Friday, October 18, 2013

What is Care? From Phenomenology to Feminism

If we are to care for future generations, what exactly do we mean by care?

Philosophically speaking, there are two main traditions of thought that tackle care. One is phenomenological, and more specifically Heideggerian. The other is feminist ethics, and its critique of Kantian traditions in ethics and liberal-democratic traditions in political philosophy. Historically speaking, the first centres on Heidegger's discussion in Being and Time of care as Sorge, the existential attitude which defines all human being as concerned with its future. Heidegger's concept appears to draw on Spinoza's notion of conatus, the endeavour of an entity to persist in its own being, and thereby reaches back to the Aristotelian concept of the formal cause, that which it is to be a given entity.

Circles of Care
Circles of Care, from
This phenomenological tradition is linked with feminist thought via Nel Noddings' work, which cites Martin Buber alongside Heidegger (in whom she finds ackinowledgement that caring is ‘the ultimate reality of human life’ (Noddings 2005, 15) in developing a concept of care which is concern for the other, rather than for the self. Noddings views an attitude of ‘engrossment’ as basic to human being. Prior to self-concern, and particularly to a Heideggerian concern for one's own death, the essence of caring is represented as an intuitive, pre-conscious mode of disclosing through which the other appears to the self in the position of a vulnerable subject in need of care. Others are not detached and experienced in the form of objects, but as having specific needs and vulnerabilities that stand forth against a background of its possible futures, its potentialities.  This attitude, for Noddings, both makes possible any enduring emotional attachment to the other, as well as any subsequent response to his or her apprehended needs. But it also has moral significance.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Science, technology and ignorance

Following on from an earlier post, I want to consider the relationship between technology and knowledge, and the illusions to which our thinking about it is subject. In this piece, John Kay provides examples of two such illusions in the space of four lines or so:
Knowledge is more than additive. What we learn when we bring two bodies of knowledge together may be much more than the sum of each alone. That is why the technological improvements that make it easier to gain access to that knowledge are so important. We do not know what we will discover, only that there is a lot still to be discovered. (emphasis added)
 Technological innovation, Kay assumes, necessarily adds to our knowledge about the world - but does not do so in a straightforwardly linear ('additive') way. Secondly, that 'there is a lot still to be discovered' about the world qua object of natural-scientific investigation. The first is not necessarily false, but it is only part of the story. The second, however, contains an actually false view of the relationship between science, technology and the world scientific research investigates.
Lunar Eclipse (from

The problem in both cases is Kay's refusal to acknowledge the relationship between science, technology and ignorance - which is, to be precise, that technological innovation (whether through the translation of scientific research, or more commonly, through tinkering and bricolage) creates ignorance as well as knowledge. Scientific research too can create ignorance, insofar as new discoveries reveal new aspects of nature about which we know nothing. But leaving this aside for a moment, the issue with technological innovation is that it is an engine of novelty. It adds things to the world that, as I noted in the post referred to above, tend to condition our lives and transform them in unexpected ways.

If we focus on the significance of this for our knowledge of the consequences of innovation, however, then Kay's errors become clear. As Joachim Schummer has pointed out, the production of new technologies (and particularly the 'naturalised' kinds I wrote of earlier), by adding new entities to the world, extends our ignorance. How will these entities behave in relation to already existing entities (natural in origin or not). In this sense, it is not so much that so much of the dark continent of ignorance still remains to be explored, but that through our creativity we are adding to it all the time, even as we simultaneously domesticate more of it. The assumption of linear progress behind Kay's remark about discovery is therefore entirely incorrect.

Certainly, innovation may enable us to add to our knowledge of the world. But the multiplier effect Kay casts in an optimistic light is not so unambiguous either. As Ian Hacking has pointed out,1 the combination of different bodies of knowledge may achieve precisely the opposite effect to that Kay describes. A particular technological artefact may be dependent on two or more different bodies of scientific knowledge, as much in the case of Hacking's entirely unromantic example of baffles developed to prevent fly ash pollution from chimneys, as in synthetic chemistry, biotechnology or nanotechnology. Yet neither body of knowledge may be capable of providing any basis for predicting the behaviour 'in the wild' of the artefact in question. Nor may the two bodies of knowledge necessarily be unifiable through something like a set of 'bridging laws' that allow propositions from one to be translated into propositions from the other.

In such cases, the existence of emergent 'interference effects' cannot be predicted - though, Hacking writes, it may be generally expected. While Kay writes in his article that the two technology commentators to whom he listened, one pessimistic and one optimistic about the prospects of technological innovation, both convinced him, his own viewpoint seems - epistemologically speaking, anyway - wildly optimistic. For the reasons laid out above, innovation makes it difficult to assess the consequences of what we do before we do it. But if we are less convinced than Kay seems to be that there is a fixed quantity of ignorance in the world, then we may decide we are not sure whether we want to find out what these consequences might be. And this creates ethical and political dilemmas.

1 Hacking, I. (1986). Culpable Ignorance of Interference Effects, in Values at Risk. D. MacLean. Totowa NJ, Rowman and Allanheld: 136-154.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Future Lives in Everything: Care, Conatus and 'The Road' [2]

Much has been written about how the past is fading from the present of The Road. Just as nature seems incapable of sustaining life any more, so have the supports of individual identity in culture been lost, and even language itself seems to be under threat.
He dreamt of walking in a flowering wood where birds flew before them he and the child and the sky was aching blue but he was learning how to wake himself from just such siren worlds. Lying there in the dark with the uncanny taste of a peach from some phantom orchard fading in his mouth. He thought if he lived long enough the world at last would all be lost. Like the dying world the newly blind inhabit, all of it slowly fading from memory.
The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colours. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality.
Without the webs of meaning that link objects and people together within a culture, the possibility of feeling what Martha Nussbaum has called the ‘upheaval of thought’, the disruption of identity consequent on loss of attachment and grief, is undermined.14 The symbolic dimension of the past is as prey to entropy as is the natural complexity produced by billions of years of evolution. For this reason, the stories that the father tells his son as a way of weaving a last thread of cultural continuity are, as he recognizes, hazardous at the same time as being necessary: becoming involved with the past, either through invoked memories or simply through imagination risks awakening dynamics of mourning or melancholy (in Freud’s sense) or mere fantasy.

The Future Lives in Everything: Care, Conatus and 'The Road' [1]

What place does the future have in human experience? A certain tradition, of which contemporary Western societies are the heirs, has long viewed it as a territory to be mapped, controlled, conquered. To this way of thinking, the future is most easily imagined as a linear axis along which the trajectories of economic variables, of social change, of and so on unfold. The future of planning, projection and forecasting feeds into our experience of the world around us. Yet this future co-exists with others, rooted in more intimate dimensions of experience. To uncover these dimensions and the kinds of future-orientation to which they give rise, it is necessary to reach down beneath the assumptions and habits of minds on which the planned, forecasted future rests and which mark it out as a more or less domesticated zone populated by our short- and long-term goals. To do this, a thought experiment is called for. And luckily, we have an example of such an experiment to hand.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

On "risk thinking": risk as rationalization

To understand the relationship between technology, finitude and uncertainty, we need to appreciate how far the futures our use of technology creates are increasingly viewed through the lens of risk. The use of risk as a frame for representing the future to ourselves has become central to a wide range of areas of public life, including government and regulation, business, and health care. This has been largely a post-World War II phenomenon, becoming particularly evident during the decades since the 1970s, alongside the transition within industrialised societies from a consensual, essentially Keynesian socio-economic settlement (the age of centralised technocracies and welfarism, including the French régime général, the German Soziale Marktwirtschaft, the British Welfare State and later Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”) towards more fragmented, neo-liberal and initially monetarist social forms.

Risk Thinking
What Nikolas Rose has referred to as "risk thinking" is a loose collection of social practices and habits of mind which centre on the idea that social action can best be legitimated through the evaluation of probably consequences of actions. A substantial body of scholarship rooted in Science and Technology Studies has documented how a probabilistic and purportedly systematic view of potential future outcomes of action, drawing essentially on methods of failure management within engineering, became part of a wider social movement towards quantitative measurement and assessment of the outcomes of policy during the 1970s (Wynne 1992; Wynne 1996), drawing on a variety of developments in neo-classical economics, game theory, public choice theory and so on in a “search for new forms of legitimate order and authority” in a new neoliberal age (Wynne 1996, p. 78).

Friday, March 23, 2012

Technology, uncertainty and the human condition

In the previous post, I noted that, when we reflect on the nature of our relationship to future generations, it becomes apparent that we need to be careful not to view the unfamiliar too readily through the lens of the familiar. Employing familiar concepts analogically or metaphorically to map an unfamiliar territory may, of course, be helpful in some circumstances. But sometimes tension between the content of the metaphor and important features of the target domain is simply too obvious. This, I’ve suggested, is evident when we employ concepts of justice and parental care to get a handle on what is ethically significant about future generations.
What is missing, in both instances, is an appropriate understanding of how our actions, here and now, produce the future our successors will inhabit, and the limitations on how far we can understand the connection between what we do and how the future turns out. In other words, this is the problem of uncertainty. As I mentioned in the previous post, the link between present and future people is not direct. Between us stand the products of our efforts to transform the social and extra-social worlds. However we imagine our relationship to our successors, it requires us to also imagine the means by which this will be actualised: technologies to provide renewable energy, a sustainable welfare state, new medical techniques, more democratic forms of governance, more inclusive educational systems, and so on. Nonetheless, our grasp of what the consequences of our efforts are likely to be is clouded by uncertainty.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Thinking about Care

In the last post, I introduced some issues arising from the unfamiliarity of intergenerational ethics.  We are used to thinking about the ethical and political significance of relationships between contemporaries. But when we try to apply these concepts to the relationships between present and (as yet) non-existent future people, we run into difficulties. Rawls points out that Hume’s circumstances of justice, for example, do not hold, and that therefore the idea of justice itself is somewhat problematic. Rawls tries to rescue the idea of intergenerational obligations, however – and unsuccessfully – but that’s a topic for another post. Here, I want to introduce an alternative way of thinking about intergenerational relationships, one which does not foreground justice, but privileges care instead