Monthly Archives: August 2016

Conceptions of Self

I’ve been writing a lot recently about two potentially conflicting views.

On the one hand are scholars like John Dewey and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who see the self as something largely or entirely created by others. As Merleau-Ponty writes, “I am a psychological and historical structure.

On the other hand is the modern yearning for “authentic” selves – for me incapsulated by scholars such Kenji Yoshino, who sees the suppression of the authentic self as a civil rights issue; such suppression disproportionately affecting minority populations.

These views perhaps seem like they’re in conflict: how can one express their authentic self if their authentic self isn’t their own creation? Furthermore, there are a host of other questions: what if your authentic self is a terrible person, is it still good to be authentic? Surely, your “self” – if such a thing can be said to exist – doesn’t exist in some static state, waiting for you to discover it, so no matter how much agency you put behind the notion of “self” the idea of finding it is seems foolish.

I have more thinking to do on this, to be sure, but I’m not sure these ideas are in as much conflict as they seem from the surface. I can be changing and co-created and still be. Furthermore – and perhaps this comes from Yoshino’s framing of authenticity as a civil rights issue – I can’t shake the feeling that there is something important there. Saying an authentic self doesn’t matter does injustice to the people who have fought so hard to express themselves.

I see ‘self’ as intrinsically linked to agency.

The question of self is deeply important to civil society – after all, what is a society if not some collection of self-like beings seeking to coexist. An ideal society built with the notion that we are each discrete pockets of uniform consciousness would look quite different from one in which ‘self’ is conceived entirely as social construct. There is no self, only interactions. The separation between ‘I’ and ‘you’ is much smaller than we’re currently inclined to think.

So the question matters, yet I haven’t yet stumbled upon my answer.

I love the imagery of interconnected selves, of a ‘self’ that looses substance if separated from the world; but I cannot fully abandon the headstrong, ego-centric notion of self which says: I am a person. I exist.

This thought has perhaps become bastardized by generations of egotistical posturing, but for the oppressed, it is something profoundly radical. And this, perhaps, why I can’t let my notion of the ‘self’ go: when society says you don’t matter, when society says you’re nothing, you’re no one. It is this concept of the self which quietly stares back: I exist.

Freedom, Choice, and Civic Life

I’ve been reading Sarah Bakewell’s delightful At the Existentialist Café, something of an existentialist study of the existentialist movement. The book follows the life, times, and beliefs of some of the 20th century’s most prominent existentialists, the German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, his protégé Martin Heidegger, and continuing through the great French philosophers Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Along the way we meet many of their friends and colleagues – notable philosophers in their own right – whose lives are integral to Bakewell’s study but whose stories are not the focus of this particular work: Edith Stein, Emmanuel Levinas, Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt, Raymond Aron, Arthur Koestler, and many others.

I’m familiar with the famous works of these philosophers, but beyond a passing familiarity with the most prominent relationships and various author’s historical contexts, I hadn’t previously appreciated the deep, interconnected network of personal and philosophical relationships. The waves of history that brought these great philosophers together and ultimately tore them apart.

Phenomenology, which formed a basis for later existentialist thought, seeks to describe things as they are, as they present themselves. In this way, Bakewell’s book can be seen as a phenomenological study of generations of thinkers desperately exploring “how we can be free and behave well in a complicated world.” A world that saw two world wars, a massive calculated genocide, a showdown of super powers, and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

As someone interested in civil society, I see this question not simply as an individual one: how can I be free and behave well – but as a collective one: how can we all get along while wrestling with the challenges of being free and behaving well in a complicated world.

The story of the existentialist movement is one of carousing nights, passionate debates, and conversations at cafés. It’s a story of drinking, dancing, and sucking the very marrow out of life. It’s a story of being free.

But it’s also a story of fault and discord. Of unforgivable sins and spiteful fallings out. It a story of individuals struggling with the burden of what it means to be free: of trying to make the right choices and often making the wrong ones. Of people searching for what they stand for in difficult times – and breaking from those who disagree.

It’s a story of love and betrayal. Of betrayal and love.

The most notable villain in this story is Heidegger, whose Nazi activities make him still a controversial figure today. Elected rector of the University of Freiburg in 1933, Heidegger joined the Nazi party and was responsible for carrying out Reich law, including firing all Jewish professors and stripping emeritus faculty – such as his friend and former mentor Husserl – of their privileges. Heidegger’s personal notebooks from that time were published in 2014, revealing “philosophical thoughts alternating with Nazi-flavoured anti-Semitic remarks…Heidegger was a Nazi, at least for a while, and not out of convenience, but by conviction.”

Heidegger’s Nazism is topic much larger than this post, but needless to say, he fell out with his Jewish friends and colleagues. He rarely spoke with Husserl. In letters he tried to assure Hannah Arendt – for whom Heidegger had formerly been a lover – and mutual friend Karl Jaspers that he was not really a Nazi, but eventually they broke ties with him.

Edith Stein, who’d been a student of Husserl’s shortly before Heidegger, had converted to Christianity and joined a convent long before the war. She was detained, imprisoned , and murdered in a Nazi concentration camp.

But beyond the staggering actions of Heidegger, the story of existentialism tells of many more every day betrayals.

Emmanuel Levinas, another of Husserl’s students at a time of devotion to Heidegger, acted very much like a 23 year-old in 1929 following a debate between the magnetic Heidegger and old guard philosopher Ernst Cassirer. Cassirer’s wife, Toni, walked in on Heidegger’s students “satirically reenacting the debate.” Levinas played Cassirer, “dusting his hair with white talc and twirling it into a high quiff like an ice cream cone. Toni Cassirer did not find him funny. Years later, Levinas wished he had apologized to her for his irreverence.” Levinas – who was also Jewish – lost his love for Heidegger soon after.

Meanwhile, a tight-knit group of existentialists was forming in France. Simone de Beauvoir and her childhood friend Maurice Merleau-Ponty met Jean-Paul Sartre and his childhood friend Raymond Aron. Beauvoir and Sartre quickly became lovers and remained primary partners for the rest of their lives.  In a Parisan café, under the burden of German occupation, the pair met Albert Camus. Hungarian scholar Arthur Koestler also joined their circle.

And as the dark days of the war faded, there was a golden time of love, friendships, and good natured but passionate debates.

But such times were short lived. Intellectually attracted to communism, but dismayed by fascist actions, the existentialists found themselves pulled in different directions. Was the promising vision of communism worth holding on to given the actions taken in its name? Were the actions of fascist states forgivable given the great good given as reason? Capitalism was deeply flawed and the U.S. had its own sins – so was siding with them really any better?

It was dark, dramatic times.

Koestler threw a wine glass at Sartre and got into a scuffle with Camus. Aron moderated a panel where he allowed Sartre to be verbally ganged up on. Camus wrote pointed pieces attacking the  position of Sartre, who took no pause in firing back. Sartre attacked his old friend Merleau-Ponty, and they similarly fell out.

After the wine-glass incident, Koestler ran into Sartre and Beauvoir on the street – from a second hand account of Koestler’s point of view, Koestler suggested the three get together for lunch. “Koestler, you know that we disagree,” Beauvoir reportedly responded, “There no longer seems any point in our meeting.”

This is the fundamental question of civic life.

Can people who disagree so vehemently  about such high stakes things continue to coexist in a civic sense? If not, the alternative is to avoid such matter – to stick to safe topics like the weather.

But that is a basic betrayal of civic duty. It may maintain friendships, but at the cost of moral questioning and action. Perhaps small topics are best to avoid – but when the big things are at stake – with the nature of the state and the future of the global world hang in the balance, simply not discussing these topics is not an option.

Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, Koestler, and Aron had to take a stand. Their views, voices, and actions mattered. But they found their divergences unmanageable – they could not be friends.

This poses a tremendous challenge to the basic premise of civic life: that each of our voices matter, and that we all must find ways to productive share and debate our views.

The Scale of Society

Deliberative processes work best at the local level. Modern tools make “local” less physically place-bound than it was in the past, but “local” is still a factor in the sense of small groups with some shared…culture – for lack of a better word

Deliberative processes aren’t impossible beyond this scope, but the locality of a discussion is important.

The extent to which a culture is shared by a group, for example, shapes the starting point of discussion. If participants speak different languages, a deliberation needs interpreters and participants need to get used to the cadence of an interpreted discussion. Perhaps this effect vanishes with high-end UN interpreters, but in my experience even simultaneous interpretation requires a little more thought and attention than a conversation in which everyone shares a native language.

Even if people share a language, deliberators may need to understand each other’s metaphors or specific terminology. This, in fact, is one of the things which makes interdisciplinary work so hard.

Finally, the extent to which people share values guides how much deliberation can accomplish. In particularly contentious communities, it is often enough for deliberation to get people to acknowledge each other’s shared humanity. Perhaps we will never agree, but we can still coexist in civil society together. In less contentious settings, deliberators may be able to design policy initiatives or determine budgetary expenditures. More cohesive groups are able to have more tangible outcomes.


Of course, you don’t want people in a deliberative group to have too much in common – deliberation among clones would be a particularly pointless exercise. But diversity of thought, experience, and language comes with real challenges which influence just how much deliberation can and should accomplish.

Locality also effects deliberation in terms of the size of a discussion. I cannot possibly deliberate simultaneously with everyone in my city. A deliberation needs to be “small” in some sense of the word. That smallness can come in the form of a face-to-face interaction, or a long-distance internet-mediated discussion. In larger settings, the intimacy of deliberation can also be accomplished by having a large room full of numerous small-group discussions. But each individual deliberation must be small.

“Good” deliberation, then, is by necessity a very local thing – undertaken by a small group of people and designed for the specific context and needs of that group.

This presents a challenge.

Philosopher Peter Singer urges us to abandon the false image of ourselves as members of a national community, in favor of conceptualizing ourselves as members of a global community. But such a thing is easier said than done.

Singer argues that “though citizens never encounter most of the other members of the nation, they think of themselves as sharing an allegiance to common institutions and values.” Since this is a symbolic association rather than a ‘real’ one driven by personal relationships, it should be simply a matter of mindset to change our symbolic associations to broader ones.


This is an appealing idea, but seems less and less feasible. At a time when national cohesiveness seems to be breaking down – even as nationalist sentiments rise – the vision of a unified world seems further than ever. As my own country becomes more polarized, I’m more inclined to share allegiance with my liberal peers around the world than with the more conservative citizens of my own country. This is not, I believe, the sort of global citizen Singer had in mind. It would be too generous to claim that my allegiance – as Singer calls it – has shifted not because I’ve virtuously come to see myself as part of a global human community. Rather, in an increasingly globalized world, my understanding of who is “like me” is simply different from previous conceptions. It is factions at a global scale.

This ties to the locality of deliberation because, in theory, you could have a small town run entirely deliberatively. I could envision a small community of people – from different backgrounds and even from different languages – effectively self-governing and learning to  thrive with disagreement and civil conflict. Deliberation offers that kind of vision: the opportunity to bring people together, to build something greater than its parts.

But I’m not sure such deliberation could work on a global or even national scale. The scope is just too big.

There’s an increasing need for us to all conceive of ourselves as global citizens, to come together in the joint task of co-creating our world, but perhaps the task is just too great, the scale just too large.

Authenticity and Social Selves

A few months ago, the New York Times ran an op-ed titled, Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice.

As author Adam Grant argues, our “authentic selves” would most likely do and say things that we – and everyone around us – would regret in the morning. Being true to yourself becomes rather ignoble if your authentic self is deeply flawed.

Rather than being authentic, Grant urges that we aim to be sincere. “Instead of searching for our inner selves and then making a concerted effort to express them…Pay attention to how we present ourselves to others, and then strive to be the people we claim to be.”

This is an interesting argument, but I’m not convinced there’s an inconsistency in being true to your authentic self and having a malleable social self.

First, dismissing the value of an authentic self seems to very much come from a position of privilege. If being authentic means nothing more to you than blurting out every thought that passes through your head, then your authentic self does not need to be found.

In Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights, legal scholar Kenji Yoshino examines the disproportional social and legal pressures some people face to hide their authentic selves. And this ‘covering’ can do real, psychological damage. Our laws have come to protect people from certain overt forms of discrimination – you can’t fire someone because of the color of their skin or because of their gender. But, Yoshino points out, you can force them to cover.

You can forbid certain hairstyles, for example. In fact, it’s perfectly legal for employers to ban hairstyles predominately worn by African American women. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell banned service men and women from expressing their sexual identity for nearly 2 decades. Yoshino provides numerous other examples of legal precedent which supports the suppression of minority identities in favor of the norms of white, straight identity. (Yoshino also argues that women face the particular challenge of being told to “act like men” in the workplace while also being told to be ‘feminine’. Employers can even mandate that women wear makeup or otherwise alter their appearance.)

This is what I think of when I hear ‘authentic self.’ I don’t imagine there’s some isolated island of ‘me’ that I need to discover and remain statically true to in order to be virtuous. It means there are some elements of my identity which are fundamental to who I am, and losing those elements or having them submerged by society is harmful to me.

I don’t see such an idea as being in conflict with the idea I’ve been writing about much of this week: that a ‘self’ is more a reflection social interactions than it is an isolated entity.

A self can be co-created and still have distinctive qualities which are worth being authentic to.

I can joke with one group of friends and be serious with another; I can show different sides of myself and express myself in different ways. I can have different types of relationships with different types of people – and I can sometimes even keep my mouth shut so as to not say something inappropriate. None of that is inconsistent with being authentic. None of that is inconsistent with striving to be the best person I can be. And none of that is inconsistent with the idea that the core of who I am is formed, not as some Athena sprung from my head, but mainly by my interactions with others.

Self and Society

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about John Dewey’s argument that humans are intrinsically associated beings; that we form and are formed by others; that, as he wrote in 1927, we must each learn to be human:

To learn to be human is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its beliefs, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers into human resources and values. 

Dewey believed that the marvels of the 20th century created a Great Society, but in order to transform that society into a Great Community we must all recognize ourselves as inherently interconnected and interdependent beings.

So I was struck when I ran across this passage from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s 1945 work Phenomenology of Perception:

I am a psychological and historical structure. Along with existence, I received a way of existing, or a style. All of my actions and thoughts are related to this structure, and even a philosopher’s thought is merely a way of making explicit his hold upon the world, which is all he is. And yet, I am free, not in spite of or beneath these motivations, but rather by their means. For that meaningful life, that particular signification of nature and history that I am, does not restrict my access to the world; it is rather my means of communication with it.

As Sarah Bakewell summarizes in her recent book At the Existentialist Café, Merleau-Ponty believed, “…we cannot thrive without others, or not for long, and we need this especially in early life. This makes solipsistic speculation about the reality of others ridiculous; we could never engage in such speculation if we hadn’t already been formed by them. As Descartes could have said (but didn’t), ‘I think, therefore other people exist.’”

The philosophies of Dewey and Merleau-Ponty stands in notable contrast to much of Western thought, which has more commonly taken “man”, as it were, as an isolated, whole being who by some miracle awoke in this place we call the world.

I can think, therefore I know I exist. I can move my hands, therefore I can prove they exist. But such theories take as a starting point that there is an ‘I’ whose perception and experience can be used for judgement and interpretation of the world. Dewey and Merleau-Ponty seem to argue the opposite – if there is an ‘I’ it is only because the external world does exist. If it were not for the existence of others, ‘I’ would never have come to be.

Perhaps what’s most interesting about these divergent theories are their parallels to child development. A child first becomes aware of themselves, then becomes aware of their influence on the world, and then becomes aware of others as conscious beings. This seems to be a natural course of development. Interestingly, our understanding of dependency seems to run in the opposite direction: a child is very depending on others, an adult proudly independent.

So perhaps it is natural that we first try to understand the world through a centering of the self. That we each imagine ourselves as whole and independent beings, that it is our interpretation of the world which forms reality. And then, gradually we develop as a species to a more interconnected understanding of existence: the world cannot be described by my perception alone, but is formed from the very fabric of our social interactions – from our collective, unique but intertwined, selves.

Symbols and Nationalism

As I discussed yesterday, Walter Lippmann’s viewed ‘public opinion’ as an entirely manufactured entity. On the individual level, we each have our biases and stereotypes which shape how we interpret and interact with the world around us. The thing we call public opinion is formed when elites use symbols to manipulate our individual stereotypes into a collective and relatively cohesive whole.

This leads to Lippmann’s theory of nationalism:

These great symbols posses by transference all the minute and detailed loyalties of an ancient and stereotyped society. They evoke the feeling that each individual has for the landscape, the furniture, the faces, the memories that his first, and in a static society, his only reality. That core of images and devotions without which he is unthinkable to himself, is nationality.

Nationality, then, is perhaps the ultimate stereotype – it is a myth expanded beyond an individual’s view, a shared stereotype which shapes our collective reality. Importantly, we hold these stereotypes not only of other nationalities, but of our own. Indeed, Lippmann argues, such national stereotypes are central to an individual’s identity. It’s little wonder we fight so hard over what it means to be a “real” American.

John Dewey seems to respond almost directly to this point in his 1927 book The Public and It’s Problems. Symbols, he argues, aren’t constructs to be warded against: they are the very thing which make community possible. Symbols “depend upon and promote communication.” Dewey argues:

Events cannot be passed from one to another, but meanings may be shared by means of signs. Wants and impulses are then attached to common meanings. They are thereby transformed into desires and purposes, which, since they implicate a common or mutually understood meaning, present new ties, converting a joint activity into a community of interest and endeavor. Thus there is generated what, metaphorically, may be termed a general will and social consciousness: desire and choice on the part of individuals in behalf of activities that, by means of symbols, are communicable and shared by all concerned.

Lippmann sees ‘public opinion’ as intrinsically a manufactured myth; constructed by elites to create the illusion of national will. Dewey sees the opposite: in the great community, public opinion would be a genuine expression of a people’s shared ethos. This vision builds on Dewey’s broader sense of ideal citizens: each an “individually distinctive” community member indelibly co-created by the citizens and society around them.

It strikes me that these visions are not necessarily at odds.

Consider Dewey’s vision applied to the microcosm of family life. It seems reasonable to argue that a person’s core identity – who they are and what they believe – is deeply shaped by their intimate interactions at a personal family level.

This intricate interconnectedness has implications for the family as a community – families share stories, signs, and symbols. Siblings develop a shared sense of identity. Family members are individual distinctive, yet deeply connected. It is a great community, albeit on a very, very, local level.

If Lippmann’s skepticism of national identity seems more accurate then, if Lippmann is the practical-headed theorists to Dewey’s foolish idealism, it is not necessarily the concept that is wrong, but rather the scale.

When we see a person we don’t know, Lippmann argues, we by necessity see that person as an object which we interpret through out stereotypes. It is contested whether we can ever really truly know another, and it is debatable whether we even truly know ourselves, but surely we can agree that no person has the capacity to truly know all other beings. As Lippmann explains:

In a circle of friends, and in relation to close associates or competitors, there is no shortcut through, and no substitute for an individualized understanding. Those whose whom we love and admire most are the men and women whose consciousness is peopled thickly with persons rather than with types, who know us rather than the classification into which we might fit.  For even without phrasing it to ourselves, we feel intuitively that all classification is in relation to some purpose not necessarily our own; that between two human beings no association has final dignity in which each does not take the other as an end in himself. There is a taint on any contact between two people which does not affirm as an axiom the personal inviolability of both.

Thus, we might each divide the world into two circles: one is the intimate circle of people we know and who know us, those few “whose consciousness is peopled thickly with persons rather than with types.” Into the other circle we dump everyone else, not as an intrinsic judgement, but rather a practical matter. For all those “others” – the mass of humanity – we are left with little choice but to interpret their existence as best we can economically: through heuristics, stereotypes, and bias.

Dewey would like to see us consider all people as intimately and humanely as we consider our family; Lippmann argues that is just not possible.

Lippmann may have the practical edge in this debate, but throughout his work he overlooks a key detail: a critical reason we should not be satisfied with his model.

Lippmann argues that the myth of public opinion is what does the public harm. That symbols and nationalism are little more than tools for elite manipulation. I am inclined to agree with him on this point.

But his solutions to this practical reality assume a just society. If all people have equal power and standing; if it makes little difference whether most people ‘other’ me because an intimate few do not; if society really were a collection of identical objects which we each view through our own narrow lens, then perhaps Lippmann’s practical vision would do.

But the fact is, through our biases and stereotypes we do far worse than divide the world into an intimate circle of acquaintances and a mass of unknown person.

Rather we divide the world up into numerous circles of concern. We care more, generally speaking, for people who are “more like us.” White Americans are inclined to care more for white Americans than for Americans of color; to care more for Americans than for foreigners; and to care more for the citizens of white nations than for others around the world. This is problematic and can have devastating repercussions.

As Peter Singer points out, some of this prioritizing may be justifiable – loving your children more than a stranger, for example, is hardly something to be discouraged. But passed family and close friendships, Singer argues that the moral justification for these circles of concern breaks down.

Particularly, odd, Singer finds, is the fervent embrace of nationalism. For all the reasons discussed above, it makes sense to love those people you know personally. But nationalism brings this love to abstraction:

Though citizens never encounter most of the other members of the nation, they think of themselves as sharing an allegiance to common institutions and values, such as a constitution, democratic procedures, principals of toleration, the separation of church and state, and the rule of law.

Here we get back to Lippmann’s signs and symbols. Nationalism created by a false sense of shared identity.

Lippmann offers little solution but to recognize this sense as a falsehood. To disempower ‘public opinion’ and to recognize it as little more than a construct.

Dewey wants to make this shared sense have real meaning – building a global great community of mutually interdependent beings.

Singer for his part, takes a somewhat different tack. We have a constructed sense of national identity, which is false and ultimately meaningless, he argues – but it does bring a beneficial sense of community. Perhaps we cannot achieve a Deweyian vision of great interdependence, and perhaps we cannot simply destroy the constructs which govern our lives. But we can, he argues, push those circles of concern outwards.

We can reimagine ourselves not as citizens of a nation, but as citizens of the world.

Symbols, Stereotypes, and Power

Walter Lippmann was very concerned about the inaccessibly of Truth. “The facts we see depend on where we are placed and the habits of our eyes,” he wrote in his 1921 work, Public Opinion.

He repeats this concern numerous times. “We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception.”

Lippmann, an American journalist with an intimate familiarity with propaganda and war-time rhetoric, had reason to be concerned. “Rationally, the facts are neutral to all our views of right and wrong. Actually, our canons determine greatly what we shall perceive and how.”

Lippmann’s concern is perhaps most concisely expressed as Bent Flyvbjerg’s more recent axiom: power is knowledge.

We each have a unique experience of the world, and we each filter our experiences through our constructed stereotypes of meaning.

Lippmann, in fact, coined the word stereotype. Writing in Public Opinion:

In untrained observation, we pick recognizable signs out of the environment. The signs stand for ideas, and these ideas we fill out with our stock of images. We do not so much see this man and that sunset, rather we notice that the thing is a man or sunset, and then see chiefly what our mind is already full of on those subject.

There is economy in this. For the attempt to see all things freshly and in detail, rather than as types and generalities, is exhausting, and among busy affairs practically out of the question…Modern life is hurried and multifarious, above all physical distance separates men who are often in vital contact with each other, such as employer and employee, official and voter. There is neither time nor opportunity for intimate acquaintance. Instead, we note a trait which marks a well-known type and fill in the rest of the picture by means of the stereotypes we carry about in our heads. He is an agitator. That much we notice or are told. Well, an agitator is this sort of person, and so he is this sort of person. He is an intellectual. He is a plutocrat. He is a foreigner. He is a ‘Southern European.’ He is from Back Bay. He is a Harvard Man. How different from the statement: he is a Yale Man. He is a regular fellow. He is a West Pointer. He is an old army sergeant. He is a Greenwich Villager: what don’t we know about him then, and about her? He is an international banker. He is from Main Street.

These stereotypes – helpful heuristics which help us make sense of a busy world – are comforting. “They are an ordered, ore or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves,” Lippmann writes. “We feel at home there. We fit in there. We are members. We know our way around.”

It is perhaps because of this comfort that we cling so desperately to our stereotypes.

Lippmann remarks that what matters is “the character of the stereotypes and the gullibility with which we employ them.” That those who hold the wise philosophy “that each man is only a small part of the world, that his intelligence catches at best only phases and aspects in a coarse net of ideas,” are more likely to “to know that they are only stereotypes, to hold them lightly, to modify them gladly.” But this is easier said than done.

Our stereotypes are such a familiar comfort that “any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of our universe, and where big things are at stake, we do not readily admit that there is any distinction between our universe and the universe.”

Thus, even the wise intellectual, aware of their own stereotypes and open to altering them, may easily make the mistake of taking individual truths to be universal truths; and to take those individual truths to be self-evident.

“What is alien will be rejected, what is different will fall upon unseeing eyes. We do not see what our eyes are not accustomed to take into account. Sometimes consciously, more often without knowing it, we are impressed by those facts which fit our philosophy,” Lippmann warns.

These stereotypes, “loaded with preferences, suffused with affection or dislike, attached to fears, lusts, strong wishes, pride, hope” can then be evoked by manipulative elites through the use of symbols.

“The detached observer may scorn the ‘star-spangled’ ritual which hedges the symbol,” Lippmann writes, “…but the leader knows by experience that only which symbols have done their work is there a handle he can use to move a crowd. In the symbol emotion is discharged at a common target, and the idiosyncrasy of real ideas blotted out.”

Lippmann is widely considered to be an elitist – marked by his fear of how easily the “bewildered heard” of the masses are manipulated – but I’ve tended towards a kinder reading. If the public cannot be trusted, it is because elites are corrupt, because those with power actively seek to shape the knowledge and beliefs of the public at large.

Flyvbjerg’s warning “power is knowledge” gets at exactly that point. Power defines reality. Power determines what knowledge enters the public domain and how that knowledge is presented. As  Flyvbjerg writes in a detailed urban planning study, “Rationality is penetrated by power, and it becomes meaningless, or misleading – for politicians, administrators, and researchers alike – to operate with a concept of rationality in which power is absent.”

So perhaps it is to be expected that those with power will deploy symbols to keep the masses in thrall, and perhaps it is to be expected that such magic tricks have great effect. It is not, inherently, the people who are flawed, it is the system. Power is knowledge and power defines reality.



The Self and the Great Community

John Dewey saw democracy as an ideal expression of associated living.

That’s a bit of an understatement though, because for Dewey, democracy is much more than “a special political form, a method of conducting government, of making laws and carrying on governmental administration.” Such institutions are an element of democracy, but fundamentally, Dewey argued,  democracy is a way of life.

To Dewey, democracy is recognizing “the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in formation of the values that regulate the living of men together: which is necessary from the standpoint of both the general social welfare and the full development of human beings as individuals.”

This concept of democracy is deeply tied to Dewey’s understanding of humanity. Indeed, Dewey argued, democracy is the process through which people learn to be human – and being human is the process through which people exercise democracy.  As he eloquently described in The Public and its Problems:

To learn to be human is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its beliefs, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers into human resources and values. 

I’m particularly struck here by Dewey’s vision of the democratic citizen as one who perceives themselves as an “individually distinctive member of a community.” Dewey clearly embraces the idea of “I” as unique and self-aware being, and yet there’s something in his language which nods to a broader understanding of “self.”

He goes on to talk about the illusion of a false psychology:

…Current philosophy held that ideas and knowledge were functions of a mind or consciousness which originated in individuals by means of isolated contact with objects. But in fact, knowledge is a function of association and communication; it depends upon tradition, upon tools and methods socially transmitted, developed and sanctioned. 

Associated living, Dewey argued, is “physical and organic,” but communal life – embracing the “self” not strictly as an isolated being, but as a being created by and reflective of its many associations – is moral: it is “emotionally, intellectually, consciously sustained.”

We differentiate humanity from animals by celebrating our consciousness, by claiming that we alone have the capacity to recognize that there is an “I” and by embracing self-awareness as a distinctively human trait.

Perhaps this is not far enough.

Not only is it unlikely that self-awareness is a uniquely human capacity, but it fails to capture humanity’s true gift. Dewey writes, “For beings whose ideas are absorbed by impulses and become sentiments and interests, ‘we’ is as inevitable as ‘I’.”

In short, “self” is not the unit we should be thinking in. There is a self, Dewey seems to argue; there is something about ‘me’ which is uniquely distinctive from ‘you’. But my self and your self are not as unique an independent as we might imagine. We are intricately tied up, interconnected, and interdependent. I cannot exist without you. I make you and you make me.

We are each of us, indelibly, co-created.

Recognizing and embracing that interdependence is what makes Dewey’s Great Community possible. Our biology ensures that we are associated beings – a baby, after all, cannot survive on its own. But through conscious and intellectual decisions, by recognizing that it is not only our fates but our very beings which are intertwined, we make communities.

We are far from achieving this yet – certainly terribly far from it on a global scale. As Dewey writes, “the old Adam, the unregenerate element in human nature, persist. It shows itself wherever the method obtains of attaining results by use of force instead of by the method of communication and enlightenment. It manifests itself more subtly, pervasively and effectually when knowledge and the instrumentalities of skill which are the product of communal life are employed in the service of wants and impulses which have not themselves been modified by reference to a shared interest.”

Yes, the old Adam persists. We hang doggedly to the idea that I have made my own way and that there is an isolated ‘I’ which has a way to make. We forget that we are fundamentally associated beings, and we underestimate the pockets of community collectively built. The old Adam persists, but a new vision is slowly taking its place; an awaking to ourselves as individually distinctive member of a community. Distinctive, perhaps, but inextricably intertwined.