The intersection of philosophy, family, and the lives we live

I’m thrilled that the latest episode of the New Ventures West podcast features me exploring the intersection of philosophy, family, and the lives we live.

Over the course of 26 minutes I talk with my colleagues Adam Klein and Joy Reichart about how philosophy can help us inquire into the mostly invisible background of practice and culture that shapes our lives, how our early families play a part in this, and how we might expand our ways of taking care of the world and of others in the light of what we find.

Along the way we explore the legacy of the philosopher Rene Descartes and the consequences of his powerful method for inquiry on our education system and our sense of ourselves; how more recent philosophers have sought to develop more inclusive and complete accounts of what it is to be a human being; the intersection of philosophy and science; and what all of this means for how we live our lives with meaning and dignity.

I’m delighted with the way this has turned out. I hope you will be too.

You can listen online here, or subscribe to the podcast (which features many of my colleagues) through iTunes here.

Inside and outside

When we divide what’s ‘inside’ us from what’s ‘outside’ as if they were separate from one another we cause ourselves all kinds of difficulty.

In much of our culture we treat working with what’s ‘inside’ as if it’s irrelevant, an indulgence, soft, a waste of time when compared with the hands on world of making, doing, deciding and acting. And we can become equally convinced by the opposite position – that we can’t act until we’ve completely resolved some feeling or inner difficulty, or until we’ve studied and understood a subject from end to end.

But inside and outside are a continuum, different aspects or angles on the same world. It might be most helpful to think of ‘inside’ primarily as that corner of things of which each of us has a particularly special, privileged view – and part of the world nevertheless.

And so it is the case that the way I relate to others is very often the way I’m already relating to parts of myself. And that the way I struggle within myself is the self-same way I struggle with other people.

And it’s often the case that powerful ‘inner’ work is done ‘outside’ – for example by developing skill in relating to others I also develop skill in relating to myself. And that there are many riches to discover about the ‘outside’ world by the much undervalued art of listening attentively and with deep curiosity to the inner experience of others.

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How we learned not to trust ourselves

A recipe for learning not to trust ourselves:

Step 1 – Kindergarten: Play! Encourage freedom, creativity, feeling, and its expression. Explore the world through the immediacy of the body and senses. Make a mess. Hop and jump. Listen to stories. Tell them.

Step 2 – Infant school: Start to leave parts out. Sit down on the rug, or on your chair. Learn not to fidget, to pay attention, to respect others – necessary skills for life in our culture. Play, yes, but not too much now. Big school is coming.

Step 3 – Junior school: Keep still for many hours. Stop talking. The movement of bodies – an interruption. Play is only for prescribed times – not while we’re learning. It’s your job to pay attention always, regardless of how you feel, or what you care about. The adult world is coming.

Step 4 – Senior school: Learning is knowing facts or models in a way that’s increasingly detached from my first-hand experience. Do I care deeply about this subject? Does it move me? Can I connect it with my life? This, and other matters of the heart, are no longer so relevant, and rarely addressed in the classroom. The heart and the body – subjugated to the world of the analytical mind. The highest mark of educational achievement – that I learned to pass the exam, that I can produce what’s measurable.

When we follow a path that progressively leaves out parts of ourselves, it should come as no surprise that we have a hard time trusting the parts we’ve abandoned. Our hearts: how we tell what matters to us. And our bodies: the means by which we relate, create, explore, encounter, move the world. And it might explain how we’ve convinced ourselves that models, frameworks, and techniques are a substitute for a real, live, scary, exhilarating, fierce, risky and life-giving engagement with ourselves in the pursuit of the work that matters to us.

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Learning again how to trust ourselves

Rene Descartes’ method for discovering what’s true starts with a bold and radical move – distrust everything until it can be proven. It’s not hard to see how powerful a way this is to cut through superstition and confusion. By starting from first principles, and using step-by-step logic, he gives us a way to prove things for ourselves, doing away with our need to rely on anyone else’s claims.

In order to make the method work, it’s necessary to start with one thing that can be assumed to be true without proof – and for Descartes it was that he was thinking. Hence cogito ergo sum, ‘I think therefore I am’. The one thing I can be sure of is that I’m thinking, because here I am, thinking it! And in this move, he both makes his method possible and sets up the condition of our society ever since.

Without this we may never have lifted ourselves beyond the confusion of Descartes’ times. But when we take Cartesianism to be the only way to relate to the world (a project at which our education system is very effective) we quickly become estranged from ourselves. Our bodies, emotions, our subjective experience, and the experience of others are all to be doubted, or considered irrelevant. Even the existence of others is something we can no longer take for granted without proof (and conclusively proving this everyday, common-sense aspect of our experience turns out to be extraordinarily difficult in the Cartesian paradigm). Though we often don’t know it, we’re deeply educated in and profoundly conditioned by the Cartesian principle that thinking is paramount and that everything else is to be distrusted.

The consequence? We’ve forgotten how to trust ourselves.

We don’t know how to trust what’s true in the senses of our bodies (we’ve often barely learned how to pay attention to this at all). We don’t trust the felt-sense of situations, and we don’t know how to tell what action to action take when we feel distorted, disjointed, incongruent, afraid. We don’t trust what we love. And we don’t know how to listen deeply to the longing and song of our hearts.

We’ve become experts at distancing ourselves from ourselves. And because we can’t feel what’s happening to us we launch ourselves into many projects – in our work and in our private lives – that harm us, and harm others, and harm the planet. We justify our actions, if we’re prepared to justify them at all, as ‘reason’ or ‘business’ or ‘productivity’ or ‘best practice’ or ‘getting ahead’.

We need the cold, sharp blade of the Cartesian method as much as we ever did. But if we want to create lives and a world in which we can thrive, a world which brings about wisdom and beauty as well as truth, it’s time to learn how to feel things again. And it’s time to teach ourselves and our children once more about the discernment and understanding of the world that comes not just from the sharpness of our minds, but from the intelligence of our bodies and the sensitivity of our hearts.

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When only practice will do

When we rely on events to change things in our organisations – an executive residential, a training day on relationships, a session on ‘difficult conversations’ – we’re treating ourselves as if we’re machines. A new part, some oil in the right place, installing a patch to the operating system – that’ll do it.

When we imagine ourselves this way, we set ourselves up for such disappointment. We pour our hearts and our good intentions into the event, thinking that this time it will do the trick, this time the upgrade will work. And we wonder why things the next day seem pretty much the way they were before.

We’d be so much more effective, and so much kinder to ourselves, if we understood that we are living processes, shaped all the time by the practices we take up and by the relationships that surround us. We’d know then that events can help us, for sure, but that it’s not the events themselves that bring about the change we seek as much as our relationship to them. We’d see that unless we’re prepared to use events as an invitation to practice – with all of the uncertainty, all the learning that’s involved, all the letting go that practice entails, and all of the times that our practice goes awry and we have to commit to begin again once more – we can rightly expect our events to do very little at all.

And this point – that practice goes awry – is probably the most important. We know, intuitively, that a two-day event exploring the piano doesn’t make any of us a competent pianist. We’d expect to have many subsequent days of struggle and difficulty, with steps forward and setbacks, before we’d feel proficient. Before real music would be possible we’d expect days when our practice sounded disjointed or discordant, and to play many wrong notes from which we’d gradually learn the right ones. We’d expect to need help, and time to reflect on what’s happening. And we’d expect to experiment and practice again and again for many weeks.

It’s the same for the work of building trust between colleagues, for learning how to get out of our endless busyness and rushing so we can think, and for finding how to work together effectively, and skilfully, and joyfully.

If we understood this, I think we’d expect a lot less of events and see a lot more possibility in ourselves and in each other. And we’d know that our very difficulties are the path, not a reason to be discouraged, not proof that we’re getting it wrong, and certainly not a reason nor an excuse to avoid the difficult, life giving and essential work of practicing together what we say we most want to bring about.

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Over-reaching

A very dedicated and successful swimmer once told me that the way to extend your reach in strokes such as the crawl is first to over-reach. To add 5cm, practice extending by 10cm for a while. The over-stretch, she told me, teaches the body to settle into a new configuration so that, on relaxing again, your established stroke lands somewhere between where you started and what you reached for.

Over the coming days I want to see if I can point out some ways in which we’ve over-reached with the project that René Descartes started, and how we might restore to ourselves some measure of balance in which reason, with its power to cut through and generate truth, takes up its place alongside the no less important virtues of goodness and beauty in our organisations, our institutions, and our society.

I think this is important not only because we’ve used the sharp-sword of detached reason in places where it destroys rather than nurtures (I started to lay some of those out in this post), but because we’ve done ourselves a huge disservice in worshipping the cartesian method to the exclusion of all else. Whenever we’ve used it inappropriately – forcing it into places where it cannot help us, such as in our attempts to scientifically measure love, or meaning, or care, or art, or ethics – we’ve blunted it, confused it and diminished its power.

I can’t help but think that our misuse and misunderstanding of the methods of objective reason contribute to the spread of quack cures that look convincing because of their scientific-sounding language, to the many failed projects to measure and produce ‘engagement’ in our organisations, to our all-too-easy trust in the explanations given by our politicians, and to our obsession with education systems that train our children to score well in exams (and in easily measurable subjects) rather than develop wisdom and skilfulness in living.

Perhaps by being clearer about where objectivity helps us, and where it does not, we can cut through our confusion about reason itself. And this is important because just as we can’t flourish without goodness and beauty, we certainly can’t flourish without reason either.

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Reason and truth

Over the past few weeks I have been reading, and very much enjoying, Rene Descartes’ ‘Discourse on Method’, a book he wrote in the early 17th century with the intention of cutting through the confusion of the times in which he lived.

Insight into the genuine nature of things, Descartes said, had become so hidden behind layers of superstition and dogma that even the most intelligent and sharp thinking people of his generation were muddled and incoherent. It rightly bothered him that wisdom was so hard to find, and that attempts to establish a more solid basis for truth about the world were rewarded with punishment and scorn. He was keenly aware that his contemporary, Galileo Galilei, had been condemned and imprisoned by the Church for showing that the earth revolved around the sun and that human beings, contrary to dogma, were not the centre of the universe. And he became committed to laying out a new way of understanding the world that could influence the very people who held the newly emerging sciences in such contempt.

Reading Descartes is illuminating. He is warm, witty, playful and extraordinarily clear. And, throughout, he painstakingly describes a powerful method for arriving at truth that cuts through misunderstanding, prejudice and confusion. In many ways his method is simple. Doubt everything and only take as true that which you can prove by stepwise logical reasoning from first principles. Distrust your own judgements. Distrust your heart and emotions. Distrust your body. Distrust all of your experience of the world. Start with the only thing that you can really know – that you exist and that you are thinking – and rebuild the world from there, rigorous careful step by rigorous careful step.

The genius of Descartes’ work is that it works. By doubting all that we take for granted, and by establishing a method by which we can observe the world and prove things from it, he cut through centuries of irrationality and provided a firm basis for the sciences that have revolutionised the world in which we live. And not only is his method robust, reliable and truthful, in principle it can be learned by anybody.

No longer was it necessary to believe something simply because someone else told us to believe it. With the Cartesian method we could find out for ourselves that something was true. Or we could ask those making a claim to show us the steps they’d taken in claiming it. And so as well as establishing a new way of generating truth about the world, he democratised it, taking it out of the hands of those with power and giving it to all of us. The explosion of creativity and insight in mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology and the computational sciences that followed have transformed every aspect of the world – what we can make, what we can understand, what we can do, and what we make of ourselves and our place in the universe.

While there are many limits to the Cartesian way of looking at things, which I’ll get to another time, his plea for rigour and clear thinking strikes me as incredibly important at times like these when there is such polarisation, superstition, uncertainty and manipulation in our public discourse, our media and our politics. Descartes reminds us that there is a much firmer basis for our decisions than how we happen to be feeling in the moment, than our prejudices and fears, and than the stories about ourselves and others we were handed.

He reminds us that in many aspects of human life, doubting is a helpful and necessary orientation. And that there’s no substitute for looking closely, for checking evidence, and for talking with one another about how we’re reaching the conclusions we’re reaching rather than deciding in a vague, muddled or mistaken way on the big issues of how to live together.

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On love

Mostly we experience ourselves as separate from one another.

We experience the way our bodies are separated from one another in space, the way our personal life history is distinct from that of others, and the apparent hiddenness of our inner world. And we conclude that in some fundamental sense the distance between us and others is unbridgeable, that we are alone.

And it’s no wonder, because as well as what we see, the public discourse of the past 300 years or so has encouraged us to relate to life in this way. Rene Descartes‘ move to portray us as isolated individual minds, separated from everything else, plays a big part in this. And our increasingly individualistic political and economic narratives have split from one another still further.

But when we look this way we’re looking only at the results of something, not the something itself that underlies it all. We take our separate and individual bodies as proof of our separateness, but we are looking too far ‘downstream’ as it were.

If we were to look further upstream we’d see not just our separateness but an endless process of becoming that produces it all.

We’d see the whole of human life renewing itself through the biological processes of conception and birth, each new generation of human beings emerging from the bodies of those of us already here. And we’d see human life becoming itself through language, culture, conversations and ideas, through the grand stories and narratives that shape us even as we shape them.

Looking downstream we see our physical separateness. Looking upstream we see that we are expressions of a unified and ceaseless process of becoming that happens through us and because of us, and that produces all of human life.

Sometimes we gaze at others and realise this. We see them not as separate, but as an expression of the selfsame life that we are. We realise that ‘they’ are really another aspect of that which makes us ‘ourselves’.

And this, I think, is what we call love.

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Changing my mind

It’s easy to feel sure that who I am is the inner experience I have of myself. To imagine that I am my thoughts, my values, my opinions, what I believe to be true, what I care about. And, consequently, that to change who I am – to grow, or develop, or address my difficulties – I only need to change my mind.

It makes intuitive sense to think this way, firstly because of course we are each uniquely privileged observers of this particular, own-most inner aspect of ourselves that we call mind. And, secondly, we’ve been conditioned by our culture and its strong background of Cartesian dualism to treat mind as primary and everything else as as secondary.

But it doesn’t take very much looking to see how far my identity extends into the world – how ‘who I am’ is part of the world, shaped by the world at the very same time as I shape it.

I am who I am in relationship with others, for example. The kind of son, brother, husband, parent and friend I am is affected moment to moment by the people I am son, brother, husband, parent and friend to. And who they are with me is equally being shaped by their relationships with me. And in this way our identities are inextricably and continually entwined with those who we are in relationship with.

I am who I am in relationship with what I own and use, too. That I now choose to have a phone without email on it, for example, is profoundly shifting my experience of myself, the kind of attention I pay to life and other people, how preoccupied I am, my sense of what I’m supposed to do moment-to-moment, and what I feel (I’m much less anxious). Similarly, my home, what I choose to wear, the art on my walls, the food I eat, and how I travel are not just expressions of me but an extended part of my identity, continually shaping and shifting and reminding me who I can be in the world.

I am who I am in relationship to my actions and body. The me that I am when I live a life of hurrying and frantic activity is quite different to the me that takes time, that puts things down, that is attentive to movement and space. The me that I am when I ask for help is quite different from the me that tries to do everything on my own. The actions I take shift my story about myself, as well as what I notice, my capacity to respond, and how others relate to me including the stories they have about me.

And because of all of this, any time I want to learn, or grow, or change, or be more genuine, or take up my freedom, or reduce a difficulty I’m in I have to do more than just think differently or hold a different set of beliefs about the world. I have to act, in each of the domains I’ve described above.

It is this very practical step of taking new bodily action that brings about a new identity, a new relationship to life, a new relationship to others, and to the stuff around me. And I have to do it not just once, but over, and over, and over, until it becomes habit, skilful and familiar enough to fade into the background.

Then I can say I have changed.

And this is the case even though the culture I’m embedded in, as well as the voice of many coaches, advice columns, and self-help books, would tell me that if I change my mind, everything else will take care of itself.

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Blinded to half of our lives

The separation of subject from object brought to us so powerfully by René Descartes in the 17th century (and which I have written about here) gave us new ways of understanding and manipulating the material world which in turn gave birth to modernity. His work ushered in an age in which at last science, technology and medicine could seriously take root. You don’t have to look far to see how much this has made possible.

But you have to look more closely to see how it has also led us into a deep misunderstanding of ourselves.

In the 19th century August Comte built on Descartes’ position to create logical positivism, which argued that nothing in the human world could be considered to have authority unless it could be objectively measured. For positivism what was real about people included behaviour, action taken, money earned, measurements made. Feeling, meaning and stories were distinctly second class as far as truth was concerned. In a stroke, positivism declared much of the experience of being alive, the unique subjectivity that makes us most human, to be irrelevant, a marginal footnote to the real stuff of existence.

We’ve enthusiastically taken positivism into the heart of our institutions and as we’ve done so we’ve understood ourselves and others primarily as objects and as consumers – a surface, materialist understanding that leaves a huge part of ourselves behind. We relate to people primarily through how they can be ‘of use’ to us, what they can get done. And consequently we are often at war with ourselves, suppressing and denying our longing for something real, something that has depth, something that’s more than surface.

It should be no surprise that positivism was seized upon enthusiastically by the architects of that most modern of human institutions, the organisation. By reducing people to surface and to measurable activity, and by discounting the rest, the early factory owners could have people become extensions of the machinery of production. It is at work in so much of what’s considered ‘best practice’ in contemporary management – in behaviour frameworks, performance grading, the banishment of the inner world from the workplace, the label ‘human resources’, and our insistence that people fit in rather than bring themselves forward fully.

Positivism is so prevalent and so often unquestioned because, in many ways, it works – just as long as you are happy that people stop being people so they can become part of the machine.

But it fails to take account of so much of what we are – symbol-making, metaphor-creating, meaning-seeking beings who navigate our lives wondering, dreaming, fearing, hoping and longing – and that our measurable doing is just the tiniest part of it.

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Blinded to half of our lives

The separation of subject from object brought to us so powerfully by René Descartes in the 17th century (and which I wrote most recently about here) gave us new ways of understanding and manipulating the material world which in turn gave birth to modernity. His work ushered in an age in which at last science, technology and medicine could seriously take root. You don’t have to look far to see how much this has made possible.

But you have to look more closely to see how it has also led us into a deep misunderstanding of ourselves.

In the 19th century August Comte built on Descartes’ position to create logical positivism, which argued that nothing in the human world could be considered to have authority unless it could be objectively measured. For positivism what was real about people included behaviour, action taken, money earned, measurements made. Feeling, meaning and stories were distinctly second class as far as truth was concerned. In a stroke, positivism declared much of the experience of being alive, the unique subjectivity that makes us most human, to be irrelevant, a marginal footnote to the real stuff of existence.

We’ve enthusiastically taken positivism into the heart of our institutions and as we’ve done so we’ve understood ourselves and others primarily as objects and as consumers – a surface, materialist understanding that leaves a huge part of ourselves behind. We relate to people primarily through how they can be ‘of use’ to us, what they can get done. And consequently we are often at war with ourselves, suppressing and denying our longing for something real, something that has depth, something that’s more than surface.

It should be no surprise that positivism was seized upon enthusiastically by the architects of that most modern of human institutions, the organisation. By reducing people to surface and to measurable activity, and by discounting the rest, the early factory owners could have people become extensions of the machinery of production. It is at work in so much of what’s considered ‘best practice’ in contemporary management – in behaviour frameworks, performance grading, the banishment of the inner world from the workplace, the label ‘human resources’, and our insistence that people fit in rather than bring themselves forward fully.

Positivism is so prevalent and so often unquestioned because, in many ways, it works – just as long as you are happy that people stop being people so they can become part of the machine.

But it fails to take account of so much of what we are – symbol-making, metaphor-creating, meaning-seeking beings who navigate our lives wondering, dreaming, fearing, hoping and longing – and that our measurable doing is just the tiniest part of it.

Photo Credit: Billy Wilson Photography via Compfight cc

Measuring

For the past century and a half, we’ve become driven by measurement, a consequence of the revolution in philosophy and science ushered in by the work of René Descartes in the 17th century.

Descartes’ profound contribution was to make detached, analytical observation of the world central to human knowledge. He gave wings to the scientific method of hypothesis and experimentation which has transformed our way of living. And he did so by being committed to objectivity – what’s independently observable and measurable, as opposed to subjectivity – the particular first-person lived experience of being-you or being-me that cannot be described in objective ways.

By dividing subject and object in the way that he did, Descartes gave us tools to stand back from the world with a critical, doubting eye and to make new startling new discoveries. But in order to do so he had to split ‘I’ from ‘world’ – leaving out personal experience completely because of the way it appears to arise from the mysterious insides of a person’s mind rather than being ‘of the world’.

Descartes gave us a world in which we take ‘hard’ – what’s objective – to be real and of primary importance and ‘soft’ – what’s subjective – to be secondary, often so far as to be considered of no value at all. And so completely do we live in this Cartesian world that it can be difficult for us to see how much we systematically discount by looking at the world, and ourselves, through these eyes. Even the words ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ say much about our orientation to these matters.

There will be much more to say about this over the coming days and weeks. But for now, a simple question – how often in organisational life are you insisting on looking only for what you can measure, and consequently how much of the human world of your work are you not looking at, at all?

‘Hard’ measures can tell you much about machines, or processes, or inventory, or money. But they will leave out most of what’s meaningful about the people who work with you – the ‘soft’ stuff that isn’t ‘soft’ at all and which can only really be discovered by being in conversation with others. And this is precisely because people are not objects but subjects, the kind of being that the Cartesian world in which we live goes to great lengths to discount.

Hard measures – productivity, hours worked, behaviours observed, profit earned – will tell you nothing about vital human concerns such as meaning, aliveness, longing, camaraderie, friendship, love, dedication, frustration, resentment, inspiration and so on – because people are essentially ‘I’ rather than ‘it’, subjects rather than objects.

You may well be trying to shape the life of your organisation by paying attention to what’s measurable when you should also be paying attention to what’s not measurable, but equally real.

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Love

Mostly we experience ourselves as separate from one another.

We experience the way our bodies are separated from one another in space, the way our personal life history is distinct from that of others, and the apparent hiddenness of our inner world. And we conclude that in some fundamental sense the distance between us and others is unbridgeable, that we are alone.

And it’s no wonder, because as well as what we see, the public discourse of the past 300 years or so has encouraged us to relate to life in this way. Rene Descartes‘ move to portray us as isolated individual minds, separated from everything else, plays a big part in this. And our increasingly individualistic political and economic narratives have split from one another still further.

But when we look this way we’re looking only at the results of something, not the something itself that underlies it all. We take our separate and individual bodies as proof of our separateness, but we are looking too far ‘downstream’ as it were.

If we were to look further upstream we’d see not just our separateness but an endless process of becoming that produces it all.

We’d see the whole of human life renewing itself through the biological processes of conception and birth, each new generation of human beings emerging from the bodies of those of us already here. And we’d see human life becoming itself through language, culture, conversations and ideas, through the grand stories and narratives that shape us even as we shape them.

Looking downstream we see our physical separateness. Looking upstream we see that we are expressions of a unified and ceaseless process of becoming that happens through us and because of us, and that produces all of human life.

Sometimes we gaze at others and realise this. We see them not as separate, but as an expression of the selfsame life that we are. We realise that ‘they’ are really another aspect of that which makes us ‘ourselves’.

And this, I think, is what we call love.

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