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21st century enlightenment

February 9, 2012 by · 12 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

As I said in Monday’s post, the most important and difficult question about human development (in the sense of people in general attaining a ‘higher’ level of  capability) may concern whether there are practical, reasonably large scale, examples of such development taking place as an intended consequence of specific interventions.

But before turning to the practical challenge (thanks, by the way, for some useful pointers among the comments on the post), I wanted briefly to explore some of the assumptions underlying the advocacy of human development. As always, I offer little more than a personal and slightly arbitrary path through a small corner of a vast forest of ideas.

The most frequent arguments I have heard for the need for human development can be placed under three distinct headings.

The apocalyptic case is most often made by environmentalists: in essence, the world is doomed unless we change our ways, and such a change requires us to commit to new values and develop new capabilities.

The functional case – made for example by Robert Kegan – suggests changes in the modern world (particularly the human impact of globalisation and the rise of the knowledge economy) require us to develop new capabilities in order for us – as individuals and broader society – to thrive and be resilient. The functional argument has been doubly reinforced in recent times: by the (disputed) finding that rising affluence has not been associated with greater individual or social well-being, and by the growing gap between, on the one hand, social needs and expectations, and on the other, what the state and market can realistically provide (at the RSA we refer to this latter phenomenon as the social aspiration gap).

The idealist case (which might be termed neo-Aristotelian in that it is similar in form if not in specific content to Aristotle’s argument for eudaimonia) suggests that without development, people are being deprived of the opportunity to fulfil their potential and that this is a wrong in itself.

It is perfectly possible to subscribe to all three rationales. However, there are a couple of wrinkles. What if a huge carbon capturing machine was invented tomorrow which enabled us to churn out emissions with impunity, would environmentalists then have to abandon their interest in human development? The flip side is the tendency (which I have commented on in the past) for some green activists to appear to be smuggling in a progressive or anti-consumerist agenda under the cover of climate change concern. Similarly, the functionalist case runs the risk of encouraging an attitude of pessimism: we may feel compelled to reject the possibility of progress without advanced consciousness.

The idealist case avoids these risks but can appear either pious or elitist: why would we expect the human race to make a big leap forward in its functioning? And anyway, who are a bunch of touchy-feely liberals to tell the rest of the world who they ought to be and how they ought to think?

Another approach to human development involves applying new thinking about human behaviour to enduring debates about political philosophy. Aided powerfully by findings from social psychology and behavioural economics, the case for genuine autonomy involving capacities for reflexivity, mindfulness and self-control seems ever stronger. While the idea that we must learn to be free has authoritarian, or at least paternalistic, overtones it is surely, in essence, true.

The argument to social justice is both more complex, and arguably, more tentative. In my 21st century enlightenment lecture I reflected on the absence from most conversations about the content of social justice (the definition of equality, rights and entitlements) of this question: what is it that encourages to want to extend fairness towards strangers? Surely the answer lies, at least in part, in empathy, one of the most commonly cited attributes of higher order thinking.

If empathy is the affective foundation for a commitment to greater (wider and deeper) fairness, more universal higher order capabilities may also be the goal of social justice strategies. There is, for example, much evidence that social or ‘soft’ skills (ranging from inter-personal communication to team working to creative thinking) are becoming an increasingly ubiquitous requirement in the labour market. Many – including the RSA – have expressed concern that our modern education system shoves people through an examination system while failing to attend to precisely the capabilities most needed for modern work and citizenship.

The RSA’s strap-line –  21st century enlightenment – points to a human development project combining the philosophical ideals that became prominent around the time the Society was founded, contemporary thinking about human nature and behaviour plus an account of future challenges and what they require of us.



Developing development

February 6, 2012 by · 12 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA, Uncategorized 

Did you hear about the car aerial that married a satellite dish; the wedding was a bit boring but apparently the reception was brilliant. Sadly, I can’t apply this adjective to the response I received for my set of posts over the New Year about entitlement. Yet, unabashed by the evidence that the longer I talk about an issue the less convincing I become, I am this week planning to write a series of posts on aspects of human development…..

Last Thursday I chaired an event at which Richard Sennett spoke about his new book Together. As tends to be the case with Richard’s work the book is often fascinating, sometimes inspiring and occasionally baffling. His core thesis certainly struck a chord.

Sennett joins many other thinkers in identifying both the importance of collaboration to human prospects in the 21st century but also the challenges of living and working with people – often very different to ourselves in values, backgrounds and lifestyles – in a fast moving, shrinking world. He suggests three attributes which people need to be able successfully and enduringly to function together (and alongside these, three apparently similar attributes they must supplant).

First, we must seek dialogic rather than dialectic communication (in essence this means conversation which accepts and negotiates different perspectives rather than seeking to find a single shared view). Second, we should aim for a subjunctive rather than a declaratory form of expression. Sennett writes:

‘The subjunctive mood counters Bernard Williams’ fear of the fetish of assertiveness by opening up instead an indeterminate mutual space, the space in which strangers dwell with one another…’.

Third, the sentiment that suits modern togetherness is empathy rather than sympathy:

‘Both sympathy and empathy convey recognition, and both forge a bond, but one is an embrace the other an encounter…Sympathy has usually been thought a stronger sentiment…I feel your pain puts a stress on what I feel; it activates one; own ego. Empathy is a more demanding exercise, at least in listening; the listener has to get outside him- or herself’.             

Rather like the objects in an impressionist painting the edges of Sennett’s concepts tend to blur into each other, but what struck me was the congruence with the idea of self-authorship developed by developmental psychologist Robert Kegan. Using a similar framework to Jean Piaget’s pioneering work on child cognitive development,  Kegan’s masterwork is The Evolving Self, in which he describes the stages of psychological development, each subsuming the one before, which take place not just in childhood but throughout life.

Kegan argues not just that we should aspire to greater self-awareness but that we need to reach a higher, more empathic, level of functioning to meet the practical requirements of twenty-first century citizenship. In particular, successfully functioning in a society with diverse values, traditions and lifestyles “requires us to have a relationship to our own reactions, rather than be captive of them”. Kegan writes of an ability to “resist our tendencies to make ‘right’ or ‘true’ that which is merely familiar and ‘wrong’ or ‘false’ that which is only strange”. In a 2002 overview of survey evidence for the OECD, Kegan concluded than only one in five people across the world have achieved the competencies necessary for what he termed a ‘modernist’ or self-authoring order of consciousness.

The view that there is both the need and the scope for human beings to develop to a ‘higher’ level of functioning has many adherents. Another version lies in my articulation of the RSA strap-line ‘twenty first century enlightenment’. But many questions arise?

How distinct is such a view from well-meaning but vacuous view that it would be a better world if we were all better people?

Among the different accounts of human beings need to develop to thrive in the modern world, what are the important similarities and differences?

How credible is the view that human development can enhanced. Perhaps it happens anyway (cf the Flynn effect or Steven Pinker’s recent evidence of declining violence) or perhaps, as John Grey would no doubt argue, we flatter ourselves with the idea we can somehow transcend the flawed character of our species.

Broadly, what routes to enhanced human development hold out the greatest promise: education, culture, institutional innovation, spiritual awakening?

Specifically, what examples are there of sustained improvements in human psychological and behavioural development and can these examples be scaled?

As a strong advocate of a necessary human development thesis, my aim here is to sharpen the case rather than find holes in it. I was excited last week to be contacted by Robert Kegan himself who has said some very generous things about the RSA’s 21st century enlightenment thesis. But I am also impatient of making the same broad case time and again but not yet feeling it carries sufficient conviction let alone a concrete set of policies and practices.  Of the questions above my sense is that the last is both the most important and the hardest.


21st century enlightenment – a new plan

April 28, 2010 by · 12 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

I had some stunning comments on my last post on 21st century enlightenment (thank you!). A number of people suggested I needed to set out the structure of the argument (and why I am making it) more fully. I have done this below: 

1. 21CE is the new mission for the RSA. Explain what I mean by this. Show this a powerful way of understanding the progressive challenge. Define the broad terrain for our work and the challenge for the Society as an institution

2. Original enlightenment was a shift in ways of thinking about who we are and the world in which we live. Describe key elements of this with particular reference to ways of thinking

3. Why might we now need a similar shift in consciousness now? Four reasons ?: a)  Climate change, finite natural resources, protecting the environment. b) Global interdependence. c) Lack of well-being, fulfilment and social inclusion in rich world esp UK. d) Pace of complexity and change    

4. Another way of thinking about this is the great transition between the world human beings lived in throughout their evolution and the accelerating change that has transformed the developed world since the enlightenment.

• From small, homogeneous closed communities to mass, open diverse communities

• (In the rich world) from scarcity and subsistence to plenty

• From deferential, slowly changing, bounded-information cultures to reflexive, always changing, information-overloaded cultures

5. In each transition we can see the signs of dislocation but also imagine a new
way of thinking

• From conflict about nationalism, religion and identity to the emergence of a global civil society

• From individualism, consumerism and inequality to a focus on well-being and the good society

• From trying to make the world fit the ‘traditional’ world view relied on by most people to enabling the majority to reach what Robert Kegan calls a ‘modern’ world view.

6. Are there already concrete signs of the emergence of new ways of thinking, fragments of a 21st century enlightenment?

• Just as new technology was crucial to the first enlightenment – especially the mass production of books (ref Benedict Anderson) so the internet is vital to this. It is crucial to get behind the hype and try to understand the real and possible impact of the internet of the way we think and live (ref Morozov)

• Growing debate about redefining progress (ref Sarkozy Commission)

• Public awareness of science of brains and human behaviour leading to new models of human functioning (esp social brain)

• Focus in many countries on the importance of the early years in fostering capacity for ‘self authorship’ and empathy

• Work of inter-faith groups in acknowledging the importance of the sacred and the ‘golden rule’ at the heart of all religious belief (ref Armstrong)

• The growth of downsizing and social enterprise as people seek to bring their work and life into alignment with their values

• Growing interest in ethics as the essential core of organisational mission (why it is more effective than regulation)

• Focus on capabilities approach to education and social rights

7. Finally, crucial to the enlightenment was the emergence of new institutions (as it was to the American ‘gilded age – ref Putnam). The RSA was one of those institutions now it needs to be a 21st CE institution. Explain what this means for how we work.

Twitter logoSuggested hashtag for Twitter users: #21CE


21st century enlightenment – a nervous toe in the water

April 26, 2010 by · 22 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

Despite my earlier enthusiasm and the supportive comments I have received, blog posts about 21st century enlightenment haven’t exactly been flowing from my keyboard. I have fallen into the predictable undergraduate trap of reading too much too indiscriminately.

In part I blame you, dear readers. On the basis of your (and other) recommendations I have on my desk the 600 pages of Iain McGilchrist’s ‘The Master and his Emissary: the divided brain and the making of the Western world’ and the 300 of Robert Kegan’s ‘The Evolving Self’. I have worked out that if I read these along with the historical tomes by Jonathan Israel then I will just about have finished reading by the time I have to deliver the final version of my 21CE pamphlet. No wonder I am feeling even more anxious and inadequate than usual.

I need to get to a hypothesis for the first part of my speech. This is where I examine the idea of a shift in consciousness in which the enlightenment played the crucial role. The enlightenment was not a single cohesive movement nor did it have a simple start and finish. Many of the ideas associated with the enlightenment can be found somewhere in the philosophy of the ancients or being prefigured in the renaissance or reformation. Even as enlightenment thinking was provoking reaction and counter reaction in coffee houses, church pulpits, and royal societies, it was hardly touching the lives of the overwhelming majority of the rural and just emerging industrial working class. As Israel has shown, the enlightenment itself was riven by conflict between its establishment and radical variants. As for the completion of the enlightenment project, it could be said we are still waiting. To steal Ghandi’s joke: ‘what do you think of Western enlightenment?’ answer ‘it would be a very good idea’.

Yet despite these provisos, it is possible to identify the core ideas which were together the building blocks of enlightenment thought. Tzvetan Todorov offers three: autonomy, the human end purpose of our acts and universality. These are powerful ideas but they don’t exactly represent what I mean by consciousness. I am interested not just in the ideas to which people may have ascribed but the way they thought about themselves and their place in the world. In this regard I would like to suggest some ways that we tend to think now which became dominant over the course of the enlightenment.

First, we became more likely to see ourselves as part of a mass society, that is to say that we shared something important with a mass of other people even though we will never meet them. The core unit for mass society was the nation state and a key issue for enlightenment thinkers – and a key division between them – was what membership of this unit should entail. Thus the ideas of society as a phenomenon, the nation as a unit and the citizen as a political category come together.

Second, that while we are members of a nation who share common responsibilities and (to some extent) rights we are all also individuals whose life involves an unfolding personal (inner) narrative as well as the destiny which flows from our place in society and history.  

Third, we get to assume that progress from the past to the future is the natural flow of human affairs and that progress should be measured in human terms (this is what Todorov means by ‘the human end purpose of our acts’). That society should progress and, that we ourselves should progress, comes not only to be seen as natural but the ability to achieve progress is how we should judge ourselves, our bosses and our leaders.    

Fourth, we see the route to progress lying fundamentally in the discovery and application of knowledge derived from reasoned inquiry. We think of a world can be explained by discovering its rules in ever more detail, not simply accepting the rules handed down by gods or monarchs.

I am sure there are problems with this list and I need to look out in my reading for more vivid ways of capturing the change in the way we think. Any help gratefully received.

Looking ahead to the next stage of the argument, can we use this list to suggest ways in which 21st century consciousness might need to evolve? In very broad terms:

First, that the thing that we belong to is no longer the nation state but the world and that by this we also mean the biosphere.

Second, that we should understand that the voice in our heads that we call ourselves is only a part of who we are and that the best way to unleash the amazing power of conscious thought is not to exaggerate its power but to see the part it plays in the whole system governing our character and actions.

Third, that we must think very hard about what progress now entails especially for those of us fortunate enough to be in the rich parts of the world.

Fourth, that in many parts of our lives and in many parts of our complex world there are no laws or rules that can predict the future or tell us what to do. Instead we must be willing to rely more on ethics, intuitions and trusting relationships to guide us.

After exploring all these thoughts a great deal more the final part of the speech will explore aspects of today’s world which seem to me to be significant in pointing the way towards a 21CE

Oh dear, just writing this exhausts me. I haven’t the heart even to read it back in case it’s such nonsense it ruins my enjoyment of Crystal Palace versus West Brom tonight (a man must have his pleasures). I would love some comments – but please be gentle.