Tag Archives: knowledge

About that shift in consciousness we so urgently need

Upon seeing these poll results, a friend commented that most people who voted for “shift in consciousness” probably think that others, and not they themselves, have yet to make the shift. If he is right, the “shift” vote comes from people who think of themselves as already having crossed over to the other side. But have they — have we? 

Just what “consciousness” in this case means, or what the “shift” might require of us, remains unclear; and one weakness of this poll (it has many, as Joanna Boehnert and others were right to point out) is that it does not specify what that shift might involve.

I’ve seen people toss the phrase around, and included it here hoping to get a better sense of what they mean by it. Are we talking about widespread public awareness of climate risk, or the knowledge that human activity has caused the climate to change, or the conviction that we can — and must — do something about it? Are we talking about hope? The defeat of climate despair? A new view of the world and our place in it? 

No matter how we may choose to define the shift, it would seem that we have to continue to root out denial, as John Rehm suggested. To be effective, any “shift in consciousness” would at the very least require that people take responsibility. 

That in itself presents a formidable task, especially here in the United States, where an entire political party is dedicated to climate change denial. But it’s also a problem all over the place, everywhere we turn, if we think about how many of our everyday actions involve denial or willful blindness, and how easily our acts can contribute to “a set of acts” that together will cause harm (to borrow Parfit’s phrase). This is why, as Orla De Díez remarked, we have to design to make it “easier for people to behave more sustainably.” We can’t wait for some great awakening.

Dennett on Sunlight

Here’s my transcript of what I consider one of the more striking moments in the conversation with Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett moderated by Alex de Waal at the “Unlearning Violence” conference held at Tufts’ Fletcher School in February. (A video of the discussion in its entirety follows.) Daniel Dennett is speaking:

Something’s happened, which is absolutely unprecedented in the history of civilization, which is a major — I think a major change. And yes it’s the internet and electronic communication. But what it has done, it has rendered the epistemological atmosphere in which we live transparent in a way it never was before.

There’s a lovely book — speculative book by Andrew Parker, a zoologist in Oxford, who [in In The Blink Of An Eye: How Vision Sparked The Big Bang Of Evolution], argues, very plausibly, that the cause of the great Cambrian explosion, this huge outpouring of new life, that the trigger for that was the transparency, the sudden, relatively sudden growing transparency of the oceans and the air, making sunlight available and making vision possible for the first time. And it was the immediate evolution of eyes which changed everything, because now predator could see prey, prey could see predator, and if you didn’t have eyes you were sunk. And this set off a five million year arms race of sort of guerilla warfare enhancements, defense and offense, and that’s what created all the remarkably different body types and behavioral types and defense types that mark this great explosion.

Well, he may or may not be right about that, I — I — it’s one of those evolutionary ideas that I am very fond of but I haven’t committed to it because it hasn’t been shown yet. But it’s a plausible and pretty well researched theory. Whether he’s right or wrong, I think something exactly like that has happened now.

All the institutions in human culture, not just religions but armies, governments, banks, relig- uh, corporations, clubs — they have all evolved in a relatively murky epistemological atmosphere where people could be relatively ignorant of things at a distance around the world and even about a lot of their own, the features of their own organizations. And organizations evolved to exploit that ignorance, cause it was — you could rely on it. That ignorance is evaporating at a colossal rate, and we see it, we see it in Edward Snowden. We see it where the security experts are now saying there’s no such thing as a firewall, um, because people, you have to rely on people’s fidelity, because people’s fidelity is infinitely malleable by memes, by all of the information that is floating around in the internet.

Religions: what this new transparency does is, it renders knowledge not just widespread but mutual: it’s not just that everybody knows that p, it’s that everybody knows that everybody knows that p.

Fifty years ago, I’m sure, there were millions of Catholics that knew of a priest who had molested some boys. Millions of them. But nobody knew there were millions of them. Now, millions of Catholics know that millions of Catholics know. And that changes everything. Now, you have a Bishop giving a press conference where he makes a big point of saying you’ll note how I never, whenever there’s a young boy around I’ll always have my hands in front of me. Can you imagine a bishop of the church saying anything like that fifty years ago?

This is an awkward and gauche and ineffective response to the new transparency. Well I think that in itself is going to force every institution in the world to evolve very quickly or go extinct.

And what that does for violence is — it’s not clear. In some ways it may be a great diminution in violence; on the other hand it may unleash forces that we don’t even imagine yet, and make new inroads into violence more likely.

Walleye and the End of the Known World

Since the 1970s, Lake Superior temperatures have risen an average of five degrees Fahrenheit and ice cover has reduced by fifty percent. This makes the lake less hospitable to the fat siscowet or lake trout that favors its cold depths and more susceptible to invasive predators like the lamprey.

Walleye can now live in more areas of the lake than ever before. The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, who run commercial fishing operations on Superior, have been raising walleye at their hatcheries since 2005, according to an article that ran last week in Scientific American.


A canny adaptation, but it’s clear from the same article that continuing change will require something even greater — a whole new orientation.

“With the changes in temperatures,” the article says at its most thoughtful moment, “the intimate knowledge of the lake that tribes and other anglers have cultivated over the years no longer jibes with reality.” Evelyn Ravindrian, a KBIC natural resource specialist, puts it this way: “people used to know, ‘Well, whitefish will be here this time of day, this time of year.’ Now they have to look around.” This is the bit that stuck with me.

The lake that fishermen came to know intimately is vanishing. It is undeniably a loss, and I found myself wishing the article had more to say about it: the end of a long intimacy, a bereavement, a disorienting absence — the kind of thing one feels after divorce, death or displacement. The end of the known world. I suppose an article written along those lines wouldn’t have had much chance of making it into the pages of Scientific American; but it would have gotten much closer to the heart of the matter.

As the new environmental reality takes hold, a social and cultural reality slips away: all the things “people used to know” about the lake, the seasonal and circadian knowledge that they cultivated and shared and that bound them together, as a people, or simply as Lake Superior fishermen.

They probably took most of those things for granted: that’s the nature of cultural habits, local knowledge, familiar ties — all the things that make up our sense of place. We know where we are without even trying. Now people will have to “look around,” as Evelyn Ravindrian says. They’re in a new and unfamiliar place, even though they have lived around Lake Superior and fished its waters for as long as anyone can remember.

Sourcing a Philosophy Quotation from Twitter

Everybody loves quotations. There are handbooks of quotations, compendia and florilegia of memorable words, inspiring sentences and big thoughts; there are books and websites and RSS feeds and Twitter accounts that will provide you with a daily trove of memorable and notable and quotable sayings. Many of these rely on terrible translations of primary texts; they rarely include a citation (a title, a page number, chapter and verse, a Stephanus number or anything along those lines) that will allow you to track the original down; and some are just downright wrong in their attribution. I suspect this is the case because compilers and publishers of quotations are not drawing on primary sources but on compilations and collections of quotations. Any trace of the original has been long ago lost.

Today, for instance, a Twitter bot (I assume it’s a bot) that publishes philosophy quotations posted this: “knowledge which is divorced from justice, may be called cunning rather than wisdom.” The quotation was attributed to Cicero.

I’ve been interested in “cunning” for a while now, but I’ll leave that for another time. My curiosity got the better of me, and I wanted to have a look at what Cicero actually said. I certainly wasn’t going to get anything out of that ungainly English translation.

I managed to find the source of the quotation in De Officiis (I.xix.63). The first thing that struck me was this: the quotation attributed to Cicero is itself a quotation. He is quoting Plato — “praeclarum igitur illud Platonis”:

This then is a fine saying of Plato’s: “Not only must all knowledge that is divorced from justice be called cunning (calliditas) rather than wisdom,” he says, “but even the courage that is prompt to face danger, if it is inspired not by public spirit, but by its own selfish purposes, should have the name of effrontery rather than of courage.”

A gloss in my Loeb edition (which includes the Walter Miller translation I’m quoting) directs the reader to a dialogue of Plato’s called Menexenus.

It’s a very curious dialogue, not least because it consists almost entirely of a quotation.

The argument here puts us in familiar territory: it concerns rhetoric and its power to lift the spirit, celebrate the city, praise even those who “may not have been good for much,” and intoxicate citizens by flattering them. Socrates himself upon listening to the speeches of the funeral orators becomes “enchanted by them, and all in a moment I imagine myself to have become a greater, nobler and finer man than I was before.” Only four or five days later, he says, does he come to his senses.

The rest of the dialogue demonstrates the sort of thing Socrates is talking about. At the urging of Menexenus, a young, aspiring politician, Socrates recites a speech his own teacher and Pericles’ consort, Aspasia the Milesian, has prepared for an upcoming public funeral. The speech is a sophisticated parody of the public funeral oration. At the very least it re-opens the question of Pericles’ legacy and its political influence. (More on all that here and here.)

Though the speaker for the funeral has not yet been chosen, Aspasia has decided what the speaker should say. “She repeated to me the sort of speech which he should deliver, partly improvising and partly from previous thought, putting together fragments of the funeral oration Pericles spoke but which, as I believe, she composed.” So even this speech is not entirely original, but a patchwork; and “every rhetorician,” Socrates says, “has speeches ready made.”

In any case, the relevant passage – the passage to which Cicero seems to refer – finds Socrates quoting Aspasia who is, in turn, quoting the “heroes” she has been celebrating in her funeral oration, or at least what they “desired to have to said to you who are their survivors…. I will tell you what I heard them say, and what, if they had only speech, they would fain be saying, judging from what they then said. And you must imagine that you hear them saying what I now repeat to you.”

With Socrates quoting Aspasia who – in a self-conscious allusion to Thucydides — is quoting what the dead heroes would have said, we arrive at what seems to be the original:

Whatever is your aim let virtue be the condition of the attainment of your aim, and know that without this all possessions and pursuits are dishonourable and evil. For neither does wealth bring honour to the owner, if he be a coward; of such a one the wealth belongs to another, and not to himself. Nor does beauty and strength of body, when dwelling in a base and cowardly man, appear comely, but the reverse of comely, making the possessor more conspicuous, and manifesting forth his cowardice. And all knowledge, when separated from justice and virtue, is seen to be cunning and not wisdom; wherefore make this your first and last and constant and all-absorbing aim, to exceed, if possible, not only us but all your ancestors in virtue. (246E-247A)

Which may, in turn, answer this passage in Pericles’ funeral oration (Thucydides 2.40): “We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it.”

Another Postscript on Innovation- Where I’m Going With This "Orientation" Thing

In my last couple of posts I started to make a case for what I admitted might seem like a far-fetched idea: that research into the human condition and the social world could be as deserving of credit and support as scientific and technical research, especially if the goal of supporting “research” with the R & D tax credit is to deliver “public benefits.”

At the very least, non-scientific modes of inquiry – the study of people and society, languages and culture — deserve more credit than currently given (which is, when it comes to the definition of “research” in the R & D tax code, none), because, I suggested, they provide critical balance to innovation, the very thing R & D is supposed to spur. They provide orientation.

I want to talk a little more about the work I want that word to do. I used orientation just to rough out an idea at first, but I’ve come to like it, not in spite of but because of its association with geography, maps, directions, coordinates and a sense of place. Orientation, in the sense I’m using it, is like having an internal compass — a deep sense of where you are, where you ought to go, and the best way to get there.

To take this a little further, orientation requires and stems from a profound sense of place, of the here and now, in all its complexity and connectedness to other places and to what has come before and what is likely to come after. Knowing where you really are is not just local knowledge; it’s knowledge of how you are situated, connected and not connected, where there are continuities and where you can expect discontinuities. For decision-makers, that contextual knowledge is critical to planning and strategy as well as business judgment (and therefore good governance).

Why? Because orientation helps you appreciate and respect limits, providing a much-needed sense of human scale, without which you cannot make innovation meaningful or growth sustainable. Innovation is the spur, orientation, the reins. A good rider needs both. The events of the past few years should make that tolerably clear.

Or, to use the shorthand I’ve been using since my last post: innovation produces wares; orientation creates awareness. I’m not entirely sure of this formulation, because the play on words here disguises as much if not more than it reveals. Wares can take the form of software, hardware, housewares, or other goods and services; I heard someone the other day use the barbarism “thoughtware.” Our word ware comes from an Old English word meaning “goods” – waru. Awareness, on the other hand, would seem to have nothing to do with commodity exchange. We think of it almost as a synonym for consciousness. It derives from the same root as our word guard; to be aware is to keep watch.

But tellingly both words ultimately derive from the same Indo-European root: wer. This particular “wer cluster”

has to do with watching, seeing, and guarding, but the sense of direction is often there—as in guarding (warding) or looking in a certain direction. From this root we get aware and wary, ward (from weard, keeper) and warden, as well as award and reward and wares (things that are guarded or watched).

It’s a good question whether wares need watching because they are valuable or are made valuable by being watched. Likely both, in some measure. Wares – the products of innovation — are the goods awareness watches and keeps, holds and esteems, prizes and guards, the things entrusted to its direction.

Balancing Innovation with Orientation – An Airport Postscript

Today I was at a business conference in Las Vegas where Bill Clinton and George W. Bush appeared, together, for a wide-ranging, hour-long discussion about the economy, regulation, taxes and education. At one point in the conversation, the two former presidents were asked to talk about how America can do more to encourage innovation. Clinton and W. both agreed that making the research and experimentation tax credit permanent would be a good first step.

This wasn’t terribly surprising, since both presidents had tried (but failed) to make the credit permanent; nor was it surprising that a business audience would greet their comments on this subject with polite applause. I, too, managed to put my hands together and restrained myself from jumping to my feet and exclaiming to the assembly that before we start giving tax credits for research, we need to revisit the idea of “research” embedded in the tax code.

So I did not end up having to explain to the secret service detail or my hosts that I had been agitated on this subject ever since I read Amar Bhidé’s editorial in the Wall Street Journal, and had just yesterday published a blog post on this very subject, where I wondered whether research into the human condition and the social world might not also deserve credit, provide much-needed checks and balances to the scientific and technical research the credit already covers, and yield new ideas of what constitutes true prosperity, real wealth, or sustainable growth.

Now, at the airport, waiting for a redeye back to New York, I am still in the grip of this idea, which, as I admitted in my previous post, probably sounds a little far-fetched. But there is a line of inquiry here I don’t want to lose: that research into culture and society, into language and history, into how people learn and how things change, will balance innovation with – I guess this is the word I would use – orientation: a sense of the right direction, an understanding of limits and where propriety and restraint should be shown, of where judgment needs to be exercised or informed choices need to be made.

Think, to take just a small example, of the concern within business organizations around social media. This goes far beyond the fact that many organizations don’t know what to do about Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn; that barely scratches the itch.

The conversation has turned from the occasional remark on the role of business in society to anxious chatter about the transformational role that society, or the social, can play in business. There is a growing realization that the social matters enormously to the way people collaborate, the way organizations develop and change, the way business goes to market, and to the bottom line. If, as I might put it, every enterprise is already a social enterprise, why would organizations be reluctant to devote some small portion of their R & D dollars to original research into how peering works, or how social networks function, or how individuals surrender, or refuse to surrender, autonomy in exchange for belonging, or how trust is built or won.

Still sound far-fetched? Maybe. I realize I am talking here in very broad terms, off the top of my head, and I’m also aware that some organizations are already taking these matters seriously, even if they don’t, or can’t officially consider them R & D. Still, it’s fair to say the vast majority are not dedicating resources or sufficient resources to these topics, primarily because, unlike scientific and technical research, they don’t promise to yield new wares, and because they seem soft, mushy, hard to define and pin down.

I realize, too, that the broad trend I am describing here may be a manifestation of a much greater anxiety. It may be that we are trying to harness the constructive power of the social now only because we sense a loss, a lack of social cohesion, the demise of traditional social values and the disintegration of traditional human groups, the atomization of social life and the erosion of trust.

Be that as it may, it is undeniable that how seriously organizations deal with these issues will bear on their performance, on their ability to innovate – broadly, as Bhidé would say — and to orient themselves in an increasingly disorienting world.