Monday, 12 April 2021

What Is Wisdom?

Posted by Keith Tidman

Wisdom is often offered as a person’s most-valuable quality, yet even ardent admirers might struggle to define or explain it. Some of philosophy’s giants, whether Confucius, Buddha, Plato, or Socrates, have concluded that wisdom is rooted not so much in what we do know, but in acknowledging what we don’t know — that is, in realising the extent of our own ignorance.

This humbleness about the limits of our knowledge and, further, ability to know — sometimes referred to by academics as ‘epistemic humility’ — seems a just metric as far as it goes. The term ‘epistemic’ referring to matters of knowledge: what we believe we know, and in the particular case of epistemic humility, the limitations of that knowledge. An important thread begins to appear here, which is the role of judgment in explaining the totality of wisdom.

To repudiate boundaries on our knowledge, or just as importantly on the ability to know, would amount to intellectual hubris. But, epistemic humility, while arguably one among other qualities of a person we might characterise as wise in some limited capacity, is not anywhere nearly enough to explain all that wisdom is.

Consider, for illustration, those people who might assume they know things they do not, despite the supposed knowledge existing outside their proficiency. What I’d call ‘epistemic conceit’ — and again, a key matter of judgment. A case in point might be a neuroscientist, with intimate knowledge of the human brain’s physiology and functions, and maybe of consciousness, concluding that his deep understanding of neuroscience endows him with the critical-thinking skills to invest his money wisely. Or to offer cogent solutions to the mathematical challenges of the physics of ‘string theory’.

Similarly, what about those things falling within the scope of a person’s expertise, theories claimed at the time to be known with a degree of confidence, until the knowledge suddenly proved false. Take the case of the geocentric (Earth-centered) model of the universe, and secondly of optical illusions leading to belief in the existence of so-called ‘Martian canals’. These are occasions of what we might call ‘epistemic unawareness’, to which we are humanly disposed no matter how wise.

Yet, while humbleness about the limits of our knowledge may provide a narrow window on wisdom, it is not definitive. Notably, there seems to be an inverse association between the number of factors claimed vital to fully explain wisdom, and how successfully the definition of wisdom may hold up as holes are poked into the many variables of the explanation under close scrutiny.

The breadth and depth of knowledge and experience are similarly insufficient to define wisdom in totality, despite people earnest chronicling such claims through the course of history. After all, we can have little knowledge and experience and still be decidedly wise; and we can have vast knowledge and experience and still be decidedly unwise. To understand the difference between knowledge and wisdom, and to make life’s decisions accordingly, calls on judgment.

Indeed, even exceptionally wise people — regardless of their field of expertise — can and do on occasion harbour false beliefs and knowledge, which one might call ‘epistemic inaccuracy’. History’s equivalents of such intellectual giants as Plato, Sun Tzu, Da Vinci, Beethoven, Goethe, Shakespeare, Fermat, and Einstein are no exception to this encompassing rule. Einstein, for example, proposed that the universe is static, of which he was later disabused by evidence that the universe is actually expanding and accelerating.

In the same vein, Plato was seemingly wrong about the imperative to define something as an ‘ideal’ before we attempt to achieve it, potentially hobbling efforts to reach practical, real-world goals like implementing remedies for inequitable systems of justice. Meanwhile, Shakespeare made both significant historical and geographical mistakes. And Goethe, wearing his polymath hat, erroneously refuted the Newtonian theory of the decomposition of white light, suggesting instead that colours appeared from mixing light and darkness.

More generally, how might we assess the wisdom of deep thinkers who lived centuries or even millennia ago, a large number of whose presumed knowledge had long been disproved and displaced by new paradigms? I doubt those thinkers’ cogency, insightfulness, prescience, and persuasiveness at the time they lived are any less impressive because of what turned out to be the demonstrated shelf half-life of their knowledge and insights.

Meanwhile, all this assumes we consider such exceptional intellects as not just exquisitely erudite, but also mindful of their own fallibility. As well as mindful of the uncertainty and contingency of what’s real and true in the world. Both assumptions about the conditions and requirement for critical mindfulness call for judgment, too.

Even a vast store of knowledge and experience, however, does not get us all the way to explaining the first principles of wisdom writ large as opposed to singular instances of acting wisely. A wise person’s knowledge and beliefs ought to match up with her behaviour and ways of living. Yet, that ingredient in what, say, minimally describes ‘a wise person’ likewise falls short of explaining full-on wisdom. Even highly knowledgeable people, if impulsive or incorrigibly immoral or amoral, may act unwisely; as in so many other ways, their putative lack of judgment here matters.

One fallback strategy that some philosophers, psychologists, and others resort to has been to lard explanation of wisdom with an exhausting catalog of qualities and descriptors in hope of deflecting criticism of their definition of wisdom. What I’d call the ‘potpourri theory of wisdom’. Somehow, as the thinking misguidedly goes, the more descriptors or factors they shoehorn into the definition, supposedly the more sound the argument.

Alternatively, wisdom might be captured in just one word: judgment. Judgment in what one thinks, decides, opines, says, and does. By which is meant that wisdom entails discerning the presence of patterns, including correspondences and dissimilarities, which may challenge customary canons of reality. Then turning those patterns into understanding, and in step turning understanding into execution (behaviours) — with each fork in this process warranting judgment.

Apart from judgment, notably all other elements that we might imagine to partially explain wisdom — amount and accuracy of knowledge, humility of what one knows and can know, amount and nature of experience — are firmly contingent on each other. Co-dependence is inescapable. Judgment, on the other hand, is the only element that is dependent on no others, in a category of one. I propose that judgment is both enough and necessary to define wisdom.

Monday, 5 April 2021

Paradise Lost

'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

Italy 1960's .  Picture credit: Antonio Borrani

A nude man seems to sprout out of the earth, just like the vegetation. And in a way there is not much to say, except that most often people focus on people, and more so when these people are naked. 

The spectator’s interpretation depends on how they consider the naked body. Even when the nude figure has inspired general acceptance in the Western world, especially in forms of art, we might think it a bit strange if we would see an undressed person walking on the street. The quintessence of humankind certainly is undressed, although we are used to seeing the body covered up. 

Turning to the decade of the sixties when some of the younger generation longed for freedom from the conservatism at that time, the exaltation of the uncovered body symbolised that quest for freedom. No wonder the pureness of nudity is similar to taking off a mask. To live without pretence is nevertheless not an easy goal to set. 

Indeed, almost sixty years ahead, particularly at the beach and also on the streets, bodies are surely covered up less than they were. Although that progress of freedom seems to have translated itself rather into an imposed fashion these days, than the acquisition of a free spirit, as some were looking for when this picture was taken. 

In the West, nudity belongs to private atmospheres to this day, and the naked body, most often, is conflated with sexuality. To exploit nakedness is an optional which does not withstand the fact that we are all born naked. Yet somehow we seem to have trouble owning that nakedness, in which we become unspoiled by structures, and can accept ourselves not as objects or art-forms, but simply for what we are. To put it a bit crudely: for one of those standing upright animals. 

Monday, 29 March 2021

Poem: The Answer to the Riddle of Needs

by Chengde Chen*

People have always believed that
it is a human need to develop technology
But this is a confusion of two kinds of needs –
needs for survival and needs of a value system
The former comes from nature
while the latter is created by man
If we choose a different value system
we would ‘need’ different things

Developing technology was originally a need to survive
From drilling wood for fire, to farming and weaving
man had to claim his fill, warmth and security from nature
In the great struggle for survival
we formed a utilitarian value system –
pursuing wealth and encouraging competition
with the market and technology as its two engines
This system drove the economy successfully
and then the economy meant survival

It is because this system has been successful
that it has become the soul guiding our thinking
What else do we need after meeting the needs for survival?
No one knows, as the answer is what to be created
The utilitarian values, however, are the creators –
Technology tells us what we ‘can’ need
The market tells us what we ‘do’ need

Originally we did not need the car
but since the car was invented and on the market
we came to need it, and need it so much
that we would feel imprisoned without it
Originally we did not need the television
but since the television was invented and on the market
we came to need it, and need it so much
that we would feel our day incomplete without it
Modern society is a technology-addicted society
Technology for us is like spirits or nicotine for the addicts
It creates the blood and nerves that need it, as well as
the greed for consumption and the desire for competition

Do we need air travel?
Do we need flying at the speed of a bullet?
Why is travelling to a remote and strange continent
more enjoyable than meeting neighbours or friends nearby?
Do we need to go to the Moon?
Do we need to be a hero to destroy its beautiful fairy-tales?
Why is a lunar crater dead for a million years more interesting
than the green hills and flowing rivers of our homeland?
Do we need all those life prolonging medicines,
or to live in the electric current of a life-support machine?
Why is letting a withered leaf struggle on a winter’s branch
more moral or prudent than allowing it to go naturally?

We do not really ‘need’ them, but we think we do!
It is because of nothing but competition
We believe that we need to do what others can
as well as what others cannot
If you can fly into space, I must touch the Moon
If you have reached Venus first, I must land on Mars first
regardless of millions of hungry children crying on Earth!

It is believed that life needs competition
In fact, it is competition that makes competition a need
The strong swagger around, the weak refuse to be outdone
Those in the middle have to struggle against both ends
Every one compels others to be opponents
Every nation forces other nations to be arrivals
Oh, is this all necessary?
Once escaping from the net of utilitarianism
you will find the world war an uncalled-for game
As an old Chinese saying reads:
‘If no side wants to win a war, they win the peace together!’

Many of our needs are in fact not ‘our’ needs
but the needs of our values
The answer to the riddle of needs lies in our value system
Utilitarianism is only one of the possible systems
It championed civilization before, but isn’t an eternal law
nor is it the unique basis settled by Heaven and Earth
If the risk of self-destruction means a new need for survival
mankind has to choose a new system!

* Chengde Chen is the author of Five Themes of Today, Open Gate Press, London.

Monday, 22 March 2021

Will Deep Space Be Our Destiny?

Earth rising
‘Earthrise’, from 50 years ago, is one of the most influential images from the Apollo space program 

Posted by Keith Tidman


Humankind’s curiosity about the universe, and yearning to explore its vastness, has been insatiable … 

  • Early hominids staring inquisitively at patterns in the dotted night sky
  • Copernicus contemplating the heavens through his telescope, and our place in space
  • The iconic landing of humans on the craggy moon surface
  • Twin Viking vehicles sending back vast troves of information as they traverse interplanetary and interstellar space
  • The Hubble space-based telescope capturing images of the farthest reaches of the universe, revealing the early moments of creation
  • The detection of habitable planets outside our solar system, inspiring what-ifs as to life there
  • The International Space Station-cum-science lab perched in geostationary space
  • A hive of international satellites performing jobs essential to modern society’s thriving
  • The Perseverance rover alighting on Mars to search for signs of ancient extraterrestrial life 

Our minds — the font of our imagination, inquisitiveness, dreams, and seductive desire for knowledge and understanding — have been enthusiastic spacefarers. Machines, tasked as our proxies, have had their turn to perform these missions; on other occasions, human pioneers have intrepidly taken to space. Paradoxically, these endeavours have not shrunk the universe, but have made it seem all the bigger. They have allowed us to marvel at a universe both harmonious and violent at the same time.


Might the kinds of human-centric and machine-centric endeavours listed above continue to define our longer-range destiny, in still grander and unforeseen ways? Should they?


The hazards posed by some of these missions have been presented as reasons not to engage in them. Space is a hostile place for humans. Yet, with pioneers’ minds open to the reality of inevitable unknowns, there have always been unanticipated risks associated with human exploratory enterprises over the millennia, whether navigating vast roiling oceans or trekking across unfamiliar, harsh landmasses. The current and future probing of space will be no exception to this historical course.


The fatal explosion of two space shuttles, one upon launch and the other upon reentry, with astronauts aboard accentuated the potential perils. Cosmonauts have faced similar fates. The poignancy of the price in human lives and health is not lost on us: The motivation of space exploration, discovery, and learning has always entailed a linking of emotion and reason, with acceptance of the possible consequences like these sobering mishaps.


One of the more menacing hazards during human missions beyond the Earth’s protective magnet field is radiation, with its deleterious effects on the central nervous system, as well as on cognitive and motor functions. Also, experiments with one twin on Earth and the other on a lengthy stay in space have revealed the problematic alteration of cells and genes. And astronauts’ transition from one gravity field to another has raised a need to examine re-adaptation by the body’s systems. We’re vulnerable, to be sure.


Yet, these and other hazards won’t hamper humanity’s spirit; these perils, too, will be overcome with time and ingenuity and determination. For the foreseeable future, there will remain an interdependent relationship between the best of machine learning, automation, and resilience and the best of human original thinking, hypothesising, interpretation, extrapolation, and dexterity in pivoting to respond to the unexpected.


Robots and human should be regarded as complementary allies in space exploration, not an either-or proposition. Neither will fully replace the other; nor ought they.


Meanwhile, taking to space for field studies has resulted in a growing cache of scientific and technological spin-offs on Earth. On a practical front, there are myriad and diverse scientific and technological derivatives that enter our everyday lives as consumers, as well as farther-reaching breakthroughs.


These breakthroughs include advances across broad domains: medicine, transportation, communication, food production, water purification, robotics, computing, human physiology, safety, recycling, energy, meteorology, engineering, materials science, and the environment. To those exhaustive extents, among others, investments in space exploration support homebound developments on sundry levels.


As for the budgetary politics of space exploration, and whether they ought to out-place competitive needs at home, one might wonder whether the monumental sums spent on bristling arsenals to fight wars evermore lethally are, in fact, a wiser commitment of capital than is exploring space. Not lost in this particular illustration is the arresting irony in more and more nations believing it an imperative to competitively militarise space.


All that said, when it comes to our spacefaring ambitions, there are, I propose, variables of a more intrinsic nature: like enlightening our thinking about humanity, community, and our deepest values and ideals. 


To these points, theoretical science and pure research have indispensable roles. History brims with examples of what humankind learned — where knowledge and understanding had inherent value in their own right — even if tangible offshoots were years, if ever, in the making and years, if ever, in the full-fledged adoption. An intrinsic value that derives from the persistent evolution of basic science, as well as the riches in new knowledge drawn from irresistibly ploughing untilled ground.


Theoretical science and pure research, even though where they might eventually lead is uncertain, commonly sharpen the cutting edge of human imagination, vision, and inspiration. That’s progress, of a critical sort. Being consumed by short-term thinking, with its emphasis on immediate payback, deprives us of our intellectual seed stock: the foundation for converting hypotheses into interesting and revealing models of our reality, both scientific and philosophical.


Space, then, is not the ‘final frontier’, but rather is only the ‘next frontier’.

Earth is more than the ‘mote of dust’ of Carl Sagan’s imagination. Humanity, I anticipate, will tirelessly play out these spacefaring beginnings, to make its destiny reality.


Sunday, 14 March 2021

Imagining Freedom

 Posted by Emile Wolfaardt

Image: UNESCO. Vandal-ism, a tribute to Édouard Manet 
by the Spanish artist Pejac, 2014.

The human spirit is born yearning innately and continually for freedom. It seems that from the day we are dragged reluctantly out of the womb to our final rasping breath, we find the imposition of limitations an injury to our sensibilities.

We seek instinctively the dismissal of all censorship. Similarly, we feel we are our own source and standard for truth. Any burden of constraint or requirement that is not consistent with our opinion, we tend to naturally devalue and disqualify. Nature itself seems somehow complicit in denying us our freedoms as we look to the birds and cry, ‘Oh that I had wings like a dove.’

It was while seeking to throw off the restraint of British shackles in 1775 that the revolutionary lawyer and governor Patrick Henry stood in front of the Virginia legislature and implored, ‘I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!’

Yet the truth is that neither the bird, nor Patrick Henry, nor the human spirit is actually free, nor can they be! The bird cannot rise to altitudes where there is no oxygen. Mr. Henry could not derail the adoption of US Constitution despite his commitment to do so, and you and I, no matter who we are, live with a myriad of restrictions that we reasonably cannot defy.

What does it mean to be really free? Should Colin Kaepernick be free to ‘take the knee’, or Edward Snowden to publish classified information? Should the South African government be free to deport foreigners, or local sub-culture groups be free to articulate their prejudices? Should pastors, florists and bakers be forced to provide their services for same-sex weddings and celebrations that violate their religious beliefs? What if we flip the question? Should a homosexual graphic designers or printers be forced to create flyers for a rally opposing same-sex marriages?

Here is why the discussion may be more complex than simply shouting ‘freedom’ as loudly as one can, then giving one’s life to make that statement somehow more meaningful.

 Freedom is Both Relative and Subjective

It is relative because we tend to evaluate freedom by comparing it to the freedom of others, or the freedom we enjoyed in previous situation. When Martin Luther King declared “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” he was still part of a system of opression that had not yet changed.

It is subjective because it depends on your one’s mindset. The same group of militia may be called ‘freedom fighters’ or ‘terrorists’ depending on what side of the table they sit on. The psychiatrist and philosopher Viktor Frankl faced the incredible horrors of Auschwitz. With 6 million others, he was stripped of everything, including his dignity. But in the depth of his suffering, Frankl decided that there was a part of him the Nazis could never touch – and that was his choice to be positive, to have and optimistic outlook. That was his choice for freedom.

 Freedom is Both Negative and Positive

The concept of negative and positive freedom was popularized in an essay by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin published in 1958, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’.

Negative freedom centres on freedom from interference by others. It focuses on my freedom to act according to the dictates of my conscience without others preventing me from doing so. It asks, ‘In what areas am I master?’

Positive freedom is a little more tricky – it is about my right to do something rather than limiting the interference I may encounter from others. It is about my freedom to do, say, associate, worship, and express as I choose to.

However we define it – at the end of the day, we are as free as we choose to be – because freedom is more a state of mind than of circumstances. Circumstantially, we will never be free. There will always be limitations imposed by nature, governments, others, and even our own minds and bodies. That is not where true freedom is found.

The battle for freedom is fought and won in the mind. When we empower the actions of others to determine our state of mind, we empower them to determine our freedom. Freedom is available to all. The wisdom principle of freedom is simply this:

Where the freedom of one infringes on the freedoms of another, the net result is less freedom for all. As a matter of fact, the entire judicial system is purposed on this principle.

Nelson Mandela wrote, ‘To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.’ His autobiography, ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, was not primarily about political or physical freedom, although that was both the context and the occasion of his writing. It was about the choice to be free in his inner being, in his mind, and to afford others with the same respect and opportunity.

So, perhaps we should all take that long walk – and find the freedom in our minds. Mind chains are a terrible task-master to serve – and freedom is simply a choice away.

Sunday, 7 March 2021

What is Grammar?

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Grammar, say some, is about a grammar gene
—or we use grammar, say others, to hold sentences together—or, its purpose is to improve our clarity of communication—or any of the many things which have been suggested in the course of time. 
I propose that grammar is, fundamentally, about two basic categories which we find in philosophy, namely things and relations. Or rather, it is about the way that we repeat these things and relations, as we communicate.

Things which are oft repeated are best automated for efficiency. We may think of the manufacturing process. One may punch a hole by hand, and another, and another—yet as soon as one needs thousands of holes, one creates a mechanism by which one can repeat the action more efficiently. One transfers individual acts to a machine. 

In language, we do much the same. A most basic example is the noun and the verb. John Herschel included among the laws of nature correlations of properties on the one hand, and sequences of events on the other. More recently, Albert Einstein described our world as a space-time continuum: space in three dimensions, and time in a fourth. We may expect, therefore, that this distinction will be much repeated in language—so much so, that we automate its use, as it were. 

This is indeed what we find, with nouns typically referring to things in space, and verbs typically tracing relations through time. A garden is a thing in space, while to garden is a process in time. Instead of spelling out the difference every time—say, speaking of a garden-thing and a garden-action (and so on)—we incorporate the distinction in grammar. While it would be an over-simplification to suggest that we may apply such a scheme in every case, we may broadly understand our parts of speech in such terms.

Now within the two categories of noun and verb, some relations are oft repeated. For instance, nouns frequently have to do with possession (the genitive case), while verbs frequently refer to the past (the past tense), to give but two examples among many. Such conceptual emphases, amplified through heavy use, are automated for convenience—we may say they are compressed—into tables we call declensions and conjugations and, one may add, inflections and derivations. 

Different cultures repeat different kinds of things and relations more frequently in their speech. Therefore grammars will differ from culture to culture, because different grammars reflect different cultural traits. In English, for example, one finds the future tense, where in Japanese one does not. In Japanese, one finds the honorific case, where in English one does not. Such emphases typically correlate with features one finds in the culture.

Further, because we are dealing with compressive techniques, one finds inconsistencies of compression in language—for instance, irregular nouns and verbs, and unproductive patterns. In fact, such inconsistencies may aid compression—as we know well from computer programming.

This further has a bearing on the long-standing question whether a common structure lies beneath all grammars—so puzzling in their diversity. The philosopher Max Black noted, ‘There is extreme variability between grammars.’ In fact, ‘Grammar has no essence.’ This should in fact be the case where grammars are not embedded in our DNA, but are manifestations of how we trace relations between things in this world.

Such a view of grammar suggests that the structure of grammar will indeed vary—insofar as the relations which we trace between things—again, the things and relations which we often repeat—vary. By and large, therefore, we shall not find a common underlying structure. Grammar is not ingrained in us or in our language. It is about tracing relations between things—fairly arbitrarily, we might add.

What then is grammar?  Grammar is completely a manifestation of—an expression of—things and the relations between them. More than that, it is about the various emphases which we place on things and the relations between them—as we see it in this moment in time, in this place, in this culture, in this atmosphere in which we live today. 

Sunday, 28 February 2021

Picture Post #62: What's In a Name?

'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 Sapho Mahilihili*

On 23 February 2021, the South African city of

Port Elizabeth was renamed Gqeberha.

This thing of changing names is pure stupidity, especially where it is applied to cities. It promotes laziness.

Look at it this way.

Our government has not built a single city, yet it has renamed many cities. Cities around the world are named after the people who founded them.

If the government could build a new city, and name it after the president, I would welcome that. This would instill a culture of building things from the ground up. The same applies to airports and universities. I welcomed the building and naming of King Shaka International Airport, and Sol Plaatjie University—built from scratch instead of renaming the old.

Let us build from the ground up, instead of hijacking things that are already built. This will create employment and contestation between presidents and their administrations, as to who built more and created more employment than the other. Instead of this silly idea, contesting who renames the most, while it creates no employment of the citizen.

Transformation of words and names is pure nonsense—places previously reserved and written Whites Only. Today they are written Management Only or Staff Only, and people think we are making strides. Go to that Gbeberha. Whites are still living in opulence, while Blacks are languishing in the same townships as before.

We need to build cities, especially along the coast, to tap in to the marine industry. Name those cities after people we love, instead of renaming cities whose old structural format remains intact, where Black people are pacified to believe that they made progress where there is none.

This is a regressive transformation, created out of hatred and spite towards White people, not to promote and elevate African people’s standard of living to those of White counterparts.

*Sapho Mahilihili is a well-known South African grassroots leader, 

   a #FeesMustFall and #Decolonization activist.

Editors' note: Twitter has suspended #Decolonization. One may refer to 

  #DecolonizeAcademia and other hashtags. 

Monday, 22 February 2021

Are There Too Many Laws?

The Roman philosopher, Cicero.
In his book, De Legibus, he suggests laws should be dawn from ‘the profoundest philosophy’.

Posted by Keith Tidman

Laws tend to accrete, one upon another. Yet, doesn’t this buildup of laws paradoxically undermine the ‘rule of law’? Wasn’t Montesquieu right to say that ‘useless laws weaken the necessary laws’, and by extension today enfeeble the rule of law?


The rule of law holds that every person and institution is equally accountable to the law. It is society’s safeguard against disorder. This presupposes that laws, in promoting the individual good, also promote the common good. The elixir to cure the ailments of society is often seen as dwelling in zealous lawmaking and rulemaking, which ironically may create even worse fissures within the rule of law itself and within the resulting social order. However mistaken such belief in the tonic may be, this regularly seems to be the guiding ideal and aspiration.


Yet, aspirations aside, the reality is that the proliferation of laws and regulations leads to redundancy, confusion, contradiction, and irrelevance among the laws that accrue over time. These factors fog up the lens through which people view laws as either just or unjust. In turn, citizens typically remain unaware of their actual liability to these amassed laws, and as a practical matter enjoy little understanding of how laws might be enforced.

Compounding the byzantine body of laws and regulations is the politicisation of their application. Governments of different political ideological leanings may well shift, especially as regimes shift, affecting the interpretation of laws. Laws being, as Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan, ‘not counsel, but command’. Governments might make arbitrary decisions as to how to enforce the laws and regulations, and against whom. Political partisanship and the hazard of overcriminalisation can be the not-uncommon consequence.

When Winston Churchill warned, ‘If you have ten thousand regulations, you destroy all respect for the law’, to some people the cautionary note may have seemed an exaggeration, offered for effect. Now, many countries creak under an evermore bloated number of complex, cumbersome laws and regulations, with rule-of-law significances.


A core supposition of law is that citizens freely choose from among alternative behaviours in the daily conduct of their lives. Whether people really do have such uninhibited decision-making and choice, laws make sense, from the practical standpoint of society holding individuals accountable, only if the operative supposition of government and the community is that people deliberate and act through self-direction.

Laws and regulations ought to mirror society’s shared values, norms, conventions, practices, and customs, in order for justice to emerge. However, despite the influence of social values on laws, ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ are not necessarily equivalent to ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’; principles of legality and morality may be only obliquely correlated. 

Meanwhile, it’s precisely because of the influence of social values that laws ought to remain malleable going into the future, as core needs of the community become reimagined and reframed with time. The inevitability of novel circumstances in the future requires pliability in human thinking, and thus in law.


If laws and regulations are allowed to calcify, they shed relevance in longer-term service of the community. They no longer foster the welfare of the people, which along with social order is foundational to laws’ existence. ‘The welfare of the people is the ultimate law’, Cicero presciently observed. Outdated laws and regulations ought to be purged, barring new laws from heaping upon the crustaceous remnants of old laws. Preserving the best about rule-of-law principles requires housecleaning.


Everyday citizens often perceive the law as an impenetrably dense mass, understood and plied by a priesthood of specialists who accommodate select interests. Laws’ unfortunate opaqueness propagates ‘ignorance of the law’, despite this go-to plea not being a legally valid excuse.


The risk is that society tilts increasingly toward unequal justice, much to the disadvantage of the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, and other alienated, underrepresented subgroups less equipped to self-endorse, or to accrue and deploy power and influence to their advantage. Vulnerability and punishment and discretion are frequently proportional to financial means, in plutocratic fashion. And the rule of law, meanwhile, loses its glint. 


And so, in advising that ‘A state is better governed with few laws, and those laws strictly observed’, in light of his time in history RenĂ© Descartes seems commonsensical. Yet, ever since, many countries have jettisoned this simple prescription.

The profusion of laws compacting outdated and useless laws cannot continue indefinitely, without risking an irreparable stress point for jurisprudence’s workability and integrity. A moratorium on disgorging new laws, however, is insufficient alone. It is vital to clear the overgrown brush that threatens to choke the consistency, intelligibility, reasonableness, and applicability of what we want to restore by way of the rule of law and sensible jurisprudence. 


That’s an achievable undertaking. The prospect of our returning to first principles regarding the rule of law as a credible and viable doctrine, beyond a muffled slogan, makes the enterprise of clearing the thicket of laws worthwhile if we want a just society.


Sunday, 14 February 2021

Stop the Hokum

Posted by Allister Marran

It is said that all things are related to all things. Mel Thompson, the author of Teach Yourself Philosophy, writes, ‘At any moment, we move within a seamless web of causality that goes forwards and backward in time and outwards in space.’ There is, however, a new kind of relatedness, which is not as sweet. It, too, goes forward and backward in time and outwards in space—yet the web that it weaves has no basis in the way that things truly lie—or worse, it is based on things which have no basis in reality at all. 

And so people start a ridiculous rumour, or a conspiracy theory which, fundamentally, has no basis in truth or fact. From there, they convince enough people in their orbit to like and share the post to make it go viral. Once it has enough support, they use the level of acceptance as the basis that it must be true. Surely, a post with a million likes and shares can only be right? It is the fallacy of the majority. A Chinese proverb, attributed to Pang Cong, has it, 'Three men make a tiger' (there is a tiger roaming in the market if three men say so).

Too often, to the recipient of rumour and conspiracy, their only verification of a fact or theory is the level of permeation and acceptance of said theory. Or put another way, I believe anything that the peers in my echo chamber tell me to believe if the echo is strong enough. An old Slavic proverb states (falsely attributed to Lenin in similar form), ‘Repeated one-hundred times, a lie becomes true.’

The best defence against hokum is critical thinking—a lost art in the age of information. Be critical, and aggressively interrogate everything you read or see. Don't just accept it as gospel because it furthers your own narrow perception of life or an argument. Don't accept it because it comes from a source you trust or are fond of. Attack the information in the post and see if it stands up to logical and scientific scrutiny. If it does, share away. If it does not, reply and resist the source of the hogwash until they stop spreading lies.

In an age of conspiracy theories, fake news, and deep fakes, among many other things, the only defence may be independent, impartial, robust thinking to discern those ‘seamless webs of causality’ which are sound and those which are not. In fact it often enough goes back to common sense that many of us knew from childhood: Did that movie ring true? or was it far-fetched? A lot of truth either validates or invalidates itself, to those who discern. And just like the movies, those who fall for a stupid plot look stupid and contemptible themselves—to all but themselves.

When one starts reading everything with an open mind, one begins to see that the world is not as black and white as one thinks it is, but has many colours and shades, a field of popping blooms that are beautiful to see and soft on the eyes. Next time you read something that makes a statement that might be prejudicial or controversial, I summon you to read it, then dissect it into a series of facts that the poster wants you to accept as truth. Then argue the opposite point of view with as much vigor as you can muster, and see how many holes, lies, or contradictions you can find in the post. If you are able to win the argument, then be honest with yourself and adjust your world view slightly to integrate this new information into your thinking.

Happily, there is a scientific way to do this, too. It is the analysis of oppositions, or opposites. In semantics, we find oppositions of various kinds: antonyms, directional opposites, complementaries, heteronyms, and converses. Imagine, for example, that we read that a certain politician is ‘influential’. Antonyms: they may be spineless instead, or may not bring about much change. A directional opposite: influence aside, this politician may be impressionable, too. Heteronyms: others may be influencing their situation—or force of circumstance, even divine will. Having now identified some oppositions to the description ‘influential’, we may ask whether any of these apply to them.

This might reveal that the politician did not bring about the change that we thought they did, or that they faced strong opposition. Or indeed, it might reveal that they proved to be influential or inspiring in ways we had not imagined. We begin to think more expansively and holistically.

The one sure way to identify false thinking is to test it for balance. If nothing offsets it—if those who propound their views can speak of nothing to the contrary, or worse, nothing by way of nuance or subtlety to off-set it or balance it, one is surely dealing with extremism, if not lunacy of some sort. This in itself should warn us that something has gone deeply wrong.

The only way to stop the lies of the social media hype-train from ruining a modern cyberspace-infused social media driven existence is to educate people on how to spot and call out falsehood and stop sharing it. Stop being the link. If nobody shares hokum, people will stop posting it.

Monday, 8 February 2021

Will Democracy Survive?

Image via

Cleisthenes, the Father of Democracy, Invented a Form of Government That Has Endured for 2,500 Years

Posted by Keith Tidman

How well is democracy faring? Will democracy emerge from despots’ modern-day assaults unscathed?

Some 2,500 years ago there was a bold experiment: Democracy was born in Athens. The name of this daring form of governance sprang from two Greek words (demos and kratos), meaning ‘rule by the people’. Democracy offered the public a voice. The political reformer Cleisthenes is the acknowledged ‘father of democracy’, setting up one of ancient Greece’s most-lasting contributions to the modern world.


In Athens, the brand was direct democracy, where citizens composed an assembly as the governing body, writing laws on which citizens had the right to vote. The assembly also decided matters of war and foreign policy. A council of representatives, chosen by lot from the ten Athenian tribes, was responsible for everyday governance. And the courts, in which citizens brought cases before jurors selected from the populace by a lottery, was the third branch. Aristotle believed the courts ‘contributed most to the strength of democracy’.


As the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, put it, in this democratic experiment ‘there is, first, that most splendid of virtues, equality before the law’. Yet, there was a major proviso to this ‘equality’: Only ‘citizens’ were qualified to take part, who were limited to free males — less than half of Athens’s population — excluding women, immigrants, and slaves.


Nor did every Greek philosopher or historian in the ancient world share Herodotus’s enthusiasm for democracy’s ‘splendid virtues’. Some found various ways to express the idea that one unsavory product of democracy was mob rule. Socrates, as Plato recalls in the Republic, referred unsparingly to the ‘foolish leaders of democracy . . . full of disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequaled alike’.


Others, like the historian Thucydides, Aristotle, the playwright Aristophanes, the historian and philosopher Xenophon, and the anonymous writer dubbed the Old Oligarch, expanded on this thinking. They critiqued democracy for dragging with it the citizens’ perceived faults, including ignorance, lack of virtue, corruptibility, shortsightedness, tyranny of the collective, selfishness, and deceptive sway by the specious rhetoric of orators. No matter, Athens’s democracy endured 200 years, before ceding ground to aristocratic-styled rule: what Herodotus labeled ‘the one man, the best’.


Many of the deprecations that ancient Greece’s philosophers heaped upon democratic governance and the ‘masses’ are redolent of the problems that democracy, in its representative form, would face again.

Such internal contradictions recently resulted in the United States, the longest-standing democratic republic in the modern world, having its Congress assailed by a mob, in an abortive attempt to stymie the legislators’ certification of the results of the presidential election. However, order was restored that same day (and congressional certification of the democratic will completed). The inauguration of the new president took place without incident, on the date constitutionally laid out. Democracy working.


Yet, around the world, in increasing numbers of countries, people doubt democracy’s ability to advance citizens’ interests. Disillusion and cynicism have settled in. Autocrats and firebrands have gladly filled that vacuum of faith. They scoff at democracy. The rule of law has declined, as reported by the World Justice Project. Its index has documented sharp falloffs in the robustness of proscriptions on government abuse and extravagant power. Freedom House has similarly reported on the tenuousness of government accountability, human rights, and civil liberties. ‘Rulers for life’ dot the global landscape.


That democracy and freedoms have absorbed body blows around the world has been underscored by attacks from populist leaders who rebuff pluralism and highjack power to nurture their own ambitions and those of closely orbiting supporters. A triumphalism achieved at the public’s expense. In parts of Eastern Europe, Asia Pacific, sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East and North Africa, South and Central America, and elsewhere. The result has been to weaken free speech and press, free religious expression, free assembly, independence of judiciaries, petition of the government, thwarts to corruption, and other rights, norms, and expectations in more and more countries.

Examples of national leaders turning back democracy in favour of authoritarian rule stretch worldwide. Central Europe's populist overreach, of concern to the European Union, has been displayed in abruptly curtailing freedoms, abolishing democratic checks and balances, self-servingly politicising systems of justice, and brazen leaders acquiring unlimited power indefinitely.

Some Latin American countries, too, have experienced waning democracy, accompanied by turns to populist governments and illiberal policies. Destabilised counterbalances to government authority, acute socioeconomic inequalities, attacks on human rights and civic engagement, emphasis on law and order, leanings toward surveillance states, and power-ravenous leaders have symbolised the backsliding.


Such cases notwithstanding, people do have agency to dissent and intervene in their destiny, which is, after all, the crux of democracy. Citizens are not confined to abetting or turning a blind eye toward strongmen’s grab for control of the levers of power or ultranationalistic penchants. In particular, there might be reforms, inspired by ancient Athens’s novel experiment, to bolster democracy’s appeal, shifting power from the acquisitive hands of elites and restoring citizens’ faith. 


One systemic course correction might be to return to the variant of direct democracy of Aristotle’s Athens, or at least a hybrid of it, where policymaking becomes a far more populous activity. Decisions and policy are molded by what the citizens decide and decree. A counterweight for wholly representative democracy: the latter emboldening politicians, encouraging the conceit of self-styled philosopher-kings whose judgment they mistakenly presume surpasses that of citizens. 


It might behoove democracies to have fewer of these professional politicians, serving as ‘administrators’ clearing roadblocks to the will of the people, while crafting the legal wording of legislation embodying majority public pronouncements on policy. The nomenclature of such a body — assembly, council, congress, parliament, or other — matters little, of course, compared with function: party-less technocrats in direct support of the citizenry.


The greatest foe to democracies’ longevity, purity, and salience is often the heavy-handed overreach of elected executives, not insurrectionist armies from within the city gates. Reforms might therefore bear on severe restriction or even elimination of an executive-level figurehead, who otherwise might find the giddy allure of trying to accrete more power irresistible and unquenchable. Other reforms might include:


• A return to popular votes and referenda to agree on or reject national and local policies; 

• Normalising of constitutional amendments, to ensure congruence with major social change;

• Fewer terms served in office, to avoid ‘professionalising’ political positions; 

• Limits on campaign length, to motivate focused appeals to electors and voter attentiveness.

Still other reforms might be the public funding of campaigns, to constrain expenditures and, especially, avoid bought candidates. Curtailing of special-interest supplicants, who serve deep-pocketed elites. Ethical and financial reviews to safeguard against corruption, with express accountability. Mandatory voting, on specially designated paid holidays, to solicit all voices for inclusivity. Civic service, based on communal convictions and norms-based standards. And reinvention of public institutions, to amplify pertinence, efficacy, and efficiency.


Many more ways to refit democracy’s architecture exist, of course. The starting point, however, is that people must believe democracy works and are prepared to foster it. In the arc of history, democracy is most vulnerable if resignedly allowed to be.


Testaments to democracy should be ideas, not majestic buildings or monuments. Despots will not cheerfully yield ground; the swag is too great. Yet ideas, which flourish in liberal democracy, are greater.


Above all, an alert, restive citizenry is democracy’s best sentinel: determined to triumph rather than capitulate, despite democracy’s turbulence two and a half millennia after ancient Athens’s audacious experiment. 

Monday, 1 February 2021

Picture Post #61: Outside the Image

'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

Picture credit: Robert Saltzman ‘La Fe’, 2017.

It might take a while to see that the creative feeling in this picture moves beyond the representation of a worshiper who touches the depiction of a Maria. The movement within the sobriety of this picture is of such subtlety that it exposes itself as a feeling rather than a seeing.

The eye immediately selects the strong vertical upward movement of the man with his arm against the painting, accentuated by the stick that the worshiper keeps in his right hand. Instead, the upper left of the frame of the painting, to the lowest forms one diagonal. Repetitive diagonals in opposed direction are drawn by the lower point of the angles of the pews' end-panels to the highest, with the upper right angle of the painting in its midst. In the picture, the vanishing point is to the left (imagine the benches as the floor), which brings us outside of the picture.

Within this classical framework of more- and less-visible lines, exalts the shadow of the man that is cast directly below the Maria. It is this shadow which accentuates the ascendance of the depicted Maria, visually and symbolically.

When one imagines this picture just with the man and the painting, without the shadow, and not in this room, the ‘inexplicable’, the ‘something more’ to life does not show. The eye focuses on a specific form, which the mind elaborates, and hands existence to the selected subject. Though it is not in the main subject but in the space, through the tension and the affinities between things of the surroundings, a subject receives empathy.

The unnoticed is deeply rooted in human being. The synthesis of every creative process is to verify this transpersonal union with the personal, within the contingent, transitory reality in which everything would become insignificant, remaining only personal or only eternal.

If in this picture we would see solely a religious man in a church, we would harm ourselves. Being moved is through the transformation of what we see and feel, and depends on an intrinsic secret of invisible images.

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Poem: Laughing at the Milky Way

by Chengde Chen *

There was a chicken, who lived his life happily

Every morning, someone opened his coop and fed him

Day by day, month by month

he believed that this was the law of the world

so he never thought of escaping

Until New Year’s Eve

he found a kitchen knife at his neck

The ‘law’ disappeared

and it was too late for regrets!


It is laughable for man to worry that the sky might fall

but not laughable for the falling sky to worry about man

The destruction of civilisation cannot be ‘known’

Only mathematics, standing aloof from the world **

can sense the storm from the ancient Milky Way

Those who have felt it should ponder deeply over it

Those who have realised it should issue a cry loudly

Be a madman, letting others laugh

Laughing is better than being oblivious

for those who are laughing are no longer sleeping!

* Chengde Chen is the author of Five Themes of Today, Open Gate Press, London.

Sunday, 17 January 2021

A Syntocracy

by Thomas Scarborough

Leonardo da Vinci wrote, ‘Realise that everything connects to everything else.’ In recent decades, this has become increasingly important. We have come to see, in fact, that it is vital to humanity’s survival. With this in mind, the chief end of political systems ought to be the healthy inter-relatedness of all things.

Democracy is often said to be the best available political system. It is, to put it too simply, a system of government by the whole (eligible) population. Even in non-democratic states, governments typically give some approval to the idea.

In terms of the healthy inter-relatedness of all things, democracy goes some way to guaranteeing this. In a democracy, one elects those persons to democratic office who are broadly representative of the people—so that, when they assemble, they may (ideally) bring all of society into healthy relation.

We need democracy as a political system, therefore, not merely for the sake of popular sovereignty, or political accountability, or individual rights, or a host of other things which populate descriptions of democracy. We need it first because, properly conceived, democracy is important to the healthy arrangement of society, and the world. If a political system fails to achieve this, then we are all imperilled.

However, when we think on democracy in these terms, it has, at the same time, some serious shortcomings.

While democracy rightly guarantees a broad participation in the national debate, it does not deliberately prioritise broad and healthy relations in society: for instance, between rich and poor, the built and natural environments, or the present and the future. One sees major imbalances in such areas the world over, and these are potentially disastrous to all.

Democracy as a political system has in many places failed to create an egalitarian society, preserve the whole over the parts, prevent environmental crisis, or create social cohesion. All these things, and more, speak of defective arrangements of our world, where the healthy inter-relatedness of all things ought to be the without-which-not. As humanity’s influence on the planet grows, we are no longer able to absorb such mistakes.

Not only this. In a democratic state, people are often prioritised over the healthy inter-relatedness of all things—and so democracy, too, is prone to the weaknesses one typically associates with people: populism, personal loyalties, polarisation, fleeting fears, vested interests, prejudices, and short-sighted thinking, among other things. For good or for bad, democracy is a people-focused enterprise.

Which then is it to be? Is supreme power vested in the people, or is it, so to speak, vested in relations between things?

The goal of democracy must be, not democracy as an end in itself, but the healthy arrangement of society, and the world. While democracy means ‘power to the people’, such power must be vested not merely in the people, but in the arrangement of society. Further, the law code which a democracy produces, which is the complete system of laws, needs to be developed to prioritise the inter-relatedness of all things.

While such an idea has much in common with with democracy, it differs in principle from the democracy that we know. For the sake of a name, we shall call this form of government a ‘syntocracy’—from the Greek and Latin syn, ‘together with’, and the Greek krites, ‘power’—a form of government in which all things are brought together in balanced relation, through the people.

Syntocracy rests, therefore, on relations which are balanced and broad. This simple principle shifts the emphasis of democracy as we now know it, and potentially transforms our political life.

Image credit: VA Network for Democracy and Environmental Rights.

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