Philosophy at the RSA

November 29, 2012 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

Two of my favourite living philosophers have given talks at the RSA over the last few weeks. The fact that these lectures took place at all reminds me what a great place the RSA is to be around, especially for someone like me who is slightly obsessed by philosophy. But I also think that each talk provides a really good illustration of two central purposes of philosophical thinking, and how each links to the work of the RSA.

The first talk – which you can listen to here – was given by Robert E. Goodin, a political theorist whose work on international law and civil disobedience greatly influenced my masters dissertation. Goodin’s paper Enfranchising All-Affected Interests, and Its Alternatives is also a must read for anyone seriously interested in global democracy, or the foundations of democratic theory more generally. In his talk, Goodin discussed his new book titled On Settling in which he argues against the commonly held view that we human beings are constantly striving for more and greater achievement on all fronts. Instead, Goodin argues, the concept of settling, though largely unexplored and underrated, has an incredibly important role to play in human life. In fact, it is precisely what enables us to strive. Settling, Goodin says, “is not in opposition striving. It is rather an aid to striving. We settle on some things so as better to strive for others”.

The most interesting thing about Goodin’s talk is, I think, that his central aim is not really to persuade us to do anything. This might appear strange for a political philosopher because ‘ought’ statements are assumed to be their lingua franca: we remember Plato because he said (among many others things) that philosopher kings should rule; we remember Mill because he said that that society should not interfere with the liberty of the individual if he or she causes no harm to others; and we remember Marx because he declared that the “workers of the world [should] unite!”.

But Goodin’s primary task isn’t to do any of these things. Although his argument has some clear normative implications – implications about how people ought to behave – his main task is try to get clearer about how we do in fact behave. To cut through the bluster and propaganda about the “perpetual and restless desire of power after power” that is often claimed to be our essential nature, and seek, through careful, considered and sensitive analysis, to understand what we are really like. This is philosophy undertaking the crucial task of trying to help explain us to ourselves. It is an essential task because without an accurate account of who we are, how we behave, and how we value, we cannot hope to provide any plausible or realistic principles for action. This links very nicely to the work of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre which seeks to look past the myth of ‘homo economicus’ and to enrich our understanding of how human beings actually behave, in order to help provide solutions to a whole range of social problems.

The second lecture was given by Thomas Pogge and in it he argued that the structure of the global economic order bears some degree of responsibility for the incidence and persistence of severe global poverty. Pogge’s argument is both intricate and important so I’ll save a discussion of it for a blog post all of its own. But for now it is enough to note that Pogge engages in what you might call activist philosophy. By which I mean that he marshals rigorous moral reasoning and an impressive command of the empirical evidence to make us think differently about global poverty, and suggest some ways that we could do better. This intellectual activism also runs through the work of the RSA: applying rigorous enlightenment thinking to today’s social problems and, most importantly, coming up with innovative solutions to them.

Now, the only way that ideas like this can begin to make a difference is for people to hear them, so you should listen to Pogge’s lecture on ending poverty here. But if only there was a more accessible and entertaining – perhaps even visual – way for complex and important ideas to be shared with large numbers of people… RSA Animate anyone?

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.

Obama and cultural theory

December 1, 2008 by · 10 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

In this post I am going to try to weave together cultural theory and Barack Obama’s future presidency.


Let’s start with cultural theory. I won’t go into too much detail, but the basic idea as that a person makes sense of her life in terms of five basic forms of rationality: the egalitarian, the hierarchical, the individualist, the fatalist and the hermit’s position (this latter is a withdrawal from the other four). Reflecting the first four forms of rationality are forms of social organisation or ‘solidarities’. For example, individualists identify with markets or networks of groups. Hierarchists with rule-governed institutions or ordered groups of networks. But for cultural theorists the two domains are not separate: an individual just is the attitudes and stances she actualises through the forms of social solidarities she identifies with.


This gives us the central unit of analysis in cultural theory, the ‘dividual’ – the individual viewed as a node in a network of social structures. For cultural theorists, the four forms of rationality and corresponding social solidarities exhaust the possibilities for human action and behaviour. But moreover, the four forms require one another in order to exist: individualists can only define their attitudes and solidarities in opposition to egalitarians and so on. Cultural theorists may take the further step of arguing that unless all four forms of are in play, in reasonable proportion, solutions to problems will be too ‘neat’ – too biased to one form of rationality. What we want are ‘clumsy’ solutions that are not biased by being neatly tapered down to a dominant rational monopoly or duopoly. With such solutions, everyone comes away happy, as it were, but also, the resultant solutions are better, because they draw on a richer array of possible forms of behaviour and social organisation.


A very obvious candidate for a far too ‘neat’ set of solutions to a nest of problems is the neo-conservative approach to foreign policy – so recently lauded, yet so recently crestfallen. Neo-cons undoubtedly systematically stacked solutions in terms of individualistic concerns (with, in places, the fig-leaf of egalitarianism). And everyone can agree that this has had distastrous consequences.


Now, Obama seems to me to be one of those human beings who is ‘well rounded’ – he has the ego-led charm of the individualist, as well as the self-confidence. Yet he displays strong egalitarian impulses – ‘So let us… look after not only ourselves, but each other.’ He is also not anti-hierarchist, as Bush was: he wants to work with multilateral institutions such as the UN (but he does not naively believe in their intrinsic goodness or effectiveness), and he sees a positive role for Federal institutions within the US. And he has something of the humility of the fatalist: he accepts that his personal journey has been somewhat fortuitous and that both the power of the United States and its erosion are to some extent dependent on contingent historical events.


So it looks, in cultural theory terms, like a good package: all four forms of rationality are well represented in Obama’s personality and character, and thus in the forms of social solidarity he seeks to forge. He is certainly less likely to be as one-sided as Bush. But what of his own model for his presidency? He is said to be avidly studying Roosevelt’s first hundred days in office. If that’s his model it bodes well and perhaps not so well in different contexts. On the home front, an even-handed approach to social progress: a humble fatalism that says you can’t control everything, including the economic situation you inherit; a balance between egalitarian concern and individualist energy and innovation; and this balance delivered through renewed but responsive hierarchies of expertise.


But what of foreign policy? Like Roosevelt, he may effect a split. Roosevelt’s version of the split was social progress at home, isolationism abroad. Obama is perhaps more likely to split between the former and focussed hard-power abroad (hence his call to arms over Afghanistan). The rest of the world must hope his egalitarian impulses and hierarchist sympathies overcome his individualist and fatalist tendencies here  – that he tries to use the moral exemplariness of soft rather than hard power, wherever possible.