Understanding ‘Betweenness’ – seeing beyond the parts

In a previous post, I began to explore and share my understanding of what Iain McGilchrist has written about and means by ‘betweenness’ as a way of being in the world.

I thought that maybe a ‘both/and’ view of the world, rather than ‘either/or’ might explain it, but this explanation feels over-simplistic and unsatisfactory. It seems to miss the depth that McGilchrist is exploring. Whilst more ‘both/and’ thinking might serve, at least in part, to  counter ‘either/or’ thinking, it wouldn’t get to the heart of the problem.

Gary Goldberg in commenting on my last post about ‘betweenness’, has written that he considers the issue of betweenness to be ‘ effectively addressed …. in the architectonic philosophical system of Charles Sanders Peirce…… the issue is a tolerance for ‘vagueness’ when one considers the universe as fundamentally relational and context-dependent.’

Martina Emke wrote ‘Betweenness’ is related to the concepts of ‘rhizome’ and ‘becoming’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987). ‘Betweenness’ is a counter-narrative to the idea of identity, a constant process of transitioning that pertains to humans and non-humans.

And Matthias Melcher in a private communication emphasised the similarities between the idea of ‘betweenness’ and connectivism. For example, in his article ‘An Introduction to Connective Knowledge’, Stephen Downes has written ‘Connective knowledge requires an interaction. More to the point, connective knowledge is knowledge of the connection.’

But McGilchrist’s idea of ‘betweenness’ as a way of being in the world, goes, I think, beyond all these three quests at seeking understanding of how we learn to understand and live with the uncertainty,  ambiguities and complexities of the world we live in. It even goes beyond language.

Any one thing can be understood only in terms of another thing, and ultimately that must come down to a something that is experienced, outside the system of signs (i.e. by the body). The very words which form the building blocks of explicit thought are themselves all originally metaphors, grounded in the human body and its experience.’ (p. 118. The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World).

If this is the case – then how can we talk about ‘betweenness’ so that we can share an understanding of it and so that it can be applied as a way of learning and being? How can the idea of betweenness be made explicit without losing its meaning. This would mean ‘seeing’ the relationships between concepts as a whole, and avoiding separating concepts from experience? It would mean recognising ‘knowing’ as a reciprocal, reverberative process, a back and forth, reflecting the way in which neurones behave, which is not linear, sequential, unidirectional. As McGilchrist writes, p.194,

It seems that this reciprocity, this betweenness, goes to the core of our being. Further than even this, there is fascinating evidence that betweenness and reciprocity exist at the level of cell structure and function within the single neurone, even at the molecular level, as the brain comes to understand something and lay down memory traces.’

I suspect that any attempt to fully articulate and define what ‘betweenness’ might mean is going to fail, if only because, if it is embedded in experience, then it will necessarily be personal to each and every one of us. The nearest anyone I know has come to presenting a holistic view of ‘betweenness’ as expressed by McGilchrist is Matthias Melcher with this map, which he sent me in a personal communication and has given me permission to share in this blog post. (Clicking on the image will enlarge it).

To fully appreciate the power of this map in articulating the idea of ‘betweenness’, you will need to engage with the interactive version, which you can quickly see via this link – http://x28hd.de/tool/samples/betweenness.htm

The interactive map allows you to click on a node (as seen in the example below where the node ‘reciprocation’ has been clicked on, to reveal text from p.194 of Iain McGilchrist’s book – The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.)

This view of ‘betweenness’, a view resonant of the right hemisphere’s holistic approach (the view that McGilchrist has suggested is being lost in favour of the left hemipshere’s fragmented abstracted view of our world, in which we see things as parts rather than a whole), has been arrived at by reading through The Master and his Emissary’ to find everything that McGcilchrist has said about ‘betweenness’. There is no one section or chapter addressing this point. (It would be rather ironic if there were.) ‘Betweenness’ is a theme that runs through the book. Having collected all the ‘parts’, Matthias, using his Think Tool, has been able to look for relationships between the parts and create this ‘whole’. Someone else, of course, would have created a different set of connections, a different whole, but there would probably be enough similarity to come to some common understanding.

Is there then, some value to thinking not in terms of either/or, nor even in terms of ‘both/and’, but in terms of maps of relations? Would this be a better way to understand ‘betweenness’?

Further information about Matthias Melcher’s Think Tool

It may be that on viewing the map that you can see different or additional connections that you would like to make. If you would like to edit the map you can download Matthias Melcher’s Think Tool from his website – http://condensr.de/  and then upload his file, which is accessible via this link  http://x28hd.de/tool/samples/betweenness.xml by dragging and dropping it into the tool.

Many thanks to Matthias Melcher for creating this map which helped me better understand ‘betweenness’ and for sharing his open website and the file links.

Visiting Rome with a Wheelchair User

Rome, like Venice,  is a city known to be notoriously difficult for people in wheelchairs to visit. I am writing this post as the partner of a wheelchair user, to share some of our experiences of this beautiful and fascinating city.

Of course, before we went we did our research which confirmed, from lots of comments on Trip Advisor and the like, that we would find Rome difficult, but also that it was worth the effort, so we spent some time planning how to reduce this effort.

Questions we tried to answer before we went.

We know that Manchester Airport, where we flew from, is good with people in wheelchairs, but what about Rome airport? We spent a lot of time trying to organise an accessible taxi (i.e. one with a ramp or lift) to take us from the airport to the hotel. In the end, after hours spent on the phone and online, we gave up. Instead we decided to take the train from the airport to the city centre. We didn’t pre-book, but just turned up on the platform. It was so easy and a fraction of the cost of taking a taxi.

Right up to the day before leaving we kept changing our minds about which wheelchair to take – should it be the fold-up one that would go in a taxi and was light to push, or should it be a heavier unfolding wheelchair with a bike attachment (tracker – as in photo)? Ultimately we decided on the tracker (the best decision we made), which wasn’t damaged on the outgoing or return flight, to which a good-sized rucksack would attach on the front, and which we discovered would not only go up steep curves, but also over big cobbles.

We couldn’t get in a taxi with this wheelchair, but we could get on the train and we just squeezed onto the hop-on/hop off bus, where passengers were very tolerant in edging past us.

On choosing a hotel, we followed the rules we always follow. The hotel must be central, so that as much as possible it is within walking distance of the main sites. The bedroom must be big enough for a wheelchair and the bathroom must be wheelchair friendly. We booked the Ariston Hotel, near the train and bus station. This worked really well as we were able to walk to and from the station in less than five minutes and to all the key sites, although we did get the bus to Vatican City (we walked back though!). The Ariston was not perfect, but we have no complaints. It was not as spacious as it appears on their website photos. In particular the corridors were very narrow, the lift was tiny, the bar was up some steps, and our bathroom was right on the edge of being wheelchair friendly. But by moving a bit of furniture around and doing quite a lot of lifting in the absence of well-positioned grab-rails in the bathroom, we managed. The hotel staff were very friendly and helpful and the breakfast was extremely good and certainly enough to set you up for the day. The other good thing about the hotel was that it was very near a lot of good restaurants.

Getting about in Rome

There is no doubt that Rome is difficult for a wheelchair user. Many kerbs are very high and do not have ramps. Most surfaces are cobbled, which along with gravel is a wheelchair-user’s nightmare, and some sites and restaurants are inaccessible. But despite this there’s plenty to see and do. This was our first time in Rome, so we took the approach I will describe below, an approach which depends on being reasonably fit.

We decided to walk/ride and observe from the outside rather than try to get into sites such as museums, although we did get into St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums, the Pantheon and Santa Maria Maggiore.

 

The Santa Maria Maggiore and the Pantheon were free, but for those sites which charge, such as those in Vatican City, the good news is that not only do disabled visitors and their carers go in free but also don’t have to queue, being taken by a different route to the front!

It was very hot whilst we were in Rome – 30 degrees or above on most days. Although we walked/rode about 10 miles a day, we made an effort to stay on the shady side of the street and drink plenty of water – common sense really.

We tried to avoid hugely crowded areas,  or only stay for a very short time, e.g. Trevi Fountain. In my opinion and that of my partner, The Sistine Chapel is really not worth it for a wheelchair user. As an able-bodied standing person you are shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of others. For a wheelchair user this means you are pushed up against hordes of people at below waist height – not pleasant. In this hugely over-crowded space I got no sense of the beauty of The Sistine Chapel and even more annoying was the voice over the tannoy shouting at us to be silent! (I found when I worked in schools that if you want silence, you whisper!). So, either book a special tour for just a small group to visit the Sistine Chapel, or give it a miss and buy some photos.

It is possible to avoid the crowds though. We did this by roaming through the back streets and visiting sites such as the Circus Maximus. The video makes it sound noisy, but I wasn’t aware of the noise at the time, or at least didn’t find it troubling.

 

The most important lesson for us was …

You either need three wheels or four big wheels (a sturdy scooter), ideally assisted by battery power. A regular wheelchair with small front casters must be a nightmare – extremely hard work for whoever is pushing (we did see some). Even if you tip the chair backwards, so that it is only travelling on the two back wheels (which is the only way to get across cobbles without rattling the wheelchair occupant right out of the chair), there are so many difficult surfaces in Rome that this could not be sustained for very long.

The system we use is a Batec – expensive, but so worth it.

We only scraped the surface of Rome, in the four and a half days we were there, despite being out for about seven hours each day. I would love to return and see more. Hopefully we will be able to do this. If you are a wheelchair user, don’t be put off by the bad press Rome gets in relation to access. It is definitely possible with a bit of fore-thought. The people are very helpful and I got the impression that the city is doing its best to improve access, but, unsurprisingly for such an ancient city, there remains a lot to do. You don’t need to plan out every detail or even to go very far. There is something beautiful to see on just about every corner in central Rome.  It is such a special place to visit.

For more photos of what we managed to see in Rome – see https://www.flickr.com/photos/jennymackness/albums/72157695420925550

And for a similar post on visiting Venice – see https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2014/09/27/visiting-venice-with-a-wheelchair-user/  We used the fold-up light-weight wheelchair when visiting Venice. Here are some photos – https://www.flickr.com/photos/jennymackness/albums/72157649650530148

‘Betweenness’ : a way of being in the world

At the beginning of this year my colleague Mariana Funes and I published a paper in which we argued for ‘both/and’ thinking, as opposed to ‘either/or’. We did this in the context of open, online education environments, which we suggested can be both inclusive and exclusive. This was our abstract:

Open education aspires to democratize education, promote inclusion and effect change through social justice. These aspirations are difficult to realise in open, online environments, which enable multiple, and often conflicting, perspectives. This paper proposes a counter-narrative that surfaces certain operational norms of the internet and foregrounds their exclusionary nature. We offer an illustrative inventory of some social media interactional patterns to examine communication used in open online education communities. This examination leads us to conclude that language online is subject to a dialectical tension that both includes and excludes. We conclude that a different language is needed in open online educational environments; one that embraces exclusionary structures and strategic ambiguity, as well as the aspirations to further democratise education via digital means.

Mariana Funes & Jenny Mackness (2018) When inclusion excludes: a counter narrative of open online education, Learning, Media and Technology, 43:2, 119 138, DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2018.1444638

(See also https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2018/02/28/when-inclusion-excludes/)

In the paper, we examine online communication patterns in open education environments and find them to be subject to dialectical tensions. We quote Gibbs et al. (2013, 106) as saying that “dialectical tensions have been found to be productive in enabling the accomplishment of multiple goals since they enable organizational members to creatively attend to both poles of the opposition by transforming or transcending it and embracing both alternatives as ‘both-and’ options (Putnam & Boys 2006)”.

Whilst the idea of ‘both/and’ thinking is not new, it does seem particularly relevant in this post-truth age of intolerance for ambiguity and alternative perspectives, where ‘either/or’ thinking seems to dominate. Iain McGilchrist, author of ‘The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’, considers this to be one of the results of the increasing dominance of a left-hemisphere view of the world in our current civilisation. On p.137 of his book he writes:

‘If one had to characterise the left hemisphere by reference to one governing principle it would be that of division. Manipulation and use require clarity and fixity, and clarity and fixity require separation and division. What is moving and seamless, a process, becomes static and separate – things. It is the hemisphere of ‘either/or’: clarity yields sharp boundaries.’

By contrast a right-hemisphere view of the world is one which embraces, complexity, uncertainty, and  ambiguity.  (For an introduction, but necessarily over-simplistic description of the differences between right and left hemisphere views of the world, according to McGilchrist, see this blog post. Better still watch this video.)

‘Both/and’ thinking requires accepting that opposite poles might actually be complementary, interconnected and interdependent as suggested by Yin and Yang in Chinese philosophy, and embracing paradox as depicted by Escher in his Drawing Hands lithograph.

Escher’s lithograph is one that Iain McGilchrist often uses to discuss the paradox of linear analysis. He writes: (p.134, The Master and his Emissary). ‘The paradox applies to how we get to know anything, but is particularly problematic for the special case whereby we are seeking to approach the very process whereby knowledge itself comes into being.’

If it is difficult to determine how we know something, it’s interesting to consider how, when and why ‘either/or’ thinking would be appropriate.

Implicit in McGilchrist’s writing is the suggestion that ‘both/and’ thinking is characteristic of a view of the world in which opposite poles (where subjective and objective appear as fundamentally asymmetrical, separate ways of being), are held in suspension; a world where there is ‘betweenness’.

It is this idea of ‘betweenness’ that intrigues me. What does it mean? How can we recognise it? In talking about ‘betweenness’, McGilchrist seems to go beyond the complementarity of separate poles, to thinking about a world of ‘togetherness’ and intersubjectivity, rather than one of competition and bias; a world where we transcend the apparent duality of subjective and objective, of realism and idealism (p.144, The Master and his Emissary). This is a world which focusses on the relations between things, reciprocity and empathy, where knowledge comes through a relationship. From this perspective ‘belief is a matter of care: it describes a relationship, where there is a calling and an answering, the root concept of ‘responsibility’ (p.170, The Master and his Emissary).

Betweenness does not deny our distinctness as individuals. ‘Betweenness is being able to share in the character of the Other and feel separateness from it’ (p.363, The Master and his Emissary). My interpretation is that a world view that acknowledges ‘betweenness’ enables a ‘both/and’ sort of arrangement. For me, McGilchrist best describes ‘betweenness’ when writing about music.

‘Music consists entirely of relations, ‘betweenness’. The notes mean nothing in themselves: the tensions between the notes, and between notes and the silence with which they live in reciprocal indebtedness, are everything. Melody, harmony and rhythm each lie in the gaps, and yet the betweenness is only what it is because of the notes themselves. Actually the music is not just in the gaps any more than it is just in the notes: it is in the whole that the notes and the silence make together. Each note becomes transformed by the context in which it lies. What we mean by music is not just any agglomeration of notes, but one in which the whole created is powerful enough to make each note live in a new way, a way that it had never done before.’ (p.72, The Master and his Emissary).

It’s important to stress that I am not suggesting that there is never any need for ‘either/or’ thinking, nor that a right hemisphere view of the world, which seems to embrace a ‘both/and’ approach, is the only view. As McGilchrist stresses ‘Both hemispheres clearly play crucial roles in the experience of each human individual, and … both have contributed importantly to our culture. Each needs the other.’ (p.6, The Master and his Emissary).

We need  ‘either/or’ and ‘both/and’ thinking, but these are currently out of balance. We seem to live in a world dominated by ‘either/or’ thinking. The question is how to promote more ‘both/and’ thinking and how to acknowledge ‘betweenness’ as a way of being in the world.

Truth in a Post-Truth Age

Last week BBC Radio 4 broadcast a series of 15 minute podcasts over five days on the topic of Truth. It was noticeable that each of the five podcasts mentioned Donald Trump in one context or another, who seems to have become synonymous with the idea that the world is suffering from an epidemic of truth decay. In the first podcast we were told that an analysis of Trump’s tweets have shown that he misleads the public 7.6 times a day (this did make me wonder what counts as a 0.6 deception). However, having listened to the five podcasts (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bjz95t), it is clear that whilst Trump might be the current and most spectacular symptom of post-truth America, he is not the sole cause (Kurt Anderson, Episode 2).

The series was launched with a podcast by Dr Kathryn Murphy, Fellow in English at Oriel College, Oxford, who examined the striking contemporary parallels between Sir Francis Bacon’s 1620s essay ‘On Truth’ with today’s pressing issues. In his time, Bacon protested against ‘corrupt lovers of the lie’ and classified the intellectual fallacies of his time under four categories which he called idols:

  • Idols of the tribe – common tendencies of the human race to exaggeration, distortion and disproportion. Bacon diagnosed confirmation bias before the term existed.
  • Idols of the cave – within the mind of the individual. These are the blinkers and silos of our identities which blind us to different points of view.
  • Idols of the market place – errors arising from the false significance bestowed upon words, the imprecision of words and slippery terminology. Bacon thus anticipated the science of semantics.
  • Idols of the theatre – the human tendency to adopt authority uncritically.

Kathryn Murphy’s question was – doesn’t this all seem very familiar? In other words, this is not the first time in history that there has been confusion about the meaning of truth. But she also suggested that we might now need to add Idols of the algorithm to Bacon’s list, to name new confusions.

Bacon advocated writing in aphorisms to give us brief glimpses of possible truths which would demand active engagement, probing and testing what is read. In a post-truth world it is not that truth is dead, but that too many people refuse to engage critically with truth and test ideas. Could a tweet act like an aphorism?

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 1)

We live, we keep being told, in a “post-truth” world, suffering an epidemic of “truth decay”, but we are not the first to fear information overload, disinformation and fake news.

‘In the 1620s, the statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon opened the final edition of his Essayes, which had been the first book of their kind in English when first published in 1597, with an essay entitled  ‘Of Truth’.

He was driven by his own personal political woes but also by the preoccupations of his era: rapidly changing technology (the telescope and microscope made the world feel at once bigger and smaller); America and its inhabitants challenging European understanding and sense of identity; passionately opposing factions continuing the arguments of the Reformation; war in Europe forcing the question of just how far Britain should get involved in the Continent; and – to spread the news and unrest about it – the first organised distribution of newspapers in England had just begun.

In the second podcast in the series, Kurt Andersen, author of ‘Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History’, discusses America’s ‘iffy’ relationship with reason, rationality and empirical truth. This was an interesting podcast for a non-American, such as myself. Andersen suggested that America was created from scratch by dreamers, gold hunters and the promise of Eldorado. It was a blank slate new world for wishful thinking and fantasy, shaped by natural selection of those willing to believe in advertising eagerness and to credit the untrue because it was exciting.

In the mid 20th century America’s immersion in fantasy accelerated with the arrival of Disneyland and TV which enhanced the unreal and make-believe.  For three centuries America’s gatekeepers managed to relegate ‘nonsense’ to the fringes, but by the 1960s, they lost the will and ability to keep true and false separate. From the 1960s onwards, America (and from my perspective, not only America) has seen the growth of extreme individualism, the pursuit of happiness above all, and undiscriminating acceptance of all understanding of reality. During this time, large numbers of academics have moved away from reason and a scientific world view, to a social construction of reality in which all is equally true and false and the paradigm is one of anything goes. Factual reality is now just one option. Americans feel entitled to their own facts as well as their own opinions.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 2)

As he unpicks the fantastical beliefs that run through America’s past and present, the writer and broadcaster Kurt Andersen asks if the US is now entering a post-truth era.

The author of Fantasyland and co-founder of Spy magazine, Kurt has spent many decades separating fact and fiction and in this essay he explores the historical roots of America’s weakness for alternative realities.

From the religious visions of the Pilgrim Fathers and Joseph Smith, to the showbiz dreams of PT Barnum and Walt Disney, the proliferation of conspiracy theories and the new age of virtual reality and internet chat rooms, Kurt tells the story of a nation in which fantasy and reality have long been intertwined.

In Episode 3, Juliet Samuel discusses the role of markets in defining truth.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 3)

In the depths of the financial crisis of 2008, American bankers-turned-regulators met to discuss plans to restore market confidence by injecting vast quantities of cash into the failing system. “What about $1 trillion?” , Neel Kashkari is reported to have suggested. “We’ll get killed,” Hank Paulson is said to have replied. And so the figure of $700 billion was agreed, the biggest bailout in history calculated not on market truths but on political realities.

Juliet Samuel writes for The Daily Telegraph and in this essay she looks back at the recent history of financial markets to ask whether markets really are, as many economists believe, vast mechanisms geared towards discovering truth – the true price of assets, the true risks and rewards of investment and therefore the most efficient allocation of cash.

As she considers financial market failures such as the 2008 crash and the euro crisis, Juliet argues that, ultimately, there is still a compelling reason for believing that markets are as close to economic truth as we can get and it is almost impossible to beat them. Investors who try to do so, so-called “active managers” who are probably managing some of your pension fund right now, have consistently failed to get to the truth more accurately than the market. What we are learning is how and when markets can discover the truth – and when it’s simply undiscoverable.

The fourth podcast was presented by Pankaj Mishra, who discussed Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography – ‘The story of my experiments in truth’. Gandhi always kept an open mind and thought that there were at least seven points of view, but that they were not all correct at the same time and in the same circumstances.

The focus of this podcast was on the necessity, as expressed by both Ghandi and Nietzsche, to recognise that human beings can only know partial and contingent truths and perspectives; there are a multiplicity of truths and perspectives. Nietzsche thought rational truth an illusion.

In our post-truth age we agree to agree because we share the same perspective, not because of rational truth. We advance our own truth claims with our own biases and live in echo chambers which are amplified by social media. There has been ethical and epistemological breakdown, with people entrenched in different value systems and viciously hostile to each other’s truths. We rationalise and justify anything at the expense of ordinary reality. But we don’t have to remain imprisoned by our biases.

Gandhi’s message was that to see/find truth we must be prepared to hear the other side, but he rejected all claims of objective truths. Relative truth was his beacon and he thought relative truth was best found in action. We must hold fast to truth by exploring the attitudes and motives of our opponents. Man is not capable of knowing absolute truth and therefore not competent to punish. Truth in action does not admit a violence inflicted on one’s opponent. The golden rule is mutual toleration. We will never all think alike. It is openness of mind that strengthens truth in us.

Gandhi realised that an age of pluralism has the potential to degenerate into an age of nihilism.  For him truth is too important to be left to politicians, technocrats, journalists and the like. We must all strive for truth in our everyday practices of altruism, humility, compassion and self-evaluation.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 4)

Mahatma Gandhi wrote “Devotion to this Truth is the sole justification for our existence. All our activities should be centred in Truth. Truth should be the very breath of our life.”

The final podcast in this series was by Simon Blackburn, author of the ‘Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy’ and until his retirement Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University.

Simon Blackburn’s message was that even in a post-truth world we are pretty good at judging what is true. For example, we know when it is safe to cross the road and we know that not everyone should be trusted equally about everything. On the whole we grow into being good, practical epistemologists. But we find it difficult to settle doubt ourselves. We dismiss inconvenient facts and find conspiracy theories irresistible . Bewilderment about where truth lies can be quick to set in.

Blackburn claims that the issues are more verbal than substantive. We find ways of describing things difficult. All our terms can be controversial and contested. He quotes Charles Sanders Peirce as saying that we must not begin by talking of pure ideas, we must begin with men and their conversation. We shouldn’t lose ourselves in abstract thoughts about truth, thought and reason, but look at the actual uses of words to sift out descriptions that really matter. Some descriptions have consequences and some sources of information are more trustworthy.

So long as we have thoughts and beliefs at all, we have notions of truth and falsity.

Truth beckons but it does need careful wooing. If you think knowledge is expensive, try ignorance.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 5)

“In simple affairs of life we’re often pretty good at judging what’s true. We have designed, tested and trusted instruments to help detect whether an electrical circuit is live, whether there is petrol in the car or pressure in the tyres. Given this background of success, it is perhaps surprising to find how often scepticism about truth and about our capacities has reared its head in the history of human thought…”

So where does this series of podcasts leave us.

It seems that truth decay has happened before in history and is likely to re-occur in eras of information overload when there is a blizzard of information and disinformation and conspiracy theories can gain traction. Perhaps America’s history, in which fantasy and reality have long been intertwined, makes it particularly susceptible to truth decay, which given its position of power in the world, cannot be good for the rest of us. Financial markets can be equally irrational and unpredictable. According to Juliet Samuel, economic and financial truth is a constantly moving target and cannot remove the next crisis.

This all sounds like doom and gloom with no hope for finding truth. But as McGilchrist says (he would have been a good addition to the programme), this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to seek truth or a multiplicity of truths. For Gandhi this requires action in every day practices of altruism, humility, compassion and self-evaluation. For Simon Blackburn it requires sifting out descriptions that really matter and sources of information that are more trustworthy.

We shouldn’t give up on seeking truth. The word ‘true’ suggests a relationship between things and is related to the word trust.

McGilchrist tells us in his book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World)  that Heidegger related truth to ‘unconcealing’. It is come at by a process, a coming into being of something. It is an act, a journey, not a thing. It has degrees. It is found by removing things, rather than putting things together. Truth is process, not object.

From my perspective this means that we have work to do.  We must critically engage with it. This must surely have implications for how we live our lives in this post-truth age.

Edusemiotics, the Divided Brain and Connectivism


I have recently been exploring Iain McGilchrist’s ground-breaking work on the divided brain (see The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World), with a view to learning more about the implications of this work for education.

This interest was sparked by hearing McGilchrist say, on a course I attended earlier this year (see Field & Field website), that there are no static and separate things, but instead there are relationships and patterns. I wrote about this at the time – see (https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2018/03/15/there-are-no-things-there-are-patterns/). Even though the word ‘education’ does not appear in the index of McGilchrist’s remarkable book, how can the idea of ‘there are no things’ not have implications for education?

At the end of August, I received a number of comments on my blog from Gary Goldberg, with many lines of thought and threads to follow. Central amongst these was the idea that edusemiotics is relevant to an exploration of the implications of McGilchrist’s work for education.

This is an area completely new to me and having started to explore it, I find there is an extensive body of scholarly work associated with it. It will take me a while to get to grips with this and I do not intend to try and cover it here. Instead, I will share my initial understanding of what is edusemiotics and how it might relate to McGilchrist’s work. I will also mention Stephen Downes’ work on connectivism, since this is a new learning theory which seems pertinent here.

Semiotics is the study of signs, such as in body language, rituals, linguistics, media and advertising. Edusemiotics is the study of signs + learning theory + education. It is a process which draws on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure (semiology) and Charles Sander Peirce (semiotics) to defy Cartesian substance dualism. Merleau-Ponty’s work on signs is also significant here, but I have yet to follow this up.

Edusemiotics takes a holistic approach to education, decrying fragmentation and subject/object dualism. It posits that since we use signs to interact with the world, then it follows that signs shape our experience, and human experience is an interpretive structure mediated by signs. Everything is in relation to everything else. ‘As signs connect and become transformed in ever-changing contexts, new signs are created as part of an ongoing open-ended process of interpretation, growth and development.’ (Semetsky & Stables, 2014, p.10).

The edusemiotics argument is that if knowledge is constructed through our ongoing interaction with signs and the world, then knowledge cannot be out there waiting to be found; education must be a process of continuous inquiry; it cannot be reduced to right or wrong answers. A priori learning objectives, measurement and assessment make no sense from this perspective.

An edusemiotics approach to education therefore focuses on significance and meaning rather than ‘true facts’ and content. It is a process and is about interactions and relations ‘between students and teachers, between people and their environments, between ourselves and others, and between elements of that which is to be learned, understood through various relational perspectives’ (Deely & Semetsky, 2017).

The presence of paradox is also a distinguishing feature of edusemiotics. Iain McGilchrist has a lot to say about paradox (see p. 137-140, The Master and his Emissary). For example on p.134 of his book he writes:

‘Our attention is responsive to the world, but the world is responsive to our attention. The situation presents a paradox for linear analysis. .. This paradox applies to the problem of how we get to know anything, but is particularly problematic for the special case whereby we are seeking to approach the very process whereby knowledge comes into being.’

Related to this is Charles Sander Peirce’s work on vagueness and intrinsic uncertainty, although McGilchrist does not reference Peirce in his book. (Again, I have only, as yet, touched on Peirce’s ideas).

The significance of paradox is related to the question of fixity. As McGilchrist says, if there are no things and everything is uncertain and changing, at what point can you say you know something; at what point can a few grains of sand be described as a heap of sand and which grain of sand makes the difference? I have written about this before (see https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2016/08/29/exploring-the-divided-brain-time-space-and-reality/). This of course relates to our understanding of the structure of reality in relation to time, but more importantly to our understanding that everything changes and everything flows; ‘all is in the process of change and eternal flux, rather than stasis and completion’ (p.270-271, The Master and his Emissary).

Deely & Semetsky (2017, p.209) have written that:

The holistic perspective taken by edusemiotics entails several distinctive characteristics including:

  • the relational ethics;
  • the role of experience as exceeding its ‘private’ dimension;
  • emphasis on interpretations surpassing factual ‘evidence’;
  • a conception of language understood broadly in terms of dynamic structures related to the regimes of signs exceeding linguistic representations; embodied cognition;
  • and the importance of self-formation as a lifelong process, thus having implications for education throughout the lifespan, inclusive of children and adults.

It is clear even from this brief introduction to edusemiotics, that whilst it does not explicitly inform McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary, it does share some similar thinking, principally in the idea that ‘knowledge is not acquired, as though it were a thing’. Interestingly these are the words that Stephen Downes uses to explain connectivism (see https://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=38653).

It also shares the right hemisphere’s ‘take’ on the nature of knowledge, that knowledge is an encounter with something ‘other’, not fixed or certain; it depends on ‘betweenness’ and the coming together of wholes. ‘Knowledge and perception and therefore experience, exist only in the relations ‘between’ things, i.e. in the knowledge of distinction and the experience of difference.’ (p. 94-97, The Master and his Emissary).

But from what I have read so far (admittedly little), edusemiotics neither goes as far as connectivism, which rejects cognitivist and constructivist theories of learning as being grounded in language and logic (see https://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=38653), nor as far as McGilchrist who emphasises language as being rooted in the body (p.118).

Downes writes:

In a representational system, you have a thing, a physical symbol, that stands in a one-to-one relationship with something: a bit of knowledge, an ‘understanding’, something that is learned, etc. In representational theories, we talk about the creation (‘making’ or ‘building’) and transferring of these bits of knowledge. This is understood as a process that parallels (or in unsophisticated theories, is) the creation and transferring of symbolic entities.

As Richard Parmentier writes: …  representation lies at the heart of the sign processes

But Downes also writes:

Connectivism is not a representational theory. It does not postulate the existence of physical symbols standing in a representational relationship to bits of knowledge or understandings. Indeed, it denies that there are bits of knowledge or understanding, much less that they can be created, represented or transferred.  

So edusemiotics, whilst sharing some of the pedagogical aspirations of connectivism, differs quite significantly in philosophy.

And McGilchrist writes of the left hemisphere as the hemisphere of representation, in which signs are substituted for experience (p.70). Whilst edusemiotics is discussed in terms of embodied cognition, I wonder about the tension between a discipline which studies signs, which are designed ‘to emphasise the ‘freedom’ of language as far as possible from the trammels of the body and of the physical world [they describe] (p.119 The Master and his Emissary), and a holistic, embodied approach to education.

It seems to me that edusemiotics shares some of the characteristics of connectivism and some of McGilchrist’s philosophical ideas, but the differences between edusemiotics and Downes’ and McGilchrist’s work are significant enough to ultimately affect philosophical and pedagogical approaches to education, making edusemiotics, connectivism and the implications of McGilchrist’s work for education incompatible.

References

Thanks to Gary Goldberg for prompting this post and to Matthias Melcher for discussion about the content.

Source of image: https://vanseodesign.com/web-design/semiotics-signifier-signified/

Skills for ‘Being’ in a Digital Age

I have been puzzling over George Siemens’ idea that learners need to develop ‘being skills’ if they are to cope with what it means to be human in a digital age.

George discusses this with Neil Selwyn in an interview recorded for Monash University, Australia, Faculty of Education.

George does qualify, right at the beginning of the interview, that his question ‘What does it mean to be human in a Digital Age?’ is posed from a learning in knowledge development angle. During the interview he says that technology can ‘out know’ us, artificial intelligence is taking over human roles, and that in the future technology will become a co-agent rather than an enabler; you, me, colleagues, algorithms and robots will all work together in a techno-socio distributed learning model. George tells us that learners (humans) need to learn how to participate in this and that this will be through ‘Being skills’ which, as yet, machines can’t succeed at. He says we are necessarily entering a ‘being age’ because the technological systems around us are more intelligent than we are.

My immediate thought was that this is not so much a techno-sociological issue, or even an education issue, as a philosophical, ethical issue, which will involve deep inquiry into robot and machine ethics and the nature of ‘being’.

I have recently attended an ethics day course, in which in one session we discussed robot ethics in relation to whether we can teach robots ethics – see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-41504285  and https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b098ht04 . I have also attended introduction to contemporary philosophy and epistemology courses in which we were introduced to how some of the great philosophers in our history have thought about knowledge and being. So philosophy, epistemology and ethics have all been on my mind recently.

George said that he has only just started this work, and that his ideas are still emerging/forming, but  I wondered how philosophy and ethics will fit into his future work.

I then came across this article – ‘Our Technology Is Our Ideology’: George Siemens on the Future of Digital Learning‘ –  in which the author  Marguerite McNeal (Aug 11, 2016) writes of George

Throughout his various projects, of which there are too many to track, he focuses on education’s potential to develop the capabilities that make humans unique. Affect, self-awareness and networking abilities are all traits that separate mankind from machines and will be important for work and life in an increasingly automated world.

This reminded me of what Iain McGilchrist said about the difference between living organisms and machines, on a course I attended earlier this year (see posts on The Divided Brain):

According to McGilchrist there are eight things that differentiate living things from machines:

  • An organism cannot be switched off. There must be an uninterrupted flow from the origins of life.
  • A machine is at equilibrium. An organism is far from equilibrium. A cell carries out millions of complex reactions every second. Enzymes speed these up to a thousandth of a second.
  • The relationship between steps and an outcome are different in machines and living organisms. In an organism there are no steps – there is a flow of process.
  • In living things there is no one-way step. Interactions are complex and reciprocal.
  • The parts of a machine are static. The parts of an organism are not static, they are constantly changing.
  • An organism is aware of the whole and corrects for it in its parts (see the work of Barbara McClintock)
  • Organisms have no precise boundaries.
  • Machines don’t generate other machines from their own body parts.
  • Machines’ code is externally generated. Organisms manufacture their own instructions.

For McGilchrist, things come into ‘being’ without being forced (p. 230/231 The Master and His Emissary; see reference below)

“The feeling we have of experience happening – that even if we stop doing anything and just sit and stare, time is still passing, our bodies are changing, our senses are picking up sights and sounds, smells and tactile sensations, and so on – is an expression of the fact that life comes to us. Whatever it is out there that exists apart from us comes into contact with us as the water falls on a particular landscape. The water falls and the landscape resists. One can see a river as restlessly searching out its path across the landscape, but in fact no activity is taking place in the sense that there is no will involved. One can see the landscape as blocking the path of the water so that it has to turn another way, but again the water just falls in the way that water has to, and the landscape resists its path, in the way it has to. The result of the amorphous water and the form of the landscape is the river.

The river is not only passing across the landscape, but entering into it and changing it too, as the landscape has ‘changed’ and yet not changed the water. The landscape cannot make the river. It does not try to put a river together. It does not even say ‘yes’ to the river. It merely says ‘no’ to the water – or does not say ‘no’ to the water, wherever it is that it does so, it allows the river to come into being. The river does not exist before the encounter. Only water exists before the encounter, and the river actually comes into being in the process of encountering the landscape, with its power to say no’ or not say ‘no’. Similarly there is ‘whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves’, but ‘whatever it is that exists’ only comes to be what it is as it finds out in the encounter with ourselves what it is, and we only find out and make ourselves what we are in our encounter with ‘whatever it is that exists’.”

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

For McGilchrist the way forward is to recognise the nature of the problem, that we are living in an increasingly left hemisphere dominated world. He thinks we will have to cope with profound change and that will involve our individual practical selves and training ourselves out of habits of mind. We will have to question and invert things to see if we can find truth. We will have to change the way we spend our time, by first stopping a lot of what we do, switching things off, making space, and being quiet. For McGilchrist the answer is to create a different world and change our culture.

McGilchrist didn’t mention ’being skills’, but it seems to me that his concern is that we need to find a new way of ‘being’ in this technological left-brain dominated world. His work is steeped in philosophy, ethics and scientific research.

I wonder if George’s work on ‘being skills’ will cover any of this.

Human Existence is Difficult. Existentialism and Phenomenology.

What does it mean to live an authentic, fully human life? What distinguishes us from other animals? Are we truly set apart in some way?  How should we think of ourselves? What are we? What should we do?

If these questions have ever concerned you then you could do no worse than read Sarah Bakewell’s fascinating book, At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, in which she takes us on a wonderful journey through the lives, loves, and sometimes tortured existence of the existentialists, who not only struggled to answer these questions and find the meaning of life, but also had to contend with the political chaos that Europe was in during the 20th century.

Bakewell, S. (2016). At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails. Chatto & Windus.

In this book, we are introduced to many philosophers (not all of them existentialists), but when I go back through the notes  I made to accompany my reading, I see that Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger and Albert Camus are the ones that stood out for me.

Last year I read Sartre’s philosophical novel ‘Nausea’ for the first time and it really would have helped to have read Sarah Bakewell’s book first. Bakewell describes Sartre as an ugly, loud-mouthed uncompromising extremist who despite this was a magnet for women, not least Simone de Beauvoir, with whom he had an ‘open’ relationship for more than 50 years. For Sartre, the big question was ‘What does it mean to be free?’ Seeking the answer to this question was his life’s work and indeed his life as he attempted to live by the philosophy he espoused (in Iris Murdoch’s terms he inhabited his philosophy). For him denying this freedom was to act in ‘bad faith’, although by this he did not equate freedom with ‘anything goes’, rather that ‘only with context, meaning, facticity, situation and a general direction in our lives can we be free’.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Source of image: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/what-to-read/did-sartre-and-de-beauvoir-groom-high-school-girls/

Bakewell describes Simone de Beauvoir as the most transformative existentialist. de Beauvoir dedicated her work to applied existentialism; she was interested in the power lines of desire, observation, jealousy and control that connect people, and how constraints and freedom work together, particularly in relation to the oppression of women. She investigated the female experience and wrote of the alienation of women, who see themselves as ‘other’, living most of their lives in ‘bad faith’. Bakewell points out that the problem of how to be a woman is an existentialist problem par excellence; we are profoundly gendered beings. She writes of de Beauvoir’s book ‘The Second Sex’ as the single most influential work ever to come out of the existential movement.

Sartre and de Beauvoir’s work was influenced by many others, including Heidegger, Camus and Merleau-Ponty, with whom they had love/hate relationships. All these philosophers followed each other’s work and seemed to openly insult each other on a regular basis. Had Twitter existed in their time, they would have had a field day, although I think Heidegger would have hated Twitter. Heidegger thought that saying the first un-thought out thing that came to mind, which is called ‘discussion’ today, was empty ‘chit-chat’ and chided his students saying ‘We do not Heideggerize here! Let’s move on to the matter in hand.’ Hannah Arendt, who was one of his students and for a time his lover, claimed that what she learned from Heidegger was how to think.

Source of image: http://www.phillwebb.net/history/Twentieth/Continental/Phenomenology/Heidegger/Heidegger.htm

Heidegger’s life-long concern was the beautiful, intense, terrifying mystery of human existence, the reason things exist and ‘Being’ (das Sein); what does it mean to ‘be’, what does it mean to live an authentic life? For Heidegger living an authentic life is being fully aware that our life is surrounded by death. Heidegger wanted us to avoid wasting time on the endless superficial ‘chatter’ of everyday life, which robs us of the freedom to think for ourselves. He wanted us to resist falling under its sway and become answerable to the call of our own voice, our authentic self. He calls on us to wake up and be ourselves and recognise that we are surrounded by nothingness (death), and that human existence is temporary and has an inbuilt expiry date. Heidegger recognised that we are not hovering above the world, we are in it, and everything is connected. Bakewell writes (p.148) that Heidegger thought that we are ‘not made of spiritual nothingness; we are part of Being, but we also bring something unique with us.’

Despite Bakewell’s wonderfully easy narrative style, Heidegger’s ideas are difficult to grasp and require ‘letting-go’ of one’s own usual critical ways of thinking. He comes across as a complex, solitary, unpopular figure, despite the widely recognised importance of his legacy, particularly because he never did apologize for his temporary support of the Nazi party.

Camus and Merleau-Ponty, were also key characters during this time. Both ultimately fell-out with Sartre and de Beauvoir.

Albert Camus

Source of image: http://www.port-magazine.com/literature/remembering-albert-camus/

The question Camus tried to answer was ‘If life is revealed to be as futile as the labour of Sisyphus, how should we respond?’ In other words, Is life worth living? Most of the time we don’t stop to think about this, but occasionally a dramatic turn of events forces us to ask why exactly do we go on living. For Camus there is no ultimate meaning to what we do. For him life is absurd. Sartre and de Beauvoir could not agree with this, even though Camus pointed out that if life is absurd, then we are impelled to live life more intensely.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Source of image: https://grupoautentica.com.br/autentica/autor/maurice-merleau-ponty/1396

Of all the philosophers Sarah Bakewell discusses, Merleau-Ponty comes out as the ‘good guy’. She dedicates a whole chapter to him, bearing the title ‘The Dancing Philosopher’, because he was the only one of the group of existentialists, who, in their regular visits to cafes and night clubs, would ask a girl to dance and take to the floor. (Bakewell’s chapters all bear wonderful titles). Merleau-Ponty was not an existentialist, but a phenomenologist (Camus was neither). Bakewell describes Merleau-Ponty as the most revolutionary thinker of them all and his book The Phenomenology of Perception’ as a masterwork. Merleau-Ponty was not interested in anguish and authenticity, but in the mystery of existence and how experience comes through perception (all the senses working together holistically) in an embodied way. His focus was  embodied cognition, studying consciousness as a holistic social and sensory phenomenon, rather than a sequence of abstract processes. He reminded us of the central position that the body, perception, childhood and sociality occupy in real life. Bakewell tells us that a phenomenologist must put into words what is ordinarily not put into words, what is ordinarily considered inexpressible and how experience comes to us as a whole rather than separate parts. She took this quote below from The Phenomenology of Perception to sum up Merleau Ponty’s vision of human life.

“I am a psychological and historical structure. Along with existence, I received a way of existing, or a style. All of my actions and thoughts are related to this structure, and even a philosopher’s thought is merely a way of making explicit his hold upon the world, which is all he is. And Yet, I am free, not in spite of or beneath these motivations, but rather by their means. For that meaningful life, that particular signification of nature and history that I am, does not restrict my access to the world; it is rather my means of communication with it.”

Bakewell’s book is a delight to read. She brings these philosophers, and many more, to life, sharing her knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses. She clearly shows us how they interacted with each other and how they influenced each other. She also discusses them in the context of their time, describing a war torn Europe, which influenced each of them differently and determined who they would meet, when and where, and how they would communicate, both during and after the war.

In chapter 3 (p.32) Bakewell writes:

“The existentialists lived in times of extreme ideology and extreme suffering, and they became engaged with events in the world whether they wanted to or not – and usually they did. The story of existentialism is therefore a political and a historical one: to some extent, it is the story of a whole European century.”

In her final chapter (p.245) Bakewell urges us to reread the existentialists and writes:

‘They remind us that human existence is difficult and that people often behave appallingly, yet they also show how great our possibilities are.’