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Amira Skomorowska's notes

"Everything you can imagine is real."— Pablo Picasso



Age of information
Artificial intelligence
Cognition, perception, relativity
Cognitive science
Collective intelligence
Human being
Mind & Brain
Science & Art
Self improvement
The other


A Box Of Stories
Reading Space




'Human beings are learning machines,' says philosopher (nature vs. nurture)


"The point is that in scientific writing (…) suggest a very inflexible view of human nature, that we are determined by our biology. From my perspective the most interesting thing about the human species is our plasticity, our flexibility. (…)

It is striking in general that human beings mistake the cultural for the natural; you see it in many domains. Take moral values. We assume we have moral instincts: we just know that certain things are right and certain things are wrong. When we encounter people whose values differ from ours we think they must be corrupted or in some sense morally deformed. But this is clearly an instance where we mistake our deeply inculcated preferences for natural law. (…)

Q: At what point with morality does biology stop and culture begin?

One important innate contribution to morality is emotions. An aggressive response to an attack is not learned, it is biological. The question is how emotions that are designed to protect each of us as individuals get extended into generalised rules that spread within a group. One factor may be imitation. Human beings are great imitative learners. Rules that spread in a family can be calibrated across a whole village, leading to conformity in the group and a genuine system of morality.

Nativists will say that morality can emerge without instruction. But with innate domains, there isn’t much need for instruction, whereas in the moral domain, instruction is extensive. Kids learn through incessant correction. Between the ages of 2 and 10, parents correct their children’s behaviour every 8 minutes or so of waking life. In due course, our little monsters become little angels, more or less. This gives us reason to think morality is learned.

Q: One of the strongest arguments for innateness comes from linguists such as Noam Chomsky, who argue that humans are born with the basic rules of grammar already in place. But you disagree with them?

Chomsky singularly deserves credit for giving rise to the new cognitive sciences of the mind. He was instrumental in helping us think about the mind as a kind of machine. He has made some very compelling arguments to explain why everybody with an intact brain speaks grammatically even though children are not explicitly taught the rules of grammar.

But over the past 10 years we have started to see powerful evidence that children might learn language statistically, by unconsciously tabulating patterns in the sentences they hear and using these to generalise to new cases. Children might learn language effortlessly not because they possess innate grammatical rules, but because statistical learning is something we all do incessantly and automatically. The brain is designed to pick up on patterns of all kinds.

Q: How hard has it been to put this alternative view on the table, given how Chomskyan thought has dominated the debate in recent years?

Chomsky’s views about language are so deeply ingrained among academics that those who take statistical learning seriously are subject to a kind of ridicule. There is very little tolerance for dissent. This has been somewhat limiting, but there is a new generation of linguists who are taking the alternative very seriously, and it will probably become a very dominant position in the next generation.

Q: You describe yourself as an “unabashed empiricist” who favours nurture over nature. How did you come to this position, given that on many issues the evidence is still not definitive either way?

Actually I think the debate has been settled. You only have to stroll down the street to see that human beings are learning machines. Sure, for any given capacity the debate over biology versus culture will take time to resolve. But if you compare us with other species, our degree of variation is just so extraordinary and so obvious that we know prior to doing any science that human beings are special in this regard, and that a tremendous amount of what we do is as a result of learning. So empiricism should be the default position. The rest is just working out the details of how all this learning takes place.

Q: What are the implications of an empirical understanding of human nature for the way we go about our lives. How should it affect the way we behave?

In general, we need to cultivate a respect for difference. We need to appreciate that people with different values to us are not simply evil or ignorant, and that just like us they are products of socialisation. This should lead to an increase in international understanding and respect. We also need to understand that group differences in performance are not necessarily biologically fixed. For example, when we see women performing less well than men in mathematics, we should not assume that this is because of a difference in biology.

Q: How much has cognitive science contributed to our understanding of what it is to be human, traditionally a philosophical question?

Cognitive science is in the business of settling long-running philosophical debates on human nature, innate knowledge and other issues. The fact that these theories have been churning about for a couple of millennia without any consensus is evidence that philosophical methods are better at posing questions than answering them. Philosophy tells us what is possible, and science tells us what is true.

Cognitive science has transformed philosophy. At the beginning of the 20th century, philosophers changed their methodology quite dramatically by adopting logic. There has been an equally important revolution in 21st-century philosophy in that philosophers are turning to the empirical sciences and to some extent conducting experimental work themselves to settle old questions. As a philosopher, I hardly go a week without conducting an experiment.

My whole working day has changed because of the infusion of science.”

Jesse Prinz is a distinguished professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, specialising in the philosophy of psychology. He is a pioneer in experimental philosophy, using findings from the cognitive sciences, anthropology and other fields to develop empiricist theories of how the mind works. He is the author of The Emotional Construction of Morals (Oxford University Press, 2007), Gut Reactions (OUP, 2004) and Furnishing the Mind (MIT Press, 2002) and Beyond Human Nature: How culture and experience make us who we are, 'Human beings are learning machines,' says philosopher, NewScientist, Jan 20, 2012. (Illustration: Fritz Kahn, British Library)

See also:

Jesse Prinz: Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response
Human Nature. Sapolsky, Maté, Wilkinson, Gilligan, discuss on human behavior and the nature vs. nurture debate


In an era of global interconnectedness, what is the nature of cross-cultural exchange?


"If you look at the world through a multicultural lens, you realize that that whole idea of exploration is a 19th century concept that has no meaning any more. I think that anthropology actually began in a beautiful way, which was that by studying another culture, albeit the exotic other, you could learn something about your common humanity and about humanity in general. Then it was very quickly co-opted by the ideology of its time and the anthropological lens was used to rationalize distinctions of class and race. Culture came to be seen as a set of frozen moments in time in some imagined evolutionary progression that of course inevitably placed Victorian Europe at the apex and sloped down to the so-called primitives of the world. That idea is now completely irrelevant, but that is not to say that there can be no explorations of spirit and of culture. Rather, all of life is an exploration of new paradigms of thought.

Q: So exploration becomes an intellectual rather than a physical phenomena?

One of the most exciting explorations of our time has come from the realm of genetics. We have literally proven to be true what the philosophers always hoped, which is that we are all connected, all brothers and sisters. Not in the spirit of some hippie cliché, but quite literally: we are cut from the same genetic cloth. We always say Americans are so culturally myopic. Actually, all peoples are. The names of many Indian tribes translate to “the people—” the implication being that everybody else is a savage. And that ethnocentric point of view was what almost all cultures celebrated throughout history. But if you now accept that all populations are descended from this handful of people that walked out of Africa 65,000 years ago, you have to also accept that they all fundamentally share the same raw intellectual capacity, the same genius. How that genius is expressed is simply a matter of choice and cultural orientation. Suddenly you see there is no progression of culture; there is a series of options. It’s not that other peoples are simply failed attempts at being us, or that they’ve missed the train of history by not being like us. No, they are unique answers to a fundamental question—what does it mean to be human? When we stop thinking of ourselves as the paragon of humanity’s potential, it also liberates us from this conceit that we’re on a train to disaster. You realize what we are is just one option, rooted in a relatively shallow past of just 300 years of industrial activity, and that these other peoples offer not some road map to where we should go but a suggestion that there are other ways of living. Those kind of intellectual revelations that are the outcome of intellectual exploration are every bit as valid as discovering a new continent. Exploring how we’re going to all live on this planet—that’s one we all need to be a part of.

Q: We now have instant access to images and voices from around the world. How has that changed the nature of cross-cultural encounters?

Whatever our notion of culture may have been when societies lived as isolates is long gone, and we’re moving towards a world where the issue isn’t modern versus traditional, but just the rights of free people to choose the components of their lives. How can we find a way that people can have access to the benefits of modernity, without that engagement demanding the death of their culture? For one thing, when people lose the conditions and roots of their traditions, it is simply geopolitically unstable. My objection to “the world is flat” theory is that it implies that the world we’re all melting down to is our world. And that’s just not true. It’s going to be a more interconnected world, and its going be a world that will be the consequence of all our own imaginings, but I would not want it to be, and it won’t be, just everybody melting down to being like us. (…)

Q: You’ve written about zombies, witch-doctors, and religion the world over. Where do you see magic in the contemporary world?

It’s not magic so much as metaphor. (…) In the Andes of Peru, a kid really does believe that a mountain is an acting spirit that will direct his destiny. That doesn’t mean he’s living in some la-la-land or fantasy; it means he has a solid sense of the earth being actually what we know it to be—a source of life, a source of food. The most important consequence is not whether the belief is true or not, but how it affects how people treat that mountain. If you think it’s divine you’re not going to blow it up.

Q: You’re advocating a kind of pragmatist environmentalist philosophy.

Exactly. People like to say indigenous people are closer to the earth, like some Rousseauvian ideal. That misses the whole point. I was raised to believe that the forests of British Columbia existed to be cut. That was the foundation of the ideology of what we called scientific forestry. Which was a total construct. It was a slogan; it wasn’t science. Yet we didn’t believe the earth had any resonance to us beyond board-feet cellulose. That is different from a kid from a tribe who had to go into those forests and confront animal spirits to bring back the wisdom to the potlatch. And again, it doesn’t matter whether that forest is the den of demons or just cellulose, that’s not the interesting question. It’s how the belief system affects the ecological footprint of people. So when I talk about magic, it’s really about metaphor. Metaphor is not air, not fluff. People always ask me, do I believe zombies are real? It’s like asking me do I believe Jesus Christ is real. Do I believe there was a guy who walked on water? I probably don’t. Do I believe that this phenomena of Jesus Christ influences behavior on a daily basis? Of course I do! I can’t tell you if there are zombies walking around Haiti but I can tell you that the idea of zombies influences behavior in Haiti. We cling to our rationality. We liberated ourselves from a certain trap and we’re reluctant to go anywhere back towards it. It’s one of the reasons we are all so confused. If you think of the pace of change that people are expected to absorb, and deal with it’s pretty daunting.”

Wade Davis, Canadian anthropologist, ethnobotanist, "If You Think Something Is Divine, You’re Not Going To Blow It Up", The European, 07.03.2011 (Illustration source)

See also:

Zygmunt Bauman: Europe’s task consists of passing on to all the art of everyone learning from everyone


The evolution of generosity. The human impulse to be kind to unknown individuals is not the biological aberration it might seem


The extraordinary success of Homo sapiens is a result of four things: intelligence, language, an ability to manipulate objects dexterously in order to make tools, and co-operation. (…) Why are humans so willing to collaborate with unrelated strangers, even to the point of risking being cheated by people whose characters they cannot possibly know?

Evidence from economic games played in the laboratory for real money suggests humans are both trusting of those they have no reason to expect they will ever see again, and surprisingly unwilling to cheat them—and that these phenomena are deeply ingrained in the species’s psychology. (…)

Something extraordinary, such as a need for extreme collaboration prompted by the emergence of warfare that uses weapons, has happened in recent human evolution to promote the emergence of an instinct for unconditional generosity. (…)

It is possible to isolate features of interest and examine how they evolve in computer simulations. To this end Dr Delton and Dr Krasnow designed software agents that were able to meet up and interact in a computer’s processor.

The agents’ interactions mimicked those of economic games in the real world, though the currency was arbitrary “fitness units” rather than dollars. This meant that agents which successfully collaborated built up fitness over the period of their collaboration. Those that cheated on the first encounter got a one-off allocation of fitness, but would never be trusted in the future. Each agent had an inbuilt and heritable level of trustworthiness (ie, the likelihood that it would cheat at the first opportunity) and, in each encounter it had, it was assigned a level of likelihood (detectable by the other agent) that it would be back for further interactions.

After a certain amount of time the agents reproduced in proportion to their accumulated fitness; the old generation died, and the young took over. The process was then repeated for 10,000 generations (equivalent to about 200,000 years of human history, or the entire period for which Homo sapiens has existed), to see what level of collaboration would emerge.

The upshot was that, as the researchers predicted, generosity pays—or, rather, the cost of early selfishness is greater than the cost of trust. This is because the likelihood that an encounter will be one-off, and thus worth cheating on, is just that: a likelihood, rather than a certainty. This fact was reflected in the way the likelihood values were created in the model. They were drawn from a probability distribution, so the actual future encounter rate was only indicated, not precisely determined by them.

For most plausible sets of costs, benefits and chances of future encounters the simulation found that it pays to be trusting, even though you will sometimes be cheated. Which, if you think about it, makes perfect sense. Previous attempts to study the evolution of trust using games have been arranged to make it clear to the participants whether their encounter was a one-off, and drawn their conclusions accordingly. That, though, is hardly realistic. In the real world, although you might guess, based on the circumstances, whether or not you will meet someone again, you cannot know for sure. Moreover, in the ancient world of hunter-gatherers, limited movement meant a second encounter would be much more likely than it is in the populous, modern urban world.

No need, then, for special mechanisms to explain generosity. An open hand to the stranger makes evolutionary as well as moral sense. Except, of course, that those two senses are probably, biologically speaking, the same thing.”

The evolution of generosity: Welcome, stranger, The Economist, Jul 30th 2011


Nicholas Ostler on The Last Lingua Franca. English Until the Return of Babel


"By and large, lingua-francas are the languages of wider communication, such as enable vast empires to have a common administration, and also allow international contacts. (…)

In the second half of the 1st millennium BC, Greek persisted around the Mediterranean mostly as the result of Greek trading, reinforced by cultural prestige of its arts and literature, but was then massively reinforced by Alexander’s conquests. Persian spread within the eastern zones conquered by the Muslims, but it flowed back westward as Persian administration became common within the empire of the Caliphs. Then it was spread wider by Turkic-speaking armies, notably into modern Turkey and India, since they could not conceive of a cultured administration without it. The use of English as a widespread lingua franca began in India (actually, as it happened, replacing Persian), but was aided elsewhere by the schools which tended to accompany religious missions in new British colonies. Later (in the 20th century) it had become unchallenged as the common language of science, of international relations and business.

Q: Latin lasted a particularly long time. Why did it survive the collapse of the Roman Empire?

It kept changing its role. First it expanded to become the language of Christianity, replacing Greek: so Latin, the mother-tongue of Western Christian majority, began to be used to express their common faith. Then it survived because it was the language of the Roman Catholic Church, i.e. the Catholic lingua franca. (Gothic-speaking Arian Christians lost out to Catholics everywhere during the sixth century AD.) De facto, Latin became the lingua franca of Western Europe, because it was the only language taught in schools. This status continued for another 1,000 years, because it was so convenient to the elite. Only when European society began to be transformed in the 16th century, with the decline of the Church, and rising power of France and England (and their middle classes), as well as the opening of the world as a whole to European commercial interests, did Latin’s advantages seem outweighed by the costs of maintaining its status.

Q: What makes you suspect that English will not reign as long as Latin?

All the factors that have spread English have already peaked, and there is no stability of power and influence which might simply leave the status quo in place. There is no accepted common political dispensation in the world nowadays, comparable to the Catholic Church in Europe. Individual powers for which English is an alien burden (China, Russia, Brazil, the Arab world, Indonesia, Mexico, even India) are already stirring, and attempting to enhance their global roles.

Q: How much longer do you think English has as a global language?

It will continue to be used until there is a workable alternative, and not a moment longer. It appears that language technology will soon provide that alternative, allowing speakers to go on using every mother-tongue, and yet be understood by speakers of any other language. This will be available in a decade or two, and (since all the costs will fall as soon as the technical problem is clearly solved) will very soon spread to be universal. So it is very unlikely that global learning (and use) of English will still be popular by the middle of this century.

Q: Will Chinese or another language take its place?

Probably not. All languages that might compete (except French, whose global days have probably passed) are regionally focused, hence limited as to global utility; and I do not anticipate a new round of global colonization, say from China, India or Indonesia. Technology will probably make a single replacement unnecessary anyway. (…)

Q: If English declines in use as a lingua franca, how must Anglophones adjust? Will travelers have to take more Berlitz classes before going abroad?

It is unlikely much adjustment will be needed. Everyone will increasingly use their own languages, and the world - given the necessary information technology - will understand. But it may increasingly be incumbent on English-speakers to find ways of penetrating statements that are made in foreign languages without an English translation (much as the world’s diplomatic establishments used to do routinely). Foreigners will increasingly adopt a “take it or leave it” attitude to English-speakers, leaving them to sink or (make the effort to) swim. But all this is much as English-speakers have long done to the rest of the world. (…)

Q: Do you think America’s elitist attitude toward other languages is changing? Is there evidence that more Americans are studying foreign languages?

No. No. Quite the reverse, despite the panic about US ignorance of Middle Eastern languages supposedly caused by 9/11, and the wars to which it has led. (…)

Q: When English loses its dominance outside its mother tongue regions, are Americans likely to become even more open or more hostile toward learning other languages and toward immigrants speaking other languages in the U.S? (Is there any historical example to point one-way or the other?)

As I said, I think there will be more hostility against immigrants who do not adopt English. Such symbolic disloyalty (as it will be seen) will be more offensive to many, as it becomes apparent that the USA is losing its acknowledged dominance. Americans may, if anything, be more likely to “stand on ceremony” and insist militantly that others - even in foreign parts of the world - accommodate them by adopting the means to cope with English, while (perhaps, at least in the early days) resisting the need to make equal and opposite accommodations themselves.

The best recent model might be the reluctance, not to say ‘denial’, of the French in reacting to the decline in international use of their language post 1918. But it was also notable that the nations of northern and eastern Europe (the last to acquire Latin as a lingua-franca) tried to hang on to use of Latin longest in 18th and even 19th centuries, when French (and other major European vernaculars) had become established as media of international communication. It is not a direct parallel, but one recalls Valerius Maximus in the first century AD, congratulating the Roman magistrates who “persistently maintained the practice of replying only in Latin to the Greeks. And so they forced them to speak through interpreters, losing their linguistic fluency, their great strength, not just in our capital city but in Greece and Asia too, evidently to promote the honour of the Latin language throughout the world.”

Nicholas Ostler, British scholar and author. Ostler studied at Balliol College, Oxford, where he received degrees in Greek, Latin, philosophy, and economics. He later studied under Noam Chomsky at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned his Ph.D. in linguistics and Sanskrit, The Last Lingua Franca. English Until the Return of Babel, Penguin Books, 2011 (Illustration source)

See also:

List of lingua francas
☞ Henry Hitchings, What’s the language of the future?, Salon, Nov 6, 2011.
Why Do Languages Die? Urbanization, the state and the rise of nationalism, Lapidarium notes


The Neurobiology of “We”. Relationship is the flow of energy and information between people, essential in our development


"The study of neuroplasticity is changing the way scientists think about the mind/brain connection. While they’ve known for years that the brain is the physical substrate for the mind, the central mystery of neuroscience is how the mind influences the physical structure of the brain. In the last few decades, thanks to PET and MRI imaging techniques, scientists can observe what’s actually going on in the brain while people sleep, work, make decisions, or attempt to function under limitations caused by illness, accident, or war. (…)

Dr. Daniel Siegel, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center, and director of the Mindsight Institute (…) convinced that the “we” connection is a little-understood, but powerful means for individual and societal transformation that should be taught in schools and churches, and even enter into politics.

Interpersonal neurobiology isn’t a form of therapy,” he told me, “but a form of integrating a range of scientific research into a picture of the nature of human reality. It’s a phrase I invented to account for the human effort to understand truth. We can define the mind. We can define mental health. We can base everything on science, but I want to base it on all the sciences. We’re looking for what we call ‘consilience.’ If you think of the neuroscientist as a blind man looking at only one part of an elephant, we are trying to discover the ‘whole-elephant’ view of reality.” (…)

“We is what me is!”

Our nervous system has two basic modes: it fires up or quiets down. When we’re in a reactive state, our brainstem signals the need for fight or flight. This means we’re unable to open ourselves to another person, and even neutral comments may be taken as fighting words. On the other hand, an attitude of receptivity activates a different branch of the brainstem as it sends messages to relax the muscles of the face and vocal chords, and normalizes blood pressure and heart rate. “A receptive state turns on the social engagement system that connects us to others,” Siegel explains in his recent book, Mindsight. “Receptivity is our experience of being safe and seen; reactivity is our fight-flight-freeze survival reflex.” (…)

He describes the brain as part of “an embodied nervous system, a physical mechanism through which both energy and information flow to influence relationship and the mind.” He defines relationship as “the flow of energy and information between people.” Mind is “an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information, consciousness included. Mind is shared between people. It isn’t something you own; we are profoundly interconnected. We need to make maps of we because we is what me is!” (…)

[Siegel]: “We now know that integration leads to health and harmony. We can re-envision the DSM symptoms as examples of syndromes filled with chaos and rigidity, conditions created when integration is impaired. So we can define mental health as the ability to monitor ourselves and modify our states so that we integrate our lives. Then things that appeared unchangeable can actually be changed.” (…)

Relationships, mind and brain aren’t different domains of reality—they are each about energy and information flow. The mechanism is the brain; subjective impressions and consciousness are mind. The regulation of energy and information flow is a function of mind as an emergent process emanating from both relationships and brain. Relationships are the way we share this flow. In this view, the emergent process we are calling “mind” is located in the body (nervous system) and in our relationships. Interpersonal relationships that are attuned promote the growth of integrative fibers in the brain. It is these regulatory fibers that enable the embodied brain to function well and for the mind to have a deep sense of coherence and well-being. Such a state also creates the possibility of a sense of being connected to a larger world. The natural outcome of integration is compassion, kindness, and resilience.” (…)

“Everything we experience, memory or emotion or thought, is part of a process, not a place in the brain! Energy is the capacity to do stuff. There’s nothing that’s not energy, even ‘mass.’ Remember E=MC squared? Information is literally a swirl of energy in a certain pattern that has a symbolic meaning; it stands for something other than itself. Information should be a verb; mind, too—as in minding or informationing. And the mind is an embodied and relational emergent process that regulates the flow of energy and information.”

“We can be both an ‘I’ and part of an ‘us’”

[Siegel]: “Certain neurons can fire when someone communicates with you. They dissolve the border between you and others. These mirror neurons are a hardwired system designed for us to see the mind-state of another person. That means we can learn easily to dance, but also to empathize with another. They automatically and spontaneously pick up information about the intentions and feelings of those around us, creating emotional resonance and behavioral imitation as they connect our internal state with those around us, even without the participation of our conscious mind.” And in Mindsight: “Mirror neurons are the antennae that pick up information about the intentions and feelings of others.… Right hemisphere signals (are those) the mirror neuron system uses to simulate the other within ourselves and to construct a neural map of our interdependent sense of a ‘self.’ It’s how we can be both an ‘I’ and part of an ‘us.’” (…)

So how can we re-shape our brain to become more open and receptive to others? We already know the brain receives input from the senses and gives it meaning, he points out. That’s how blind people find ways to take in information and map out their world. According to Siegel, they do this on secondary pathways rather than the main highways of the brain. That’s a major key to how we can bring about change: “You can take an adult brain in whatever state it’s in and change a person’s life by creating new pathways,” he affirms. “Since the cortex is extremely adaptable and many parts of the brain are plastic, we can unmask dormant pathways we don’t much use and develop them. A neural stem cell is a blob, an undifferentiated cell in the brain that divides into two every twenty-four hours. In eight–ten weeks, it will become established as a specialized neural cell and exist as a part of an interconnected network. How we learn has everything to do with linking wide areas of the brain with each other.”

He calls the prefrontal cortex “the portal through which interpersonal relations are established.” He demonstrates, by closing his hand over his thumb, how this little tiny piece of us (the last joint of the two middle fingers) is especially important because it touches all three major parts of our brain: the cortex, limbic area, and brainstem as well as the body-proper. “It’s the middle prefrontal fibers which map out the internal states of others,” he adds. “And they do this not only within one brain, mine, but also between two brains, mine and yours, and even among many brains. The brain is exquisitely social, and emotions are its fundamental language. Through them we become integrated and develop an emergent resonance with the internal state of the other.” (…)

“Relationship is key,” he emphasizes. “When we work with relationship, we work with brain structure. Relationship stimulates us and is essential in our development. People rarely mention relationship in brain studies, but it provides vital input to the brain. Every form of psychotherapy that works, works because it creates healthier brain function and structure.… In approaching our lives, we can ask where do we experience the chaos or rigidity that reveal where integration is impaired. We can then use the focus of our attention to integrate both our brain and our relationships. Ultimately we can learn to be open in an authentic way to others, and to ourselves. The outcome of such an integrative presence is not only a sense of deep well-being and compassion for ourselves and others, but also an opening of the doors of awareness to a sense of the interdependence of everything. ‘We’ are indeed a part of an interconnected whole.””

— Patty de Llosa, author, The Neurobiology of “We”, Parabola Magazine, 2011, Daniel Siegel, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center. (Illustration source)


The Psychology of Violence - a fascinating look at a violent act and a modern rethink of the psychology of shame and honour in preventing it

Thomas Jones, King’s Colledge To Wit, (the famous duel between the Duke of Wellington and the Earl of Winchilsea), 1829

Mercutio: Will you pluck your dagger from his pitcher? Make haste, lest mine be about you ere it be out.
Tybalt: I am for you.
Romeo: Gentle Mercutio, put thy weapon up.
Mercutio: Come, sir, your passado!

— (W. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet)

James Gilligan: “Violence itself is a form of communication, it’s a way of sending a message and it does that through symbolic means through damaging the body. But if people can express themselves and communicate verbally they don’t need violence and they are much less likely to use their fists or weapons as their means of communication. They are much more likely to use words. I’m saying this on the basis of clinical experience, working with violent people. (…)

I could point out there’s as much violence in the greatest literature in history, the Greek tragedies, Shakespeare’s tragedies and so on, as there is in popular entertainment. The difference is in the great literature violence is depicted realistically for what it really is, namely a tragedy. It’s tragic, it’s not entertainment, it’s not fun, it’s not exciting, it’s a tragedy. (…)

Mercutio: I am hurt.
Romeo: The hurt cannot be much.
Mercutio: No, no tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church door, but ‘tis enough: twill serve. A plague o’ both your houses.

— (W. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet)

Q: When Shakespeare wrote the tragedy Romeo and Juliet people were at each others’ throats, murder rates were at the highest in Europe’s history and murder took on a different meaning then. For men it was a case of kill or be killed in order to save face.

Pieter Spierenburg: It was basically seen so differently because of the idea of personal honour—specifically male honour—which depended on being prepared for violence.

JG: For example in virtually every language the words for masculinity are the same as the words for courage in Greek andrea, in Latin vir(?), vir is the word that means man but it also means soldier, to be a man is to be a soldier and it’s related to the Latin word for courage, virtus, which is the root of our word virtue but in that warlike culture courage was the prime virtue.

[From Romeo and Juliet]
Benvolio: Oh Romeo, Romeo, brave Mercutio’s dead.

PS: Murder which occurred when the conflict was about people’s reputations, that was easily understandable; the people around it, or the community regarded it as something that could happen. The authorities—and these were basically urban patricians who would be enmeshed in conflicts themselves—they understood especially that revenge; revenge was often officially legal and the first homicides in a conflict, an honourable conflict, would be at least treated leniently or punished with a fine or something.

Q: And killings that were carried out in defence of honour, were those killings seen as murder as we would conceptualise it?

PS: They would usually be regarded as honourable killings so at least excusable as something that perhaps should not have happened. But they could easily happen when two people who had a quarrel and a fight resulting from that quarrel. Murder in order to rob someone for material gain, that was viewed as dishonourable.

Q: What kinds of punishments were there for these two kinds of murder—an honourable one and a dishonourable one—were they very different?

PS: Yes, they were very different. Originally around 1300 the regular punishment for an honourable killing would be a fine or perhaps a banishment, whereas punishment for a treacherous murder would be execution.

Q: Was it a period do you think where the value of the human life was less than now?

PS: I think they still placed value on life but of course it was also a period when all people believed in an afterlife. But in terms of the worldly views they would indeed value honour, personal honour, they would value it more than life. Not only in the European Middle Ages but in many societies where you have open violence and ideas of male honour, your honour is worth more than your life. If you would have to choose

[From Romeo and Juliet]
Lady Capulet: I beg for justice which thou prince must give. Romeo slew Tybalt, Romeo must not live.
Prince: Romeo slew him, he slew Mercutio. Who now the price of this dear blood doth owe…?

Q: In this period of history that you’re talking about the conceptualisation of honour was firmly associated with the body, you suggest. What does that mean?

PS: Yes, the body or the physical person—it was anthropologists who first discovered the vestiges of that in Mediterranean societies, it was tied up with a kind of physical imagery and especially for men that strong men are associated with fierce animals and the like. Or that certain parts or the body symbolically play a big role in honour—your testicles, or your nose, because your nose is the first thing that goes into the world, it goes in front of you as it were.

Q: We’ve all heard the phrases ‘kiss and make up’ or ‘sealed with a kiss’; in fact these come from mediaeval legal ceremonies, elaborate affairs for two warring families to end a murderous feud.

Pieter Spierenburg: There existed rituals of reconciliation, and homicide was not really criminalised, but there was also the possibility of making peace between families who had been in a conflict or to reconcile after a single homicide so as to prevent events from occurring. The two parties, the killer and the most close relative of the victim, would kiss each other on the mouth and then other family members would also kiss each other on the mouth.

Q: These are parties to a vendetta?

Pieter Spierenburg: Yes, and that would seal the reconciliation. But it could also be done with a handshake. The reconciliation had clearly religious overtones and it was often done in a church or in a monastery. The family of the perpetrator would not only pay money but also pay for masses being said for the killed person, which again was also a very material thing because that benefited his soul, and they believed that he would be away from purgatory and into heaven more quickly if these masses were said or if he was made posthumously a monk. (…)

Q: So all of this shifts in the 16th century with an internal process that you call the spiritualisation of honour. Now what do you mean by that?

PS: Basically it means that honour moves away from being based on the body, being tied to the body, being based on preparedness to defend yourself and your dependants, and that you get other sources of honour that for example economic success or that even in a later period what they called sexual purity is a source of honour, being a good husband, a good head of the family, things that people take pride in and that becomes a source of honour— a man can be honourable without being violent.

Q: What was it that triggered that shift in the internal landscape of Europe that changed the way people thought about and conducted violence?

PS: Basically it’s triggered by a broad social change of which processes of state formation, the development of modern states, the establishment of monopolies of violence or monopolies of force, which means that stronger rulers are able to pacify a larger territory and establish a more or less stable government there. You get these monopolies of force with stronger rulers who established courts and then they assemble elite groups, aristocrats around them at courts and people at courts are obliged to behave in a more civilised way which includes a renunciation of personal violence. So they are prestigious people, elites, who still have a peaceful lifestyle and that becomes a kind of cultural model that is eventually within a few centuries also imitated by broader groups in society.

James Gilligan: When people experience their moral universe as going between the polar opposites of shame versus honour, or we could also say shame versus pride, they are more likely to engage in serious violence.

The more people have a capacity for feelings of guilt and feelings of remorse after hurting other people, the less likely they are to kill others. I think in the history of Europe what one can see is a gradual increase in moral development from the shame/honour code to the guilt/innocence code.

PS: They did no longer accept that killings would be a part of life as it were, in the early modern period it was only certain groups, more lower class people of the time who still accepted that fights could be honourable like knife fights or whatever, and that if someone died in a knife fight if this was an accident that of course was regrettable, but that could happen.

Q: In his history of murder Pieter Spierenburg has tracked a big drop in homicides across Europe from the 17th to the 19th centuries as a result. But murder hasn’t left us; people continue to kill each other. And there are other constants across the centuries. Young men have always committed most murders, alcohol has been in the mix too and so has that ever-present ingredient—honour.

JG: Hitler came to power on the campaign promise to undo what he called the shame of Versailles, meaning the Versailles Peace Treaty at the end of World War 1, which he felt had dishonoured Germany, or subjected Germany to national dishonour. And of course his solution for that, the way to restore Germany’s honour and undo the shame was do almost limitless violence. Even if one goes back to the first recorded wars in western history the wars were fought because the side that became the aggressor felt it had been shamed and humiliated by the group that they were attacking.

In the Iliad Menelaus the Greek king felt shamed and humiliated because a Trojan prince by the name of Paris ran off with his wife Helen (who became Helen of Troy) so the Greek army, Menelaus’s friends and family and partners started a war against Troy and burned the city down and killed all the men and took the women into slavery and so on.

Q: And so from the honour of the collective, or national honour, to the deeply personal.

[From Rumble Fish]
Midget: Hey, Rusty James, Biff Wilcox is looking for you Rusty James.
Rusty James: I’m not hiding.
Midget: He says he’s going to kill you Rusty James.
Rusty James: Saying ain’t doing. Shit! So what’s he doing about this, what’s he doing about killing me?
Midget: The deal is man you’re supposed to meet him tonight under the arches behind the pet store at about 10 o’clock.
Rusty James: He’s comin’ alone?
BJ Jackson: I wouldn’t count on it, man.
Rusty James: Well if he’s bringin’ friends then I’m bringin’ friends, man.

JG: The emotional cause that I have found just universal among people who commit serious violence, lethal violence is the phenomenon of feeling overwhelmed by feelings of shame and humiliation. I’ve worked with the most violent people our society produces who tend to wind up in our prisons. I’ve been astonished by how almost always I get the same answer when I ask the question—why did you assault or even kill that person? And the answer I would get back in one set of words or another but almost always meaning exactly the same thing would be, ‘Because he disrespected me,’ or ‘He disrespected my mother,’ or my wife, my girlfriend, whatever.

They use that word ‘disrespect ‘so often that they’ve abbreviated it into the slang term ‘he dissed me’, and it struck me that any time a word is used so often people start abbreviating it, it tells you something about how central that is in their moral and emotional vocabulary. (…)

Nazi Germany. After Hitler came to power millions of German citizens who had never been violent before became murderers. The widespread potential for homicidal behaviour became very clear after the Nazis came to power. To me what that shows empirically is that the potential for homicide is perhaps not totally universal. Certainly there are some people who would rather go to their own death than to kill somebody else, but certainly the potential for homicide is much, much wider than we customarily think. I say that not to be cynical about human nature, but simply because I think it’s important for us to be aware of that, so that we will not inadvertently engage in behaviours that will bring out the potential for violence.

When people feel ashamed or inferior to other people, they feel first of all a threat to the self, because we frequently call shame a feeling, but it’s actually the absence of a feeling. Namely the feeling of self love or pride and yet that absence of a feeling is actually one of the most painful experiences that human beings can undergo. In order to wipe out feelings of shame people can become desperate enough to kill others or to kill themselves. So what is important here is to find ways not only to reduce the intensity and frequency with which people are shamed or feel shamed, but also to increase their capacity to tolerate feelings of shame—you know, without acting out violently as a means of reducing those feelings.

Q: Our traditional response to a violent or murderous crime has been partly to remove the problem by imprisoning a person and removing them from society but this is also a form of punishment, in other words a form of shaming the individual. Is that an effective way of responding to a violent action?

JG: Well let me say first of all I do believe that if anybody is going around killing or committing other forms of violence, going around raping or whatever, that we do have to lock them up at least for as long as they are likely to behave in that way in the future. We do have to protect the public. But I would say that’s a tragic necessity and it is not cost-free and you put your finger on one of the problems, that it can shame a person even further. However, I think that the situation can be understood slightly differently if we understand that it’s vitally important how we treat people after we’ve locked them up. We don’t need to shame them.

Q: There would be the argument that would be made that if someone has committed a violent crime they serve a term of punishment for that crime.

JG: Well my experience and, as I said, there’s a lot of evidence to support this, is that punishment far from inhibiting violence is actually the most powerful stimulant of violence that we’ve discovered yet. For example the prisoners that I have known, the most violent of them had already been punished as seriously as it is possible to punish somebody without actually killing them. I’m talking about the degree of child abuse that these men had suffered. The most violent prisoners were the survivors of their own attempted murder, usually at the hands of their own parents or the survivors of the actual murders of their closest relatives.

Now if punishment would prevent or inhibit violence these should have been the most non-violent people on earth, instead they were the most violent. And I would say that the more we punish people in prisons, as opposed to simply restraining them, the more we stimulate violence, which is why prisons have always been called schools for crime.

Q: You’ve suggested based on this thinking that the best way to respond to and reduce violence is to see it as a symptom, and in that case that the disease is shame, is humiliation—how do you treat that disease?

JG: One of the most important I found working with violent criminals in prisons is to first of all treat everybody with respect, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done. The second thing though is to provide the resources that people need in order to gain self-respect and self-esteem or in other words pride, and feelings of self worth. When I was directing the mental health services for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the United States we did a study to find out what program in the prisons had been most effective in preventing re-offending or recidivism after prisoners left the prison. And we found one program that had been 100% successful over a 25-year period with not one of these individuals returning to prison because of a new crime.

And that program was the prisoners getting a college degree while in prison. The professors from Boston University had been donating their time to teach college credit courses and several hundred inmates had gotten a college degree while in prison, then left, went back into the community and did not return because of a new crime. I mean I think there are many reasons why that would have that effect but the most important I think emotionally is that education is one of the most direct ways by which people raise their level of self-esteem and feelings of self worth. When you gain knowledge and skills that you can respect in yourself and that other people respect you’re more likely to be treated with honour by other people and to have the feelings of pride or self worth that protect you against being overwhelmed by shame to the degree that stimulates violence.

Bandy Lee: We at one point felt that human nature was not malleable and that somehow the legacy of our ancestors left us with a nature that is inevitably violence prone and something that we cannot easily correct. The conception has been that there must be something fixed in the brain, that they must have been born with this condition, that it was either a genetic or neurological defect or some kind of faulty wiring that has caused individuals to become violent. What we’re finding is that a lot of the genetics and the neurobiology that even has a remote association to violence is actually shaped largely by environment.

Q: Some people are obviously more prone to violence because they have a personality disorder or neurological affliction that makes them impulsive and that’s really a subject for another show but the brain always sits in a social environment, and that was the focus of an innovative project called Resolve to Stop the Violence led by Yale University psychiatrists Professor Bandy Lee and James Gilligan.

BL: Because the public health approach is to look at things from the very basic level of prevention. In fact we’re going very far upstream in just the way that cleaning up the sewage system and personal hygiene habits would take care of a lot of the diseases as it did over the course of a large part of the 19th century. We are finding that preventive measures are far more effective than trying to treat the problems after their occurrence which a lot of physicians have done or even to try to prevent suicides or homicides immediately before it happens turns out to be very difficult to do. (…)

JG: One of the more interesting ones was a program that was designed to deconstruct and reconstruct what we call the male role belief system. That is the whole set of assumptions and beliefs and definitions, to which almost all men in our society are exposed in the course of growing up, as to how you define masculinity, what men have a right to expect from women, even what they have a right to expect from other men, and what they need to do to prove that they are men. (…)

BL: (…) So at this moment of fatal peril, instead of reacting violently in order to defend and re-affirm this hit man, they would give themselves a moment to take a breather and to engage in social ways. And having the experience of a pro-social way of interacting, of not having to fear one’s peers—and actually they had a mentor system whereby those who were in the program for longer periods would act as mentors to those who were just coming in to the program, were able to teach newcomers that they didn’t have to act violently in order to be accepted, in order to be safe, and this was quite a surprise for those entering into the program.

JG: What came out of this was they’re gaining an awareness that they had been making the assumption that the human world is divided into people who were superior and people who were inferior, and in that distinction men were supposed to be superior and women were supposed to be inferior. And not only that, a real man would be superior to other men.

Now this is a recipe for violence. But the moment they would fight against it, the individual would feel his masculinity was being challenged and to defend his masculinity he would have to resort to violence. What was amazing to me was how quickly they realised and got the point, felt they had been brainwashed by society and immediately wanted to start educating the new inmates who were coming in after them. We trained them to lead these groups themselves, you know sort of like as in Alcoholics Anonymous where people who have the problem sometimes turn out to be the best therapists for others who have the problem.

Q: And what about recidivism rates, were those reduced?

JG: The level of re-committing a violent crime was 83% lower in this group than in the control group. The rate of in-house violence actually dropped to zero in the experimental group. And what we were especially interested in was that reduction in violence continued not at 100% level but close to it, once they left the goal. (…)

I think we need to educate our children and our adults that violence is trivialised when it’s treated simply as entertainment. I call that the pornography of violence. If violence is understood for what it really is, which is the deepest human tragedy, then I think people might become more sympathetic to supporting the changes in our culture that actually would succeed in reducing the amount of violence that we experience. I think that we’re all becoming much more sensitised to the importance of social, and political and economic and cultural factors as factors the either stimulate violence or inhibit it and prevent it.”

Murder in mind, All In The Mind, ABC Radio National, 9 April 2011.

James Gilligan, clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Adjunct Professor in the School of Law, Collegiate Professor in the School of Arts and Science New York University

Pieter Spierenburg, Professor of Historical Criminology Erasumus University,
The Netherlands. He has published on executions, prisons, violence, and the culture of early modern Europe.

Bandy Lee, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry Yale University, USA

See also:

☞ Charles K. Bellinger, Theories on the Psychology of Violence: An Address to the Association of Muslim Social Scientists, University of Texas at Arlington
Scott Atran on Why War Is Never Really Rational, Lapidarium
The Philosophy of War, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Steven Pinker on the myth of violence, TED video, 2007
☞ Pauline Grosjean, A History of Violence: The Culture of Honor as a Determinant of Homicide in the US South, The University of New South Wales, August 25, 2011
Emiliano Salinas: A civil response to violence,, Nov 2010 (video)
Colman McCarthy, Teaching Peace, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, August 30, 2011
Steven Pinker on the History and decline of Violence
Violence tag on Lapidarium notes


Ronald Dworkin on moral values, dignity and self-respect
Contemplation, Perseverance, Imagination, and Free Will, from the morality play, Hickscorner (source)

"It was voguish to say that there’s no right answer to legal questions. But if you say there’s no right answer in interpreting a law and you’re talking about justice, you’re not really getting involved in the issues that matter. Most intellectuals thought effectively that moral or legal judgments were just emotional expressions with no basis in cognition. Freddie Ayer argued that moral judgments are just grunts of approval or disapproval.” (…)

The methods of science too undermined convictions that there are objective values. “The idea is that we are not entitled to think our moral convictions true unless they are required by pure reason or produced by something in the world.” In the book, Ronald Dworkin calls this “the Gibraltar of all mental blocks”. We must, he argues, get over it. And yet this Gibraltar rules the waves of philosophy: a recent issue of Philosophy Now was themed around the death of morality. If moral judgments can’t be true, do we need them at all?

When I first studied philosophy 30 years ago, my undergraduate textbook made relativism and scepticism about morality seem natural. It was called Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong by JL Mackie and began: “There are no objective values.” It suggested that the fact that values conflict (I support gay marriages, while you – you monster – think they’re a disgrace) indicates they can’t be true. (…)

When Mackie says: ‘All moral propositions are false’, that’s a moral proposition, which is false if his proposition 'All moral propositions are false' is true, which it isn't.” A-ha, a version of the Cretan liar paradox that Doctor Who used to make a clever robot short-circuit and explode. (…)

But if objective moral values aren’t in the world, where are they hiding? (…) Dworkin finally tells us when we are justified in thinking any value judgment true, namely: “When we are justified in thinking that our arguments for holding it true are adequate arguments.” Isn’t that circular? Yes, but Dworkin argues it’s good circular, not bad circular. (…)

Dworkin is a hedgehog. “The hedgehog is an anti-pluralist image. Pluralism was Isaiah Berlin's extremely popular thought that there are truths but they conflict. I think it’s wrong. Truths don’t conflict in the domain of value any more than in science.” (…)

Almost all moral philosophy nowadays is steeped in self-abnegation. Mine starts from self-assertion, which was popular with the Greeks like Aristotle and Plato but not now. Now morality is perceived as being about self-sacrifice. I try to show how that’s wrong.

Why is self-assertion important? “We have a responsibility to live well. Our challenge is to act as if we respect ourselves. Enjoying ourselves is not enough.” But doesn’t self-assertion clash with our moral duties to others? “No. The first challenge is to live well – that is ethics – and then to see how that connects with what we owe other people – which is morality. The connection is twofold. One is respect for the importance of other people’s lives. And the other is equal concern for their lives.

Imagine you’re in a lifeboat and you have to decide which of two children is to go overboard to their deaths. If you’re a utilitarian – who believes what’s important morally is maximising the happiness of the greatest number – you wouldn’t mind if it was your child or another’s who dies. Dworkin’s system holds that you’re justified in saving your child. Why? “Because it’s my child! Because they’re part of what it means for my life to be lived well. They’re part of my life, for which I take responsibility.” (…)

Such favouritism can’t work at a political level: you can’t give someone tax breaks because he’s your son. But at the moral level it does: you can save someone because they’re your child, while at the same time respecting other people’s lives. Each person must take his own life seriously: he must accept that it is a matter of importance that his life be a successful performance rather than a wasted opportunity. I’m talking about dignity. It’s a term overused by politicians, but any moral theory worth its salt needs to proceed from it." (…)

I’ve tried to be responsible for my decisions and to make an authentic life. When I was a Wall Street lawyer, I realised I didn’t want that life. So I went and did what I found most fulfilling, thinking about, arguing for the things that are hard, important and rewarding. I’ve tried to do it well. I can’t say if I’ve succeeded.”

Stuart Jeffries writing about Ronald Dworkin (American philosopher and scholar of constitutional law) in Ronald Dworkin: ‘We have a responsibility to live well’, Guardian, 31 March 2011.

See also:

Jesse Prinz: Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response
The Biology of Ethics. When it comes to morality, the philosopher Patricia Churchland refuses to stand on principle, The Chronicle Review, June 12, 2011.


John Shotter on encounters with ‘Other’ - from inner mental representation to dialogical social practices

M. C. Escher, Relativity (july 1953)

"It is then that the reader asks that crucial question, ‘What’s it all about?’ But what ‘it’ is, is not the actual text… but the text the reader has constructed under its sway. And that is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his [or her] own." Jerome Seymour Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986, p.37.

"Only in the stream of thought and life do words have meaning." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H.V. Wright (Eds.). Oxford: Blackwell, 1981, no.173.

One of our tasks in understanding an Other, is to do justice to the uniqueness of their otherness. But this is not easy, for, as we shall see, it is in how they express themselves in dialogically structured events that occur between us only in unique, fleeting moments, that we can grasp who and what they are. (…)

In his review of George Steiner's essay ('A new meaning of meaning,' in TLS, 8th Nov, 1985), he comments that such a stance in art, is

"a belief that meaning (or meanings) lies in the work of art, embodied, incarnate, a real presence… It is a faith in meaning incarnate in the work of art that captures the ‘immensity of the commonplace’, that changes our very construction of reality: ‘poplars are on fire after Van Gogh’… The literary artist, it would follow from this argument, becomes an agent in the evolution of mind - but not without the co-option of the reader as his fellow author.”

Crossing boundaries

Almost all of us are now members of more than a single active culture. Thus the experience of having to ‘cross’ cultural boundaries, of having continually to ‘shift one’s stance’, of having to view one’s surroundings, fleeting aspect by fleeting aspect rather than perspectively (Wittgenstein, 1953), to make sense of what is happening around us while being ourselves in ‘motion’, so to speak, has now become a ‘normal’ activity. But what, as academics and intellectuals, must we do in the new dialogical, aspectival circumstances in which we now live, to pay attention to ‘the practices of Self’? Can we just apply our old and well tried methods to this new topic of study? Or must we, if we are to grasp the nature of such practices, invent some new methods, act in some new and different ways? (…)

Milan Kundera's comments - to do with us only very recently coming to a realization of the strangeness of the ordinary, the strangeness of the present moment in all its concreteness - are of crucial importance to us. For presently, as he points out:

"When we analyze a reality, we analyze it as it appears in our mind, in memory. We know reality only in the past tense. We do not know it as it is in the present, in the moment when it’s happening, when it is. The present moment is unlike the memory of it. Remembering is not the negative of forgetting. Remembering is a form of forgetting".

Similarly, Jerome Seymour Bruner (1986, p.13) remarks that what he calls the paradigmatic or logico- scientific mode of thought, "seeks to transcend the particular by higher and higher reaching for abstraction, and in the end disclaims in principle any explanatory value at all where the particular is concerned".

What Kundera and Bruner are reminding us of here, is not only that our current intellectual methods are monological and individualistic, and that as moderns we only really fully alive when set over against our surroundings all alone, but that we also import into our accounts of what happens around us, mythic abstractions of our own making. Positioning ourselves as if observers from afar of someone playing a back and forth, turn taking game - tennis say - we fail to realize that we are the other players in the game, that others act in response to how we act. Lacking any intellectual grasp of the relation of their activity to ours and to the circumstances we share with them, we try to explain what we observe of their activities as if originating solely from within them as self-contained individuals. Ignoring the ‘calls’ of their surrounding circumstances to which they ‘answer’, we invent mythic entities located inside them somewhere that, theoretically, we suppose causes them to act as they do (Wittgenstein, 1953), and set out to prove our theories true. (…)

As I see it, only if we institute a third, dialogical revolution of a kind that calls all our previous methods into question, and suggests wholly new intellectual practices and institutions to us, can we begin to fashion forms of inquiry that will do justice to the uniqueness of the being of Others. (…)

Psychology technicalized and demoralized

In attempting to bring ‘mind’ back into psychology, Bruner didn’t want just to add “a little mentalism” to behaviorism, but to do something much more profound: he wanted to discover and describe "what meaning-making processes were implicated" in people’s encounters with the world; its aim was “to prompt psychology to joining forces with its sister interpretative disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences”.

Indeed, although he admits that "we were slow to fully grasp what the emergence of culture meant for human adaptation and for human functioning" - to contrast with what he calls computationalism - he goes on to outline in this and in his latest book, The Culture of Education), a "second approach to the nature of mind - call it culturalism. It takes its inspiration from the evolutionary fact that mind could not exist save for culture." As he remarks in Acts of Meaning:

"What was obvious from the start was perhaps too obvious to be fully appreciated, at least by us psychologists who by habit and by tradition think in rather individualist terms. The symbolic systems that individual used in constructing meaning were systems that were already in place, already ‘there’, deeply entrenched in culture and language. They constituted a very special kind of communal tool kit whose tools, once used, made the user a reflection of the community… As Clifford Geertz puts it, without the constituting role of culture we are ‘unworkable monstrosities… incomplete or unfinished animals who complete or finish ourselves through culture.”

The ‘movements’ at work in our dialogic encounters with an Other

To refer to issues he has brought to our attention, let me now return to Bruner’s  account of narrative modes of thought in his ‘Two modes…' (…) In the story, Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan of a stone bridge, describing it stone by stone. But Kublai Khan gets impatient and seeks what some of us would now call ‘the bottom line’, and asks what supports the stones? ‘The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,’ Marco answers, ‘but by the line of the arch that they form.’ Then ‘Why do you speak to me of the stones?,’ Kublai Khan demands. ‘Without stones there is no arch,’ Polo replies - for the arch is ‘in’ the relations between the stones. And as Bruner goes on to point out, in their reading of the story, the reader goes from stones to arches to the significance of arches to some broader reality - goes back and forth between them in attempting finally to construct a sense of the story, its form, its meaning. Sometimes in reading stories, we can attend from the relations among their particularities to something much more general. But, what kind of textual structures allow or invite such a move? How is the sense of a more general significance achieved? And ‘in’ what does that more general significance consist?

It is only in our reading of texts of a narrative kind, Bruner maintains, that we can encounter others or othernesses that are strange and novel to us. In reading such texts, individuals begin to construct what Bruner a ‘virtual text’ of their own - where it is as if readers

were embarking on a journey without maps… [Where] in time, the new journey becomes a thing in itself, however much its initial shape was borrowed from the past. The virtual text becomes a story of its own, its very strangeness only a contrast with the reader’s sense of the ordinary… [This] is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his [or her] own' (Bruner, 1986, pp.36-37).

To repeat: It is the way in which such texts ‘subjunctivize reality’ - or traffic ‘in human possibilities rather than settled certainties,’ as he puts it (Bruner, 1986, p.26) - that makes the co-creation of such virtual worlds between authors and their readers possible. (…)

As he points out, the existence of conventions and maxims that are constitutive of a normative background to our activities, ‘provides us with the means of violating them for purposes of meaning more than we say or for meaning other than what we say (as in irony, for example) or for meaning less than we say (Bruner, 1986, p.26).

This background, and the possibility of us deviating from it, is crucial to his whole approach. Indeed, he emphasizes it again in Acts of Meaning, where he comments on his efforts to describe a people’s ‘folk psychology’ as follows: ‘I wanted to show how human beings, in interacting with one another, form a sense of the canonical and ordinary as a background against which to interpret and give narrative meaning to breaches in and deviations from ‘normal’ states of the human condition' (Bruner, 1990, p.67).

It is the very creation of indeterminacy and uncertainty by the devices people use in their narrative forms of thought and talk, that make it possible for them to co-create unique meanings between them as their dialogical activities unfold. ‘To mean in this way,’ suggests Bruner, ‘by the use of such intended violations… is to create ‘gaps’ and to recruit presuppositions to fill them. Indeed, our own unique responses to our own unique circumstances are ‘carried’ in the subtle variations in how we put these constitutive forms of response to use, as we bodily react, and thus relate ourselves, to what goes on around us. This is what it is for us to perform meaning. And we ‘show’ our understanding of such ‘performed meanings’ in our ways of ‘going on’ with the others around us in practice - to put the matter in Wittgenstein’s (1953) terms. I shall call the kind of meaning involved here, that are only intelligible to us against an already existing background of the activities constitutive of our current forms of life, joint, first-time - or only ‘once occurrent’ (Bakhtin, 1993, p.2) - variational meanings, that are expressive of the ‘world’ of an unique ‘it’ or ‘I’. (…)

In exploring the problem of how it is possible to perform meaning in practice, of how, say, the process of intending might work, Wittgenstein suggests that we might feel tempted to say that such a process ‘can do what it is supposed to only by containing an extremely faithful picture of what it intends.’ But having said this much, he goes on to point out:

"That that too does not go far enough, because a picture, whatever it may be, can be variously interpreted; hence this picture too in its turn stands isolated. When one has the picture in view by itself it is suddenly dead, and it is as if something had been taken away from it, which had given it life before… it remains isolated, it does not point outside itself to a reality beyond.

Now one says: ‘Of course, it is not the picture itself that intends, but we who use it to intend something’. But if this intending, this meaning, is in turn something that is done with the picture, then I cannot see why it has to involve a human being. The process of digestion can also be studied as a chemical process, independently of whether it takes place in a living being. We want to say ‘Meaning is surely essentially a mental process, a process of conscious life, not of dead matter’…

And now it seems to us as if intending could not be any process at all, of any kind whatever. - For what we are dissatisfied with here is the grammar of process, not with the specific kind of process. - It could be said: we should call any process ‘dead’ in this sense’ (no. 236). ‘It might almost be said,’ he adds: 'Meaning moves, whereas a process stands still”.

Meaning as movement

In other words, instead of meaning being a cognitive process of statically ‘picturing’ something, Wittgenstein sees it here in a quite different light: as part of an ongoing, dynamic, interactive process in which people as embodied agents are continuously reacting in a living, practical way, both to each other and to their circumstances.

Thus, even as a person is speaking, the bodily and facial responses of the others around them to what they say, are acting back upon them to influence them moment by moment in their ‘shaping’ of their talk as it unfolds. In such circumstances as these, we are inevitably doing much more than merely talking ‘about’ something; we are continuously living out changing ‘ways of relating’ ourselves to our circumstances, of our own creation; or as Wittgenstein (1953) would say, we are creating certain, particular ‘forms of life’.

Thus, in practice, as we tack back and forth between the particular words of a strange, newly encountered, meaning- indeterminate story or text, and the whole of the already ongoing, unsayable, dynamic cultural history in which we all are, in different ways, to some extent, immersed, we perform meaning. In so doing, in ‘bridging the gaps’ with the responsive movements we make as we read, we creatively ‘move’ over what Bruner (1986) calls the ‘landscapes’ of a ‘virtual text.’ And what is general in our reading, what we can ‘carry over’ from what we do as we read into the doing of other activities, are these responsive ‘ways of moving’ of our own spontaneous creation - ways of ‘orchestrating’ our moment by moment changing relations to our past, our future, the others around us, our immediate physical surroundings, authorities, our cultural history, our dreams for the future, and so on, relating ourselves in these different directions perceptually, cognitively, in action, in memory, and so on (Vygotsky, 1978, 1986). We can ‘carry over’ into new spheres of activity what is ‘carried in’ our initial ways of bodily responding to a text in the first place.

Viewed in this way, as calling out from us possibly quite new, first-time responsive movements, rather than as being about something in the world, such meaning indeterminate texts can be seen as a special part of the world, an aspect of our surroundings to which we cannot not - if we are to grasp their meaning for us - relate ourselves in a living way. So, although such texts may seem to be not too different from those presented as being ‘about’ something - that is, from texts with a representational-referential meaning that ‘pictures’ a state of affairs in the world - their meaning cannot be found in such a picturing. We must relate ourselves to them in a quite different way.

For their meaning is of a much more practical, pre-theoretical, pre-conceptual kind: to do with providing us with way or style of knowing, rather than with a knowledge or ‘picture’ of something in particular. To put it another way: in its reading, such texts are exemplary for not of a certain way of going on. It is exemplary for a new way of relating ourselves to our circumstances not before followed; it provides us with new poetic images through which, possibly, to make sense of things, not images or representations of things already in existence.

Concerning the creative effects of certain styles or genres of writing on us, or works of art in general, Susan Sontag (1962) has written:

To become involved with a work of art entails, to be sure, the experience of detaching oneself from the world. But the work of art itself is also a vibrant, magical, and exemplary object which returns us to the world in some way more open and enriched…

Raymond Bayer has written: ‘What each and every aesthetic object imposes on us, in appropriate rhythms, is a unique and singular formula for the flow of our energy… Every work of art embodies a principle of proceeding, of stopping, of scanning; an image of energy or relaxation, the imprint of a caressing or destroying hand which is [the artist’s] alone’. We can call this the physiognomy of the work, or its rhythm, or, as I would rather do, its style (p.28).

Where the function of such a ‘moving’ form of communication is, not only to make a unique other or otherness we have not previously witnessed, present to us for the very first time, but to provide us with the opportunity to embody the new ‘way of going on’ that only it can call out from us. But to do this, to come to embody its ‘way’, we must encounter and witness its distinct nature in all its complex detail. If we turn too quickly merely to its explanation, not only do we miss what new it can teach us, but the turn is pointless: for, literally, we do not yet know what we are talking about.

As this stance toward meaning as living, only once occurrent, joint, variational movement, is still very unfamiliar to us, let me explore its nature yet a little more: Remarking further about the living nature of meaning, Wittgenstein (1981) comments that he wants to say that When we mean something, it’s like going up to someone, it’s not having a dead picture (of any kind)’. We go up to the thing we mean (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.455).

For instance, as we view, say, a picture such as Van Gogh's Sunflowers, we can enter into an extended, unfolding, living relation with it, one that ebbs and flows, that vacillates and oscillates, as we respond to it in different ways. What we sense, we sense from inside our relations to it: ‘It is as if at first we looked at a picture so as to enter into it and the objects in it surrounded us like real ones; and then we stepped back, and were now outside it; we saw the frame and the picture was a painted surface. In this way, when we intend, we are surrounded by our intention’s pictures, and we are inside them' (1981, no.233).

Indeed, he says elsewhere: It often strikes is as if in grasping meaning the mind made small rudimentary movements, like someone irresolute who does not know which way to go - i.e., it tentatively reviews the field of possible applications (Wittgenstein, 1981, no.33).

The novelist John Berger (1979) has also written about the act of writing in a similar fashion:

The act of writing is nothing except the act of approaching the experience written about; just as, hopefully, the act of reading the written text is a comparable act of approach. To approach experience, however, is not like approaching a house. ‘Life’, as the Russian proverb says, ‘is not a walk across an open field’. Experience is indivisible and continuous, at least within a single lifetime and perhaps over many lifetimes. I never have the impression that my experience is entirely my own, and it often seems to me that it preceded me. In any case experience folds back on itself, refers backwards and forwards to itself through the referents of hope and fear; and, by the use of metaphor, which is at the origin of language, it is continually comparing like with unlike, what is small with what is large, what is near with what is distant. And the act of approaching a given moment of experience involves both scrutiny (closeness) and the capacity to connect (distance).

The movement of writing resembles that of a shuttle on a loom: repeatedly it approaches and withdraws, closes in and takes its distance. Unlike a shuttle, however, it is not fixed to a static frame. as the movement of writing itself, its intimacy with the experience increases. Finally, if one is fortunate, meaning is the fruit of this intimacy.” (John Berger, 1979, p.6, my emphases).


Describing (and explaining?) the dialogical: ‘the difficulty here is: to stop’

Although such a way of looking for the fleeting, only once occurrent details of our interactions is not easy to implement, it is of the crux. For, as he puts it, the problems we face are not empirical problems to be solved by giving explanations: ‘they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognize those workings: in spite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have already known (no.109) - but which so far, has passed us by in our everyday dealings with each other unnoticed.

Thus, as Wittgenstein (1953) sees it, although not easily accomplished, the task is not to imagine, and then to empirically investigate possible ‘mechanisms’ within us responsible for us being able to mean things to each other, but to describe how we in fact do do it in practice. Indeed, to repeat Kundera’s (1993) remark above:an event as we imagine it hasn’t much to do with the same event as it is when it happens (p.139) - for we can only theorize events as distinct upon their completion, after they have made one or another kind of sense, once they have an already achieved meaning. Something incomplete, something that we are still in the middle of, something that we are still involved in or ‘inside of’, cannot properly be described in a theoretically distinct way.

Thus, if we still nonetheless attempt to do so, we will miss out - or better, we will tend to overlook - many of its most significant details; and in so doing, we will find ourselves puzzled as to how we do in fact manage the doing of meaning between us. There must - we will say to each other - be something else that we have missed, something hidden in what we do when we mean things to each other, that needs discovering and explaining. But, suggests Wittgenstein (1953), in asking and answering his own question: ‘How do sentences do it [i.e., manage to represent something]? - Don’t you know? For nothing is hidden”. (…) There are countless kinds: countless different kinds of use of what we call ‘symbols’, ‘words’, ‘sentences’. And this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once for all; but types of language, new language-games, as we say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten.

Once we go beyond the confines of established language-games, we are once again in the realm of the indeterminate, where are meanings are ambiguous and can only be made determinate by us ‘playing them out’, so to speak, within a practice. Our language-games cannot themselves be explained, as they are the bases in terms of which all our explanations in fact work as explanations. (…)

Instead of a theoretical, explanatory account of their workings, we need first to come to a practical understanding of the joint, dialogical nature of our lives together. And if we are to do that, if we are to see, as Bruner puts it, the ways in which we ‘violate’ the norms of our institutions, then, we also must violate the norms of our institutions.”

John Shotter, Emeritus Professor of Communication in the Department of Communication, University of New Hampshire, Towards at third revolution in psychology: From inner mental representation to dialogical social practices

See also:

The Relativity of Truth - a brief résumé, Lapidarium
Map–territory relation - a brief résumé, Lapidarium


'We' vs 'Others': Russell Jacoby on why we should fear our neighbors more than strangers

                                         Titian, “Cain and Abel”, Venice

"Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, ‘us’) and the strange (the Orient, the East, ‘them’)"Edward Said, Orientalism (1978)

"Academics are thrilled with the "other" and the vagaries of how we represent the foreign. By profession, anthropologists are visitors from afar. We are outsiders, writes an anthropologist, "seeking to understand unfamiliar cultures." Humanists and social theorists also have fallen in love with the "other." A recent paper by the literary critic Toril Moi is titled "Literature, Philosophy, and the Question of the Other." In a recent issue of Signs, a philosopher writes about “Occidental Dreams: Orientalism and History in ‘The Second Sex.’”

The romance with the “other,” the Orient, and the stranger, however, diverts attention from something less sexy: the familiar. For those concerned with strife and violence in the world, like Said, the latter may, in fact, be more critical than the strange and the foreign. If the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted 15 years, can highlight something about how the West represents the East, it can also foreground a neglected truth: The most decisive antagonisms and misunderstandings take place within a community. The history of hatred and violence is, to a surprising degree, a history of brother against brother, not brother against stranger. From Cain and Abel to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries and the civil wars of our own age, it is not so often strangers who elicit hatred, but neighbors.

This observation contradicts both common sense and the collective wisdom of teachers and preachers, who declaim that we fear—sometimes for good reason—the unknown and dangerous stranger. Citizens and scholars alike believe that enemies lurk in the street and beyond the street, where we confront a “clash of civilizations” with foreigners who challenge our way of life.

The truth is more unsettling. From assault to genocide, from assassination to massacre, violence usually emerges from inside the fold rather than outside it. (…)

We may obsess about strangers piloting airplanes into our buildings, but in the United States in any year, roughly five times the number of those killed in the World Trade Center are murdered on the streets or inside their own homes and offices. These regular losses remind us that most criminal violence takes place between people who know each other. Cautious citizens may push for better street lighting, but they are much more likely to be assaulted, even killed, in the light of the kitchen by someone familiar than in a parking garage by a stranger. Like, not unlike, prompts violence.

Civil wars are generally more savage, and bear more lasting consequences, than wars between countries. Many more people died in the American Civil War—at a time when the population was a tenth of what it is today—than in any other American conflict, and its long-term effects probably surpass those of the others. Major bloodlettings of the 20th century—hundreds of thousands to millions of deaths—occurred in civil wars such as the Russian Civil War, the Chinese Civil Wars of 1927-37 and 1945-49, and the Spanish Civil War. More Russian lives were lost in the Russian Civil War that followed World War I than in the Great War itself, for instance.

But who cares about the Russian Civil War? A thousand books and courses dwell on World War I, but few on the Russian Civil War that emerged from it. That war, with its fluid battle lines, uncertain alliances, and clouded beginning, seems too murky. The stew of hostilities is typical of civil wars, however. With some notable exceptions, modern civil wars resist the clear categories of interstate wars. The edges are blurred. Revenge often trumps ideology and politics.

Yet civil strife increasingly characterizes the contemporary world. “Most wars are now civil wars,” announces the first sentence of a World Bank publication. Not only are there more civil wars, but they last longer. The conflicts in southern Sudan have been going on for decades. Lengthy battles between states are rare nowadays. And when states do attack, the fighting generally doesn’t last long (for example, Israel’s monthlong incursion into Lebanon in 2006). The recent wars waged by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan are notable exceptions.

We live in an era of ethnic, national, and religious fratricide. A new two-volume reference work on “the most severe civil wars since World War II” has 41 entries, from Afghanistan and Algeria to Yemen and Zimbabwe. Over the last 50 years, the number of casualties of intrastate conflicts is roughly five times that of interstate wars. The number of refugees from these conflicts similarly dwarfs those from traditional state-versus-state wars. “Cases such as Afghanistan, Somalia, and Lebanon testify to the economic devastation that civil wars can produce,” note two political scientists. By the indexes of deaths, numbers of refugees, and extent of destruction, they conclude that "civil war has been a far greater scourge than interstate war" in recent decades. In Iraq today—putting aside blame and cause—more Iraqis are killed by their countrymen than by the American military.

"Not surprisingly, there is no treatise on civil war on the order of Carl von Clausewitz's On War,” writes the historian Arno Mayer, “civil wars being essentially wild and savage.”

The iconic book by Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military thinker, evokes the spirit of Immanuel Kant, whose writings he studied. Subheadings such as “The Knowledge in War Is Very Simple, but Not, at the Same Time, Very Easy” suggest its philosophical structure. Clausewitz subordinated war to policy, which entailed a rational evaluation of goals and methods. He compared the state to an individual. “Policy” is “the product of its brain,” and war is an option. “No one starts a war—or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” If civilized nations at war “do not put their prisoners to death” or “devastate cities,” he writes, it is because “intelligence plays a larger part in their methods of warfare … than the crude expressions of instinct.”

In civil wars, by contrast, prisoners are put to death and cities destroyed as a matter of course. The ancient Greeks had already characterized civil strife as more violent than traditional war. Plato distinguishes war against outsiders from what he calls factionalized struggles, that is, civil wars. He posits that Greeks practice war against foreigners (“barbarians”), a conflict marked by “enmity and hatred,” but not against one another. When Greeks fight Greeks, he believes, they should temper their violence in anticipation of reconciliation. “They will not, being Greeks, ravage Greek territory nor burn habitations,” nor “lay waste the soil,” nor treat all “men, women, and children” as their enemies. Such, at least, was his hope in the Republic, but the real world often contradicted it, as he knew. His proposition that Greeks should not ravage Greeks challenged the reality in which Greeks did exactly that.

Plato did not have to look further than Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War to find confirmation of the brutality of Greek-on-Greek strife. In a passage often commented on, Thucydides wrote of the seesaw battle in Corcyra (Corfu) in 433 BC, which prefigured the larger war. When the Athenians approached the island in force, the faction they supported seized the occasion to settle accounts with its adversaries. In Thucydides’ telling, this was a “savage” civil war of Corcyrean against Corcyrean. For the seven days the Athenians stayed in the harbor, Corcyreans “continued to massacre those of their own citizens” they considered enemies. “There was death in every shape and form,” writes Thucydides. “People went to every extreme and beyond it. There were fathers who killed their sons; men were dragged from the temples or butchered on the very altars.” Families turned on families. “Blood ties became more foreign than factional ones.” Loyalty to the faction overrode loyalty to family members, who became the enemy.

Nearly 2,500 years after Thucydides, the presiding judge at a United Nations trial invoked the Greek historian. The judge reflected on what had occurred in the former Yugoslavia. One Duško Tadić stood accused of the torture and murder of Muslims in his hometown in Bosnia-Herzegovina. His actions exemplified a war of ethnic cleansing fueled by resentment and hatred. “Some time ago, yet not far from where the events in this case happened,” something similar occurred, stated a judge in his 1999 opinion. He cited Thucydides’ description of the Corcyrean civil war as one of “savage and pitiless actions.” Then as today, the judge reminded us, men “were swept away into an internecine struggle” in which vengeance supplanted justice.

Today’s principal global conflicts are fratricidal struggles—regional, ethnic, and religious: Iraqi Sunni vs. Iraqi Shiite, Rwandan Tutsi vs. Rwandan Hutu, Bosnian Muslim vs. Balkan Christians, Sudanese southerners vs. Sudanese northerners, perhaps Libyan vs. Libyan. As a Rwandan minister declared about the genocide in which Hutus slaughtered Tutsis: “Your neighbors killed you.” A reporter in northeastern Congo wrote that in seven months of fighting there, several thousand people were killed and more than 100,000 driven from their homes. He commented, "Like ethnic conflicts around the globe, this is fundamentally a fight between brothers: The two tribes—the Hema and the Lendu—speak the same language, marry each other, and compete for the same remote and thickly populated land.”

Somalia is perhaps the signal example of this ubiquitous fratricidal strife. As a Somalian-American professor observed, Somalia can claim a “homogeneity rarely known elsewhere in Africa.” The Somalian people “share a common language (Somali), a religion (Islam), physical characteristics, and pastoral and agropastoral customs and traditions.” This has not tempered violence. On the contrary.

The proposition that violence derives from kith and kin overturns a core liberal belief that we assault and are assaulted by those who are strangers to us. If that were so, the solution would be at hand: Get to know the stranger. Talk with the stranger. Reach out. The cure for violence is better communication, perhaps better education. Study foreign cultures and peoples. Unfortunately, however, our brother, our neighbor, enrages us precisely because we understand him. Cain knew his brother—he “talked with Abel his brother”—and slew him afterward.

We don’t like this truth. We prefer to fear strangers. We like to believe that fundamental differences pit people against one another, that world hostilities are driven by antagonistic principles about how society should be constituted. To think that scale—economic deprivation, for instance—rather than substance divides the world seems to trivialize the stakes. We opt instead for a scenario of clashing civilizations, such as the hostility between Western and Islamic cultures. The notion of colliding worlds is more appealing than the opposite: conflicts hinging on small differences. A “clash” implies that fundamental principles about human rights and life are at risk.

Samuel Huntington took the phrase “clash of civilizations" from the Princeton University historian Bernard Lewis, who was referring to a threat from the Islamic world. “We are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies,” Lewis wrote in 1990. “This is no less than a clash of civilizations” and a challenge to “our Judeo-Christian heritage.” For Huntington, “the underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization.” (…)

Or consider the words of a Hindu nationalist who addressed the conflict with Indian Muslims. How is unity to come about, she asks? “The Hindu faces this way, the Muslim the other. The Hindu writes from left to right, the Muslim from right to left. The Hindu prays to the rising sun, the Muslim faces the setting sun when praying. If the Hindu eats with the right hand, the Muslim with the left. … The Hindu worships the cow, the Muslim attains paradise by eating beef. The Hindu keeps a mustache, the Muslim always shaves the upper lip.”

Yet the preachers, porte-paroles, and proselytizers may mislead; it is in their interest to do so. What divided the Protestants and Catholics in 16th-century France, the Germans and Jews in 20th-century Europe, and the Shia and Sunni today may be small, not large. But minor differences rankle more than large differences. Indeed, in today’s world, it may be not so much differences but their diminution that provokes antagonism. Here it can be useful to attend the literary critic René Girard, who also bucks conventional wisdom by signaling the danger in similitude, not difference: “In human relationships, words like ‘sameness and ‘similarity evoke an image of harmony. If we have the same tastes and like the same things, surely we are bound to get along. But what will happen when we share the same desires?” However, for Girard, “a single principle” pervades religion and literature. “Order, peace, and fecundity depend on cultural distinctions; it is not these distinctions but the loss of them that gives birth to fierce rivalries and sets members of the same family or social group at one another’s throats.”

Likeness does not necessarily lead to harmony. It may elicit jealousy and anger. Inasmuch as identity rests on what makes an individual unique, similitude threatens the self. The mechanism also operates on social terrain. As cultural groups get absorbed into larger or stronger collectives, they become more anxious—and more prone to defend their dwindling identity. French Canadians—living as they do amid an ocean of English speakers—are more testy about their language than the French in France. Language, however, is just one feature of cultural identification.

Assimilation becomes a threat, not a promise. It spells homogenization, not diversity. The assimilated express bitterness as they register the loss of an identity they wish to retain. Their ambivalence transforms their anger into resentment. They desire what they reject and are consequently unhappy with themselves as well as their interlocutor. Resentment feeds protest and sometimes violence. Insofar as the extreme Islamists sense their world imitating the West, they respond with increased enmity. It is not so much the “other” as it is the absence of otherness that spurs anger. They fear losing themselves by mimicking the West. A Miss World beauty pageant in Nigeria spurred widespread riots by Muslims that left hundreds dead. This could be considered a violent rejection of imitation.

We hate the neighbor we are enjoined to love. Why? Why do small disparities between people provoke greater hatred than the large ones? Perhaps the work of Freud helps chart the underground sources of fratricidal violence. Freud introduced the phrase the narcissism of minor differences" to describe this phenomenon. He noted that "it is precisely the little dissimilarities in persons who are otherwise alike that arouse feelings of strangeness and enmity between them.

Freud first broached the narcissism of minor differences in The Taboo of Virginity,” an essay in which he also took up the “dread of woman.” Is it possible that these two notions are linked? That the narcissism of minor differences, the instigator of enmity, arises from differences between the sexes and, more exactly, man’s fear of woman? What do men fear? “Perhaps,” Freud hazards, the dread is “founded on the difference of woman from man.” More precisely, “man fears that his strength will be taken from him by woman, dreads becoming infected with her femininity” and that he will show himself to be a “weakling.” Might this be a root of violence, man’s fear of being unmanned?

The sources of hatred and violence are many, not singular. There is room for the findings of biologists, sociobiologists, and other scientists. For too long, however, social and literary scholars have dwelled on the “other” and its representation. It is interesting, even uplifting, to talk about how we see and don’t see the stranger. It is less pleasant, however, to tackle the divisiveness and rancor of countrymen and kin. We still have not caught up to Montaigne, with his famous remarks about Brazilian cannibals. He reminded his 16th-century readers not only that the mutual slaughter of Huguenots and Catholics eclipsed the violence of New World denizens—it was enacted on the living, and not on the dead—but that its agents were “our fellow citizens and neighbors.”

Russell Jacoby, professor of history at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). This essay is adapted from his book Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence From Cain and Abel to the Present, Bloodlust. Why we should fear our neighbors more than strangers, The Chronicle Review, March 27, 2011.

See also:

Roger Dale Petersen, Understanding Ethnic Violence: fear, hatred, and resentment in twentieth-century Eastern Europe, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Stephen M. Walt on What Does Social Science Tell Us about Intervention in Libya
Scott Atran on Why War Is Never Really Rational
Steven Pinker on the History and decline of Violence
Violence tag on Lapidarium notes


Map–territory relation- a brief résumé


     René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe)

"If words are not things, or maps are not the actual territory, then, obviously, the only possible link between the objective world and the linguistic world is found in structure, and structure alone.
The only usefulness of map or a language depends on the similarity of structure between the empirical world and the map-languages.”

Alfred Korzybski, Science & Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, Institute of GS, 1994, p.61.

"The map–territory relation describes the relationship between an object and a representation of that object, as in the relation between a geographical territory and a map of it. Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski remarked that “the map is not the territory,” encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself. For example, the pain from a stone falling on one’s foot is not the actual stone, it’s one’s perception of the stone; one’s opinion of a politician, favorable or unfavorable, is not that person; and so on. A specific abstraction or reaction does not capture all facets of its source — e.g. the pain in one’s foot does not convey the internal structure of the stone, you don’t know everything that is going on in the life of a politician, etc. — and thus may limit an individual’s understanding and cognitive abilities unless the two are distinguished. Korzybski held that many people do confuse maps with territories—that is, confuse models of reality with reality itself—in this sense. (…)

Gregory Bateson, in “Form, Substance and Difference" from Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), elucidates the essential impossibility of knowing what the territory is, as any understanding of it is based on some representation:

"We say the map is different from the territory. But what is the territory? Operationally, somebody went out with a retina or a measuring stick and made representations which were then put on paper. What is on the paper map is a representation of what was in the retinal representation of the man who made the map; and as you push the question back, what you find is an infinite regress, an infinite series of maps. The territory never gets in at all. […] Always, the process of representation will filter it out so that the mental world is only maps of maps, ad infinitum."

Neil Gaiman retells the parable in reference to storytelling in Fragile Things:

"One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. The tale is the map that is the territory."

Korzybski’s dictum “the map is not the territory” is also cited as an underlying principle used in neuro-linguistic programming, where it is used to signify that individual people in fact do not in general have access to absolute knowledge of reality, but in fact only have access to a set of beliefs they have built up over time, about reality. So it is considered important to be aware that people’s beliefs about reality and their awareness of things (the “map”) are not reality itself or everything they could be aware of (“the territory”). The originators of NLP have been explicit that they owe this insight to General Semantics.” — (Wiki)

Erik Evens in The Linguistic Metaphor:

"Korzybski’s General Semantics offered a view that human knowledge is limited by two main factors: the structure of the human nervous system, and the structure of human languages. He maintained that people cannot experience the world directly, but only through their “abstractions” - nonverbal impressions derived from data detected and transmitted by the senses and the nervous system, and verbal indicators derived from language. (…)

Here’s a story about Alfred Korzybski that’s amusing, and worth repeating because it’s illustrative of some of these ideas:  One day, Korzybski was giving a lecture to a group of students, and he suddenly interrupted the lesson in order to retrieve a packet of biscuits, wrapped in white paper, from his briefcase. He muttered that he just had to eat something, and he asked the students on the seats in the front row, if they would also like a biscuit. A few students took a biscuit. “Nice biscuit, don’t you think”, said Korzybski, while he took a second one. The students were chewing vigorously. After a while he tore the white paper from the biscuits, in order to reveal the original packaging. On it was a big picture of a dog’s head and the words “Dog Cookies”. The students looked at the package, and were shocked. Two of them wanted to throw up, put their hands in front of their mouths, and ran out of the lecture hall to the bathroom.

"You see, ladies and gentlemen", Korzybski remarked, "I have just demonstrated that people don’t just eat food, but they also eat words, and that the taste of the former is often outdone by the taste of the latter." It seems his prank aimed to illustrate how some human suffering originates from the confusion or conflation of linguistic representations of reality, and reality itself.

The Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte illustrated the concept of “perception always intercedes between reality and ourselves”   in a number of paintings including a famous work entitled The Treachery of Images, which consists of a drawing of a pipe with the caption, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (“This is not a pipe”).” — (Wiki)

The painting is not a pipe, but rather an image of a pipe, which was Magritte’s point: "The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture "This is a pipe," I’d have been lying!" — (Harry Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images. p. 71.)

Alfred Korzybski:

"I use the map-territory relationship because the characteristic are general for all existing forms of representation which include the structure of language.
We observe

1) That a map-language is not the territory-fact, etc.,

2) Map-language covers not all the characteristic of territory-fact,

3) Forms of representation are self-reflexive in the sense that an ideal map would include the map of the map, etc., and in language we can speak about language.

These three premises are child-like in their simplicity, and yet involve a flat denial of the fundamental present, yet very ancient, unrevised, harmful premises. The third premise has been historically entirely neglected except partially in mathematics.
This self-reflexiveness of language, however, is on the botton of most human difficulties in daily life as well as in science. (…)

As we have seen, for maximum predictability, we must have a map-language similar in structure to the territory-facts. The next crucial problem is to investigate empirically whether our present map-language is similar in structure to the territory-facts. We know empirically that “space” and “time” do not exist separately, otherwise they can not be divided, and so the facts are non-elementalistic. We know, on the other hand, that verbally we can separate or split thein into ficticious elements which do not exist as such. In other words, that the structure of the existing language is elementalistic where the facts are non-elementalistic. This goes much farther. Thus, in actual life we can not split “body” and “mind” “emotions” and “intellect”, etc., while verbalistically we can do that quite happily, and speculate uselessly on these split fictions. We conclude that this elementalistic language is not similar in structure to a non-elementalistic world and ourselves.

Let us analyze further. We find that every “chair”, “match”, “house”, “horse”, “man”, etc., is different, while the old language of intensional structures has only verbal definitions for verbal fictions called, say, “man”, “chair”, etc., emphasizing similarities and disregarding differences. By extension we have only actual chair1, chair2, etc., Smith1, Smith2, etc. which are actualities, not verbal fictions and verbal definitions. We conclude that the structure of the old accepted language being elementalistic an dintensional is not similar in structure to the facts of life and ourselves. This is a conclusion reached by inspections of facts of ordinary life and scientific work and also linguistic facts concerning structure of language which have been entirely neglected in the past.

The conclusions we must draw from these obvious observations are startling and extremely far-reaching, involving fundamentally the future of mankind and civilization.

Because the structure of the present language is definitely and empirically not similar in structure to facts of life and ourselves, proper evaluation and so predictability in our human affairs is thouroughly impossible except by accident.

Another more serious consequence of the neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic chaos is due to the lack of a science of man by which I mean the lack of application of standard scientific methods to the affairs of man. With our present intensional verbalistic attitutes which follow the structure of language, agreement between individuals and groups is in principle impossible. With a change to extensional orientation, strictly connected with the extensionalization of the structure of language, disagreement becomes impossible. (…) We must make a serious analysis of the neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic factors involved in our present situation and that realization may, perhaps, help us stop the suicide of our world.”

Alfred Korzybski, Collected Writings, 1920-1950, Institute of General Semantics, 1990, p. 275-276.

Heiner Benking:

"We have to be able to talk about the same things with words which are grounded. (…) We need to see terms and concepts in their context. (…) We can construct frames-of-reference as a schemata to visually reference and share diverse but inter-connected positions, focuses, ranges and horizons, in order to develop not only common grounds but a tolerance for alternate ways of seeing our different levels and scopes. By adequate and open conversation, we can create a common ground. In this way every player can discover his own place in the general panorama and understand better what he does and what he could and should do, or not do.” We can use the cybernetic tools to order our data-base.  But he warns that we should not let us stray in a “virtual cyberspace” in a mainly and merely technical sense, with no relevance to real situations. Scales and proportions and their consequences should be duly taken in account in our representation, as we construct a 3 dimensional space/time model.”International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics

[This note will be gradually expanded…]

See also:

The Relativity of Truth - a brief résumé, Lapidarium
Cognition / relativity tag on Lapidarium
John Shotter on encounters with ‘Other’ - from inner mental representation to dialogical social practices, Lapidarium
Philosophy of perception, Structural differentialRepresentative realism, List of cognitive biases, Emic and etic, Simulacra and Simulation, Social constructionism