On Becoming A Philosopher

March 3, 2018

On Becoming A Philosopher

by A.C. Grayling

Image result for A.C.GraylingPhilosopher A.C. Grayling and Harvard’s Steven Pinker


“Socrates liked to tease his interlocutors by saying that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing. There is a deep insight in this, for the one thing that is more dangerous than true ignorance is the illusion of knowledge and understanding. Such illusion abounds, and one of the first tasks of philosophy – as wonderfully demonstrated by Socrates in Plato’s “Meno” – is to explore our claims to know things about ourselves and the world, and to expose them if they are false or muddled.”–Philosopher and Teacher A.C. Grayling,

When asked my profession, I say that I teach philosophy. Sometimes, with equal accuracy, I say that I study philosophy. The form of words is carefully chosen; a certain temerity attaches to the claim to be a philosopher – “I am a philosopher” does not sound as straight-forwardly descriptive as “I am a barrister/soldier/carpenter,” for it seems to claim too much. It is almost an honorific, which third parties might apply to someone only if he or she merited it. And such a one need not necessarily be – indeed, may well not be – an academic teacher of the subject.

When I reply in the way described, I see further questions kindle in the interrogator’s eye. “What do philosophers do in the mornings when they get up?” they ask themselves, privately. Everyone knows what a barrister or carpenter does. The teaching part in “teaching philosophy” is obvious enough; but the philosophy part? Do salaried philosophers arrange themselves into Rodinesque poses, and think – all day long?

But the question they actually ask is, “How did you get into that line of work?” The answer is simple. Sometimes people choose their occupations, and sometimes they are chosen by them. People used to describe the latter as having a vocation, a notion borrowed from the idea of a summons to the religious life, and applied to medicine and teaching as well as to the life of the mind. No doubt there are people who make a conscious decision to devote themselves to philosophy rather than, say, tree surgery; but usually it is not an option. Like the impulse to write, paint, or make music, it is a kind of urgency, for it feels far too significant and interesting to take second place to anything else.

The world is, however, a pragmatic place, and the dreams and desires people have – to be professional sportsmen, or prima ballerinas, or best-selling authors – tend to remain such unless the will and the opportunity are available to help onward. Vocation provides the will; in the case of philosophy, opportunity takes the form of an invitation, and a granting of license to take seriously the improbable path of writing and thinking as an entire way of life. In my case, as with many others who have followed the same path, the invitation came from Socrates.

When Socrates returned to Athens from his military service at Potidiae, one of the first things he did was to find out what had been happening in philosophy while he was away, and whether any of the current crop of Athenian youths was distinguished for beauty, wisdom, or both. So Plato tells us at the beginning of his dialogue “Charmides”, named for the handsome youth who was then the centre of fashionable attention in Athens. Always interested in boys like Charmides, Socrates engaged him in conversation to find out whether he had the special attribute which is even greater than physical beauty – namely, a noble soul.

Socrates’ conversation with Charmides was the trigger that made me a lifelong student of philosophy. I read that dialogue at the age of twelve in English translation – happily for me, it is one of Plato’s early works, all of which are simple and accessible; and it immediately prompted me to read others. There was nothing especially precocious about this, for all children begin as philosophers, endlessly voicing their wonder at the world by asking “wh–” questions – why, what, which – until the irritation of parents, and the schoolroom’s authority on the subject of Facts, put an end to their desire to ask them. I was filled with interest and curiosity, puzzlement and speculation, and wanted nothing more than to ask such questions and to seek answers to them forever. My good luck was to have Socrates show that one could do exactly that, as a thing not merely acceptable, but noble, to devote one’s life to. I was smitten by the nature and subject of the enquiries he undertook, which seemed to me the most important there could be. And I found his forensic method exhilarating – and often amusing, as when he exposes the intellectual chicanery of a pair of Sophists in the “Euthydemus,” and illustrates the right way to search for understanding. Presented with such an example, and with such fascinating and important questions, it struck me that there is no vocation to rival philosophy.

These juvenile interests were more or less successfully hidden from contemporaries in the usual way – under a mask of cricket, rugby, and kissing girls in the back row of the cinema – because being a swot was then as always a serious crime; but although all these disguises were agreeable in their own right, especially the last (the charms of Charmides notwithstanding; but they anyway expanded my view of what human flourishing includes), they could not erase what had taken hold underneath – a state of dazzlement before the power and beauty of ideas, and of being fascinated both by the past and the products of man’s imagination. It was a fever that took hold early, and never afterwards abated.

My youthful discovery of philosophy occurred in propitious circumstances, in the sense that I grew up in a remote region of the world, the parts of central and east Africa described by Laurens van der Post in his “Venture into the Interior.” This was before television services reached those high dusty savannahs and stupendous rift valleys, and therefore members of the expatriate English community there, of which my family was part, were much thrown on their own devices, with reading as the chief alternative to golf, bridge and adultery. In the pounding heat of the African tropics all life is shifted back towards dawn and on past evening, leaving the middle of the day empty. School began at seven and ended at noon. Afternoons, before the thunderstorms broke – one could set the clocks by them – were utterly silent. Almost everyone and everything fell asleep. Reading, and solitude of the kind that fills itself with contemplations and reveries, were my chief resources then, and became habitual.

With parents and siblings I lived the usual expatriate life of those distant regions before Harold Macmillan’s “winds of change.” It was a life of Edwardian-style magnificence, made easy by servants in crisp white uniforms, who stood at attention behind our wicker chairs when we took our ease on the terrace, or beside the swimming pool or tennis court, in our landscaped garden aflame with frangipani and canna lilies. Maturing reflection on this exploitative style of life, together with the realisation that Plato’s politics are extremely disagreeable (today he would be a sort of utopian Fascist, and perhaps even worse), gave my political views their permanent list to port.

My mother always yearned for London, and clucked her tongue in dismay, as she read the tissue-paper airmail edition of the Times, over the shows and concerts being missed there. I agreed with her, in prospective fashion. But a good feature of this artificial exile was the local public library. It stood on the slope of a hill, on whose summit, thrillingly for me, lay the skeletal remains of a burned-out single-seater monoplane. In the wreckage of this aircraft I flew innumerable sorties above imagined fields of Kent, winning the Battle of Britain over again. But I did this only in the intervals of reading under a sun-filled window in the empty library, eccentric (as I now see) in its stock of books, but a paradise to me. I had the good fortune to meet Homer and Dante there, Plato and Shakespeare, Fielding and Jane Austen, Ovid and Milton, Dryden and Keats; and I met Montaigne on its shelves, Addison, Rousseau, Dr. Johnson, Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt – and Hume, Mill, Marx and Russell. From that early date I learned the value of the essay, and fell in love with philosophy and history, and conceived a desire to know as much as could be known – and to understand it too. Because of the miscellaneous and catholic nature of these passions, the books in the strange little library gave me a lucky education, teaching me much that filled me then and fills me still with pleasure and delight.

One aspect of this was the invitation to inhabit, in thought, the worlds of the past, not least classical antiquity. In ancient Greece the appreciation of beauty, the respect paid to reason and the life of reason, the freedom of thought and feeling, the absence of mysticism and false sentimentality, the humanism, pluralism and sanity of outlook, which is so distinctive of the cultivated classical mind, is a model for people who see, as the Greeks did, that the aim of life is to live nobly and richly in spirit. In Plato this ideal is encapsulated as “sophrosyne,” a word for which no single English expression gives an adequate rendering, although standardly translated as “temperance,” “self-restraint” or “wisdom.” In his most famous and widely-read dialogue, the “Republic,” Plato defines it as “the agreement of the passions that Reason should rule.” If to this were added the thought – reflecting the better part of modern sensitivity – that the passions are nevertheless important, something like an ideal conception of human flourishing results.

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Plato and Aristotle

When not in Athens I was in ancient Rome. For the Romans in their republican period something more Spartan than Athenian was admired, its virtues (“vir” is Latin for “man”) being the supposedly manly ones of courage, endurance and loyalty. There is a contrast here between civic and warrior values, but it is obvious enough that whereas one would wish the former to prevail, there are times when the latter are required, both for a society and for its individual members. For a society such values are important in times of danger, such as wartime; and for individuals they are important at moments of crisis, such as grief and pain. The models offered by Rome were Horatius – who defended the bridge against Tarquin the Proud and Lars Porsena – and Mucius Scaevola, who plunged his hand into the flames to show that he would never betray Rome. Unsurprisingly, the dominating ethical outlook of educated Romans was Stoicism, the philosophy which taught fortitude, self-command, and courageous acceptance of whatever lies beyond one’s control. The expressions “stoical” and “philosophical,” to mean “accepting” or “resigned,” derive from this tradition.

One Saturday afternoon when I was fourteen I bought – for sixpence, at a fete run by the Nyasaland Rotary Club – a battered copy of G. H. Lewes’s “Biographical History of Philosophy”, which begins (as does the official history of philosophy) with Thales, and ends with Auguste Comte, who was Lewes’s contemporary. Lewes was George Eliot’s consort, a gifted intellectual journalist, whose biography of Goethe is still the best available, and whose history of philosophy is lucid, accurate and absorbing. I could not put it down on first reading, and in all must have read it a dozen times before I had my fill. It superinduced order on the random reading that had preceded it, and settled my vocation.

When I returned to England as a teenager it was to a place intensely familiar and luminous because whenever in my reading I was not either in the ancient world or somewhere else in history, I was there – and especially in London. Everywhere one goes in London, even on ordinary daily business, one encounters its past and its literature – retracing Henry James’s first journeys through the crowded streets of what was in his day the largest and most astonishing city in the world, seeing Dickens’s Thames slide between its oily banks, and Thackeray’s Becky tripping down Park Lane smiling to herself. In this spirit my imagination heard the roar from Bankside, where pennants fluttered above the Bear-garden and the theatres, and saw crowds milling under the jewelled lanterns of Vauxhall Gardens, where fashion and impropriety mingled. Deptford on the map seemed to me a horrifying name, because Marlowe was stabbed there. On the steps of St Paul’s I thought of Leigh Hunt’s description of the old cathedral, before the fire, when it was an open highway through which people rode their horses, in whose aisles and side-chapels prostitutes solicited and merchants met to broker stocks, and where friends called to one another above the sound of matins being said or vespers sung. London is richly overlaid by all that has happened in it and been written about it. There is a character in Proust who is made to play in the Champs Elysees as a boy, and hated it; he later wished he had been able to read about it first, so that he could relish its ghosts and meanings. Luckily for me I came prepared just so for London.

It seemed entirely appropriate to me later, as an undergraduate visiting London at every opportunity, to spend afternoons in the National Gallery and evenings in the theatre (every night if it could be afforded – and even when not) because that is what my companions – my friends on the printed page under the sunlit window in Africa, such as Hazlitt, Pater, and Wilde – intimated was the natural way of relishing life.

But it was not just the relish that mattered, for everything offered by art, theatre and books seemed to me rich grist for the philosophical mill, prompting questions, suggesting answers for debate and evaluation, throwing light on unexpected angles and surprising corners of the perennial problems of life and mind. An education as a philosopher involves studying the writings of the great dead, which enables one to advance to engagement with the technical and often abstruse debates of contemporary philosophy. But philosophical education requires more than this too, for in order to do justice to the question of how these debates relate to the world of lived experience – of how gnosis connects with praxis – a wide interest in history, culture and science becomes essential. The reason is well put by Miguel de Unamuno. “If a philosopher is not a man,” he wrote, “he is anything but a philosopher; he is above all a pedant, and a pedant is a caricature of a man.”

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At Oxford I had the good fortune to be taught by A. J. Ayer, a gifted and lively teacher, and P. F. Strawson, one of the century’s leading philosophical minds. There were other accomplished philosophers there whose lectures and classes I attended, but I benefited most from personal intercourse with these two. And when in my own turn I became a lecturer in philosophy, first at St Anne’s College, Oxford and then at Birkbeck College, London, I appreciated the force of the saying “docendo disco” – by teaching I learn – for the task of helping others grasp the point in philosophical debates has the salutary consequence of clarifying them for oneself.

Socrates liked to tease his interlocutors by saying that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing. There is a deep insight in this, for the one thing that is more dangerous than true ignorance is the illusion of knowledge and understanding. Such illusion abounds, and one of the first tasks of philosophy – as wonderfully demonstrated by Socrates in Plato’s “Meno” – is to explore our claims to know things about ourselves and the world, and to expose them if they are false or muddled. It does so by beginning with the questions we ask, to ensure that we understand what we are asking; and even when answers remain elusive, we at least grasp what it is that we do not know. This in itself is a huge gain. One of the most valuable things philosophy has given me is an appreciation of this fact.

The Tara Westover Story– in Pursuit of Academic Excellence

February 22, 2018

The Tara Westover Story– in Pursuit of Academic Excellence


by Mary Kay Linge

Nothing stood in her way to be educated and here’s why:

“You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them,” she says now. “You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.”–Tara Westover

How a woman raised without education became an Oxbridge academic


Tara Westover was a freshman in college when she first heard of the Holocaust. “I don’t know this word,” she told a professor in class. “What does it mean?”

“There was a silence,” Westover writes in her memoir “Educated” (Random House), out Tuesday. “Not a hush, not a muting of the noise, but utter, almost violent silence . . . The professor’s lips tightened. ‘Thanks for that,’ he said, then returned to his notes.”

Westover’s ignorance was hardly her fault. She had been barred from school for her entire life. Her parents, strict fundamentalist Mormons, had raised their large family on an Idaho mountainside with few books and little interaction with the wider world.

How this unlettered girl zoomed to the heights of academia — a Harvard fellowship, a Cambridge Ph.D. — within the next decade would seem to be a tale of triumph, a portrait of the liberating power of a life of the mind.

For Westover, it’s not so simple.

Westover was born in the family home on Buck’s Peak in southeastern Idaho in 1986, the youngest of seven children. Her father, who nursed paranoid suspicions about the federal government and expected the end times to arrive at any moment, would not permit a hospital birth or reveal her existence to authorities.

She finally got a birth certificate nine years later. An older brother needed one to get a driver’s license and a job, and her father suddenly reversed his 10-year policy against them.

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Tara Westover growing up in Idaho.

When they applied for it, state workers were flummoxed that no one in the family could agree on her actual birth date.

“Not knowing my birthday had never seemed strange,” Westover writes. “I knew I’d been born near the end of September, and each year I picked a day, one that didn’t fall on a Sunday because it’s no fun spending your birthday in church.”

She grew up pitching scrap in her father’s junkyard, canning peaches for his expansive post-apocalypse cache of food and keeping her “head-for-the-hills” bag packed and ready.

The mountain, a 7,457-foot peak, loomed as the family’s guardian and its touchstone. “I had been educated in the rhythms of the mountain, rhythms in which change was never fundamental, only cyclical,” she writes. “All my father’s stories were about our mountain, our valley, our jagged little patch of Idaho.”

“Government school,” as her father called it, was out of the question for his children: It would only brainwash them. Before Tara’s birth, her mother had planned to home-school them herself and collected an elementary science book, one book on American history and a handful of math textbooks.

On the rare days when young Tara “did school,” she admits, she “opened my math book and spent 10 minutes turning pages, running my fingers down the center fold. If my finger touched 50 pages, I’d report to Mother that I’d done 50 pages of math.”

“‘Amazing!’ she’d say. ‘You see? That pace would never be possible in the public school.’”

The family also rejected modern medicine. Her mother, an herbalist and self-trained midwife, treated the many injuries her children sustained doing heavy labor on the homestead. Herbal tinctures of juniper and mullein treated 10-year-old Tara when her leg was impaled by an iron bar as she worked in the family’s scrapyard, one of several incidents she recalls in cringeworthy detail.

The herbs couldn’t heal every wound. A highway wreck in their uninsured car left her mother with memory loss and dissociative episodes. A brother who tried to cut a gas tank off a junked car with a blowtorch was permanently scarred. Neither went to a hospital or saw a doctor.

One Sunday, Westover performed a choir solo in church, winning the praise of her congregation. As a result, her parents allowed her to pursue music, taking piano and dancing lessons — but even then her strict beliefs were a barrier.

“I thought they looked like tiny harlots,” she says of the other girls’ dance costumes at her first and only recital. She performed in a long gray sweatshirt that was still too immodest for her father’s liking.

“Although my family attended the same church as everyone in our town, our religion was not the same,” Westover writes. “I could stand with my family or with the gentiles . . . but there was no foothold in between.”

Most of her siblings began lives of patchy construction jobs and early marriages. Westover expected that she’d do the same, until her black-sheep brother Tyler convinced her that a music degree would let her become the town choir director someday.

Eight years Tara’s senior, Tyler had attended school before their father decided to withdraw the family from the world. Passionate about learning, he was self-directed enough to pursue it on his own, teaching himself trigonometry and calculus out of textbooks. When he went to college to study engineering, their father tried to lecture him into submission — but didn’t stand in his way when Tyler paid his own tuition and left the mountain.

‘There’s a world out there, Tara’

Five years later, on one of his rare visits home, Tyler took his sister aside.

“ ‘There’s a world out there, Tara,’ he said. ‘And it will look a lot different once Dad is no longer whispering his view of it in your ear.’ ”

Spurred on, Westover drove 40 miles to buy herself a trigonometry textbook and studied for the ACT out of her father’s view, signing up for it through a computer at a local business where she did bookkeeping. When she took it for the first time at age 16 in a nearby high school, she floundered, with no idea how to bubble in answers and no experience concentrating in a crowded classroom. “More than stupid, I felt ridiculous,” she writes.

On her second try, she earned a score high enough to qualify for entry into Brigham Young University, the Mormon Church’s college in Salt Lake City. Home-schooling families are common in the Mountain West region, and her application’s claim that she had studied rigorously for years under her mother’s supervision raised no eyebrows. She was accepted.

In 2004, she moved into an off-campus apartment and started classes at age 17, paying her own way with money she had earned through bookkeeping and grocery-clerk jobs. Her father had treated her with sullen silence once it became clear that she was leaving despite him. Her mother drove her to school and helped her move in.

Classes were a constant struggle for a student with poor study skills and next to no cultural literacy. Westover had never been taught to write an essay or take notes. As she read her textbooks, she had to stop repeatedly to research what she called “black-hole words”: terms she had never encountered, like the Enlightenment or the civil rights movement.

She was stunned when a US history class revealed ugly truths about racism and discrimination. The 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, she learned, had occurred only a few decades before, not in America’s distant past. “My proximity to this murdered boy could be measured in the lives of people I knew . . . in the lines on my mother’s face,” she realized.

Returning home that summer, her brother’s casual use of “n—-r” was suddenly intolerable to her. “The word and the way Shawn said it hadn’t changed,” she writes. “Only my ears were different.”

In Psychology 101, when her professor listed the symptoms of bipolar disorder — paranoia, mania, delusions of grandeur and persecution — it suddenly occurred to Westover that her dad was suffering from the condition. She used the pretext of a research paper to interrogate the university’s specialists and produced a damning project outlining the impact of bipolar parents on their children.

“I felt only anger,” she recalls. “We had been bruised and gashed and concussed . . . it was us who paid.”

But the academic revelation that had the greatest effect on Westover dated back to her very first days in the classroom. Her naïve question about the Holocaust first made her feel ashamed: “I didn’t raise my hand for the rest of the semester,” she writes. Shame turned to anger at her parents for allowing her to grow up so intellectually stunted.

By her junior year, anger had become a passionate hunger to expand her horizons. “I wanted a taste of that infinity,” she writes. She traded her music classes for geography, comparative politics and a course on Jewish history.

“By the end of the semester the world felt big,” she writes, “and it was hard to imagine returning to the mountain, to a kitchen or even to a piano.”

She found a mentor in her history professor, who asked her to apply to his study-abroad program at Cambridge University in England. Westover had never heard of Cambridge, but she won a spot nonetheless. She took out a student loan to pay the fees.

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Her world grew that much bigger as she traveled abroad. “My imagination had never produced anything so grand,” she says of her first sight of the ancient King’s College on Cambridge’s campus.

There, she read historiography — the study of historians — with an eminent Holocaust expert, who guided her exploration of how researchers’ biases warp our understanding of the past. The project, inspired by her own experiences, was, the professor told her, one of the best he had read in his 30 years at Cambridge.

She returned to Brigham Young to complete her bachelor’s degree, graduating magna cum laude in 2008. During that final year, her Cambridge mentor helped her win the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, which fully funded her return to England to study for her master’s degree.

Her father disapproved. “Our ancestors risked their lives to cross the ocean, to escape those socialist countries. And what do you do? You turn around and go back?” he scolded. Her parents boycotted her graduation honors dinner and showed up late for her commencement.

Westover remained in touch with her family during her yearlong master’s program, and crossed the Atlantic several times for visits. But she felt increasing condemnation from her parents. When she won a graduate fellowship at Harvard, they came to see her — so that her father could perform an exorcism. “What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon,” she writes. “It was me.”

In 2010, Westover returned to Cambridge to pursue her Ph.D. as her family ties frayed. Most of her siblings cut off communications. She made one last trip back to Buck’s Peak — to retrieve the journals that form the basis of her book.

By 2014, when she earned her doctorate in history, she was close to three of her brothers, including the college-educated Tyler, and had made new connections with aunts and cousins who had themselves been estranged by her parents’ beliefs. But she chose to make an anguished peace with the rest of her family from afar.

“You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them,” she says now. “You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.”

School system needs to match transformation society has undergone

January 20, 2018

School system needs to match transformation society has undergone

Despite emergence of small families and well-educated but working parents, education structure has changed little in past five decades, Michael Heng points out


Schools in Hong Kong and many cities elsewhere in Asia have not undergone significant changes since the 1960s while family structure, the economy and other elements of society have experienced great transformations. Just to name four changes that have direct bearing on education. First, families have become smaller; many children have either one or no sibling. Second, most parents today are pretty well-educated — at the very least they are literate. Third, jobs for university or polytechnic graduates are more difficult to come by. Fourth, there is an ample supply of teachers’ college graduates.

In the 1960s, schools focused mainly on transmitting knowledge to students. In line with this exam results were the key criteria to measure school performance. Not many schools had well-trained teachers. Where students felt their teachers failed their expectations, they had to turn to some kind hearted and brainy fellow classmates for help. In many cases, their parents were too poorly educated to help, and they could not afford private tuition. In such conditions, other important matters related to full development of an individual were pushed into the background. One hardly heard of schools being responsible for helping students develop social and communication skills and guide them in coping with personal problems, failures in life, etc.

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Fast-forward to the 2010s, schools have changed. Though there has been open recognition of the roles of schools in the full development of an individual, the main emphasis is still on exam results. Even with a growing army of well-trained teachers and better-educated parents, we see a booming private-tuition industry. Our mindset and practices on educating our young are stuck in the 1960s, despite conditions having changed so much.

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With only one sibling or no sibling, a child has lost the family environment and does not acquire the habits and skills to cope with older and younger siblings. This inadequacy is often not addressed by schools, which put children of the same age in the same class. As an alternative, primary schools can have just two kinds of classes. One kind comprises classes with children aged 6, 7 and 8, and the higher for children aged 9, 10 and 11. They not only learn from the teachers, but from each other. The younger ones do content-learning from the older ones, while the older ones learn how to teach the younger ones. There is a “risk” the older ones will fail to teach the content correctly to younger ones. But there are textbooks, well-trained teachers, and well-educated parents to correct errors. Moreover, children are exposed from a young age to develop independent thinking and to absorb materials through questioning and critical thinking. Such mental habits are immensely useful for independent pursuit of knowledge. For those familiar with Montessori educational philosophy, the approach sounds familiar.

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Schools should also be reorganized in terms of time and space. Since both parents of most young families work, schools can be organized to keep students at school while parents are working. All kinds of interesting activities can be organized to fill in the hours. Homework in the traditional sense should be done during these hours. “Weaker” students should be assisted by “stronger” students, making tuition redundant. Off-school hours are free from homework and can be fruitfully spent on such activities as community work or learning extra languages.

As a very rich city, Hong Kong can afford to have small classes. Unlike a class of 40 students, where teachers sometimes have to struggle just to maintain discipline and order, what about a class of 20 to 25 students? Any person with teaching experience can testify to the benefits of small classes in schools. To offset the negative aspects of living in a concrete jungle, schools should have bushes, flowers, vegetables, plants and trees to cultivate an early respect for the natural environment.

Besides transmitting book knowledge, there are other dimensions of education — cultivating good character, attitude toward work, social-justice awareness, proper human interaction and ability to cope with failures and setbacks in life.

Good character is more than integrity and being upright. It includes the ability to help others, especially the weak and disadvantaged. Here schools should design incentives to encourage such behavior. For example, classes can be assessed on cooperation and mutual assistance among students, as a balance to competitive exams.

The major spiritual traditions attach great value to productive work, whether well-paid or otherwise. Such attitude is important especially in the current labor market where well-paid professionals may lose their jobs through no fault of their own. Those who perceive all productive work as respectable will be more flexible in facing the situation. Of course, social attitudes must also change to make it easier for redundant staff.

The author is a retired professor who had academic appointments in Australia, the Netherlands, and at six universities in Asia. He has been trained as a school teacher and has also taught in secondary schools. 


On Knowledge and statecraft

January 24, 2017

On Knowledge and statecraft

by Muhammad Husni Mohd Amin


Image result for Najib, Zahid Hamidi and Hishamuddin HusseinThe 3 UMNO Goons–Dr. Zahid Hamidi, Hishamuddin Hussein and Najib Razak. They do not qualify as Philisopber-Kings. They are Malaysia’s penyamun tarbus.


IN Plato’s Republic, the philosopher-king is a leader who loves and embodies the cardinal virtues of wisdom, temperance, courage and justice. Therefore, the community that produced him would dispense with the mechanisms of democracy meant to curtail misuse of power by corrupt politicians who preyed upon the masses because of their ignorance.

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all those others that have been tried.” This may only refer to the inadequacies of the present set-up in producing leaders who do not require constant oversight.

The leader reflects the people. The Prophet said, “As you are, so shall your leader be.” He also said, “Each of you is a shepherd (ra‘in) and each of you is responsible for his flock (ra‘iyyah)”.

The Arabic word ra‘iyyah, from which the Malay word rakyat originated, has its root in ra‘in, which also means guide, guardian or caretaker. In the worldview of Islam, both the leader and the people form a unity; they are like a single body.

The Prophet also prophesied the emergence of leaders (umara) who “will be corrupt but God may put much right through them”. Therefore, the people are obliged to be thankful when leaders do good and patient when the leaders commit evil.

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The Proof of Islam, Imam al-Ghazali, in his Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (Revival of the Religious Sciences), stated that religion is established through the sultan, who is not to be belittled.

We should not justify a wrongdoing when it is proven, but our limited senses may often lead us to believe that no good may come out of the things we perceive as evil because we think evil is the absence of good.

While weed follows the cultivation of rice and there seems to be no good in growing weed, it does not stop us from planting and harvesting the rice.

A well-known Sufi figure, Fudayl ibn ‘Iyad, said, “If I had one supplication that was going to be answered, I would make it for the sultan, for the sultan’s well-being and righteousness means well-being for the land and its people.”

Another Sufi figure, Sahl al-Tustari, was once asked, “Who is the best among men?” He replied that it was the ruler, which surprised his inquirers because it was thought that rulers were the worst.

Sahl continued, “Don’t be hasty! God Most High has two glances every day: one is for the safety of the Muslims’ possessions and another for their bodies. Then, God looks into the Register of Deeds and forgives him all his sins (for his protection of both).”

But the precondition for forgiveness is that the ruler must protect both.The establishment and statecraft of our centuries-old Malay sultanates mirrored those in Islam’s civilisational epicentre, which in turn were modelled after the Prophet’s Medina.

While colonial rule modernised our country’s administration, it did not abolish the sultanates but merely interrupted them. However, colonisation also displaced the ulama’s traditional role in advising the Rulers.

It also severely impaired the ability to follow the Prophetic practice called shura in consulting scholars and learned men as well as the ability to recognise and acknowledge them properly. This is the reason for today’s greater need for checks and balances.

Even so, we are lucky to be blessed with a unique system that combines constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. This is the time when rulers work closely with the ruled towards the common good.

While our Rulers do not interfere in politics, adherence to royal protocols should not conceal the fact that the Rulers are in the best position to decree the people so that they would choose the best stewards for the nation.

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UMNO is full of learned members –the dedaks led by Big Momma

The counsel of learned people is important in guiding a ruler’s politics because statecraft is like a knife in the kitchen – a housewife could wield the knife as a utensil or a burglar as a weapon.

Muhammad Husni Mohd Amin is senior research officer at Ikim’s Centre for Science and Environ­ment Studies. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

The Psychology of Inequality

January 10, 2018

The Psychology of Inequality

Researchers find that much of the damage done by being poor comes from feeling poor.

In 2016, the highest-paid employee of the State of California was Jim Mora, the head coach of U.C.L.A.’s football team. (He has since been fired.) That year, Mora pulled in $3.58 million. Coming in second, with a salary of $2.93 million, was Cuonzo Martin, at the time the head coach of the men’s basketball team at the University of California, Berkeley. Victor Khalil, the chief dentist at the Department of State Hospitals, made six hundred and eighty-six thousand dollars; Anne Neville, the director of the California Research Bureau, earned a hundred and thirty-five thousand dollars; and John Smith, a seasonal clerk at the Franchise Tax Board, earned twelve thousand nine hundred dollars.

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I learned all this from a database maintained by the Sacramento Bee. The database, which is open to the public, is searchable by name and by department, and contains precise salary information for the more than three hundred thousand people who work for California. Today, most state employees probably know about the database. But that wasn’t the case when it was first created, in 2008. This made possible an experiment.

The experiment, conducted by four economists, was designed to test rival theories of inequity. According to one theory, the so-called rational-updating model, people assess their salaries in terms of opportunities. If they discover that they are being paid less than their co-workers, they will “update” their projections about future earnings and conclude that their prospects of a raise are good. Conversely, people who learn that they earn more than their co-workers will be discouraged by that news. They’ll update their expectations in the opposite direction.

According to a rival theory, people respond to inequity not rationally but emotionally. If they discover that they’re being paid less than their colleagues, they won’t see this as a signal to expect a raise but as evidence that they are underappreciated. (The researchers refer to this as the “relative income” model.) By this theory, people who learn that their salaries are at the low end will be pissed. Those who discover that they’re at the high end will be gratified.

The economists conducting the study sent an e-mail to thousands of employees at three University of California schools—Santa Cruz, San Diego, and Los Angeles—alerting them to the existence of the Bee’s database. This nudge produced a spike in visits to the Web site as workers, in effect, peeked at one another’s paychecks.

A few days later, the researchers sent a follow-up e-mail, this one with questions. “How satisfied are you with your job?” it asked. “How satisfied are you with your wage/salary on this job?” They also sent the survey to workers who hadn’t been nudged toward the database. Then they compared the results. What they found didn’t conform to either theory, exactly.


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By bridging the fields of anthropology, evolutionary biology, behavioral ecology, geopolitics, and social science, trailblazing scientist Jared Diamond (b. September 10, 1937) has done more than anyone since Margaret Mead to decondition the Eurocentric approach to history and debunk the biological fallacies on which the monster of racism feeds. His Pulitzer-winning 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (public library) is a foundational text illuminating the conditions that led to inequality in the modern world and combating the broken logic that perpetuates these toxic beliefs.

At the heart of Diamond’s work is the notion that in order to understand any one society, we must contextualize it in the larger ecosystem of humanity and therefore must understand all societies. Only by grasping the richness and diversity of the entire ecosystem can we begin to dismantle our assumptions about the value of others and realize that people from different groups fared differently in history not due to their innate abilities but due to a complex cluster of environmental and geopolitical forces.

Jared Diamond


As the relative-income model predicted, those who’d learned that they were earning less than their peers were ticked off. Compared with the control group, they reported being less satisfied with their jobs and more interested in finding new ones. But the relative-income model broke down when it came to those at the top. Workers who discovered that they were doing better than their colleagues evinced no pleasure. They were merely indifferent. As the economists put it in a paper that they eventually wrote about the study, access to the database had a “negative effect on workers paid below the median for their unit and occupation” but “no effect on workers paid above median.”

The message the economists took from their research was that employers “have a strong incentive” to keep salaries secret. Assuming that California workers are representative of the broader population, the experiment also suggests a larger, more disturbing conclusion. In a society where economic gains are concentrated at the top—a society, in other words, like our own—there are no real winners and a multitude of losers.

Keith Payne, a psychologist, remembers the exact moment when he learned he was poor. He was in fourth grade, standing in line in the cafeteria of his elementary school, in western Kentucky. Payne didn’t pay for meals—his family’s income was low enough that he qualified for free school lunch—and normally the cashier just waved him through. But on this particular day there was someone new at the register, and she asked Payne for a dollar twenty-five, which he didn’t have. He was mortified. Suddenly, he realized that he was different from the other kids, who were walking around with cash in their pockets.

“That moment changed everything for me,” Payne writes, in “The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die.” Although in strictly economic terms nothing had happened—Payne’s family had just as much (or as little) money as it had the day before—that afternoon in the cafeteria he became aware of which rung on the ladder he occupied. He grew embarrassed about his clothes, his way of talking, even his hair, which was cut at home with a bowl. “Always a shy kid, I became almost completely silent at school,” he recalls.

Payne is now a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He has come to believe that what’s really damaging about being poor, at least in a country like the United States—where, as he notes, even most people living below the poverty line possess TVs, microwaves, and cell phones—is the subjective experience of feeling poor. This feeling is not limited to those in the bottom quintile; in a world where people measure themselves against their neighbors, it’s possible to earn good money and still feel deprived. “Unlike the rigid columns of numbers that make up a bank ledger, status is always a moving target, because it is defined by ongoing comparisons to others,” Payne writes.

Feeling poor, meanwhile, has consequences that go well beyond feeling. People who see themselves as poor make different decisions, and, generally, worse ones. Consider gambling. Spending two bucks on a Powerball ticket, which has roughly a one-in-three-hundred-million chance of paying out, is never a good bet. It’s especially ill-advised for those struggling to make ends meet. Yet low-income Americans buy a disproportionate share of lottery tickets, so much so that the whole enterprise is sometimes referred to as a “tax on the poor.”

One explanation for this is that poor people engage in riskier behavior, which is why they are poor in the first place. By Payne’s account, this way of thinking gets things backward. He cites a study on gambling performed by Canadian psychologists. After asking participants a series of probing questions about their finances, the researchers asked them to rank themselves along something called the Normative Discretionary Income Index. In fact, the scale was fictitious and the scores were manipulated. It didn’t matter what their finances actually looked like: some of the participants were led to believe that they had more discretionary income than their peers and some were led to believe the opposite. Finally, participants were given twenty dollars and the choice to either pocket it or gamble it on a computer card game. Those who believed they ranked low on the scale were much more likely to risk the money on the card game. Or, as Payne puts it, “feeling poor made people more willing to roll the dice.”

In another study, this one conducted by Payne and some colleagues, participants were divided into two groups and asked to make a series of bets. For each bet, they were offered a low-risk / low-reward option (say, a hundred-per-cent chance of winning fifteen cents) and a high-risk / high-reward option (a ten-per-cent chance of winning a dollar-fifty). Before the exercise began, the two groups were told different stories (once again, fictitious) about how previous participants had fared. The first group was informed that the spread in winnings between the most and the least successful players was only a few cents, the second that the gap was a lot wider. Those in the second group went on to place much chancier bets than those in the first. The experiment, Payne contends, “provided the first evidence that inequality itself can cause risky behavior.”

People’s attitude toward race, too, he argues, is linked to the experience of deprivation. Here Payne cites work done by psychologists at N.Y.U., who offered subjects ten dollars with which to play an online game. Some of the subjects were told that, had they been more fortunate, they would have received a hundred dollars. The subjects, all white, were then shown pairs of faces and asked which looked “most black.” All the images were composites that had been manipulated in various ways. Subjects in the “unfortunate” group, on average, chose images that were darker than those the control group picked. “Feeling disadvantaged magnified their perception of racial differences,” Payne writes.

“Every year he regifts himself to me.”

“The Broken Ladder” is full of studies like this. Some are more convincing than others, and, not infrequently, Payne’s inferences seem to run ahead of the data. But the wealth of evidence that he amasses is compelling. People who are made to feel deprived see themselves as less competent. They are more susceptible to conspiracy theories. And they are more likely to have medical problems. A study of British civil servants showed that where people ranked themselves in terms of status was a better predictor of their health than their education level or their actual income was.

All of which leads Payne to worry about where we’re headed. In terms of per-capita income, the U.S. ranks near the top among nations. But, thanks to the growing gap between the one per cent and everyone else, the subjective effect is of widespread impoverishment. “Inequality so mimics poverty in our minds that the United States of America . . . has a lot of features that better resemble a developing nation than a superpower,” he writes.

Rachel Sherman is a professor of sociology at the New School, and, like Payne, she studies inequality. But Sherman’s focus is much narrower. “Although images of the wealthy proliferate in the media, we know very little about what it is like to be wealthy in the current historical moment,” she writes in the introduction to “Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence.”

Sherman’s first discovery about the wealthy is that they don’t want to talk to her. Subjects who agree to be interviewed suddenly stop responding to her e-mails. One woman begs off, saying she’s “swamped” with her children; Sherman subsequently learns that the kids are at camp. After a lot of legwork, she manages to sit down with fifty members of the haut monde in and around Manhattan. Most have family incomes of more than five hundred thousand dollars a year, and about half have incomes of more than a million dollars a year or assets of more than eight million dollars, or both. (At least, this is what they tell Sherman; after a while, she comes to believe that they are underreporting their earnings.) Her subjects are so concerned about confidentiality that Sherman omits any details that might make them identifiable to those who have visited their brownstones or their summer places.

“I poked into bathrooms with soaking tubs or steam showers” is as far as she goes. “I conducted interviews in open kitchens, often outfitted with white Carrara marble or handmade tiles.”

A second finding Sherman makes, which perhaps follows from the first, is that the privileged prefer not to think of themselves that way. One woman, who has an apartment overlooking the Hudson, a second home in the Hamptons, and a household income of at least two million dollars a year, tells Sherman that she considers herself middle class. “I feel like, no matter what you have, somebody has about a hundred times that,” she explains. Another woman with a similar household income, mostly earned by her corporate-lawyer husband, describes her family’s situation as “fine.”

“I mean, there are all the bankers that are heads and heels, you know, way above us,” she says. A third woman, with an even higher household income—two and a half million dollars a year—objects to Sherman’s use of the word “affluent.”

“ ‘Affluent’ is relative,” the woman observes. Some friends of hers have recently flown off on vacation on a private plane. “That’s affluence,” she says.

This sort of talk dovetails neatly with Payne’s work. If affluence is in the eye of the beholder, then even the super-rich, when they compare their situation with that of the ultra-rich, can feel sorry for themselves. The woman who takes exception to the word “affluent” makes a point of placing herself at the “very, very bottom” of the one per cent. “The disparity between the bottom of the 1 percent and the top of the 1 percent is huge,” she observes.

Sherman construes things differently. Her subjects, she believes, are reluctant to categorize themselves as affluent because of what the label implies. “These New Yorkers are trying to see themselves as ‘good people,’ ” she writes. “Good people work hard. They live prudently, within their means. . . . They don’t brag or show off.” At another point, she observes that she was “surprised” at how often her subjects expressed conflicted emotions about spending. “Over time, I came to see that these were often moral conflicts about having privilege in general.”

Whatever its source—envy or ethics—the discomfort that Sherman documents matches the results of the University of California study. Inequity is, apparently, asymmetrical. For all the distress it causes those on the bottom, it brings relatively little joy to those at the top.

As any parent knows, children watch carefully when goodies are divvied up. A few years ago, a team of psychologists set out to study how kids too young to wield the word “unfair” would respond to unfairness. They recruited a bunch of preschoolers and grouped them in pairs. The children were offered some blocks to play with and then, after a while, were asked to put them away. As a reward for tidying up, the kids were given stickers. No matter how much each child had contributed to the cleanup effort, one received four stickers and the other two. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children shouldn’t be expected to grasp the idea of counting before the age of four. But even three-year-olds seemed to understand when they’d been screwed. Most of the two-sticker recipients looked enviously at the holdings of their partners. Some said they wanted more. A number of the four-sticker recipients also seemed dismayed by the distribution, or perhaps by their partners’ protests, and handed over some of their winnings. “We can . . . be confident that these actions were guided by an understanding of equality, because in all cases they offered one and only one sticker, which made the outcomes equal,” the researchers reported. The results, they concluded, show that “the emotional response to unfairness emerges very early.”

If this emotional response is experienced by toddlers, it suggests that it may be hardwired—a product of evolution rather than of culture. Scientists at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, outside Atlanta, work with brown capuchin monkeys, which are native to South America. The scientists trained the monkeys to exchange a token for a slice of cucumber. Then they paired the monkeys up, and offered one a better reward—a grape. The monkeys that continued to get cucumbers, which earlier they’d munched on cheerfully, were incensed. Some stopped handing over their tokens. Others refused to take the cucumbers or, in a few cases, threw the slices back at the researchers. Like humans, capuchin monkeys, the researchers wrote, “seem to measure reward in relative terms.”

Preschoolers, brown capuchin monkeys, California state workers, college students recruited for psychological experiments—everyone, it seems, resents inequity. This is true even though what counts as being disadvantaged varies from place to place and from year to year. As Payne points out, Thomas Jefferson, living at Monticello without hot water or overhead lighting, would, by the standards of contemporary America, be considered “poorer than the poor.” No doubt inequity, which, by many accounts, is a precondition for civilization, has been a driving force behind the kinds of innovations that have made indoor plumbing and electricity, not to mention refrigeration, central heating, and Wi-Fi, come, in the intervening centuries, to seem necessities in the U.S.

Still, there are choices to be made. The tax bill recently approved by Congress directs, in ways both big and small, even more gains to the country’s plutocrats. Supporters insist that the measure will generate so much prosperity that the poor and the middle class will also end up benefitting. But even if this proves true—and all evidence suggests that it will not—the measure doesn’t address the real problem. It’s not greater wealth but greater equity that will make us all feel richer. ♦

This article appears in the print edition of the January 15, 2018, issue, with the headline “Feeling Low.”

Kant Goes to Berlin

January 7, 2018

Kant Goes to Berlin


by Michael G. Heller

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I can slip into this unique meeting of a group of European policymakers with Immanuel Kant only because I am an intern with training in stenography who is discreet and presentable and good at making tea and arranging chairs.

My boss at the Ministry (who is not allowed entry and will be so jealous of me!!) was asked at short notice to organize the reunion which will explore in the broadest possible terms an outline of the country’s philosophical stance on Fiscal Union. Someone at the European Commission is insisting we find a historical defence of the institutions and procedures of the new macro surveillance mechanism to deploy against “cheap criticism” of the democratic legitimacy of EU institutions.

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Mario Draghi is here. So is Jens Weidmann. Guido Westerwelle has at the last minute invited Radoslaw Sikorsky who happens to be visiting Berlin today.

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Chancellor of Germany–Angela Merkel–An Intellectual in her own right

Schäuble is in a hurry. He whispered to Chancellor Merkel that time is short, they should push on. Merkel would have liked to wait for an agreeable atmosphere to settle upon the room. She changed her mind, however, when she overheard Immanuel Kant muttering that “progress in time determines everything and is not itself determined, and every transition in perception to something that follows in time is a determination of time”. Kant arrived punctually, and has finished his tea. It would be advisable to begin discussion while the caffeine still circulates through whatever remains of his veins.

Merkel:  Ladies and Gentleman…

Wow! She is talking directly to *me*. I am the only other lady in the room! Wow!

Merkel:  The German government has always made it clear that the European debt crisis is not to be solved with a single blow. There is no such single blow…

Schäuble:  All quick solutions, like printing money or collectivizing our liabilities without a common finance policy, are the wrong solution…

Merkel:  Thank you Wolfgang. As I was saying, I hope our partners understand we are not willing to trade concessions such as bond-buying, joint debt-issuance and sovereign bail outs. This is not about give and take. The precondition of continuation with the single currency is that sovereignty in fiscal policy be delegated to European institutions. So, where today we have only loose agreements we need in future to have legally binding regulations.

Schäuble:  It does not make any economic sense to start endlessly pumping money into stability funds, nor starting up the ECB printing press. This would create disincentives for countries to carry on consolidating and reforming. Piling on more debt now will stunt rather than stimulate growth. We need to take big steps to get Fiscal Union done. It was not possible politically in the 1990s but the crisis shows we need it now. That is why crises are also opportunities. We can get things done that we could not do without the crisis. Do you agree Prof Kant?

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Immanuel Kant

Kant:  The only way for the philosopher, since he cannot assume that mankind follows a rational purpose of its own in its collective actions, is for him to attempt to discover a purpose in nature behind this senseless course of human events. An organ which is not meant for use or an arrangement which does not fulfill its purpose is a contradiction in the teleological theory of nature. This purpose of nature can be fulfilled only in a society which has not only the greatest freedom, and therefore a continual *antagonism* among its members, but also the most precise specification and preservation of the limits of this freedom. The highest task which nature has set for mankind must therefore be that of establishing a society in which freedom under external laws would be combined to the greatest possible extent with irresistible force. It requires a perfectly just civil constitution. Man is forced to enter this state of restriction by sheer necessity.

Draghi:  Yes. And the sequencing matters… For example, it is first and foremost important to get a commonly shared fiscal compact right. Confidence works backwards. If there is an anchor in the long term, it is easier to maintain trust in the short term… It is time to adapt the euro area design with a set of institutions, rules and processes that is commensurate with the requirements of monetary union.

Kant:  Europe’s citizens should be informed, so that they may comprehend the flow of history, that the fiscal union is but the most immediate feasible step in the direction of a federation of peoples in which every state, even the smallest, could expect to derive its security and rights not from its own power or its own legal judgement, but solely from this Great Federation. However wild and fanciful this idea may appear, it has been ridiculed as such only because they thought that its realization was presented as imminent. It is the crisis, not the Germans, that have made it imminent and feasible. This crisis is the signal that nature sends to man about the current dysfunction of his institutional organs.

Sikorski:  But it is a crisis of apocalyptic proportions!!! I demand of Germany that, for your own sake and for ours, you help the eurozone survive and prosper. You know full well that nobody else can do it. I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity. You have become Europe’s indispensable nation.

Merkel:  Radoslaw, let me assure you that is exactly why we are meeting today. I fear we are not winning the philosophical argument. It is bizarre that some people think we wish to dominate Europe. In order to win back trust, we need to do more. What is the fundamental historical argument we must make for Fiscal Union?

Westerwelle:  Sound budgeting is not a German idée fixe based on our historical experience of hyperinflation. It is in the interest of Europe as a whole. There is no time to lose. It is vital to send a clear message to markets that the eurozone is determined to end the policies of debt-making.

Schäuble:  When things get really difficult, suddenly solutions which seemed impossible become possible. The crisis represents an opportunity. I’m not saying that I enjoy being in a crisis, but I’m not worried. Europe always moved forward in times of crisis. Sometimes you need a little pressure for certain decisions to be taken. We can only achieve a political union if we have a crisis.

Kant:  This crisis opportunity is not a lucky accident arrived at by random collisions but rather reveals that nature is purposive in its parts. As in war or any systemic catastrophe, the aftermath is felt by the state in the shape of a constantly increasing *national debt* whose repayment becomes interminable. And in addition, the effects which an upheaval in any state produces upon all the others in our continent, where all are so closely linked by trade, are so perceptible that these other states — Germany and France — are forced by their own insecurity to offer themselves as arbiters, albeit without legal authority, so that they indirectly prepare the way for a great political body of the future, without precedent in the past.

Schäuble:  This is true. We achieved monetary union, in the short term we want fiscal union, and in a larger context naturally we need a political union… Yet the Mediterranean countries will not become German, and Europe will not be speaking German.

Kant:  Although this political body exists for the present only in the roughest of outlines, it nonetheless seems as if a feeling is beginning to stir in all its members, each of which has an interest in maintaining the whole. And this encourages the hope that the highest purpose of nature, a universal *cosmopolitan* existence, will at last be realized. If we trace the influence of the Greeks upon the shaping and mis-shaping of the body politic… we shall discover a regular process of improvement in the political constitutions of our continent. We must always concentrate our attention on civil constitutions, their laws, and the mutual relations among states, and will then notice that a germ of enlightenment always survived, developing further with each revolution.

Weidmann:  I’m with you Prof Kant. Right now we’re talking about the EU treaty and I don’t see how you can build trust in a system that violates laws. I am president of an institution which is bound by a legal framework. We should respect the division of labour in a democracy. This has nothing to do with pragmatism or dogmatism. You won’t solve the crisis by reducing incentives for the debtor governments to act. It’s really an absurd debate in which we are telling institutions: ‘don’t care about the law’. In any model you must penalize rule violations. In the Maastricht model, the rules would be the stability and growth pact, with automatic sanctions for violations and the no bail-out clause. In the fiscal union model you also need strict rules for deficit and debt. If you breached those rules you would need to delegate your national sovereignty on fiscal policy to a supranational level. I think the true question at the heart of this is: are governments, parliaments, and *people* ready to accept a supranational level, a European level that assumes the ultimate responsibility for fiscal policy, at least in case of a breach of the rules?

Kant:  If the law is such that a *whole people* could not possibly agree to it (for example if it stated that a certain class of subjects must be privileged as a ruling class) it is unjust; but if it is at least possible that a people could agree to it, it is our duty to consider the law as just, even if the people is at present in such a position or attitude of mind that it would probably refuse its consent if it were consulted… in a referendum, for example.

Weidmann:  And, furthermore, it’s not about being more German or not being German. Fiscal solidity is not only a German issue, and the crisis has clearly revealed its importance as the basis of financial stability and political stability.

Draghi:  I agree. On my appointment as ECB president a British newspaper worried “the euro could be felled by an Italian trying too hard to be a German.” I mean it’s just absurd…

Kant:  Take no notice, Mario. They probably meant another country whose name begins with ‘G’. Germany is a successful country. All this fuss about budget sovereignty! In times past we lost our cities not just our deficits. Because I’m forced to live in Russia I can see things as an outsider. I see that, after wisely moving away from corporatism, Germany and like-minded northern European countries have consolidated as the world’s sustainably strongest and most competitive economies. The BRICS will at some stage inevitably crash against or only slowly clamber over internal institutional roadblocks. Germany already has good institutions *and* the right economy. If the Great Federation is modeled on impersonal non-discriminatory legal-procedural process then it can also be sold to the German people as their victory to be proud of. The voters are bound to like it.

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Max Weber

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Jurgen Habermas

Merkel:  Since we’ve drifted to the question of democracy I would like to mention that we are planning another meeting, this time with Max Weber and Jurgen Habermas, who have opposing views on the present democracy debate in Europe.

Weidmann:  I think Habermas disagrees with our idea for taking away the budgetary privileges of national parliaments.

Kant:  It sounds like the makings of a first-rate quarrel. Can I come too?

The meeting finishes. As intern, I busy myself helping everyone to find their way out of the room without mishap. I give them each my card — discreetly — and tell them what a pleasure it has been. Angela says to me “see you at the next meeting then”, which means I can truthfully tell my boss I will be expected to attend. The Chancellor expects it.

Italic Credits:  Kant: Political Writings, The Guardian, New York Times, Der Spiegel, Financial Times, The Economist, Reuters, Google