Joho the Blog » philosophy

November 28, 2015

Heidegger on living aware of death: Maybe not

I’m on a Heidegger mailing list where I get to lurk as serious scholars probe his writings and thoughts, and, not infrequently these days, his politics.

Recently, a member of the list I highly respect suggested that “Heidegger’s phenomenology of ‘Sein-zum-Tode’ [Being-toward-death] amounts to living each day of our lives with a sense of our finitude, our mortality, that unifies and heightens the meaningfulness of each and every moment.” He equates this to Michel de Montaigne saying that “it is my custom to have death not only in my imagination, but continually in my mouth.” This is great wisdom, said the list member.

I don’t want to argue against those who find wisdom in living “with the taste of death” in their mouths. But I also wouldn’t argue for it.

My understanding, such as it is, of Heidegger’s idea of Being-toward-death is that our temporal finitude is constantly present as a horizon: we look before we cross the street because we know we can die — “know” not as an explicit thought but as the landscape within which our experience occurs. We make long-term plans within a horizon of possibility that we number in decades and not centuries.

But that’s not what I take Montaigne to mean. And if that’s what Heidegger’s concept of authenticity entails (as I think it might), then that’s just another problem I have with his idea of authenticity.

Why is keeping explicit the awareness of my impending death preferable, wise, or phenomenologically true-er? Because only I can die my death, as Heidegger says? I’m also the only one who can eat my lunch or take my shower. [Frivolity aside: these are both instances of “Only I have my body.”] Because it makes our experience more precious? It doesn’t for me. For example:

We have a four-month-old grandchild, our first. (Yes, yes, thank you for your good wishes :) When I am caring for him–playing with him–my death is always present, but as an horizon. I’m aware that I’m 65 years older than he is, that I am in my waning years and he is just beginning. That is part of the deep joy of a grandchild, and it is definitional: if I thought I were immortal, the experience would be very different; if I didn’t have the concept of one life beginning and another ending, my experience of children would be incomprehensible. So, phenomenologically I think Heidegger is right about our death (finitude) always shaping our experience as an implicit horizon. Our stretch of time only extends so far before it snaps.

But, beyond that implicit horizon, do I need to keep a taste of death in my mouth to make the experience of our grandson more precious? On the contrary, the explicit thought, “Wow, I’m really going to be dead someday” would distract me from my grandson, and keep me from letting the adorable little phenomenon show himself as he is.

That’s a charged example, of course. But here’s another: I’m eating a delicious piece of chocolate cake. I do so within the horizon of my finitude, but that horizon is probably quite implicit. Perhaps it’s a bit more explicit than that, but still horizonal: I’m only eating half the slice for health reasons. But then I have a vivid taste of death alongside the chocolate: “Crap! I’m going to be dead someday.”

Does the cake taste better? I guess maybe for some people. For a lot of us, though, the realization that death is surely a-comin’ would make the cake turn to ash. Who cares about cake when I’m going to be dead sometime, maybe in a minute or a day? We’ve been pulled out of the experience and out of the world by the vivid intrusion of what is undeniably a truth. Why do you think Roquentin can never enjoy a nice slice of cake?

We can complain that such morbidity is inauthentic, but as far as I can tell that’s a value judgment, not philosophy and certainly not phenomenology.

My intention is not to argue against Montaigne on this. If keeping the fact of death explicitly present helps some of us appreciate life more, who am I to say otherwise? Seriously. And if someone goes further and seeks out death-defying experiences because she feels most alive when she is most at risk, who am I to judge? That works for her. Good! (I feel bad for her parents, though.)

But valorizing keeping death explicitly present seems to me to be more personality than philosophy.

I understand that Heidegger’s putting death front and center was a radical and healthy move for philosophy. Western philosophy, after all, has spent so much of its energy pursuing deathless wisdom and eternal Reality as the only truths. But as a reader of Heidegger, I put much of what he writes in Being and Time about death into the same bucket as what he writes about destiny, das Man, authenticity, and German peasant romanticism: It’s (to put it mildly) phenomenologically non-disclosive for me — part of the price of reading an ontologist whose methodology, at least initially, was phenomenology.

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October 28, 2015

When should your self-driving car kill you?

At Digital Trends I take another look at a question that is now gaining some currency: How should autonomous cars be programmed when all the choices are bad and someone has to die in order to maximize the number of lives that are saved?

The question gets knottier the more you look at it. In two regards especially:

First, it makes sense to look at this through a utilitarian lens, but when you do, you have to be open to the possibility that it’s morally better to kill a 64 year old who’s at the end of his productive career (hey, don’t look at me that way!) vs. a young parent, or a promising scientist or musician. We consider age and health when doing triage for organ replacements. Should our cars do it for us when deciding who dies?

Second, the real question is who gets to decide this? The developers at Google who are programming the cars? And suppose the Google software disagrees with the prioritization of the Tesla self-driving cars? Who wins? Or, do we want to have a cross-manufacturer agreement about whose life to sacrifice if someone has to die in an accident? A global agreement about the value of lives?

Yeah, sure. What could go wrong with that? /s


October 23, 2015

Does the networking of meaning destroy meaning?

Donatella Della Ratta, at Copenhangen University and a Berkman fellow, has posted a remarkable essay and linked to another.

The link is to a Wired article by Andy Greenberg about the New Palmyra Project, an effort to reconstruct the ancient monuments ISIS is destroying, and a plea for action to free the project’s creator, Bassel Khartabil, from a Syrian prison.

The second is Donatella’s article in CyberOrient that considers efforts that, like the New Palmyra Project, reconstruct sites destroyed by war, but not with that project’s historical purpose. In the article she brings to light some of the profound and disturbing ways the Net is changing how meaning works.

Her focus is on what she calls “expanded places,” physical places that have been physically destroyed, but that “have been re-animated through multiple mediated versions circulating and re-circulating on the networks.” As she says in the article’s abstract:

Thriving on the techno-human infrastructure of the networks, and relying on the endless proliferation of images resulting from the loss of control of image-makers over their own production, expanded places are aggregators of new communities that add novel layers of signification to the empirical world, and create their own multiple realities and histories.

Her primary example is Damescene Village, a theme park on the outskirts of Damascus where she conducted ethnographic research in 2010. The brief story of the role that theme park played in Syrian“the multiple layers of unreality that it attracted itself is mind-blowing” popular media, and the multiple layers of unreality that it attracted itself is mind-blowing: “a physical replica of the historic 1920s rebel stronghold conceived as a TV set for a reenactment drama of that very struggle; which, historically speaking, took place exactly in the location where the fictional copy had been rebuilt for the sake of media consumption.” To complete the media hall of mirrors, in the recent conflict each side shot “video accounts narrating the seizure of the theme park using themes, symbols and characters borrowed from the TV series.”

Eventually the Damascene Village was destroyed; yet, the self-shot videos, once uploaded onto YouTube, continued to fuel the spread of clashing narratives and contradictory understandings of national resistance, which turned a physical site hosting a staged representation of a conflict into a conflict zone itself, endlessly reproduced through social networking sites.

The complexity of this place as real, symbolic, organic, and manipulated is mirrored in the nature of the platform. She argues that the Internet’s “circulation, reflexivity, anonymity, and decentralized authorship” lead to a type of violence against meaning: “…the endless circulation of messages that are shared, manipulated, and repeated over and over again in a loop where any possible meaning is lost.” Citing Jodi Dean, Donatella says: “…the uncontrollable speed and spread of contributions over the networks help prevent the formation of any sort of signification,” generating not “a plurality of visions” but “…a feeling of ‘constituent anxiety.'” This process is, she says “inherent to the networks.”

A novel space has been created by the entanglement of warfare and technology, where lines are blurred between the physical, lived experiences of war and their media representations, which have gained a new existence by virtue of the endless circulation of the layering of times, spaces, and people enabled by the networks.

This new environment, defined around what I call “expanded places,” re-establishes the relationship between violence and visibility, and broadens the very idea of conflict. Here, mediated and symbolic languages are employed to perform and legitimize the violence perpetrated in physical spaces. At the same time, the large scale production and reproduction of this very violence through networked forms and formats serves to actualize and rationalize it, its viral circulation being endlessly nurtured and boosted by the techno-human structure of the networks.

But is Damescene Village is too good an example? It came onto the Net with so many layers of contested meta-meta-meaning that perhaps its online life is atypical. Donatella confronts this question, “ the Net not only continues the alienation of images of violence … but adds a participatory level”arguing that the Net not only continues the alienation of images of violence from their actuality and from ethical responses, as noted by Susan Sontag in the 1970s, but adds a participatory level to this: the images of violence are hyperlinked and recirculated by the viewers themselves. This borderless remixing and recirculation “have all contributed to the expansion of the place formerly known as the Damascene Village.”

But what to make of this expansion? Here again I worry that Donatella’s example is too good:

As shown by the story of the Damascene Village, the same symbolic and visual reference (Bab al hara) can be employed simultaneously by opposing factions (the Syrian army and the armed rebels) to produce contrasting narratives of resistance, and clashing ideas of nationhood. It can both serve to evoke a seemingly inclusive multiculturalism promoted under al Asad’s leadership; and, at the same time, to remind us that an entire nation is being besieged, not by occupying foreign forces but by the Syrian regime.

She takes this as a type of fictionality, as described by Jacques Rancière: a rearrangement of something real into new political and aesthetic formats without regard to the truth of that something, blurring “the logic of facts and the logic of fiction” in multiple layers of meaning. She invokes Baudrillard, saying that “The story of the Damascene Village proves that it does not really matter” whether the various factions’ fantasies correspond to historical truth. Rather:

what it is important to reflect upon is that this very fantasy has been used to generate and reproduce violence from opposite armed factions, both of which have employed mediated and networked languages to claim legitimacy over their own idea of homeland and national resistance.

But hasn’t that statement been true of every intra-cultural conflict? The truth of historians has never much mattered to factions trying to rouse support for their side. Donatella uses Rancière’s thought to find the difference between how this worked “the Net is in important ways moving us back to a simpler relation between image and reality through the posting of cellphone videos of police attacks, ”before and after the Net. I have not read him (I know, I know) but am not fully convinced by the ideas she cites. In the modern era, “technology is not understood as a mere technique of reproduction and transmission.” Yes, but that’s hardly new to the Internet. Not only has it been well understood at least since the 1960s, but one could argue that the Net is in important ways moving us back to a simpler relation between image and reality through the posting of cellphone videos of police attacks, the proliferation of video surveillance, and the new insistence that the police wear video cameras. Also: Russian dash cams.

She cites Rancière further to make the case that the anonymity of Net postings and the ability to record just about everything “has given rise a new understanding of history as a continuous process of assigning meanings to material realities, of connecting signs and symbols in unprecedented ways. In this sense we can define history as a ‘new form of fiction’…”

I have a complex reaction to this. (This is one of the reasons I so like Donatella’s writing.)

1. Yes, this is exactly what’s happening.

2. It is what happens when we all have access to the materials of history, and the decisions about what counts as history are not made by handfuls of people who control the media, which includes highly qualified historians, the editorial staffs of (sometimes scurrilous) newspapers, and self-interested political leaders.

3. If we substitute “current events” for “history,” the situation seems somewhat less novel. The word “history” carries with it a weight that “current events” does not. (a) We do not yet know what history (as practiced by that discipline) will say about current events. It may become far more settled than the fracturing of interpretations of current events now suggests, which depends to a large degree on how education and authority evolves over the years. (b) History of course always is fractured along the lines that divide people; one side in the United States Civil War still sometimes insists slavery was not the issue the war was fought over.

I am not disagreeing with the dangerousness of the fragmenting of interpretations engendered by the Net. I find illuminating and helpful Donatella’s brilliant exposition of the way in which these are not shards so much as multiply reflecting mirrors in which meanings cannot be separated from the act of meaning, and that act “meanings cannot be separated from the act of meaning, and that act of meaning is a performance that gets reflected, reappropriated, and reenacted without end ”of meaning is a performance that gets reflected, reappropriated, and reenacted without end and without the ability to see its source either in the actual world or in its initial expression — “the rise of the anonymous subject and decentralized authorship nurtured by virtue of the circularity and reflexivity of the networks.” Rancière says this creates “‘uncertain communities'” politically questioning “‘the distribution of roles, territories, and languages’.” That’s an important point, although these images also sometimes create powerful political communities, as was the case with images from Ferguson.

Donatella is admirably focused on what this means when the stakes are high:

…in expanded places that have been destroyed by violence and warfare, then have been re-born through a networked after-life, this process goes much further. Here, challenging the distribution of the sensible [Rancière’s term] is not only a matter of contentious politics, but of generating and regenerating violence and destruction through the endless circulation of formats of violence boosted by the inner techno-human structure of the networks.

Her presentation of the ways in which the Net leads to not just a fracturing of meaning but of an impossibly self-reflective entanglement of meaning is brilliant. Her drawing our attention to the direness of this when it comes to the most dire of human situations is crucial. Her concept of “expanded spaces” seems to me to be worth holding on to and exploring. In fact, it’s powerful enough that I don’t think it should be confined to places that have been destroyed, much less destroyed by war. It applies more broadly than that. Her discussion of places destroyed by violence seems to me to point to a case where the stakes are higher, but where the game is essentially the same.



I recognize I have not resolved the question posed in my title. You can thank Donatella for that :)


October 14, 2015

September 19, 2015

Transliterating Heidegger

As a result of lurking in a mailing list’s conversation about whether and how to translate Heidegger’s use of the ancient Greek term φυσις, I did some poking around at Google.

φυσις does not translate easily, which is why Heidegger scholars like to use the original Greek. (Meanwhile, I can’t even find an html character for the upsilon with a diacritical, and the raw Greek character failed in the preview of this post in Chrome.) It’s usually translated as “nature,” but that’s the result of a 2,500-year-old-game of “Telephone.” For Heidegger, it has something to do with what shows itself as having its own way of becoming or emerging. Richard Polt aand Gregory Fried in A Companion to Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics take a stab at it by referring to it as the “emerging-abiding sway.” Anyway, that’s not the point of this post.

Here are the results. Have fun making sense of them. They are wonky in ways that indicate that I don’t know how to do Google queries.

Search logic

Actual search terms







φυσις AND heidegger

“φυσις” “heidegger”



phusis AND heidegger

“phusis” “heidegger”



physis AND heidegger

“heidegger” “physis”



φυσις AND heidegger AND phusis

“φυσις” “heidegger” “phusis”



φυσις AND heidegger AND physis

“φυσις” “heidegger” “physis”



φυσις AND heidegger BUT NOT phusis

“φυσις” “heidegger” -“phusis”



φυσις AND heidegger BUT NOT physis

“φυσις” “heidegger” -“physis”



heidegger AND phusis BUT NOT φυσις

“heidegger” “phusis” -“φυσις”



heidegger AND physis BUT NOT φυσις

-“φυσις” “heidegger” “physis”



φυσις AND heidegger AND phusis AND physis

“φυσις” “heidegger” “physis” “phusis”


Semi-interesting factoids based upon faulty research and poor quantitative reasoning skils:

  • Hardly anyone who uses the Greek bothers to point out that there are two ways to transliterate it.

  • A fifth of all mentions of the Greek term also mention Heidegger.

  • If a work mentions Heidegger and the Greek term, it’s three times more likely to transliterate it as physis.

Fun minigame: How many of those did I mess up?

Google’s search syntax documentation is not great, and the results sometimes seem wonky. Here’s some documentation:


September 15, 2015

Against hard cases

I was talking with someone the other day who who was telling me about her response to the “trolley” problem that professors in a surprising number of different fields like to pose. (It was first posed by the philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967.) In essence: you’re standing next to a switch. A trolley is barreling down the tracks. Weirdly, there are five people tied up at the end of the tracks. You can pull the switch to put the trolley onto a new track but — what a coincidence! — there’s a man on that track also. What do you do?

This woman said she’d throw herself in front of the trolley. Creative and noble, but …

…Even assuming that that would stop the trolley and that it wouldn’t overturn the trolley which happens to be full of the most adorable babies who would all have grown up to be Nobel Prize winners , it only affects decisions if morality is the adherence to principles or is the outcome of personal virtues, or some such. Whether you or the solitary man on the track dies is of no interest to the utilitarian calculus, unless you throw in some more information, such as you are a reprobate who only has two weeks to live anyway, and the man on the tracks is an adorable baby whom we know will grow up to be the greatest Nobel Prize winner of them all.

But the real problem is that the woman I was speaking with violated the Rule of Hypotheticals: The person who makes the hypothetical gets to define the hypothetical.

Hypotheticals in moral reasoning often are intended to confound us. The trolley case challenges our intuition: Of course the rational action would be to sacrifice the one for the many, but if we vividly put ourselves in the position of the person at the switch, we may find it hard to imagine ourselves taking an action that we know will kill someone. Variations of this try to make it even harder for us to imagine ourselves taking that step: Suppose we could push someone in front of the trolley to save the many? Suppose the person we pushed were young and healthy, in a wheel chair, fat? (Fat? Yup, the person has to have sufficient mass to stop the trolley, but, really, the Hypothesizer could just have specified that even a thin person would stop this particular trolley and avoided any implication that the weight of the person has something to do with her/his value.)

So, we construct hypotheticals, making them as weird as we need, in order to show that a moral principle or guideline is unreliable. In the classic case, we first convince our students that utilitarianism makes sense. Then we give them a hypothetical in which it’s pretty clear that utilitarianism leads to an unjust outcome. The canonical example is a sheriff who hangs an innocent man because it’s the only way to reassure a terrified town that a killer has been caught; the sherif knows the real killer drowned but can’t prove it for some unlikely hypothetical reason. (And thus was rule utilitarianism born.)

I am very sympathetic to the idea that moral reasoning is premised on moral empathy: to be moral requires recognizing that we share a world with people to whom that world matters differently but equality. But I have problems with morality-by-extreme-hypothesis.

These hypotheses are extreme on purpose. They want to clarify our thinking, so they remove all extraneous context and they remove every possible escape from the dilemma. For example, we’re asked to imagine that a terrorist has planted a dirty bomb in NYC and the only way to get the information out of him (inevitably a him because that’s more “neutral”) is to torture him. “But how do we know that he has the information?” “A reliable informant.” “How do we know the informant’s reliable?” ” That’s part of the hypothetical.” Oooookay, but life doesn’t work that way.

Because hypotheticals are usually weird — if they weren’t we would’t need them — it’s hard to know that we can trust our reactions to them, and it’s hard to know if the right action in that case generalizes to all cases.

I suppose these hypotheses can disprove that any particular moral theory is sufficient for all cases. But once we give up on that idea, the question becomes: What’s the right thing to do? What’s the right theory — or theories — to apply in this non-hypothetical case?

Ultimately, I believe that as sentient creatures we have the obligation to do right, but there isn’t a right thing to do. Why would we think that there is? The people affected, and even those who merely observe, are right to carry on their arguments and to make their positions and their plights clear. We should and will never stop. But there can be no resolution because every aspect of our existence as individuals and as groups is in play and has its own interests. So we do the best we can. But the notion that there is a single right answer to any sufficiently complex moral question strikes me as wishful thinking. There is no single action that is all right because the world is not the same to any one of us.

That’s the real problem I have with these sorts of hypotheticals. Their virtue is clarity and simplicity, which means they miss the essential reality of our lives as moral creatures.

So, my answer to the trolley question is: Pull the switch. Sacrifice the one for the many. Then grieve for the rest of your life because its never enough just to be right.

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June 27, 2015

Does the moral universe arc?

“The arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice.”

Does it?

That saying was of course made famous by Martin Luther King who put it between quotation marks to indicate that it was not original with him. Had King’s own arc not been stopped short by a white racist with a gun, it might have been MLK, at the age of 86, who addressed us on Friday in Charlestown. As it is, our President did him proud.

The always awesome Quote Investigator tells us that the quotation in fact came from Theodore Parker in 1857; Parker was a Unitarian minister, Transcendentalist, and abolitionist. The entire sermon (“Of Justice and the Conscience,” pp. 66-102) is worth reading, but here’s the relevant snippet:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

The sermon points out that the wicked often suffer in ways that the outside world can’t perceive. But Parker is realistic enough to recognize that “we do not see that justice is always done on earth,” (p. 89) and he proceeds to remind his congregation of some of the overwhelming evils present in the world, including: “Three million slaves earn the enjoyment of Americans, who curse them in the name of Christ.” (p. 90) Neither does Parker let us rest in the comfortable thought that justice reigns in the next world. We need a “conscious development of the moral element in man, and a corresponding expansion of justice in human affairs…” (p. 90).

But, is Parker right? Does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice, or towards injustice, or toward neither, or toward entropy? Why shouldn’t we think we construct that arc out of our wishes and happy thoughts?

Parker’s support for his claim is not what sight shows him but what is visible to his conscience. But what did conscience mean to him?

In 1850 Parker delivered a sermon called “The Function and Place of Conscience in Relation to the Laws.” He begins by explaining the term: “It is the function of conscience to discover to men the moral law of God.” He puts it on a level with our other faculties, part of the reaction against the reduction of consciousness to what comes through our sense organs. Transcendentalists were influenced by Kant who argued that sense perception wouldn’t add up to experience if we didn’t come into the world with a pre-existing ability to organize perceptions in time, space, causality, etc. In addition, affirms Parker, we have a faculty — conscience — that lets us understand things in terms of their moral qualities. That faculty is as fallible as the others, but it is “adequate to the purpose God meant for it”; otherwise God would have failed to outfit us adequately for the task He has set us, which would be on Him.

For Parker, conscience (knowledge of what is right) is at least as important as intellect (knowledge of the world). In “Of Justice and Conscience,” he bemoans that “We have statistical societies for interest” but “no moral societies for justice.” (p. 92) “There is no college for conscience.” (p. 93). (Statistics as a concept and a field had entered British culture at the beginning of the 19th century. By the 1850s it had become a dominant way of evaluating legislative remedies there. See Too Big to Know for a discussion of this. Yeah, I just product placed my own book.)

The faculty of justice (conscience) is at least as important as the faculty of intellect, for conscience drives action. In “The Function and Place of Conscience,” he writes:

Nothing can absolve me from this duty, neither the fact that it is uncomfortable or unpopular, nor that is conflicts with my desires, my passions, my immediate interests, and my plans in life. Such is the place of conscience amongst other faculties of my nature

Indeed, the heart of this sermon is the injunction to rise to the demands inherent in our being children of God, and to reject any conflicting demands by government, business, or society.

Much of this sermon could be quoted by those who refuse as businesspeople or government employees to serve same-sex couples, although Parker is talking about returning fugitive slaves to their owners, not decorating cakes:

This statute [the Fugutive Slave Act] is not to be laid to the charge of the slaveholders of the South alone; its most effective supporters are northern men; Boston is more to be blamed for it than Charleston or Savannah, for nearly a thousand persons of this city and neighborhood, most of them men of influence through money if by no other means, addressed a letter of thanks to the distinguished man who had volunteered to support that infamous bill telling him that he had “convinced the understanding and touched the conscience of the nation.”

That “distinguished man” was, shockingly, Daniel Webster. Webster had been an eloquent and fierce abolitionist. But in 1850, he argued just as fiercely in support of the Fugitive Slave Act in order to preserve the union. Parker wrote an impassioned account of this in his 1853 Life of Daniel Webster.

Parker’s sermon exhorts his congregants, in a passage well worth reading, to resist the law. “[I]t is the natural duty of citizens to rescue every fugitive slave from the hands of the marshal who essays to return him to bondage; to do it peaceably if they can, forcibly if they must, but by all means to do it.”

So, conscience trumps the other faculties by bringing us to act on behalf of justice. But the moral law that conscience lets us perceive is different from the laws of nature. Parker writes in “Of Justice” that there is no gap between the natural laws and their fulfillment. This is so much the case that we learn those laws by observing nature’s regularities. But the moral law “unlike attraction [i.e., gravity] … does not work free from all hindrance.” (p. 69). The moral law requires fulfillment by humans. We are imperfect, so there is a gap between the moral law and the realm over which it rules.

Parker continues: Even if we could learn the law of right through observation and experience — just as we learn the laws of nature — those laws would feel arbitrary. In any case, because history is still unfolding, we can’t learn our moral lessons from it, for our justice has not yet been actualized in history. (p. 73) Man has “an ideal of nature which shames his actual of history.” (p. 73) So, “God has given us a moral faculty, the conscience…” (p. 72) to see what we have yet not made real.

Intellect is not enough. Only conscience can see the universe’s incomplete moral arc.

So, does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice?

Our intellect sets off warning flares. History is too complex to have a shape. The shape we perceive of course looks like progress because we always think that what we think is the right thing to think, so we think we’re thinking better than did those who came before us. And, my intellect says quite correctly, yeah, sure you’d think that, Mr. Privileged White Guy.

At the moment of despair — when even in Boston citizens are signing letters in favor of returning people back to their enslavement — “The arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice” brings hope. No, it says, you’re not going to get what you deserve, but your children might, or their children after them. It is a hard, hard hope.

But is it true?

I will postulate what Theodore Parker did not: Neither our intellect nor conscience can know what the universe’s arc will actually be. Even thinking it has any shape requires an act of imagination that bears an unfathomable cost of forgetting.

But, I believe that Parker was right that conscience — our sense of right and wrong — informs our intellect. Hope is to moral perception as light is to vision: You cannot perceive the world within its moral space without believing there is a point to action. And we can’t perceive outside of that moral space, for it is within the moral space that the universe and what we do in it matters. Even science — crucial science — is pursued as a moral activity, as something that matters beyond itself. If nothing you do can have any effect on what matters beyond your own interests, then moral behavior is pointless and self-indulgent. Hope is moral action’s light.

So, of course I don’t know if the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. But if there is a moral universe, modest hopes bend its history.


June 22, 2015

Has the Internet been paved? has just posted an article of mine that re-examines the “Argument from Architecture” that has been at the bottom of much of what I’ve written over the past twenty years. That argument says, roughly, that the Internet’s architecture embodies particular values that are inevitably transmitted to its users. (Yes, the article discusses what “inevitably” means in this context.) But has the Net been so paved by Facebook, apps, commercialism, etc., that we don’t experience that architecture any more?


June 19, 2015

Spoilers and Time

I remember a 1971 National Lampoon article that gave away the endings of a hundred books and movies. Wikipedia and others think that article might have been the first use of the term “spoiler.” But “SPOILER ALERT” has only become a common signpost because of what the Internet has done to time, and in particular, to simultaneity.

In the old days of one-to-many, broadcast media, the events that shaped culture happened once and usually happened on schedule. So, it would make sense to bring up what was on the news broadcast last night, or to chuckle over that hilarious scene in this week’s Beverly Hillbillies. Now we watch on our own schedules, having common moments mainly around sports events and breaking news — games or tragedies. Perhaps this has contributed to our culture’s addiction to extremes.

We need SPOILER ALERT signposts because we watch when we want but the Net is so huge and unconstrained and cheap that it operates like a push medium — the opposite of why traditional broadcast was a push medium. Trying to avoid finding out what happened on Game of Thrones this week is like trying to avoid getting run over when crossing a highway, except that even seeing the approaching cars counts as getting run over.

Tom and Jerry
Game of Thrones spoiler

This change in temporality shows up in the phrase “real time.” We only distinguish one type of time as “real” because it is no longer the default. The default is asynchronous because that’s how most of our communications occur online. Real time increasingly feels like a deprivation. It requires you to drop what you’re doing to participate or you’re going to lose out. And that feels sub-optimal, or even unfair.

Without the requirement of simultaneity, we are more free to follow our interests. And that turns out to fragment our culture. Or liberate it. Or enrich it. Or all of the above.

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January 31, 2015

Sympathy over empathy

We used to have an obligation to at least try to be sympathetic. Now that’s ratcheted up to having to be empathetic. We should lower the bar.

Sympathy means feeling bad for someone while empathy means actually feeling the same feelings.

If that’s what those words still mean, empathy is more than we usually need and is less than we can often accomplish.

You’re hungry? I can be sympathetic about your hunger, but I can’t feel your hunger.

There are child soldiers? I can perhaps understand some of the situation that lets such a thing happen, and I can be shocked and sad that it does, but I don’t think I can feel what those children feel.

You have been sexually assaulted? I can be deeply sympathetic and supportive, but I don’t think I can actually feel what you felt or even what you are feeling now. For example, if you are now overwhelming anxious about being in some ordinary situations — walking to your car, entering an unlit room — you will have all my sympathy and support, but I will not experience the trembling you feel in your knees or the tension expressed by your shallow breaths.

Empathy is hard. It often takes the magic of an artist to get us to feel what a character is feeling. (Q: If I am feeling what a non-existent character is feeling, is that even empathy?)

Empathy is hard. Empathy is rare. Empathy is often exactly what is not required: If you are afraid, you probably don’t need another frightened person. You need someone sympathetic who can help you deal with your fears.

Sympathy is getting a bad rap, as if it means just patting someone on the shoulder and saying “There there.” That’s not what sympathy ever was. Sympathy means you are affected by another person’s feelings, not that you feel those very feelings. If I am sad and worried that you are so depressed, I am affected by your feelings, but I am not myself depressed.

Empathy can be a pure mirror of someone else’s feelings. But sympathy requires more than just feeling. If I see you crying, to be sympathetic I have to know something about you and especially about what has caused you to cry. Are you crying because you’ve been hurt? Because you broke up with someone you loved? Because you just saw a sad movie? Because you didn’t get into a school or onto a particular team? Because you’re sympathizing with someone else? In order to sympathize more fully, I need to know.

That is, in sympathy you turn not just to feelings but to the world. You see what the sufferer sees from her/his point of view, or as close to that point of view as you can. What you see is not a matter of indifference to you. You are moved by what is moving the other. How you are moved is different in type and extent — you are not fearful in the face of the other’s fears, you are not as wracked by grief as is the mourner — but you are moved.

Sympathy lets the world matter to you as it matters to someone else. In sympathy, the mattering culminates from heart, mind, and caring about the other. It is perhaps the best thing we do.

Most importantly, through sympathy are we moved to helpful action, whether that is indeed a pat on the shoulder or requires a far larger commitment. Sympathy does that to us. For us.

Empathy can get in the way of the supportive action that sympathy demands. If a friend is heartbroken because a relationship ended, you may bring to bear a different view of the world and hold out other feelings as possibilities. Hope perhaps. A different perspective. A pint of Ben and Jerry’s. The gap in feelings between you and your friend enables the sympathetic action your friend needs.

If our aim is to act in the world to try to reduce pain, fear, and sadness, then asking for empathy is often to ask for too much. Sympathy more than suffices.


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