Reading notes is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, as Michel de Montaigne so beautifully wrote, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”
After an absence of more than a year, I have decided to revive my weekly curation of things that have made me pause & think, albeit under different name.
In this week’s edition: Can the Ancient concept of ‘temperance’ provide a stepping stone towards a new ethical order?; a critique of the dominant view of the knowledge economy; vernacular architecture as an answer to placelessness; how birds took up in the human imagination; Hierocles’ cosmopolitanism; four ways to practise your beginner’s mind; sashiko, the traditional Japanese art of fabric repair; Zaido; and finally, Sir Ken Robinson, who passed away on 21st August 2020.
In our postmodern times, temperance is often dismissed as naïve, if not downright silly. In an essay for Eurozine, Matilda Amundsen Bergström revisits what was once seen as the founding principle for all virtues as a means to redefine limits in a seemingly boundless world.
During the unusually cold and wet period known today as the Late Antique Little Ice Age, Pope Gregory I (590–604) was convinced that the end of the world had arrived. “He considered this earthly rebellion against man a divine punishment for an unsustainable, limitless, lifestyle. In their greed, men had traversed ethical, ecological and economical boundaries that should never have been transgressed. According to Gregory, only one thing could pacify God and the angry earth: temperance, the foremost of virtues,” Matilda Amundsen Bergström writes.
“In postmodern society, the idea of temperance — the solution that seemed so obvious to Gregory — feels naïve, if not downright silly. […] Meanwhile, the questions that the concept originally addressed — questions of boundaries and how to draw them — become ever more challenging.”
“The concept of temperance — temperantia in Latin and sophrosyne in Greek — was esteemed as one of the four cardinal virtues (the others being prudence, courage and justice) for roughly 2,000 years. These virtues formed the basis of virtue ethics, arguably the most essential ethical system of the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern world. Virtue ethics entailed many things but designated first and foremost a code of conduct aimed at making people live well together. Virtue ethics weaved together patterns of action, thought and behaviour, which each person (ideally) were to perform for the good of her fellow man, and — since virtue ethics was always the tool of the powerful — for the good of religion and the nation. These behavioural patterns were complex, kaleidoscopic and connected to each person’s class, social status, gender and age. In practice, virtue ethics provided a rule book which helped (or forced) everyone to fulfil social expectations, fit in and keep to their place, in a world where social mobility was unthinkable. But virtue ethics also provided a guide to a good life, in all aspects of the word, implanting above all else the ideal that each individual existence was intertwined with multiple other beings.”
Temperance, which at its core means finding, respecting and defending boundaries, especially one’s own, was a central point in this ethical system. According to Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), moderation was not only a virtue in itself but also the founding principle for all virtues.
“In a world of more and more extreme capitalism, temperance is gradually emptied of meaning, eventually becoming a hollow decree about abstention in the name of personal health and well-being.”
Like Gregory, Matilda Amundsen Bergström believes we are witnessing the end days. “Before long, somehow, something new must be rebuilt,” she writes, and she wonders whether temperance, as an ethical concept, could be part of that process, even though the values it brings to mind — fitting in, avoiding excess, self-restraint and self-limitation — do not instinctively feel inspiring.
So why revive it?
“Because we desperately need new and other ways to think about boundary points, limits, borderlines. These are times—this year especially — when boundaries are drawn, transgressed, and drawn again, sometimes within hours and minutes. These are times that urgently require an ethic of the borderline, a different kind of conversation about outer points, about limitations and about how all sorts of boundary lines are incessantly drawn and crossed — in the name of this ideal, that practical reality. Perhaps temperance, a concept where self-limitation and self-knowledge merge, can be part of such a conversation. Perhaps this Ancient concept which is in the midst of a philosophical tradition but outside of today’s political systems […] can call to mind other worlds and views. And perhaps temperance, once the centre point of virtue ethics, can provide a stepping stone towards a new ethical order — one that our both warmer and colder world requires.”
“‘If you seek tranquillity, do less.’ Or (more accurately) do what’s essential — what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better. Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’” — Marcus Aurelius on temperance (from Meditations, Book 4.24)
Moderation may be the most challenging and rewarding virtue, by Aurelian Craiutu (Aeon, 2017)
After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, by Alasdair MacIntyre (University of Notre Dame Press, 1981)
Aristotle’s Ethics, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
‡ Now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Temperance is one of seven panels representing the Seven Virtues, commissioned by Florence’s Tribunale della Mercanzia, the body overseeing the city’s guilds. Piero del Pollaiolo (1441–1496) painted six panels and the series was completed in 1470 by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445–1510). Fortitude is one of his very first works.
A critique of the knowledge economy’s dominant view
“The knowledge economy is the science- and technology-intensive practice of production, devoted to perpetual innovation, that has begun to assume a commanding role in all the major economies of the world,” the Harvard law professor and philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger writes in a dense and lengthy essay for American Affairs (Fall 2020: Volume IV, Number 3), entitled The Knowledge Economy: A Critique of the Dominant View. Although present in every sector of these economies, he argues, it remains a fringe, excluding the vast majority of workers and firms.
The dominant approach to the knowledge economy is inspired by the early work of the American economist and co-recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (shared with William Nordhaus), Paul M. Romer, who argues that the knowledge economy is organized around ideas. Because of the nonrivalrous character of ideas, increasing returns to scale become possible, resulting in continued breakthroughs in productivity and growth. Although this is only one of three elements on which the dominant theory is based, it plays the decisive role, Roberto Mangabeira Unger writes, it makes a claim about what is distinctive to the knowledge economy and why this difference matters.
But is there actually a practice of production that gives a commanding role to ideas and exhibits in its development the consequences of their nonrivalry? And if so, does such a practice lie at the heart of today’s knowledge economy? Unger answers both questions with “no.”
“The contrast between an economy organized around ideas and everything that existed before in economic history is false,” Unger writes. “There never has been a form of production that failed to depend on ideas. Moreover, the knowledge economy cannot be adequately understood as a march of ideas, discoveries, and inventions that happen to have economic consequences and happen to be pursued under the pressure of economic incentives.
Rather, the knowledge economy is distinguished by a set of practices at the level of the firm or the workplace. It combines capability for production at scale with destandardization of products and services, and it unites decentralization of initiative with the preservation of coherence and momentum in the process of production. Its characteristic technologies have coevolved with these practices.”
Unger continues by saying that there are three deeper attributes or potential lines of development that it reveals only imperfectly in its present, confined form.
“The most basic of these undeveloped powers is movement in the direction of making innovation perpetual rather than episodic and anchoring it within production as well as importing it from the external progress of science and technology. Such accelerated innovation holds the promise of loosening or even reversing what has until now been the most constant and unyielding constraint in economic life: diminishing marginal returns.
The second deeper faculty of the knowledge economy is its promise to bring the practice of production closer to the work of the imagination and to change the relation between workers and machines. The ideal limit of this change is partnership between the machine — which does everything that we have learned how to repeat — and the anti-machine, the human being, who can transgress established methods and presuppositions and can develop retrospectively the ideas that make sense of what we have discovered.
The third promising characteristic of the knowledge economy is that it requires a change in the moral culture of production, the better to exploit the potential of new productive practices. The forms of production and industrial organization that preceded the knowledge economy were marked by the generalization of low trust among strangers. Low-trust production and exchange were formalized in the characteristic organizational structures and legal arrangements of market economies: command and control within the firm and traditional contracts — arm’s-length bargains exhausted in an instantaneous performance — among firms.
Everything in the development of the knowledge economy depends on raising the level of trust and discretionary initiative allowed to and demanded of all participants in the productive process. Everything calls for higher forms of innovation-friendly cooperation. These practices may require legal instruments that differ from the legal devices of low-trust production and exchange, such as the arm’s-length, short-lived, fully articulated contract, or the unified property right, vesting all the component powers of property together in a single right holder, the owner.”
According to Unger, by presenting the problem of the knowledge economy in this way, an alternative view of the knowledge economy begins to emerge.
“Central to this view is insight into the suppressed potential of this practice of production. The knowledge economy deepens by spreading and changing; insofar as it remains restricted to the fringes in which it now prospers, it reveals only fitfully its deeper traits and greater possibilities. But the changes that are needed for this potential to be actualized cannot spontaneously occur in market economies as they are now organized.
Some of these changes are cognitive or educational. They demand […] a way of teaching and learning that prioritizes capabilities over content, prefers selective depth to encyclopedic superficiality, rejects the juxtaposition of authoritarianism and individualism in the classroom in favor of cooperation among students, teachers, and schools, and deals with every subject from multiple and contrasting points of view.
Other changes are social or moral. The knowledge economy thrives on the basis of a heightening of trust and discretion and an accumulation of social capital. It therefore depends on a multiplication of forms of collective action — people doing many things together — in politics and social life as well as in the economy. The most important and complex changes have to do with the legal and institutional arrangements of the market order: those that shape the terms of decentralized access to productive resources and opportunities, including contract and property regimes. They encompass as well the ways in which private and public entities can interact and cooperate legally and economically in order to deepen and disseminate the most advanced practice of production.
It would not be enough to create the institutional machinery to give a much wider range of firms access to advanced practice, technology, and knowledge, as well as to credit. It would also be necessary to do the same for the growing number of workers who have tenuous or no connections to firms. The place to begin is the hollowed-out middle part of the job structure: helping to turn machine repair technicians or nurse practitioners, for example, into technologically equipped artisans.
This understanding of what the knowledge economy requires to grow invokes no blueprint or system; it marks a direction and signals initial steps suitable to the circumstances of a contemporary economy such as that of the United States. It also points to broader features of culture and politics that make it more or less likely that a society will be able to fulfill these requirements. The cultural basis for a deepened and widespread knowledge economy is the radicalization of an experimentalist impulse in every part of social life. The political basis is a high-energy democracy that makes change less dependent on crisis because it increases the level of organized popular engagement in political life, resolves impasses quickly (repudiating the conservative principle of slowing down politics while reaffirming the liberal principle of fragmenting power), and combines the possibility for decisive action on the part of central government with opportunities for radical devolution to states and towns — thecreation, in different parts of a country, of countermodels of the national future.”
“The insularity of the knowledge economy results in both economic stagnation and economic inequality. It causes economic stagnation by denying the most advanced practice to most economic agents. And it roots economic inequality in a lengthening chasm between the advanced and backward parts of production.” — Roberto Mangabeira Unger in an interview with The Nation
Unger concludes his essay by saying that “Romer’s view of the knowledge economy appeals to those whose understanding of how economies work and of how they can change was formed in the tradition that the late nineteenth-century marginalists inaugurated. According to that view, we can carry out the productivity revolution promised, but not yet delivered, by the knowledge economy, without having to reimagine and remake our institutions, including the institutions defining the market. And we can understand this revolution without having to revise the practice of economic analysis.”
But according to Unger, “this attempt to explain how we can move toward rapid and sustained growth, through increasing returns to scale, without reorganizing the market economy, and how we can understand the economic changes of our time without changing anything important about economics, must be judged a dangerous failure.”
Further reading and listening
The Knowledge Economy, by Roberto Mangabeira Unger (Verso, 2019)
The Knowledge Economy — Geoff Mulgan interviews Roberto Unger, Nesta UK
Why every city feels the same now
In Why Every City Feels the Same Now, Darran Anderson tells how he woke up in a hotel room unable to determine where she was in the world. The state of placelessness he experienced is what the anthropologist Marc Augé calls non-place. “In non-places, history, identity, and human relation are not on offer. Non-places used to be relegated to the fringes of cities in retail parks or airports, or contained inside shopping malls. But they have spread. Everywhere looks like everywhere else and, as a result, anywhere feels like nowhere in particular,” Anderson writes.
“The opposite of placelessness is place, and all that it implies — the resonances of history, folklore, and environment; the qualities that make a location deep, layered, and idiosyncratic. Humans are storytelling creatures. If a place has been inhabited for long enough, the stories will already be present, even if hidden. We need to uncover and resurface them, to excavate the meanings behind street names, to unearth figures lost to obscurity, and to rediscover architecture that has long since vanished. A return to vernacular architecture — the built environment of the people, tailored by and for local culture and conditions — is overdue. It can combat the placelessness that empires and corporations have imposed.”
“Vernacular is an umbrella term architects and planners use to describe local styles. Vernacular architecture arises when the people indigenous to a particular place use materials they find there to build structures that become symptomatic of and attuned to that particular environment. Augé called it ‘relational, historical and concerned with identity.’ It aims for harmonious interaction with the environment, rather than setting itself apart from it,” Anderson writes.
But vernacular architecture alone won’t be able to satisfy the demands of population density, technology and standard of living. Equally, hegemonic architecture has been unsustainably detached from place with disastrous results, not just environmental but social.
“Creativity often works according to a dialectic process. Frank Lloyd Wright sought to ‘break the box”]’ of Western architecture by shifting geometries, letting the outside in, and designing architecture within a natural setting, as he did with Fallingwater, one of his most famous designs. Wright was inspired by a love of the Japanese woodblock prints of Hiroshige and Hokusai — an influence he would later repay by training Japanese architects such as Nobuko and Kameki Tsuchiura, who reinterpreted European modernist design in Japan. The goal is not to replace glass skyscrapers with thatch huts, but to see vernacular as the future, like Wright did, rather than abandoning it to the past.”
“In truth, all architecture is vernacular: It is tied to place and to culture, however much glass-and-steel modernism has attempted to deny or ignore this fact. ‘Starchitects’ may design buildings that could crash-land in any city or pay cursory tokenistic homage to their surroundings. Cities may adopt a siege mentality to the environment while being deeply reliant upon it for survival. Modernity’s catastrophe is best captured in the desire to build universal citadels that separate people from the particulars: of cause and effect, of climate, of the natural world, of local culture. To counter those trends requires more than just preserving different styles of buildings. Vernacular architecture reflects who the built environment is by and for.”
What traditional buildings can teach architects about sustainability, CNN
Habitat: Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Planet, by Sandra Piesik (Thmaes & Hudson, 2017)
And also this …
In Birds are ‘winged words’, Jeremy Mynott, an emeritus fellow at Wolfson College in Cambridge, explores how birds took up in the human imagination, nesting in our language and art ever since the Classical world.
“The Mediterranean world of 2,500 years ago would have looked and sounded very different. Nightingales sang in the suburbs of Athens and Rome; wrynecks, hoopoes, cuckoos and orioles lived within city limits, along with a teeming host of warblers, buntings and finches; kites and ravens scavenged the city streets; owls, swifts and swallows nested on public buildings. In the countryside beyond, eagles and vultures soared overhead, while people could observe the migrations of cranes, storks and wildfowl,” Mynott writes.
Small wonder, then, that birds impressed their physical presence on people’s daily lives, to a degree now hard to imagine. They crop up in all manner of figures of speech, proverbs, myths, fables, and in ritual and magical practices, some of which now seem very strange.
“Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey are both full of figures of speech taken from the natural world and in particular from birds. Homer describes the mustering of the Greek armies on the plain as being ‘like the clamouring flocks of cranes and wildfowl on migration’; the disloyal maidservants are strung up by Telemachus ‘like thrushes caught in a snare’; Odysseus’ bow-string ‘sings to his touch like a swallow’; and Penelope nightly mourns her absent husband ‘like a wailing nightingale’; while Homeric heroes bear down on their opponents in battle ‘like marauding eagles.’”
And in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, “birds far outnumber mammals — about 50 against two, at a rough count — and differ also in that the bird stories are always aetiological. That is, they are ‘just so’ stories explaining how the species acquired their distinctive features (and often their names). Picus had been changed by Circe into a woodpecker, and vents his anger by violently drilling into trees; Perdix was thrown from a high tower, and now clings close to the ground as a partridge; and Ovid gives us similar myths about Cygnus the swan, Tereus the hoopoe, Philomela the nightingale, and so on.”
“If our primary relation is with our rational self, then producing the closest relations possible with our fellow humans requires matching this intimacy we have with the self. Hierocles’ cosmopolitanism is not simply oriented toward the goal of a bigger localized community for any of us. Neither is its intention straightforwardly to generate or construct a culture of altruistic selflessness via which a harmonious society might subsequently emerge. Hierocles rather highlights our universal attachment to all rational beings that we should already feel and that already exists,” Will Johncock writes in Bringing People Closer: Cicero, Hierocles, and Cosmopolitanism, an essay for Epoché.
“In order to emphasize the inescapable reality of this universal fellowship, Hierocles posits the shared origins of all humans. During an essay appropriately titled Parents, Hierocles declares that our various mothers and fathers are terrestrial ‘images’ of a singular and divine parent that we all share, ‘Zeus’ […].
Given this understanding of our common origin, when Hierocles orders us to impart a close familial warmth to people in our outer circles, it is not a directive to generously extend ourselves to an entirely alienated stranger. There is instead already a universal human kinship, which destabilizes the possibility of anyone being a complete stranger to us. This all-encompassing communion furthermore counters the perceived estranging effect of geographical detachment, where we are, for Hierocles, ‘a great benefit to one another even if the distance is enormous’ […]. Hierocles’ contraction of our circles wants to make this existing universal fellowship overt, rather than presenting itself as an exercise that constructs such a fellowship in a world from which it was absent.”
“It’s easy for the mind to become closed to new ideas. Cultivating a beginner’s mind helps us rediscover the joy of learning,” Christian Jarrett writes in How to foster ‘shoshin’.
“The Japanese Zen term shoshin translates as ‘beginner’s mind’ and refers to a paradox: the more you know about a subject, the more likely you are to close your mind to further learning. As the Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki put it in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (1970): ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.’”
In his essay for Aeon, Jarrett gives four ways to practise a beginner’s mind:
- Explain a theory or idea to yourself or someone else. Overconfidence in your own knowledge and expertise fuels closed-mindedness. By attempting to explain an idea or argument to someone else, you will get a more realistic sense of what you do and don’t know.
- Argue with yourself. It’s an essential part of human psychology that we are inclined to seek out knowledge and information that is consistent with our current views and beliefs. Try to be more aware of this ‘confirmation bias’, and deliberately counteract it by debating with yourself — look for evidence or arguments that challenge your current perspective.
- Recognise that intelligence is not fixed but accrues through the pursuit of knowledge. If you believe in the malleability of intellect, this is known as having a ‘growth mindset’ (by contrast, if you see people as essentially either smart or ignorant by nature, then you have a ‘fixed mindset’). By periodically reminding yourself that expertise is something that accrues through study and effort, you are more likely to develop a growth mindset, and in turn this will help you to be more open-minded.
- Look to the stars. Gaze at the night sky, take a walk in nature, or listen to a stirring symphony. Any activities that invoke in you the emotion of awe (wonder at the enormity and beauty of the world) will increase your feelings of humility, and inspire a more open-minded perspective.
Also on Aeon, this wonderful essay by the narrative nonfiction and crime novel writer Melanie McGrath on sashiko (‘little stabs’ in Japanese), the traditional Japanese art of fabric repair
“While I was stitching, another workshop participant recommended In Praise of Shadows(1933) by the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki, for anyone who wanted to understand Japanese culture at a deeper level. I downloaded it and listened while walking the dog. Tanizaki’s book is a classic of Japanese aesthetics. It explores a wide variety of household objects from ceramic bowls to wooden toilets, examining the Japanese fondness for the quality and depth of shadow in interior design:
‘We Orientals tend to seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are; and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce, then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty. But the progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light — his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.’
There is much darkness in the world right now. Yet as I came to realise, listening to Tanizaki’s essay, the Japanese taste for shade is less a simple accommodation than a deep appreciation of things as they are, which has its roots, I assume, in Buddhism, as well as a desire to know about the past and actively experience its echo in the present. Tanizaki reminds us that, until relatively recently, Japanese women blackened their teeth so as to bring out the subtle lustre of their faces. He speaks of the Japanese distaste for polishing brass and silver, preferring the tarnish and patina wrought by age and use. If an object, or a person, requires repairing, it is done with a respect that comes from understanding that they have served a long and useful purpose.”
Following the death of her father, Yukari Chikura recalls how he came to her in a dream with the words: “Go to the village hidden deep in the snow where I lived a long time ago.” And so with camera in hand, she set off on a restorative pilgrimage to northeast Japan, which resulted in Zaido (Steidl Verlag, 2020).
“… every day, everywhere, our children spread their dreams beneath our feet. And we should tread softly.” — Sir Ken Robinson in his TEDTalk from 2010, Bring on the learning revolution!