Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile

I have to admit that I have always had trouble with arguments. I dislike confrontation, and whenever it occurs, I seem to get backed into a corner from which I am forced to lash out. Often, I feel that my very identity is at risk: how could any thinking person who was in tune with reality, believe what I do? And if my argument is, in fact, wrong then what does that say about my other opinions that we haven’t yet touched on? Disagreements suggest as much about me as they do about the positions I espouse.

I have had a life-long passion for Philosophy, and I know many of the drills. An argument is seen less as combat or an attempt to disparage the opponent, but more as an exercise in clarification and a search, perhaps, for common ground. So, one hears the opponent’s position and attempts to reword it to show it has been understood. If the opponent agrees that their opinion has been correctly grasped, then ideally, they can state why they disagree with what they’ve heard from me. And so it goes, back and forth -each position clarified and understood before either moves on. Not infrequently, commonalities emerge, and hopefully, the ability to reach some form of compromise begins to materialize.

The problem in most of our encounters, of course, is proceeding without one side being forced to lose face -without feeling that only one side is correct -or, in the case of being proven incorrect, not feeling heard. Why, in other words, did the side espousing Fake News, let us say, come to believe it? Shouting at them, or belittling them is pretty well guaranteed to further intrench them in their views. We all do it, though -okay, I do, anyway.

Sometimes my way of seeing things seems so… obvious to me, that I become infuriated with the expression on the other person’s face, or when they shrug, sigh, or even roll their eyes at my opinion. I suppose I don’t feel heard -no, I don’t feel respected

I was dreading phoning a dear friend of mine who lives on the other side of the country. I hadn’t heard from her for a couple of months, and I wondered if there was something wrong. Since university, we’d always found ourselves on opposite sides of the political and ecological spectrum -we disagreed about almost everything, and so our Emails had to be carefully worded; even with phone calls we had to tip-toe around many of the issues. Skype was especially problematic because I could read the frustration in her eyes, and the way she wrinkled her forehead, or clenched her teeth. I realize I probably did the same and that just amplified the conflict. And yet, each time, despite my determination to change, I usually found myself rerouted along the same trail we always seemed to travel.

I’m always looking for helpful hints and so I was drawn to an essay from Australia by Hugh Breakey, a research fellow at Griffith University in Queensland. I wondered if they did things differently in the antipodes.

Argument is everywhere, he writes, but ‘Unfortunately, we often fail to consider the ethics of arguing. This makes it perilously easy to mistreat others.’ So, there are certain norms we should follow in an argument: ‘we should be open to their views. We should listen carefully and try to understand their reasoning. And while we can’t all be Socrates, we should do our best to respond to their thoughts with clear, rational and relevant arguments… norms are valuable because they promote knowledge, insight and self-understanding… being reasonable and open-minded ensures we treat our partners in argument in a consensual and reciprocal way. During arguments, people open themselves up to attaining worthwhile benefits, like understanding and truth.’ And, ‘obeying the norms of argument shows respect for our partners in argument as intelligent, rational individuals. It acknowledges they can change their minds based on reason.’

It was also encouraging to find that Breakey and I were on the same track. ‘Two arguers, over time, can collectively achieve a shared intellectual creation. As partners in argument, they define terms, acknowledge areas of shared agreement, and mutually explore each other’s reasons. They do something together.’

All fine and good, but sticking to that in the heat of battle has always been my problem. My heart may be in the right place, but my mouth is not. My mind tricks me into thinking my opponent is being illogical -it’s them, and not me, who’s failing to argue properly. So, to counter this, Breakey offers a few tips. Like, trying not to think I’m being attacked, and remembering that I don’t want to lose my opponent as a friend. I should treat them with respect, and not judge their argument (and hence them) as faulty; they may well be open to changing their views -I shouldn’t assume otherwise -and let’s face it, we may both be wrong…

I don’t know why, but I suddenly felt equipped to phone my friend. I can do this, I told myself when she answered.

“Are you phoning to lecture me on climate change again, G?”

Wow, that started early, I thought. My first reaction was to feel hurt, but I caught myself in time. “Well, actually, I wanted to know how you were doing. I haven’t heard from you in a while…”

That seemed to soften her voice. “Oh, that’s nice of you,” she said tenderly. “I would have let you know if I was sick, you know…” I breathed a bit easier. “But you usually only phone when you’ve thought of a new argument to try out on me,” she continued, her voice noticeably harder.

I had to think. Do I argue with that point, or ignore it? I decided to clarify her assertion. “Do you really think that’s why I phone?”

There was a pause at the end of the line. “It seems that way, G.”

I wasn’t sure whether I should become defensive, or agree with her and apologize. I decided on the middle road. “I guess I do come on a bit strong sometimes, don’t I?”

Another pause -she was obviously having difficulty deciding how to reply as well. She finally settled on “I know you mean well…”

Not a victory, but a white flag of sorts I suppose.

Then, “But I don’t think you can convince me, you know…”

Was she trying to say I was incapable of convincing her, or just that I hadn’t approached her the right way? “Well, maybe I can suggest…” was all I could think of to say before she interrupted me.

“Although that article you sent me a while back was certainly worth thinking about…”

“The one on renewables, you mean?”

“Mmm Hmm…” I could hear her breathing into her phone. “I’ve even decided to ride my bike to work.”

It seemed like a turning point. “That’s great, Melissa!” I thought I’d share in her decision. “Maybe I should do the same, eh?”

A friendly chuckle echoed through my phone. “You’re retired G… But maybe you could at least ride down to the store…”

We were friends again; maybe they really have figured out how to argue in Australia.

A spur to prick the sides of my intent

Suppose it were possible to change things about your own birth? What a great idea, right? Just think what that might mean: at the very least, perhaps, that you would not be imprisoned by whatever genetics you were allotted; you might actually have a chance to be the master of your own fate; and if you chose, be able to excel in fields currently beyond your reach.

And yet, would it even matter if it were yours to choose? Surely, not every daughter born to university professors succeeds as well as her parents; not every wealthy scion is able to make use of the educational opportunities he is able to access. It seems to me that there is more to it than the circumstances of birth -or the ticket you were issued in the chromosomal lottery: even hereditary instructions are malleable.

Genes are only blueprints -guidelines in a way- and what gets built in the end, often depends on how consistently each instruction is followed. Sometimes, circumstances prevent, or simply delay, completion of the initial plan. One of the mechanisms that allows this is epigenetic interference with the chromosomal directions: chemical signals that turn genes on or off -changes that are not inherited through DNA but rather result from interactions between genetic processes and experience. And these signals, or switches if you will, can be activated by a variety of circumstances: environment, stress, illness, diet, and even intrauterine factors- just to name a few. Genes are not the handcuffs we once thought they were.

But, I think most of us suspected that the exigencies imposed by birth were not absolute long before we knew anything about epigenetics. Or genes… or inheritance, for that matter. Philosophy has long wondered about who, what, and why we are; I was reminded of this by an essay written by Ada Jaarsma, a professor of philosophy at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

She writes that ‘In the early aftermath of the war, the French philosophers Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre used the term ‘existential’ to mark a radically first-person approach to history. Instead of the seemingly implacable nature of an event in time, these existentialists pointed to the subjective meaning that such events hold.’ Indeed, ‘I need to choose the circumstances of my birth, Sartre explained in Being and Nothingness (1943).’

On its own, his statement seems more metaphor than prescriptive, and yet, reality is conditional, isn’t it? To some extent, we all control how we perceive it, and therefore what it is like for each of us. I, like many of those in my philosophy lectures, was attracted to existentialism, and yet, although the poster figures were people like Sartre and Camus, I was drawn to Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre’s long-time friend. I loved her metaphor of existence being a drama.

And yet, one of their rallying cries was ‘existence precedes essence’ which I never understood. The only thing I could figure was that they were simply saying that you couldn’t become anything unless you existed -and that didn’t seem particularly profound to me at the time. But Jaarsma helped me with this when she explained that ‘Beauvoir and Sartre were drawing attention to the utterly singular way in which we each become the selves that we are, with our own memories, stories and storytelling habits.’ There is for each of us, some control, if and when we weave these into some form of meaning. It’s the process of weaving that marks our humanity: that takes us from being a ‘thing’ into a ‘project’, to paraphrase Beauvoir from her Pyrrhus and Cineas. To choose our own births, in other words.

Jaarsma’s essay deals with far more than my brief précis has included, but I suppose we only take what information we need from any text. For me, it was the memory of those introductory philosophy lectures in my early years at university -my impressionable years, perhaps, but maybe also my formative years.

I loved philosophy and thought long and hard about it for those all-night discussions that my three close friends and I seemed fated for every Saturday night over a few beers. One of them, Arvid, was a Science major, and another, Bertram, was in Engineering, and then there was Judy who was enrolled in Arts, but intended to switch to philosophy when she had enough credits, or whatever. The discussions were really arguments, but isn’t that what philosophy is all about?

At any rate, the time that sticks out in my memory, was when Judy and I had just been to a seminar on Simone de Beauvoir earlier that week and were both primed with her feminist perspective.  Feminism was still considered quite radical at the time- and although I didn’t understand most of it, she decided to spring it on the other two.

“That’s just crap,” was Arvid’s traditional response to feminism -most of us were still trapped in the Zeitgeist of the time, I’m afraid. Even Bertie, who professed to a neutrality he couldn’t maintain for more than two or three sentences in an argument, wasn’t able to see why we men should have to yield anything to ‘the other side’ as he put it.

“We are the stories we tell,” I tried to interject to calm him down.

“Well, I was brought up with a different story, G,” he said with clenched jaws as he tried to stare me down.

Judy was sitting on the floor, her head leaning against the wall in the little dorm room where we had gathered, and had a sip of her beer. “And what was that story, Bertie?”

His expression softened as he tried to put it into words. “Well…” -Bertie hated confrontation- “I guess that I don’t see the need to capitulate…”

“Is that what it would be if you accepted women as equals, Bertie: capitulation…?”

He looked confused. “But I do accept women as equals.” Judy wrinkled her nose at that and he blushed. “I mean, we should all do what we’re good at, right…?”

“And what are women good at?” She pinned him to the wall he was leaning against with her eyes. “Having babies? Cooking? Cleaning the house?” She blinked seductively. “Being a good wife for her man?”

“Well, no…”

“A woman philosopher named Simone de Beauvoir once said ‘I am not a thing, but a project’. What do you think she meant, Bertie,” she said with a glance in my direction.

Bertie seemed flustered at the question. “Uhmm, that she was still working at what she was good at? Or…” He hesitated; he had obviously not thought about women like this before.

“Or that she could become somebody else?” Judy interjected, smiling at his discomfort. “Maybe whatever she wanted…? Perhaps her project was to tell a story –her story?”

“But…” Bertie had a quick swallow of his beer, and stared at her. “Just because you tell a story about yourself doesn’t make it true, or anything.” He thought about it for a moment. “I mean, maybe you’re just making it up -telling yourself something that will never happen…”

“It’s a goal though, isn’t it Bertie? Something to aim for.”

He shook his head. “But suppose it’s unrealistic…”

She sighed and smiled at him -sadly, I thought- then put down her beer. “What’s your story?”

He closed his eyes, as if he wished he’d never said anything. “I… I don’t really have one, I don’t think.”

Judy smiled again, this time like a mother, or maybe a sister. “Yes you do, Bertie,” she said softly. “You want to be an Engineer.”

He slowly shook his head, eyes still closed as if she’d hit a sore point. “I told myself I did, but now I’m not so sure.” He opened his eyes slowly and let his eyes rest gently on her cheek. “I don’t think I can do it, you know…”

Judy got up off the floor and went over to sit beside him. “Sometimes you just have to believe the story you wrote, Bertie.” She touched his shoulder affectionately. “At this stage in our lives, the story is all we have…”

I don’t remember much of the night after that, but I did happen to run into Bertie years later. “So, what are you doing with yourself nowadays, G?” he said after we shook hands and did the man-thing of slapping each other’s shoulder. “You always wanted to be a doctor, I remember…”

I nodded my head. “And you were going to be an engineer, weren’t you…?” I was curious about what had happened to him. Circumstances change as semesters bring new classes, and our little group of friends gradually dissolved. Within a year, we’d pretty well lost touch with each other…

“Flunked out after a couple of years,” he answered. “Anyway, I switched into science like -what was his name? Arvid? Now I’m a teacher.”

He looked happy enough, but as I was leaving, I saw the wistful expression on his face. I think I must have stirred some long-buried memories; I think he remembered he’d had a different story once…

The raven himself is hoarse

There was a time when I thought I finally had a handle on gender: it’s a spectrum, right? It’s not defined by biology or chromosomes -it’s how you think, how you feel, who you are. It should not merely be assigned, it should be assumed. And just when I thought I was escaping from the biases of another era, and beginning to see the wisdom in Bell Curve thinking, I found myself wandering in yet another labyrinth. It was only a matter of time before I met the Minotaur, I suppose.

But it all made sense: we are what we feel inside, no matter our outward assignation. And, let’s face it, none of us is always the same person -we evolve both in time and place; who we are at work, or in public, may not be the same as who we are at home and with friends. I am large, I contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman confesses in his Leaves of Grass.

I am old now, and have never felt the urge to leave my tent; I do not feel imprisoned, nor deprived, and yet I can understand that others may wish to leave the flap unfastened. My own multitudes are those of ideas, not identities -sexual or otherwise- but as I say, we are all different and I have no problem with that.

Still, I enjoy opinions and ideas that trespass on Shibboleths, so I was intrigued when I came across an essay about the gender spectrum by the philosopher Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, from the University of Warwick: ‘

As she writes, ‘The word ‘gender’ originally had a purely grammatical meaning in languages that classify their nouns as masculine, feminine or neuter. But since at least the 1960s, the word has taken on another meaning, allowing us to make a distinction between sex and gender. For feminists, this distinction has been important, because it enables us to acknowledge that some of the differences between women and men are traceable to biology, while others have their roots in environment, culture, upbringing and education – what feminists call ‘gendered socialisation’.’

And, in what Reilly-Cooper sees as the radical feminist view, ‘[G]ender refers to the externally imposed set of norms that prescribe and proscribe desirable behaviour to individuals in accordance with morally arbitrary characteristics.’ That view, by the way -although I have difficulty with it- is the one which I had finally come to understand: imposed gender is a caste system, a hierarchical one in which males occupy the highest rank, and socialization proceeds accordingly. ‘So, for the radical feminist, the aim is to abolish gender altogether.’

The author, however discusses another view of gender -the queer feminist view- that  ‘what makes the operation of gender oppressive is not that it is socially constructed and coercively imposed: rather, the problem is the prevalence of the belief that there are only two genders.’ The choice isn’t simply a binary one -gender is a spectrum.

But now Reilly-Cooper’s training as a philosopher enters. ‘If’, she posits, ‘gender really is a spectrum, doesn’t this mean that every individual alive is non-binary, by definition? If so, then the label ‘non-binary’ to describe a specific gender identity would become redundant, because it would fail to pick out a special category of people.’ Even the binary of Tall/Short is relative, because nobody is absolutely tall -it is merely a comparison between that individual and the average height in whatever population we are considering.

And, ‘If gender, like height, is to be understood as comparative or relative, this would fly in the face of the insistence that individuals are the sole arbiters of their gender. Your gender would be defined by reference to the distribution of gender identities present in the group in which you find yourself, and not by your own individual self-determination.’

An interesting conclusion, especially if you expand the concept. If gender is a spectrum, that means it’s a continuum between two extremes, and everyone is located somewhere along that continuum. I think of myself as a man, and yet someone is likely to be further along the spectrum towards manhood, and would therefore be more of a man than me… Whoaa.

The author takes it further, of course: ‘In reality, everybody is non-binary. We all actively participate in some gender norms, passively acquiesce with others, and positively rail against others still. So to call oneself non-binary is in fact to create a new false binary.’ Or, if you want to ‘identify as pangender, is the claim that you represent every possible point on the spectrum? All at the same time?’ And if you don’t ‘accept that masculinity should be defined in terms of dominance while femininity should be described in terms of submission… whatever you come up with, they are going to represent opposites of one another.’

I love the way philosophers approach things, don’t you? The next question she asks is ‘how many genders would we have to recognise in order not to be oppressive? Just how many possible gender identities are there?’ Her answer: ‘7 billion, give or take. There are as many possible gender identities as there are humans on the planet… But if this is so, it’s not clear how it makes sense or adds anything to our understanding to call any of this stuff ‘gender’, as opposed to just ‘human personality’… The word gender is not just a fancy word for your personality or your tastes or preferences. It is not simply a label to adopt so that you now have a unique way to describe just how large and multitudinous and interesting you are. Gender is the value system that ties desirable (and sometimes undesirable?) behaviours and characteristics to reproductive function.  Once we’ve decoupled those behaviours and characteristics from reproductive function – which we should – and once we’ve rejected the idea that there are just two types of personality and that one is superior to the other – which we should – what can it possibly mean to continue to call this stuff ‘gender’? What meaning does the word ‘gender’ have here, that the word ‘personality’ cannot capture?’ Bravo!

So, should the default then, be ‘cis’ (i.e. personal identity conforms with birth sex)? She has an answer to that one, too: A ‘desire not to be cis is rational and makes perfect sense, especially if you are female. I too believe my thoughts, feelings, aptitudes and dispositions are far too interesting, well-rounded and complex to simply be a ‘cis woman’… Once we recognise that the number of gender identities is potentially infinite, we are forced to concede that nobody is deep down cisgender.’

And remember, ‘To call yourself non-binary or genderfluid while demanding that others call themselves cisgender is to insist that the vast majority of humans must stay in their boxes, because you identify as boxless… The solution is not to reify gender by insisting on ever more gender categories that define the complexity of human personality in rigid and essentialist ways. The solution is to abolish gender altogether… You do not need to have a deep, internal, essential experience of gender to be free to dress how you like, behave how you like, work how you like, love who you like. You do not need to show that your personality is feminine for it to be acceptable for you to enjoy cosmetics, cookery and crafting.’ Amen.

Somehow, I feel that Reilly-Cooper has allowed me to peek under the canvass just a little -sort of like what I used to do when I was a kid and the circus came to town. I’m sure it did not go unnoticed, but nobody seemed to mind that I was fascinated with what was going on, and that I wanted to know how it all worked -and maybe even be invited in to ask some questions.

After all, curiosity is what leads to understanding -and isn’t it better to be interested than indifferent? Or worse, intolerant?

What about Now?

Now can be a tricky thing to police, I think; it keeps changing its clothes, and each time I think I finally recognize it, I realize I’ve mistaken it for somebody else. Someone from a different time, perhaps; someone who looks a lot like a friend in another place, but who is a stranger here with a similar face…

We should all try to live in the now I’ve read, but where, exactly, is that? And if I ever did run across it as I wander along the streets of my life, how would I recognize it? Or, perhaps more to the point, how could I pause there long enough to know I was in the right place -long enough to use it before it vanished as if it never really was?

There’s a lot of mystery to a now, you have to admit. Quite apart from it being infinitely evanescent, I imagine each one of them is different, if only by shades. A now on, say, Thursday, is no doubt different than a now on any other day, although I’ve never stopped long enough to analyze the contents, let alone committed any one instance to memory well enough for an accurate comparison.

Still, even if each now is in fact unique, why should any one example be privileged over any other? With an ocean to choose from, what advantage can be accorded to a single drop? And anyway, if the drop merely attests to the value found all around it, and is merely a representative of the whole, then is it sort of like the trailer-teaser of a movie, or the sample of a product that is intended to interest you in buying more? In which case, it is the whole that is being advertised, not the part. The part is incomplete: one page of the story, only.

And is any previous now equivalent to any new one? If not, are there any characteristics that should mark it for special consumption? Or should we just draw lots, throw dice, to choose? Even if I could stop long enough to find a now and valourize it, I am concerned I’d end up being saddled with the wrong one. A plain one; a defective one…

Metaphysics is certainly confusing; I see why it, and the most famous of its three children -ontology- has become the province of the Philosophers. Fortunately I stumbled upon an essay on the now in an essay by John Martin Fischer, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside; I have to confess it took me innumerable nows to read it, however. There’s nothing surprising in that, I suppose -still, it made me wonder if I could ever stay put in a now.

Fischer outlines the belief of various adherents -religious and otherwise- that ‘although it might seem to us that other times – past and future – are appropriate targets of attention, we can come to understand (intellectually and affectively) that in a fundamental sense… there is only the now, and thus our attention should be focused on it.’ The singularity of the now.

He is not convinced of the uniqueness of any particular now, however; he suggests that although we are, in reality, only present in the now, it is actually a trivial observation. Indeed, ‘now is an indexical term. That is, it’s employed flexibly to point to the particular time when it’s used, not the same time every time it’s used.  Similarly, the term here is an indexical term, employed flexibly to refer to the place where it’s uttered, not the same place wherever it’s uttered. Now is a temporal indexical, and here is a spatial indexical.’ I like that.

‘It’s thus not true that it’s always now, in the sense that it’s always the same time… Interpreted so that it’s correct, the intuitive idea that it’s always now doesn’t support the crucial inference that we should focus on the present because of its singularity.’ To paraphrase that apocryphal woman who, when challenged to answer what supported the turtle she believed held the world in place, it’s nows all the way down -an infinite number, in fact. Each may well be a singularity… but so what? What makes any one of them so special? There will no doubt be others each claiming to be exceptional, but only because they are indeed different from the rest.

As Fischer says, ‘it’s that there’s no necessity or inevitability to focusing only on the present moment, based on the fact (if it is a fact) that it’s the only moment that exists or is real.’ And, since it is obviously true that we can neither act in the past, nor in the future and only in the present -the now– then shouldn’t we try to stay in it…? Uhmm, I’m not convinced there’s an option, frankly. And anyway, there are inevitable consequences of acting in any given now that spread into the future and so are not a part of that special ‘singularity’. So, let me repeat, why is it so special -and why would I ever want to privilege it as if it actually contained something more than temporal instantaneity? After all, as Fischer points out, ‘every way of inhabiting the now (including ‘being here now’) is also a way of taking up the past and orienting ourselves to the future.’

No, I’m afraid I’m not really convinced there are any special values to the nows that flash past us like individual frames on a celluloid movie reel. It’s the movie as a whole that is ultimately what each now contributes to: the story. That’s where we all live, after all.

I suppose that if we find the story unpleasant in passages, we might benefit by pausing for a now or two -perhaps in meditation, or conversation with a friend- but in the end, we have to join the succession of picture frames and get on with our lives. It’s how it works.

As Fischer concludes, ‘We have a choice about what we focus on, a choice not dictated by the unique present, if there is one. We are free to choose how we wish to be. We should indeed be here now, but not because the now is all we have.’ We think in Time, we love in Time, we live in Time. Perhaps we should enjoy what we have left of it. All of it…!

Errare humanum est

After so many years distant from my university Philosophy courses, I have to admit that I’d come to believe that rationality is a process designed for avoiding mistakes. That to err is to have made a miscalculation in its undertaking. And given that we humans are prone to frequent miscalculations -or, to adopt the aphorism of our time, fall prey to unintended consequences- what does that say about our acumen, let alone our wisdom? Does our seemingly inherent ability to take the wrong path or deviate from the planned course of action, mean that we are too easily distracted? Too readily deceived? Or that we weren’t designed to act rationally?

These failures suggest that, far from being rational, we are at best, credulous about our abilities… or does it? To be able to be deceived, it is necessary to have arrived at some sort of  expectation of what is correct or appropriate in the first place. One cannot be fooled, if one doesn’t understand anything about what is happening. In a way, then, the ability to err, suggests that one has already developed a theory about how it should be -that the failure was not meaningless, in other words. Reasoning that comes to a different conclusion than one that has been widely accepted may still be reasoning.

In a democracy, there are usually several options from which to choose, but the outcome of a vote does not mean the other choices were wrong. It does not invalidate them, nor imply that they were irrational -it merely postpones their serious consideration to another time. That things change over the years does not negate the past; it does not suggest that those living in those benighted years were unable to think properly.

Many of these thoughts were highlighted in a somewhat obtuse essay I came across in Aeon written by Daniel Ward, a lawyer and PhD candidate in Cambridge University:

He writes of a dog watching a card trick being performed. ‘It will just ignore what it perceives as meaningless markings on bits of cardboard. Hence it is immune to deception.’ It has no idea what to expect, because it has no idea what is going on. There is no error in the dog’s mind, presumably, because ‘Susceptibility to error validates rather than detracts from rationality.’

For example, ‘Those who study the human visual system also draw a link between the capacity for error and the capacity for thought.’ But, the ability to be fooled by an optical illusion ‘demonstrates the success rather than the failure of the visual system. That your brain occasionally makes this kind of mistake is testament to the fact that it is doing complex, intelligent things that go beyond merely absorbing incoming sensory data. The antithesis of the view that normal, intelligent people are susceptible to error is a view that treats people as infallible.’ And we certainly aren’t that: ‘incapable of error in a wide range of matters, ranging from day-to-day decisions about how we spend our money to ideological commitments… Treating an individual’s attitudes and preferences as givens – as matters beyond debate or criticism – might seem to promote human dignity by forcing us to treat all views as equally worthy of respect. But such an outlook is likely, if anything, to have the opposite effect. This is because taking seriously a person’s capacity to make mistakes is critical to taking seriously their capacity for rationality. Only by recognising that people are capable of error can we properly value anyone’s goals or engage in rational debate.’

After all, if we had to assume that a rational person with whom we disagreed could not have made a mistake in their reasoning, then we could not depend on an intelligent debate to resolve the issue -only force. No, rationality does not preclude error in and of itself… And that’s okay.

“You do realize that I’ve put my shopping bag on there, don’t you…?” The elderly lady glared at me, and made no effort to move the bag from what I could see was the only empty seat on the bus.

Her statement was obviously correct and I had neither desire nor rhetorical skills, to contradict her assertion. I did, however, want to sit down. It had been a long day, and an even longer wait for the already crowded bus.

I decided to meet her challenging expression with a smile and a shrug, but to show her I hadn’t really given up, I continued to stand beside the almost-empty seat and waited for guilt to wreak its havoc on her conscience. Unfortunately she retrieved her eyes and sent them to scout the scenery outside her window. I was just another tree in a forest she did not deign to enter.

I sighed and was about to resign myself to a journey spent swaying on my feet, when I suddenly remembered something, and decided to try my luck again. “I imagine your bag is quite heavy,” I started, pretending I just wanted to engage her in idle conversation. Actually, I was hoping to cash in on a program about logical argumentation in a podcast I’d downloaded from the BBC.

She dragged her eyes back from the window and plonked them on one of my ears. Her lips said nothing, but her face told me to mind my own business.

“My backpack is also heavy,” I continued, hoping I could build on the premise. “And,” I added, trying to twinkle my eyes, “there’s a bit of room left on the seat…” I cleverly added the ellipsis to show there was a conclusion inherent in my prologue.

Her eyes continued to grill me, but her forehead was beginning to wrinkle -so were her lips, for that matter. “And you think that I will be convinced by a faulty syllogism?”

“Which premise was faulty?” I suddenly realized that my memory of the podcast was sketchy at best, so I hoped I had understood the thrust of her rebuttal.

A tiny smile appeared on her face. “It was more the assumption that my bag was heavy, than that because there was room left on the seat, your also-heavy backpack deserved a place beside it.”

I thought about that for a moment. Did I flaw the first chance I’d had for engaging in a public rhetorical challenge? Did I waste the podcast?

I must have looked perplexed because her smile suddenly blossomed and she feathered her shopping bag onto her lap as if it were almost empty. “You passed the test,” she said and chuckled.


Her eyes tapped briefly on my face and then flew off to other perches on the outside of the window. I wondered if she’d read the same article in Aeon.

Truth hath a quiet breast

What makes something ‘real’? For that matter, what does that even mean? Is a character in one of my favourite books any less real than what I remember of an uncle my family used to visit when I was a child? I used to wonder about that until I was old enough to be able to transition from pretending the space underneath the bed was a fort, to the understanding that it was somehow actually -and ‘really’- just a bed.

But imagination -so important to a child at play- assumes a different purpose as we age. It continues to offer an escape from the world around us perhaps, but in the cognitively unimpaired, begins to wear the patina of context -its potential seldom all-consuming, its boundaries identifiable.

And yet, for an adult living in a different perceptual Magisterium, the innocence of a child’s beliefs and the questions arising from them can be difficult to answer in kind. Once the heavy obligations of maturation have hardened the boundaries, even words may require translation, and unintended metaphors may have consequences.

I came across an interesting essay on this in Aeon in which a philosopher from Florida State University, Nathanael Stein, was wondering how to answer his young son’s queries about reality:

The difficulty seemed to be in deciding just what his son wanted to know. Was it simply a variation of the universal ‘Why?’ question, or something more deeply probing about reality itself?  As he notes, ‘there are surprisingly many ways of distinguishing what’s real from what isn’t. One of the most familiar contrasts we draw is between reality and appearance… reality is sometimes contrasted with what we might call mere appearance, like the motion we create on screens: pixels are turning on and off, and changing colour, so there’s change going on, but nothing that seems to be moving really is. This is different again from the kind of illusion of motion we get from certain patterns.’

We also distinguish ‘what’s real from what’s merely imagined or dreamt… what has existed at least at some time from what never has. Dinosaurs and ancestors are real in this last sense, but unicorns aren’t.’ His young son, though, was perhaps only trying to differentiate between what was ‘really’ real and what was only pretend-real, or make-believe.

Stein then goes on at length on discussing which of the several reality varieties his child was probably puzzled about, but ends up wondering if philosophy could ever solve the riddle for a non-adult. In fact, his concluding sentence seems to concede this point: ‘My son is only four, and by the time he’s able to explain what he means by Why?, he’ll have forgotten what puzzled him – if he hasn’t already.’

Stein’s difficulty in understanding the Lebenswelt of his son reminded me of a lengthy discussion I had many years ago with my similarly aged daughter.

“Daddy, what’s a ‘stralyer’?”

My daughter had a habit of coming up with sounds, part-words, and checking them out on me.

“You mean trailer, don’t you sweetheart? It’s a thing on wheels that you pull behind you…”

I could see a sly look come over her face as she prepared to correct me. “That’s a wagn, silly.”

Pronunciation was never a strong point with my children. “I asked you about a ‘stralyer’…”

Catherine was only about three feet tall then, so it was hard to look her in the eye without considerable effort. She also insisted on wearing at least one of her golden curls on her face -to hide behind if necessary. She wasn’t hiding, however, so I crouched down as best I could and tried to read her expression. Actually, I was trying to read her lips. She repeated the word with me about six inches away and nose level, but it didn’t help much.

“Where did you hear the word, Cath?” Sometimes you can trace these things.

“From Michael.”

I waited for an explanation, but Godot would have arrived before she caught on. “And what was Michael talking about?” I finally asked.  Michael is my son, and he was terribly precocious for nine, I think. His questions were worse, though, because I understood them.

Catherine looked at me as if I were inordinately dense. “About a ‘stralyer’, of course.”  Sometimes I saw too much of her mother in her, with her hands on her hips, one foot tapping impatiently, and an expression of utter condescension nailed to her forehead. Only with Catherine, it looked benign -comical, almost. They lived with their mother then, so I supposed neither of them would adopt any of my mannerisms.

Children are tautological creatures; they have the good sense to stick to their guns when all else -adults, by and large- fail them. “Ahh, you don’t happen to know what else Michael said, do you?”

She nodded her head vehemently, convinced she was getting somewhere at last.


She just looked at me. Sometimes I wondered if she was really four, or whether she had forgotten something somewhere around two and a half.

Finally, she got the idea. “He said it was under something.”

That’s what I like about Catherine: just like her mother, she remembered only things that stick out: a flower outside a thousand year old French cathedral, the smell of Machu Pichu, the colour of the mud in Manaus… Context, for her, was merely the background against which the really important things were displayed.

“I don’t suppose he happened to mention what it was under, did he?”

She was silent for a moment -no mean feat for Catherine- and then a smile lit up her face and her eyes grew large. “Under the water, I think…”

There are only so many things that sound like trailer and are under stuff -especially water. I took a stab at it. “Australia?” I said in my best adult voice.

“That’s it, Daddy… What is it?”

“Well,” I said, not entirely sure how much she wanted to know, “it’s a country.”

“But we live in a country…”

“Yes.” I also nodded, to give it added strength.

I could see her playing with it for a while before leaving it on whatever shelf she filed such things -Catherine’s face was a movie screen sometimes. But after a minute between shows, I could see a new thought growing. “How many countries are there, Daddy?”

That’s a good question, actually. Does anybody know? I was so relieved that she hadn’t asked me what a country was that I offered to look it up. “Have you ever seen an atlas, Cath?”

A new word! She perked up immediately. “Anatlus? Nope… Is it what reindeer wear, Daddy?”

Where do kids get their ideas nowadays?  “Antlers are what reindeer have, Cath. Atlas is what I’m going to use to count the number of countries,” I said, but I don’t think it stuck. I think she liked the idea of finding countries on reindeer heads.

“But don’t the reindeer have to know where they’re going?”


“You know. On Christmas eve.”

Actually the thought had never occurred to me. I guess I just figured they did it by the stars, or that Santa kind of navigated by instinct, or something. Kids aren’t satisfied with the old stories anymore. “Ahh, well maybe if you looked at the atlas you’d understand what I mean.”

Her eyes positively sparkled. “You mean you have some reindeer here?” She looked wide-eyed around the room, expecting to see a nose pop out of a closet any moment, I’m sure.

“Cath, we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Just wait here, okay?” I went into the den and rummaged around for the atlas. It was an old Reader’s Digest variety -you know, solar system in the front few pages, then what each country does for a living and how many did it, at least in 1969. The rest was a smorgasbord of colors and names that brought back painful recollections of Miss Pleasance in Grade 4 or 5 and having to pronounce them in front of the whole class by memory. I could never say ‘Afghanistan’ and everybody would wait for it and laugh. Not Miss Pleasance, though. It’d just get me another turn the next day. I hated geography.

When I returned, Catherine was prowling through the cupboards and sniffing. I didn’t ask why. “This is an atlas, Cath,” I said proudly, holding it in front of me like a jewel.

She took one look at it and her face lost interest. “That’s just another book, Daddy,” she said, her voice pleading with me to say I was kidding.

“Just another book?” I pretended to be hurt. “Catherine, this is a genuine, nothing-else-is-remotely-like-it Reader’s Digest version of the world.”

Her eyes resumed their dinner-plate imitations and her mouth fell open. “The world! In there?” I had the sinking feeling that I’d lost again. “Lemme see,” she said grabbing the book firmly, but reverently from my hands.

I was pleased to see that she at least started from the front, but she whipped through the solar system at a breakneck pace and was half way through the gross national product of the Netherlands before she slowed down. “Awhh…” She leafed through a couple of pages of countries outlined in their pale reds and yellows, crammed with lines and unreadable letters and put the book down gently on the table. She looked at me -sadly, I thought- and shook her head. “Daddy,” she said slowly, and carefully, sounding for all the world like she was choosing her words carefully so as not to offend me. “Daddy, did you pay a lot for the anatlus?”

“Atlas,” I corrected as gently as I could. “No, not a whole lot. Why?”

“Well… I think you got gypped.”


She stared at me and sighed with a little shake of her head -just like her mother used to do. “I saw the world on T.V. and it’s different.”

She was right, you know. And I’ll bet they pronounced Afghanistan correctly, too.

Wearing Life but as the fashion of a hat

Every once in a while I find that I am confronted by an idea which, even were I to have thought of it first, I would have put aside as of little relevance -or worse, of little consequence.

Clothing, has always been one of those for me: it’s something you wear, not something you are. And despite the desperate claims by Fashionistas that it reflects an inner self -or at least would, if you let it- I’ve always found the argument largely specious, and to reword Samuel Johnson’s quip about marriage, is a triumph of hope over expenditure.

And yet, I was drawn into an essay about clothes -albeit reluctantly- written by Shahida Bari, a lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London, for Aeon.

I have to admit the article was not at all what I expected: I was neither deluged with praise for couture, nor subjected to shaming for my sartorial insouciance. At first, I was merely confused by her fascinating ruminations about clothes: ‘Ideas, we languidly suppose, are to be found in books and poems, visualised in buildings and paintings, exposited in philosophical propositions and mathematical deductions. They are taught in classrooms; expressed in language, number and diagram. Much trickier to accept is that clothes might also be understood as forms of thought, reflections and meditations as articulate as any poem or equation. What if the world could open up to us with the tug of a thread, its mysteries disentangling like a frayed hemline?’ What an utterly fascinating thought that what we wear is not merely a passive display, but has a voice of its own.

‘What if clothes were not simply reflective of personality, indicative of our banal preferences for grey over green, but more deeply imprinted with the ways that human beings have lived: a material record of our experiences and an expression of our ambition? What if we could understand the world in the perfect geometry of a notched lapel, the orderly measures of a pleated skirt, the stilled, skin-warmed perfection of a circlet of pearls?’

Do you see why I kept reading? The very idea that clothes have agency in and of themselves is powerful. She goes on to observe that ‘clothes are freighted with memory and meaning… In clothes, we are connected to other people and other places in complicated, powerful and unyielding ways, expressed in an idiom that is found everywhere, if only we care to read it.’

Bari seems to understand that ‘for all the abstract and elevated formulations of selfhood and the soul, our interior life is so often clothed… The garments we wear bear our secrets and betray us at every turn, revealing more than we can know or intend.’

But we cannot hide in clothes -as the poet Kahlil Gibran observes, ‘Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful’. And Bari goes on to suggest that ‘to entrust to clothes the keeping of our secrets is a seduction in itself.’ I would have thought that this alone would have been fodder for the Philosophers, but as she goes on to explain, ‘the discipline of philosophy has rarely deigned to notice the knowledge to which dress makes claim, preferring instead to dwell on its associations with disguise and concealment.’

She seems to think that Plato had something to do with Philosophy’s aversion to treating clothes as a worthy adversary. ‘Haunted by Plato’s anxiety over how to distinguish truth from its ‘appearance’, and niggled by his injunction to see beyond an illusory ‘cave of shadows’ to a reality to which our back is turned, philosophy’s concept of truth is intractably aligned to ideas of light, revelation and disclosure.’

Still, in fairness, she turns her spotlight on various other philosophers and notes that although appearance has always been a fair topic for discussion, it has rarely concerned itself about physical appearance or dress. And yet, after a tedious, albeit poetically expressed, litany of the views on clothes of characters, both fictional and academic, she concludes with a one sentence précis that I think might have made her point much sooner: ‘Philosophy might have forgotten dress, but all that language cannot articulate – the life of the mind, the vagaries of the body – is there, ready to be read, waiting to be worn.’

I did enjoy her metaphors and evocative language, and I have to admit that, until the latter half of the journey, I was swept along quite contentedly in the current of her thoughts. It reminded me of a recent conversation of two women, both laden with large cloth bags who plonked themselves down beside me on a couch that break-watered the teeming throng of shoppers in a downtown mall. Both were middle-aged, and both spread themselves out as if I wasn’t there.

I’m not keen on being jostled on a seat, and was about to launch myself into the chaotic tide of passing elbows when I saw the woman next to me pull some garish fabric partly out of her bag to show it to her friend.

“What d’ya think Jesse?” she asked, stuffing whatever it was back in her bag once Jesse had seen it.

Jesse looked frazzled by the crowds, and her once-coiffed, greying hair floated in little strands from her head while her eyes stayed anchored on her face. “Colour’s interesting, Paula…” she said, after a noticeable pause.

“It’s a statement, Jess…” She relaxed her buxom frame further into the couch and settled an elbow into my rib without seeming to notice the infringement. “I think it’s time people noticed me.”

Jesse blinked and a weak smile surfaced on her lips for a moment. “I don’t think you need the hat, dear,” she added, as tactfully as the situation allowed.

I could see Paula’s eyes harden, and then the pressure on my rib cage lessened briefly as her hand searched for a pocket in her incredibly wrinkled ankle length coat for a Kleenex. She blew her nose untidily and then tried to stuff what was left of the tissue back in the coat somewhere, and her elbow back into my side. “What are you saying, mirror-child?” she shot back. Clearly they were both tired, but I was beginning to enjoy the exchange.

“Just that you don’t have to wear a sign to attract attention…”

Paula’s face somehow retracted further into itself and her eyes peered out through the bars of their lashes like caged animals. And then, just as suddenly, her expression softened, and she shifted the position of her elbow again. “Oh, you mean that blouse, I bought…?” A smile darted onto her lips and stayed there like a runner that had made it safely to second base. “It’s really more me, isn’t it?”

Jesse’s eyes twinkled mischievously as she nodded. “But I don’t think you should wear them together, do you…?”

I could feel, as well as see Paula sigh. “You’re right, dear,” she said, as they both struggled to their feet. “I’m someone else with the hat on, aren’t I?” Another smile surfaced briefly, like a seal. “But it’s always nice to have a choice, Jess,” Paula added, hefting her bag onto her shoulder. Then pulling her friend with her free hand, they both stepped into the ever-passing flood like branches falling together in a river and were swept away.

I think you learn a lot about philosophy in malls if you’re patient…

Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus

I must have learned a bit about phenomenology in Philosophy courses at university, but except for the fact that it has something to do with lived experience and consciousness, I have pretty well forgotten almost everything about it in the intervening years, I’m afraid. The name alone was enough for it to merit a place of its own in a dark corner of a barely reachable shelf inside my brain somewhere. Strange names like Husserl and Heidegger stand guard, but in all that time, they were relatively undisturbed by any neuronal probes -any interest whatsoever, in fact.

And now, in my yellow leaf, I’ve stumbled upon it once again, but this time in the context of health, ironically. Given that phenomenology purports to concern itself with experience, and nurses would like -and in fact, need– to understand the subjective experience of those under their care, it seems like a good, if somewhat awkward fit I suppose.

After more than 40 years in Medicine myself (as a specialist in Ob/Gyn) I recognize that it would be an advantage for all of us who deal with people with health needs, to understand how those individuals experience their worlds. But an essay written by Dan Zahavi, a professor of philosophy at both Oxford and the University of Copenhagen helped me to realize how nurses, especially, might benefit by looking at it from a more phenomenological perspective:

‘By being interested in patient experience and striving to understand people’s experiences of health, illness and care, the discipline of nursing might have more affinities with the social sciences and its qualitative methods than with medicine and its reliance on the quantitative methods of the natural sciences. Indeed, if the aim is to provide proper care for, say, stroke patients, or patients with diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease, it is important to have some understanding of what it is like, subjectively, to live with such conditions, just as it is important to understand the meaning that patients attach to the events that disrupt their lives.’

This is not to diminish the role of Medicine in any way, but merely to suggest that Nursing and Medicine each have complementary roles in the provision of care. After all, ‘This focus on patient experience isn’t simply about monitoring (and increasing) patient satisfaction. It is about obtaining information that will allow for more adequate healthcare… one reason why nursing science became interested in phenomenology was precisely because the latter was seen as a resource that could bridge the gap between research and practice… It might, in short, help to ensure that the academic field of nursing research actually led to an improvement of nursing practice.’ Medical practice as well, but for now, let’s stick with Nursing.

The issue, however, is not to become too entangled with the competing nuances of the various philosophical movements that call Phenomenology home. Does it really matter, for example, that the philosopher Heidegger stressed ‘the ontological difference, inauthenticity, solicitude, average everydayness, thrownness and fallenness’ -whatever in the world that means? Or that  Jonathan Smith (a psychologist) ‘has argued that his own approach, which is called Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), is phenomenological because it seeks to ‘explore the participant’s view of the world and to adopt, as far as is possible, an “insider’s perspective” of the phenomenon under study’?

How about Max Van Manen distinguishing ‘what he calls the heuristic, hermeneutic, experiential, methodological, eidetic, ontological, ethical, radical and originary reduction as important elements of the phenomenological method’? I mean, come on, eh?

As Zahavi sees it, ‘nursing research’s current use of phenomenology faces three challenges: it risks being too superficial by mistakenly thinking that phenomenology is simply about paying attention to experience; it risks being too philosophical by employing too many theoretical concepts with little clinical relevance; and it risks being misled by misguided methodological requirements.’

But, shouldn’t it be enough to extract what value you find in viewing the world from the point of view of the person under your care -call it what you will? A balance, please: a just-right-baby-bear, Goldilockean approach would do just fine, thank you.

As a now-retired doctor, I have worked with nurses all my career; we have always worked as a team, each with subtly overlapping roles, and yet I blush to admit that it wasn’t until I required a minor surgical procedure that I truly appreciated the difference.

One cold night, as I lay in bed with the covers pulled up to my chin for warmth, I noticed some lumps in my neck. Subsequent specialist medical consultation did little to reassure me -despite the delicacy and empathy with which the differential diagnosis was outlined for me. To further clarify whether the lumps were indeed malignant, as the consultant expected -and if so, their origin- a surgical biopsy would be required.

A speedy diagnosis was deemed essential so that treatment, if necessary, could be started as soon as possible. But there was apparently no expeditiously suitable time available in the operating theatre, so the consultant surgeon agreed to do it under local anaesthetic in the outpatient department of the hospital within the next day or so. That was fine with me -I just wanted a diagnosis.

What I hadn’t anticipated, however, was just how very anxious I would feel as I lay in one of the same rooms -and maybe on the same table- where I had performed many of the gynaecological procedures so common in my own practice. I knew the surgeon, and we talked pleasantly enough about our lives, and how often our specialties intersected. I knew he was trying to be empathetic and set me at ease, but we both realized there was an unbridgeable gap that separated us now, no matter the care we both took to disguise it: I was the patient -and not just a colleague. It’s difficult enough to be a patient, but perhaps even more so when the roles are suddenly reversed.

I knew the nurse in the room, of course -she had helped me on many occasions with the procedures I had booked in the department. But that day, her eyes were seldom far from mine, even though she was helping the surgeon set up some of his equipment. I could sense her concern whenever our eyes met -she’d always been attentive when she’d helped me before, and yet it was subtly different this time: she was dividing her attention between helping the surgeon and making sure I was okay.

But I wasn’t; I was terrified, although I tried my best to disguise it. Even though the local anaesthetic was working, I could still imagine what the surgeon was doing because of the subtle pressure changes I could feel on the skin distant from the lumps -you can’t freeze an entire neck. I tried not to tense any muscles in the area, but I suppose panic was starting to set in…

Suddenly, there it was: a hand gently grasping mine. The warmth of it, skin to skin, was soothing, reassuring, and although I couldn’t turn my head to look, I knew it was the nurse. I also realized she was aware of what I was going through –she had been all along, I sensed. She was living it herself in a way.

Until that moment, I don’t think I really understood the true value of rapport in caring for people. Of course I often used touch to reach out and connect with others in my own practice: on morning hospital visits to my patients after surgery or with new mothers and the babies I had helped deliver, and frequently in the office just to show anxious and fearful patients that I was listening and would try to help… That I wasn’t just a voice from the door, or on the other side of the desk.

And yet, that reassuring hand during the biopsy taught me something else: that there is more to compassion than a reassuring smile, more than just an offer of help. Care involves trying to understand what the other person is going through, and guiding them thoughtfully and kindly along the way. We can probably never really know the pain of another, but we can let them know we are trying.

If that is what Phenomenology offers, then by any other name, it would smell as sweet…

Who’s afraid of the Deodand?

Sometimes Philosophy hides in plain sight; interesting questions emerge, unbidden, when you least expect them. A few months ago I was waiting in a line to order a coffee in a poorly-lit shop, when the woman behind bumped into me as she struggled to read the menu posted on the wall over the counter.

“They don’t make it easy in here, do they?” she grumbled in a token apology.

I turned and smiled; I’d been having the same difficulty. “I should have brought a flashlight,” I added, trying to make light of it.

“Photons should be free,” she mumbled. “It’s not like we should have to carry them with us to get a coffee…” She looked at me with a mischievous grin creeping across her shadowed face. “I mean they don’t have to pay by the pound for them like bananas, or anything…”

I chuckled. “Photons have mass…? I didn’t realize they were Catholic.” It was a silly thing to say, I suppose, but it just popped out.

She actually laughed out loud at that point. “That’s very clever…” she said, and despite the dim light, I could feel her examining me with more interest.

But I found myself standing in front of the barista at that point, so I ordered my coffee, and headed for a table in the corner. A moment later, the woman from the lineup surfaced out of the darkness and sat beside me under a feeble wall light at the next table.

“Do you mind if I sit here?” she asked, not really waiting for my reply.

I smiled pleasantly in response, but in truth, I had been looking forward to the solitude usually offered by a dark coffee-shop corner.

“I’m sorry,” she said, immediately sensing my mood. “It’s just that you cheered me up in that horrid line, and I wanted to thank you…”

“It was a bit of a trial, wasn’t it?”

She nodded as she sipped her coffee. “Your comment on the mass of photons was hilarious -I’m a Science teacher at the Mary Magdalene Women’s College, so I enjoyed the reference to Catholics. My students will love it.”

I looked at her for a moment and shrugged. “I’m afraid it’s not original, but thank you.”

She chuckled at my honesty and picked up her coffee again. “I don’t recognize it,” she added after a moment’s reflection, still holding her steaming cup in front of her and staring at it like a lover.

“I think maybe it was one of my favourite comedians who said it…” But I wasn’t sure.

“Oh? And who might that be?” she asked, smiling in anticipation of a shared interest.

I thought about it for a moment. “I don’t know… Woody Allen, perhaps.”

She put down her cup with a sudden bang on the table and stared at me. Even in the dim light, I could feel her eyes boring into my face. “A horrid man!” she said between clenched teeth. “How could you ever think that anything he said was funny?” she muttered.

I was beginning to find her eyes painful. I was aware of the controversies about Woody, of course, but I suppose I was able to separate them from his humour. And yet, I have to admit, that when the woman reminded me of his behaviour, I felt guilty -as if by laughing at his jokes, I was tacitly approving of his other activities.

It’s a puzzling, and yet fascinating relationship we have with things used by, or even owned by people we consider evil: deodands. The word, once used in English Common Law, was originally from Medieval Latin –Deo dandum -a thing to be given to God. The idea was that if the object had caused a human death, it had to be forfeited to the Crown, and its value would equal the compensation given to charity, or the family of the victim.

The question, though, is why we feel such revulsion for something that, through no fault of its own, was used in the commission of a crime? It could have been any knife, say, that was used in a stabbing, so why is this particular knife somehow different? Does the aura of what it did cling to it? Haunt it…? Would Woody Allen’s unrelated jokes -or, for that matter, Bill Cosby’s- be funny if we didn’t know their sources?

I have to admit that humour is a lot more reflective of the personality that created it than, for example, an assassin’s gun, or a criminal’s knife, but in isolation -ie divorced from context- is there really any difference? I certainly have no answer, but I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised that the issue was not one that I was puzzling over on my  own. I came across an essay in an issue of Aeon by Paul Sagar, a lecturer in political theory at King’s College London that looked at first as if it might be helpful:

He wrote that ‘It is not uncommon to find that one’s enjoyment of something is irrevocably damaged if that thing turns out to be closely connected to somebody who has committed serious wrongs…  knowledge of somebody – or something – having done a bad thing can deeply affect how we view the status of the thing itself.’ But why should that be?

Obviously, the answer is not easily obtained, and in a roundabout way he throws himself on the mercy of the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith, and his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). ‘Smith thought it undeniable that we assess the morality of actions not by their actual consequences, but by the intentions of the agent who brings them about.’ And yet, if a person were to throw a brick over a wall and hit someone accidentally, he would also be judged by the consequences even though he hadn’t intended to injure anyone. ‘Smith thought that our moral sentiments in such cases were ‘irregular’. Why do we respond so differently to consequences that have bad outcomes, when those outcomes are purely a matter of luck? Smith was confident that, although he could not explain why we are like this, on balance we should nonetheless be grateful that we are indeed rigged up this way.’

Have patience -this may slowly lead us to a sort of answer. First of all, ‘if, in practice, we really did go around judging everybody solely by their intentions, and not by the actual consequence of their actions, life would be unliveable. We would spend all our time prying into people’s secret motivations, fearing that others were prying into ours, and finding ourselves literally on trial for committing thought crimes.’ Only a god on Judgement Day should be allowed that privilege.

Also, it is good be bothered by consequences rather than just about hidden intentions for social reasons: you have to do good things to get praise, not just intend to do them. And conversely you have to do the bad things to get the punishment. Uhmm… Well, okay, but that doesn’t really explain deodands, or anything.

At this point, Sagar kind of gives up on Smith’s attempts at moral philosophy and heads off on his own wandering trail to find an answer. ‘It is good that we feel aversion to artifacts (be they physical objects, films, records or whatever) associated with sex crimes, murders and other horrors – even if this is a matter of sheer luck or coincidence – because this fosters in us not only an aversion to those sorts of crimes, but an affirmation of the sanctity of the individuals who are the victims of them.’ Somehow that makes us less likely to act the same way? Whoaa…

In the last paragraph, he essentially throws up his hands in frustration (or maybe those were my hands…) and as good as admits he doesn’t know why we would even think about deodands.

And me? How should I have responded to the woman in the coffee shop? Well, probably not by talking about Adam Smith -but changing the subject might have been a good first step, though…

Does Beauty live with Kindness?

I don’t know how many times I’ve written about beauty, but it continues to intrigue me. Not so much about what it is -its constituent parts, its definitions, or even its historical and sociological roots- but more its ability to morph -mutate, if you will- from something that is to something that isn’t. How, in other words, can beauty -or its antonym, ugliness- change to its opposite without materially altering anything about its appearance?

To be sure, the duality has not gone unnoticed in historical philosophy (the appearance vs the charisma of Socrates), literature (think of the handsome Dorian Grey and his increasingly ugly portrait), or even in fairy tales (Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling), but its seeming capriciousness only adds to the mystique, I think.

For years, centuries, indeed millennia, we have sought to decipher beauty, and yet apart from vague generalizations like youthfulness, proportionality, or perhaps, symmetry, it has eluded our grasp, and slipped through our fingers like slowly moving mist. The most apt description for me, comes from Koine Greek, where beauty was associated with being of one’s hour -not trying to appear older or younger: authentic, I suppose. And yet even here, beauty remains a moving target, doesn’t it?

Amongst the many attempts to pigeonhole the concept, I am always on the lookout for seemingly unique approaches -although I fully recognize that over the centuries, pretty well every perspective has likely been canvassed. At any rate, I found myself drawn to an article in Aeon by the British philosopher Panos Paris:

His opening sentence certainly captured my interest: ‘Have you ever thought that someone is far from attractive – perhaps even ugly – only to later come to find that person beautiful?’ For sure this would not be a unique experience for any of us, and yet it made me wonder how such a perceptual change could happen -was it merely that we had come to know that person better and so ignored their outward appearance, or was there an actual phase-change somehow?

Paris links our perceptions to moral qualities: ‘[B]eauty and morality, and ugliness and immorality, are intrinsically linked. Specifically, the moral virtues – honesty, kindness, fairness, empathy, etc – are beautiful character traits, and the moral vices – their contraries – are ugly.’

That seemed a little too simplistic a view, but it was enough to make me read further. He qualifies it almost immediately: ‘Of course, the kind of beauty or ugliness in question is independent of physical appearances – it belongs to characters and actions.’ He calls it the ‘moral beauty’ view, and further qualifies it by saying ‘This view is rather unfashionable today. Contemporary philosophical and lay orthodoxy construes the realms of aesthetics and morality as distinct. It regards theories such as the moral-beauty view as signs of past conceptual immaturity that we have since thankfully shaken off our intellectual shoulders.’

But then he points to diverse historical languages and how many of these (admittedly cherry-picked examples) conflated beauty and morality. ‘In Ancient Greek, kalon meant both beautiful and good, while the [African] Yoruba word ewa normally translated as ‘beauty’, is primarily used to refer to human moral qualities.’ Or, more recently, ‘Adam Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) that ‘benevolence bestows upon those actions which proceed from it, a beauty superior to all others, [while] the want of it, and much more the contrary inclination, communicates a peculiar deformity to whatever evidences such a disposition’.

And, Paris explains, this conflation was not because of linguistic poverty. ‘[T]he Enlightenment philosophers did have the terminology to distinguish not only between beauty and goodness, but also between natural and artistic beauty, inner and outer beauty, and so on. Thus, their acknowledgement of an aesthetic dimension in morality, far from evincing confusion, seems to me to have reflected ordinary experience.’ This seemed a bit of a stretch to me -a mistaking of metaphor for prose, perhaps- but I pressed on nevertheless.

‘[W]hen people encountered others who were morally virtuous or vicious in their everyday life or in art… they felt, respectively, the sort of pleasure and displeasure evoked by other beautiful and ugly objects, and this phenomenon found its way into their language and thought.’ But with time, this view of beauty began to fade, and various detractors criticized the old approach -people like ‘Edmund Burke, who in 1757 considered it a ‘loose and inaccurate manner of speaking, [that] misled us both in the theory of taste and of morals’.

So, ‘beauty was thought to be mostly a matter of pleasure in the form of an object, and ugliness of displeasure in deformity; and form was limited to the visible or aural properties of an object. By contrast, goodness, and traits such as honesty and kindness, or selfishness and cowardice, are not like that; they are imperceptible, psychological traits, the goodness or badness of which stems from adherence to or violation of rational principles… Moreover, while the good is, or should be, desirable for its own sake, the beautiful is desirable because it’s pleasurable. So linking beauty and goodness might lead to a corruption or degeneration of moral motivation by encouraging the pursuit of goodness for its beauty.’

I began to lose interest at this point in his sign-wave and ultimately reductionist type of historical approach to beauty. I mean, let us suppose that beauty is largely subjective whereas, morality, because of the duties and obligations associated with being moral, is more objective… What does that mean? Is it an important distinction…?

Or… are we merely throwing everything into the pot in our frantic need for definition? Are we so desperate for a word, for a concept, that describes the pleasurable sensation of encounter, and engagement, that we flounder in the stew ourselves? Could it be that all the while, beauty was simply a metaphor -a way of saying we are pleased, and that what we are really struggling with is a way of expressing this?

And could it be why the word metaphor is so apt? Not to over-emphasize the need of delving into etymological derivations whenever we are stuck for something to say, its component morphemes are instructive: phore meaning ‘bearer of’ and meta designating an analysis at a higher, more abstract level. Personally, I think the famous 18th century French writer, Stendhal defined beauty the best: he called it la promesse de bonheur (the promise of happiness).

Do we really need more than that…?