The Embodiment of Life: Francisco Varela (1946-2001)

May 30, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

On Wednesday I will be attending a conference to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the untimely death of Francisco Varela, organised by the Centre for Real World Learning, and hosted at City University in London. There are still places available for those who wish to attend.

Have you heard of Francisco Varela? If not, I envy you, because you have the chance to experience the excitement of his singular contribution to knowledge for the first time, while I can only read him again, and again, and again.

I was introduced to Varela by my Phd supervisor, Guy Claxton, who is one of the main organisers of Wednesday’s conference. It is difficult to do justice to Varela’s thought with a standard academic description. ‘Cognitive Scientist’ is a good start, but there are thousands of those. What makes Varela particularly special is the confluence of three main strands of thought: Biology, particularly Neuroscience, European Philosophy, particularly the Phenomenological and Existential strands, and Tibetan Buddhism, particularly his own sustained practice of meditation.

What these perspectives gave him was a view of consciousness from third(objective/impartial), second(inter-subjective/relational) and first(subjective/embodied) person perspectives. He was a scientist, philosopher and meditator. He had a unique ability to understand human beings simulatenously as bodies, relationships and minds. His experience in contemplative practice also brought a strong ethical dimension to his work- he was always thinking about the ethical implications of our understanding of what it means to be human.

I enjoyed his classic texts The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (co-written with Maturana) and The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience(co-written with Thompson and Rosch), but the book that made the deepest impression was a small book comprising three lectures called: “Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom and Cognition.”

When I came upon this book I was at a low point in the process of thesis writing, struggling for a fresh perspective on the concept of wisdom, and disenchanted with the main theoretical perspectives available, including those of Robert Sternberg at Yale and Paul Baltes at the Max Plank Institute of Human Development. These proto-canonical models were basically sophisticated psychometric measures, reducing wisdom to a form of advice-giving expertise. They succeeded in making the concept of wisdm more tractable and amenable to empirical measurement, but could only do so by cutting it off from the embodied, situated nature of wisdom, which is what I most valued, and wanted to understand better.

Varela was always thinking about the ethical implications of our understanding of what it means to be human.

Varela’s view of wisdom was very different, because it presents it as a form of ethical know how in action. There is no point in being wise in abstract if you cannot act wisely in complex situations when called upon to do so. Varela doesn’t give the particular example that follows, but his perspective helped me to understand this kind of wise action:

There is a classic story of Mahatma Gandhi hurredly boarding a train that was pulling away from the platform. As he boarded, one of Gandhi’s sandals fell onto the track. With no time to retrieve it, and with the train gathering speed, he instantaneously took off his other sandal and threw it down, so that whoever came upon the first sandal would now have a pair of sandals to wear.

What struck me about this example, and what I wanted to understand better, is the difference between thinking of doing such a thing, perhaps five minutes later when it would no longer be effective, and being ready, willing and able to act wisely in an immediate problematic situation, as Gandhi was in this case.

Varela’s view of ethics helped me considerably in this regard,because he has a highly sophisticated view of virtuous action arising from extended inclinations and dispositions, usually cultivated through sustained ethical or spiritual practice, in which we gradually decentre from our egoic impulses by becoming aware of our fragile or ‘virtual’ selves. In the small book I mentioned(p73) he puts it as follows:

“The means of transformating mental constiuents into wisdom is intelligent awareness, that is, the moment-to-moment realisation of the virtual self as it is-empty of any eogic ground whatsoever, yet filled with wisdom. Here one is positing that authentic care resides at the very ground of Being, and can be made fully manifest in a sustained, succefful ethical training. A thoroughly alien thought for our nihilistic Western mood, indeed, but one worthy of being entertained.”

There is lots more to say about Varela, who was originally from Chile and became the Director of Research for the French National Research Council. I hope to report back after the event on Wednesday, but for now, you can get a glimpse of the person and his thought by watching the following video.

Britain is not broken: towards a Citizen’s Contract

June 25, 2010 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Economy 

Hardly a publication known for its gooey-eyed liberal optimism, an article in a recent copy of The Economist is right to argue that while damaged by excessive individualism, our society is far from broken. Empirical analysis supported by recent Ipsos MORI public opinion data shows that our society is largely more tolerant, environmentally aware, and safer than a decade ago. As Axel Honneth has argued, growing recognition of the rights and identities of minority groups over the last four decades surely represents some sign of social and ethical progress. While rightly commited to the need for civic renewal, Philip Blond and others on the collectivist side of the individualist-collectivist political divide see things differently. Based on a repudiation of both social and economic liberalism, they consider people today to have too many individual rights and too few collective responsibilities. Rooted in a nostalgic longing for a mythical utopia, their argument for increasing responsibility by cutting our rights-based culture down to size is dangerously misguided.

It is easy to blame neo-liberalism for our so-called moral decline. But it is equally the failure of the political left to construct an effective alternative to it

The world-view which only casts the state in the role of the devil, does indeed succeed in redistributing responsibility from state to citizen. But it does so without any realistic strategy for fostering the behaviours and ways of thinking people and communities need for active citizenship to flourish and thereby reduce state dependency in areas of public life where the state is a barrier rather than enabler of citizen activism.

This one-dimensional view of the state, prominent at the moment, becomes all the more important in areas of social and economic deprivation where levels of what Amartya Sen terms ‘inequality of capability’ are lowest, where public services are most widely needed, and where civic health is least likely to flourish.

2010 Australia Day Citizenship ceremony by Richard Taylor

While our society is not broken, civic virtue is certainly in need of repair. Anyone committed to resuscitating progressive political philosophy and politics in the UK needs to seriously engage with and recognise the value of a shift in modern conservatism towards the ideals of civic responsibility and citizen activism. It is easy to blame neo-liberalism and unfettered markets for our so-called moral decline. But as Žižek writes convincingly in his latest book, it is equally the failure of the political left to construct an effective opposition and alternative to it.

Today, there is growing consciousness of our need to make fundamental changes to our political culture. Voter turnout has become the major indicator of our civic and political health, when it should be the depth of citizen participation in the civic and political decision-making of everyday life. Rather than viewing ourselves as ‘everyday citizens’ whose identities are intimately related to the life experience and outcomes of other citizens, we have been encouraged to reduce our citizenship to that of the passive consumer primarily interested in maximising our own self-interest.

But as Matthew Taylor argues in his recent essay on twenty-first century enlightenment, the problem is not individual autonomy itself which is necessary for people to create self-authored lives they value; nor is the problem citizen rights. The problem is having individual autonomy and rights which are divorced from the common good. The challenge for political and social progressives today is how to reconcile autonomy with the collective good in a materialist culture where consumer choice is re-packaged as human freedom and civic solidarity is reduced to the polite indifference to the actions and values of others.

The re-emergence of civic republicanism provides us with  some key principles for delivering such a public sphere.

First, the common good and not the interests of a particular group of citizens should be the guiding principle of all public policy and decision-making.

Second, collective decision-making should be as inclusive as possible and include a significant degree of public involvement.

Third, informed deliberation needs to be at the heart of public decision-making.

Fourth, the good society is dependent on every citizen having the power and independence to be free from the domination of others.

Fifth, the legitimacy of public instititions demands strong civic participation in collective decision-making guided by other-regarding intentions.

And sixth, the good society is one where economic inequality is limited.

How might we turn this civic republican emphasis on civic virtue and active citizenship into practical public policy? And how can the these principles  inform a new way of looking at citizen rights and responsibility necessary for developing stronger civic responsibility and solidarity at the local level? These questions are the focus of a forthcoming RSA Citizen Power pamphlet, Everyday Citizen’s: the case for the Citizen’s Contract.

The pamphlet puts forward the case for a place-based community-focused Citizen’s Contract, which is being developed at the RSA as part of our flagship Citizen Power programme to cultivate civic innovation and citizen activism in Peterborough. Locally deliberated, the Citizen’s Contract is designed as a symbolic and formal agreement holding public services, community and third sector organisations and citizens all to account for improving the civic health and outcomes in their area.

This is an edited version of an article by Sam McLean on The Citizen’s Contract. Read the full text.

Enlightenment thinking can inspire “new politics”

June 22, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise, Social Economy 

Last week Matthew Taylor launched the new RSA strapline: 21st century enlightenment. The accompanying speech and pamphlet asks whether Enlightenment principles that have shaped the way we think about society – and on which the RSA was founded – can be reimagined for the present.

New research in neuroscience, economics and psychology shows that our individual desires are not always correct

We are living through a period of political, economic and environmental change, but the way we think about these challenges is outdated. Without questioning our bigger thinking, the “Big Society” and the Labour leadership debate risk tinkering around the edges of more fundamental questions about the kind of future we want. Matthew Taylor argues that by revisiting the Enlightenment ideas that shaped the way we think today – ideas like freedom, fairness and progress – we can imagine a radical new politics which seeks not merely to respond to modern values but to shape them.

Take freedom:

For too long we have associated freedom with individualism. This idea has even affected the way we think about democracy – the principle that the customer is always right has been imported into the political system. But the customer is not always right – the preferences people express in opinion polls are systematically different to those which they reach after a process of deliberation. As new research in neuroscience, economics and psychology shows that our individual desires are not always correct and what we do and think is hugely influenced by circumstances and social networks. We are social, connected animals and by recognising that our individual preferences have limits, we can develop a better understanding of our shared needs and potential.

Or fairness:

In some ways we have become a fairer society, evidenced in the extension of civil rights on gender, race and sexuality. But signing up to an ideal of fairness is not the same as putting it into action. What drives us to act on the principle of fairness? Taylor argues that we need to extend our capacity for empathy to help tackle enduring injustices.

Top portion of a lightning rod, designed by RSA Fellow Benjamin Franklin, The Frankliniana Collection, The Franklin Institute, Inc., Philadelphia, Photo by Peter Harholdt

But at the moment it feels like our empathy is stalling. National interest continues to usurp global interest when it comes to issues like aid or delivering a deal on climate change; anti-immigrant sentiment seems to be growing; global governance is weaker. The stock of empathy upon which democratic leaders can draw has to grow if the long-term interests of the human race are to be put ahead of short-term national interests.

The final – and perhaps most important – enlightenment idea to revisit is progress.

Currently progress is mainly driven by markets and technology. Taylor argues that there are risks involved in such an approach – drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico because markets allow or even encourage this fails to take account of the ethical dimensions and consequences of such decisions. We need to think about who is driving progress and, crucially, what destination we are driving towards. This means asking difficult questions about what kind of society we want and what kind of people we want to be.

The Labour Party and the coalition government need to confront these questions, and so do we.

This blog post by RSA Projects Senior Researcher Emma Norris first appeared on Left Foot Forward

Read Matthew Taylor’s The 21st century enlightenment at RSA Pamphlets

Nudges, the Enlightenment and Resourcefulness

July 9, 2009 by · 14 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

One of the criticisms of using insights from behavioural economics to influence behaviour is that it might lead in the long term to an infantilised society. People might get so used to being ‘nudged’ by the government into behaving in the right way, that they forget to think at all. If true, this would be completely at odds with the RSA’s central theme of developing self-reliant “citizens of the future”.

The RSA, as the website says, has been a cradle of enlightenment thinking since 1754, and the beginning of Kant’s What is Enlightenment essay is appropriate to the question of infantilisation:

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another.” [link]

The RSA’s design work is centred around the question of how design and designers can make people more resourceful. Instead of design as problem-solving for example, can design show you how the problem is to be solved without doing it for you?

So how can we use design to influence people’s behaviour while encouraging resourcefulness at the same time? Does this mean, for example, that we should concentrate more on enabling behaviour rather than motivating or constraining behaviour (to use Dan Lockton’s helpful terms)?

What do you think?

Self-help, individualism and the social brain

January 12, 2009 by · 10 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

The self-help movement was a real late twentieth century phenomenon. It was (is) quite different from the self-improvement societies of (say) Victorian Britain, or the (often somewhat cultish) self-improvement societies of the twenties and thirties (the nadir of these societies being Hitler’s National Socialism, which had its roots in cult-of-the-body groups from the twenties). All these movements were fundamentally social. But self-help since the liberal individualism of the sixties has been thoroughly individualistic (think of the Tom Cruise character in Paul Thomas-Anderson’s flawed masterpiece Magnolia as the nadir of this kind of movement).


The following quote typifies a common view; that the self-help phenomenon is an achievement of Enlightenment culture (a culture that is optimistic about human potential and committed to social progress):


I would say that, over the last twenty-five years, the biggest triumph of the Enlightenment view is that people have grasped the concept of their own happiness as a real goal in life. You can see this in the emergence of the self-help industry. Here is a huge industry that hardly existed a generation ago. People today go to seminars, and take classes, and buy books, for no purpose except to be happier in their personal lives. Of course, a lot of it is garbage. There’s a lot of self-indulgence, irrationality, and subjectivism involved. But the very fact that the self-help movement exists is a triumph for the individualist, Enlightenment outlook. (“The State of the Culture, 1997,Navigator, Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 11)


But this view also equates Enlightenment culture with individualism. But does this equation hold? Here at the RSA one thing we are concerned about is what is often referred to as ‘the retreat to the private sphere’ – the withering of concern for others and collective social responses to problems that is driven by a private individualism and a public sphere that is highly bureaucratic and doesn’t engage citizens (so the way the ‘public’ sphere is organised reinforces private individualism). As an organisation we recognise that this public/private sphere combination is an impediment to social progress. We all moan about the retreat to the private sphere, but we also live highly individualistic lives. The RSA thinks this has to change if we are to live in the more pro-social world we would like, and deal with the problems we face (such as climate change, rampant and entrenched inequality). For these problems require collective action and thus an engaged citizenry.


So the self-help phenomenon, for all it might do for individuals, looks like part of the problem not the solution. And if it is the highest achievement of Enlightenment culture recently, then perhaps that culture is in trouble?


I don’t think so. It’s true that the Enlightenment from the start was always individualistic. Kant’s dictum ‘think for yourself’ is expressed in the singular after all. But it is also about taking note of scientific research – being committed to a continual non-dogmatic re-appraisal of our beliefs in light of what science discovers about the world, and indeed, for science itself to be an ongoing journey taken with an open mind.


If we look at Enlightenment culture that way, then self-help culture need not be its recent zenith. In fact, what science now tells us about the brain seems to refute individualism. I am attending a very exciting conference tomorrow hosted by my project’s namesake Lucy to Language: The Archaeology of the Social Brain’.  The conference title is ‘Social Brains and Social Networks. The basic theme, as far as I understand it, is that our brains have evolved to function within social networks. For example, the adequate production of the neurotransmitter/modulator Serotonin is designed to occur within empathic relationships. Take the relationships away, and problems ensue. Or, another example: feelings transmit information about help we need to others, even if we haven’t realised we need the help ourselves. And Daniel Goleman has popularised the idea that the production of certain mirror neurons makes possible altruistic behaviour beneficial to social cohesion.


Self-help culture then, seems out of kilter with what we know about the social brain. If a person wants to be happier she is better off working on her friendships and relationships. If a person wants to increase her self-esteem then she should approach this through her relationships with others too. If a person wants to be more effective in the world, then she should work on her social and emotional intelligence. The self-contained individualism of self-help culture helps with none of this. Perhaps as that culture catches up with the science, it will become less individualistic. Then it might actually be able to contribute to the wider problems we face, such as the retreat to the private sphere. And it can still be an expression of Enlightenment culture, just not individualistically conceived. As Sartre said, ‘Hell is other people’. But Sartre also recognised that a person’s sense of  self is co-constituted by her ‘being-with-others’ – her perception of herself as an entity is mediated by states of mind such as shame which fundamentally related to other people.


So Sartre foreshadowed the idea of the social brain. He recognised that everything that’s important to us – happiness, self-esteem, self-efficacy – are socially constructed (everything that self-help culture places ‘inside us’, is actually both there and ‘outside us’ in others as well). But he didn’t like the idea of such dependency. But what’s not to like? For the individualistic self-reliance he was enamoured with has been perhaps the largest impediment to social progress (something he was also enamoured with) in the last thirty yeas or so.