Saturday, September 11, 2010

Kenneth Gergen - On Relational Being

Kenneth Gergen, for those unfamiliar with his work, is an important theorist in the realm of cultural and interpersonal psychology (and another of the important people neglected in most models of integral psychology).

He has been foundational in both social psychology and constructivist psychology. While many psychologists have found his perspectives extreme (and they are, in some respects), his contribution to the whole field of postmodern psychology has been immense (especially in the development of "the narrative turn" in modern therapies).

From Wikipedia, this is a brief introduction to social constructionism, a of cousin social constructivism, the movement with which Gergen is most closely associated (to clarify, social constructionism is more of a sociological field, while social constructivism is more psychological - but Wikipedia's entry on social constructivism is lame):

Social constructionism and social constructivism are sociological theories of knowledge that consider how social phenomena or objects of consciousness develop in social contexts. Within constructionist thought, a social construction (social construct) is a concept or practice that is the construct (or artifact) of a particular group. When we say that something is socially constructed, we are focusing on its dependence on contingent variables of our social selves rather than any inherent quality that it possesses in itself. Thus our notion of a "cousin," what this terms includes and doesn't include and what it means to us does not exist "out there" in the world, but only in and through the social instutitions that give it meaning within a culture. [1] The underlying assumptions on which social constructivism is typically seen to be based are reality, knowledge, and learning.[2]

Social constructs are generally understood to be the by-products of countless human choices rather than laws resulting from divine will or nature. This is not usually taken to imply a radical anti-determinism, however. Social constructionism is usually opposed to essentialism, which defines specific phenomena instead in terms of inherent and transhistorical essences independent of conscious beings that determine the categorical structure of reality. [3]

A major focus of social constructionism is to uncover the ways in which individuals and groups participate in the construction of their perceived social reality. It involves looking at the ways social phenomena are created, institutionalized, known, and made into tradition by humans. The social construction of reality is an ongoing, dynamic process that is (and must be) reproduced by people acting on their interpretations and their knowledge of it. Because social constructs as facets of reality and objects of knowledge are not "given" by nature, they must be constantly maintained and re-affirmed in order to persist. This process also introduces the possibility of change: what "justice" is and what it means shifts from one generation to the next.

Ian Hacking noted in "The Social Construction of What?" that social construction talk is often in reference to not only worldly items, like things and facts – but also to our beliefs about them.[4] It is relevant to note that this perspective is often correctly closely connected with many contemporary theories, perhaps most notably the developmental theories of Vygotsky and Bruner.[5]

Jerome Bruner, Rom Harre, and even Jon Searle are all major figures in this field.

Gergen has made a lot (if not all) of his articles available online as PDFs - which is very cool for those of us who cannot afford to pay between $10 and $50 for each manuscript from the journals themselves (hello, open source?). Here is a list of articles relevant to his latest book, Relational Being: Beyond Self and Community, which I am reading and enjoying - and will be quoting from here in this post.

Relational Theory and the Self (all of his articles are at this link):

One other note - social constructionism is often considered a generative approach in that it seeks to examine the way people generate meaning and selves, rather than looking at the structure of things, ideas, and selves. This is one of the major ideas missing from Ken Wilber's version of integral psychology (and as near as I can tell, it's missing in the work of most of those who work in his lineage).

Anyway, the following are some quotes from Relational Being, but I am reading a Kindle version, so I can only give "locations," not page numbers (sorry about that). One of the interesting things about this book is that he has written it to reflect the ideas he is presenting, for example, he includes theory, biographical sections, quotes from others, art and photography, and so on - demonstrating that much of what generally conceive as "mine" is more often more rightly seen as "ours."
Loc. 99-101
My hope is to demonstrate that virtually all intelligible action is born, sustained, and/or extinguished within the ongoing process of relationship. From this standpoint there is no isolated self or fully private experience. Rather, we exist in a world of co-constitution. We are always already emerging from relationship; we cannot step out of relationship; even in our most private moments we are never alone.

Loc. 545
Man is not a solitary animal, and so long as social life survives, self-realization cannot be the supreme principle of ethics. - Bertrand Russell
Gotta love Bertrand Russell - well, I guess you don't have to . . . but I do.

I like this next quote a lot - it offers an explanation for how we present and experience different selves in different contexts, suggesting not only that we have various selves, but that they are context dependent much of the time.
Loc. 744-47
The world is awash in conflict between those clinging to tradition versus those careening toward the new. Yet, if there is no intelligibility outside constraint, how are we to account for change? The major answer lies in our movement from one relational context to another. As we move from the home, to the office, to a visit with friends, to the sports field, and so on we carry with us patterns of speaking and acting. These practices are now inserted into the new contexts, and supplemented in new ways. The words and actions now acquire different functions. They become increasingly meaning/full.
And then this . . .
Loc. 764-65
Let's return to the construction of the self. Through co-action we come into being as individual identities, but the process remains forever incomplete. At any moment there are multiple options, and self-identity remains in motion.
Here is one of those autobiographical sections, but it illustrates a pivotal concept in Gergen's theory, that of confluence.
Loc. 897-910
Mary and I once puzzled over the fact that every Christmas time we labored to decorate the house. The decorating cost us time and money; there was no obvious gain. Nothing dire would befall us if we failed to do so. Why, we asked, do we do it? We now see this as a misleading question. We decorate neither for a reason that lies somewhere inside, or pressures from the outside. Rather, we decorate because we exist within a confluence - an array of mutually defining relationships with each other and our surrounds. When the season is upon us, such actions are obvious ways of going on; they are congenial within the confluence. If we were at a dinner party we would eat, if we were at a concert we would applaud. We do not do so for reasons of private origin, or because someone "makes us do it," but because we are participants in a confluence of relationships in which these are intelligible actions.

The critic takes notice: "This suggests to me that you as a physical person have no will of your own. Your actions matter little; it is the confluence that counts. Doesn't this view stifle our motivation for change? Doesn't it favor the status quo, suggesting that an individual's efforts are futile?" Not at all. You will certainly import into any situation a set of preferred performances. They don't represent "will power," so much as a set of relationally established trajectories. And they can be enormously important when injected into a given confluence. Consider the power that even a single word or phrase may have in a given context: "You are fired," "I quit," or "we are finished." The same holds true of one's movements: a raised fist, a derisive laugh, an embrace. Even one's physical presence may alter the confluence. Depending on the circumstances, simply standing there as an observer, a demonstrator, or a mourner may all change the definition of the situation. And we must also consider the objects that are present. A vase of flowers, a menorah, a dog, a weapon on the wall ... all are subtle means of shifting the potentials of the situation. To be sure, it may be useful to distinguish between constituents of a confluence that are central to its form as opposed to peripheral. But people can also be enormously flexible and creative in sustaining a given definition of the situation as various people, objects, and actions shift over time.

Loc. 911-13
The critic remains skeptical: "Practically speaking, I don't see where this idea of confluence takes us. What about scientific prediction? Are there any advantages here over the old mechanical model?" In response, there is nothing about the confluence orientation that rules out prediction.

Loc. 915-18
The advantage of the confluence orientation, however, is that we do not depend on independent factors or variables to make predictions. Rather than looking at "the effects" of income, education, and father absence on the child's school performance, for example, the concern shifts to the condition of relational life in which the child participates. Ethnography takes precedence over experimental manipulation. We shift from influence to confluence.
One of the criticisms of Gergen's work over the years has been that it is not socially engaged or attempting to make the world a better place (a "
failure to take moral or political stands"). I think those critics have failed to grasp his project, as this next quote demonstrates:
Loc. 924-27
Finally, it must be asked, why should the social sciences place so much value on the traditional practice of prediction? If we are concerned with human well-being, why examine present patterns to speculate about the future? As noted above, transformation in patterns of co-action is common. Today's research is about today; the conditions of tomorrow's world may be vastly different. If we wish to generate more promising futures, the major challenge is that of collaboratively creating new conditions of confluence. How can we draw from our relational histories in such a way that new and more promising confluences result?
One of the major contributions of Spiral Dynamics has been to demonstrate that change at any level requires a shift of life conditions, or what Gergen might call confluences - physical and socio-cultural contexts must shift or be shifted if we want to make individual change possible.

Finally, here is a chunk of his argument against isolated consciousness. We are bio-psycho-socially embedded beings and, as such, our consciousness and our selves are relational in nature, not bounded by the borders of our bodies.
Loc. 948-61

Being Unbound

The reality of the mind is also the reality of bounded being. Mental states constitute the very ingredients of the individual interior. One's ability to think, and feel, and choose are the very marks of being fully human. Would a child be normal without the ability to feel pleasure and pain, happiness or anger? Doesn't normal development include expanding one's capacities for abstract reasoning, conscience, and long-term planning? Could one function properly in society without having values, attitudes, and opinions? All such suppositions support and honor the tradition of the bounded self.

As I proposed in the initial chapter, the assumption of an internal or mental world invites alienation, loneliness, distrust, hierarchy, competition, and self-doubt; favored is a society in which people become commodities and relationships are devalued. Yet, as proposed in the preceding chapter, this concept of bounded being finds its origins not within the interior of individual minds, but within co-action. It is from relational process that the very idea of an "inner world" is created. Speaking of our thoughts, emotions, intentions, and the like is not required by the facts of nature. If we fail to speak in these terms, it is not that we fail to grasp reality. Rather, the language of the interior issues from a particular tradition of relationship. By the same token, we can also create together new ways of speaking and acting. We must not remain forever bound by history.

How could we, then, transform the language by which we live; how can we recognize the primacy of relationship in all that we do? This is the major challenge of this chapter and the next. My hope is to recast the discourse of mind in such a way that human connection replaces separation as the fundamental reality. Our understanding of the mental world will be reconstructed in such a way that the wall between inside and outside is removed; the mental will cease to exist separate from relationship. Then, with this reformulation in place, Parts II and III of this work will be devoted to linking concepts to practice. If a conception of relational being is to make any difference, it must be realized in our lives together.
I'm only about a fifth of the way through the book, and I looked for some reviews to include to give you a better sense of the overall feel of the book, and I only found one good one, so here are a couple of paragraphs from Bjørn Gustavsen:
In ”Relational Being”, Gergen raises the issue of man as a bounded individual, versus man as created by his relationships. Compared to many of his predecessors, the way in which Gergen conducts his discourse has some important advantages. Among these, his use of examples is immediately outstanding. All major points in his argument are illustrated and backed not only by examples, but by examples drawn from real everyday situations and practices. This is not only a convenience for the reader, as pointed out by theorists of science like Stephen Toulmin, it is the examples that carry the argument. If a point cannot be exemplified, it does not have any meaning. Gergen does, furthermore, radicalize the relational argument. Contrary to leaving at least some space for the bounded individual playing tactical games against his or her environment, Gergen wants to do away with this figure altogether, and see man as fully created, or constructed, through relationships.

Much of Gergen`s discussion centre around the relationship between a bounded, versus a relational interpretation of words. Let us say that someone calls someone else “authoritarian”. Seemingly, this is a characteristic of the individual, something that emanates from “inside” the person. However, for the concept of authoritarian to have meaning, there must also be something that we can call non-authoritarian. Only when a set of characteristics can be held up against a set of contrasting characteristics, do we understand what the characteristics mean. There is, however, a further set of conditions: To understand “authoritarian” we need some kind of experience with “authoritarianism” and its antithesis. Unless we have lived experience with the phenomena under discussion, the words characterizing the phenomena will be empty. Gergen shows how the words that we generally take to characterize individuals and set them apart from their environment, in reality gain their meaning from relationships. This is not simply an abstract, “theoretical” point. Gergen shows, through numerous examples, how an individualistic, bounded interpretation of people leads us astray in our relationships, not only to individual people, but to groups, organizations and society.

More Evidence of Raven Intelligence - Finding Lost Hikers

Long-time readers of this blog - and those who know me well - know that I am HUGE fan or corvids, especially crows and ravens. I loved living in Seattle because it has the densest population of crows of any American city. Weirdly, Tucson has no crows, but we do have ravens, the bigger and smarter relative of crows.

This is a cool article that demonstrates just how smart ravens are - and what they can be trained to do. This comes from Mother Nature Network.

A common raven may be uncommon way to find lost hikers

Expert trains her pet raven to find lost objects with uncannily accurate results.

By Katherine Butler
Thu, Sep 02 2010

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Ravens are known for their jarring “squawk” and a role as Edgar Allen Poe’s diabolical foe, not to mention they're frequent use in pop culture imagery. But NPR reports on another raven that may prove to be more savior than foe. Shade is the pet raven of doctoral student Emily Cory. When Shade showed signs of extreme intelligence, Cory decided to train the bird in the art of hide-and-seek in hopes of assisting search and rescue teams. What Cory learned was that Shade has an uncanny knack for memory, language and even game skills.

Ravens are extremely resourceful and wily in terms of finding foods for their omnivorous diets. Their brains are among the largest of birds, and they have a keen grasp of problem solving, imitation and insight. They have even been known to multitask. Ravens have also been known to get other animals to work for them, such as calling wolves to the scene of a carcass to rip up the meat and make it more accessible to the birds. Their corvid cousins, crows, have also been seen dropping nuts onto freeways, allowing cars to drive over them. Once the nuts are crushed, the birds swoop in and grab the meats.

Cory grew up in the canyons of Sedona, Ariz., often listening to helicopters flying over, searching for lost hikers. As an adult, Cory worked with birds at the Arizona-Sonora Museum. A common raven caught her attention. As Cory tells NPR, "She'd [the raven] play horrible tricks on the volunteers, she'd get in so much trouble. She never forgot a thing, never missed a thing [and] that really got my attention."

This prompted Cory to consider training a raven to seek out lost hikers like the ones so common in her childhood. She purchased Shade and began to train her in elaborate games of hide-and-seek, all the while writing her master’s thesis on the project. Shade showed an uncanny knack for finding anything Cory hid from her — even looking in places Cory never thought to hide objects. She even noticed that Shade understood verbal commands. As Cory tells it, "Sometimes she [Shade] responds correctly even when my back is to her. For example, she loves Chapstick. She always steals Chapstick." Cory notes that if Shade even hears the word “Chapstick,” she will immediately fly off and find it.

Cory hopes to train Shade to work in the back country, flying back and forth between hiker and trainer with a GPS attached to her foot. But her attempts have hit a roadblock, as no colleagues or professors will support her research. Nonetheless, Cory is undeterred. She recently started a Ph.D. program at the University of Arizona focusing on ravens and language.

This isn't the first time scientists have successfully taught crows and ravens to accomplish tasks. A tech expert built a crow vending machine which allows the birds to deposit spare change for various items.

A team of researchers from the University of Washington studied the ability of crows and ravens to facially recognize certain human beings. Those researchers wore rubber caveman masks while capturing and tagging wild American crows. When a person wearing the caveman mask approached the crows later, the birds attacked, or “scolded” them loudly. If the same person approached the birds wearing a mask of former Vice President Dick Cheney — whom they had not seen before — the birds didn’t bat an eye.

The Science Network - A Conversatioin with Alison Gopnik

Alison Gopnik is one of the coolest neuroscientists around - she focuses on infants and toddlers and their understanding of their world, which is much more complex and extensive than we ever gave them credit for. She gave an excellent talk at the 2008 Toward a Science of Consciousness Conference here in Tucson.

This video was posted at The Science Network.
Alison Gopnik is a Professor of Psychology and an affiliate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research is focused on children's learning and development. She is the author of over a hundred articles and several books including "Words, Thoughts and Theories" coauthored with Andrew Meltzoff and "The Scientist in the Crib," Coauthored with Andrew Meltzoff and Patricial Kuhl.

The Dalai Lama - World Peace Through Mental Peace

Discussions with Western Buddhists

by the Dalai Lama,
edited by José Ignacio Cabezón


Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

Now, you see, world peace through mental peace is an absolute. It is the ultimate goal. But as for the method, there are many factors that must be taken into consideration. Under a particular set of circumstances, a certain approach may be useful while under other circumstances another may be useful. This is a very complicated issue which compels us to study the situation at a particular point of time. We must take into account the other side's motivation, etc., so it is a very complex matter.

But we must always keep in mind that all of us want happiness. War, on the other hand, only brings suffering--that is very clear. Even if we are victorious, that victory means sacrificing many people. It means their suffering. Therefore, the important thing is peace. But how do we achieve peace? Is it done through hatred, through extreme competition, through anger? It is obvious that through these means it is impossible to achieve any form of lasting world peace. Hence, the only alternative is to achieve world peace through mental peace, through peace of mind. World peace is achieved based only on a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood, on the basis of compassion. The clear, genuine realization of the oneness of all mankind is something important. It is something we definitely need. Wherever I go, I always express these views.

--from Answers: Discussions with Western Buddhists by the Dalai Lama, edited by Jose Ignacio Cabezon, published by Snow Lion Publications

Answers • 5O% off • for this week only
(Good through September 17th).

Karen Armstrong - 9/11 and Compassion: We Need It Now More Than Ever

In honor of the day . . .

9/11 and Compassion: We Need It Now More Than Ever

Karen Armstrong

Posted: September 10, 2010

The anniversary of 9/11 reminds us why we need the Charter for Compassion. It should be an annual summons to compassionate action. The need is especially apparent this year. In the United States, we have witnessed an upsurge of anti-Muslim feeling that violates the core values of that nation. The controversy surrounding the community centre near Ground Zero, planned by our dear friends Imam Feisal Rauf and Daisy Khan (who were among the earliest supporters and partners of the Charter) has inspired rhetoric that shames us all. And now we have the prospect of the Quran burning proposed by a Christian pastor, who seems to have forgotten that Jesus taught his followers to love those they regard as enemies, to respond to evil with good, and to turn the other cheek when attacked, and who died forgiving his executioners.

If we want to preserve our humanity, we must make the compassionate voice of religion and morality a vibrant and dynamic force in our polarised world. We can no longer afford the barbarism of hatred, contempt and disgust. At the same time as we are so perilously divided, we are drawn together electronically, economically and politically more closely than ever before. A Quran burning, whenever it is held (it appears to have been delayed for questionable reasons by the pastor behind it), would endanger American troops in Afghanistan and send shock waves of distress throughout the Muslim world. In an age when, increasingly, small groups will have powers of destruction that were previously the preserve only of the nation-state, respect and compassion are now crucial for our very survival. We have to learn to make a place for the other in our minds and hearts; any ideology that inspires hatred, exclusion and division is failing the test of our time. Hatred breeds more hatred, violence more violence. It is time to break this vicious cycle.

In response to the prospect of a Quran burning, some people planned readings of the sacred Quran. Others are organizing interfaith gatherings on September 11. Each person who has affirmed the Charter, each one of our partners and associates, will know how best to respond in his or her own community. It is an opportunity to protest against the hatred that is damaging us all; to sit and do nothing is not an option. Instead of looking at one another with hostility, let us look at the suffering that we are seeing in so many parts of the world -- not least in Pakistan, where millions of people have been victims of the flooding. On September 11, let us all try to find something practical to do that can, in however small a way, bring help and relief to all those in pain, even -- and perhaps especially -- those we may regard as enemies. We are all neighbours in the global village and must learn to live together in harmony, compassion and mutual respect.

Imam Feisal Rauf is a Sufi. Over the centuries, Sufis, the mystics of Islam, have developed an outstanding appreciation of other faith traditions. It is quite common for a Sufi poet to cry in ecstasy that he is no longer a Muslim, a Christian or a Jew and that he is at home equally in a synagogue, mosque, temple or church, because once you have glimpsed the immensity of the divine, these limited, human distinctions fall away into insignificance. We need that spirit today -- perhaps especially near Ground Zero. Here I would like to add some words of the great thirteenth-century Sufi philosopher Muid ad-Din ibn al-Arabi, which I have found personally inspiring:

Do not attach yourself in an exclusive manner to any one creed, so that you disbelieve all the rest: if you do this, you will miss much good; nay, you will fail to realize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, is not limited by any one creed, for He says, "Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah" (Quran 2.109). Everyone praises what he believes; his god is his own creature, and in praising it he praises himself. Consequently he blames the beliefs of others, which he would not do if he were just but his dislike is based on ignorance.

It is time to combat the ignorance that inspires hatred and fear. We have seen the harm religious chauvinism can do; now let us bear witness to the power of compassion.

Friday, September 10, 2010

"The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism" by Tariq Ramadan - Some Reviews

Tariq Ramadan is a political activist, Muslim scholar, professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford. Many people see him as a positive reformer for modern Islam, helping to reduce the influence of the hard-core orthodoxy. However, many others see him as a "slippery", "double-faced" religious bigot, "a covert member of the Muslim Brotherhood whose aim is to undermine Western liberalism."

There who say that if you are controversial figure then you are probably doing something right. Tariq Ramadan's new book, "The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism," is generating some passionate reviews, so at least his likely to make some money on the deal.

Here are some reviews, all from the British press.

The Quest for Meaning by Tariq Ramadan

John Gray is frustrated by an idealistic treatise that mistakes poetic vagueness for pluralism

By John Gray
The Guardian, Saturday 28 August 2010

The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism

by Tariq Ramadan 224pp, Allen Lane, £14.99

"Time is linear or cyclical. The paths are steep, and sometimes there are mountains, plains and vast expanses of desert or water. We go on, in order to make progress or simply to go and then come back, and we learn to be, to live, to think and to love." This short passage captures the flavour of much of Tariq Ramadan's latest book. Before it is anything else, The Quest for Meaning is an exercise in rhetoric – something in which, Ramadan seems to think, clarity should be avoided wherever possible. He tells the reader that time is linear or cyclical, but which is it? Can it be both? Similar questions arise throughout the book, which contains few clear statements of any kind. One can read tens of pages, even whole chapters, and come away without recalling a single straightforward assertion.

Ramadan's equivocating style has made him the target of fierce attack. Neo-conservatives and some liberals have taken the Swiss Islamic scholar to task for failing to denounce human rights violations, while in his wildly hyperbolic The Flight of the Intellectuals the US writer Paul Berman has accused Ramadan of promoting a new kind of totalitarianism. Criticism of this sort is hard to take seriously. Anyone who sees Islamist movements as posing a threat on the scale of Nazism and communism has forgotten what these regimes were really like, and unless one subscribes to absurd theories of clashing civilisations, dialogue with and among Muslims can only be useful. Engaged in a type of intellectual diplomacy that places him at the most sensitive points of conflict between Islam and the west, Ramadan surely has a part to play.

The danger comes when the inevitable hypocrisies of public dialogue are presented as a coherent philosophy. In politics, compromise is unavoidable and often desirable. In the life of the mind, it is a recipe for a dangerous kind of woolliness. Ramadan claims to be developing a philosophy of pluralism, but that means looking for ways in which rival worldviews can coexist – a goal that cannot be achieved by blurring their differences or seeking an imaginary totality in which their conflicts are conjured away. Part of what is needed is old-fashioned tolerance – the willingness to accept that others be free to hold views you believe are mistaken or abhorrent.

Ramadan is having none of this. In a rare display of unambiguous clarity, he writes: "When it comes to relations between free and equal human beings, autonomous and independent nations, or civilisations, religions and cultures, appeals for the tolerance of others are no longer relevant." The idea that tolerance is obsolete because it presupposes a position of power or superiority has become a commonplace. But it is also nonsense, because the need for tolerance comes from something deeper than shifting power relations. It comes from the fact that we will always have to put up with ideas and people we loathe.

Read the whole review.

At the end of the day both religious and secular seek the same truth, says controversial Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadam. Michael Pye begs to differ

This is an extraordinary book, and that is not a compliment: a wishful incantation dressed up with a clatter of quotes and a touch of mysticism which even the author acknowledges could be thought "ethereal" (or, if you prefer, "fluffy"). You pick it up expecting a remarkable Islamic scholar on how we might stop talking clash of civilisations and try to live a pluralism that insults nobody. You get what the scholar himself calls some kind of "initiation", when he's not likening it, rather too accurately, to crossing a desert.

Maybe that's my fault for having a secular mind, because Tariq Ramadan certainly doesn't and our minds do not meet. He has certainties, and he is certain that if all our attitudes and truths were averaged out we'd find a truth on which we could all agree; and naturally this couldn't contradict his own certainties, so the process is risk-free. To him, everyone is a believer, which suggests he doesn't quite see the difference between believing the sun will rise and accepting a whole system of belief without immediate evidence, like a religion.

You can see the problem: a missionary mindset trying to engage with a secular issue like pluralism. For nobody supposes that everyone will manage a perfect, pluralist mind; we all, to use Ramadan's metaphor, have our windows on the world, and we can only look through one at a time. Pluralism matters somewhere else, in the space (it might be dentistry, it might be bus driving or accountancy) where we are not, first and foremost, religious and where we co-operate with people who believe nothing that we believe. At the moment, that's where we need help. And Ramadan ought to be the man to help: there is nobody quite like him.
Read the whole review.

The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism, By Tariq Ramadan

Reviewed by Kenan Malik

Friday, 13 August 2010

ALAMY: Seeking plurality: Muslim women shopping in London

In an age in which public intellectuals are often highly divisive figures – think of the storms surrounding Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins or Bernard-Henri Levy - few generate more controversy than Tariq Ramadan. Political activist, Muslim scholar, and professor of Contemporary at Oxford University, he is to some the "Muslim Martin Luther", a courageous reformer who helps bridge the chasm between Islamic orthodoxy and secular democracy.

To his critics, Ramadan is a "slippery", "double-faced" religious bigot, a covert member of the Muslim Brotherhood whose aim is to undermine Western liberalism. When, in 2004, Ramadan was appointed professor of religion by Notre Dame, America's leading Catholic University, the US State Department revoked his visa for supposedly endorsing terrorist activity. The ban has since been lifted.

The debate about Ramadan was re-ignited earlier this year with the publication of The Flight of the Intellectuals, American writer Paul Berman's savage attack on European thinkers like Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash for what he regards as their appeasement of Ramadan. The Quest for Meaning, Ramadan's first book aimed at a wider Western audience, arrives therefore at a timely moment.

It is, he writes, "a journey and an initiation" into the world's faiths to discover the universal truths they hold in common and to set out "the contours of a philosophy of pluralism". Unfortunately it will do little to settle the argument about the nature of Ramadan's beliefs.

There is a willfull shallowness about this work, a refusal to think deeply or to pose difficult questions, that is truly shocking. Insofar as it is provocative, The Quest for Meaning seeks to provoke not through the excess of its rhetoric but the banality of its reasoning.

Read the whole review.

The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism

By Tariq Ramadan

Reviewed by Ziauddin Sardar - 09 August 2010

Tariq Ramadan is a feted thinker, but his argument for the equal value of all faiths is clothed in platitudes and patronising mysticism.

Philosophy as candyfloss

The noted Muslim preacher, philosopher and Oxford academic Tariq Ramadan invites us to join him on a journey. We are promised an exploration of the bottomless ocean of ancient wisdom, through various religious, mystical, spiritual and secular traditions. We are asked to put our differences aside, to rise above and move beyond our obvious "conflict of perceptions". It will be a quest to help us rediscover our humanity and it will give meaning to our lives.

The journey begins well enough. Ramadan points out that we have a rather restricted view of reality: we see through our own "window", but there are countless other windows, other ways of perceiving and understanding the world. The binary logic of the west confines one to a single window. To get a wider perspective, it is necessary to transcend the limitations of reason and rationality. We need to see not just through our minds but also through our hearts. "The science of the heart," Ramadan writes, "is not the science of reason."

The first truth we must acknowledge, Ramadan asserts, is that of intellectual modesty and humility. Our own perception of truth, scientific or otherwise, is only a single viewpoint over the horizon. Our own religion or way of life is a partial, often distorted, reflection of the Truth. We should not take our partial images as certainties and delude ourselves that we know everything, or have found ourselves. "The dogmatic spirit," he writes, "confuses its exclusive convictions with the oceans of quests and human truths."

True meaning can come only from appreciating the Whole. The ocean has countless shores, all waiting to be explored, all offering distinctly different perspectives on the cosmos. It is the plurality of perceptions that shapes our common humanity. This is the core of Ramadan's "philosophy of pluralism".

But Ramadan's pluralism requires more than simple acknowledgment of diversity. He insists that meaning can emerge only by experiencing plurality. To be fully human, we must share the truth of others. Only "by immersion in the object per se", he writes, will we "be able to meet human beings, or subjects, with their traditions, religions, their philosophies, their aesthetics and/or their psychologies". It is at this juncture that the journey becomes a little confusing. The "ocean" of wisdom seems to yield little beyond trite statements. All explorations of the truth, all varieties of religious exploration, lead to the same destination, he tells us. Stating the obvious with a sense of discovery is neither original nor philosophy. If all paths "lead to the heart", one could ask, why choose one over the other?

Read the whole review.

Dharma Quote - Life is a party on death row

Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse
A Story of Transmission

by Anne C. Klein,
foreword by Adzom Paylo Rinpoche,
preface by Tulku Thondup Rinpoche


Dharma Quote of the Week

Life is a party on death row. Recognizing mortality means we are willing to see what is true. Seeing what is true is grounding. It brings us into the present and, eventually, into presence. It also brings us into our bodies, especially if we combine meditation on impermanence with an energetic awareness at the base of the spine. At first, the important thing about impermanence seems to be the limited time we have in this precious life. This is crucial and foundational, and yet it is not the whole story.

The teachings on impermanence concern the death of a self that never existed. Our sense of such a false and finite self, which initially is inseparable from our wish to practice, can dissolve. Understanding impermanence, Khetsun Rinpoche says, will lead you into the natural clarity of your own mind. To know impermanence is thus not only a path leading to what Dzogchen traditions speak of as "unbounded wholeness" (thigle nyag cig), it is also integral to that wholeness.

--from Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse: A Story of Transmission by Anne C. Klein, foreword by Adzom Paylo Rinpoche, preface by Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, published by Snow Lion Publications

Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse • Now at 5O% off
(Good until September 17th).

From September 1st through 5th, the Chinese government featured "Tibet Week" with the theme "Heaven in Tibet" at the Shanghai Expo in an attempt to claim Tibetan culture as its own and whitewash its abysmal human rights record in Tibet. Read more at
"Shanghai Exposed 2010: Stop the Attack on Tibet's Culture"
Courtesy of Students for a Free Tibet.

Marta Jorba - Is There a Specific Experience of Thinking?

Interesting article from THEORIA: An International Journal for Theory, History and Foundations of Science, Vol 25, No 2 (2010). Philosophers (and most neuroscientists) have such a problem with qualia (subjective experience = the feeling of thinking) - but I enjoy watching them struggle to grasp that which we all take for granted.

Is There a Specific Experience of Thinking?

Marta Jorba


In this paper I discuss whether there is a specific experience of thinking or not. I address this question by analysing if it is possible to reduce the phenomenal character of thinking to the phenomenal character of sensory experiences. My purpose is to defend that there is a specific phenomenality for at least some thinking mental states. I present Husserl's theory of intentionality in the Logical Investigations as a way to defend this claim and I consider its assumptions. Then I present the case of understanding as a paradigmatic case for the phenomenal contrast argument and I defend it against two objections.

Full Text: PDF


THEORIA :: eISSN: 2171-679X

Shrink Rap Radio #245 – The Art of Choosing with Sheena Iyengar

Shrink Rap Radio #245 – The Art of Choosing with Sheena Iyengar

photo of Sheena Iyengar

Sheena Iyengar, Ph.D. is the inaugural S.T. Lee Professor of Business at Columbia Business School, with a joint appointment in the Department of Psychology, and the Research Director at the Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business. Sheena’s primary research interest is how people perceive and respond to choice, and for her research on this topic she has been the recipient of numerous honors, including the prestigious Best Dissertation Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology in 1998 and the Presidential Early Career Award in 2002. She is currently recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on choice. Her work is regularly cited in the popular press, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Time magazines, the BBC and National Public Radio, as well as in bestselling books such as Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. She has recently written her first book, The Art of Choosing, which explores the mysteries of choice in everyday life.

A psychology podcast by David Van Nuys, Ph.D.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

RSA Selected: Why Some Lead, Others Follow and Why It Matters

Interesting video from RSA.

Selected: Why some lead, others follow and why it matters

02 Sep 2010

Psychologist Mark van Vugt fuses evolutionary history and science to show how the evolution of leadership affects us all.

Download video (mp4)

Here is a little information on Dr. van Vugt from his academic site, including links to papers:

Professor Mark Van Vugt's research concentrates on the study of group and organzational processes from an evolutionary and social psychological perspective.

He is interested in themes such as the evolution and psychology of leadership, status, power, altruism, cooperation, and intergroup relations. He is also interested in applying insights from social and evolutionary psychology to understand and help to solve real world problems related to leadership and management, environmental conservation and other pro-soclal behaviors such as volunteering, charity work, and blood donation, and antisocial behavior.

A prolific author and a regular contributor to national television and radio news, Professor Van Vugt’s has worked with a number of government, profit and non-profit organisations, including the Charity Commision, The US Office for Naval Research, Southampton Football Club, the Department of Transport, English Nature, National Health Service, Rank Xerox, Southern Water, and various city councils in the Netherlands and the UK.

Professor Van Vugt is member of the team that won the prestigious £1.2 million British Academy grant "From Lucy to Language: The Archaeology of the Social Brain." He is also co-autor of a text on Applying Social Psychology and is a consulting editor of various journals in social psychology.

Professor Van Vugt is member of the European Association for Experimental Social Psychology(EAESP), the Society of Experimental Social Psychology (SESP), the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP), and the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES).


  • Buunk, A. P., & Van Vugt, M. (2007). Applying social psychology: From problems to solutions. London: Sage Publications.
  • Van Vugt, M., & Ahuja, A. (2010). Selected: What evolutionary psychology tells us about leadership. London: Profile Books.
  • Van Vugt, M., Snyder, M., Tyler, T., & Biel, A. (Eds.). (2000). Cooperation in modern society: Promoting the welfare of communities, states, and organizations. London: Routledge.

Journal Articles:

  • Brosnan, S. F., Newton-Fisher, N. E., & Van Vugt, M. (2009). A melding of minds: When primatology meets social psychology. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 13, 129-147.
  • Hardy, C. L., & Van Vugt, M. (2006). Nice guys finish first: The competitive altruism hypothesis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 1402-1413.
  • Van Vugt, M. (2006). Evolutionary origins of leadership and followership. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, 354-372.
  • Van Vugt, M. (2001). Community identification moderating the impact of financial incentives in a natural social dilemma: Water conservation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 1440-1449.
  • Van Vugt, M., & De Cremer, D. (1999). Leadership in social dilemmas: The effects of group identification on collective actions to provide public goods. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 587-599.
  • Van Vugt, M., De Cremer, D., & Janssen, D. (2007). Gender differences in cooperation and competition: The male-warrior hypothesis. Psychological Science, 18, 19-23.
  • Van Vugt, M., & Hart, C. M. (2004). Social identity as social glue: The origins of group loyalty. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 585-598.
  • Van Vugt, M., Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. (2008). Leadership, followership, and evolution: Some lessons from the past. American Psychologist, 63, 182-196.
  • Van Vugt, M., Jepson, S., Hart, C., & De Cremer, D. (2004). Autocratic leadership in social dilemmas: A threat to group stability. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 1-13.
  • Van Vugt, M., & Samuelson, C. D. (1999). The impact of personal metering in the management of a natural resource crisis: A social dilemma analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 731-745.
  • Van Vugt, M., & Snyder, M. (2002). Cooperation in society: Fostering community action and civic participation. American Behavioral Scientist, 45, 761-918 (Special issue).

Other Publications:

  • Van Vugt, M., & Van Lange, P. (2006). The altruism puzzle: Psychological adaptations for prosocial behavior. In M. Schaller, D. Kenrick, & J. Simpson (Eds.), Evolution and Social Psychology (pp. 237-261). Psychology Press.

Resilience Science - Future Tense on ABC

Interesting discussion - resilience continues to be one of the hot topics. This comes via the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies (IEET).

Resilience Science

Brian Walker

Future Tense on ABC

Posted: Aug 31, 2010

Many scientists around the world believe that we need to focus on ways of making our urban and natural environments more resilient. So what is the idea of resilience science? And how can it help deal with future environmental challenges? An interview with Dr Brian Walker, chair of the Resilience Alliance, Guy Barnett, researcher for Sustainable Ecosystems, and ecologist Paul Ryan.

Also: Future Governance In a world where issues like climate change, population and migration are challenging the way we organise our societies. How should we address some of these issues? And what affect will they have on the future of governance? listen | download (4.4MB)

Upaya Dharma Podcasts - Dharma on the Edge, All 10 Parts

Another great series of podcasts from Roshi Joan Halifax and the Upaya Zen Center.

Dharma on the Edge All 10 Parts

Recorded: Friday Jan 1, 2010

Sensei Fleet Maull and Roshi Joan ask “what does it mean to live on the edge in a socially engaged, creative and generative way?” How do we find our way out of the “dead zone” and back into the magic” How do we resource ourselves to have the energy and skill to be fully engaged with our lives and the world” The dialog continues with a discussion of the first tenets of a peacemaker: Not Knowing. How can we rest in not knowing?

The 10 part Dharma on the Edge series is now published. You can access the desired part of the series by clicking on its link below:

UPDATED Dharma on the Edge: Part 1 of 10

Dharma on the Edge: Part 2 of 10

Dharma on the Edge: Part 3 of 10

UPDATED Dharma on the Edge: Part 4 of 10

Dharma on the Edge: Part 5 of 10

Dharma on the Edge: Part 6 of 10

Dharma on the Edge: Part 7 of 10

Dharma on the Edge: Part 8 of 10

Dharma on the Edge: Part 9 of 10

Dharma on the Edge: Part 10 of 10

Jonathan Kaplan, Ph.D. - Interview with Sharon Salzberg: Compassion in the City

Jonathan Kaplan blogs at Urban Mindfulness (and also at Psychology Today). Last spring he interviewed American Buddhist pioneer Sharon Salzberg, and these two posts are the result.

Sharon Salzberg: Compassion in the City

By Jonathan Kaplan, Ph.D.

Recently, I had the distinct privilege of sitting down with Sharon Salzberg, one of the pioneers in introducing Buddhist practices to the West. Based on her experiences of teaching mindfulness and compassion (i.e., loving-kindness) around the world, I invited her to comment on introducing these practices to many of our common urban experiences. Personally, it was delightful and enlightening to meet with her, and I am very grateful for her insights and support. Over the past 10 years, I have often relied on her teachings for my own spiritual and personal growth.

For more information on Sharon please check out the details at the end of the interview.

Congestion and Aggravation

Jon: Thanks so much for meeting with me today. In the city, we encounter many unique difficulties and challenges to mindfulness practice. Given your expertise and teachings on loving-kindness, I wonder about your reflections of being in some of these situations. For example, it’s easy to get annoyed and frustrated by the congestion we experience, like when we’re riding a crowded subway train. In such circumstances, how can we practice compassion?

Sharon: Well, part of it is having compassion for ourselves and realizing that we’re living like a sponge: we’re just absorbing all of the difficulty and annoyance and irritants. Eventually, it will fill us and take over our consciousness. Alternatively, we can experience it genuinely, but with a lot more spaciousness by not taking these things to heart. Practicing compassion for oneself is being able to be fluid in these situations. You can feel the annoyance like a storm moving through you and just let it go. Motivated by curiosity and a sense of our own well-being, we also can decide that we’re going to experiment with a new way of engaging people. Today, I was riding an elevator and someone had a rambunctious dog. At every floor, the elevator stopped and more people got on, until it was very crowded. As more people came into the elevator, I could conduct an experiment. I could ask, “Am I going to relate to these people in a friendly manner or am I going to glare at them with an ‘It’s crowded enough in here!’ stare?” We tell ourselves that we’re going to smile at the people in the elevator, ask the cab driver where he’s from, whatever it might be. It changes the day.

Noisy Neighbors

Jon: Sometimes, we can get to the point of personalizing our anger or annoyance, like with a noisy neighbor or intractable people on the co-op board. How do you suggest that we approach these situations, in which we’ve personified our inability to have our desires met?

Sharon: In Tibetan Buddhism, they say that anger is the thing that we pick-up when we feel weak because we think it’s going to make us feel strong. So, another aspect of this situation classically, is to investigate whether or not it really makes us feel strong. If so, how long does that last? We use mindfulness to look at the annoyance or anger and see whether or not this will really help me get what I want. Perhaps, there are more skillful ways of communicating in order to get our needs met. Some people think that if you’re practicing mindfulness, then you’re passive and don’t object to the noisy neighbor or unjust treatment. But it does not mean that either. But hopefully, you come from a different place when you take action.

Read more.

Sharon Salzberg: Compassion in the City (Part 2)

By Jonathan Kaplan, Ph.D.

In the spring, I sat down with Sharon Salzberg who graciously shared her wisdom about practicing mindfulness, compassion, and gratitude in the city. Here is Part 2 of the interview, in which she discusses dealing with two realities of our urban existence, (1) encountering homeless people and (2) being barraged by noise. For Part 1 of the interview, please click here: Compassion in the City, Part 1. For more information on Sharon, please check out her bio. at the end of the interview or visit her website: Sharon Salzberg.

This weekend, Sharon is co-leading a workshop with Robert Thurman at the Tibet House retreat in the Catskills! For more information, just click here: Working with Your Enemies. She also is co-leading a weekend workshop at Tibet House in November on mindfulness and awareness: Healing Power of Awareness.


Jonathan: What about being and being with homeless people in the city?

Sharon: It’s a rare and precious thing to be close to suffering because our society—in many ways—tells us that suffering is wrong. If it’s our own suffering, we try to hide it or isolate ourselves. If others are suffering, we’re taught to put them away somewhere so we don’t have to see it. Ironically, in that situation, our own feeling of helplessness or powerlessness can start taking center stage compared to this person and his or her circumstances. So, I really believe in small good deeds. It may seem small and inconsequential in the moment, but I really think that this is how the world changes. It might mean smiling or looking someone in the eye or paying attention to our own reactions or judgments. It may not be that you can solve their housing issue or address the housing policies of the city, but you can be there with them. Human recognition is a very significant thing, and certainly fits our efforts in a more comprehensive way. This person is not an object. This person is a person.

Jonathan: I wonder what would happen if we could all adopt that perspective.

Sharon: We tend to have a very linear sense and a lot of impatience, especially in the city. It’s very hard to tell ourselves, “Okay, I didn’t see an immediate fruition of my action; therefore it’s still worth doing.” [Laughs] We like things to manifest right away, and they may not. Many times, we’re just planting a seed and we don’t know exactly how it is going to come to fruition. It’s hard for us to realize that what we see in front of us might not be the end of the story.

Alarms and Sirens

Jonathan: Car Alarms?

Sharon: It’s a good signal to see if you’re really stressed. Are you having a significant reaction? If so, you might need a break. My friend Joseph Goldstein took a resolve to be mindful when he brushed his teeth. The first thing he noticed was how tightly he was holding on to the toothbrush, as if it were a jackhammer about to leap out of his hand and cut-off his head. He realized that he might be applying inappropriate energy to a lot of things, like shoving against a door or holding something too tightly. It became a whole avenue of exploration for him. As soon as we realize these things, we know that our systems are on overload. Maybe we can relax a little bit. Instead of watching the 80th episode of Law and Order, maybe we should just breathe.

Read the rest.