Useful Concepts – #11 – Feelings Have Thoughts Too!

Philosophers have not gained a reputation for being greatly in touch with their feelings. “Being philosophical” about something means rationally processing it without getting too swayed by emotions.

But amongst the philosophers, it is the Stoics who are particularly thought to be unemotional. They are sometimes seem as not quite human, somewhat robotic, in their  ambition to maintain equanimity in the face of events that would, in normal people, cause great emotion, positive or negative.

And indeed the Stoics taught that things like riches or poverty, health or illness, our relationships with loved ones, even life or death, are outside of our control and so we shouldn’t consider them to be too important. They are merely indifferent items. The only things that matter are our inner qualities or our virtuous character. For the kind of calm state of mind that could be achieved by applying that kind of thinking to life, they have the image of the flat undisturbed sea on a windless day (“galene” in Ancient Greek).

So it may come as a surprise that Martha Nussbaum – with her 57 honorary degrees and 18 academic awards and prizes a rockstar of the philosophical world – has revived the Stoic teachings on emotions to create a highly persuasive account of what emotions are, and, of course, a very useful concept. That account also smashes the traditional way of thinking of thought and feeling as diametrically opposed.

Unlike some philosophical writing, which can be technical, dry and removed from life as we know it, Martha Nussbaum’s book about the emotions starts with a heart-rending biographical account of how she heard of the death of her mother and the days that followed. It also manages to deal with some things that most people contemplate quietly within themselves, such as why she and her sister grieved in different ways, and so on. All in the service of making philosophical points.

The basic point of Nussbaum’s so-called neo-Stoic account of the emotions is that emotions are basically judgements we make about things that are important to our own well-being, or flourishing. In evaluating external things, things outside of our control, as important to our well-being we also acknowledge our lack of self-sufficiency.

The idea that emotions may actually be evaluative judgements seems at first glance unlikely for a number of reasons:

1.) Emotions have urgency and “heat” to them, unlike the rational thought processes that more normally lead to judgements.

2.) Emotions tend to overcome us. We are passive with regard to them, rather than actively pursuing a thought process that would lead to a judgement.

3.) The ability of emotions to “dismember the self” (in Nussbaum’s words) when thoughts are normally thought to be (more or less) under our control.

Let’s take these objections in turn with Nussbaum’s explanation:

1.) Urgency and heat: Emotions feel urgent because they are judgements about things we think are important to our wellbeing and flourishing. They are not just any kind of judgment, but judgements that are central to our most valued attachments, projects and goals. Fear is the emotion where we judge something central to our wellbeing to be threatened. Sadness is the emotion where we judge something central to our wellbeing to be lost. Joy is the emotion where we judge it to be available. And so on. Because of their connection to our view of what would be a good life for us, they create urgency.

2.) Our passivity regarding emotions: This comes from the fact that emotions are judgements about objects in which we are invested but which are outside of our control. (There are echoes here of the Stoic view that nothing apart from our character is under our control.) Things happen. We can’t help but notice that they happen and make the relevant judgements about how they affect our flourishing.

3.) The self being torn apart: Quoting Nussbaum:

“the reason why in some emotional experiences the self feels torn apart (and in happier experiences filled with a marvellous sense of wholeness) is, once again, that these are transactions with a world about which we care deeply, a world that can complete us or tear us apart. No view that makes the emotion like a physical object hitting us can do justice to the way the world enters into the self in emotion, with enormous power to wound or to heal. For it enters in a cognitive way, in our perceptions and beliefs about what matters. Not just an arm or a leg, but a sense of life, gets  the shock or grief.

Insofar then, as we might sometimes be more affected or more aware of the emotions we are feeling than the judgements we are making, emotions then – in this neo-Stoic view – can also serve as a guide to a greater understanding of our thought processes and our conception of the good life for ourselves. It is a rewarding exercise, in times when we feel emotional, to try to unearth the evaluative judgement about our sense of flourishing and wellbeing at the core of the emotion. Stopping to ask “what judgement about my wellbeing am I making that is inherent in feeling happy, sad, fearful, confident right now?” may seem a bit overly Stoic, but it works and can be useful.

As a postscript for those who enjoyed the examples of (mis-)adventures of intellectuals commenting on tennis players in my previous post about Roger Federer, in researching this post, I found another great example from Martha Nussbaum:

“Two night ago, I went to bed thinking that Todd Martin had been knocked out of the U. S. Open (since he had lost the first two sets to a tough opponent.) I felt a little sad. When I woke up, I found out that he had won in five sets. I saw him on TV dancing around the court, and I felt a surge of joy. But of course it was a trivial sorrow and a trivial joy. While one watches a tennis match, one is intensely focused on the athlete one likes, and so an emotion can develop as one temporarily comes to think the match very important – and perhaps also identifies with the aging Martin, with his graying temples, so like one’s own if one did not dye one’s hair. But when normal life resumes, the evaluation resumes its normal low level. Todd Martin just isn’t a very important part of my life.

Useful Concepts -#10- Lawrence of Arabia’s Trick

Here’s a scene from one of my favourite films:

LAWRENCE: Allow me to ignite your cigarette.

He strikes one of the SERGEANT’S matches and lights the CORPORAL’S cigarette. Then, he extinguishes the match by very slowly closing his finger and thumb upon the flame, his face very attentive the while. It is a trick the other two have evidently seen before but which evidently still fascinates.

SERGEANT (dispassionately): You’ll do that once to often. It’s only flesh and blood.

LAWRENCE returns to his work, murmuring: Why, Michael George Hartley, you’re a philosopher.

CORPORAL (amiably): You’re barmy.


The CORPORAL is preoccupied with a burning match which he proceeds to extinguish between his fingers.

CORPORAL: Ow! (Indignantly) It damn well ‘urts!

LAWRENCE: Certainly it hurts.

CORPORAL (cajoling): Well what’s the trick then?

LAWRENCE: The trick, William Potter, is not minding if it hurts.

I have not been able to find any evidence that this scene depicts anything that TE Lawrence used to do or say. Though there is certainly evidence that the scene is consistent with some of his actions and strongly held beliefs.

So, for example, one of his biographers, Robert Graves tells us about Lawrence’s behaviour at the time Lawrence was supporting the Arab Revolt:

“A few days later Lawrence began hardening himself for his coming campaign, tramping barefoot over the coral or burning-hot sand. The Arabs wondered why he did not ride a horse, like every other important man.”

From another biographer, John E. Mack, we have evidence that TE Lawrence also advised other people not to express grief or pain. After TE Lawrence’s brother Frank was killed in the first World War, Lawrence wrote to his mother:

“If you only knew that if one thinks deeply about anything one would rather die than say anything about it. You know men do nearly all die laughing, because they know death is very terrible, and a thing to be forgotten till after it has come.

There, put that aside, and bear a brave face to the world about Frank. In a time of such fearful stress in our country it is one’s duty to watch very carefully lest one of the weaker ones be offended: and you know we were always the stronger, and if they see you broken down they will all grow fearful about their ones at the front.”

Or how about this scene? On one campaign in the desert, Lawrence noticed that one of the men, Gasim, was missing and the man’s camel was found riderless. Despite the risks to himself and his entire undertaking, Lawrence turns back to retrace the day’s journey to find him. Eventually he does. The man is confused, nearly blinded by exposure to sun and dehydrated. After Lawrence gives him water and puts him on a camel, Gasim moans and cries about the pain and thirst. Robert Graves describes the scene that ensues:

“Lawrence told him to stop, but he would not and sat huddled loosely so that at each step of the camel he bumped down on her hind-quarters. This and his crying spurred her on to greater speed. Lawrence was afraid that she might founder, and again told him to stop, but Gasim only screamed the louder. Then Lawrence struck him and swore that if he made another sound he would be pushed off and abandoned. He kept quiet then.”

So Lawrence’s trick could be read as being simply about the repression of pain and suffering. Certainly some of his biographers have found plenty of opportunities to interpret his actions, words and demeanour as repressed pain and traumatic experiences coming to the fore. But, much as some aspects of his life suggest psychological symptoms of things he didn’t deal with fully, a strategy of pure repression doesn’t fit with what we know of the deeply introspective man who was given to psychological self-examination and wrote about himself and his motives openly in letters and in his book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Still, if it was the case that Lawrence’s trick was purely about not giving voice to pain, he might still have some support, even in these times of public outpourings of grief, social media oversharing and celebrities baring all their emotions, from people who reckon that the immediate expression of our feelings following traumatic experiences isn’t as helpful as is widely thought.

In his book Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, Timothy Wilson writes about the evidence for the effectiveness of a widely applied method of treating people who have suffered traumatic experiences, Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD):

“The premise of CISD is that when people have experienced a traumatic event they should air their feelings as soon as possible, so that they don’t bottle up these feelings and develop post-traumatic stress disorder. In a typical CISD session, which lasts three to four hours, participants are asked to describe the traumatic event from their own perspective, express their thoughts and feelings about the event, and relate any physical or psychological symptoms they are experiencing. A facilitator emphasizes that it is normal to have stressful reactions to traumatic events, gives stress management advice, answers questions, and assesses whether participants need any additional services.”

But actually when it was properly studied, it turned out that people who have undergone CISD have more post-traumatic stress disorder, were more anxious and depressed and less content with their lives. Wilson concludes that “making people undergo CISD right after a trauma impedes the natural healing process and might even ‘freeze’ memories of the event.” Another approach, championed by Wilson turns out to be more effective: Instead of debriefing the traumatised person, “we could ask him to complete, on four consecutive nights, a simple exercise in which he [or she] writes down his [or her] deepest thoughts and emotions about the experience and how it relates to the rest of his [or her] life. That’s it—no meetings with trained facilitators, no stress management advice—just a writing exercise.” As it happens the conclusion about the writing exercise is more positive:

“In the short run, people typically find it painful to express their feelings about traumatic experiences. But as time goes by, those who do so are better off in a number of respects. They show improvements in immune-system functioning, are less likely to visit physicians, get better grades in college, and miss fewer days of work.”

The point here then is not to repress painful experiences, but neither is it just to express pain, whether in a controlled or uncontrolled way.

“Not minding if it hurts” is exactly the point. “Minding” suggests letting the mind do its work with something, in this case with the pain. Letting the mind take a grip of it, churn it around, amplify it, crystallise it,  freeze it. The trick is not minding.

But neither the historical, nor the Lawrence of the film knew about these studies. Here are three points about dealing with pain that we can see from Lawrence’s biography which may amount to TE Lawrence’s trick:

  • Practising the endurance of pain in small ways when you don’t have to, so that you’re better able to endure it when you’re forced to. This is what TE Lawrence was doing when he was walking on the burning sand. In that way he endured in a small way the thing that he must have endured in a massive way during his famous desert marches, days spent in the desert. On one of these occasions, according to Robert Graves

When he started he was very weak with dysentery brought on by drinking the bad water at Wejh: he had a high temperature and also boils on his back which made camel-riding painful. With a party of thirteen men […] he set out at dawn through the granite mountains on his hundred-and-fifty-mile ride. He had two fainting fits on the way and could hardly keep in the saddle.

  • Being mindful of the impact that expressions of pain or grief could have on others. His treatment of Gasim seems cruel and inhumane. In order not to panic a camel, Lawrence threatens a human being who spent a day suffering physical and mental anguish with further pain and possible death.  But that inhumane treatment might have stemmed precisely from the belief in the ability of the human being to do otherwise than simply expressing the pain that he was suffering in the moment, while the animal can’t help but act on the cries it hears. The same principle is also in evidence in Lawrence’s advice to his mother not to show her grief at a son’s death openly, in case it makes others worry over “their ones at the front.”
  • That ability to do otherwise stems from a fundamental understanding of what it means to be a human being. TE Lawrence wrote in 1927:

“It’s my experience that the actual work or position or reward one has, doesn’t have much effect on the inner being which is the important thing for us to cultivate.”

This belief in an inner being that is untouched by external conditions – pain or freedom from pain, comfort or discomfort, life or death – looks fundamentally Stoic to me. But Lawrence also saw it in the culture and beliefs of his companions in the desert campaigns, and in the desert environment itself:

“The common base of all Semitic creeds, winners or losers, was the ever present ideal of world-worthlessness.”

“The desert Arab found no joy like the joy of voluntarily holding back. He found luxury in abnegation, renunciation, self-restraint… His desert was made a spiritual ice-house, in which was preserved intact but unimproved for all ages a vision of the unity of God.”


Should We Let the Change Curve Rest in Peace?

A lot has been written about why change programmes fail. But the fact that some of the fundamental things change managers are taught about change are decidedly dodgy often evades blame.

You don’t have to be in any kind of management training for very long until someone starts talking about the change curve. This is the idea that people who experience any kind of organisational change go through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining and depression before they reach acceptance of the change and potentially even enthusiasm. While they are going through these stages they feel progressively worse about the change, so the theory goes, though ultimately – after they reach the acceptance stage – they will be happier. The work of the skilled few who are change managers then is gently to nudge the naturally “change resistant” many all the way along to the sunny uplands of change acceptance.

The change curve is based on the work of the Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who described the “five stages of grief” in her bestseller On Death and Dying. I’m sure she did some good things to raise awareness of the increasingly depersonalised treatment of dying patients in the modern world. (Among other things, she described how patients more or less disappeared as individuals among the machines they were linked up to, with the medical establishment caring more about the data they could read off the machines than about the needs of the patient. This was in 1969, five years before Robert Nozick envisaged human beings as indeterminate blobs hooked up to experience machines.) I’m sure she also did some good things for hospice care and for grief counselling.

But the psychological establishment has long been suspicious of her teachings. (I would know. My mother told me.) The mundane reason for that was that her findings about the five stages weren’t replicable in other studies. Even she herself regretted later in life that she had expressed the five stages as a relatively rigorous framework for grieving and said it wasn’t meant like that. Many grieving people, according to her later statements only go through at most two of the five stages, or so.

But there was plenty of other stuff of which to be suspicious. At some point in the seventies she started believing that death wasn’t really a thing and arranged for spiritual mediums to channel communications with the dead at her care centre Shanti Nilaya (Indian names must have helped credibility in the seventies). At least one of her favoured mediums got into trouble for sexual misdemeanours. (These took place during his sessions to put widows in touch with their deceased husbands.) When someone flicked a light switch during one of these sessions that clearly needed to be held in the dark, the medium turned out to be presiding over the whole thing entirely naked with the exception of a turban on his head. (That was probably around the same time at which the Tibetan monk, spiritual master, alcoholic and chaos merchant Chögyam Trungpa aimed to help people in their spiritual development by forcing them to strip naked during parties.)

Despite the fact that the model of the five stages of grieving was disowned by its own creator as a rigorously applicable model and denounced by experts more widely, it lingers on in management training, like the spirit of a dead person haunting the living.

Now, it could be argued that, even if it doesn’t apply to the dying or the grieving, it still happens to apply quite well to those experiencing organisational change. But I don’t believe anyone has provided any empirical evidence for that. The model is only ever invoked with its Kübler-Rossian credentials even after those have expired. Even if it wasn’t for that, there are other reasons we should be suspicious of it:

First, a kind of obvious point, that experiencing organisational change, that is to say, in most cases, getting used to new processes, using different systems or working under a changed culture is in no way like the death of a friend or relative. We could quaintly imagine some people so attached to the way they do their jobs that any change feels like a death but I don’t think there’s anything in that. It’a a pretty patronising rationalisation of why the “change resistant” are the way they are. The death of a person in pretty absolute. It doesn’t even make sense to say change – for some people – is like the death of a loved one, though less so. When it comes to the death of a person, then if something seems quantitatively less so, it’s probably qualitatively different.

Second, perhaps the main point, change is dynamic. It’s an illusion to think that there is a point at which you can say, the change has happened, now it’s time for everyone just to move along the change curve and embrace it. Change has to keep happening through ongoing conversations and communication, through ongoing effort to implement it, otherwise it won’t happen.

Take, for example, change in the form of political events. A country has decided in a referendum by a relatively narrow margin to leave a political, economic and cultural union it had been part of, and helped construct, for decades. While the referendum result is binding on everyone, it would be wrong and undemocratic to expect that those who argued against this change should just stop having their views and beliefs. It would be wrong to expect them not to want to test the legal, economic and political implications. It would be wrong to expect them not to question every detail of future policy on matters such as immigration, trade, the environment and so on. While they can be asked to accept the outcome of the democratically held referendum and must do so, clearly we would expect them to want to ensure that their values and interests are represented in the way that the decision to change course is implemented over years to come.

Neither would we expect those on the “winning” side simply to be able to sit back and see the change happen. They will have to continue to make the case, flesh out the vision for the future, solve a myriad technical issues and continue to fight for the optimal interpretation of the expressed will of the people. They are expected to be able to show that their plans are legal, that they can offer a compelling idea of the future and to meet all of the concerns they now face. They need to engage people widely, make use of a broad range of talents and keep providing leadership. They need to do all of these things, rather than spend time trying to jog some people along a change curve, imagining that it is merely the psychological hang-ups of those who hold opposed views that keep them stuck on a downward change curve and prevent them from embracing the change.

While this is a macrocosm of fairly big political change, the same would also apply in the microcosm of organisational change. The job of the change manager starts, it doesn’t end, with the decision to make changes, or even with the development of a positive vision for a future end state. He or she needs to keep communicating the rationale for change, engage people in working out the detailed problems and solutions that will be encountered, have answers to questions or a way to work them out.

Of course it is much easier to just frame the whole situation as a case of change enthusiasts being hampered by the change resistant who are stuck in one of a standard five stages. But to do that would be to misunderstand the task of driving change until it is implemented.

Useful Concepts – #9 – Experience Machines

Quite possibly the first use of the adjective “superduper” in philosophical literature occurred in the mid-1970s in this paragraph by Robert Nozick:

“Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life’s experiences of, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?”

Nozick gives three answers:

  1. We want to do certain things, rather than just have the experience of doing them. (But even Nozick asks, but why?)
  2. We want to be a certain way, to be a certain person. If we plug in, we’re just an “indeterminate blob.” Nozick asks, is the person in the tank courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, loving? How could we know? How could they be?
  3. Plugging in “limits us to a man-made reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct. There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated.”

The experience machine has created a whole literature, not to mention any number of sci-fi films. People have worked out variants, for example where you never emerge from the machine until your biological death, in order to get rid of the idea that you could ever become conscious of spending a lot of time just being a body in a tank, and so on.

People argue over whether Nozick got the right reasons to reject the machine. Some people may also take pleasure in the intellectual bravado of saying that they would plug in, that they see no reasons not to. That would be a typically annoying undergraduate posture to take up. (I’d know, I did for a whole afternoon. It was many years ago.)

The ongoing discussion just shows how great a concept the experience machine is. But the rejection of it, for most people who aren’t undergraduates in philosophy, is immediate and from the gut. (Not every belief or conviction that is instinctive and intuitive is necessarily right, though this one is.)

Experience machines exist, of course, and many of us plug ourselves in quite willingly. Some of those superduper people, for example, can help us flood our brains with a  bitter, white crystalline purine, a methylxanthine alkaloid that is chemically related to the adenine and guanine bases of deoxyribonucleic acid and ribonucleic acid. This blocks the action of adenosine on its receptor in the brain and stimulates the autonomic nervous system. It makes us less drowsy, more alert, physically faster and better co-ordinated. It can increase our heart rate and pulse. You’ll be aware of course, that we don’t have to plug into electrodes and float in a tank for this. And the superduper people aren’t neuropsychologists, but more likely baristas. This experience machine is just a regular cup of coffee.

But physical symptoms and mental states are a two-way street. Research has shown, for example, that, even when you feel you have no reasons to, you can smile for a while and your mood will improve, or you can clench your fist for a while and that can make you more aggressive. And so this experience machine can give us the impression that we’re well rested and refreshed (not in any way drowsy or tired) or that we’re facing an amazing, interesting experience (alertness, fast pulse) or a fight-or-flight type situation (heart beating faster, sudden alertness) even when it’s just a routine Monday morning and we’re on our way to the day-job.

There is, of course, also the type of organic compound in which the hydroxyl functional group is bound to a saturated carbon atom. This is an experience machine that can give us the desirable experience of being socially less inhibited, much more certain that other people find us entertaining and generally convinced that we’re all round great people. It can be ingested in pleasant-tasting drinks like wine and beer.

And anyone who has ever seen a small child on a sugar rush may also find it easy to believe that sugar provides a desirable experience of enjoyment and mental energy, not least by activating dopamine in the brain in a way that is similar to stronger drugs.

I’ll call things like coffee or alcohol  “mini experience machines.” After all, the effect lasts a much shorter time than a session in the superduper neuropsychologists’ floatation tank experience would. And it gives us not so much a whole set of new experiences that are wholly separate to what we’re doing and who we are, but it puts a little layer of, say, additional (alternative) reality, over and above that reality.

I’m not saying that coffee, alcohol and sugar are therefore bad things or that we need to reject them with the instinctive vehemence with which we would reject the idea of plugging into an experience machine. But it probably helps to be aware of the “experience machine light” effect of such things.

I also find some of the tools some of us work with are a bit like experience machines in that they give us an interface to interact with the world in a way that, as much as possible, reduces reality to things that pop up on a screen. So I know that people want to give me some information or want me to do something in something like the following way (that’s not my real inbox, by the way):

I  can have conversations and exchanges with lots of people and all the while I’m just “plugged in” to a screen.

So, in fact, there may be lots of mini experience machines that interact in various ways to put layers of differing experiences across “real” life on a day-by-day basis. And although we may not have the same reasons to reject these mini experience machines – after all, they are more time-limited, localised in terms of their effect and less intrusive in the way we can link up to them – maybe we should aim to be suspicious of them, particularly if we’re veering to more extended use (both in terms of timing or in terms of range of experience), so if one or more of the following are true:

  1. We use them in high doses, frequently or on a daily basis.
  2. They give us experiences that we worry we wouldn’t otherwise have enough of in our lives – excitement, connection, attention, confidence, mental energy.
  3. We would be forced to live our lives differently, if we didn’t have them.
  4. We couldn’t function properly in our daily lives without them.

But since I’ve declared so many things mini experience machines, would we even know whether we’re using them too much?

First of all, it is possible to take stock of the mini experience machines we use. We can then try not using them. Or, if that is too difficult, we could ask, what would the consequence be for the way I live my life, if I didn’t plug into this experience machine? How would I have to deal with the tiredness or the lack of challenges in my reality if I didn’t have coffee to simulate alertness? Why am I so inhibited when meeting people that I need alcohol to have its effect? What energy rush or feelings of enjoyment would I like that I currently take from sugar rushes?

And presumably, finding out about these things is what lots of people do these days when they sit down and pay attention to their breathing, to their mind and their thoughts with minimal stimulation from mini experience machines or communication technologies (particularly first thing in the morning when the body has processed all the ingested experience machines from the previous day). Maybe then they can listen to the real experience and find out if the like it, or not.

Or it may be away from screens in green spaces and in nature surrounded by other life forms who are less prone to plug into experience machines. Or it may be something we do while deeply involved in community, voluntary or religious activities. (These practices, by the way, have all been demonstrated to increase wellbeing.) They may also all help us to access the things in Nozick’s three reasons for rejecting experience machines:

  1. We may gain a better understanding of what we are doing in our lives, rather than just having the experience of doing them.
  2. We can ask ourselves and learn about what kind of person we are or want to be (rather than being an indeterminate blob).
  3. And we may even access a world that is deeper or more important “than that which people can construct.”



Useful Concepts – #8 – Just Going for It

The first thing to be aware of is the so-called “paradox of choice.” This provides the background for some useful concepts for making decisions. The paradox is that we expect more choice to be better for us and to make us happier but it doesn’t. Psychologists have found that once we have too much choice, say 24 flavours of jam or types of breakfast cereal rather than 4, we become less able to choose, more worried about the consequences of our choice, more likely to be stressed out about making the choice, potentially even anxious about whether we’ll regret it, and eventually less happy with our choice in retrospect.

Of course there are strategies and techniques for dealing with the problem of too much choice. For example, there’s the distinction between optimising and satisficing. Optimising is a strategy whereby you keep considering further options until you’ve convinced yourself that you have the best one. Satisficing is a decision-making approach whereby you set yourself some criteria that have to be fulfilled, and as soon as you find an option that fulfils them, you go for it. So, if you’re dining out and choosing a main course from a menu, you might set yourself the criteria green, vegetarian and rich in carbs and as soon as you arrive at the spaghetti al pesto, you look no further.

Beyond the strategies and techniques, there are useful insights from the philosophy of practical reason. This looks at what it means to have reasons for action or to act on reasons. When I read certain philosophers on this subject, I can’t help having the image in my head that we are like characters in one of those video game where you walk through an environment and jump to avoid a hole in the ground, duck to avoid flying objects, or swerve to collect objects for bonus points. In those games, if you fail to take the right action, you may lose a life. If you take it skilfully, you get bonus points or reach the next level. Much like real life then.

Let’s accept then that as rational animals we just are responsive to certain features of the world we live in which are reasons for action. They are not in any way magical entities. Having a bottle of water available when we are thirsty could be a reason to drink it.  Seeing someone who looks lost or distressed may be a reason to help them. Wanting to improve our health and fitness may be a reason to go to a gym.

But here’s a minor difficulty: our environment is a bit more complex than that of a video game. That’s partly because there is no reason to believe that the world is designed in such a way that in any given situation there is just one reason available to us that is the right one for us to act on. There may be many reasons available to us and some of them may be reasons for actions that are mutually exclusive.

So, say for example, that in the past I promised to visit a friend on a given day. That is a reason to make a visit. But – assume I’m also a tennis obsessive – at the same time suddenly and surprisingly someone gives me a ticket to see the Wimbledon finals. Now I have a reason to do that. So now I have a dilemma. Some people might say that the reason provided by a promise I made trumps the prospect of the relatively selfish pleasure of watching a game of tennis. (But you could imagine that my visit could be easily re-arranged, that my friend had alternative things to do and is quite happy not to be visited, that the tennis was going to be the last public appearance of a great player…) And the dilemma could just as easily be between two strong moral reasons for doing something.

These dilemmas caused by competing reasons can be large, serious and to some extent painful. But they can also be positive. Once or twice people have come to me and said things like: “I need advice. I really don’t know what to do. I’ve been offered a new job, but then my current job is also getting really interesting and there may be an opportunity for promotion here…” The first thing to understand is that these are not desperate, overwhelming situations in which it is necessarily the case that one choice is right and the other wrong. When seen in perspective a positive dilemma is actually a relatively pleasant situation to be in. It is a mistake to think that just because we are asked to choose between alternatives, one must be right and the other wrong. Or just because we have several options, they can be ranked in order of goodness and one is clearly the best. The strength of the reasons available to act upon may not even be measurable by the same yardstick. Again, there just is no reason to assume that the world is organised for us in such a simple way.

So maybe what we need is some useful concepts to help us with the fact that reasons for action can pull us in different directions at the same time. Here are some of them.

1. Just doing something: This is a favourite of mine. Once we understand that the world is not organised in a way that guarantees that there is always a right choice and only ever exactly one, and once we have acquired a feel for what it’s like to be in such a situation, it is easier to just do something. In philosophical literature this is sometimes inelegantly described as “plumping” for a choice. This is definitely valid for times where we run out of further criteria or reasons to choose one way over another. (It may be more advisable for relatively trivial choices.)

2. Paying attention to the ‘remainder’ and dealing with it: There may be situations in which we have to make a choice, or take an action, from which we just don’t emerge particularly well. (The situation of being double-booked and having to cancel one commitment springs to mind.) Again, where someone is caught in a dilemma, the existence of a choice between several options doesn’t guarantee that one of them is the right action. In those situations it might help to understand that there is a “remainder” to deal with. That is to say an expectation that regret is felt and expressed, an apology, some kind of restitution or compensation made willingly.

3. Character – the kind of person I am or want to be: In her book On Virtue Ethics, Rosalind Hursthouse provides a very serious example of a dilemma:

“Suppose (just for the sake of an example) that whether to ask the doctors to continue to prolong one’s unconscious mother’s life by extraordinary means for another year, or to discontinue treatment now, would be an irresolvable dilemma in some cases.”

She then considers two very different people in that situation:

One might be a doctor herself, someone who had always striven to think of the human body as a living, and hence mortal, thing, not as a machine to be tinkered with; she knows that, if her mother were her patient, she would advise the discontinuation of treatment. The other might be someone who worked with apparently hopeless cases of mental disability, someone who said of herself ‘I never give up hope; I couldn’t do the job if I let myself.’ Faced with some such decision as the one outlined, it seems that each might act differently, each believing, correctly, that she had a (…) reason for favouring the action she elected to take.

And while the situation involved and the possible outcomes just are such that it may look wrong to say the both took the right action, as Hursthouse remarks, it is plausible to describe them as having acted well –

courageously, responsibly, thoughtfully, conscientiously, honestly, wisely – and not just describe them merely as having done what was permissible, which any cowardly, irresponsible, thoughtless, heedless, self-deceiving fool could just as well have done in the circumstances.

So my biography, my standards, my ideals, things that have always been important to me are valid pointers to which competing reasons I should act on. (I always thought that mottos inscribed on coats of arms may function in that kind of way.) This could also help in more trivial and positive situations than the one described by Hursthouse. Choosing from a menu for example, I could say to myself “I like being adventurous, so I will order something I’ve never had that looks a bit unusual.” Or I could say “I know what’s good and what I like, so why shouldn’t I have the same I had last time. After all, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

As someone said, choices when repeated over time become habits, habits over time become character. And character can in turn become a guide to the choices we should make.





Why Do Philosophers Not Make The News?

Why do philosophers not make the news?

Maybe it’s because Empedocles was so misunderstood by his contemporaries that he jumped into a volcano, Socrates was sentenced to death by the good citizens of Athens, Seneca was driven to suicide by the mad emperor Nero and in more modern times Heidegger became a Nazi.

But let’s rewind…

Derek Parfit, the most influential moral philosopher of our time, died on 1 January 2017. It wasn’t reported in the news. This  caused some consternation and sadness among professional philosophers. If “fake news” weren’t enough to worry about, an absurd selection and prioritisation towards the hysterical (“ISIS bomb plots!”) and the trivial (“Is this the year Prince Harry will marry Meghan Markle?”) rather than the actually important (I know, according to whom?) would still be a problem.

The New Statesman recently published an article by David Herman lamenting the passing of the days when Isaiah Berlin’s death made front page news, Mary Warnock and Bernard Williams were on Royal Commissions and government committees for this, that and the other, radio and television took an interest in A. J. Ayer and publishers spent serious money on academic philosophers.

(Don’t say: “but what about Alain de Botton? He’s still on telly? He still sells lots of books?” Yes, but he’s not an academic philosopher. Many of them would say that if doing philosophy is like drinking double espressos, his stuff is what you get when you spoon off the top of a cappuccino. You know, the bit that has all the chocolate powder on it. It may taste milky, frothy and sweet but it has never been in touch with a molecule of caffeine.)

In the New Statesman article a number of philosophers and commentators are quoted as blaming any number of things for the demise of the philosopher as public intellectual among which:

  • The Research Assessment Exercise, a quality assurance process the Government imposes on universities, which drives philosophers to publish articles in journals rather than talk to the public;
  • the end of deference and distrust of experts meaning that people don’t want someone out of a cosy college in Oxford telling them what to think
  • The media, dumbed down and driven to sensationalism and by the need to make money from advertising
  • Politicians who are not as interested as their predecessors (“Margaret Thatcher was interested in Popper, Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott…” When Tony Blair was asked in the weekly Parliamentary Questions to the Prime Minister to briefly outline his political philosophy, he was completely stumped. None of this is meant to be evidence that an interest in philosophy is good for a Prime Minister.)

You’ll have noticed, a lot of the blame goes to things other than philosophers or the academic discipline of philosophy.

Don’t get me wrong: I think an update on the latest developments in philosophy should be reported in every news bulletin. I think leading philosophers should be consulted on every bit of government policy. I think there should be reality TV shows in which a group of philosophers are sent to a five star beach resort to debate the meaning of life and no one should ever be voted off by the public. I think every new Doctor of Philosophy should be able to publish his or her doctoral thesis to the commercial success of de Botton’s greatest hits, or even J. K. Rowling’s. I think television networks should use the kind of budgets they use for Game of Thrones to make a television drama series of Plato’s Republic.

But I also think that philosophy needs to acknowledge its own role in raising its public profile and should have to work a bit harder. I’d like to acknowledge here the work that lots of philosophers do in international governance committees, in human rights advocacy, teaching, lecturing, giving seminars, making podcasts, tweeting or writing articles for popular consumption. But clearly that isn’t quite enough yet to get philosophers into the news, even when they die.

So here are some alternative reasons why philosophy may not have a higher public profile that look more to the role of philosophers in all of this:

  • Philosophy attracts for the most part introverts (I assume) who would rather study on their own with some books  for company, rather than be out there among people explaining what they’re doing. They are also maybe keener to spend time thinking, than broadcasting.
  • Philosophers are too modest to  talk publicly about the progress being made within the discipline. They are humbled everyday by the really big questions they deal with and the limits of the human mind to comprehend things. Humility is fine. The dirty flip side of that coin is that some philosophers jealously denounce anything that has commercial success or aspirations as “not the real thing.” That makes it more difficult for good communicators and non-academics to make a contribution on behalf of the discipline.
  • There is also a stance of “well, if it takes this to be read, heard and seen by wider sections of the public, I don’t want to be influential or popular. I just want to be seen as brilliant and wonderful by my peers in academic philosophy.” That retreat back to your own clique smacks a bit of a lack of confidence. It could be compared to re-living a traumatic “nerdy vs. cool and popular kids” trauma.
  • Philosophers are careful about the language they use and the way they make their arguments. They spend time defining their terms. They have learned to put three concessive clauses after every positive statement and to anticipate a few arguments that could be made against what they’re saying. They give the views of the people they disagree with the most charitable interpretation before they take them apart. That doesn’t make for the most impactful communications.
  • There is no premium on people working together to find common ground and reach consensus on a question in philosophy. Working alone to demolish everything that has been thought before is just as valuable, if not more so, than putting forward a positive proposal, than showing where there is a high level consensus. (Thanks, Socrates!) But what if people were genuinely interested in where philosophy has progressed towards insights, rather than where it has gone back to the drawing board?
  • Philosophers are perhaps genuinely traumatised by the history of unsuccessful to catastrophic interactions between philosophers and the public realm. Socrates got killed. Plato got too close to the tyrant of Syracuse which ended badly for him. Seneca got too close to Nero which harmed his reputation and ended badly for him. Heidegger got too close to Hitler. Sartre too close to Stalinism. (And Michael Ignatieff – Isaiah Berlin’s biographer – led his party to its worst electoral defeat in Canada. There are lessons there!
  • And in return, philosophers who want to be politicians have to disavow any knowledge of philosophy. Julian Baggini writes the following about two British politicians:


[Former Minister and member of the Cabinet] Oliver Letwin, for instance, has a PhD on the subject but when I asked him if that was a disadvantage in politics he answered, “massive”, without hesitation. “I do my best to conceal it.” Another brainy MP, Tony Wright, once found himself quoting Mill in a parliamentary debate, “and I just realised how odd that was, and how embarrassing it was.”

Given these challenges, what could philosophers do? Starting from the non-reporting of Parfitt’s death, it would be sensible to adopt the principle that if you want to make the news when you die, you have to make yourself known while you’re alive. You can’t just rely on having strategically placed disciples in politics and the media who will ensure the eternal afterlife of your fame and ideas. (That worked only for Leo Strauss.)

  • Don’t do down those who communicate philosophy well as not doing the real thing. Even if they provide journalistic surveys of the history of philosophy, rather than engage in academic philosophy, their activities could be the entry-level drug for the mind that hooks people on philosophy so they can be sold your harder stuff.
  • Paint a picture of real progress in philosophy coming up with real answers to big questions around which consensus is being built. Then explain how these answers affect human life. For example, tell the story about how philosophers were in court rooms explaining the writings of Plato and Aristotle to help settle questions around gay rights (at least Martha Nussbaum was). Peter Singer’s campaign for animal liberation can be traced back to the writings of Mill and Bentham.
  • Make the communication of philosophy a greater part of academic activity. Scientists embrace the “public understanding of science” as a part of what they do. They put some of the best and brightest in charge of it. They make them professors and Fellows of the Royal Society and President of the Royal Institution. Google “Professor for the Public Understanding of Philosophy” and you get one person: Professor Angie Hobbs at the University of Sheffield. She seems very active but I’m not sure she can do it on her own.

In his New Statesman article, David Herman concludes that if you care, you should:

go to your local library or bookshop or follow debates online: be your own border guard and wear a black armband for an era that has passed.

Sadly, retreating to the local library or bookshop to mourn for previous better times may be tempting. Philosophy was always tempted to retreat to a more private place: Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Peripatos, Epicurus’ garden.

An alternative would be for it to be out in the market place (Socrates’ Agora) making its case.

Three Things I Want to Learn From Roger Federer

  1. How to serve that fast
  2. How to hit a one-handed backhand like that
  3. How to win a grand slam tennis tournament

Ok, but seriously now…

With the exception of David Foster Wallace’s 2006 essay “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” it is probably inadvisable to look for too much metaphysical insight from the activities of sportspeople.

Continue reading Three Things I Want to Learn From Roger Federer