“Anything that thinks logically can be fooled by something else that thinks at least as logically as it does.” – Douglas Adams
This is a continuation of my previous post, describing my mission to actively move away from using money. This involved being homeless and discovering the opportunities of life without money.
Going back to money
I always knew I would be reintegrating with the “normal” world eventually. After a whole year of being homeless and surviving without money, I was ready to go back.
In discovering rationalism, I had come across some cool techniques for life. Using probabilities and a cost vs benefit analysis I decided to move to London and become a developer. This was calculated as a low-cost high reward strategy for maximum money in minimum time that had a good chance of success.
The ultimate goal was to make time for more philosophical activity in my life. The no-money route is an option to regain some time, but perhaps not enough. The costs are also high: poor physical health, lack of stability (high anxiety). In short, to reach my goals, I had to use money.
Even though my feminist days gave me this advice: “we all are doing what we can to survive under unfair conditions, so it is wrong to criticise others who are performing along the expected lines of society”, I still suffered feelings of horrible guilt and of being a sell out.
I rationally knew that I had come up with a decent plan that might ultimately help me to do more of what I love, an activity which might help people and even contribute to changing the society I find myself in. However the feelings of being a sell-out, of “getting more right-wing as I got older” were strong. It took some years to be more at peace with my choices and even longer to find a framework that might help to describe them.
I also felt uncomfortable earning (what felt like) an obscene amount of money in comparison to others. Coming from the local government sector gave me a strong sense that the people who do the hardest jobs get paid the least money. I also felt working class guilt, that I was being a traitor for accepting and using middle class salaries, buying myself middle class privileges.
Of course, it was harder for me to remember that my new salary was still below average, well below median and certainly not “obscene” by any measure.
I had to remind myself that it is ok to have money. Life is indeed much easier with money. I think the study about IQ drop when feeling anxiety over money has failed to replicate, like so many others, however the anxiety levels at the low-end of the money scale seem anecdotally extremely large, and are relieved entirely by a modest income. Having modest amounts of money allows for optimism for the future, enables regular excursions outside of the house, enables much easier social relations, allows freedom of travel and greatly improves physical health.
Another aspect of money relates to sharing your money. I can now be honest about my motivations for generosity, is it signalling, is it genuine concern? I now feel ok about exploring those ethics.
One thing is certain, being without money is an excellent way to understand and use it effectively.
It’s expensive to be poor.
This perverse rule was visible everywhere once I recognised it.
The ATMs in poor neighbourhoods always charge for withdrawals, because poor neighbourhoods don’t attract chain banks or other enterprises that provide free cash machines. It’s not worth it, because everyone there is poor.
The converse is also often true: it’s cheap to be rich. Rich people are often invited to free events in the random hope that someone will spend their money eventually on the host’s business. Art galleries have free private views. Overdrafts on wealthy client’s accounts are free, while poor people are penalised for even a £1 overdraft withdrawal. The richer you are, the more free things get offered to you. Of course, money makes more money if you just leave it alone, so the act of simply having some gives you an income on it as well.
Cheating on benefits is much harder than getting a job
Almost nobody does it, so get over it. Of the ones that do, it is our fault as a society for not providing more useful deception games that their skills could be applied to. Either way it is an acceptable loss.
It doesn’t take very long to earn enough money such that survival is covered and all the questions about the meaning of life, and how to spend one’s time, return. For my freelance friends who really do earn obscene money, the problem of what to do every day becomes a real concern. Material benefits lose their charm alarmingly quickly. Boredom is the ultimate problem.
It leads me to wonder if there are groups of people with rich depression, whom we could leverage to do interesting things. It also makes me a proponent of universal benefit, which might be an interim step that will lead us to the idea that we should spend some time shunting around our shared, limited resources and the rest of the time getting together to do interesting things.
Money doesn’t need to be money
For some people (many?) their salary is much more to do with “numbers going up” – the dopamine reward system that video games harness so well, than it is to do with material goods or comfort. For those who are not too interested in the status that material goods bring, the motivation is more to do with the esteem a society holds them in (itself another kind of status).
This had led me to speculate about the possibility of divorcing “currency” – a phrase for the part of money that is a functional system of exchange rather than drag 2,000 eggs to market to swap for a cow – from the insane, imaginary mathematical games people play in financial markets that none the less cause ordinary people to lose their homes.
I recently spoke to a software developer in the finance industry who openly admitted that he engages in creating software that is deliberately difficult to use, so that financial investors feel as though they are actually doing something during their 90 hour work week, rather than admit that they do no better than random chance. His team actively re-writes old software with more complex navigation menus and deliberately obfuscatory usage procedures to supply the illusion that these people do something Very Hard that only Magic Skilled People can do.
I wonder how hard it would really be to round up the entire top several levels of the world financial system and quietly slide them all into an MMO or virtual world, where we tell them they are trading and have won and lost millions of “dollars” when actually we have disconnected them from the currency we use for basic goods, shelter and transport a long time ago.
I used to think capitalism was evil. Now I think it’s just a system.
I think it’s quite amenable to being hacked and changed, which is good. It might be the least bad system so far. It also doesn’t function in a vacuum. Capitalism so far has always operated with, alongside and within several other systems: nation states, governmental organisation systems, political systems, charity systems and particularly “welfare” systems. The welfare side is where we put lots of our human morals, and I now find it strange when people demand moral behaviour from capitalist systems.
There are some who believe that current systems would be improved if allowed to operate with the same rules as a “market”. I think they are correct in some cases, but it would be disastrous in others.
I do think there are aspects to markets/capitalism that mean it has never been a complete or functioning system. For example, natural resources are exploited at no cost, giving the illusion of eternal resources and thus eternal growth. I will be very interested to see how capitalism changes when this loop is closed, such as when governments give natural resource systems legal rights, or with carbon taxes.
I feel optimistic that since capitalism is subject to theories as engines, not as cameras, it will continuously evolve and will no doubt be a useful system in the system tool box for a long time.
It’s time for some emotional maturity when it comes to agents engaged in systems.
Hawks and Doves
A few decades ago, a couple of scientists applied game theory to evolutionary development. The result was evolutionary game theory and it gave us some neat new ways to understand evolution.
The most famous example of this work is known as “hawks and doves”. The premise is that given a certain set of circumstances, individuals within the same species competing for finite resources may have more than one strategy for obtaining those resources. Divided simplistically, an individual may behave in a “dove”-like fashion ie standing down from conflict (after an initial bluff of force) and sharing resources with other doves it discovers, both of whom are non-violent or a “hawk”-like fashion ie following through on threats of violence and not sharing resources with others. The dove strategy has low costs but also low rewards while the other has high cost but also higher potential reward.
The theorists produced a graph that showed which strategy might be optimal under which conditions. There is an awful lot more to evolutionary game theory however I mention this as an illustrative example.
Depending on the conditions, you have a certain percentage of hawks and doves. The more hawks you have, the more costly it is to be one as you might starve or be killed. The more doves you have, the higher the reward for being a hawk (violent and not sharing) since almost everyone you meet is a dove and will back down. In the high dove scenario, it makes sense for more individuals to become hawks since the rewards are high and the risks very low. Once you have several hawks though, the chances of meeting another hawk are higher and it once again becomes too costly to be one compared to the expected reward. There is a certain balance that appears between the types of strategy. The exact ratios depend on the situation, but what I want to point out is that you always have some hawks.
Evolutionary game theory goes on to analyse circumstances where individuals within a species co-operate to a certain extent, rather than compete.
Humans often co-operate, and this behaviour is said to be ‘social’. Humans are one of the most socially sophisticated animals on the planet.
In a highly social society there are systems of rules in place and a few different strategies for success. Social systems are typically based on varying degrees of trust, you need to trust that other people will follow the rules and humans have evolved extremely complex skills and heuristics to assess trustworthiness in others.
One strategy in trust based systems is to fake trustworthiness, not abide by the rules, screw people over and reap the benefits. This strategy risks being caught and completely shunned, which may even lead to death. It is a high-risk, high-reward strategy that is the social equivalent to a hawk.
It seems to be that any social system that has rules based on trust is also open to the possibility of cheating being a viable strategy. In any social game you always have some cheaters.
Our social evolution has given humans pretty powerful tools to spot a cheater, helping groups to keep cheaters to a minimum. Many of our formal systems also have safeguards to attempt to weed out cheaters.
However, I frequently come across the assumption that it would be ideal to completely eliminate cheaters. This is wrong.
Eliminating cheaters is not possible. All games of any complexity have rules and therefore can be cheated. The more dove-like rule-followers a game has, the greater the rewards are for cheating and so the likelihood of having cheaters in the game increases. I believe that past a certain point you have a power-law situation with cheaters, where the energy expended to detect and remove cheaters grows exponentially the lower the number of cheaters becomes. Eventually, the measures taken to eliminate the cheaters become more injurious for everyone than the harm the cheaters are causing.
A recent example from my life: at a Pride parade of tens of thousands of people a political group of a dozen participants was denied entry, but unofficially they ‘broke in’ at the end of the column and marched anyway. Despite the fact that the organisers had made reasonable efforts to prevent the group from marching that year the outrage was huge, so the following year the organisers implemented a security system requiring all 10,000 people to acquire official wristbands, the parade needed extra staff, security barriers and to change the assembly point and shorten the parade route. The measures far exceeded the harm.
Eliminating cheaters is not necessarily desirable. Cheaters have to develop great skill to cheat, skills that are often prized in general, from thorough attention to detail to ingenuity, innovation and improvisation. In David Chapman’s essay ‘Geeks, Mops and Sociopaths’ the sociopaths – the cheaters – have an important function. They use their skills to market the New Thing made by the Geeks, making money and enriching culture, even if they reap an unfair share of the rewards. Sociopaths in general are quite likely to be cheaters but also quite likely to be very useful, like surgeons.
The extreme measures taken to eliminate cheaters seem to be often caused by the emotional pain of being a rule-follower and seeing or knowing that there are cheaters. Cheaters seem to reap great rewards, while the costs of the strategy are less visible. The emotional reaction can blind people to other causes for cheating, such as injustice (which I think may have played a part in the Pride parade example).
This emotional overreaction goes for double when money is involved – the obvious example is rabidity over benefit/welfare cheaters. I think the extra effort expended on trying to prevent cheaters is one of the key reasons that universal benefit works out cheaper.
People also seem to overestimate how many cheaters there are. I would expect any system to be capable of supporting around 10% hawks/cheaters. However from internet reading I’ve done about crimes, false claims about crimes (eg false insurance claims, false rape claims) are around 2%. This seems absurdly low.
The emotional desire to eliminate cheaters is prioritised over the rational knowledge that cheaters are inevitable, exist in low numbers and are even desirable. We need to sort that out because so often the measures to prevent cheaters are worse than the cheaters themselves.
This post will be taking huge liberties with material that is intended to describe personal, cognitive and social development of an individual by applying it to wider societal structures. One of my philosophical itches relates to the fact that scale is important, and different methods are needed at different scales of operation, so I am wary of the pitfalls of taking these liberties.
This, as most of my posts, should be taken as an exercise or thought experiment.
Where we are now
At the moment, society is largely at Stage 4, and has been since the tribal group style typical of Stage 3 began to decline.
Stage 3 society is based on relationships and feelings are paramount. This works well in a tribal group (and still operates in small groups, eg rural villages).
Stage 4 societies use a system to organise and make decisions, with relationships deliberately distanced from decisions, because within this stage, that is more fair. For example, the legal system relies on pre-agreed codes of justice, not the personal relationships of those involved, to make fair decisions.
Systemic organisation has given us almost everything we have in society today, from healthcare to exploring space. But, is there room for more growth?
Many current alternative belief/sanctity doctrines, such as groups with New Age / “hippy” values mourn the loss and call for the return of stage 3-style living. This would be a backward step. The way forward involves synthesising everything learned from stage 3 and stage 4 together.
While wider society does indeed have many successful stage 4 systems that can interact with each other, something more is required to become more like stage 5. Chapman’s description of stage 5 for people is very useful:
You have several such systems, “multiple selves,” none of them entirely coherent, and which have different values—and this is no longer a problem, because you respect all of them.
Society has many systems, but most are still invested in the idea that systems must be entirely coherent and that systems that have different values cannot coexist, be reconciled or demand equal respect at the same time because this would be contradictory. Politics is a great example. All the players must behave as if their chosen team on the political spectrum is inherently, objectively right and the others terribly wrong.
Stage 4 societal systems are interacting with each other in the same way as stage 4 people co-operate: very successfully, coordinating calendars etc, but not yet showing stage 5 fluidity.
This post will submit some ideas for institutions that are exhibiting Stage 5 dynamics.
Kickstarter et al.
Crowd funding seems to have features that are more like stage 5. It involves co-operation from many people who are different from each other, who probably have wildly differing systems of belief and ethics. Differences are no longer very important because the focus is the end goal.
Crowd funding temporarily brings people together around a node point, a common goal, and they will disperse when the goal is achieved. This node point is slicing reality along a different, specific line. The rules for the node are set by the creators and rather than appealing to a broad identity eg “all Democrats” the appeal is much more specific eg “anyone who wants an Alsatian puppy calendar”.
Because the focus is the end goal, the systems that have been leveraged to make it happen are no longer very important, rather they are shown to be tools used to achieve the goal rather than identities for its participants.
There are some people who appear to be “hacking” systems, in this case capitalism, harvesting rewards and then leveraging the benefits.
It is likely that individuals have done this within companies and governments for centuries but Elon Musk is a visible example with public goals.
He identified that the best way to make money within our current money system – capitalism – is to make money from money (Paypal as a money transfer service).
Once he was one of the top 100 most wealthy people in the world, he turned his attention to other goal-focussed pursuits. The world is probably lucky that he wants to improve the lot of humanity with high-speed travel, space exploration and green energy.
My point with Musk is that, having exploited a stage 4 system he can now work around those systems and above their heads.
Even just a decade ago it was inconceivable that anyone would market an electric car, because the oil industry is too big and powerful. Indeed, a new product must jump through many hoops to come to market, from patents to funding to marketing to market share to fending off legal battles. It was impossible to imagine any company achieving this. What happened instead was a person who sliced reality along different lines.
The gradual rise up a chain of hierarchical systems is not necessary for Musk. Once one has a certain amount of wealth, one can be more or less outside of most of these concerns. His product does not have to get funding or acquire market share any time soon, much less turn a profit. Money can be thrown at lawyers from the oil industry and at marketing. So, Musk managed to just pop out an electric car, seemingly out of nowhere.
By providing a ready-made product, Musk drives change from above back down through some stage 4 systems, like governments, via (for example) demand for new electric infrastructure. In the US, his company has taken over this stage 4 operation.
Further, Musk actively works together with other companies. He is known to sell his electric car components to other car manufacturers relatively cheaply. His company also negotiates long-term investment from them in exchange for these cheap, high quality components or for long term help in their research and development departments. In addition, he allows “good faith” access to patents held by his companies to help other firms advance their technology in his areas of interest.
This to me is stage 5 capitalism. Everyone has their separate companies, their private patents and are technically in competition. But when striving to change the world (and when money is no longer an issue) the best way to productively move forward is to once again collaborate, share information and support others around specific goals.
Technology developers worldwide (particularly software developers) have for a long time been sharing their work online for free. The work on software does not end at the moment a piece of code is given away, rather many people also actively maintain and debug the software after the fact. This involves a lot of effort and usage of free time.
This seems to have come about due to a combination of good wages in the stage 4 realms that support developers and good will amongst the community. Many developers sympathise with having to write boring code, so libraries have been created such that no-one has to repeat unnecessary labour.
Developers also foster that “for the good of the world” feeling. Open-source software is made available for free to anyone, not just other devs. As software becomes more complex it is increasingly obvious that only collaborative effort will move technology forward. Opensource is an alternative to corporate invention, partly so that life-changing technologies are not owned exclusively by a single company but also partly because such entities are too narrow in their R&D focus.
If Chapman is correct about STEM people and stage 4, it is no accident that these three examples are all in STEM fields.
These examples all share something that I feel is very important: goal focus. I believe goal focus flattens out old hierarchies and makes systemic differences less important. These goals also have a certain flavour, to improve the world or to maximise fun. They fill the gaps in capitalism’s goals which are too narrow.
This goal focus is possible because there is another assumption along side it: that we are participating in something that is shared. With Kickstarter it is normally a shared geeky hobby. Elon Musk’s visions assume a shared human race, a shared planet and a shared solar system. Developers exist in a shared community and all hands are needed in software right now so that community also extends to the human race. However this shared environment acknowledges stage 4’s differentiation before building a sense of sharing.
The humanities seem to be straining towards some flatter hierarchies, for example reinventing the system for peer-reviewed papers which would be in line with Foucault’s criticisms of institutional power, however change is still extremely slow.
Can you think of other things that seem to operate on a stage 5 level?
Cover Photo by James Walshe
Intro: You already know this stuff
Sometimes people feel they don’t grasp Postmodernism because they believe it must be complicated, when in fact many parts of it are “obvious”, “normal” or already part of everyday life. We live in a postmodern world and from the end of high school onwards we have been taught and use postmodern principles. Some people feel they don’t understand Postmodernism because of an absence of a lengthy explanation of it, they feel it must have long words or difficult concepts. There must be a certain amount of forehead wrinkles and frowning before you can say you Get It when it comes to Postmodernism. Whereas the truth is that no-one explains it at length because there is nothing more to say that you don’t already know from your postmodern life experience. To a postmodern person, Postmodernism really is quite “simple” and its concepts appear to be self-evident.
Postmodernism is the word for thoughts you have as an inevitable result of achieving Modernism.
I highly recommend this essay by Nadia Rodinskaya about the two shifts in intellectual thought that humans have had so far. Seriously, it’s very enlightening and lays the ground for what is said here. Meaningness talks about this in detail too.
Modernism is stage 4 incarnate, all human life systematised and interlocking extremely well. Some systems are so efficient that human actors are no longer needed (eg factories). Urban planning has gone from not existing to common knowledge. Machines and rational efficiencies have been used in every corner of life, not excluding “natural” life eg farming but also eating, sleeping and defecating. Everything has optimised systems to manage processes in increasingly efficient ways. They are entirely invented and maintained by system 4 successes, normally in terms of civic government & services or capitalist concerns – these include banks, trade routes etc as well as business entities.
These projects need not be complete in every domain for the problems of systems to become intellectually apparent. The precursors of Postmodernism in philosophy were writing in the 19th century. In some ways the next 100 years was a project of figuring out what the hell to say but first building a language to say it in. In the 1960s – 80s the stuff that the Postmodern philosophers were coming out with was pretty great (and their thoughts are precursors to Constructivism in Nadia’s essay).
At first there were a lot of counter arguments that challenged the status quo of how to think about science and the assumptions we have about knowledge. Criticising Modernism.
Then they made up new ideas about knowledge and meaning (and most people don’t know that part).
Part 1: The counter argument
Post-structuralist critique part 1
Some philosophies in the 20th century were about trying to find an underlying structure to human behaviour, just like that which had been found in physics, biology and so on. The most famous was linguistics – trying to find how language is acquired and what rules govern it. The people who we now call post-structuralists critiqued this idea in two ways. Firstly, they stated that people do not operate according to structures. Secondly, that as people ourselves it is impossible to “get outside” of a human system to have a scientific, “objective” view of human systems.
They did this in a fancy way and Derrida is the leader, and his stuff is really dense. If you’d like to know more about the details of critiquing structures philosophically, he’s your man.
Inherent bias: Feminists smash up social theory, art and psychology.
One of the ways to know that people do not fit nicely into structures is to be someone for whom the structures do not work, people who are squished or erased by “objective” notions of how people are. The most numerous people in this category are women. Feminist writers took apart everything we thought we already knew in the 20th Century.
Susan Sontag’s critique of cameras as phallic, ahistorical, unreality-death-machines in ‘On Photography’ is utterly dark and convincing. If you’d like some Postmodern nihilism, I can’t recommend this enough.
Luce Irigaray’s project was critiquing psychoanalysis. Her books wade in and deconstruct every aspect of psychoanalysis with feminist theory so new and so extreme it’s like a welding torch. In hindsight, Freud was easy pickings for feminists since he based all his theories on men and then sometimes created a ‘mirror image’ for women or just presumed women were the same. Nope.
Irigaray’s alternative feminist psychoanalysis project was a brave and complicated effort, but I think is kind of pointless except as an intellectual exercise because psychoanalysis never had much good to say about women and finally not much good to say about anything after a certain point. It was extremely important but I think more as a step on the path than a Theory of Everything.
I think it was via Luce Irigary that I came across the idea that not only essays and novels but language and sentence construction itself is an imposed patriarchal system. That grammar rules are a too-strict arbitrary system that restricts its user base, creates unnecessary hierarchies and loses richness of meaning in favour of technical rules.
I think that is mostly silly but none the less there is the seed of an important idea in there. Kathy Acker did some extraordinary literary experiments involving stuff like this, so if you’d like a book that makes William Burroughs’ cut-up technique look like child’s play I recommend her work. Lots of sex and blood too.
Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex was published in the 1940s and still endures as relevant today. It totally nailed the description of female life within and without these structures built by men in the everyday world. If you want a primer for feminist thoughts and only read one book: dip in and out of this one. Simone de Beauvoir was an existentialist philosopher and because of this book she totally beats Sartre on historical significance and coolness.
All these structures you thought you’d made suck balls and don’t work.
Not rational digression
Just a quick digression: it was only as a result of postmodern thinking that anyone questioned the idea that humans typically act in a rational way. It took until the 1970s before psychology devised experiments that showed that not only are people more governed by their emotions than previously thought but that they actually act really irrationally, all the time, even if you try to help them with the way you devise the test.
The 70s! Think about that. It’s hard to imagine that before that, everyone was presumed to be rational. Well, white men at least. This assumption was key to propping up all the institutions we have. In fact it still is. How to deal with irrational agents operating inside a rational system is still something we are struggling with.
Post-structuralist critique part 2
Ok, so far I’ve only really talked about current structures for humans being flawed. That doesn’t mean the principle of systems is wrong, does it? Well, now for the good stuff: later Postmodern philosophers point out that “scientific” thinking is also just wrong according to its own principles.
This is talked about a lot by Foucault, using a technique he called “archaeology” to compare scientific reasoning, methodology and behaviour over time. He argued that self-proclaimed ‘objective’ systems of thought were constituted entirely from contingent historical and social influences and the changes within disciplines or the invention of new disciplines are all entirely guided by these cultural and accidental influences. In fact, they always have been.
At first he looked at specific areas, like the history of mental illness, then the medical clinic but eventually he did a history of “the human sciences”.
It became increasingly apparent with Foucault that not only was it foolish to apply physics-like principles to systems for human beings but that all science, physics included, is so skewed by cultural sanction as to lose all ability to claim objectivity or to elucidate ‘truth’.
(No arguing with me in the comments before you’ve read some of his work.)
The 4.5 gap
Many people and philosophies get stuck here. Systems seem to have it wrong and the critique of that is quite convincing. This makes systems seem to be interchangeably bad, or in another way to be equally valid. Ethical relativism looms large in particular. Very common in normal postmodern life seems to be the idea that “all opinions are valid”. There seems to be an impasse as to how to judge anything, and whether any meaning is even possible.
Is this the missing stance combination of monist nihilism? We have moved on from stage 4, which tends to favour the division of things into categories because it is a stage of independence and separation. We are moving towards a stage of inclusion (like the previous stage 3), implying a move away from division, but nothing seems to mean anything. Therefore, “all is one” in the sense that old categories do not exist, “all is one” in the sense that all is interchangeable/equivalent and the stance is “nihilist” because this equivalence erases meaning.
The real: a nihilist cul-de-sac
I’m placing this section here because it seems to fit a 4.5 nihilistic train of thought.
Lots of recent postmodern thinkers became caught up in the real, or specifically the absence of it, getting quite attached to the idea that no one can experience the real any more, using words like hyperreal or “real”.
Baudrillard talks about “the absence of negation” ie the negative side of real – “not real” -has gone. “Not real” has been replaced by something different – “artificial”, which is not quite the same. We run around in “artificial” a lot in everyday life and Baudrillard claims that since that is true, we also cannot experience real things any more because “artificial” is not the opposite of real, therefore both “real” and “not real” have become lost to us.
Baudrillard goes on and on with this stuff, but I’m not sure it needs exploring unless you really want to. The Matrix (the film) does in fact explain some of the main concepts pretty well, although Baudrillard is not talking about the ancient “brain in a jar” philosophical problem like The Matrix does.
I surmise that in 2016 we pretty much feel this concept intuitively. We all experience this real-not-real stuff on a day-to-day basis, especially when using the internet, but really it is in all forms of media.
I think Baudriallard was crapping his pants about losing a binary of real/not real and not knowing what will take its place. He seems to fear that humanity will collapse into a void. But, like almost everything, this hyperreal problem is not that scary, we are all basically fine with it in day-to-day life and the void has yet to swallow us. It also has loads of benefits which point towards stage 5 style usages.
So, it’s easy to get stuck here in monist nihilism because moving on from here is pretty hard. If not a system to make judgements, then what? What words can I even use? Luckily, philosophers come to the rescue, Thinking Very Hard is what we pay them for after all.
Part 2: What there is instead (the stuff people don’t know)
While it is clear that rational systems clearly don’t cut the mustard it is also clear that everything, especially social systems of persons, is not entirely in chaos. Social norms are in fact surprisingly consistent on the whole, even if they can differ in the details.
When postmodern philosophers discuss this they are pointing out what Meaningness.com calls pattern. They have come up with a few ways to talk about the nebulous yet patterned nature of life beyond systems.
Simone de Beauvoir not only described female life she also stated that gender was inscribed on a person by societal norms. Social rules can bruise one into conforming, sanctioned behaviour wears down grooves in a person from the outside. This is in contrast to the systemic idea that a personality springs from the inside, representing a unified self that maneuvers rationally within society. De Beauviour said that society both produces and potentially reduces the person. At the time de Beauvoir was not refuting notions of the self, merely adding to the spectrum of representation of the ‘norm’.
Much more recently the philosopher Judith Butler described her notions of the ‘performance’ of gender, where gender is a series of acts that you do rather than a thing that you are.
Each time a performance is accepted by others the information about permissible acts is reinscribed in the person. There is a continuous flowing feedback loop between self and other that is cooperatively reinscribed.
This process can be a powerful force to preserve the status quo, but there is possibility for change in this model since translations from person to person or within groups can gradually evolve new meanings, whether deliberate or accidental. In addition, challenging acts can be performed that may or may not gain acceptance. Art and jokes are places where challenging representations can be enacted.
Society then is seen as a continuous series of interactions, or dance of performative meaning. (We are starting to sound stage 5ish now aren’t we?)
This idea can be applied to any label or role in society as well as gender.
This more general trick of turning a noun (‘identity’) which is solid and fixed into a verb (‘performance of identity’) which is active and changeable is a useful technique for sliding around systemic thinking.
I recommend being pretty stoned when reading Deleuze & Guattari but especially Deleuze. Or do I? All I remember is that they use the word “rhizome” a lot in ‘One Thousand Plateaus’ and seem to be describing both the bifurcation of plant limbs and also the flowing movement of stuff or information around pathways that are both well-trodden and also continuously changing.
(That and the black hole/white wall dichotomy which seems to me to have the same unknowable message as the film 2001:A Space Odyssey but in overblown fancy French. )
Anyway the rhizome pathways seem quite cool as an idea. For a STEM application: I’ve seen some research talking about networks as a system of nodes that have a certain number of connections. The research involved flows of information, and examining whether the richness of connections that a node has effects that flow.
After his analyses of modern systems of thought, Foucault went on to formulate explanations of modern society along different lines than that held by structures. His key ideas were around knowledge and power.
Foucault claimed that, for example, biological sciences are not in the practice of ‘objective study’, they are not uncovering something that was already there, like the rubbing of the gravestone, rather they are bringing into being the object of study. Science creates things that were not previously there by categorising, labelling and cataloguing.
In this way Foucault claims that the Victorians were not disinterested in sex, or prudish about it, rather they were obsessed with it. More cataloguing, category-making and forethought went into sex during this period than any other. The reason they did this was to make efforts to control it.
For Foucault, knowledge and power are inextricably linked. From the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:
Foucault’s point is rather that, at least for the study of human beings, the goals of power and the goals of knowledge cannot be separated: in knowing we control and in controlling we know.
By knowing something, it can then be designated as “normal” or “abnormal” or “deviant”. In this way certain things can be sanctioned and other things repudiated. Power structures have evolved to reshape what is considered deviant behaviour, rather than simply punish acts. Foucault more often calls this power relations and describes flows of power around nexus points of knowledge and historical contingency.
He gives examples of these flows, which have influenced each other and sprung up for innocuous reasons but have become sites of power. One example is the examination.
The examination (for example, of students in schools, of patients in hospitals) is a method of control that combines hierarchical observation with normalizing judgment. It is a prime example of what Foucault calls power/knowledge, since it combines into a unified whole “the deployment of force and the establishment of truth”. It both elicits the truth about those who undergo the examination (tells what they know or what is the state of their health) and controls their behavior (by forcing them to study or directing them to a course of treatment).
Here again I believe we have a powerful example of somewhat abstract things flowing around a network of node points with stable yet changing connections and configurations.
Almost all the Postmodern philosophers retreat to aesthetics or art to talk about how to make decisions and how to make meaning. I think they are touching on the same thing that I am talking about when I say “judging” and David at Meaningness is talking about with meta-rationality and meta-systemicity.
They seem to be saying that the decision making process is now closer to ‘aesthetic’ in the sense that it is more a matter of sensibility to make judgements, rather than recourse to objective facts. Some talk about fusing rhetoric with aesthetics, perhaps to show it comes from somewhere. More research needed!
It is my view that several Postmodern philosophers have given us a consistent language and concepts with which to grapple past stage 4.5. These concepts slice reality along different lines.
Foucault deals explicitly with boxing things up into categories and labels, and what happens when you do so. He then offers what seems to be a more “zoomed out” view of all these different systems, showing the flows of power and knowledge over, between and around the systems we have created.
Deleuze and Guttari’s rhizomes feel like this too. I think there is so much more to be discovered but the original writing is really dense. I would go for these guys over Zizeck any day of the week though.
Butler has described a continuous and flowing notion of a “self” and a “society”/”other” that is by necessity always a performance (and therefore not necessarily a “true self”) which is always collaborative, is often stable but always slowly changing.
(In an interesting side-note I listened to a lecture of hers which marries the rights of prisoners to the rights of disabled people through the concepts of freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. This is very related to Foucault, whose work focussed on prisons and marginalised groups. It also shows how to bring two unrelated groups together in the same thought process by examining an entirely different axis.)
To conclude: I believe these flowing, changeable things that none the less have pathways, grooves and nodes or nexus points are the metaphorical ideas to move forward with. It is this flowy nature that I use to identify possible fluid mode phenomena, and it was this postmodern background that lead me to think Meaningness.com was onto something.
In true stage 5/bisexual/Postmodern fashion, almost all post-structuralist and postmodernist philophers explicitly reject the labels applied to them. Some of them are not even philosophers, which is illustrative of formal categories breaking down in academia, which is itself illustrative of stage 5 thinking being well under way in thought arenas. The overarching placeholder word “theory” is now taken to mean the people and ideas I have mentioned plus many more, who range across disciplines.
Omissions and errors
I have attempted to make a sketch of philosophical postmodernism and have missed out loads of it. Tell me which bits you’d like an expansion on! I may have made errors.
I have yet to figure out proper notes and references, sorry. Below are authors who are often said to be post-structuralists, or to have had a post-structuralist period. These are philosophy based. The ones with stars are the ones I have read. Titles after the names are ones I recommend.
Kathy Acker *
Jean Baudrillard * ‘Simulations’
Judith Butler * ‘Gender Trouble’
Gilles Deleuze *
Umberto Eco *
John Fiske (media studies)
Michel Foucault * ‘History of Sexuality Vol.1’
Félix Guattari *
Luce Irigaray *
Jean-François Lyotard *
Simone De Beauvoir* ‘The Second Sex’
In Robert Kegan’s book, the fifth stage of cognitive, personal and social evolution is called the Inter-Individual Stage. I find this to be the least useful of all the names for the stages.
According to his framework, one moves from “being” one’s current environment to “having” it as a tool. At stage 3, one “is” one’s relationships. One “is” a father, a son, a friend and performance in those relationships equals one’s success and sense of self.
In stage 4 one goes from being “embedded” in relationships to “having” relationships. One is now embedded in a “system” that governs those relationships, as well as everything else in life, from ethics to personal goals. One “is” one’s system, such that threats to one’s system (eg religion, political leaning, career title) are threats to the self.
In stage 5 one moves from being “embedded” in a system to “having” systems that can be used as tools. But the new “embedded” state does not have a strong name.
Stage 5 environment name
Kegan talks about how graduation from stage 4 might have no road-map in romantic relationships and it is generally equally rejected in workplace environments. His attempt to describe a marriage in stage 5 terms seems a little handwavey.
He went on to write a book for businesses about how to foster a good “holding einvironment” for employees and another book about the breakdown of support for stage 3-4 in society in general. Stage 5 is treated rarely.
Meaningness.com is currently doing a fascinating series of posts about moving from stage 4 to 5 and they are using the phrase “meta-systemic”. I think this is perfect for the STEM audience. Elsewhere in meaningness the relevant phrases are “complete stance” and “fluid mode”.
The “stances” are Chapman’s own creation (with due nods to all the inspirations for it) and I think the name can appeal to general readers and to people more inclined to social or spiritual vocabulary.
The identity politics social science types will, I think, resonate strongly with “fluid mode”. I blog elsewhere about bisexual politics and “fluid” is one of the common labels used as an alternative to “bisexual”.
All of these names are good. All are better than straining to make every stage begin with an “I” like Kegan does and therefore land on “inter-individual”. I think it is better if also interchanged freely with “inter-institutional”. NB in Latin “inter” means “between” and “among”.
Descriptions of stage 5
None the less all of these names seem to not quite capture the whole. I think this is not least because the whole is very hard to describe. Having said that, let’s take a wander over to David’s summary of stage 5. Go on, you can’t get away with not reading this forever.
The descriptions around systems are very lucid.
A favourite bit:
Fluid epistemology can relate systems to each other, in a way that the systematic mode cannot. Systems become objects of creative play rather than constitutive of self, other, and groups. Fluidity can hold contradictions between systems comfortably while respecting the specific functioning and justification-structure of each.11 All ideologies are relativized as tools rather than truths.
And for ethics:
It takes ethics to be a matter of collaborative practical improvisation that is responsive to specific situations.
The Meaningness project is not entirely Stage 5, or hardly anyone would understand it, but it involves many things that stage 5 also involves. I like Chapman’s phrases : “collaborative”, “playful interaction”, “nebulous yet patterned”.
What are we doing in stage 5?
To get to our embededness, which may be impossible, we need to think about what we are doing in stage 5. My own thoughts:
Having fun with “boundaries” and “rules”.
Deliberately drawing and re-drawing boundaries of objects or the self can be so fun! Deliberately re-aligning perception. Such as the game mentioned in this post of looking at a street from the point of view of an architect, then a homless person, then a street runner, then a geologist. How the landscape changes! How meanings and value shine and fade for each object! Yet the physical street remains the same.
Experimenting by using the rules of one game to play another. Smooshing categories together and pulling them back apart in an elastic, reflective manner.
So many things are suddenly less vitally important, and I mean vital in the sense that it supports or threatens life. Now that whole systems are not contiguous with one’s identity, it is possible to use them for play like never before. Experimental, reflective, elastic, play.
Conjuring with systems
Applying systems in appropriate situations. Trying a new system if one is not working. Formulating problems with greater sympathy and skill. Using experience, experiment, abstractions to inform system-choosing. (Meaningness will cover all this much better than me).Smooshing systems together to make new ones. This feels like judging (without an ethical or moral dimension).
Now that boundaries are flexible and meanings fluid, collaboration becomes the time-bound and circumstance-bound moment to work within a framework for a while with other people. The framework can pre-exist, or be made up. This can work really well for achieving goals, as well as playing. This can happen with people with whom one previously had nothing in common, or even people one deliberately avoided or hated. When the game you’ve decided upon is complete, the meanings and rules can float away again. It is hard not to call this activity a “dance”, where people and meanings come together at a node point, then move away, over and over. The stage 5 version is so flexible because the node points can be anything, rather than rigid systems decided by majority and encrusted by tradition so as to be trustworthy.
A new name?
Does this leave us with a new name? My words have been: play, elastic, flexible, collaborate, judge, smoosh. I feel I want to say it is an ability to be both vague and distinct, both flexible and rigid. This reminds me of sexuality, how a word meaning both men and women just doesn’t cut it as a description for bisexual people.
In the end I think we will get no better than “fluid” for now, until we see some brave stage 6ers using “fluidity” as a tool for something else, embedded in something new entirely.
Which words are your favourite and why? Do you have any ideas for new words?
This post uses a key framework of personal evolution by Robert Kegan. It is summarised by David Chapman here.
This post is in dialogue with, and an expansion on, Chapman’s recent post about moving through stages 3, 4 and 5 in modern society (and the lack of support for it) here.
This post will not make sense unless you have read the other two posts first. They are somewhat lengthy, but I will be returning to these ideas as a basis for my blog posts for a long time, so it’s worth settling in.
Much has been said (some has been said) about the intellectual progression of stage 4 to stage 5. In this post I will outline some emotional challenges I faced (am still facing) to making the transition.
My evolving story
Four years on from university (which I attended a little later than average), at age 27, in the midst of deliberately making myself homeless and abandoning any regard for money, I was challenged to articulate the political position of a person on the opposite side of an argument to that which I held. I found I could indeed do so. It was common for me to hear that it is good to empathise with another person, and since I had been accused of failing in that area before, it was something I had been trying to attend to more closely. I was also aware of having to debate a position one personally does not hold (from Star Trek as well as school). So as an educated person I managed to imagine the position of someone who believed that austerity, small government and benefit cuts was an appropriate response to recession. I myself was about to go on a march against austerity, from the position that it made life worse for minority groups such as the disabled and also overly impacted a majority group: women. During that march I was extemely morose and it took some time to figure out why.
Not only had I managed to do more than superficially imagine some arguments from “their side”, I could also understand why someone would hold that position. I could imagine which principles were important to that side of the political spectrum almost as clearly as I could see the principles that supported my own side. In addition, if supporters of that side believed the underlying assumptions or principles, they would not have to be stupid or amoral to believe the conclusions drawn from those principles.
It became clear that if one side is right, and the other wrong, it would be a matter of whether their principles were right or wrong. However, the more I thought about someone else’s side of the argument, the more their principles seemed at the very least appropriate for what they were trying to do. Their principles seemed logically right, (even if I thought they were morally wrong). And yet on my side of a debate, the principles seemed right too. How could this be?
I began to realise that I had been making the assumption that my side’s founding principles were right and therefore the conclusions were also right and therefore the articulated position was morally right and therefore any different position that contradicted it must be wrong. In fact, dear reader, if you would care to re-read the opening sentence of the preceding paragraph to this one, you will notice the uncritical assumption – “if one side is right and the other wrong…” This very assumption came into view for the first time. The assumption that one position is right and that all other positions are wrong. It suddenly seemed self-evident that this was a silly assumption to make but at the same time I had clearly been operating with it for years.
I think I had been approaching these realisations gradually by being more and more open to the arguments from the ‘opposing’ side. I might have originally been motivated by the idea that one must “know thine enemy” – the better to thwart them. I felt meaningful progress could only be made if one engaged properly with another’s arguments and then was so persuasive with one’s own arguments that the other person would change their minds.
In addition, as a result of throwing myself into new situations, I was exposed to a person whom I liked but who used an entirely different framework from me to see the world. They came from a scientific, rational, logical background. They scorned my emotional/social view of the world as biased and refused to engage on the topic in anything other than their own ‘rational’ language. I could see they had some good points but also felt that they were missing something from their worldview. Out of sheer spite I began a long process of learning their technical language, in order to one day criticise them in a language they would understand.
Neither of these processes lead to their stated conclusions but: never underestimate the power of spite as a way to motivate learning.
In addition to the story told above about politics, I had similar conflicting intuitions when it came to money. The begninning of the story is here. I shall endeavour to write up the second half of the story soon. But in short, capitalism seemed to no longer be the spectre of evil I once thought it was.
Leaving the old stage
All of this lead to my eventual move out of stage 4. At the time, it felt like I had been booted out. Indeed in Kegan’s descriptions, a person at first criticises the world for not being what it appeared to be, and moving out of a stage is unpleasant. The current self has no desire to change.
Eventually, the criticism can be directed inward. Feelings of shame can arise when shifting through a stage change and I felt a certain amount of being intellectually ‘caught short’, the feeling of having been walking around with my pants down this entire time and no-one had told me.
Emotional problems shifting through change
And so we finally get to the subject of this post: emotional difficulties when transitioning out of Kegan’s Institutional evolution, stage 4. These descriptions are almost entirely focussed on intellectual growth as they seem easier to articulate. On emotional terms I feel more muddied. Perhaps I will post about that later.
Lack of stage 5 environments
One of the problems of this stage is a lack of cultural, institutional or familial frameworks to move towards when the previous thinking has been left behind. As of the 1980s, only 5% of adults may reach this stage. From Kegan:
“the requirements of the ‘holding environment’ within which to evolve become a taller order with each new evolution.”
There are therefore few, if any supportive voices to contradict the negative thoughts that accompany leaving a stage behind. This problem is discussed at length in Chapman’s post about people becoming lost at stage 4.5.
Loss of self, loss of identity.
Loss of the self is characteristic of all of the evolutionary stages:
“[people] may speak of a ‘loss of identity’ or that they have let themselves down, betrayed themselves, abandoned themselves”.
however this may be felt particularly strongly since:
“this is the first shift in which there is a self-conscious self to be reflected upon”
The instiutional stage 4 is characterised by adopting a system to order one’s life. This can partly mean aligning with a particular system that others also use which becomes an identity. For myself social justice style identity politics was my system. I aligned strongly with the left, with feminism, with minority sexuality and polyamory.
The negative thoughts which accompanied my new apparent relativism with regard to left and right wing politics, as well as capiltalism, were strong and distressing. I felt I was selling out, had lost my passion, was being weak or without resolve, was a traitor to the cause and I was particularly bothered by the phrase “you get more right wing as you get older”. I was terrified that this applied to me.
I applied these thoughts to myself because I believed my social group would do so if they knew what I was thinking, and I had no alternative viewpoints to challenge this “selling out” as anything other than negative. I could do nothing but accept these negative labels for myself. At this time I stopped any and all activism because I felt like a fraud and was also exhuasted from feeling this way.
This longer passage from Kegan explains a common fear in 4-5 transition:
“All transitions involve leaving a consolidated self behind before any new self can take its place. At the 4-5 shift this means abandoning – or somehow operating without reliance upon – the form, the group, standard or convention. For some this leads to feelings of being “beyond good and evil”, which […] amounts to looking at the that beyondness from the view of the old self, and thus involves strong feelings of evil. Ethical relativism – the belief that there is no (nonarbitrary) basis for considering one thing more right than another – is, on the one hand, the father of tolerance: it stands against the condemning judgement; but it must also stand against the affirming judgement, and so is vulnerable to cynicism.”
Ethical relativism is a half-way point. One has realised that there probably is no perfect sytem that is “right”, rather all systems have validity given the way systems function (based on rules, assumptions, axioms or reasons, which therefore make them “rational”). However this leads a person to the conclusion that all systems are equal, have equal value, have equal utility, are interchangeable. I believed this for a while and it is quite frightening, leading one to a strong sense of nihilism.
In Kegan’s words:
“In the shift to stage 5 there is often a sense of having left the moral world entirely; there is no way of orienting to right and wrong worthy of my respect. This is the killing off of all standards, the attempt to be not-me (who is his standard) – the cynic, or existentially despairing.”
Short Postmodern digression
This problem is exactly where an unsophisitcated grasp of postmodern thought runs into trouble (Postmodernism can be seen largely as a 4.5 stage of philosphy). Postmodernism is the critique of Modern “systems” of thought, or rather a critique of the idea that the world can be apprehended through systemic thinking. This part was the focus of most Postmodern writing and is the easiest to grasp when discovering the topic.
When one reaches this far with the ideas it is easy to think that when Postmodernism is saying that “all systems of thought that give rise to opinions have arbitrary foundations” it is also saying that “all opinions have equal value”. This is not actually the case but it takes a long time to untangle. It takes a much closer and much longer study of Postmodern ideas to grasp what Postmodernism is moving towards, rather than away from. More on this in a later post.
When this shift out of a strucutual Identity is occuring it is no longer possible to associate with other people who are still firmly embedded in The Identity [whatever it is]. It is key to realise that this process is not voluntary for the person changing, they have no desire to suddenly be alienated from their friends, but at the same time thoughts cannot be unthought and changes are taking place regardless of desire.
I felt a distance from other people of The Identity that I had not felt before. I no longer agreed with them in the way they needed me to. If I voiced my new thoughts they saw me as dissenting for no reason or diluting the cause.
Eventually I no longer felt that my new thoughts were wrong, I felt they represented a new way to see the world, but I also knew that there was no point forcing the ideas onto people who were not ready for them. This made the alienation from certain people, and from certain parts of many people, inevitable.
This can be extremely problematic if one’s social circle is entirely made up of people who share The Identity. If there is no-one who can be part of a non-judgemental “holding environment” during these changes, it could lead to much heartache or even emotional/psychological problems that require professional intervention. (There is of course nothing wrong with seeking professional help, indeed it is absolutely the best thing to do, I am simply saying that it is nice to not have to).
During my initial moments of crisis, I took myself away from my city and all my friends. I think I experienced a lack of an environment for change. I finally found people who were confirming of the change and over some years of stability with new friends I feel I have progressed from the worst of the dissonance.
Having dealt for some years with making this change (across some axes of my life at any rate), I feel somewhat more stable in my meta-systemtic state, but the loneliness persists. I feel comfortable again with interacting with others who have a different worldview, in fact I can see the extremely high value of their operations, in thought and in life. But I am always searching for others who may be able to understand some of my new ways of thinking.
Chapman proposes that much of society operates using stage 4 systems that interact with each other and I think that that is correct. (Systems interacting sounds pretty much stage 5 and indeed all society is actually constantly moving. However many societal systems rely heavily on being the “correct” system to function, most notably politics).
So what about stage 5-style operations that are larger than individuals? A stage 5 society?
Kegan notes that even proposing a stage 5 can be problematic:
“Suggesting that there is a qualitative development beyond psychological autonomy and philosophical formalism is itself somewhat controversial, as it flies in the face of cherished notions of maturity in psychological, philosophical, scientific and mathematical realms.”
In later posts I will spend some time imagining what stage 5 is or means for an individual (Kegan is more vague on this stage than the other stages) and what it is or means for a society. What would stage 5 societies look like? What features would it have? Do our societies already have stage 5 organisations in place? If so, what are they? Is there a way for individuals to safely encourage stage 5 institutions?
Also, check out the rest of meaningness.com for more fascinating (and in my view comforting) descriptions of how one might choose to make sense of the world.