Saturday, May 26, 2012

Thoughts on having Reached a 1001 Posts!

The long-distance runner.  Phoenix Park, March, 2012
At this stage I have published some 1001 posts according to Blogspot - no mean achievement in itself, I suppose.  Blogging has now become an addiction for me, like it has for millions of others out there in the blogosphere.  Through its medium we have instant publication of our views and access to  a certain audience.  Some people blog on politics because they feel so strongly about certain issues, and they believe that by highlighting them they may be able to further their cause.  This, indeed, is a noble pursuit.  We all like to feel we can effect change in our immediate surroundings at least, if not at a more countrywide or national level.

Others write simply to express themselves.  Still others to find themselves.  Others still on a hobby which they may have from beekeeping to bus-spotting. Indeed, I know people who blog on each of these issues.  Furthermore, others blog on subjects ranging from all the various sciences, to literatures from various countries to religious beliefs and none.  There are family blogs and art blogs and blogs full of wonderful pictures.  Indeed, the Internet has allowed many of us to pursue our various hobbies on a virtual as well as on a more real or practical level through books and other physical activities.

It was, indeed, by absolute chance that I stumbled upon Blogspot.  I have been a student of one subject or another for most of my life, and indeed it seems like I have been a student since the first dawn of my consciousness of the wonder of things about me. Philosophy begins with wonder, according to Plato and Aristotle. Yet Plato and Aristotle did not expand a great deal on what precisely they meant by wonder.

Yet these two great Greek philosophers were so right.  When we become hooked on wonder, with respect to whatever interest we may have, there then begins a wonderful engagement with life.  In short, I believe that's what the function of wonder is - its function is to allow us engage with life and that means that we fall passionately in love with life in se or in itself. 

Wonder has a role in all the sciences - not just in the creative arts or humanities.  Who can look at the starry skies above and not be overcome by the mystery of the frightening expanse of space and the sheer insignificant size of our little world, not to mind the sheer insignificance of the ant-like thinking creature I am among the many billions of my number on this oh so small planet moving (with or without purpose) through space?

Philosophy seeks to give more general answers to our most basic questions.  Theology proposes specific answers and the philosopher or scientist in us might want to engage with the proposed answers suggested by religion.  There again, we might not.  Still the engagement is an option.  And as humans options and choices are values we have long fought so hard for.

Cyclist, Phoenix Park, March 2012
This blog has become, in reality, a sort of Commonplace Book for me.  Originally, such books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator's particular interests.  I had always kept diaries and journals and notebooks and had always written notes into them.  Therefore, when I discovered the idea of a Blog in April 2005, I realised that I now had an interesting way of keeping my Commonplace Book on line.  In other words, then, it didn't matter at all initially whether I got followers or not because its main function was personal, but never private. 

I had seen many Commonplace Books over my career in teaching and studying and was always intrigued by the vast range of interests of various authors from Coleridge to our own fine novelist, poet and playwright Gerald Griffin (1803 – 1840) who became a Christian Brother.  I had seen the original of Griffin's Commonplace Book in O'Connell School, North Richmond Street as a young pupil at that school.

Over the years I have had many articles published in various journals both in the Irish and English languages, for example, Studies, Issues in Education, The Secondary Teacher, Doctrine and Life, The Furrow, Céide, Iris Leabhar Mhá Nuad and latterly An Gael.  However, blogging is far more interesting than writing for these various journals ands magazines as one gets instant access to publication and indeed to a readership, and indeed to various responses to what one writes.

As I say in the blurb accompanying this blog, my purpose is simply expressed as being serendipitous, if random, thoughts and reflections of an autobiographical/spiritual/philosophical/literary/linguistic bent on the nature of my experiences of what life is for this single human being trying to make some little sense of it.  Whether that has been achieved or not is perhaps for me to say rather than any of my readership, given its personal provenance and aims.  Still, if others have found any of its reflections interesting or thought-provoking I am enriched all the more.

And so, having broken the thousand mark with respect to posts, I have reached a sort of viewing point, a sort of plateau from which I can view my circuitous ascent to this present spot.  The thought I have is not about the possible reaching of the (distant) summit, but rather it centres on the struggles I now engage in on the journey ever upward.  If I ever reach the top, this physical heart will have stopped beating, my lifeblood shall have ceased coursing through my body, my mind shall have been stilled and my little consciousness absorbed into the very stuff of the universe from whose bourne and embrace it once emerged.

Care, Identity and (mis)Recognition 5

10.  Universalism and the Politics of Difference

Deer, Phoenix Park, March 2012
In theology, universalism refers to the doctrines (e.g., redemption and salvation to name but two) that include all of humanity within their ambit, while in philosophy it refers to the belief that universal facts can be discovered about reality, and it is therefore understood as being in opposition to relativism. In certain religions, universality is the quality ascribed to an entity whose existence is consistent throughout the universe. When used in the context of ethics, the meaning of universal refers to that which is true for all similarly situated individuals.

For instance, we may say that the concept of human rights as defined and enumerated in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which were promulgated in 1948 in the wake of the murder of millions in the attempted genocide of the Jews as well as others by the Nazis) is a good example of universalism.  It is worth noting that this concept takes its origin from the declaration of rights, summarized in the motto of France (in the words of Jean Jacques Rousseau) “Liberté, Fraternité et Égalité,” at the time of the French Revolution in 1789. This declaration, of course, was heavily influenced by the philosophy of the Enlightenment and its conception of a human nature that could be considered as universal.

As we can easily see in the unequal distribution of the world’s resources the ideal of universalism is a very fragile project.  We see it startlingly in the unequal distribution of wealth between the northern and the southern hemispheres of planet earth.  We experience it daily in Europe in the fight to save the ideal of the overall European project itself, let alone its ailing currency.  While universalism is a fragile project, it is in no way over yet because deep down we desire a union of horizons, even though the petty individualism and even petty nationalism of individuals and states respectively may rear their ugly heads from time to time.

Unlike pre-Enlightenment times we constantly hear such catch-cries as “the equality of all,” “equal rights” and “freedom for all.”  People all over the world in the last 300 years or so have struggled for liberty and political equality against such dark forces as those of irrational prejudice, and indeed against the crumbling powers of both patriarchal Church and State.  In those years the struggles for liberty and equality have managed to a great extent to put an end to slavery, racial prejudice and to some extent prejudice against women.  The rights of children have, lamentably all too recently and not before time, also been recognised on an international footing.  However, much remains to be done in all these areas by way of critical consciousness or conscientization.  This latter concept is a popular education and social concept developed by the Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire and is grounded in Marxist critical theory. Critical consciousness focuses on an in-depth analysis of the world, thereby aiming at the exposure of perceived social and political contradictions. It also includes taking action against the oppressive elements in one's life that are illuminated by that new understanding of matters.

There are many current phrases in the public forum at any particular time and all of them reflect the concerns of citizens of planet earth. We talk these days about “identity politics” and “the politics of difference.”  These phrases are often laden with the deeply felt needs and concerns of one group or another – mostly minority groups, though obviously there are cases of larger groups, who find it hard to get their voices heard. “Identity politics,” then, has come to signify a wide range of political activity and theorizing founded in the shared experiences of injustice by members of certain social groups. They form themselves into political identity formations and typically aim to secure the political freedom of a specific constituency marginalized within its larger social setting.  Such minority groupings would be travellers, Roma gypsies, other traditional indigenous groups, LGTB persons or immigrants to name several. 

Taylor (1994) refers to the rise of multiculturalism.  Indeed, all societies, including Ireland, are becoming increasingly multicultural and more open to migration from many different ethnic backgrounds.   Therefore, one problem encountered by modern societies is that of an imposition of some cultures on others (the latter being in the minority).  In this respect we can have the situation where some minority cultures are in danger of vanishing.

In short, Taylor argues that there ensues a conflict between “the politics of universal dignity” and “the politics of difference.”  Within the first of these categories viz., that of universal dignity, non-discrimination through being difference-blind obtains or at least is the ideal.  Here everyone gets equal recognition.  With regards the politics of difference, non-discrimination through acknowledging difference and making it the basis for differential treatment obtains.  Here the value of any different identity/culture is equal. Therefore, different identities/cultures deserve equal recognition, but not necessarily equal treatment.  A politics of difference implies recognition of distinctness and particularities and eschews assimilation.

Some years back, the founder of the English and indeed the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, Dr Kadar Asmal argued that in Ireland we had our own apartheid and rather than discussing the situation in far away Africa we should discuss our treatment of the travelling people.  His point was that we can very easily ignore our very own prejudices, especially to minorities literally right under our noses while criticizing others far away for their mistreatment of others.  It is only when we recognise the other as a truly unique and authentic human being that we in turn are recognised in a similar fashion.  In the reality of mutual encounter, mutual recognition and the building of identity occur.   In other words, our identity is deeply linked in with our capacity to care and with our mutual recognition of one another in such caring situations. 

11.  Towards a Vision of Care, Authenticity and a Fusion of Horizons

The great twentieth century psychiatrist Carl Jung once remarked that our vision for our life’s project will become clear only when we look into our heart. Who looks outside, he said, dreams while who looks inside, awakens. The same is true on a larger scale for cultures and nations.  However, true discernment of vision is a difficult task for any individual or any nation.  It could be said that the vision of a free and Gaelic speaking Ireland that was the dream of the leaders of the 1916 Rising was a noble and Romantic one not fully realisable in its totality.  It was a vision of a society where religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities were to be guaranteed to all its citizens, where all the children of the nation were to be cherished equally “and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”  That that vision would require sacrifice was readily acknowledged in that very proclamation of the dream of freedom: that “the Irish nation must, by its valour and discipline and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called.” [1]  In short, its signatories and authors knew well the price they would have to pay for their dream or their vision of freedom.  Likewise on a smaller scale, the individual has a price to pay for his/her dream or vision for their life.  Only in this way will their life’s project be authentic, worthy and true.

Once again we must ask ourselves as a modern nation have the principles outlined in that universalist dream of equality been realised in actuality.  Do we cherish all our children equally?  Does every minority within the modern Irish State get its due recognition and are they able consequently to declare openly and sincerely their true identity by virtue of that recognition?  If recognition is withheld from any group, then, with Taylor, we can justly argue that this group is oppressed.  As I have argued above, discernment or soul-searching is crucial to recognition of the other and to one’s own authenticity.  How do we as a nation or a local community recognise the value within another smaller group – say the travelling community or the small Roma Gypsy community?  Do we really prefer to ghettoize them rather than suffer the indignity, hassle and shame of having members of such minorities live next door?  These are hard questions and discernment is a difficult process where we learn harsh truths about our own deep prejudices.  True questioning of ourselves and of our motives is always hard and will act as a Socratic gadfly to our comfortable smugness.

Real education is about liberation, because it raises the awareness of the oppressed to the reality of their oppression and to the injustices not alone perpetrated on them by others but to the injustices that are inherent in the very structures of society itself.  Hence, we need to ask big questions about how care is valued within our society?  How are women identified or even over-identified with care? If their identities are so fused with caring for others, how can they grow in authentic self-knowledge? How are men identified or under-identified with care? How many women from minority groups are represented among those carers? Why has there been no national study done on care and how such care work has been distributed between men and women in Ireland?  Why is child-care seen only as love but not as love-care or love-labour? Where is the care in an educational system geared mainly to the achievement of points in one terminal examination at second level? These questions and others are all worth asking?

 We ask these questions in search of nothing short of our own authenticity.  Lionel Trilling (1970, 1) in the very first line of a book based on a series of lectures he had given at Harvard writes "Now and then, it is possible to observe the moral life in process of revising itself." In this influential book he describes the process by which the enterprise of sincerity, of being true to one's self, came to occupy a place of supreme importance in the moral life of humanity and how that notion of sincerity was transformed into the somewhat darker and still more strenuous and challenging modern ideal of authenticity. [2]  Charles Taylor was among many scholars much influenced by this pivotal book.

Taylor (1989, 25) argues convincingly that it is against such challenges as outlined in the questions listed in the second last paragraph above that we each need “to draw up our own unique life plans.”  In so doing we will be engaged in forming a framework against which we can define ourselves.  Oftentimes such a framework will be implicit, but for the thinking person it will become more formulated and explicit.[3]  Doing without such frameworks can never be optional because they literally ground us or root us in the soil of our very being. Being uprooted or alienated, then, is the polar opposite of being grounded in a framework where we have “the ontological solidity” of our very being.  Such a framework and such an ontological grounding anchors us or gives us an identity against which we make our decisions and opt for our individual choices in life.  Another way of putting this would be that we orient our moral compasses against a framework and within a moral horizon which draws us onward and orients us to the Good.  Within a framework and an orienting horizon I can be at home and find my bearings.  Without such a framework or horizon I am simply lost on a sea of confusion – the ultimate in identity crisis or alienation from the true and authentic self.

That there must follow an encounter between alternative horizons is inevitable in a world of differing religions and cultures.  That the culture of the West must encounter that of Islam goes without saying, given the on-going terrorist threat of the latter to the West. That the rights of women within Islam and versions of it must also be tackled is also inevitable.  That these encounters require no little sacrifice and challenge is hardly deniable.  While frameworks have to be strong to carry us they can never become so firmly set in stone that they cannot be transformed by the encounter with another culture.  The metaphor of “horizon” lends itself more readily to encountering the other and to transforming itself and the other in mutual acceptance and recognition.

12.  Conclusion

          Hollway (2006) argues that the real meaning of care is about subjectivity and intersubjectivity.  Care and the mutual recognition of identity must be at the heart of such intersubjectivity.  But practical, and ipso facto, ethical questions always come to the fore as we are relational beings.  How do we learn to care for less-intimate others, even those we have never met? If differentiating oneself from others is requisite for care, and morality means treating others ethically, how do we maintain our sense of difference without the derogatory meanings often attached to the so-called “other”?

In short, often we must be able to live with what John Keats perspicaciously calls “negative capability,” that is when “a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,”[4] or the ability to bear with current obstacles and work to overcome them without abandoning ship as it were.  Often sociologists and political scientists can be over-rationalistic with respect to care and do not take account of these contradictions or of the fact that people actually do bear with such incongruities in the actual situation.[5] 

          This essay has argued that care and identity are core considerations of a just and enlightened society and has defined and explicated both phenomena against the background of frameworks offered by both the philosopher Charles Taylor and the feminist scholars Gilligan, Bubeck, Kittay, Feeley, Lynch and others.  It has, moreover, explored the frameworks offered by these various scholars, frameworks which essentially give shape and meaning to the human enterprise of authentic living.  It also contextualised this quest for meaning within the dynamic of the human thrust to recognise the other as other, and in turn be recognised by the other as truly unique.  In so doing it has essentially argued the case that care and identity are the core considerations of a just and enlightened society.


Augustine (1961), Confessions. (Edited and translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin) Penguin Classics

Baum, B. Feminist Politics of Recognition. (2004)  In Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 29, no. 4

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Bronson, P. (2004), What Should I Do With My Life? Vintage, London

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Feeley, M. (2012), Affective power: Exploring the concept of learning care in the context of adult literacy.  In Crowther, Tett, Hamilton (eds) Powerful Literacies (second edition, forthcoming), UK, NIACE.

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Hogan, P. (2007) Review of The Capacity To Care.  In Journal of International Women’s Studies Vol. 8 #4, May 2007

Kiberd, D (1995), Inventing Ireland: The literature of the Modern Nation, Jonathan Cape, London

Kittay, E. (1999) Love’s Labour: Essays on Women Equality and Dependency, New York: Routledge.

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Lynch, K., Baker, J., and Lyons, M. (2009) Affective Equality: Love, Care and Injustice, Basingstoke: Palgravemacmillan.

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Trilling, L. (1974), Sincerity and Authenticity, Oxford University Press, London.

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Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity,
Harvard University Press. (Specifically Chapter 2, section 2.1)

Taylor, C. (1991). The Ethics of Authenticity, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Taylor, C. (1994). The Politics of Recognition.  In Gutman, A. (ed) Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

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[1] In the short Gaelic poem, Fornocht do chonac thú, written in 1912, four years before the Rising, Pádraig Mac Piarais wrote of this vision of freedom which would require nothing short of the sacrifice of his life: “Do thugas mo ghnúis// ar an ród so romham,// ar an ngníomh do-chim,// 's ar an mbás do gheobhad”

[2] As a literary critic, Trilling starts with the notion of sincerity as it is adumbrated in the works of Shakespeare, most notably in that of Hamlet where Polonius speeds his son on his way with his famous advice “This above all: to thine own self be true, //And it must follow, as the night the day, // Thou canst not then be false to any man. // Farewell. My blessing season this in thee!” (Act 1, Scene, 3, 82-85, Hamlet) 

[3] I am reminded here of Paul Tillich’s (1957) Dynamics of Faith where he describes faith as an act of personality, and examines how faith participates in the dynamics of the personality. The book also examines the conflict between faith and doubt. Tillich defines and explores faith as ultimate concern. Faith is a centred act of being ultimately concerned. Tillich’s definition of faith may be interpreted to mean that faith is a concern with ultimate reality.

[4] See Gittings (1987, 158).  This phrase occurs in a letter to his brother George and Georgiana Keats, dated sequentially 14, 16, 21, 24, 31 October, 1818.  George and his wife had emigrated to America that same year.

[5] Taylor’s understanding of rationality (and naturalism) is a far wider one than that advanced by the likes of modern atheistic science writers like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens who believe in what Taylor calls “naturalist reduction.”  These scientists are the receivers of the negative strand of rationalism stemming from the Enlightenment.  However, there is also another strand of rationalism stemming from the Romantic Movement as is evidenced in the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau and S.T. Coleridge.  John Henry Cardinal Newman was influenced by this strand of rationalism.  He argued, like Taylor does, against the rationalist and reductionist thinking of 19th century scientists like Thomas Huxley who, he said, saw reason as solely “a conclusion from premises.”  For Newman, reason was a much wider phenomenon insofar as when an individual made any reasonable decisions in life “the whole man moved,” not just his logical apparatus.  In like manner Taylor would see, I believe, that a broader rationalism would embrace the human being’s expressive nature where s/he would draw up their own unique life plans against a framework or background of meaning culturally derived and personally assimilated.  In other words, for Taylor, naturalism also has deep spiritual roots. Reason is never disengaged but is always in relation to our embodied engagement with the world, because it has to do with our perceptions of that same world. This links in well with Lynch’s schema or framework as outlined above where care involves essentially four interlocking elements: (i) cognitive work, (ii) emotional engagement, (iii) commitment and responsibility and (iv) a moral imperative.  In this framework reason is “engaged” and enriched by a greater horizon.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Care, Identity and (mis)Recogition 4

7.  The Darkness at the Heart of Humanity – Modern Malaises

One could argue that the present world economic crisis is the direct result of the pull to selfishness within both individuals and nations.  While individualism is “the jewel in the crown” of the achievements of modern civilisation, it is also in another sense its “feet of clay,” to mix metaphors rather crudely.   A virtual tsunami of greed and selfishness has swept over the modern world, leaving most of us in a state of dependence on richer, more powerful and even sinister forces.  In a sense, we have reaped the whirlwind of our greed both as individuals and nations.  We are finding out to our cost that our political and social structures are intrinsically flawed and unjust and that our economic structures, with all their linked technologies, are rooted in domination, patriarchy, capitalism and racism. This is a hard lesson to learn, and it was one predicted by many feminists, ecologists and more liberal scientists like Capra just cited above.

          Taylor (1991) rightly scorns this dark side of modernity – its greed and selfishness and its blindness to the wisdom of the past.  Modernity has brought with it, as well asthe malaise of individualism  which we have just described, what he terms two other malaises, those of “instrumental reasoning” and “soft despotism.”  Our much maligned modern economists and other state functionaries, who delight in heartless accounting and the balancing of books, are the “instrumental reasoners.” They seek the most economic means to a given end and are quite thoughtless of and insensitive to the suffering of the poor and vulnerable in budgets enacted to please the paymasters of the IMF and the ECB.  They know the price of everything and the value of nothing as Oscar Wilde once put it. Their catch cry is “maximum efficiency” or “maximum output.”

          It is interesting to note, is it not, that most economists and most politicians are men and that some few women who do make it in politics have in Jungian terms an overly masculine or macho, even alpha-male animus?  A second point worth noting is that the demands of economic growth are often inimical to ecology and insensitive to the environment.  Our instrumental reasoners are more prone also to talk about “medical problems” or “bed blockers” rather than talk about real people who are suffering.  Statistics are their weapons and they use them liberally.

The final malaise that Taylor notes is what he terms “soft despotism,” after Alexis de Tocqueville, by which he means the “atomism of self-absorbed individuals;” a sort of indifference to everything that goes on about us; a phenomenon that renders us into a “stay at home” people who could not be bothered going out to protest for any cause; a sort of happy-with-my-lot syndrome with a “don’t rock the boat” mentality.

In all of this, there has been nothing short of a loss of soul and a deadening of the senses.  The modern world is one which hypnotises us into an unknowing stupor, and in so doing it can never be the “vale of soul-making” alluded to by John Keats.[1]

8.  Who are the Carers?: A Sociological Framework

Self with Kelvin McMahon and his mother at Kelvin's garduation, May 23, 2012
We would all like to assume that the answer to this question is every human being worth his/her salt, but even a cursory glance at history and recent solid research soon disabuses our mind of such a simplistic assumption. Lynch, K., Baker, J., and Lyons, M. (2009) speak of love as action rather than solely emotion and argue that caring is essentially love labour. Caring is essentially about the work we do for our survival and for our individual, familial and communitarian human development. The authors cut to the chase immediately with their assessment that “[c]aring is low status work generally undertaken by low status people...” (p. 36)

Who are these low status people?  The answer is all too clear – mostly women - and the number of migratory workers in their ranks is considerable.  Low status work also attracts modest to low remuneration.  Kittay (1999) talks about “love’s labour” and argues cogently about its being assigned by gender and uses a useful description of there being a “gender asymmetry” in this most necessary and essential aspect of human work.

Lynch et al (2009) offer an interesting framework by which we can analyse the essential nature of care and by so doing avoid poor decisions in our social, economical and political policies when dealing with the subject.  They offer a diagram with three concentric circles where Primary Care is the central core, Secondary Care the middle circle and Tertiary Care the outer ring.  Now the movement is essentially from the centre outwards.  In other words, the nature of care springs from the well of Primary Care (say mother caring for her children or for a sick parent – real love labour) and radiates out to Secondary Care (say nurse or special needs teacher or SNA caring for a SEN pupil) and thence to Tertiary (say a volunteer with the Simon Community doing the soup run).  Indeed, it would be hard to engage in the outer two circles without having been nourished at the central core.[2]

The same authors go on to underline the fact that care has essentially four interlocking elements: (i) cognitive work, (ii) emotional engagement, (iii) commitment and responsibility and (iv) a moral imperative.  Obviously these four interlocking qualities result in sheer physical work, too.  Cognitively, we have to plan what we want to do with the cared-for person as well as knowing how to use our own caring skills.  Emotional engagement lessens as we go from inner to outer circles, but for the mature and enlightened carer s/he can bring much empathy learned at life’s core, i.e., in the inner circle out into those outer realms of care.  However, it is to the fourth of the above interlocking elements, viz., the moral imperative of care that I wish to turn my attention now as it interlinks nicely with the philosophy of care espoused by Charles Taylor.

9.  The Moral Imperative

Taylor’s (1989) basic argument is that the concept of the self, in other word’s our very identity, is linked to morality.  Now, this moral sense which we acquire as we grow as human beings means not simply a set of claims about what we ought to do or not to do to be moral.  Rather, it means what we ought to be or not to be.  In other words, I believe that Taylor is arguing that morality is essentially concerned with the self or related to our being.  Again it is more ontologically than cognitively or epistemologically rooted. He also argues that morality is related to the self by what he calls a framework. How we think about the self depends (1) on what we consider to be the Good and (2) how we relate to that Good.  In short, if you wish, I can only think of my self as I think of that same self in relation to what is most important for me in life, that is, in relation to what “makes me tick,” or “what keeps me going” or what “draws me on in life” to use colloquial but real phrases.

Taylor’s philosophy of identity or of self is far-ranging and erudite, and it covers virtually the whole sweep of Western philosophy from Plato to Augustine, from Descartes to Locke and onwards through history from the Protestant Reformers to the great philosophers of the Enlightenment and Counter Enlightenment periods.  He ends, needless to say, with more modern voices.  However, fortunately for the present writer, I do not have to delay by looking at any of these scholars in depth – an impossible task – as such is beyond the scope and purview of this essay.  

The bulk of the book, then, is spent on a sweeping exposition of the changes in the self over the course of the history of Western philosophy.  In sum, I believe that the transition that Taylor outlines over the course of that history right up into modern times is one best described by a trajectory (uneven though it be) from an external sense of the self  to an interior sense of the self. It is also a transition from finding meaning in extraordinary deeds to one that finds meaning in everyday actions.[3]  Taylor, then, provides a fairly compelling narrative of the differences in the self over time.  Now, this turn inwards (or sense of interiority), then, serves as a starting point for a renewed understanding of modernity. Taylor argues that modern subjectivity has its roots in ideas of human good, and is in fact the result of our long efforts to define and attain that good over the course of human history and, I believe, over the course of our own individual little lives. This modern turn inwards is far from being a disastrous rejection of rationality, as many of its critics would contend, and it has at its heart what Taylor calls the affirmation of ordinary life.

Again we may argue on the positive side that Taylor’s stress on the link between our ethical evaluation of a situation and our essential human identity allows us to understand the connection between who we are and our real core values.  In other words, having an identity at all involves following a course of values in the world, and, vice versa, committing ourselves to a set of values also entails our adoption of a particular identity.  As someone once remarked to this writer as regards strongly held personal values and concerns: “If you have nothing to stand for, you will fall for anything.”

[1] In the era of Freud, sex was the great repression, but with Yalom and others, I believe that death and suffering are the modern repressions.  Modern society wishes to cover these sufferings up, ignore them, and deny them to its cost, indeed.  For John Keats, suffering was to be experienced. with all the good things in life “on our very pulses,” and thereby they worked to make this oftentimes sad world into “a vale of soul-making.” ( See Gittings, 1987, 93)
[2]  Indeed any good theory of human development from which any enlightened theory of care must spring must be cognisant of the work of the great psychologist Abraham Maslow, especially his "hierarchy of needs" theory that is a staple of Psychology 101 courses worldwide and which he famously articulated in 1954. It breaks down the path to happiness in an easy-to-digest list: Earthly needs, such as food and safety, are considered essential, since they act as the groundwork that makes it possible to pursue loftier desires, such as love, respect, and self-actualization (the realization of one's full potential).  My argument here is that, like Maslow’s pyramid, the outer two rings stand on the solidity of the central core circle with respect to the nature of care.

[3] This, of course, is not to say that that trajectory has been continuous or even, insofar as St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest philosophers of early Christian times was well aware of what he termed interiority, that God (or meaning, in more modern terms) could be encountered deep within the human heart or soul. In The Confessions, 10.27 we read “I have learnt to love You late, beauty at once so ancient and so new! I have learnt to love You Late! You were within me, and I was in the world outside myself. I searched for You outside myself...” and so on.  For St Augustine it was clear that not everyone was yet aware of the fact that every human being is capable of God (Capax Dei) and thus can reach God (or meaning). In order to overcome this unawareness,  Augustine proposed the way of interiority, that is the turning away from the physical to the spiritual world, from the outer world to the inner self (Confessions 10,6).

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Care, Identity and (mis)Recognition 3

5.  Frameworks and Horizons

Giraffes, Dublin Zoo, May 15, 2012
Taylor (1989, 27) argues that my identity is defined by “the commitments and identifications” that I make (also on a daily basis) over the course of my life.   Those “commitments and identifications” provide “the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I can endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand.” These are ethical questions about the meaning and value of life in general and of my life in particular. Again, these are questions which every individual has to answer for themselves. Consequently, they are intensely personal, subjective questions, wholly distinct from questions of social category.  One takes a stand, then, on a particular issue within one’s particular set of “commitments and identification,” within the framework of one’s unique set of values.  For instance the father and mother of a special needs child both fight “tooth and nail” to get the best education for their son or daughter.  They fight within a framework of values – the universal right to an education – which itself is set within a greater moral or ethical horizon which some would place ultimately within a religious or at least a spiritual one.  Once again, the “commitments and identifications” people make and the identities they form are shaped within the contexts of communities. Obviously religious beliefs would exercise a not too negligible influence on such communities.[1] 

6.  The Desire to Connect: Towards another Framework: Systems Thinking

          We have already discussed in detail above Gilligan’s (1995) assessment that there has been a paradigm shift in recent years from patriarchy to connection.  If there is one thing that describes the modern thrust in the sciences - both natural and social - it is the gravitation towards interconnectedness.  Capra (1996) argues that there are three strands in ecology, viz., deep ecology, social ecology and feminist ecology (or ecofeminism), each of which "does what it says on the tin."  These schools of thought don't conflict at all - rather they complement one another to give an overall comprehensive vision. When one looks at social ecology, Capra argues, and he is correct in this assertion, one finds that many of our social and economic structures, and indeed their linked technologies, are rooted in domination, patriarchy, capitalism and racism.

Ecofeminists point out that the exploitation of nature, in particular, has gone hand in hand with that of women, who have been identified with nature throughout the ages. This ancient association of woman and nature links women's history and the history of the environment, and is the source of a natural kinship between feminism and ecology.

Capra, in the same work, traces what we know as Systems Thinking today all the way from William Blake through the Romantic Movement, both in England and in Germany, where Immanuel Kant argued that organisms, in contrast to machines, are self-reproducing and self-organizing wholes. Basically, our author argues that systems thinking is all about connectedness, relationships and contexts. According to this type of thinking, the essential properties of any living system or organism are properties which belong to the whole and not to any individual parts as such. In the systems approach, the properties of the parts can be understood only from the organization of the whole.   A good illustration would be, say how a team plays a soccer match – the whole team is more than simply the sum of the skills of individual players.  Systems thinking is contextual, which is the opposite to analytical thinking. Analysis means taking something apart in order to understand it; systems thinking means putting it into the context of the larger whole.

It is my contention here that our feminist theorists of care and our Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor are essential systems thinkers.  For them “the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.”  Caring simply cannot be done in bits and pieces – it’s a holistic enterprise.  To this extent real caring will rule out such travesties of caring like a “packaged curriculum” or throwing money at a problem instead of approaching it in a holistic manner.  Likewise, in valuing the concept of interconnectedness of things, Lynch, K., Baker, J., and Lyons, M. (2009) advance an ethic which condemns any notions of “fast care” and “care as profit.”    

Bubeck (1995, 135) warns us that we must not confuse care with service.  Care is a far more holistic reality.  Her definition of care is more precise than that advanced by Gilligan as outlined above as she insists that it is “an activity that meets needs that the cared for cannot possibly meet.” (132) However, she also adds interesting considerations such as the fact that care is a subset of human needs. (133)  Also, Bubeck’s concern with caring as an attitude complements its nature as an activity and is steeped in the framework of connectivity, relationality and holism.  In so being, the ethic of care is at once both psychological (attitude) and moral (leads to the action of caring).  The present author was much taken with her assertion that a caring attitude involves what she terms “engrossment,” a term she borrows from Noddings, and which is a movement from the inside of the carer as s/he is “tuned into” and “face-to-face” with the cared-for person. Noddings' term engrossment refers to thinking about someone in order to gain a greater understanding of him or her. Engrossment is necessary for caring because an individual's personal and physical situation must be understood before the one-caring can determine the appropriateness of any action. However, while 'engrossment' need not entail, as the term seems to suggest, a deep fixation on the other, it was intended to reflect the dual nature of care, namely caring as an emotional state and an activity at one and the same time.

Further, Bubeck notes that caring as an activity possesses “an irreducible social nature.” (138) and that as such it is practically never mutually beneficial.  In fact, it is an “asymmetrical transaction,” (139) balanced firmly in the cared-for person’s direction and against the carer.  While caring can certainly be empowering, it can often be a burden that crushes the carer as we witness in these financially-straitened times.  Care is often unremunerated and unreciprocated, and falls all too frequently to the woman’s lot.  Consequently, it is hard to dismiss Bubeck’s claim that the most pressing question with respect to care is why it is mostly women who do this very necessary task. (147)

Lynch, K., Baker, J., and Lyons, M. (2009) argue that our morals begin in everyday life, in the life that we all share, with all its vicissitudes or “ups and downs.”  This is the only place or locus where any morals worth their salt are discovered.  This ethic of care corresponds nicely to the definition of care given by the moral philosopher Agnes Keller (1990, p. 4): “Care for other human beings, this is the universal orientative principle of morals.”

In the midst of everyday life, we encounter then, the moral call.  However, there is also a fundamental twist or darkness in the human soul as we are creatures who are prone to the pull of selfishness as well as the pull to altruism.   It is to that theme we shall now turn briefly.

[1] Alan Ryan, writing on political philosophy in a recent general philosophy compendium edited by A.C. Grayling (1998, 413) situates Charles Taylor within a group of communitarian philosophers who stress that “we can make sense of our lives only with the aid and reassurance of others who share our view of the world and our goals along with it.  Some writers, Charles Taylor perhaps the most prominent of them treat this as something close to a metaphysical claim.”  One might heartily agree with the tenor of this comment, but one intuits a certain negative attitude to metaphysics here.  Also, it is a comment just left hanging without any proper teasing out of the question.