expanses of relations is able to master, our knowledge inevitably has gaps. We fill those gaps through guesswork, or skipping steps, working backwards, sketching diagrams, looking at examples, or changing the rules of the system to see what happens. For example, Urbain le Verrier (correctly) posited a planet Neptune, as an explanation for perturbations in the orbit of Uranus, while American intelligence (correctly) guessed Japan's planned attack on Midway Island, with a leap of thought. Reason, that is, routinely fills in blanks.

At the same time, the limits of reason again expose us to the danger of the totalising urge. We need ever to know more. We want to know, for instance, that we can win a war, that my company will close the deal – or even that my lover will be true. Reason, in many such cases, will run rampant in its search of completeness: an arms race, for instance, or industrial espionage, or pathological jealousy. While pushing the boundaries of reason has arguably been of great benefit – for instance, through the scientific enterprise – yet it has introduced particular dangers.

Most importantly, since relations are unable to find a stable centre, neither will reason, through extending the reach of such relations, get any closer. To put it simply, reason cannot discover foundations, although it might develop logically coherent systems. It may be easier to appreciate this in a picture: imagine again an infinite canvas, on which all the relations of the world are sketched. On this canvas, we may plant a starting point in any which place – but we might be better served to view the whole canvas at once, and ask ourselves what else we might do with it. And if reason does not provide us with starting points, it does not provide us with ultimate causes or effects . While Thomas Hobbes considered that reason searches for causes, it is in terms of a philosophy of relations not possible to find them. Reason has no beginning or end. It is unable ultimately to set its foot on anything firm. To put it simply, it is unable, beyond a point, to prove that we are caused, or that we cause, or that anything else is either cause or effect. To give a reason for anything, wrote William Hazlitt, is to breed a doubt of it.

This has existential implications, as follows. Looking backward to events that have already taken place, reason asks why they have occurred. Looking forward, it seeks to know is to happen next. Looking around us, it seeks to see how we are related to the present. Here we may make a subtle mistake. We may take reason be the cause of our behaviour, or our behaviour to be the cause of future events – or indeed our present to be held in the steel grip of circumstance and obligation. We find that we are unable to escape our own systems or rise above them. We are slaves to our own order. Not only do we impose our ideologies on others, and so brutalise them, but we brutalise ourselves in the same way, and thus become slaves to habit, principle, tradition. Alternatively, we take a calculated approach to illnesses, disturbances to our routine, fears for our future security, and thereby lose our personal freedom. A reasoned approach to life only leads to an anxious clinging to life. The abandonment of reason as a total quest, on the other hand, frees us from such anxiety. Reason causes anxiety because it is a completely inadequate basis for understanding or taking control of life. Reason, in a sense, is launched from freedom. It is not a tool for my own enslavement. If I am set free from being defined by reason, I become a unique being.


What is reason? Is it any single thing? Let us begin with the common perspective. Typically, we see reason as a constructive enterprise. We use reason to build houses. We use it to design computers, plan conferences, construct theories. On the other hand, all such constructive activities may, with a little further thought, be described not as being constructive, but as reducing contradiction. We build a house because we do not have a roof over our head. We design a computer because we do not have the necessary power of thought. We construct a new theory because the existing one presents us with impediments. To put it simply, reason may be viewed as the recognition of contradiction – and its resolution. Reason is the innate sense of incongruity or contradiction. This further makes sense if reason is defined as a conscious activity, since consciousness (as we shall see) kicks in where conflict appears. Imagine a pendulum swinging, swinging, swinging. So little contradiction does this present us with that, rather than produce consciousness, it may be used to induce hypnosis. But let the pendulum suddenly drop, and we may quickly examine what happened.

Bernard Bosquandet suggested that reason kicks in when we have two competing explanations for the same thing in our heads. One might just as easily say that there are two competing explanations “out there”, which ultimately enter our own heads, where they conflict. With this in mind, reason seeks to reconcile conflicting viewpoints. Similarly, Kant considered that reason is the power of synthesizing into unity the concepts that are provided by the intellect, by means of comprehensive principles. Reason emerges every time there is conflict. We seek to resolve the conflict. We seek a bridge across the divide. Sometimes that conflict may be so great that we reach an existential of social crisis. And when a solution is found, we experience elation, even ecstasy. As necessity is the mother of invention, so is contradiction the progenitor of reason.

This would serve both to explain and to unite various phenomena. Love, beauty, grace, adventure – and various “imaginative” qualities which we value – emerge only where reason subsides. If I count the number of notes in Beethoven's Fifth, or seek to justify my climbing of a mountain, the essence – the magic, and meaning, and unity – of these concepts dissolves. Secondly, this may explain why the scientific quest is often described as a search for beauty. We are able to appreciate the “beauty” of simple equations because they are about reduction and reconciliation. This may further explain why science is an exercise in falsification. Reason, rather than constructing things, identifies and reduces the conflicts. It may further explain our innate desire for simplicity, simplification, even simplistic-ness – an urge which drives us even to short-circuit the subtleties of our existence. The purpose of reason is, quite simply, to destroy itself – to destroy itself as our sense of contradiction.

"The absurd is lucid reason noting its limits." Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.

Monday, 1 June 2015

African Philosophy: A Personal Perspective

Oils on canvas 1.5m², courtesy of Ann Moore
By Thomas Scarborough
Great movements may be experienced in microcosm. The dynamics of the national economy may be experienced in the price of a loaf of bread. Global weather patterns may be reflected in a bird which visits my garden. So, too, may the philosophy of a continent be understood through the simple habits of the common people. This is a personal story, through which I began to discern the features of the philosophy of a continent.
“Articulation”, in the common usage, has been understood to be verbal articulation. This meaning was expanded, in philosophy at least, by Michael Polanyi, who (re) defined articulation as formulated knowledge. Thus articulation came to include written words, maps, and mathematical formulae, among other things. In fact, the philosophical meaning of the word has changed again since – yet more of this in a moment.

There are two ways in which those of European origin are taught to articulate. On the one hand, we have been taught to articulate our thoughts – on the other hand, our feelings. In fact, it is more or less expected of all of us to express our thoughts accurately, and our feelings precisely. Not so in the African culture I have come to know through living and working in Africa – and more than anything, through marriage into an African family.

My Swiss wife and I, who were both settled and well established in life, were faced with the shock of her being diagnosed with end-stage bone marrow cancer at a comparatively young age. Out of care for my well-being, she reverted to an ancient tradition. She instructed me to marry Ester Sizani, a woman from the hills, of largely Xhosa descent. This came to be of crucial importance for me, to a deeper understanding of African philosophy.

While I knew Ester, I had only communicated with her functionally and in passing. This meant that, when we began a personal relationship together, under instruction, we had not needed to know whether we could communicate. We could understand each other's words, to be sure. I spoke her second language English, and she spoke my third language Afrikaans, and we both could adequately express ourselves in these languages. Nonetheless, we soon came to realise that there was a great gulf between us when it came to articulation. This was not a personal gulf. It was a cultural and historical gulf.

Ester and I persevered with an arranged relationship, which gradually grew in warmth. In time, we travelled together to her childhood home. After a long journey by car, we reached a plateau. We drove through a farmyard, and pulled to a halt. A wiry, bearded man came down a hillside. Ester kissed him on the lips. He briefly took my hand, then dropped it. He didn't speak to me. He didn't look at me.

Ester wiped away tears. She said, “Where are the potatoes?” The man said, “There are two sacks of potatoes in the shed. But one of them is rotten.” They exchanged a few more words about potatoes, then the man walked back up the hillside. “Who was that?” I asked. “It was my father,” said Ester.

Her father? Then why didn't he speak to me? Why didn't he look at me? And what happened to a daughter's customary endearments? “Good to see you, Dad. Love you, Dad.” The talk was entirely about potatoes.

This event stands out for me above all in my growing relationship with Ester. It epitomises one of the fundamental characteristics of Africa, which at first distressed me, then gradually began to open up a new world for me. It was the problem – to me, at least – of a lack of verbal articulation.

Imagine a world, loosely speaking, without articulation: without endearments, without analyses, without strategies – often enough, without arguing or theorising or philosophical views. Ester, one day, seemed to put it in a nutshell when she said to me, with apparent surprise: “Your people fight over words! We don't have that.” This by no means indicates a lack of sophistication in African thought. I have discovered brilliance of intellect, and great emotional sensitivity. However, it was far from what I had ever known.

Being habituated in my European ways, at first I could see no remedy for the relative absence of thought and emotion, as I had ever known it. Yet the answer revealed itself to me slowly. I realised that Ester spoke volumes with her face and with her bodily movements. It seemed clear to me that if I could decipher this, I would know a new language – but then, I despaired of ever learning the code. It would surely take me forever.

I found, however, that I was able to learn it faster than I had thought possible. And as I learnt to interpret Ester, I discovered that I was able to interpret her clan, and her people. Everywhere I went, a new world seemed to open up to me: on the streets, in the shops, and in homes.

Today, it is only through centuries of practice that, by very small degrees, rational and emotional articulation has become widespread in European culture. The thinking which existed before this is referred to as “pre-philosophical” – where “pre” need not refer to a prior moment in time, but to a human condition.

We forget where we have come from, in the European tradition. The premium we now place on articulation did not always exist. The pre-philosophical mindset broadly retreated only with the advent of the so-called Age of Reason.

This having been said, we may now be coming full circle – passing beyond the more narrow kind of articulation which Polanyi described. Articulation, today, may often be understood to include action. One now speaks of articulation, writes Yu Zhenhua, as “ability, capacity, competence and faculty in knowing and action”.

This raises the question as to whether the “articulate” person in the common usage, who relies on the mere formulation of thought (feeling aside), might thereby impoverish their thinking – if not their being. In fact it is formulated knowledge which makes it possible for us to dispose of face-to-face communications and social convocations, so disembodying our human interactions.

I finally came to see that Ester's thinking had everything to do with the thinking of a continent – speaking very broadly indeed. African philosophy, rather than treating philosophy as formulated knowledge, tends to think of it in terms of a body of thought, emotion, and action, all mysteriously and holistically intertwined.

Dances, prayers, and feasting, maxims and story telling, music and rhythm, signs and symbols, and so much more – the silences, too – all combine to form what Africa calls, in its mature form, sagacity. It is controversially called ethnophilosophy, which is, in short, a philosophy which cannot be articulated in terms familiar to the European tradition.

“Knowledge and language are woven together in an indissoluble bond. The requirement that knowledge should have a linguistic articulation becomes an unconditional demand. The possibility of possessing knowledge that cannot be wholly articulated by linguistic means emerges, against such a background, as completely unintelligible” –Kjell S. Jonhanessen.

Elias, M. Teaching Emotional Literacy. Edutopia.
Imbo, S.O. An Introduction to African Philosophy. Rowman & Littlefield.
Jonhanessen, K.S. Rule Following, Intrasitive Understanding, and Tacit Knowledge. Norwegian University Press.
Pettit, P. Practical Belief and Philosophical Theory. Australian National University.
Polanyi, M. The Study of Man. University of Chicago Press.
Zhenhua, Y. Tacit Knowledge/Knowing and the Problem of Articulation. Polanyi Society.

Mirjam Rahel Scarborough (1957-2011) was a Swiss "farm girl", born in Canton Zug. She was a doctor of philosophy, a co-director of the World Evangelical Alliance's International Institute for Religious Freedom, executive editor of the International Journal for Religious Freedom, and an ordained minister.

Friday, 29 May 2015

ROUGH DRAFT: Education

By Thomas Scarborough
A balanced education should include both fact (knowing) and value (doing), where value in particular has been neglected. It should, too, not offer a mere assortment of subjects, but an interrelatedness of knowledge.
In ancient times there was a saying, best known in Latin: mens sana in corpore sano – a healthy body is a healthy mind. It s attributed in slightly different form to the Greek philosopher Thales around 600 BC. With this in mind, there has long been a basic agreement that education is not merely about a healthy mind, but a healthy body. That is, education has long been seen, in some sense, as a rounded or holistic enterprise. Therefore school curricula will typically include both academic subjects and sports, if not practical subjects and educational excursions. They will include, too, social norms and discipline, which serve as, in a sense, an untaught moral education.

Education is a large field, and it takes place in many contexts. Yet for all this, it is not difficult to discern a fundamental philosophical approach. The first philosopher in the field was Plato, for whom education was ultimately about social and individual balance: commerce and trade, military preparedness, and politics. In fact it was Plato's general outlook which later shaped the education of the medieval universities of Europe, which taught the seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic (the trivium), and arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy (the quadrivium). Advanced students then went on to study philosophy and theology.

It is interesting to note some basic similarities between the medieval education, and our education today. In the medieval education system, the trivium and quadrivium divided our knowledge into seven largely separate compartments. Today, beginning in (pre) primary school, our education continues to be divided into subjects, typically about the same in number. While the subjects themselves have changed, they have much in common throughout the world. There will be few adults today who have not studied English, science, mathematics, history, geography, and biology – at least for a time.

Due to the momentum of this educational approach, and its size, it seems unlikely that there will be radical changes in education in generations to come, although there may be some adjustment of the curriculum. At the same time, however, there is reason for fundamental critique of the present system.


Above all, our notion of a balanced education would seem to be an impoverished one – for two reasons. It is impoverished in the range of the subjects which it offers, and it is impoverished by a lack of inter-relatedness in these subjects. By way of contrast, a philosophy of relations would include in its scope, most basically, a view of the world as a whole – which is metaphysics – and both fact (knowing) and value (action).

With regard to metaphysics, its greatest function, in terms of this metaphysic, is to teach the inter-relatedness of all things. In fact any area of philosophy – whether the philosophy of science, religion, history, economics, literature, or law, to give but a few examples – is characterised by its broader view of subjects than that of the subjects themselves. However, it is at the same time a mark of our times that philosophy has generally been dropped from the school curriculum. In previous generations, philosophy, along with theology, was all but mandatory, even if this was at an advanced level of learning. But metaphysics is larger even than the intellectual questions it encompasses. These are, after all, merely reflections on what is, in all its vastness and variety. Metaphysics potentially helps us to appreciate connections between thought, emotion, and action, the intellectual, moral, and physical, the visual, auditory, and kinetic – in fact, every sphere of life. “Alan Milne wrote, “What about a cowboy, policeman, jailer, engine driver, or a pirate chief? Or what about a ploughman or a keeper at the zoo? Or what about a circus man who lets the people through?”

With regard then to fact and value, it goes without saying that our educational systems are strong today on fact (knowing), the reasons for which we broadly surveyed in Parts VI and XI of this metaphysic. Whether physics, chemistry, or mathematics, biology, history, or geography – to list a few important examples – most of us have been well grounded in such knowing. However, in the second, vast area of value (action), school curricula are largely empty, and morals are taught only implicitly: through the order of the school system, or by means of covert values. Ethics will seldom be found as a prescribed subject in schools, let alone its crucial sub-fields: business ethics, medical ethics, public ethics, and so on.

Looking back over previous chapters, we can say two more things, related to the last. On the one hand, we said, I discover relations in the world around me. On the other hand, I discover relations inside the people around me – which they themselves have traced in the world around them. In the first case, the requirement upon me is for my mind to range broadly through the world. In the second case, the requirement upon me is to seek a rapport with people, who I come to understand through their semiotic codes. Therefore education, too, will seek to understand the world, which is generally understood through knowing, and it will seek to understand the human person – which is, not merely the political or social aspects of human life, but the personal, the empathetic.

Another, major way in which our notion of a balanced education is impoverished is in the compartmentalisation of subjects – which is, their relative isolation from one another. It is one thing to offer an assortment of subjects – quite another to relate these subjects to one another. By and large, today, we fail to consider how one subject has a bearing on another – not merely in regard to our standard stock of subjects, but in regard to their various aspects: the relationship of mathematics to outcomes, for instance, or language to science, or poverty to politics. It is only as we relate educational subjects one to one another in an expansive way that we develop a truly balanced education. Not only this, but we have adequate evidence today that an interdisciplinary education – rather than an assortment of subjects – has much to do with creativity and genius.

This may address the complaint of various alternative models of education, that there should be more problem solving and critical thinking in education today, apart from the impartation of knowledge. In relating different educational fields to one another – in fact, relating things in the broadest possible way – we are engaging in problem solving rather than mere learning.


Through many generations, education has become more structured and more variegated. It has also become compulsory for the majority of children. One of the results of this is that children, at any level of education, have a common introduction to education, and the need for adaptation to individual students becomes smaller. At the same time, the many proposals for revision to the educational mainstream have by and large included a focus on individualised attention, whether home schooling, indigenous education, unschooling, progressive education, or any of a large number of models besides. In Part V of this metaphysic, we noted the importance of tracing relations from that place where we are, and we return to this in Part XXV. In whatever way it is accomplished, we can do no better than to acknowledge our subjective reality, and start from there.

It is a truism to say that education may be used for ideological or propagandistic purposes. History is littered with examples of ideologically charged education and (often) its tragic results. Ideology and propaganda, in terms of a philosophy of relations, has been described above all as the limitation of the full scope of relations to encompass only narrow or partial points of view. An opening up of the entire scope of relations is what withers ideology and propaganda. What this means is that, rather than there being subjects which we imagine to be ideologically charged, such as politics, ethics, or religion, it is our approach to these subjects which holds the danger. However, they are critical to our education as citizens, and any withholding of such subjects may more dangerous than teaching them, in an age where political sophistication and ethical bearings are so often missed.

Finally, it is crucial that the limits of education should be taught. Wisdom is to know both what one knows and what one doesn't know, and the limits of one's insight, stamina, and power. 
"Our compartmentalised, piecemeal, disjointed learning is deeply, drastically inadequate." Edgar Morin, Seven Complex Lessons.

Best Blogger Tips