How to Combine Eastern and Western Philosophy

It’s Christmas time and all around people are revisiting the cultic practices of an ancient oriental sect, as though they were at the very heart of Western culture.Three wise men?

The longer I live the more annoying I find the maintenance of the fairly rigorous distinction between two traditions of philosophy – Eastern and Western. This can be defended as a necessary specialisation – as though ‘world philosophy’ would be just too much for any one brain to comprehend. But the more I think about it the more it seems like an ideology, a deliberate dualism to go with those rightly exposed and criticised by some feminists and some readers of Foucault. The West is active, the East passive, the West emotional, the East inscrutible, the West masculine, the East feminine and so on. Do we really need this distinction between East and West? What is it for? Who does it benefit? Continue reading

So… what should I believe?

Psychologist Dorothy Rowe has a book out about religious belief, entitled What Should I Believe? She says,

it is possible to create set of beliefs, which allow us to live at peace with ourselves and other people, to feel strong in ourselves without having to remain a child forever dependent on some supernatural power, and to face life with courage and optimism.

What I find interesting about this is the acceptance of the idea that belief  as such presents itself as some kind of choice, while the content of belief is in need of construction by each and every would-be believer. It seems that DIY religion is not so much an option – it’s the only real possibility.

But I think there may be at least three alternatives… Continue reading

Four Cultures and Bounded Rationality

Recently this site suggested grid-group cultural theory as a type of bounded rationality could explain certain economic behaviour (that of pirates) more completely than rational choice theory could. But is grid-group cultural theory actually a version of bounded rationality, or are there important differences.? A forthcoming article in the Harvard Law Review should shed light on this:

Kahan, D. M., & Slovic, P. (in press). Is cultural cognition a product of bounded rationality? Harvard Law Review.

Update:

I’m informed that the above article is already available  on-line. It is part of an in-print discussion with Cass Sunstein.  Sunstein’s response to the review essay, Fear of Democracy: A Cultural Critique of Sunstein on Risk, 119 Harv. L. Rev.1071 (2006) is also available online.

New Book on Grid-Group Cultural Theory

Michael Thompson has a new book out on his version of grid-group cultural theory (for reasons to be explored here one day, he has five social solidarities instead of the ‘four cultures’ described on this site). It’s called Organisation and Disorganisation. And thanks to Huw for pointing this out.

From the blurb:

We may believe that our perspective is the right one and that any interaction with opposing views is a messy and unwelcome contradiction. But why should egalitarians engage with individualists, or hierachists with egalitarians?

Using a range of examples and analogies, the author shows how the best outcomes depend upon an essential argumentative process, which encourages subversions that are constructive whilst discouraging those that are not. In this way each approach gets more of what it wants and less of what it doesn’t want.

There’ll be a review here when  a copy arrives, but in the meantime you can hear Michael speaking about it both at the RSA and on the BBC (with philosopher John Gray).

How I learnt to stop worrying and love grid-group cultural theory

old-divinity-school-cambridgeFourcultures received a nice email from Huw asking how I learned about cultural theory. It was  while enrolled on a religious studies course that I first came across the work  of anthropologist Mary Douglas, who had developed a four part typology of cultures in her book Natural Symbols. Admittedly at the time it didn’t seem very clear how to apply this, since education is mostly wasted on the young. Intriguing as it was, I didn’t take it any further. But it must have been bubbling away under the surface because years later, while studying the phenomenon of peak oil, it suddenly struck home that the arguments for and against peak oil seemed to match very well the contours of cultural bias, or social solidarities,  that Douglas had sketched. On further investigation it became clear that the theory had been strongly developed since the 1980s and now has much to say about today’s social, political and religious debates. That’s what this website is about.

A definitive survey of Mary Douglas’s work was written by Richard Fardon: Mary Douglas: An Intellectual Biography (London: Routledge, 1999).

For those wanting to find out more about grid-group cultural theory and the four cultures it describes you could check out Michael Thompson’s book, Organising and Disorganising, which Huw says is great.

Michael Thompson gave a lecture at the RSA, and an interview which you can download.

[updated 4/2/2016]

Contingency Plans for Peak Oil

Should national governments make contingency plans in case of peaking oil? In a recent report of an interview he did with Fatih Birol, head of the IEA, the journalist George Monbiot appears shocked there is no such plan for the UK. Why?

In about 1973 you could collect three vouchers from the side of a cornflakes packet and send off for a little plastic model of a North Sea oil rig. For a child, this was the brave new frontier, the UK’s answer to the space program. It was exciting. And even then it was common knowledge we had ’30 years’ of oil so there was no need to worry about the future. Since then, we’ve always had ’30 years of oil’ because most policy makers saw this not as a prediction about reality but merely as code for ‘not on the policy radar, ever’. Then (after 30 years, note) North Sea oil began its steep and irreversable decline and policy makers were actually surprised.
Unfortunately for Reason with a capital R, humans don’t look at the facts and then decide what is going on. Instead we collect and filter data on the basis of preconceived notions of what must surely be going on. Egalitarians such as George Monbiot generally believe things must be running out and our options are narrowing. The by-line to the article says he was ‘shocked and alarmed’. He would be – it’s in the egalitarian job description. In contrast, Individualists are quite sure they know that there are limitless opportunities just waiting to be unlocked by human ingenuity and that all talk of scarcity is defeatist nonsense. Then there are the Hierarchists and the Fatalists who have their own take on the argument. These four poles are the four ‘cultural biases’ of grid-group cultural theory. An understanding of this goes a long way towards making sense of the way issues such as peak oil and global warming are such a lightning rod for debates about how society ought to be organised. A great primer on the basics of grid-group is Christopher Hood’s The Art of the State (1998), and the FourCultures blog looks at the world through a grid-group lens.
At the very least, this approach helps us recognise that we’re not really debating how much oil there is. We’re really promoting conflicting visions of social organisation, and using oil (or carbon dioxode, or whatever) as the pretext.

Evidence for the existence of Santa

i-love-santaInexplicably, one of the more popular search terms connected with this blog is ‘santa science’. Given the current season, perhaps this should be cleared up once and for all (look away now if you are under the age of 18):

There is no scientific evidence for the existence of Santa. However, this is not taught in schools, and teachers who do cast doubt in children’s minds are suitably punished (i.e. removed).

It may be true that every year the white bearded one is detected in North American airspace delivering presents by sleigh and given a welcome by fighter interceptor planes, but Youtube footage is unconvincing. Richard Dawkins, for one, has never received presents from Santa. He maintains this has nothing to do with his inability to be a good boy for a whole year, and it is difficult to argue that it might.

Here’s a nice piece of research on the issue of what children learn and unlearn about Santa.

Ironically, those who see something strange in society’s insistence on Santa’s literal truth are in the company of extreme Christian groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses. These people hold that if children grow up disillusioned about what their parents told them regarding Santa, they’ll be less inclined to accept what they’re told about God. It’s hard to know whether this is correct because there is remarkably  little scientific research on the effects of Santa-belief, although ‘current research in developmental psychology suggests that even very young children competently draw boundaries between reality and its alternatives’ (Rosengren and Hickling, in Rosengren, Johnson and Harris, 2000: 76)

smoking-santaPerhaps it’s all a bit of harmless fun…

What do you think?

Please note: I made up the bit about Richard Dawkins.