Descartes was Wrong: ‘A Person is a Person through Other Persons’

young-moe

Detail from Young Moe (1938) by Paul Klee. Courtesy Phillips collection/Wikipedia

Abeba Birhane | Aeon Ideas

According to Ubuntu philosophy, which has its origins in ancient Africa, a newborn baby is not a person. People are born without ‘ena’, or selfhood, and instead must acquire it through interactions and experiences over time. So the ‘self’/‘other’ distinction that’s axiomatic in Western philosophy is much blurrier in Ubuntu thought. As the Kenyan-born philosopher John Mbiti put it in African Religions and Philosophy (1975): ‘I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.’

We know from everyday experience that a person is partly forged in the crucible of community. Relationships inform self-understanding. Who I am depends on many ‘others’: my family, my friends, my culture, my work colleagues. The self I take grocery shopping, say, differs in her actions and behaviours from the self that talks to my PhD supervisor. Even my most private and personal reflections are entangled with the perspectives and voices of different people, be it those who agree with me, those who criticise, or those who praise me.

Yet the notion of a fluctuating and ambiguous self can be disconcerting. We can chalk up this discomfort, in large part, to René Descartes. The 17th-century French philosopher believed that a human being was essentially self-contained and self-sufficient; an inherently rational, mind-bound subject, who ought to encounter the world outside her head with skepticism. While Descartes didn’t single-handedly create the modern mind, he went a long way towards defining its contours.

Descartes had set himself a very particular puzzle to solve. He wanted to find a stable point of view from which to look on the world without relying on God-decreed wisdoms; a place from which he could discern the permanent structures beneath the changeable phenomena of nature. But Descartes believed that there was a trade-off between certainty and a kind of social, worldly richness. The only thing you can be certain of is your own cogito – the fact that you are thinking. Other people and other things are inherently fickle and erratic. So they must have nothing to do with the basic constitution of the knowing self, which is a necessarily detached, coherent and contemplative whole.

Few respected philosophers and psychologists would identify as strict Cartesian dualists, in the sense of believing that mind and matter are completely separate. But the Cartesian cogito is still everywhere you look. The experimental design of memory testing, for example, tends to proceed from the assumption that it’s possible to draw a sharp distinction between the self and the world. If memory simply lives inside the skull, then it’s perfectly acceptable to remove a person from her everyday environment and relationships, and to test her recall using flashcards or screens in the artificial confines of a lab. A person is considered a standalone entity, irrespective of her surroundings, inscribed in the brain as a series of cognitive processes. Memory must be simply something you have, not something you do within a certain context.

Social psychology purports to examine the relationship between cognition and society. But even then, the investigation often presumes that a collective of Cartesian subjects are the real focus of the enquiry, not selves that co-evolve with others over time. In the 1960s, the American psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané became interested in the murder of Kitty Genovese, a young white woman who had been stabbed and assaulted on her way home one night in New York. Multiple people had witnessed the crime but none stepped in to prevent it. Darley and Latané designed a series of experiments in which they simulated a crisis, such as an epileptic fit, or smoke billowing in from the next room, to observe what people did. They were the first to identify the so-called ‘bystander effect’, in which people seem to respond more slowly to someone in distress if others are around.

Darley and Latané suggested that this might come from a ‘diffusion of responsibility’, in which the obligation to react is diluted across a bigger group of people. But as the American psychologist Frances Cherry argued in The Stubborn Particulars of Social Psychology: Essays on the Research Process (1995), this numerical approach wipes away vital contextual information that might help to understand people’s real motives. Genovese’s murder had to be seen against a backdrop in which violence against women was not taken seriously, Cherry said, and in which people were reluctant to step into what might have been a domestic dispute. Moreover, the murder of a poor black woman would have attracted far less subsequent media interest. But Darley and Latané’s focus make structural factors much harder to see.

Is there a way of reconciling these two accounts of the self – the relational, world-embracing version, and the autonomous, inward one? The 20th-century Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin believed that the answer lay in dialogue. We need others in order to evaluate our own existence and construct a coherent self-image. Think of that luminous moment when a poet captures something you’d felt but had never articulated; or when you’d struggled to summarise your thoughts, but they crystallised in conversation with a friend. Bakhtin believed that it was only through an encounter with another person that you could come to appreciate your own unique perspective and see yourself as a whole entity. By ‘looking through the screen of the other’s soul,’ he wrote, ‘I vivify my exterior.’ Selfhood and knowledge are evolving and dynamic; the self is never finished – it is an open book.

So reality is not simply out there, waiting to be uncovered. ‘Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction,’ Bakhtin wrote in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929). Nothing simply is itself, outside the matrix of relationships in which it appears. Instead, being is an act or event that must happen in the space between the self and the world.

Accepting that others are vital to our self-perception is a corrective to the limitations of the Cartesian view. Consider two different models of child psychology. Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development conceives of individual growth in a Cartesian fashion, as the reorganisation of mental processes. The developing child is depicted as a lone learner – an inventive scientist, struggling independently to make sense of the world. By contrast, ‘dialogical’ theories, brought to life in experiments such as Lisa Freund’s ‘doll house study’ from 1990, emphasise interactions between the child and the adult who can provide ‘scaffolding’ for how she understands the world.

A grimmer example might be solitary confinement in prisons. The punishment was originally designed to encourage introspection: to turn the prisoner’s thoughts inward, to prompt her to reflect on her crimes, and to eventually help her return to society as a morally cleansed citizen. A perfect policy for the reform of Cartesian individuals. But, in fact, studies of such prisoners suggest that their sense of self dissolves if they are punished this way for long enough. Prisoners tend to suffer profound physical and psychological difficulties, such as confusion, anxiety, insomnia, feelings of inadequacy, and a distorted sense of time. Deprived of contact and interaction – the external perspective needed to consummate and sustain a coherent self-image – a person risks disappearing into non-existence.

The emerging fields of embodied and enactive cognition have started to take dialogic models of the self more seriously. But for the most part, scientific psychology is only too willing to adopt individualistic Cartesian assumptions that cut away the webbing that ties the self to others. There is a Zulu phrase, ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’, which means ‘A person is a person through other persons.’ This is a richer and better account, I think, than ‘I think, therefore I am.’Aeon counter – do not remove

Abeba Birhane

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

The Concept of Probability is not as Simple as You Think

probability

Phil Long/Flickr

Nevin Climenhaga | Aeon Ideas

The gambler, the quantum physicist and the juror all reason about probabilities: the probability of winning, of a radioactive atom decaying, of a defendant’s guilt. But despite their ubiquity, experts dispute just what probabilities are. This leads to disagreements on how to reason about, and with, probabilities – disagreements that our cognitive biases can exacerbate, such as our tendency to ignore evidence that runs counter to a hypothesis we favour. Clarifying the nature of probability, then, can help to improve our reasoning.

Three popular theories analyse probabilities as either frequencies, propensities or degrees of belief. Suppose I tell you that a coin has a 50 per cent probability of landing heads up. These theories, respectively, say that this is:

  • The frequency with which that coin lands heads;
  • The propensity, or tendency, that the coin’s physical characteristics give it to land heads;
  • How confident I am that it lands heads.

But each of these interpretations faces problems. Consider the following case:

Adam flips a fair coin that self-destructs after being tossed four times. Adam’s friends Beth, Charles and Dave are present, but blindfolded. After the fourth flip, Beth says: ‘The probability that the coin landed heads the first time is 50 per cent.’

Adam then tells his friends that the coin landed heads three times out of four. Charles says: ‘The probability that the coin landed heads the first time is 75 per cent.’

Dave, despite having the same information as Charles, says: ‘I disagree. The probability that the coin landed heads the first time is 60 per cent.’

The frequency interpretation struggles with Beth’s assertion. The frequency with which the coin lands heads is three out of four, and it can never be tossed again. Still, it seems that Beth was right: the probability that the coin landed heads the first time is 50 per cent.

Meanwhile, the propensity interpretation falters on Charles’s assertion. Since the coin is fair, it had an equal propensity to land heads or tails. Yet Charles also seems right to say that the probability that the coin landed heads the first time is 75 per cent.

The confidence interpretation makes sense of the first two assertions, holding that they express Beth and Charles’s confidence that the coin landed heads. But consider Dave’s assertion. When Dave says that the probability that the coin landed heads is 60 per cent, he says something false. But if Dave really is 60 per cent confident that the coin landed heads, then on the confidence interpretation, he has said something true – he has truly reported how certain he is.

Some philosophers think that such cases support a pluralistic approach in which there are multiple kinds of probabilities. My own view is that we should adopt a fourth interpretation – a degree-of-support interpretation.

Here, probabilities are understood as relations of evidential support between propositions. ‘The probability of X given Y’ is the degree to which Y supports the truth of X. When we speak of ‘the probability of X’ on its own, this is shorthand for the probability of X conditional on any background information we have. When Beth says that there is a 50 per cent probability that the coin landed heads, she means that this is the probability that it lands heads conditional on the information that it was tossed and some information about its construction (for example, it being symmetrical).

Relative to different information, however, the proposition that the coin landed heads has a different probability. When Charles says that there is a 75 per cent probability that the coin landed heads, he means this is the probability that it landed heads relative to the information that three of four tosses landed heads. Meanwhile, Dave says there is a 60 per cent probability that the coin landed heads, relative to this same information – but since this information in fact supports heads more strongly than 60 per cent, what Dave says is false.

The degree-of-support interpretation incorporates what’s right about each of our first three approaches while correcting their problems. It captures the connection between probabilities and degrees of confidence. It does this not by identifying them – instead, it takes degrees of belief to be rationally constrained by degrees of support. The reason I should be 50 per cent confident that a coin lands heads, if all I know about it is that it is symmetrical, is because this is the degree to which my evidence supports this hypothesis.

Similarly, the degree-of-support interpretation allows the information that the coin landed heads with a 75 per cent frequency to make it 75 per cent probable that it landed heads on any particular toss. It captures the connection between frequencies and probabilities but, unlike the frequency interpretation, it denies that frequencies and probabilities are the same thing. Instead, probabilities sometimes relate claims about frequencies to claims about specific individuals.

Finally, the degree-of-support interpretation analyses the propensity of the coin to land heads as a relation between, on the one hand, propositions about the construction of the coin and, on the other, the proposition that it lands heads. That is, it concerns the degree to which the coin’s construction predicts the coin’s behaviour. More generally, propensities link claims about causes and claims about effects – eg, a description of an atom’s intrinsic characteristics and the hypothesis that it decays.

Because they turn probabilities into different kinds of entities, our four theories offer divergent advice on how to figure out the values of probabilities. The first three interpretations (frequency, propensity and confidence) try to make probabilities things we can observe – through counting, experimentation or introspection. By contrast, degrees of support seem to be what philosophers call ‘abstract entities’ – neither in the world nor in our minds. While we know that a coin is symmetrical by observation, we know that the proposition ‘this coin is symmetrical’ supports the propositions ‘this coin lands heads’ and ‘this coin lands tails’ to equal degrees in the same way we know that ‘this coin lands heads’ entails ‘this coin lands heads or tails’: by thinking.

But a skeptic might point out that coin tosses are easy. Suppose we’re on a jury. How are we supposed to figure out the probability that the defendant committed the murder, so as to see whether there can be reasonable doubt about his guilt?

Answer: think more. First, ask: what is our evidence? What we want to figure out is how strongly this evidence supports the hypothesis that the defendant is guilty. Perhaps our salient evidence is that the defendant’s fingerprints are on the gun used to kill the victim.

Then, ask: can we use the mathematical rules of probability to break down the probability of our hypothesis in light of the evidence into more tractable probabilities? Here we are concerned with the probability of a cause (the defendant committing the murder) given an effect (his fingerprints being on the murder weapon). Bayes’s theorem lets us calculate this as a function of three further probabilities: the prior probability of the cause, the probability of the effect given this cause, and the probability of the effect without this cause.

Since this is all relative to any background information we have, the first probability (of the cause) is informed by what we know about the defendant’s motives, means and opportunity. We can get a handle on the third probability (of the effect without the cause) by breaking down the possibility that the defendant is innocent into other possible causes of the victim’s death, and asking how probable each is, and how probable they make it that the defendant’s fingerprints would be on the gun. We will eventually reach probabilities that we cannot break down any further. At this point, we might search for general principles to guide our assignments of probabilities, or we might rely on intuitive judgments, as we do in the coin cases.

When we are reasoning about criminals rather than coins, this process is unlikely to lead to convergence on precise probabilities. But there’s no alternative. We can’t resolve disagreements about how much the information we possess supports a hypothesis just by gathering more information. Instead, we can make progress only by way of philosophical reflection on the space of possibilities, the information we have, and how strongly it supports some possibilities over others.Aeon counter – do not remove

Nevin Climenhaga

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Why the Demoniac Stayed in his Comfortable Corner of Hell

the-drunkard

Detail from The Drunkard (1912) by Marc Chagall. Courtesy Wikipedia

John Kaag | Aeon Ideas

I am not what one might call a religious man. I went to church, and then to confirmation class, under duress. My mother, whom I secretly regarded as more powerful than God, insisted that I go. So I went. Her insistence, however, had the unintended consequence of introducing me to a pastor whom I came to despise. So I eventually quit.

There were many problems with this pastor but the one that bothered me the most was his refusal to explain a story from the New Testament that I found especially hard to believe: the story of the demoniac.

This story from Mark 5:1-20 relates how Jesus and the disciples go to the town of Gerasenes and there encounter a man who is possessed by evil spirits. This demoniac – a self-imposed outcast from society – lived at the outskirts of town and ‘night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones’. The grossest part of the story, however, isn’t the self-mutilation. It’s the demoniac’s insane refusal to accept help. When Jesus approached him, the demoniac threw himself to the ground and wailed: ‘What do you want with me? … In God’s name, don’t torture me!’ When you’re possessed by evil spirits, the worst thing in the world is to be healed. In short, the demoniac tells Jesus to bugger off, to leave him and his sharp little stones in his comfortable corner of hell.

When I first read about the demoniac, I was admittedly scared, but I eventually convinced myself that the parable was a manipulative attempt to persuade unbelievers such as me to find religion. And I wasn’t buying it. But when I entered university, went into philosophy, and began to cultivate an agnosticism that one might call atheism, I discovered that many a philosopher had been drawn to this scary story. So I took a second look.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who spent years analysing the psychological and ethical dimensions of the demoniac, tells us that being demonic is more common than we might like to admit. He points out that when Jesus heals the possessed man, the spirits are exorcised en masse, flying out together as ‘the Legion’ – a vast army of evil forces. There are more than enough little demons to go around, and this explains why they come to roust in some rather mundane places. In Kierkegaard’s words: ‘One may hear the drunkard say: “Let me be the filth that I am.”’ Or, leave me alone with my bottle and let me ruin my life, thank you very much. I heard this first from my father, and then from an increasing number of close friends, and most recently from a voice that occasionally keeps me up at night when everyone else is asleep.

Those who are the most pointedly afflicted are often precisely those who are least able to recognise their affliction, or to save themselves. And those with the resources to rescue themselves are usually already saved. As Kierkegaard suggests, the virtue of sobriety makes perfect sense to one who is already sober. Eating well is second nature to the one who is already healthy; saving money is a no-brainer for one who one is already rich; truth-telling is the good habit of one who is already honest. But for those in the grips of crisis or sin, getting out usually doesn’t make much sense.

Sharp stones can take a variety of forms.

In The Concept of Anxiety (1844), Kierkegaard tells us that the ‘essential nature of [the demoniac] is anxiety about the good’. I’ve been ‘anxious’ about many things – about exams, about spiders, about going to sleep – but Kierkegaard explains that the feeling I have about these nasty things isn’t anxiety at all. It’s fear. Anxiety, on the other hand, has no particular object. It is the sense of uneasiness that one has at the edge of a cliff, or climbing a ladder, or thinking about the prospects of a completely open future – it isn’t fear per se, but the feeling that we get when faced with possibility. It’s the unsettling feeling of freedom. Yes, freedom, that most precious of modern watchwords, is deeply unsettling.

What does this have to do with our demoniac? Everything. Kierkegaard explains that the demoniac reflects ‘an unfreedom that wants to close itself off’; when confronted with the possibility of being healed, he wants nothing to do with it. The free life that Jesus offers is, for the demoniac, pure torture. I’ve often thought that this is the fate of the characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit (1944): they are always free to leave, but leaving seems beyond impossible.

Yet Jesus manages to save the demoniac. And I wanted my pastor to tell me how. At the time, I chalked up most of the miracles from the Bible as exaggeration, or interpretation, or poetic licence. But the healing of the demoniac – unlike the bread and fish and resurrection – seemed really quite fantastic. So how did Jesus do it? I didn’t get a particularly good answer from my pastor, so I left the Church. And never came back.

Today, I still want to know.

I’m not here to explain the salvation of the demoniac. I’m here only to observe, as carefully as I can, that this demonic situation is a problem. Indeed, I suspect it is the problem for many, many readers. The demoniac reflects what theologians call the ‘religious paradox’, namely that it is impossible for fallen human beings – such craven creatures – to bootstrap themselves to heaven. Any redemptive resources at our disposal are probably exactly as botched as we are.

There are many ways to distract ourselves from this paradox – and we are very good at manufacturing them: movies and alcohol and Facebook and all the fixations and obsessions of modern life. But at the end of the day, these are pitifully little comfort.

So this year, as New Year’s Day recedes from memory and the winter darkness remains, I am making a resolution: I will try not to take all the usual escapes. Instead, I will try to simply sit with the plight of the demoniac, to ‘stew in it’ as my mother used to say, for a minute or two more. In his essay ‘Self-will’ (1919), the German author Hermann Hesse put it thus: ‘If you and you … are in pain, if you are sick in body or soul, if you are afraid and have a foreboding of danger – why not, if only to amuse yourselves … try to put the question in another way? Why not ask whether the source of your pain might not be you yourselves?’ I will not reach for my familiar demonic stones, blood-spattered yet comforting. I will ask why I need them in the first place. When I do this, and attempt to come to terms with the demoniac’s underlying suffering, I might notice that it is not unique to me.

When I do, when I let go of the things that I think are going to ease my suffering, I might have the chance to notice that I am not alone in my anxiety. And maybe this is recompense enough. Maybe this is freedom and the best that I can hope for.Aeon counter – do not remove

John Kaag

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Between Gods and Animals: Becoming Human in the Gilgamesh Epic

Tablet_V_of_the_Epic_of_Gilgamesh

A newly discovered, partially broken, tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The tablet dates back to the old Babylonian period, 2003-1595 BCE. From Mesopotamia, Iraq. The Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq. Photograph by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin. Wikimedia.


Sophus Helle | Aeon Ideas

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a Babylonian poem composed in ancient Iraq, millennia before Homer. It tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of the city of Uruk. To curb his restless and destructive energy, the gods create a friend for him, Enkidu, who grows up among the animals of the steppe. When Gilgamesh hears about this wild man, he orders that a woman named Shamhat be brought out to find him. Shamhat seduces Enkidu, and the two make love for six days and seven nights, transforming Enkidu from beast to man. His strength is diminished, but his intellect is expanded, and he becomes able to think and speak like a human being. Shamhat and Enkidu travel together to a camp of shepherds, where Enkidu learns the ways of humanity. Eventually, Enkidu goes to Uruk to confront Gilgamesh’s abuse of power, and the two heroes wrestle with one another, only to form a passionate friendship.

This, at least, is one version of Gilgamesh’s beginning, but in fact the epic went through a number of different editions. It began as a cycle of stories in the Sumerian language, which were then collected and translated into a single epic in the Akkadian language. The earliest version of the epic was written in a dialect called Old Babylonian, and this version was later revised and updated to create another version, in the Standard Babylonian dialect, which is the one that most readers will encounter today.

Not only does Gilgamesh exist in a number of different versions, each version is in turn made up of many different fragments. There is no single manuscript that carries the entire story from beginning to end. Rather, Gilgamesh has to be recreated from hundreds of clay tablets that have become fragmentary over millennia. The story comes to us as a tapestry of shards, pieced together by philologists to create a roughly coherent narrative (about four-fifths of the text have been recovered). The fragmentary state of the epic also means that it is constantly being updated, as archaeological excavations – or, all too often, illegal lootings – bring new tablets to light, making us reconsider our understanding of the text. Despite being more than 4,000 years old, the text remains in flux, changing and expanding with each new finding.

The newest discovery is a tiny fragment that had lain overlooked in the museum archive of Cornell University in New York, identified by Alexandra Kleinerman and Alhena Gadotti and published by Andrew George in 2018. At first, the fragment does not look like much: 16 broken lines, most of them already known from other manuscripts. But working on the text, George noticed something strange. The tablet seemed to preserve parts of both the Old Babylonian and the Standard Babylonian version, but in a sequence that didn’t fit the structure of the story as it had been understood until then.

The fragment is from the scene where Shamhat seduces Enkidu and has sex with him for a week. Before 2018, scholars believed that the scene existed in both an Old Babylonian and a Standard Babylonian version, which gave slightly different accounts of the same episode: Shamhat seduces Enkidu, they have sex for a week, and Shamhat invites Enkidu to Uruk. The two scenes are not identical, but the differences could be explained as a result of the editorial changes that led from the Old Babylonian to the Standard Babylonian version. However, the new fragment challenges this interpretation. One side of the tablet overlaps with the Standard Babylonian version, the other with the Old Babylonian version. In short, the two scenes cannot be different versions of the same episode: the story included two very similar episodes, one after the other.

According to George, both the Old Babylonian and the Standard Babylonian version ran thus: Shamhat seduces Enkidu, they have sex for a week, and Shamhat invites Enkidu to come to Uruk. The two of them then talk about Gilgamesh and his prophetic dreams. Then, it turns out, they had sex for another week, and Shamhat again invites Enkidu to Uruk.

Suddenly, Shamhat and Enkidu’s marathon of love had been doubled, a discovery that The Times publicised under the racy headline ‘Ancient Sex Saga Now Twice As Epic’. But in fact, there is a deeper significance to this discovery. The difference between the episodes can now be understood, not as editorial changes, but as psychological changes that Enkidu undergoes as he becomes human. The episodes represent two stages of the same narrative arc, giving us a surprising insight into what it meant to become human in the ancient world.

The first time that Shamhat invites Enkidu to Uruk, she describes Gilgamesh as a hero of great strength, comparing him to a wild bull. Enkidu replies that he will indeed come to Uruk, but not to befriend Gilgamesh: he will challenge him and usurp his power. Shamhat is dismayed, urging Enkidu to forget his plan, and instead describes the pleasures of city life: music, parties and beautiful women.

After they have sex for a second week, Shamhat invites Enkidu to Uruk again, but with a different emphasis. This time she dwells not on the king’s bullish strength, but on Uruk’s civic life: ‘Where men are engaged in labours of skill, you, too, like a true man, will make a place for yourself.’ Shamhat tells Enkidu that he is to integrate himself in society and find his place within a wider social fabric. Enkidu agrees: ‘the woman’s counsel struck home in his heart’.

It is clear that Enkidu has changed between the two scenes. The first week of sex might have given him the intellect to converse with Shamhat, but he still thinks in animal terms: he sees Gilgamesh as an alpha male to be challenged. After the second week, he has become ready to accept a different vision of society. Social life is not about raw strength and assertions of power, but also about communal duties and responsibility.

Placed in this gradual development, Enkidu’s first reaction becomes all the more interesting, as a kind of intermediary step on the way to humanity. In a nutshell, what we see here is a Babylonian poet looking at society through Enkidu’s still-feral eyes. It is a not-fully-human perspective on city life, which is seen as a place of power and pride rather than skill and cooperation.

What does this tell us? We learn two main things. First, that humanity for the Babylonians was defined through society. To be human was a distinctly social affair. And not just any kind of society: it was the social life of cities that made you a ‘true man’. Babylonian culture was, at heart, an urban culture. Cities such as Uruk, Babylon or Ur were the building blocks of civilisation, and the world outside the city walls was seen as a dangerous and uncultured wasteland.

Second, we learn that humanity is a sliding scale. After a week of sex, Enkidu has not become fully human. There is an intermediary stage, where he speaks like a human but thinks like an animal. Even after the second week, he still has to learn how to eat bread, drink beer and put on clothes. In short, becoming human is a step-by-step process, not an either/or binary.

In her second invitation to Uruk, Shamhat says: ‘I look at you, Enkidu, you are like a god, why with the animals do you range through the wild?’ Gods are here depicted as the opposite of animals, they are omnipotent and immortal, whereas animals are oblivious and destined to die. To be human is to be placed somewhere in the middle: not omnipotent, but capable of skilled labour; not immortal, but aware of one’s mortality.

In short, the new fragment reveals a vision of humanity as a process of maturation that unfolds between the animal and the divine. One is not simply born human: to be human, for the ancient Babylonians, involved finding a place for oneself within a wider field defined by society, gods and the animal world.Aeon counter – do not remove

Sophus Helle

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

Having a sense of Meaning in life is Good for you — So how do you get one?

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There’s a high degree of overlap between experiencing happiness and meaning.
Shutterstock/KieferPix


Lisa A Williams, UNSW

The pursuit of happiness and health is a popular endeavour, as the preponderance of self-help books would attest.

Yet it is also fraught. Despite ample advice from experts, individuals regularly engage in activities that may only have short-term benefit for well-being, or even backfire.

The search for the heart of well-being – that is, a nucleus from which other aspects of well-being and health might flow – has been the focus of decades of research. New findings recently reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences point towards an answer commonly overlooked: meaning in life.

Meaning in life: part of the well-being puzzle?

University College London’s psychology professor Andrew Steptoe and senior research associate Daisy Fancourt analysed a sample of 7,304 UK residents aged 50+ drawn from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing.

Survey respondents answered a range of questions assessing social, economic, health, and physical activity characteristics, including:

…to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

Follow-up surveys two and four years later assessed those same characteristics again.

One key question addressed in this research is: what advantage might having a strong sense of meaning in life afford a few years down the road?

The data revealed that individuals reporting a higher meaning in life had:

  • lower risk of divorce
  • lower risk of living alone
  • increased connections with friends and engagement in social and cultural activities
  • lower incidence of new chronic disease and onset of depression
  • lower obesity and increased physical activity
  • increased adoption of positive health behaviours (exercising, eating fruit and veg).

On the whole, individuals with a higher sense of meaning in life a few years earlier were later living lives characterised by health and well-being.

You might wonder if these findings are attributable to other factors, or to factors already in play by the time participants joined the study. The authors undertook stringent analyses to account for this, which revealed largely similar patterns of findings.

The findings join a body of prior research documenting longitudinal relationships between meaning in life and social functioning, net wealth and reduced mortality, especially among older adults.

What is meaning in life?

The historical arc of consideration of the meaning in life (not to be confused with the meaning of life) starts as far back as Ancient Greece. It tracks through the popular works of people such as Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl, and continues today in the field of psychology.

One definition, offered by well-being researcher Laura King and colleagues, says

…lives may be experienced as meaningful when they are felt to have a significance beyond the trivial or momentary, to have purpose, or to have a coherence that transcends chaos.

This definition is useful because it highlights three central components of meaning:

  1. purpose: having goals and direction in life
  2. significance: the degree to which a person believes his or her life has value, worth, and importance
  3. coherence: the sense that one’s life is characterised by predictability and routine.
Michael Steger’s TEDx talk What Makes Life Meaningful.


Curious about your own sense of meaning in life? You can take an interactive version of the Meaning in Life Questionnaire, developed by Steger and colleagues, yourself here.

This measure captures not just the presence of meaning in life (whether a person feels that their life has purpose, significance, and coherence), but also the desire to search for meaning in life.

Routes for cultivating meaning in life

Given the documented benefits, you may wonder: how might one go about cultivating a sense of meaning in life?

We know a few things about participants in Steptoe and Fancourt’s study who reported relatively higher meaning in life during the first survey. For instance, they contacted their friends frequently, belonged to social groups, engaged in volunteering, and maintained a suite of healthy habits relating to sleep, diet and exercise.

Backing up the idea that seeking out these qualities might be a good place to start in the quest for meaning, several studies have causally linked these indicators to meaning in life.

For instance, spending money on others and volunteering, eating fruit and vegetables, and being in a well-connected social network have all been prospectively linked to acquiring a sense of meaning in life.

For a temporary boost, some activities have documented benefits for meaning in the short term: envisioning a happier future, writing a note of gratitude to another person, engaging in nostalgic reverie, and bringing to mind one’s close relationships.

Happiness and meaning: is it one or the other?

There’s a high degree of overlap between experiencing happiness and meaning – most people who report one also report the other. Days when people report feeling happy are often also days that people report meaning.

Yet there’s a tricky relationship between the two. Moment-to-moment, happiness and meaning are often decoupled.

Research by social psychologist Roy Baumeister and colleagues suggests that satisfying basic needs promotes happiness, but not meaning. In contrast, linking a sense of self across one’s past, present, and future promotes meaning, but not happiness.

Connecting socially with others is important for both happiness and meaning, but doing so in a way that promotes meaning (such as via parenting) can happen at the cost of personal happiness, at least temporarily.

Given the now-documented long-term social, mental, and physical benefits of having a sense of meaning in life, the recommendation here is clear. Rather than pursuing happiness as an end-state, ensuring one’s activities provide a sense of meaning might be a better route to living well and flourishing throughout life.The Conversation

Lisa A Williams, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Tools for Thinking: Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Freedom

isaiah-berlin

Maria Kasmirli | Aeon Ideas

‘Freedom’ is a powerful word. We all respond positively to it, and under its banner revolutions have been started, wars have been fought, and political campaigns are continually being waged. But what exactly do we mean by ‘freedom’? The fact that politicians of all parties claim to believe in freedom suggests that people don’t always have the same thing in mind when they talk about it. Might there be different kinds of freedom and, if so, could the different kinds conflict with each other? Could the promotion of one kind of freedom limit another kind? Could people even be coerced in the name of freedom?

The 20th-century political philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) thought that the answer to both these questions was ‘Yes’, and in his essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958) he distinguished two kinds of freedom (or liberty; Berlin used the words interchangeably), which he called negative freedom and positive freedom.

Negative freedom is freedom from interference. You are negatively free to the extent that other people do not restrict what you can do. If other people prevent you from doing something, either directly by what they do, or indirectly by supporting social and economic arrangements that disadvantage you, then to that extent they restrict your negative freedom. Berlin stresses that it is only restrictions imposed by other people that count as limitations of one’s freedom. Restrictions due to natural causes do not count. The fact that I cannot levitate is a physical limitation but not a limitation of my freedom.

Virtually everyone agrees that we must accept some restrictions on our negative freedom if we are to avoid chaos. All states require their citizens to follow laws and regulations designed to help them live together and make society function smoothly. We accept these restrictions on our freedom as a trade-off for other benefits, such as peace, security and prosperity. At the same time, most of us would insist that there are some areas of life that should not be regulated, and where individuals should have considerable, if not complete, freedom. A major debate in political philosophy concerns the boundaries of this area of personal negative freedom. For example, should the state place restrictions on what we may say or read, or on what sexual activities we may engage in?

Whereas negative freedom is freedom from control by others, positive freedom is freedom to control oneself. To be positively free is to be one’s own master, acting rationally and choosing responsibly in line with one’s interests. This might seem to be simply the counterpart of negative freedom; I control myself to the extent that no one else controls me. However, a gap can open between positive and negative freedom, since a person might be lacking in self-control even when he is not restrained by others. Think, for example, of a drug addict who cannot kick the habit that is killing him. He is not positively free (that is, acting rationally in his own best interests) even though his negative freedom is not being limited (no one is forcing him to take the drug).

In such cases, Berlin notes, it is natural to talk of something like two selves: a lower self, which is irrational and impulsive, and a higher self, which is rational and far-sighted. And the suggestion is that a person is positively free only if his higher self is dominant. If this is right, then we might be able to make a person more free by coercing him. If we prevent the addict from taking the drug, we might help his higher self to gain control. By limiting his negative freedom, we would increase his positive freedom. It is easy to see how this view could be abused to justify interventions that are misguided or malign.

Berlin argued that the gap between positive and negative freedom, and the risk of abuse, increases further if we identify the higher, or ‘real’, self, with a social group (‘a tribe, a race, a church, a state’). For we might then conclude that individuals are free only when the group suppresses individual desires (which stem from lower, nonsocial selves) and imposes its will upon them. What particularly worried Berlin about this move was that it justifies the coercion of individuals, not merely as a means of securing social benefits, such as security and cooperation, but as a way of freeing the individuals themselves. The coercion is not seen as coercion at all, but as liberation, and protests against it can be dismissed as expressions of the lower self, like the addict’s craving for his fix. Berlin called this a ‘monstrous impersonation’, which allows those in power ‘to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture them in the name, and on behalf, of their “real” selves’. (The reader might be reminded of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which shows how a Stalinist political party imposes its conception of truth on an individual, ‘freeing’ him to love the Party leader.)

Berlin was thinking of how ideas of freedom had been abused by the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, and he was right to highlight the dangers of this kind of thinking. But it does not follow that it is always wrong to promote positive freedom. (Berlin does not claim that it is, and he notes that the notion of negative freedom can be abused in a similar way.) Some people might need help to understand their best interests and achieve their full potential, and we could believe that the state has a responsibility to help them do so. Indeed, this is the main rationale for compulsory education. We require children to attend school (severely limiting their negative freedom) because we believe it is in their own best interests. To leave children free to do whatever they like would, arguably, amount to neglect or abuse. In the case of adults, too, it is arguable that the state has a responsibility to help its citizens live rich and fulfilling lives, through cultural, educational and health programmes. (The need for such help might be especially pressing in freemarket societies, where advertisers continually tempt us to indulge our ‘lower’ appetites.) It might be, too, that some people find meaning and purpose through identification with a wider social or political movement, such as feminism, and that in helping them to do so we are helping to liberate them.

Of course, this raises many further questions. Does our current education system really work in children’s best interests, or does it just mould them into a form that is socially and economically useful? Who decides what counts as a rich and fulfilling life? What means can the state legitimately use to help people live well? Is coercion ever acceptable? These are questions about what kind of society we want to live in, and they have no easy answers. But in giving us the distinction between negative and positive freedom, Berlin has given us a powerful tool for thinking about them.Aeon counter – do not remove

Maria Kasmirli

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

Should contemporary philosophers read Ockham? Or: what did history ever do for us?

If you are a historian of philosophy, you’ve probably encountered the question whether the stuff you’re working on is of any interest today. It’s the kind of question that awakens all the different souls in your breast at once. Your more enthusiastic self might think, “yes, totally”, while your methodological soul might shout, “anachronism ahead!” And your humbler part might think, “I don’t even understand it myself.” When exposed to this question, I often want to say many things at once, and out comes something garbled. But now I’d like to suggest that there is only one true reply to the main question in the title: “No, that’s the wrong kind of question to ask!” – But of course that’s not all there is to it. So please hear me out…

Read the rest at Handling Ideas, “a blog on (writing) philosophy”

Introduction to Deontology: Kantian Ethics

One popular moral theory that denies that morality is solely about the consequences of our actions is known as Deontology. The most influential and widely adhered to version of Deontology was extensively laid out by Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Kant’s ethics, as well as the overall philosophical system in which it is embedded, is vast and incredibly difficult. However, one relatively simple concept lies at the center of his ethical system: The Categorical Imperative.

via Introduction to Deontology: Kantian Ethics (1000-Word Philosophy)

Author: Andrew Chapman
Category: Ethics
Word Count: 1000

Philosophy Can Make the Previously Unthinkable Thinkable

woman-at-window

Detail from Woman at a Window (1822) by Caspar David Friedrich. Courtesy Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin


Rebecca Brown | Aeon Ideas

In the mid-1990s, Joseph Overton, a researcher at the US think tank the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, proposed the idea of a ‘window’ of socially acceptable policies within any given domain. This came to be known as the Overton window of political possibilities. The job of think tanks, Overton proposed, was not directly to advocate particular policies, but to shift the window of possibilities so that previously unthinkable policy ideas – those shocking to the sensibilities of the time – become mainstream and part of the debate.

Overton’s insight was that there is little point advocating policies that are publicly unacceptable, since (almost) no politician will support them. Efforts are better spent, he argued, in shifting the debate so that such policies seem less radical and become more likely to receive support from sympathetic politicians. For instance, working to increase awareness of climate change might make future proposals to restrict the use of diesel cars more palatable, and ultimately more effective, than directly lobbying for a ban on such vehicles.

Overton was concerned with the activities of think tanks, but philosophers and practical ethicists might gain something from considering the Overton window. By its nature, practical ethics typically addresses controversial, politically sensitive topics. It is the job of philosophers to engage in ‘conceptual hygiene’ or, as the late British philosopher Mary Midgley described it, ‘philosophical plumbing’: clarifying and streamlining, diagnosing unjustified assertions and pointing out circularities.

Hence, philosophers can be eager to apply their skills to new subjects. This can provoke frustration from those embedded within a particular subject. Sometimes, this is deserved: philosophers can be naive in contributing their thoughts to complex areas with which they lack the kind of familiarity that requires time and immersion. But such an outside perspective can also be useful. Although such contributions will rarely get everything right, the standard is too demanding in areas of great division and debate (such as practical ethics). Instead, we should expect philosophers to offer a counterpoint to received wisdom, established norms and doctrinal prejudice.

Ethicists, at least within their academic work, are encouraged to be skeptical of intuition and the naturalistic fallacy (the idea that values can be derived simply from facts). Philosophers are also familiar with tools such as thought experiments: hypothetical and contrived descriptions of events that can be useful for clarifying particular intuitions or the implications of a philosophical claim. These two factors make it unsurprising that philosophers often publicly adopt positions that are unintuitive and outside mainstream thought, and that they might not personally endorse.

This can serve to shift, and perhaps widen, the Overton window. Is this a good thing? Sometimes philosophers argue for conclusions far outside the domain of ‘respectable’ positions; conclusions that could be hijacked by those with intolerant, racist, sexist or fundamentalist beliefs to support their stance. It is understandable that those who are threatened by such beliefs want any argument that might conceivably support them to be absent from the debate, off the table, and ignored.

However, the freedom to test the limits of argumentation and intuition is vital to philosophical practice. There are sufficient and familiar examples of historical orthodoxies that have been overturned – women’s right to vote; the abolition of slavery; the decriminalisation of same-sex relationships – to establish that strength and pervasiveness of a belief indicate neither truth nor immutability.

It can be tedious to repeatedly debate women’s role in the workforce, abortion, animals’ capacity to feel pain and so on, but to silence discussion would be far worse. Genuine attempts to resolve difficult ethical dilemmas must recognise that understanding develops by getting things wrong and having this pointed out. Most (arguably, all) science fails to describe or predict how the world works with perfect accuracy. But as a collective enterprise, it can identify errors and gradually approximate ‘truth’. Ethical truths are less easy to come by, and a different methodology is required in seeking out satisfactory approximations. But part of this model requires allowing plenty of room to get things wrong.

It is unfortunate but true that bad ideas are sometimes undermined by bad reasoning, and also that sometimes those who espouse offensive and largely false views can say true things. Consider the ‘born this way’ argument, which endorses the flawed assumption that a genetic basis for homosexuality indicates the permissibility of same-sex relationships. While this might win over some individuals, it could cause problems down the line if it turns out that homosexuality isn’t genetically determined. Debates relating to the ‘culture wars’ on college campuses have attracted many ad hominem criticisms that set out to discredit the authors’ position by pointing to the fact that they fit a certain demographic (white, middle-class, male) or share some view with a villainous figure, and thus are not fit to contribute. The point of philosophy is to identify such illegitimate moves, and to keep the argument on topic; sometimes, this requires coming to the defence of bad ideas or villainous characters.

Participation in this process can be daunting. Defending an unpopular position can make one a target both for well-directed, thoughtful criticisms, and for emotional, sweeping attacks. Controversial positions on contentious topics attract far more scrutiny than abstract philosophical contributions to niche subjects. This means that, in effect, the former are required to be more rigorous than the latter, and to foresee and head off more potential misappropriations, misinterpretations and misunderstandings – all while contributing to an interdisciplinary area, which requires some understanding not only of philosophical theory but perhaps also medicine, law, natural and social science, politics and various other disciplines.

This can be challenging, though I do not mean to be an apologist for thoughtless, sensationalist provocation and controversy-courting, whether delivered by philosophers or others. We should see one important social function of practical ethicists as widening the Overton window and pushing the public and political debate towards reasoned deliberation and respectful disagreement. Widening the Overton window can yield opportunities for ideas that many find offensive, and straightforwardly mistaken, as well as for ideas that are well-defended and reasonable. It is understandable that those with deep personal involvement in these debates often want to narrow the window and push it in the direction of those views they find unthreatening. But philosophers have a professional duty, as conceptual plumbers, to keep the whole system in good working order. This depends upon philosophical contributors upholding the disciplinary standards of academic rigour and intellectual honesty that are essential to ethical reflection, and trusting that this will gradually, collectively lead us in the right direction.Aeon counter – do not remove

Rebecca Brown

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

The Empathetic Humanities have much to teach our Adversarial Culture

Books


Alexander Bevilacqua | Aeon Ideas

As anyone on Twitter knows, public culture can be quick to attack, castigate and condemn. In search of the moral high ground, we rarely grant each other the benefit of the doubt. In her Class Day remarks at Harvard’s 2018 graduation, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addressed the problem of this rush to judgment. In the face of what she called ‘a culture of “calling out”, a culture of outrage’, she asked students to ‘always remember context, and never disregard intent’. She could have been speaking as a historian.

History, as a discipline, turns away from two of the main ways of reading that have dominated the humanities for the past half-century. These methods have been productive, but perhaps they also bear some responsibility for today’s corrosive lack of generosity. The two approaches have different genealogies, but share a significant feature: at heart, they are adversarial.

One mode of reading, first described in 1965 by the French philosopher Paul Ricœur and known as ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion’, aims to uncover the hidden meaning or agenda of a text. Whether inspired by Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche or Sigmund Freud, the reader interprets what happens on the surface as a symptom of something deeper and more dubious, from economic inequality to sexual anxiety. The reader’s task is to reject the face value of a work, and to plumb for a submerged truth.

A second form of interpretation, known as ‘deconstruction’, was developed in 1967 by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. It aims to identify and reveal a text’s hidden contradictions – ambiguities and even aporias (unthinkable contradictions) that eluded the author. For example, Derrida detected a bias that favoured speech over writing in many influential philosophical texts of the Western tradition, from Plato to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The fact that written texts could privilege the immediacy and truth of speech was a paradox that revealed unarticulated metaphysical commitments at the heart of Western philosophy.

Both of these ways of reading pit reader against text. The reader’s goal becomes to uncover meanings or problems that the work does not explicitly express. In both cases, intelligence and moral probity are displayed at the expense of what’s been written. In the 20th century, these approaches empowered critics to detect and denounce the workings of power in all kinds of materials – not just the dreams that Freud interpreted, or the essays by Plato and Rousseau with which Derrida was most closely concerned.

They do, however, foster a prosecutorial attitude among academics and public intellectuals. As a colleague once told me: ‘I am always looking for the Freudian slip.’ He scours the writings of his peers to spot when they trip up and betray their problematic intellectual commitments. One poorly chosen phrase can sully an entire work.

Not surprisingly, these methods have fostered a rather paranoid atmosphere in modern academia. Mutual monitoring of lexical choices leads to anxiety, as an increasing number of words are placed on a ‘no fly’ list. One error is taken as the symptom of problematic thinking; it can spoil not just a whole book, but perhaps even the author’s entire oeuvre. This set of attitudes is not a world apart from the pile-ons that we witness on social media.

Does the lack of charity in public discourse – the quickness to judge, the aversion to context and intent – stem in part from what we might call the ‘adversarial’ humanities? These practices of interpretation are certainly on display in many classrooms, where students learn to exercise their moral and intellectual prowess by dismantling what they’ve read. For teachers, showing students how to take a text apart bestows authority; for students, learning to read like this can be electrifying.

Yet the study of history is different. History deals with the past – and the past is, as the British novelist L P Hartley wrote in 1953, ‘a foreign country’. By definition, historians deal with difference: with what is unlike the present, and with what rarely meets today’s moral standards.

The virtue of reading like a historian, then, is that critique or disavowal is not the primary goal. On the contrary, reading historically provides something more destabilising: it requires the historian to put her own values in parentheses.

The French medievalist Marc Bloch wrote that the task of the historian is understanding, not judging. Bloch, who fought in the French Resistance, was caught and turned over to the Gestapo. Poignantly, the manuscript of The Historian’s Craft, where he expressed this humane statement, was left unfinished: Bloch was executed by firing squad in June 1944.

As Bloch knew well, historical empathy involves reaching out across the chasm of time to understand people whose values and motivations are often utterly unlike our own. It means affording these people the gift of intellectual charity – that is, the best possible interpretation of what they said or believed. For example, a belief in magic can be rational on the basis of a period’s knowledge of nature. Yet acknowledging this demands more than just contextual, linguistic or philological skill. It requires empathy.

Aren’t a lot of psychological assumptions built into this model? The call for empathy might seem theoretically naive. Yet we judge people’s intentions all the time in our daily lives; we can’t function socially without making inferences about others’ motivations. Historians merely apply this approach to people who are dead. They invoke intentions not from a desire to attack, nor because they seek reasons to restrain a text’s range of meanings. Their questions about intentions stem, instead, from respect for the people whose actions and thoughts they’re trying to understand.

Reading like a historian, then, involves not just a theory of interpretation, but also a moral stance. It is an attempt to treat others generously, and to extend that generosity even to those who can’t be hic et nunc – here and now.

For many historians (as well as others in what we might call the ‘empathetic’ humanities, such as art history and literary history), empathy is a life practice. Living with the people of the past changes one’s relationship to the present. At our best, we begin to offer empathy not just to those who are distant, but to those who surround us, aiming in our daily life for ‘understanding, not judging’.

To be sure, it’s challenging to impart these lessons to students in their teens or early 20s, to whom the problems of the present seem especially urgent and compelling. The injunction to read more generously is pretty unfashionable. It can even be perceived as conservative: isn’t the past what’s holding us back, and shouldn’t we reject it? Isn’t it more useful to learn how to deconstruct a text, and to be on the lookout for latent, pernicious meanings?

Certainly, reading isn’t a zero-sum game. One can and should cultivate multiple modes of interpretation. Yet the nostrum that the humanities teach ‘critical thinking and reading skills’ obscures the profound differences in how adversarial and empathetic disciplines engage with written works – and how they teach us to respond to other human beings. If the empathetic humanities can make us more compassionate and more charitable – if they can encourage us to ‘always remember context, and never disregard intent’ – they afford something uniquely useful today.Aeon counter – do not remove

Alexander Bevilacqua

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