Life Lessons from Bergson

My dogears from Michael Foley’s excellent “Life Lessons from Bergson”


“Time” is now the most-used noun in English, whereas many primitive peoples, for instance the Amondawa tribe of the Amazon and the Australian Aborigines do not have a word for it. (p.24)


The corollary of predictability as comfort is randomness as threat … We would almost rather accept gross injustice than randomness. At least with injustice there is someone to blame. And good fortune is just as rarely recognized. For bad luck, we blame others and for good luck, we take the credit ourselves. (p.32)

Habit & Old Fogyism

Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state. (p. 40, from William James’ Psychology: The Briefer Course)

Old Fogyism begins at a younger age than we think. I am almost afraid to say so but I believe that in the majority of human beings it begins at about twenty-five. (p.40, from William James’ Talks to Teachers)


It is the function of comedy to repress any separatist tendency, to convert rigidity into plasticity, the readapt the individual to the whole (p. 43, from Bergson’s Le Rire)


How can the eyes be asked to see more than they see? Our attention may enhance precision, clarify and intensify; but it cannot bring out what was not there in the first place. That is the objection – in my opinion, refuted by experience. In fact for hundreds of years there have been people whose function was precisely to see and make us see what we do not naturally perceive. These are the artists. (p. 49, from Bergson’s La Pensee et le mouvant)

Character and Attention

According to James, our experience of life is nothing other than what we have chosen to pay attention to, and the choice is decisive because experience is character. (p64)

Ripples, Systems and Effects

If everything is connected to everything else then every action propagates its effects for ever, and if feedback loops are the method of propagation then every action also modifies the character of the actor. Many of these nano-modifications are below the level of perception but they eventually add up to a cumulative change that is all too perceptible. One day you may wake up and realize you have become a shithead – or, more likely, your partner wakes up and informs you of this in a loud, outraged tone, en route to the door. (p.75)

[Photo: Edinburgh University]


“A regard for human excellence is the aristocratic ethos. To speak of aristocracy is perhaps a bit eccentric in our time, but consider the paradoxical truth that equality is an aristocratic ideal. It is the ideal of friendship – of those who stand apart from the collective and recognise one another as peers. As professionals, or fellow journeymen perhaps. By contrast, the bourgeois principle is not equality but equivalence – a positing of interchangeability that elides human differences of rank.”

– from Matthew Crawford’s Case for Working With Your Hands

kung fu pragmatism

One might well consider the Chinese kung fu perspective a form of pragmatism. The proximity between the two is probably why the latter was well received in China early last century when John Dewey toured the country. What the kung fu perspective adds to the pragmatic approach, however, is its clear emphasis on the cultivation and transformation of the person, a dimension that is already in Dewey and William James but that often gets neglected. A kung fu master does not simply make good choices and use effective instruments to satisfy whatever preferences a person happens to have. In fact the subject is never simply accepted as a given. While an efficacious action may be the result of a sound rational decision, a good action that demonstrates kung fu has to be rooted in the entire person, including one’s bodily dispositions and sentiments, and its goodness is displayed not only through its consequences but also in the artistic style one does it….

Source: here

Charter For Compassion :: home

The Charter for Compassion will be unveiled to the world on November 12, 2009.

In late 2008, people of all nations, all faiths, all backgrounds, submitted their words to the Charter. In early 2009, the Council of Conscience sorted through and discussed the world's contributions to determine the final version of the Charter. The Charter is now complete.

The Charter does NOT assume:

* all religions are the same
* compassion is the only thing that matters in religion
* religious people have a monopoly on compassion

The Charter DOES affirm that:

* compassion is celebrated in all major religious, spiritual and ethical traditions
* the Golden Rule is our prime duty and cannot be limited to our own political, religious or ethnic group
* therefore, in our divided world, compassion can build common ground

Source: here

A Physics of Society: Critical Mass Notes #1

Ton has written an elegant post about the value of maths in the design of social tools. It reminded me of a book by Philip Ball called Critical Mass, and I realised how little I could really remember of it other than the broad brush strokes.

So I thought I’d reread it and post some notes.

1: Raising Leviathan

  • The Scientific Revolution did not just affect the sciences. It affected politics too.
  • Various thinkers, such as More, Grotius and Bacon began to imagine societies based on scientific reasoning. They were “Utopians”; in many ways descendants of Plato in that they gathered some first principles, and tried to deduce what sort of societies would work given those principles
  • Hobbes was an especially mechanistic Utopian. He fell in love with geometry and the way mathematicians could build on simple assumptions to find more complex, and sometimes surprising truths.
  • With his Leviathan, he aimed for

    “a theory of governance as unimpeachable as those of Euclid’s geometry”.

  • Traces of his approach can be found in Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx and other political theorists.
  • That’s one trajectory, but it’s not particularly scientific one.

    “Political theorists tend to concern themselves with what they think ought to be; scientists concentrate on the way things are

  • “There are few political thinkers who have defined a social model with the logical precision of Hobbes, and none who have carried those precepts through to their conclusions in a truly scientific way.”

  • Physicists have developed tools since then that, however unintentionally, add rigour to the sorts of scientific models a modern day Hobbes might want. The same tools that allow physicists to understand the behaviour of atoms can be used to begin to model the behaviour of people.

Simplicity is hard

David Weinberger has an interesting thought.

Knowing has been primarily a way of seeing the simplicity behind the world’s apparent complexity. But now as a culture we’re busy complexifying everything we can. E.g., blogs take a simple idea and turn it over and over in their hands, poking at it, trying it this way and that, connecting it to that other thing over there.

Are we complexifying things? Or rather, are we complexifying things more than any of our forebears?

I’m not sure. I tend to see all the turning, poking, trying and connecting that blogs et al. afford as the process of proving an idea, whether that idea is complicated or not.

And extrapolating from a base case of one, I suspect people still want to know things in the traditional sense, to see the simplicity behind the world’s apparent complexity.

For me, the advantage of everyone being able to do this together is that the breadth of our combined cultural and educational backgrounds is both a great forge for new ideas, and a powerful, rigorous testing ground.

The disadvantage, though, is that, as you engage in this process you cannot help but be aware of how much more complexity there is in the world than was apparent, and how hard it might be to see any simplicity.

Ho hum.


If you want to know what a philosophy degree’s really like, then Johnnie’s probably the man to tell you.

I was particularly hopeless at the jargon. To win a philosophical argument with me, all you had to do was to suggest that I was being solipsistic (or pretty much any such term). I’d stare at you blankly, because I had no idea what it meant but didn’t want to admit to such professional ignorance. Secretly, I’d sneer at your pretentious use of language, but you’d never know that.

Certainly rang some bells 🙂

But it also made me wonder what the jargon words were that should be forbidden at all possible when talking to people about KM initiatives.

Knowledge sharing is obviously one. As is knowledge capture. In fact “knowledge” probably should go full stop. “Creative abrasion”, “deep dialogue”, “identity management”, “paradigm shifts”, “out of the box”, “emergence”, “power laws”, perhaps the whole top-down/bottom-up thing, “blogs” (but only because it’s such an ugly word), “knowledge harvesting”, “thought leaders”. Definitely “knowledge workers”.

I suppose, in short, anything that would find its way into a “bluff your way in KM” book. Any others? Not to say that these words don’t mean anything, just that they smack of jargon.

Anyway, Johnnie’s solipsism example made me think of a student in my seminar group when I was getting my degree. We’d been having a particularly fruitless term discussing whether we could prove we exist, and in pretty much the last seminar the tutor said, slightly huffily, “Well presumably none of you think you don’t exist?” At which point the bloke, whose name was a mystery and who hadn;t spoke a word until then said, “I’m not sure. I’m really not sure.” And we never saw him again. Sensible feller.

Philosophy Bears and Fruit

From China Daily, Society must not shun philosophers

A friend of mine once told me a joke: A job hunter, a philosophy major, went here, there and everywhere in his search for employment, but in vain. Having run out of options, he swallowed his pride and took up the offer of playing a bear in a costume at a zoo. He was locked up in a cage, where he was supposed to imitate various bear-like movements to entertain visitors.

To his horror, another bear appeared in the cage and started approaching him. He panicked and was on the brink of collapse when the bear said: “Don’t be afraid. I’m also a philosophy major.”

Funny and somewhat ridiculous, the joke does reveal an essential truth. In a society geared towards immediate gains, philosophy seems unable to produce tangible benefits. For the majority, philosophy seems virtually useless.

The author goes on to lay claim to an interesting historical precedent.

“Germany, which lagged far behind Britain and France, rose quickly in the late 18th and 19th centuries because philosophy flourished during that period, among other things. Philosophy was so popular at the time that Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” could be found in young ladies’ boudoirs. It is from this fertile soil that a galaxy of great names emerged, which still have a profound influence on our world today – Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Hegel and Marx.

The great ancient Chinese civilization was created because our ancestors attached great importance to rational thinking. Ancient philosophical ideas were at the core of the governance of ancient kingdoms and dynasties.”

Tend to agree.


Holiday reading quote #1, from Carl Honore’s brilliant In Praise of Slow:

“The Slow movement is on the march. Instead of doing everything faster, many people are decelerating and finding that Slowness helps them to live, work, think and play better…

Yet the Slow movement is not about turning the whole planet into a Mediterranean holiday resort. Most of us do not wish to replace the cult of speed with the cult of slowness. Speed can be fun, productive and powerful, and we would be poorer without it. What … Slowness offers is a middle path, a recipe for marrying la dolce vita with the dynamism of the information age. The secret is balance: instead of doing everything faster, do everything at the right speed. Sometimes fast. Sometimes slow. Sometimes somewhere in between. Being Slow means never rushing, never striving to save time just for the sake of it. It means remaining calm and unflustered even when circumstances force us to speed up…

Of course, the Slow movement still faces some pretty daunting obstacles – not least our own prejudices. Even when we long to slow down, we feel constrained by a mixture of greed, inertia and fear to keep up the pace. In a world hardwired for speed, the tortoise still has a lot of persuading to do.”