On John Rawls: Theory of Justice

August 8, 2015

KH-Cambodia-UniversityOn John Rawls: Theory of Justice for my Political Philosophy students at University of Cambodia



A philosopher tries to balance the claims of liberty and equality.

By J. B. Scheewind

 John Rawls

John Rawls’s major work, ”A Theory of Justice,” is a closely written philosophical treatise of more than 500 pages. Over 225,000 copies of its two editions (1971, 1999) have been bought, and it has been translated into more than 20 languages, including Chinese and Russian. This is plainly no ordinary piece of academic cookery to be savored only by professionals. Despite its great complexity, the book has appealed to a wide range of readers. Rawls is reaching for a still larger public in ”Justice as Fairness.” Much moral philosophy is addressed primarily to other philosophers. Rawls thinks that his views are simple enough to be understood by the public. He even hopes that the arguments for them might come to affect political discussion.

This is not a sign of immodesty. Rawls holds that because governments in modern democratic societies act on behalf of their citizens, we, as citizens, must have some common understanding of the rationale for our political institutions. We need at least to share principles of justice so we can talk out our major social disagreements. But we do not agree on any religion or any broad philosophy that could provide them. And we cannot be brought to share any ”comprehensive view” — Rawls’s term for an all-embracing worldview — without an unacceptable use of political power to enforce consensus. Consider, for instance, the horrors the Taliban inflict on their citizens in their insistence on religious conformity.

Reasonable people can hold divergent views on religion and morality. But the ”reasonable pluralism” in modern Western democratic societies makes it especially difficult to work out a shared idea of justice. We can get one if we are all willing to cooperate to sustain a democratic society. Rawls thinks this willingness leads to a view of justice that we can agree on despite our differing comprehensive outlooks. General acceptance arising from public discussion of the theory would strengthen this claim.

”Justice as Fairness” is a systematic reworking of ”A Theory of Justice.” Skillfully edited by Erin Kelly, an assistant professor of philosophy at Tufts University, from Rawls’s lecture notes, it replies to criticisms of the earlier book and corrects what Rawls thinks were its mistakes. Rawls means it as a synoptic overview of the core of his systematic thought from 1971 to the present. The book says nothing about international law, and little about past moral thought. Rawls has addressed these subjects in, respectively, ”The Law of Peoples” (1999) and ”Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy” (2000). These are rich additions to what Rawls has given us. But ”Justice as Fairness” will become the main work from which a public understanding of Rawls’s theory of justice will be derived.

The basic problem, in Rawls’s view, is balancing the claims of liberty and equality. We won’t accept slavery or the forced imposition of religious belief: as citizens we think ourselves free to have our own way of life and our own religion. Politically, moreover, we no longer think that anyone is naturally the superior of anyone else. No more kings by divine right or aristocracies by inheritance: as citizens we are all equal. But although we consider ourselves free and equal citizens, we agree that there have to be some limits on our freedom. Without such limits our attempts to live in our own way would interfere with our fellow citizens’ attempts to do the same. The speed limit restricts those who want to practice driving for the Indy 500 on Broadway on a Tuesday morning, but it protects the rest of us. We also accept limited inequalities in wealth and acquired status as a way of encouraging people to take on difficult or dangerous jobs that we all want to see done without doing them ourselves. What are the right limits?

One plausible and widely discussed theory, older than Rawls’s, is utilitarianism, often associated with Jeremy Bentham. It tells us that the aim of government and individuals should be to bring about the greatest possible amount of happiness or satisfaction of desire. All other moral principles and ends are subordinate to this one and must be overridden if they interfere with the bottom line. Rawls thinks that utilitarianism puts our basic rights at risk and opens the way to objectionable inequalities in wealth and power. His own view is designed to avoid these dangers.

In our time, Rawls argues, only principles that everyone could publicly avow can serve the purpose of giving us a fair distribution of goods and privileges. To give us a vivid way of understanding how to arrive at such principles, Rawls asks us to imagine a meeting at which each of us represents all the generations of our families. At the meeting we are to hammer out principles we all can live by, and these principles will in turn shape the fundamental institutions of our society — the government, the economic system and the family. Everyone has to think that the outcome is fair. We bargain until we find principles that do the trick. In daily life some of us are richer, or stronger, or better educated than others. But we all agree that these differences of power would not count in a fair bargaining situation. Plainly it would not be fair if poor people had to accept a bargain forced on them by the rich, or if minorities were forced to accept any proposal the majority liked.

What situation could guarantee that the principles of justice will be obtained by a bargain that is fair to everyone? Here’s how: when we’re bargaining, there’s a veil of ignorance drawn over us; we don’t know our sex, race, religion, wealth, intelligence or special gifts. All unfair advantages are thereby excluded from the bargaining table. Real people in ordinary life can reason in this way whenever they wish, as a thought experiment. So although we merely imagine the bargaining behind the veil, our own values now commit us to the outcome that results.

Rawls thinks that the representatives would agree unanimously on two principles: (a) each person has an absolute right to an adequate set of basic liberties; (b) social and economic inequalities go with social positions available to everyone through fair competition, and these inequalities must be beneficial to the least advantaged members of society. The first principle safeguards our freedoms to think and speak, to choose our careers and lifestyles, and to differ in our political and religious allegiances. These liberties are so important to us that we cannot afford to put them at risk, not even to increase overall happiness.

The second principle is accepted because behind the veil we don’t know our economic position. We know that some inequalities improve the condition of society. But we must assure ourselves and our families a share of the benefit. If one of us turns out to be a day laborer, he gets no benefit from the fact that his boss earns a thousand times as much as he does. The insistence that inequalities help those worst off protects against this kind of unfairness.

Justice as fairness can be accepted for political purposes by people who have deeply different ideas about how life should be lived. When people with different general views find Rawls’s principles acceptable, they reach what Rawls calls an ”overlapping consensus” on them. That’s the most we can hope for in a modern democratic society. The two principles are not toothless. Justice as fairness rejects laissez-faire capitalism, welfare-state capitalism and state socialism. It endorses a property-holding democracy or a liberal socialism with economic power shared by companies and workers. It uses taxation to keep the difference between rich and poor small enough to preserve the real value of the basic liberties. It supports women’s rights and gay rights. And it plainly calls for important changes in the structure of American society.

If there is not now an overlapping consensus around Rawls’s two principles, can one develop? The history of religious toleration, Rawls thinks, shows how justice as fairness might come to be accepted. Toleration began as an experiment forced on Europe by the devastation of religious wars. Now it is embedded in our convictions for its protection of individual freedom. Similarly, the stubborn fact of reasonable pluralism may bring us to a view of justice adopted for political purposes and not anchored in any large-scale view.

Rawls’s brilliant, detailed and comprehensive defense of this position has made him the most important American political philosopher of the 20th century. Does his theory do better than its rivals at spelling out the deepest shared political convictions of citizens of a modern liberal democracy? Only public discussion will tell. ”Justice as Fairness” is not easy reading. But it deserves the careful consideration of everyone seriously concerned with politics.

J. B. Schneewind teaches philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and writes on the history of moral philosophy.

A Malaysian Editor’s Tribute to India’s 11th President, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam

August 7, 2015

A Malaysian Editor’s Tribute to India’s 11th President, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam

by Dorairaj Nadason Executive Editor. The Star



Kalam and Corruption

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam was not a politician, but he was a true leader of men and a great success story. He was a poor kid who became a role model for leaders around the world.

THE VVIP walked to the stage to loud applause, flanked by the hosts. He passed the speaker’s podium. And stopped in his tracks. There, before him, were two rows of seats with a special chair in the centre for him, comfortable cushions and all.

The man flatly refused to move unless the chair was removed.“Get me a chair just like the ­others,” he demanded.The hosts were flustered. They rushed around before deciding to remove the comfortable chair and place one of the other chairs there instead.

Placated, the VVIP walked over, raised his hands to the crowd and sat. And the crowd rose as one to give Dr Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Kalam  a standing ovation.

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, who died on July 27, was that kind of man – a humble leader who always consi­dered himself one of the millions of ordinary Indians.

He was no ordinary man, though. He has even been compared with Mahatma Gandhi, the man behind India’s independence and the great movement called satyagraha (passive resistance) and ahimsa (non-vio­lence).

Like Gandhi, he owned precious little but for most Indians of today, he was the most precious thing in the country. He was scientist, philosopher, poet, leader, teacher, medical researcher, missile man – and, above all, the People’s President.

When Dr Kalam was made President, he went into Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace, with two bags of clothes. Five years later, his tenure done, he left the palace – with the same two bags.

Kalam and Love of Books

Aides tell of how he used to wear the same few coats and shirts – some were frayed – although he was asked to buy new ones. To his death, he owned little. He had some 2,500 books, a wristwatch, six shirts, four trousers, three suits and a pair of shoes. He did not own property. Not even a fridge, TV, car or air conditioner.

He survived on the royalties from his books – he authored four of them – and his pension. He did not believe in accepting money from anyone. And his penchant was in driving this message home to the youths of India.


“If you know your father bought that car with money that he did not rightfully earn, tell him that you will never sit in the car. And stick to your words,” he said.He wanted them to walk or cycle rather than ride in a car bought with ill-gotten wealth.

He said if society was to be fighting corruption, there were three key people who could make it happen – the father, the mother and the teacher. And he was the teacher.

He told youths to dream, not idle dreams, but dreams that would  come true. Dreams, he said, are not what you see when you are asleep. They are what keep you from sleeping.

He was a devout Muslim – the son of an imam – but also a man who embraced all religions.

Born in Rameshwaram, an island in the southernmost tip of India, he grew up with the famed Ramanatha Swami temple towering over him. His best friend was Ramananda Shashtri, the son of a Hindu priest.

For great men, he said, religion was a way of making friends. “Small people make religion a fighting tool,” he said. And he lived up to his doctrine.

During his visit to Malaysia, he walked the street of harmony – Jalan Kapitan Keling – in Penang. At St George’s Church, he stood in front of the cross and recited a prayer. At the Kuan Yin temple down the road, he prayed with joss sticks in his palms. Then, he walked over to the Sri Mahamariamman Temple where he paid his respects.

As he stepped out to loud Indian traditional music, the crowd mobbed him. He took the mike and told the crowd in his native Tamil language to recite after him his favourite mantra. And, with a fervour seldom seen there, they chanted:

If there is righteousness in the heart, there is beauty in the character;

If there is beauty in the character, there is harmony in the home;

If there is harmony in the home, there is order in the nation;

If there is order in the nation, there is peace in the world.

Then, it was over to the Kapitan Kling mosque where he was ­greeted by the imam. He planted a tree – tree-planting to stop global warming was another great drive of his – and then joined a congregation of fellow Muslims in zohor prayers.

It was a lesson in harmony, on Harmony Street.He may have been the man behind India’s killing machines, its rockets and bombs. But he was a man who loved every soul as his own. The only sad thing is: he was never an elected leader, one who could have made a difference in politics and policies. He was just a titular head of state.

But Dr Kalam died every inch a statesman, and as a role model for those in public life throughout the world. Even in death, he left a ­memorable legacy. Don’t declare a holiday on my death, he said.

“If you want to remember me, work an extra day,” he said.In Jaipur, not only did they not have holiday on the day he died, all civil servants came back to work last Sunday to honour his words.

Dr Kalam may not have wanted a holiday upon his death but there are days for him. In Switzerland, May 26 – the day he visited the country – is World Science Day. And his birthday on Oct 15 is World Students Day. He was a teacher to his last breath.


Review of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha

July 17, 2015

Din Merican at his UC OfficeNote: I have read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha a few years ago and re-read it last week. It is a fascinating philosophical novel of a young Brahmin who sought enlightenment. I was attracted by this statement which was attributed to Siddhartha.  It reads :Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One has to find it, be fortified by it, and do wonders through it — Din Merican

Review of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha

by Abhay Joshi of Pune


Hesse's SiddharthaA beautiful philosophical novel by a Nobel Prize winner. It’s a story of a young Indian Brahmin’s pursuit of enlightenment. The setting is the time period of Gautama Buddha. The story is rich with philosophy, but the language is so lyrical and the narration so vivid that it is difficult to separate the poetry and the deep philosophy. One flows with the story as if flowing with a peaceful river. The author seems to conclude that no amount of second-hand knowledge and learning can give you the real sense of peace or happiness unless it is enlivened by real first-hand experience.

Siddhartha, a Brahmin boy, is brought up in a devout and learned family, but he is restless and full of doubt about the routine of sacrifice, chanting, and meditation. So he leaves home and spends time with the ascetics who believe in hard renunciation and numbing of all bodily senses. But this route does not bring the salvation Siddhartha seeks. So, he goes and meets with Gautama Buddha to hear his teachings. He realizes that what he is seeking is the state Buddha has achieved for himself, but his teaching does not satisfy him. So, he decides to live an ordinary earthly life and try to discover his true “self”. A long time passes in the world of birds and flowers, sensuous pleasures and pains, and money and vices.

Initially, Siddhartha participates in ordinary people’s activities as if they were just games, and views ordinary people as children and laughs at their childish intensity in their material obsessions. He is able at will to return to the inward mental sanctuary of Siddhartha the ascetic and not be bothered by anything for too long. But sure enough he soon gets drawn into the whirlpool of Sansara and all but forgets his real pursuit. Eventually though, a bad dream awakens him and he returns to the river of his childhood and youth utterly shaken and bewildered.

He is saved from suicidal thoughts, and then he becomes the assistant of a wise old ferryman who has learnt the art of listening to the river and learning life’s secrets. Here, finally, Siddhartha achieves peace (although there is a brief period of torment when he experiences what it is to be a father).

He realizes that life is like a river – timeless, present everywhere at the same time, with no past and present, and when one conquers the unreality of time, one is happy and at peace. He realizes that the wisdom is in accepting things as they are.

The story is presented in a poetic and rhythmic language. A few examples:

Dreams and restless thoughts came flowing to him from the river, from the twinkling stars at night, from the sun’s melting rays.

His worthy father and … the wise Brahmins had already poured … their knowledge into his waiting vessel; and the vessel was not full, his intellect was not satisfied, his soul was not at peace, his heart was not still.

The Buddha went quietly on his way, … his face and his step … spoke of completeness, sought nothing, imitated nothing, reflected a continual quiet, an unfading light, an invulnerable peace.

Slowly, like moisture entering the dying tree trunk, slowly filling and rotting it, so did the world and inertia creep into Siddhartha’s soul; it slowly filled his soul, made it heavy, made it tired, sent it to sleep.

He looked lovingly into the flowing water, into the transparent green, into the crystal lines of its wonderful design. He saw bright pearls rise from the depths, bubbles swimming on the mirror, sky-blue reflected in them.

As time passed and the boy remained unfriendly and sulky, when he proved arrogant and defiant, when he would do no work, when he showed no respect to the old people and robbed Vasudeva’s fruit trees, Siddhartha began to realize that no happiness and peace had come to him with his son, only sorrow and trouble.

And here are some of the philosophical gems:

One can beg, buy, be presented with and find love in the streets, but it can never be stolen.

Gradually his face assumed the expressions which are so often found among rich people – the expressions of discontent, of sickliness, of displeasure, of idleness, of lovelessness.

When someone is seeking, he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he has a goal, he is obsessed with his goal.

Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One has to find it, be fortified by it, and do wonders through it.

There shone in Siddhartha’s face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with conflict of desires, who is in harmony with the stream of events, with the stream of life, full of sympathy and compassion, surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things.

Everything that exists is good – death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly. Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me. Through my body and soul … I learned to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it.

PJOP: What can we, as ordinary men and women of the material world, take away from Siddhartha?

As a man of the real world, perfectly stuck in its vagaries and uncertainties, I found the section of the book that dwells on Siddhartha’s own participation in Sansara very helpful. He views every transaction as a game played by little children. He is not emotionally invested in the outcome of these games. He gambles with abandon – with amounts that astonish his more earthly mates. He treats his business partners – whether they are customers or vendors – as humans, and not as means of profit-making. He is as happy to win one big deal, as to lose another. There is a little episode narrated in the book of Siddhartha going to a distant marketplace ostentatiously to make money, but returns with empty hands. But, he had great fun, he says, with all those wonderful villagers feasting him, dancing with him, and what not. His logic is that these wonderful people would certainly help him make money in the future.

This detachment of Siddhartha from the fruits of his deeds is not a new idea – it’s one of the central tenets described in Gita. But, through the real-life examples the book provides it appeals even more and appears to be something that is not impossible to practice.

Siddhartha’s encounter with Gautama, the enlightened, is a must-read for those of us who I think mistakenly look for readymade recipes for everything. Listening to the great Gautama, whose fame is far and wide in alleviating the spiritual pain of millions, it is astonishing that Siddhartha comes away as a skeptic of Gautama’s cookbook for eternal happiness. Of course, it is not a comment specifically on Gautama’s ideas. Rather it is the realization that dawns on Siddhartha that he was not going to benefit from any doctrine, not even one as great and effective as Gautama’s. The author has timed this realization, wonderfully I think, during the encounter with Gautama, since the counterbalance to this sad realization is Siddhartha’s joy for finally getting to observe someone in flesh and blood who epitomized enlightenment. He is endlessly happy that he now knew what he was aspiring for all along. He wanted to be like Gautama – one whose limbs exhibited the perfect balance, one who walked in perfect peace, and one whose eyes emitted perfect happiness.

Hermann Hesse

Finally, this book is a feast for the literary aesthete. It is written in a lyrical fashion, and the story flows beautifully like the smoothly rolling river which is the central philosophical metaphor used towards the end of the book. It is interesting that many philosophical books have been written using the lyrical format. Gita is a great example, and so is the Marathi commentary on Gita by Sant Dnyaneshwar. Also Shankaracharya (aka Sankara) wrote couplets whenever he had spiritual inspirations. Looking at this philosopher-poet duality, it may be safe to conclude that philosophy is not the dry subject that many call it!

I think “Siddhartha” is really a journey of a seeker, and the most significant takeaway from this book is probably that there is no “one” path; everyone must undertake a similar journey of discovery of the ultimate truth. Siddhartha’s interaction with Gautama, the enlightened, beautifully portrays this message. Siddhartha is impressed with Gautama himself – by his serenity and his whole persona – and knows instantly that that is the state he wants to achieve himself. At the same time, Siddhartha has the intelligence to realize that Gautama’s teaching may not be the path leading to that state, and he, Siddhartha, must himself continue his quest. But, at least now he knows what he had been looking for all along. He now has a clear-cut goal personified in front of him in the shape of Gautama.

Siddhartha’s companion and friend, Govinda, travels with Siddhartha almost all throughout the journey, until they meet Gautama. At that point, Govinda decides for himself that he had reached his destination; he had found a home for his soul – the Sangha of Gautama’s disciples. And, so, Govinda separates from his lifelong friend and allows him to continue his journey.

Great works like the Bhagavad Geeta are clearly the result of accumulation of experiences of thousands of seekers – rishis and yogis – who explored different ways to enlightenment. Gita is a tome of this accumulated knowledge. Krishna, while answering Arjuna’s questions, suggests and expounds so many different means of reaching Him. And he informs Arjuna that there is no “recommended” or “preferred” way; one should follow a path that suits his/her temperament and liking.

It does not appear to me that there is any conflict between ‘Siddhartha’ and ‘Gita’ so far as this specific “truth” is concerned. Gita also believes in the timelessness of life, the unity of things, and that life flows endlessly like a river.

PJOP: What is the extent to which Siddhartha follows a typical path in his pursuit of self-knowledge. I mean he is the student, the employee, the family man, the ascetic as he progresses through life—is this supposed to be a typical path?

One of the fascinating aspects of Siddhartha’s story is that he does not follow the typical path an average person goes through in the pursuit of spiritual peace. The average person usually starts out in the material world and goes through a prolonged Sansara (family life). (S)He may then realize the need for spiritual study and enlightenment for him/her-self. At that point, (s)he has a variety of paths available to choose from, and so forth.

Siddhartha chalks out a different sequence in his life. He is brought up in a devout and learned family, which indulges in the routine of sacrifice, chanting, and meditation. Dissatisfied with this lifestyle, he leaves home and spends time with the forest ascetics who believe in hard renunciation and numbing of all bodily senses. But this route also does not bring the salvation Siddhartha seeks. So, he goes and meets up with Gautama Buddha to hear his teachings. He realizes then that what he is seeking is the state Buddha has achieved for himself, but his teaching does not satisfy him. So, he decides to live an ordinary earthly life and try to discover his true “self”.

Thus, Siddhartha enters the stage of “Sansara” much later in life – after spending considerable amount of time in spiritual pursuits. In fact, he decides to experience Sansara only to try it out as another means of finding the ultimate truth, and not as an inevitable step in life like other ordinary people. Therefore, his responses to the worldly events are also very unlike the ordinary people’s. This part of “Siddhartha” is one of the most fascinating sections to read.

Only after spending an extended period of time in Sansara, and after realizing that it was all like a long bad dream, he awakens from it and returns to the river of his childhood and youth utterly shaken and bewildered. There he continues his pursuit of the ultimate truth.

Note: You can contact Abhay Joshi at abjoshi@yahoo.com.

Why Grow Up?’ by Susan Neiman

June 21, 2015

Introducing Philosopher Susan Neiman and hear her talk on the subject of Moral Clarity.

Susan Neiman was born in 1955; she studied philosophy at Harvard and the Freie Universität Berlin, and taught philosophy at Yale and Tel Aviv University. Today she is Director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam.

Professor Neiman received critical acclaim for her book Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, published in 2002. This magnum opus was alternative in many ways, let me underscore two of them. First, it took the theme of evil as a lens for understanding the history of philosophy, and thus broke away from the traditional approach to modern philosophy as divided into rationalist or empiricist responses to the problem of knowledge. Second, the book was alternative in emphasizing the importance of narrative interest in working with the history of philosophy.

Neiman’s skills as a storyteller of the philosopher’s struggle for meaning are impressive, and support her claim to write for both professional philosophers and those who are not. The added value of that ‘storytelling’ approach is not only that philosophy thus becomes accessible to a wide audience. Neiman also shows that we cannot live without philosophy: the fundamental question whether and how we can make sense of the world has to be conquered by every individual herself.

This tireless engagement with the public at large, was one of the reasons why the jury considered Susan Neiman an outstanding candidate of the International Spinoza Award. That remarkable quality of her work is well illustrated in Neiman’s essay about the book of Job, which is the final essay in a collection published by the International Spinoza Award Foundation and publishing house Boom, for this special occasion. (The collection’s title is Afgezien van de feiten.)

In her next book, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists, published in 2008, Neiman applies her fundamentally Kantian insights to the political agenda of this century. Neiman positions herself on the political left, but the book is critical of both the right and the left, and it is boldly ambitious in this endeavor. As Neiman formulates it herself, her book on Moral Clarity ‘aims to offer a twenty-first-century framework for an Enlightenment standpoint that no twentieth-century political direction succeeded in making its own.’ Neiman’s goal is, first, ‘to take back the Enlightenment from the claims that surround it: that the Enlightenment held human nature to be perfect and human progress to be inevitable, reason to be unlimited and science to be infallible, faith to be a worn-out answer to the questions of the past, and technology a solution to all the problems of the future.’ In doing so, she retrieves values – happiness, reason, reverence and hope – (values) that were fundamental to Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century, but also offer a moral vocabulary for today.

In very simple words appealing to many people who are engaged in politics, she explains why the distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is the most important distinction we have to draw, and why we have to draw it carefully and thoughtfully. Let me quote: ‘For we are indeed torn. We want a worldview that doesn’t blink when confronted with reality, that doesn’t wish away what it doesn’t wish to see. This is not pragmatics but pride: grown-up men and women look the world in its face. At the same time, we want a view that allows us not merely to resign ourselves to the reality that’s shaping us, but to play a role in shaping it. And most of us want to do so neither with weapons nor with soft power, but with the real power that the ideas of Enlightenment once possessed.’ (p. 90).

In reconnecting with the Enlightenment, Neiman also offers an answer to the problem of fundamentalism and religious terrorism, which she sees as fueled, in part, by the desire for transcendence. A cynical response, which interprets fundamentalism as merely reflecting a need for certainty, will not be able to answer it. ‘It will not work if we don’t understand that the longing for transcendence is a longing for freedom as least as much as it is a longing for certainty. (…) Immanuel Kant’s work can be used, according to Neiman, to provide a metaphysics capable of meeting our needs both for truth and for freedom.’ (p. 117-118).

Whether or not one agrees with this diagnostic – I, for one, agree with it, but you may discuss it – the jury of the International Spinoza Award highly values this drive to understand a key challenge of our time through the philosophical resources we do have at our disposal, and to formulate credible answers embedded in robust philosophical thinking. The role of ideas, ideologies and ideals is indeed crucial in politics.

In one of the essays published by the International Spinoza Award Foundation and Boom, Susan Neiman revisits Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. She concludes as follows: ‘While new revelations about Eichmann do not undermine Arendt’s core claim that evil intentions are not necessary for evil action, they do suggest how important it is to think more seriously about the role ideologies play in intention. Eichmann was not a bureaucrat, but neither was he a sadist nor a psychopath, or even in an ordinary sense corrupt; rather, he organized mass murder in service of an ideology to which he was completely devoted.’

According to Neiman, the standard liberal reaction – so much for ideologies, let’s focus on self-interest – will not carry us through the 21st century, if only because few people can live on bread alone. The jury couldn’t agree more.

In her most recent book (Why Grow Up?), Susan Neiman returns to the question what it means to grow up. Growing up is more a matter of courage than knowledge. Courage is needed to acknowledge that both ideals and experience make equal claims on us. We must learn the difference between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, without ever giving up on either one. Thus, Neiman challenges the thrust of many of our educational debates today, with their single-minded focus on skills needed here-and-now in contemporary labour markets. The fundamental educational question is: ‘How do we prepare a child for a world that is not the way it should be?’ We look forward to hear more about this in Susan Neiman’s lecture today.


Sunday Book Review

‘Why Grow Up?’ by Susan Neiman

by A. O. SCOTT (June 15, 2015)

LOOKING-YOUNGA great deal of modern popular culture — including just about everything pertaining to what French savants like to call le nouvel âge d’or de la comédie américaine — runs on the disavowal of maturity. The ideal consumer is a mirror image of a familiar comic archetype: a man-child sitting in his parents’ basement with his video games and his “Star Wars” figurines; a postgraduate girl and her pals treating the world as their playground. Baby boomers pursue perpetual youth into retirement. Gen-Xers hold fast to their skateboards, their Pixies T-shirts and their Beastie Boys CDs. Nobody wants to be an adult anymore, and every so often someone writes an article blaming Hollywood, attachment parenting, global capitalism or the welfare state for this catastrophe. I’ve written one or two of those myself. It’s not a bad racket, and since I’m intimately acquainted, on a professional basis, with the cinematic oeuvre of Adam Sandler, I qualify as something of an expert.

In the annals of anti-infantile cultural complaint, Susan Neiman’s new book, “Why Grow Up?,” is both Susan Neimanexemplary and unusual. An American-born philosopher who lives in Berlin, Neiman has a pundit’s fondness for the sweeping generalization and the carefully hedged argumentative claim. “I’m not suggesting that we do without the web entirely,” she writes in one of her periodic reflections on life in the digital age, “just that we refuse to let it rule.” Elsewhere she observes that “if you spend your time in cyberspace watching something besides porn and Korean rap videos, you can gain a great deal,” a ­hypothesis I for one am eager to test.

But the present and its technological lures and discontents, thankfully, are not really her concern, any more than the jeremiad is her chosen form; she comes across as a patient pedagogue rather than an angry scold. She sprinkles in a few musical references — to Lady Gaga and the Rolling Stones — and occasional nods to unspecified “studies.” In spite of these, “Why Grow Up?” isn’t an exercise in pop-culture polemics or pop-sociological cherry-picking. It’s a case for philosophy of an admirably old-fashioned kind. Neiman is less interested in “The Catcher in the Rye” than in “The Critique of Pure Reason,” and more apt to cite Hannah ­Arendt than Lena Dunham.

Nor, in spite of its subtitle, is her book a critique of contemporary mores. The “infantile age” she has in mind goes back to the 18th century, and its most important figures are Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. “Coming of age is an Enlightenment problem,” she writes, “and nothing shows so clearly that we are the Enlightenment’s heirs” than that we understand it as a topic for argument and analysis, as opposed to something that happens to everyone in more or less the same way. Before Kant and Rousseau, Neiman suggests, Western philosophy had little to say about the life cycle of individuals. As traditional religious and political modes of authority weakened, “the right form of human development became a philosophical problem, incorporating both psychological and political questions and giving them a normative thrust.”

How are we supposed to become free, happy and decent people? Rousseau’s “Emile” supplies Neiman with some plausible answers, and also with some cautionary lessons. A wonderfully problematic book — among other things a work of Utopian political thought, a manual for child-rearing, a foundational text of Romanticism and a sentimental novel — it serves here as a repository of ideas about the moral progress from infancy to adulthood. And also, more important, as a precursor and foil for Kant’s more systematic inquiries into human development.

Rousseau and Kant are Neiman’s main characters, and she conveys a vivid sense of their contrasting personalities in addition to providing an accessible survey of their relevant ideas. The Geneva-born Rousseau traveled across Europe on foot, fathering and abandoning at least five children. Kant rarely left his native Königsberg and never married. Between them, they mapped out what Neiman takes to be the essential predicament of maturity, namely the endless navigation of the gulf between the world as we encounter it and the way we believe it should be.

NY times book reviewIn infancy, we have no choice but to accept the world as it is. In adolescence, we rebel against the discrepancy between the “is” and the “ought.” Adulthood, for Kant and for Neiman, “requires facing squarely the fact that you will never get the world you want, while refusing to talk yourself out of wanting it.” It is a state of neither easy cynicism nor naïve idealism, but of engaged reasonableness.

When she sticks close to her favorite philosophers in describing this state, Neiman provides a useful and engaging tutorial, much as she did in her earlier book “Evil in Modern Thought.” But when she ventures into the concrete domains of the “is” — offering practical advice and polemical warnings — “Why Grow Up?” turns a bit fuzzy. The introduction and the last two of the book’s four chapters wander through meadows of half-baked observation, trading rigorous Kantianism for the nostrums of tote-bag liberalism. Neiman believes in the virtues of travel, in limiting time on the Internet, in good government and progressive education. She doesn’t like mass tourism, advertising or authoritarian politics. She wants you to think for yourself.

And who could argue? But the real virtue of this short, sometimes frustrating book lies in its insistence that thinking for oneself is a difficult and lifelong undertaking, in its genuinely subversive defense of philosophy in an age besotted by data. You don’t have to read Kant to be a grown-up, but it couldn’t hurt.

Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age
by Susan Neiman

A. O. Scott is a chief film critic at The Times. His book, “Better Living Through Criticism,” will be published in early 2016.

Related coverage:

Meghan Daum reviews “The Prime of Life,” by Steven Mintz

Heather Havrilesky reviews “How to Raise an Adult,” by Julie Lythcott-Haims

A version of this review appears in print on June 21, 2015, on page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Why Grow Up?.

The Stove of Consciousness

June 4, 2015

NOTE: Things can get pretty dull and numb in Malaysia. Day in day out we read about politics of opposing camps within UMNO and between Pakatan Rakyat and UMNO-Barisan National over the 1MDB financial scandal. The infantile mudslinging  antics will not get us anywhere.  Najib himself is playing games to remain in power. Governing takes a backstage right now. After all, loss of power can be disastrous for him and more so for his ambitious and greed driven spouse Rosmah Mansor, the self-styled FLOM.

For Najib Razak all options are now on the table. It is rumored  that since the country is a mess and paralyzed neck down, he may–to save himself being charged for corruption, conflicts of interest and abuses of power–declare a state of emergency, suspend Parliament and rule the country NOC-style like what his father Tun Razak did after the May 13, 1969  tragedy, albeit under different circumstances.

The government has stalled and no body is in charge. Usually, like in Japan, the Chief Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the civil service takes control and the government functions. Unfortunately, in Malaysia, our Chief Secretary is busy with consoling the Prime Minister in stead of ensuring that  his civil servants do their work. Perhaps, he is preparing himself for the right time to abandon the incumbent captain and reach out to Najib’s successor. Carma.

We ourselves have become very agitated and frustrated since we have been pushing for change since 2008; yet we are no closer to the goal of removing the present lot of leaders from the seat of power.  So if I may suggest, let us just sit back , have tea tarik and relax at least for today.

What better way to find relief than to engage in some philosophical banter. Maybe, after reading about Rene Descartes and his stove, sanity can return and we will back to do battle. Let not fatigue make us abandon our mission to make our blessed country better. –Din Merican

The Stove of Consciousness


by Peter Hankins


I have been reading A.C. Grayling’s biography of Descartes: he advances the novel theory that Descartes was a spy. This is actually a rather shrewd suggestion which makes quite a lot of sense given Descartes’ wandering, secretive life.

On balance I think he probably wasn’t conducting secret espionage missions – it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure, of course – but I think it’s certainly an idea any future biographer will have to address.

I was interested, though, to see what Grayling made of the stove.  Descartes himself tells us that when held up in Germany by the advance of winter, he spent the day alone in a stove, and that was where his radical rebuilding of his own beliefs began.  This famous incident has the sort of place in the history of philosophy that the apple falling on Newton’s head has in the history of science: and it has been doubted and queried in a similar way. But Descartes seems pretty clear about it: “je demeurais tout le jour enfermé seul dans un poêle, où j’avais tout le loisir m’entretenir de mes pensées”.[I sat all day shut up alone in a stove, where I had ample opportunity to nurture my thoughts.]

Some say it must in fact have been a bread-oven or a similarly large affair: Descartes was not a large man and he was particularly averse to cold and disturbance, but it would surely have to have been a commodious stove for him to have been comfortable in there all day. Some say that Bavarian houses of the period had large stoves, and certainly in the baroque palaces of the region one can see vast ornate ones that look as if they might have had room for a diminutive French philosopher. Some commonsensical people say that “un poêle” must simply have meant a stove-heated room; and this is in fact the view which Grayling adopts firmly and without discussion.

Personally I’m inclined to take Descartes’ words at face value; but really the question of whether he really sat in a real stove misses the point. Why does Descartes, a rather secretive man, even mention the matter at all? It must be because, true or not, it has metaphorical significance; it gives us additional keys to Descartes’ meaning which we ought not to discard out of literal-mindedness. (Grayling, in fairness, is writing history, not philosophy.)

For one thing Descartes’ isolation in the stove functions as a sort of thought-experiment. He wants to be able to doubt everything, but it’s hard to dismiss the world as a set of illusions when it’s battering away at your senses: so suppose we were in a place that was warm, dark, and silent?  Second, it recalls Plato’s cave metaphor. Plato had his unfortunate exemplar chained in a cave where his only knowledge of the world outside came from flickering shadows on the wall; he wanted to suggest that what we take to be the real world is a similarly poor reflection of a majestic eternal reality. Descartes wants to work up a similar metaphor to a quite different conclusion, ultimately vindicating our senses and the physical world; perhaps this points up his rebellion against ancient authority. Third, in a way congenial to modern thinking and probably not unacceptable to Descartes, the isolation in the stove resembles and evokes the isolation of the brain in the skull.

The stove metaphor has other possible implications, but for us the most interesting thing is perhaps how it embodies and possibly helped to consolidate one of the most persistent metaphors about consciousness, one that has figured strongly in discussion for centuries, remains dominant, yet is really quite unwarranted. This is that consciousness is internal. We routinely talk about “the external world” when discussing mental experience. The external world is what the senses are supposed to tell us about, but sometimes fail to; it is distinct from an internal world where we receive the messages and where things like emotions and intentions have their existence. The impression of consciousness being inside looking out is strongly reinforced by the way the ears and the brain seem to feed straight into the brain: but we know that impression of being located in the head would be the same if human anatomy actually put the brain in the stomach, so long as the eyes and ears remained where they are. In fact our discussions would make just as much sense if we described consciousness as external and the physical world as internal (or consciousness as ‘above’ and the physical world as ‘below’ or vice versa).

If we take consciousness to be a neural process there is of course, a sense in which it is certainly in the brain; but only in the sense that my money is in the bank’s computer (though I can’t get it out with a hammer) or Pride and Prejudice is in the pages of that book over there (and not, after all, in my head). Strictly or properly, stories and totals don’t have the property of physical location, and nor, really, does consciousness

Does it matter if the metaphor is convenient? Well, it may well be that the traditional inside view encourages us to fall into certain errors. It has often been argued (and still is) for example that because we’re sometimes wrong about what we’re seeing or hearing, we must in fact only ever see an intermediate representation, never the  real world itself. I think this is a mistake, but it’s one that the internal/external view helps to make plausible.  It may well be, in my opinion, that habitually thinking of consciousness as having a simple physical location makes it more difficult for us to understand it properly.

So perhaps we ought to make a concerted effort to stop, but to be honest I think the metaphor is just too deeply rooted. At the end of the day you can take the thinker out of the stove, but you can’t take the stove out of the thinker.

Here are two responses on Peter Hankin’s Views of the Stove:

Scott Bakker says:

Coming out of the Continental tradition I was literally trained to regard the metaphorics of inside/outside as a conceptually bankrupt way to consider subjectivity. Moving onto Wittgenstein only reinforced this outlook. But I’m nowhere near so convinced anymore. Just for instance, how should we make sense of ‘shut ins’?

The stove, like the skull, is simply a convenient way to understand the flow of information. Hiding in a stove allowed Descartes to conceal information regarding his existence. Hiding in the skull, it seems fair to reason, allows consciousness to do the same more generally. You could say this is why we find neuroscience so flummoxing: it’s like hearing Descartes voice, then finding the stove empty when we throw the door open. An externalist approach to consciousness is simply one of the ways we can explain the ’empty stove problem.’ Descartes was never there in the first place! He’s actually a larger system that includes the kitchen, the village, what have you. My preferred approach is just to say that Descartes simply isn’t what we thought he was, that what we see locked up in our own stoves doesn’t exist.

Imagine if Descartes, like Plato’s prisoners, was *born* in his stove, then just ask the question of information flow. The most he could see (access) of himself in the stove would be cramped shadows, indeterminate shapes which would *have* to be his informatic baseline for ‘self,’ whereas through the cracks of the door he could see bright swathes of the external world. Now if he were placed opposite another stove and watched it open, would he recognize the high-fidelity, unbounded figure revealed as a version of himself?

Probably not, *especially* given his genius for rationalization. He can’t trust what he sees through the cracks, but these cramped shapes he knows with certainty – How could he not when they are all the information he has ever had?

I bake, therefore I am.

Nowadays I’m inclined to think the problem isn’t so much the metaphorics of inside/outside generally so much as the way they are posed. We just need to look at the inside/outside in the proper way.

Vijay Vikram says:

I do so agree with you about the internal vs external. It is a habit we inherited from Descartes. It is the mind/body problem.

Alternately, one may posit that internal and external are both aspects of a something we may call experience, awareness, dasein or manifestation or narrative or being or some such. Or to take it further, anything that shows up is, in effect, the world, the universe. And it shows up in what? Therein lies the paradox, for anything we may posit as a fundamental ground for manifestation– anything prior to manifestation– cannot be described since any description belongs to manifestation itself and so cannot be prior to manifestation. And the notion “prior to manifestation” is manifestation too. So, is there such a thing as “prior to manifestation” that could be a fundament for the world?

This issue is, however, a red herring. For the fundamental characteristic of the universe and of any particularity at all–is that it is. In other words, any and all of universe exhibits its fundamental character to us moment after moment, inescapably in the simple fact that it is–whether thought or thing or sense or feeling or objectivity or subjectivity and so on.

To put it more simply—-the fundamental character of the universe is ever and everywhere and always–patent.

This Side of Paradise


The only thing you need to know to understand the deepest metaphysical secrets is this: that for every outside there is an inside and for every inside there is an outside, and although they are different, they go together.– Alan Watts

Your inside is out and your outside is in.
 Your outside is in and your inside is out– The Beatles

Where do philosophers get their ideas? In the case of René Descartes, who is regarded as the founder of modern philosophy, he literally cooked them up. Once, in a bid to escape the cold, he had crawled into a large stove* and spent the day there. He was then 23 years old, en route to Ulm while serving in the Bavarian army. Alone with his thoughts, he began laying the intellectual groundwork for his famous cogito: “I think, therefore I am.”

This was not intended as a stand-alone statement but as the culmination of a chain of reasoning that began when he wondered what he could know for certain. He rejected everything he could know through his senses, since his senses could deceive him. Even his own body might be a mirage. But his thoughts were another matter. He could doubt just about everything, but he could not doubt his own doubts. And so the stuff he thought about when he was alone with his thoughts became the foundation for his existence.

Descartes concluded that mind and matter were two different “substances,” each occupying its own realm. The mind was immaterial, a “thinking thing” with no extension in space, whereas matter had extension but could not think. The two could causally interact, but it remained unclear how a mental event could affect a physical one, or vice-versa. As a byproduct of Cartesian dualism, Descartes had introduced a problem that has occupied philosophers ever since: the so-called mind-body problem.

The mind-body problem is not the only issue that arises when you give the mind a life of its own. Descartes had wondered whether his senses were playing tricks on him, conjuring up an external world that was actually a dream or the work of a demon. Addressing the same question, the 18th-century German philosopher Emmanuel Kant concluded that we can never truly know what lies outside ourselves, since our perceptions of the world are mediated by our senses. Even time and space, in Kant’s view, are not attributes of the eternal world but part of the perceptual framework through which we apprehend it. The notion that reality is to some degree in the mind rather than outside it is common currency not only among many modern philosophers but also among quantum physicists. As the physicist Erwin Schrödinger expressed it, “Mind has erected the objective outside world of the natural philosopher out of its own stuff.”

While Kant and others were raising doubts about the independent existence of the outside world, the Scottish philosopher David Hume was calling into question the “me” inside – the one entity that Descartes believed was beyond doubt. Looking within himself, Hume found no evidence of a single, simple and continuous self, only a bundle of perceptions in perpetual flux. He wrote, “I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.” At no time was he able to catch a glimpse of the self that was supposedly having all these perceptions. In the theater of the mind, it would appear, the show is always on, but for all we know it may be playing to an empty house.

Kant and Hume between them had not only demolished Descartes’ neat certainties about the world, but they had effectively demolished the world itself, whether inside or out, depending on whom you asked. Not only was the self unknowable and perhaps illusory but so also was the world beyond the self. How could this be? Perhaps the problem stems from the notion that there is an “inside” and an “outside” to one’s experience. Like Descartes, alone with his thoughts inside a stove on a cold day in November, we imagine the thinking part of ourselves exists somewhere “in here” and everything else is “out there” in the world. We may arbitrarily assume “in here” is inside our bodies, but the part we can see is just as much “out there” as the chair we are sitting in or the tree outside our window. And the things that are “out there” may, in fact, be entirely contained within our consciousness, which is “in here.” So where do we draw the boundary between the two?

Make no mistake: it is we who draw the boundary. We cannot carve out a space for ourselves “inside” without simultaneously creating an “outside.” This bifurcation of consciousness occurs naturally at around age two with the development of an autonomous self. And although this process may occur naturally, it does not come without cost. The price we pay for acquiring a bit of personal space is that we now find ourselves on the outside of everything else. The psychic toll is dramatized in the biblical creation story, when Adam develops a will of his own and is expelled from Eden. So what would happen if we could once again experience life whole? We would find ourselves back in paradise, no longer on the outside looking in

*There is some dispute as to whether it was a stove or a room heated by a stove; however, the word Descartes used in relating the incident was poêle, or stove, in the original French: “Je demeurais tout le jour enfermé seul dans un poêle, où j’avais tout le loisir m’entretenir de mes pensées.” (“I sat all day shut up alone in a stove, where I had ample opportunity to nurture my thoughts.”) Regardless, it makes for a good story. 
Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, 
Emmanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature,  
Genesis 3.