Reach out, listen, be patient. Good arguments can stop extremism

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Walter Sinnott-Armstrong | Aeon Ideas

Many of my best friends think that some of my deeply held beliefs about important issues are obviously false or even nonsense. Sometimes, they tell me so to my face. How can we still be friends? Part of the answer is that these friends and I are philosophers, and philosophers learn how to deal with positions on the edge of sanity. In addition, I explain and give arguments for my claims, and they patiently listen and reply with arguments of their own against my – and for their – stances. By exchanging reasons in the form of arguments, we show each other respect and come to understand each other better.

Philosophers are weird, so this kind of civil disagreement still might seem impossible among ordinary folk. However, some stories give hope and show how to overcome high barriers.

One famous example involved Ann Atwater and C P Ellis in my home town of Durham, North Carolina; it is described in Osha Gray Davidson’s book The Best of Enemies (1996) and a forthcoming movie. Atwater was a single, poor, black parent who led Operation Breakthrough, which tried to improve local black neighbourhoods. Ellis was an equally poor but white parent who was proud to be Exalted Cyclops of the local Ku Klux Klan. They could not have started further apart. At first, Ellis brought a gun and henchmen to town meetings in black neighbourhoods. Atwater once lurched toward Ellis with a knife and had to be held back by her friends.

Despite their mutual hatred, when courts ordered Durham to integrate their public schools, Atwater and Ellis were pressured into co-chairing a charrette – a series of public discussions that lasted eight hours per day for 10 days in July 1971 – about how to implement integration. To plan their ordeal, they met and began by asking questions, answering with reasons, and listening to each other. Atwater asked Ellis why he opposed integration. He replied that mainly he wanted his children to get a good education, but integration would ruin their schools. Atwater was probably tempted to scream at him, call him a racist, and walk off in a huff. But she didn’t. Instead, she listened and said that she also wanted his children – as well as hers – to get a good education. Then Ellis asked Atwater why she worked so hard to improve housing for blacks. She replied that she wanted her friends to have better homes and better lives. He wanted the same for his friends.

When each listened to the other’s reasons, they realised that they shared the same basic values. Both loved their children and wanted decent lives for their communities. As Ellis later put it: ‘I used to think that Ann Atwater was the meanest black woman I’d ever seen in my life … But, you know, her and I got together one day for an hour or two and talked. And she is trying to help her people like I’m trying to help my people.’ After realising their common ground, they were able to work together to integrate Durham schools peacefully. In large part, they succeeded.

None of this happened quickly or easily. Their heated discussions lasted 10 long days in the charrette. They could not have afforded to leave their jobs for so long if their employers (including Duke University, where Ellis worked in maintenance) had not granted them time off with pay. They were also exceptional individuals who had strong incentives to work together as well as many personal virtues, including intelligence and patience. Still, such cases prove that sometimes sworn enemies can become close friends and can accomplish a great deal for their communities.

Why can’t liberals and conservatives do the same today? Admittedly, extremists on both sides of the current political scene often hide in their echo chambers and homogeneous neighbourhoods. They never listen to the other side. When they do venture out, the level of rhetoric on the internet is abysmal. Trolls resort to slogans, name-calling and jokes. When they do bother to give arguments, their arguments often simply justify what suits their feelings and signals tribal alliances.

The spread of bad arguments is undeniable but not inevitable. Rare but valuable examples such as Atwater and Ellis show us how we can use philosophical tools to reduce political polarisation.

The first step is to reach out. Philosophers go to conferences to find critics who can help them improve their theories. Similarly, Atwater and Ellis arranged meetings with each other in order to figure out how to work together in the charrette. All of us need to recognise the value of listening carefully and charitably to opponents. Then we need to go to the trouble of talking with those opponents, even if it means leaving our comfortable neighbourhoods or favourite websites.

Second, we need to ask questions. Since Socrates, philosophers have been known as much for their questions as for their answers. And if Atwater and Ellis had not asked each other questions, they never would have learned that what they both cared about the most was their children and alleviating the frustrations of poverty. By asking the right questions in the right way, we can often discover shared values or at least avoid misunderstanding opponents.

Third, we need to be patient. Philosophers teach courses for months on a single issue. Similarly, Atwater and Ellis spent 10 days in a public charrette before they finally came to understand and appreciate each other. They also welcomed other members of the community to talk as long as they wanted, just as good teachers include conflicting perspectives and bring all students into the conversation. Today, we need to slow down and fight the tendency to exclude competing views or to interrupt and retort with quick quips and slogans that demean opponents.

Fourth, we need to give arguments. Philosophers typically recognise that they owe reasons for their claims. Similarly, Atwater and Ellis did not simply announce their positions. They referred to the concrete needs of their children and their communities in order to explain why they held their positions. On controversial issues, neither side is obvious enough to escape demands for evidence and reasons, which are presented in the form of arguments.

None of these steps is easy or quick, but books and online courses on reasoning – especially in philosophy – are available to teach us how to appreciate and develop arguments. We can also learn through practice by reaching out, asking questions, being patient, and giving arguments in our everyday lives.

We still cannot reach everyone. Even the best arguments sometimes fall on deaf ears. But we should not generalise hastily to the conclusion that arguments always fail. Moderates are often open to reason on both sides. So are those all-too-rare exemplars who admit that they (like most of us) do not know which position to hold on complex moral and political issues.

Two lessons emerge. First, we should not give up on trying to reach extremists, such as Atwater and Ellis, despite how hard it is. Second, it is easier to reach moderates, so it usually makes sense to try reasoning with them first. Practising on more receptive audiences can help us improve our arguments as well as our skills in presenting arguments. These lessons will enable us to do our part to shrink the polarisation that stunts our societies and our lives.Aeon counter – do not remove

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Emptiness, form, and Dzogchen ethics

For a hundred years, the West has wrestled with the problem of ethical nihilism. God’s commands once provided a firm foundation for morality; but then he died. All attempts to find an alternative foundation have failed. Why, then, should we be moral? How can we be sure what is moral? No one has satisfactory answers, despite many ingenious attempts by brilliant philosophers…

Read the rest at Vividness.

What did Max Weber mean by the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism?

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The BASF factory at Ludwigshafen, Germany, pictured on a postcard in 1881. Courtesy Wikipedia

Peter Ghosh | Aeon Ideas

Max Weber’s famous text The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) is surely one of the most misunderstood of all the canonical works regularly taught, mangled and revered in universities across the globe. This is not to say that teachers and students are stupid, but that this is an exceptionally compact text that ranges across a very broad subject area, written by an out-and-out intellectual at the top of his game. He would have been dumb­founded to find that it was being used as an elementary introduction to sociology for undergraduate students, or even schoolchildren.

We use the word ‘capitalism’ today as if its meaning were self-evident, or else as if it came from Marx, but this casualness must be set aside. ‘Capitalism’ was Weber’s own word and he defined it as he saw fit. Its most general meaning was quite simply modernity itself: capitalism was ‘the most fateful power in our modern life’. More specifically, it controlled and generated ‘modern Kultur’, the code of values by which people lived in the 20th-century West, and now live, we may add, in much of the 21st-century globe. So the ‘spirit’ of capitalism is also an ‘ethic’, though no doubt the title would have sounded a bit flat if it had been called The Protestant Ethic and the Ethic of Capitalism.

This modern ‘ethic’ or code of values was unlike any other that had gone before. Weber supposed that all previous ethics – that is, socially accepted codes of behaviour rather than the more abstract propositions made by theologians and philosophers – were religious. Religions supplied clear messages about how to behave in society in straightforward human terms, messages that were taken to be moral absolutes binding on all people. In the West this meant Christianity, and its most important social and ethical prescription came out of the Bible: ‘Love thy neighbour.’ Weber was not against love, but his idea of love was a private one – a realm of intimacy and sexuality. As a guide to social behaviour in public places ‘love thy neighbour’ was obviously nonsense, and this was a principal reason why the claims of churches to speak to modern society in authentically religious terms were marginal. He would not have been surprised at the long innings enjoyed by the slogan ‘God is love’ in the 20th-century West – its career was already launched in his own day – nor that its social consequences should have been so limited.

The ethic or code that dominated public life in the modern world was very different. Above all it was impersonal rather than personal: by Weber’s day, agreement on what was right and wrong for the individual was breaking down. The truths of religion – the basis of ethics – were now contested, and other time-honoured norms – such as those pertaining to sexuality, marriage and beauty – were also breaking down. (Here is a blast from the past: who today would think to uphold a binding idea of beauty?) Values were increasingly the property of the individual, not society. So instead of humanly warm contact, based on a shared, intuitively obvious understanding of right and wrong, public behaviour was cool, reserved, hard and sober, governed by strict personal self-control. Correct behaviour lay in the observance of correct procedures. Most obviously, it obeyed the letter of the law (for who could say what its spirit was?) and it was rational. It was logical, consistent, and coherent; or else it obeyed unquestioned modern realities such as the power of numbers, market forces and technology.

There was another kind of disintegration besides that of traditional ethics. The proliferation of knowledge and reflection on knowledge had made it impossible for any one person to know and survey it all. In a world which could not be grasped as a whole, and where there were no universally shared values, most people clung to the particular niche to which they were most committed: their job or profession. They treated their work as a post-religious calling, ‘an absolute end in itself’, and if the modern ‘ethic’ or ‘spirit’ had an ultimate found­ation, this was it. One of the most widespread clichés about Weber’s thought is to say that he preached a work ethic. This is a mistake. He personally saw no particular virtue in sweat – he thought his best ideas came to him when relaxing on a sofa with a cigar – and had he known he would be misunder­stood in this way, he would have pointed out that a capacity for hard work was something that did not dist­inguish the modern West from previous soc­ieties and their value systems. However, the idea that people were being ever more defined by the blinkered focus of their employment was one he regarded as profoundly modern and characteristic.

The blinkered pro­fessional ethic was common to entrepreneurs and an increasingly high-wage, skilled labour force, and it was this combination that produced a situation where the ‘highest good’ was the making of money and ever more money, without any limit. This is what is most readily recognisable as the ‘spirit’ of capitalism, but it should be stressed that it was not a simple ethic of greed which, as Weber recognised, was age-old and eternal. In fact there are two sets of ideas here, though they overlap. There is one about potentially universal rational pro­cedures – specialisation, logic, and formally consistent behaviour – and another that is closer to the modern economy, of which the central part is the professional ethic. The modern situation was the product of narrow-minded adhesion to one’s particular function under a set of conditions where the attempt to understand modernity as a whole had been abandoned by most people. As a result they were not in control of their own destiny, but were governed by the set of rational and impersonal pro­cedures which he likened to an iron cage, or ‘steel housing’. Given its rational and impersonal foundations, the housing fell far short of any human ideal of warmth, spontaneity or breadth of outlook; yet rationality, technology and legality also produced material goods for mass consumption in unprecedented amounts. For this reason, though they could always do so if they chose to, people were unlikely to leave the housing ‘until the last hundredweight of fossil fuel is burned up’.

It is an extremely powerful analysis, which tells us a great deal about the 20th-century West and a set of Western ideas and priorities that the rest of the world has been increasingly happy to take up since 1945. It derives its power not simply from what it says, but because Weber sought to place under­standing before judgment, and to see the world as a whole. If we wish to go beyond him, we must do the same.Aeon counter – do not remove

Peter Ghosh

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Skateboarding: An Existential Art


Rodney Mullen (born August 17, 1966) is an American professional skateboarder, entrepreneur, inventor, and public speaker who practices freestyle and street skateboarding. He is widely considered the most influential street skater in the history of the sport, being credited for inventing numerous tricks, including the kickflip, heelflip, impossible, and 360-flip. As a result, he has been called the “Godfather of Street Skateboarding.”

Rodney Mullen won his first world skateboard championship at the age of 14; over the following decade, he won 35 out of 36 freestyle contests, thus establishing the most successful competitive run in the history of the sport. Over the following years, he turned from freestyle, translating his accumulated skills to a newer, different form of skateboarding.

Mullen has appeared in over 20 skateboarding videos and has co-authored an autobiography, entitled The Mutt: How to Skateboard and Not Kill Yourself, with writer Sean Mortimer.

– Wikipedia


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Man’s Search for Meaning


Man’s Search for Meaning is a 1946 book by Viktor Frankl chronicling his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II, and describing his psychotherapeutic method, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positively about, and then immersively imagining that outcome. According to Frankl, the way a prisoner imagined the future affected his longevity. The book intends to answer the question “How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” Part One constitutes Frankl’s analysis of his experiences in the concentration camps, while Part Two introduces his ideas of meaning and his theory called logotherapy.

According to a survey conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress, Man’s Search for Meaning belongs to a list of “the ten most influential books in the United States.” At the time of the author’s death in 1997, the book had sold over 10 million copies and had been translated into 24 languages.

Frankl identifies three psychological reactions experienced by all inmates to one degree or another: (1) shock during the initial admission phase to the camp, (2) apathy after becoming accustomed to camp existence, in which the inmate values only that which helps himself and his friends survive, and (3) reactions of depersonalization, moral deformity, bitterness, and disillusionment if he survives and is liberated.

Frankl concludes that the meaning of life is found in every moment of living; life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death. In a group therapy session during a mass fast inflicted on the camp’s inmates trying to protect an anonymous fellow inmate from fatal retribution by authorities, Frankl offered the thought that for everyone in a dire condition there is someone looking down, a friend, family member, or even God, who would expect not to be disappointed. Frankl concludes from his experience that a prisoner’s psychological reactions are not solely the result of the conditions of his life, but also from the freedom of choice he always has even in severe suffering. The inner hold a prisoner has on his spiritual self relies on having a hope in the future, and that once a prisoner loses that hope, he is doomed.

An example of Frankl’s idea of finding meaning in the midst of extreme suffering is found in his account of an experience he had while working in the harsh conditions of the Auschwitz concentration camp:

… We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory….”

Frankl also concludes that there are only two races of men, decent men and indecent. No society is free of either of them, and thus there were “decent” Nazi guards and “indecent” prisoners, most notably the kapo who would torture and abuse their fellow prisoners for personal gain.

His concluding passage in Part One describes the psychological reaction of the inmates to their liberation, which he separates into three stages. The first is depersonalization—a period of readjustment, in which a prisoner gradually returns to the world. Initially, the liberated prisoners are so numb that they are unable to understand what freedom means, or to emotionally respond to it. Part of them believes that it is an illusion or a dream that will be taken away from them. In their first foray outside their former prison, the prisoners realized that they could not comprehend pleasure. Flowers and the reality of the freedom they had dreamed about for years were all surreal, unable to be grasped in their depersonalization.

The body is the first element to break out of this stage, responding by big appetites of eating and wanting more sleeping. Only after the partial replenishing of the body is the mind finally able to respond, as “feeling suddenly broke through the strange fetters which had restrained it”.

This begins the second stage, in which there is a danger of deformation. As the intense pressure on the mind is released, mental health can be endangered. Frankl uses the analogy of a diver suddenly released from his pressure chamber. He recounts the story of a decent friend who became immediately obsessed with dispensing the same violence in judgment of his abusers that they had inflicted on him.

Upon returning home, the prisoners had to struggle with two fundamental experiences which could also damage their mental health: bitterness and disillusionment. The last stage is bitterness at the lack of responsiveness of the world outside—a “superficiality and lack of feeling… so disgusting that one finally felt like creeping into a hole and neither hearing nor seeing human beings any more”. Worse was disillusionment, which was the discovery that suffering does not end, that the longed-for happiness will not come. This was the experience of those who—like Frankl—returned home to discover that no one awaited them. The hope that had sustained them throughout their time in the concentration camp was now gone. Frankl cites this experience as the most difficult to overcome.

As time passed, however, the prisoner’s experience in a concentration camp finally became nothing but a remembered nightmare. What is more, he comes to believe that he has nothing left to fear any more, “except his God”.


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Man’s Search for Meaning (PDF)

The Second Sex

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The Second Sex is a 1949 book by the French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir, in which the author discusses the treatment of women throughout history. Beauvoir researched and wrote the book in about 14 months when she was 38 years old. She published it in two volumes, Facts and Myths and Lived Experience. One of Beauvoir’s best-known books, The Second Sex is often regarded as a major work of feminist philosophy and the starting point of second-wave feminism.

Beauvoir asks “What is woman?” She argues that man is considered the default, while woman is considered the “Other”: “Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not herself but as relative to him.” Beauvoir describes the relationship of ovum to sperm in various creatures (fish, insects, mammals), leading up to the human being. She describes women’s subordination to the species in terms of reproduction, compares the physiology of men and women, concluding that values cannot be based on physiology and that the facts of biology must be viewed in light of the ontological, economic, social, and physiological context.

Authors whose views Beauvoir rejects include Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, and Friedrich Engels. Beauvoir argues that while Engels, in his The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), maintained that “the great historical defeat of the female sex” is the result of the invention of bronze and the emergence of private property, his claims are unsupported.

According to Beauvoir, two factors explain the evolution of women’s condition: participation in production and freedom from reproductive slavery. Beauvoir writes that motherhood left woman “riveted to her body” like an animal and made it possible for men to dominate her and Nature. She describes man’s gradual domination of women, starting with the statue of a female Great Goddess found in Susa, and eventually the opinion of ancient Greeks like Pythagoras who wrote, “There is a good principle that created order, light and man and a bad principle that created chaos, darkness and woman.” Men succeed in the world by transcendence, but immanence is the lot of women. Beauvoir writes that men oppress women when they seek to perpetuate the family and keep patrimony intact. She compares women’s situation in ancient Greece with Rome. In Greece, with exceptions like Sparta where there were no restraints on women’s freedom, women were treated almost like slaves. In Rome because men were still the masters, women enjoyed more rights but, still discriminated against on the basis of their gender, had only empty freedom.

Discussing Christianity, Beauvoir argues that, with the exception of the German tradition, it and its clergy have served to subordinate women. She also describes prostitution and the changes in dynamics brought about by courtly love that occurred about the twelfth century. Beauvoir describes from the early fifteenth century “great Italian ladies and courtesans” and singles out the Spaniard Teresa of Ávila as successfully raising “herself as high as a man.” Through the nineteenth century women’s legal status remained unchanged but individuals (like Marguerite de Navarre) excelled by writing and acting. Some men helped women’s status through their works. Beauvoir finds fault with the Napoleonic Code, criticizes Auguste Comte and Honoré de Balzac, and describes Pierre-Joseph Proudhon as an anti-feminist. The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century gave women an escape from their homes but they were paid little for their work. Beauvoir traces the growth of trade unions and participation by women. She examines the spread of birth control methods and the history of abortion. Beauvoir relates the history of women’s suffrage, and writes that women like Rosa Luxemburg and Marie Curie “brilliantly demonstrate that it is not women’s inferiority that has determined their historical insignificance: it is their historical insignificance that has doomed them to inferiority”.

Beauvoir provides a presentation about the “everlasting disappointment” of women, for the most part from a male heterosexual’s point of view. She covers female menstruation, virginity, and female sexuality including copulation, marriage, motherhood, and prostitution. To illustrate man’s experience of the “horror of feminine fertility”, Beauvoir quotes the British Medical Journal of 1878 in which a member of the British Medical Association writes, “It is an indisputable fact that meat goes bad when touched by menstruating women.” She quotes poetry by André Breton, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Michel Leiris, Paul Verlaine, Edgar Allan Poe, Paul Valéry, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and William Shakespeare along with other novels, philosophers, and films. Beauvoir writes that sexual division is maintained in homosexuality.

Examining the work of Henry de Montherlant, D. H. Lawrence, Paul Claudel, André Breton, and Stendhal, Beauvoir writes that these “examples show that the great collective myths are reflected in each singular writer”. “Feminine devotion is demanded as a duty by Montherlant and Lawrence; less arrogant, Claudel, Breton, and Stendhal admire it as a generous choice….” She finds that woman is “the privileged Other“, that Other is defined in the “way the One chooses to posit himself”, and writes that, “But the only earthly destiny reserved to the woman equal, child-woman, soul sister, woman-sex, and female animal is always man.” Beauvoir writes that, “The absence or insignificance of the female element in a body of work is symptomatic… it loses importance in a period like ours in which each individual’s particular problems are of secondary import.”

Beauvoir writes that “mystery” is prominent among men’s myths about women. She also writes that mystery is not confined by sex to women but instead by situation, and that it pertains to any slave. She thinks it disappeared during the eighteenth century when men however briefly considered women to be peers. She quotes Arthur Rimbaud, who writes that hopefully one day, women can become fully human beings when man gives her her freedom.

Presenting a child’s life beginning with birth, Beauvoir contrasts a girl’s upbringing with a boy’s, who at age 3 or 4 is told he is a “little man”. A girl is taught to be a woman and her “feminine” destiny is imposed on her by society. She has no innate “maternal instinct”. A girl comes to believe in and to worship a male god and to create imaginary adult lovers. The discovery of sex is a “phenomenon as painful as weaning” and she views it with disgust. When she discovers that men, not women, are the masters of the world this “imperiously modifies her consciousness of herself”. Beauvoir describes puberty, the beginning of menstruation, and the way girls imagine sex with a man. She relates several ways that girls in their late teens accept their “femininity”, which may include running away from home, fascination with the disgusting, following nature, or stealing. Beauvoir describes sexual relations with men, maintaining that the repercussions of the first of these experiences informs a woman’s whole life. Beauvoir describes women’s sexual relations with women. She writes that “homosexuality is no more a deliberate perversion than a fatal curse”.

Beauvoir writes that “to ask two spouses bound by practical, social and moral ties to satisfy each other sexually for their whole lives is pure absurdity”. She describes the work of married women, including housecleaning, writing that it is “holding away death but also refusing life”. She thinks, “what makes the lot of the wife-servant ungratifying is the division of labor that dooms her wholly to the general and inessential”. Beauvoir writes that a woman finds her dignity only in accepting her vassalage which is bed “service” and housework “service”. A woman is weaned away from her family and finds only “disappointment” on the day after her wedding. Beauvoir points out various inequalities between a wife and husband and finds they pass the time not in love but in “conjugal love”. She thinks that marriage “almost always destroys woman”. She quotes Sophia Tolstoy who wrote in her diary: “you are stuck there forever and there you must sit”. Beauvoir thinks marriage is a perverted institution oppressing both men and women.

In Beauvoir’s view, abortions performed legally by doctors would have little risk to the mother. She argues that the Catholic Church cannot make the claim that the souls of the unborn would not end up in heaven because of their lack of baptism because that would be contradictory to other Church teachings. She writes that the issue of abortion is not an issue of morality but of “masculine sadism” toward woman. Beauvoir describes pregnancy, which is viewed as both a gift and a curse to woman. In this new creation of a new life the woman loses her self, seeing herself as “no longer anything… [but] a passive instrument”. Beauvoir writes that, “maternal sadomasochism creates guilt feelings for the daughter that will express themselves in sadomasochistic behavior toward her own children, without end”, and makes an appeal for socialist child-rearing practices.

Beauvoir describes a woman’s clothes, her girl friends and her relationships with men. She writes that “marriage, by frustrating women’s erotic satisfaction, denies them the freedom and individuality of their feelings, drives them to adultery”. Beauvoir describes prostitutes and their relationships with pimps and with other women, as well as hetaeras. In contrast to prostitutes, hetaeras can gain recognition as an individual and if successful can aim higher and be publicly distinguished. Beauvoir writes that women’s path to menopause might arouse woman’s homosexual feelings (which Beauvoir thinks are latent in most women). When she agrees to grow old she becomes elderly with half of her adult life left to live. Woman might choose to live through her children (often her son) or her grandchildren but she faces “solitude, regret, and ennui”. To pass her time she might engage in useless “women’s handiwork”, watercolors, music or reading, or she might join charitable organizations. While a few rare women are committed to a cause and have an end in mind, Beauvoir concludes that “the highest form of freedom a woman-parasite can have is stoic defiance or skeptical irony”.

According to Beauvoir, while a woman knows how to be as active, effective and silent as a man, her situation keeps her being useful, preparing food, clothes, and lodging. She worries because she does not do anything, she complains, she cries, and she may threaten suicide. She protests but doesn’t escape her lot. She may achieve happiness in “Harmony” and the “Good” as illustrated by Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. Beauvoir thinks it is pointless to try to decide whether woman is superior or inferior, and that it is obvious that the man’s situation is “infinitely preferable”. She writes, “for woman there is no other way out than to work for her liberation”.

Beauvoir describes narcissistic women, who might find themselves in a mirror and in the theater, and women in and outside marriage: “The day when it will be possible for the woman to love in her strength and not in her weakness, not to escape from herself but to find herself, not out of resignation but to affirm herself, love will become for her as for man the source of life and not a mortal danger.” Beauvoir discusses the lives of several women, some of whom developed stigmata. Beauvoir writes that these women may develop a relation “with an unreal”— with their double or a god, or they create an “unreal relation with a real being”. She also mentions women with careers who are able to escape sadism and masochism. A few women have successfully reached a state of equality, and Beauvoir, in a footnote, singles out the example of Clara and Robert Schumann. Beauvoir says that the goals of wives can be overwhelming: as a wife tries to be elegant, a good housekeeper and a good mother. Singled out are “actresses, dancers and singers” who may achieve independence. Among writers, Beauvoir chooses only Emily Brontë, Woolf and (“sometimes”) Mary Webb (and she mentions Colette and Mansfield) as among those who have tried to approach nature “in its inhuman freedom”. Beauvoir then says that women don’t “challenge the human condition” and that in comparison to the few “greats”, woman comes out as “mediocre” and will continue at that level for quite some time. A woman could not have been Vincent van Gogh or Franz Kafka. Beauvoir thinks that perhaps, of all women, only Saint Teresa lived her life for herself. She says it is “high time” woman “be left to take her own chances”.

In her conclusion, Beauvoir looks forward to a future when women and men are equals, something the “Soviet revolution promised” but did not ever deliver. She concludes that, “to carry off this supreme victory, men and women must, among other things and beyond their natural differentiations, unequivocally affirm their brotherhood.”


Source: The Second Sex

Primary Source: The Second Sex (PDF)

What do you really believe?

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Portrait of a Man with a Quilted Sleeve, Titian, c1509. Courtesy Wikipedia/National Gallery, London.

Keith Frankish | Aeon Ideas

Edited by Nigel Warburton

Most of us have views on politics, current events, religion, society, morality and sport, and we spend a lot of time expressing these views, whether in conversation or on social media. We argue for our positions, and get annoyed if they are challenged. Why do we do this? The obvious answer is that we believe the views we express (ie, we think they are true), and we want to get others to believe them too, because they are true. We want the truth to prevail. That’s how it seems. But do we really believe everything we say? Are you always trying to establish the truth when you argue, or might there be other motives at work?

These questions might seem strange, offensive even. Am I suggesting that you are insincere or hypocritical in your views? No – at least I’m not suggesting that you are consciously so. But you might be unconsciously influenced by concerns other than truth. Nowadays, most psychologists agree that rapid, unconscious mental processes (sometimes called ‘System 1’ processes) play a huge role in guiding our behaviour. These processes are not thought of as Freudian ones, involving repressed memories and desires, but as ordinary, everyday judgments, motives and feelings that operate without conscious awareness, like a mental autopilot.

It seems plausible that such processes guide much of our speech. After all, we rarely give conscious thought to our reasons for saying what we do; the words just come to our lips. But if the motives behind our words are unconscious, then we must infer them from our behaviour, and might be mistaken about what they are. Again, this isn’t a revolutionary idea; for centuries, dramatists and novelists have depicted people deceived about their own motives. (For more on the nature and limits of self-knowledge, see my earlier Aeon article.)

It’s easy to think of motives that might prompt us to express a view we don’t really believe. We might want it to be true, and feel reassurance when we argue for it (think of the parents who insist that their missing child is still alive, despite the lack of evidence). We might associate it with people we admire, and assert it so as to be like them (think of how people are influenced by the views of celebrities). We might think that it will get us attention, and make us seem interesting (think of teenagers who adopt provocative views). We might profess it to fit in and gain social acceptance (think of a university student from a conservative background). Or we might feel that we have a duty to defend it because of our commitment to some creed or ideology (we sometimes call this attitude faith – belief in the religious sense).

Such motives might also be reinforced by other factors. As a society, we tend to admire people who know their own minds and stick to their principles. So, once we have expressed a view, for whatever reason, we might feel (again, unconsciously) that we are now committed to it, and should stick with it as a matter of integrity. At the same time, we might develop an emotional attachment to the view, a bit like an attachment to a sports team. It is now our view, the one we have publicly endorsed, and we want it to win out over its rivals just because it is ours. In this way, we might come to have a strong personal commitment to a claim, even if we don’t really believe it.

I am not suggesting that we are never guided by concerns for truth and knowledge (what philosophers call epistemic concerns), but I suspect that these sorts of emotional and social factors play a much larger role than we like to think. How else can we explain the vehemence with which people defend their views, and the hurt they feel when their views are challenged?

Is it bad if we sometimes say things we don’t believe? It might seem not. The aims I’ve mentioned – seeking social acceptance, for example, or cultivating a self-image – are not necessarily bad ones, and since they are unconscious it is arguable that we shouldn’t be held responsible for them anyway. There are dangers, however. For in order to achieve these aims we must convince our audience that we genuinely believe what we say. If they thought we were saying something merely in order to create an impression on them, then we wouldn’t succeed in creating that impression. And when our aim is to make some impression on ourselves – like the parents who insist that their child is still alive – we must convince ourselves that we believe it too. As a consequence, we might need to back up our words with deeds, acting as if we believe what we say. If there were a glaring disparity between what we said and did, our insincerity would be obvious. In this way, unconscious desires for acceptance, approval and reassurance can lead us to make choices on the basis of claims for which we have no good evidence, with obvious risks of frustration and failure.

Is there, then, any way of telling whether you really believe a claim? It might seem that conscious reflection would settle it. If you consciously entertain the claim, do you think it is true? Even this process might be unreliable, however. Many theorists hold that conscious thinking is simply talking to oneself in inner speech, in which case it can be guided by unconscious motives, just like outer speech. And, as I mentioned, unconscious desires can prompt us to deceive ourselves, telling ourselves that a claim is true even though we don’t really believe it.

Despite this, a thought experiment might help us detect what we genuinely believe to be true. In real life, there might be few contexts where truth really is our dominant concern: maintaining a comforting view or upholding a cherished ideology or self-image might almost always be more important to us than truth. But suppose you were being questioned by the Truth Demon – a super-powerful being who knows the truth on every topic, and will punish you horribly if you give a wrong answer or fail to answer at all. If you continue to assert a claim when the Truth Demon asks you if it is true, then you do really believe it, really think it is true. But if you give a different answer when under threat of torture by the all-knowing demon, then you don’t really believe the claim. This gives us a practical test for belief: imagine the situation just described as vividly as you can, and see what you would say about any of your views. But do be careful not to give too much conscious thought to the matter in case you start telling yourself what you want to hear.Aeon counter – do not remove


Keith Frankish is an English philosopher and writer. He is a visiting research fellow with the Open University in the UK and an adjunct professor with the Brain and Mind Programme at the University of Crete. He lives in Greece.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


Commentary

I like the gist of this article (along with the author’s previous article), but the Truth Demon (a.k.a. God) thought experiment could use some work. It’s too easy to deceive and delude oneself, even under imagined duress. It’s also unclear if many people would be “punished horribly” while expressing their false beliefs in good conscience. As mentioned by the author, a good judge of honest belief is one’s actions, but there is a difference between honest belief and truth itself (or is there?). Although the author’s final word is on point, I prefer Nietzsche’s thought experiment: “What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.”


We don’t know ourselves, we knowledgeable people—we are personally ignorant
about ourselves. And there’s good reason for that. We’ve never tried to find out who
we are. How could it ever happen that one day we’d discover our own selves? With
justice it’s been said that “Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also.” Our treasure lies where the beehives of our knowledge stand. We are always busy with our knowledge, as if we were born winged creatures—collectors of intellectual honey. In our hearts we are basically concerned with only one thing, to “bring something home.” As far as the rest of life is concerned, what people call “experience”—which of us is serious enough for that? Who has enough time? In these matters, I fear, we’ve been “missing the point.”

Our hearts have not even been engaged—nor, for that matter, have our ears! We’ve
been much more like someone divinely distracted and self-absorbed into whose ear
the clock has just pealed the twelve strokes of noon with all its force and who all at
once wakes up and asks himself “What exactly did that clock strike?”—so we rub
ourselves behind the ears afterwards and ask, totally surprised and embarrassed “What have we really just experienced? And more: “Who are we really?” Then, as I’ve mentioned, we count—after the fact—all the twelve trembling strokes of the clock of our experience, our lives, our being—alas! in the process we keep losing the count. So we remain necessarily strangers to ourselves, we do not understand ourselves, we have to keep ourselves confused. For us this law holds for all eternity: “Each man is furthest from himself.” Where we ourselves are concerned, we are not “knowledgeable people.”

― Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals/Ecce Homo

When subjectivity, inwardness, is the truth, the truth becomes objectively determined as a paradox, and that it is paradoxical is made clear by the fact that subjectivity is truth, for it repels objectivity, and the expression for the objective repulsion is the intensity and measure of inwardness. The paradox is the objective uncertainty, which is the expression for the passion of inwardness, which is precisely the truth. This is the Socratic principle. The eternal, essential truth, that is, that which relates itself essentially to the individual because it concerns his existence (all other knowledge is, Socratically speaking, accidental, its degree and scope being indifferent), is a paradox. Nevertheless, the eternal truth is not essentially in itself paradoxical, but it becomes so by relating itself to an existing individual. Socratic ignorance is the expression of this objective uncertainty, the inwardness of the existential subject is the truth. To anticipate what I will develop later, Socratic ignorance is an analogy to the category of the absurd, only that there is still less objective certainty in the absurd, and therefore infinitely greater tension in its inwardness. The Socratic inwardness that involves existence is an analogy to faith, except that this inwardness is repulsed not by ignorance but by the absurd, which is infinitely deeper. Socratically the eternal, essential truth is by no means paradoxical in itself, but only by virtue of its relation to an existing individual.

― Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript

The Four Horsemen

This little chat, a casual yet intellectually stimulating discussion between four brilliant minds was so excellent that I felt the need to share it. Many topics are discussed spanning science, religion, psychology and sociology. The way they interact with each other with sincerity, empathy and humility and a sense of fellowship is hard to come by in the world today. My personal loss of faith was due more to the study of philosophy rather than science, although science certainly played a role. I don’t agree with some of the things that are said by these so-called “New Atheists,” but I think that is the point. We need more fellowship and real human connection. We need to learn to love one another, regardless of worldview.


Full Texts by these Authors (PDF)

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett

God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

The End of Faith by Sam Harris

Our Illusory Sense of Agency Has a Deeply Important Social Purpose

I’m trying to concentrate on writing this piece, but my two grandchildren in the room next door have stopped making paper aeroplanes and started arguing. ‘You kicked me,’ yells Freya. Her brother Ben insists it was an accident. ‘I didn’t mean to,’ he cries.

Why should this be an excuse, I wonder? The pain is the same in either case.

But Freya is more concerned with Ben’s intention than the pain. ‘You did it deliberately,’ she says. But did Ben hit her on purpose? How do we know, and why should it matter?

It certainly doesn’t come from having access to the brain processes that underlie our actions. After all, I have no insight into the electrochemical particulars of how my nerves are firing or how neurotransmitters are coursing through my brain and bloodstream. Instead, our experience of agency seems to come from inferences we make about the causes of our actions, based on crude sensory data. And, as with any kind of perception based on inference, our experience can be tricked.

Look at this picture of a domino:

We clearly see five convex knobs and three concave hollows, despite the fact we’re looking at a flat screen. Our brain creates the illusion because we expect light to come from above, and so we can infer the 3D shapes from the shading. If the shadow is at the top, we see a hollow. If it is at the bottom, we see a knob. But, for the same reason, if you turn the picture upside down you’ll see three knobs and five hollows.

It’s the same with our experience of agency. Our inferences can be wrong. I can believe that I am acting when it’s actually someone else. Or I can believe that someone else is acting when it’s actually me.

Such illusions aren’t confined to highly contrived laboratory situations. In the 1970s, facilitated communication, or supported typing, was promoted as a teaching strategy for helping people with autism communicate with the wider world. The child’s fingers rested on the keys and the facilitator helped the child to type by detecting their intended movements. The technique was eventually discredited after many demonstrations showed that any ‘communication’ came from the facilitator, and not from the child. But the striking thing was that most of the facilitators sincerely believed that they were not the agents of these actions. Free will is not something we have, so much as something we feel.

These observations point to a fundamental paradox about consciousness. We have the strong impression that we choose when we do and don’t act and, as a consequence, we hold people responsible for their actions. Yet many of the ways we encounter the world don’t require any real conscious processing, and our feeling of agency can be deeply misleading.

If our experience of action doesn’t really affect what we do in the moment, then what is it for? Why have it? Contrary to what many people believe, I think agency is only relevant to what happens after we act – when we try to justify and explain ourselves to each other.

There are a few hints that support this view. Take the subjective experience of fluency: the easier it feels to do something, the more likely you are to think that you’re in control of the action. But we have to learn to interpret such feelings, and what other people tell us can alter the way we respond. When doing hard mental work, we have a strong sense of making an effort. Does this mean that we’ll be tired and need a rest, or that we’ll be energised and ready to keep going? If someone tells us we will feel depleted, we’ll perform badly on the task. But if we’re told we should feel energised, we’ll do well. In the same way we learn to associate certain experiences of action with a sense of agency. And it is these kinds of action that we feel responsible for.

The bond between agency and mutual accountability goes back at least as far as 300 BCE. The Greek philosophers, Epicurus and the Stoics, wanted to defend the idea of free will despite believing the universe to be pre-determined by the laws of nature. Free will has two fundamental features, they said. The first is the feeling of being in control: ‘I am the cause of this event.’ The second is a grasp of the counterfactual: ‘I could have chosen otherwise.’ Pangs of regret – something we’ve all experienced – make no sense unless we believe that we could have done something differently. Furthermore, Epicurus believed that we acquire this sense of responsibility via the praise and blame we received from others. By listening to our peers and elders, we become attuned to our capacity to effect change in the world.

Our conscious experience is what enables us to pick up these lessons. It might be surplus to requirements for most of our actions, but we certainly need consciousness when we’re reflecting on our life and discussing it with other people. For example, many children are reminded to think before they act, lest they regret it. They also learn that ‘accidents’ are more readily excused than intentional wrongs. So my grandson Ben might not really be sure whether he kicked Freya accidentally or on purpose, but he knows he’s got a better chance of getting away with it if he claims the kick was unintentional. In this way, we gradually figure out what it ‘feels’ like for our actions to be ‘deliberate’, and if all goes well, we develop into adults with a sense of responsibility about our own powers.

Given the social dimensions of agency, it’s unsurprising that the norms about responsibility vary considerably. In another time and place Ben might not get off so lightly for inadvertently kicking Freya. Certain Pacific Islander cultures, for example, believe in the ‘opacity’ of other minds – the idea that it is impossible, or at least very difficult, to know what other people think and feel. As a result, people are frequently held responsible for their wrongdoings, even when they were the result of an accident or error. Intentionality is impossible to grasp, and therefore largely irrelevant. Similarly, among the Mopan Maya of Belize and Guatemala, children and adults alike are punished according to the outcome of their actions.

What’s more, by considering our experiences and sharing them with others, we can reach a consensus about what the world and we humans are really like. A consensus need not be accurate to be attractive or useful, of course. For a long time everyone agreed that the Sun went round the Earth. Perhaps our sense of agency is a similar trick: it might not be ‘true’, but it maintains social cohesion by creating a shared basis for morality. It helps us understand why people act as they do – and, as a result, makes it is easier to predict people’s behaviour.

Responsibility, then, is the real currency of conscious experience. In turn, it is also the bedrock of culture. Humans are social animals, but we’d be unable to cooperate or get along in communities if we couldn’t agree on the kinds of creatures we are and the sort of world we inhabit. It’s only by reflecting, sharing and accounting for our experiences that we can find such common ground. To date, the scientific method is the most advanced cognitive technology we’ve developed for honing the accuracy of our consensus – a method involving continuous experimentation, discussion and replication. Ben and Freya’s debate about the meaning of action is just the beginning.Aeon counter – do not remove

Chris Frith

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

 

The Sunset Limited

For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

– Ecclesiastes 1:18



The Sunset Limited is a 2011 television film based on the play written by Cormac McCarthy. The film stars Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson.

Two men with opposing beliefs confront each other in an apartment. The film starts out with Black (Samuel L. Jackson) and White (Tommy Lee Jones) conversing about White’s attempted suicide. White feels as though everything ends up in death, and that his life is minuscule in the throes of time.

From White’s point of view, no matter how great someone or something is, all that is created eventually fades away. This is the opposite of what Black believes. He believes that there is a God and that we all must go through the troubles of life to get to paradise (Heaven). By his own account, his story is that of a man who has committed murder and was far away from God, but has now changed.

Black feels that he can persuade White from committing suicide. With Black stopping White right before he was about to kill himself, Black feels that this is destiny.


Available on HBO: http://www.hbo.com/movies/sunset-limited

Full text: The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy (PDF)