Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Month: January 2012

Difference evokes Meaning

The philosopher, and disabled activist, Judith Snow tells us that disability is a gift.

Disability is a gift because all of our distinct features – everything that makes us different and unique – is a  gift.

Of course this statement can only be made as an act of faith. Clearly differences do not always feel like a blessing and they may not be treated by others as a gift. But she is asking us to have faith in the possibility that another person will exist who, at the right time, in the right place, will be able to receive that gift.

This may not be an empirical statement – but that does not matter. The demands of faith are central to our approach to the world. Judith Snow is telling us how to approach the world – not predicting that we we will do so.

She is also calling us to recognise the central importance of difference to a life of meaning. Getting back what what we’ve already got is an unsatisfactory experience – without meaning. Difference stimulates, provokes and creates the possibility of meaning.

However to experience this meaning, through difference, also demands that we share in a common world that makes meaningful exchange possible – inclusion.

Odysseus and Taxation

Sometimes, like Odysseus before the Sirens, we seek to limit ourselves, to put ourselves under the control of others, because we do not trust ourselves.

Insurance has this function – we tax ourselves in order to put something aside in case of adversity. While this strategy can be useful it can be also dangerous.

In a democracy we see the same phenomenon when citizens are taxed from afar, that is passing their resources far away, to higher authorities – only to have them come back (or some proportion of them come back) with strings attached.

Some people like this process, it encourages national uniformity and if you trust those who further away more than you trust yourself or those who are more local it makes sense. But this indicates a kind of weakness and an unintegrated mentality. This encourages centralisation of power and undermines the community’s own development.

Sometimes, as with health care, we are right not to trust ourselves – we would be better to trust others. But we must be wary of unfounded faith in ‘the system’ and ‘the powerful.’

Selfishness and the Self

The selfish act is not an act overly focused on the self; it is an act which depends upon a narrow or shrivelled sense of self or one which is overly concerned with the self as it appears in the eyes of others.

We must love ourselves – but at its best our love mirrors the best love we have for others. We want ‘the best’ for them – including we want them to be the best that they can be.

As the ancient Greeks observed, if we want the best for our child, it is to want them to be happy only in the sense that we want them to have led a life which is truly worthy or respect. [Hence the paradox that you can only judge someone to be happy when they are dead.]

So strangely – we must love others as we love ourselves; but also we should love ourself as we should love others.

Tools Don’t Work

Give a man a tool and he’ll go and build himself a tool-shed.

Collecting tools is far easier than finding out how to use them well.

Tools do no work – only human beings do the work. Tools, if well used, just make that work easier.

This simple truth is so easy to forget. Just as men go and buy power tools and gadgets that they will never use – and certainly will never master – so do governments buy into concepts and social innovations that (at best) are only useful tools. But when the state enforces the application of those tools then you can be assured that tool will rarely be used well, and certainly will never be mastered.

Varun tells a story of how he designed a wonderful solar oven to help poor villagers in India. But, when he came back to the villages, where these ovens were to be used, he found that people were simply using the ovens as cupboards. This was not from stupidity – cupboards was what they really needed.

Ultimately the value of a tool does not lie in its use but in the outcomes it achieves. It is only by looking at things from the perspective of our real needs and aspirations that the true value of a tool will be discovered.

Sadly, concepts like Personalisation, Individual Budgets, Self-Directed Support, Person-Centred Planning, and so many other attractive and often useful concepts, are all now tainted by the mindless enthusiasm of government. By making someone use a tool (especially a tool that you do not understand yourself) you guarantee that it will be either obsolete or put to an entirely different use.

Different People, Equal Joy

We are born into a human body and we find great joy in it. Yet there are other lives within the transformation of the ten thousand beings that are just as good and equally full of joy. 

Chuang Tze from the Tao Te Ching

Taoism recognises the value of human diversity – there is no one joy, there is no one right way of being, there is no one type of person who is the best.

Cultivate Yourself First

The sage of old cultivated himself before he attempted to help others. If you yourself are not cultivated, what help could you possibly be for others? Do you know how virtue is lost and how mere knowledge arises? True virtue can be destroyed by fame, and mere knowledge is often reached by conflict. Fame is something that can be used to beat down others and knowledge is used to attack others. Both are instruments of evil and the sage has no need of either.

Confucius quoted in the Tao Te Ching

Confucius is talking to an enthusiastic do-gooder who wishes to tutor a tyrannical prince. The whole discussion is very interesting. Each time the young man suggests that he has found the right way to influence power then Confucius explains how the strategy will fail.

To seek to do good, through the agency of another person, is an exciting dream and it is hard not to indulge it. We may think we know exactly who the football manager should pick for his team or we may think we know exactly what the Prime Minister should do for the best. But it is a kind of cheating – instead of trying take on that role – with all of its responsibilities we wish simply to act as puppeteer: do this, do it my way.

However I am not sure how Confucius would respond to the logic of democratic politics and the need for debate and policy. Equality and citizenship allows, in fact should encourage, debate and mutual tutoring because these things are proper to the function of the citizen. This kind of influence is not a dream it is a responsibility – but there can be no short-cut through the agency of the powerful.

If Our Minds are Limited…

Our lives as well as our minds are limited. To try and understand that which is unlimited is foolish and dangerous. To do this and consider it knowledge is even more foolish and dangerous. 

Chuang Tzu from the Tao Te Ching

Paradoxically materialists, the dominant philosophers of our time, should be particularly conscious of this problem because they are confident that thought, mind and the understanding are all just physical events, elements of a reality that is much greater than them.

Our thoughts about the whole can only be elements within the whole – they cannot comprehend that whole.

But if that is so then what is the status of materialism itself? “Thought is just some event in the universe, reference and truth are illusions…” but what is the status of this thought?

Of course, those of us who believe in rationality cannot escape our limitations; but at least our awareness of those limitations is not itself self-contradictory. Humility brings with it some truth (if only partial).

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