Archives for posts with tag: anomie

Whence comes nihilism, the uncanniest of all quests?
by Lou Keep

Friedrich Nietzsche was most famously concerned with the problem of nihilism. All societies, in his view, rely on implicit value judgments. If the foundations of these are lost, he predicts terrible consequences: widespread apathy or violent, fanatical attempts to reclaim a sense of purpose, or perhaps both. We talk about values a lot, and we know they do something, but we have little idea how. Compounding this is uncertainty over their loss. Nihilism is not a choice or intellectual commitment, but a thing that comes upon you. As Nietzsche put it in 1885: ‘Nihilism stands at the door. Whence comes this uncanniest of all guests?’

Part of the answer comes from understanding how values connect to knowledge and action. In Seeing Like a State (1998), the political scientist James C Scott classifies knowledge in two ways: epistemic knowledge, which can be quantified, theorised and transmitted in abstract, and metis (from the classical Greek), which concerns knowledge gained from practical experience, such as personal relationships, traditions, habits and psychological states. Metis governs local experience: farming the family’s land, for example, rather than agronomic study. We all recognise it; it’s why we hire for experience. For instance, Jane and Martha have identical diplomas, but if Jane’s first shift was on Tuesday and Martha’s was in 1970, then Martha will have certain tricks and habits to expedite her work. Still, it’s not easy to quantify just what that is: Martha has metis, and metis can’t easily be reproduced. If it were trainable, it would have been in Jane’s training.

Scott’s genius is to compare metis to local traditions. Over a long enough time, habits and behaviours are selected for and passed down, just as evolution selects helpful traits. A successful group will institutionalise an irreducibly complex set of cultural tools that relate to its environment. Since these are metis, and not epistemic, they won’t always be obvious or quantifiable. Scott recounts dozens of examples of customs that might appear backwards, confused, unscientific – yet when they’re banned or discouraged, productivity collapses. He calls this the problem of ‘legibility’.

Epistemic theories rely on isolated, abstracted environments capable of taxonomy, but these are far removed from the dynamic, interconnected systems of nature and human culture. Metis, by contrast, develops within complex, ‘illegible’ environments, and thus works with them. But that also means its application is limited to a specific act, rather than a broader theory. Outsiders want to know why something works, but locals will explain it in a language unintelligible to them.

These practices and traditions are, of course, more than work experience. They’re used to efficiently solve political problems. In The Righteous Mind (2012), the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes Balinese rice farmers who needed to coordinate irrigation along a river. Since they were politically divided into small familial units – called subaks – they needed to rely on means older than governance to ensure cooperation:

The ingenious religious solution to this problem of social engineering was to place a small temple at every fork in the irrigation system. The god in each such temple united all the subaks that were downstream from it into a community that worshipped that god, thereby helping the subaks to resolve their disputes more amicably. This arrangement minimised the cheating and deception that would otherwise flourish in a zero-sum division of water. The system made it possible for thousands of farmers, spread over hundreds of square kilometres, to cooperate without the need for central government, inspectors and courts.

This still occurs. A 2017 paper by the economists Nathan Nunn of Harvard University and Raul Sanchez de la Sierra of the University of California, Berkeley mentions gri-gri, a magical powder that witchdoctors manufacture. In 2012, following a period of widespread banditry and state insecurity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, gri-gri came to a village elder in a dream. Applying this powder made the user bulletproof, and it worked so well that neighbouring communities swiftly adopted it. The reason was simple: groups fight better than individuals, and more people will dare to fight if they believe they are bulletproof. Hence, a village using gri-gri was more likely to survive.

Gri-gri and water temples are kinds of metis, but they require belief in larger structures: respectively, magic and gods. However these structures first developed, it’s critical that they rest on more than mere faith or tradition. Shared values provide conviction for greater actions, but those values are certified by the success of those actions. Gri-gri’s success is an empirical testament to magic, and its utility inclines one towards trusting more activities by witchdoctors. Nunn and Sanchez de la Sierra point out that

many of [the spells] appear to provide individuals with a greater sense of security and confidence, which could serve to … reduce their anxiety and thus improve their performance. For example, most of the spells provide protection, whether it be from drought, disease, attacks on the village or even to harm potential thieves – and thieves also believe in their efficacy, which acts as a deterrent.

In other words: these practices and institutions serve several different roles, all bound up in one another. This intermingling exacerbates the problem of legibility.

When we discuss changing values, we often think top-down: a new and persuasive ideology that took hold for intellectual reasons. What Scott and the adoption of gri-gri suggest is the opposite: the motive force of values requires a degree of certainty that is dependent on action. It was gri-gri’s empirical demonstration that allowed it spread it to neighbouring villages, not its poetry. The inverse to this is also important: we can improve on a specific task, but other roles need time to sediment and evolve. Trade the temples for a government, and you have zero-sum bickering. Explain the game theory behind gri-gri, and no one will fight with it. The utility of a cultural institution first allows adoption, but its maintenance allows metis ample time to tinker and perfect.

If we’ve lost faith in certain values, then I doubt this was because of academic debates. The 20th century profoundly changed labour, technology and social organisation in the Western world. It’s hard to imagine that this didn’t change metis, or render older forms of metis irrelevant. While the values of metis might still be desired – or even identified with – they lack the same certainty they once had. Nothing can prove them and thus justify the higher claims. ‘Faith without works is dead,’ as the Bible said, but faith without metis is unbelievable.

A top-down view of value implies that we can simply create new reasons for living, that the ideology itself is its own proof. But if values come bottom-up, then man’s quest for meaning cannot be separated from his labour. They are the same.

[object Object]

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

“legible” versus “illegilbe”…

After all, metis remains – for now, illegible simply because we haven’t yet found a way to ‘read’ it.

And to write it back in a teachable form!

Or, to put it in a more concise manner, we haven’t got, yet, to the bottom of it!

The key word here being we.
WE haven’t got to the…
It all boils down, again, to the limited nature of our consciousness!


For the last 3500 years humankind has been busy writing Laws.

Which can be grouped in two main categories.
Natural laws and man made (normative) laws.
According to this classification while all laws have been written by Man those belonging to the first category are active regardless of Man being aware of their existence and those who belong to the latter come to life only as long as Man chooses to enforce them.

Another classification could be ‘phusical’ laws – ‘phusis’ being an ancient Greek term for ‘grown naturally’, all things that came to be in a ‘natural’ manner – ‘statistical’ laws and, again, ‘normative’ laws.

Both these classifications depend on how much influence Man has over how the laws work, besides the obvious fact that the wording, in all cases, belong to Him. To Man, of course.

The difference between them being that while the first sees Man as an individual making decisions by himself the second takes into consideration the fact that Man cannot function properly outside of a community.

Before going back to discuss some more about both classifications I have to note that laws are important mainly because they define areas of opportunity.
People are, from a functionalist point of view, self aware decision makers. But since none of them has an infinite amount of knowledge at his disposal nor an infinite capacity to process what ever information he has on a subject, people find it very useful to have the reality around them partitioned into ‘safe’ and ‘enter at your own risk’ areas.
In this respect it doesn’t matter whether the law itself belongs to either of the 5 categories. The consequences of the law are the same. Those who are aware of its existence have a lot easier job at discerning the safe from the potentially dangerous places than the ignorant ones. What each of them does after finding that out is another matter.

Coming back to the first classification, ‘natural’ versus ‘normative’ laws, let me elaborate a little about what ‘natural’ means in this situation.
It is obvious that the law of gravity, the one formulated by Isaac Newton, belongs here.
It started to produce consequences as soon as ‘mass’ came into existence – regardless of who, if anyone, made the necessary ‘arrangements’ and regardless of anyone being aware of its very existence or not.
But how about the law against killing another human being?
Animals belonging to the same species occasionally do kill each-other so this doesn’t seem to be an all encompassing natural law.

On the other hand history has compellingly taught us that communities where individuals are treated fairly by their peers fare a lot better than communities where some of the members kill (some of) the others. In a Darwinian sense the communities who do protect the lives of their members have an evolutionary advantage over those who don’t.
In this sense the ‘do not kill’ law becomes ‘phusical’. It is both ‘man made’, hence ‘normative’, and acts regardless of people being aware of its existence.

And no, this is not the same thing as ‘ignorance of the law offers no excuse‘.
As I said before, the first classification, ‘natural’ versus ‘normative’ considers Man mainly as an individual – who cannot hide himself under the cloak of ignorance and who has to bear the consequences of his acts, if apprehended – while the second classification, ‘phusical’, ‘statistical’ and ‘normative’, considers Man as an individual member who both depends heavily on his community and contributes decisively to the well being of the place where he lives.

In this respect ‘do not kill’ becomes a ‘statistical’ law. If enough individuals refrain from killing other people and if the community successfully puts in place and operates a protection mechanism  to guard the lives of its members, without otherwise stifling the ingenuity of its people, that community will fare better than those who either fail to protect their members or protect them so jealously that transform them into hapless puppets unable to fend for themselves. Those who are interested to find out more about the equilibrium between protection and freedom of expression might want to check Crime and Deviance, Functionalist Perspective.

By now you must have noticed that ‘statistical’ laws are both ‘objective’ – in the sense that they will produce consequences even if people are not aware of/do not care about their existence, and ‘normative’ – in the sense that those consequences do depend, heavily, on how people act.

So. Does this make me a staunch defender of ‘normative’ laws?

Not at all. Just as Durkheim noticed long ago telling people what to do will only stifle their ability to adapt. To cope with change.

That’s why I strongly feel that ‘normative’ laws, the few that are really necessary, must be written in a ‘negative’ way. Do not kill, do not rape, do not discriminate, do not steal are quite different from ‘all of us have to be maintained alive’, ‘we must assign an armed guard to every nubile woman’, ‘we must write millions of pages of rules to cover every possible act of discrimination’, ‘we must arm ourselves to the teeth in order be able to defend our property against all odds’.


Scriam cu ceva vreme in urmă că depresia este si o boala a societatii, nu doar a oamenilor. De fapt ideea nu este foarte originală, a fost prezentată pe larg, chiar dacă ușor altfel, de către Durkheim în „Sinuciderea”. N-am menționat acest lucru atunci pentru că mi s-a părut nepotrivit să vorbești despre sinucidere în casa deprimatului.

Numai că viața bate blogul.
La câteva zile după asta tot ce au putut cu adevărat face serviciile de urgență pentru o femeie disperată care amenința că se aruncă de pe bloc a fost să aștepte 35 de ore înainte de a o aduna cu fărașul de pe trotuar.

Foto: Octav Ganea // Mediafax

”Negociatorii Poliţiei Capitalei au ţinut permanent legătura cu femeia, pe terasa blocului, ba chiar au reuşit să o convingă să bea apă şi să mănânce, însă nu au putut să o facă să renunţe, chiar dacă la faţa locului a venit şi soţul femeii, iar cei din bloc s-ar fi oferit să îi plătească datoriile la întreţinere pe care le avea.”

Teoria spune ca cele mai multe tentative de sinucidere sunt de fapt strigăte de ajutor și că pe măsură ce trece timpul și cel în cauză nu trece la fapte cu atât cresc șansele de succes a celor care încearcă să îl salveze.
Pe de altă parte pentru ca această teorie să funcționeze e nevoie de ceea ce spunea Durkheim. Cel care este în situația de a alege să-și învingă depresia și să continue să trăiască să aibe la ce să fie convins să se întoarcă. Legăturile dintre membrii societății din care face parte să fie suficient de puternice pentru a o face atât de funcțională încât cel care se gândea la un moment dat să se sinucidă să aibe motiv să se răzgândească.
Și încă ceva. Salvatorii înșiși vor fi cu atât mai convingători cu cât societatea va fi mai funcțională. Tocmai pentru că și lor înșiși viața le va părea mai frumoasă.

Numai că iată cum descrie poetul Florin Iaru situatia:

„Aşadar, dacă binele e ameninţat atât de rău din ambele părţi, un spectator admirând comédia ar putea spune cu îndreptăţire: „Să piară toţi!“. Comic e faptul că ambele tabere se agită în numele democraţiei, a progresului, a valorilor. Toţi apără un principiu. Şi, în acelaşi timp, sunt surzi la diversitatea fundamentală a naturii umane. Unul e de stânga, altul de dreapta, unul e tradiţionalist, altul, modernist, unul e trist, ultimul, şi mai trist. Sentimentul că fiinţa celuilalt nu te lasă să respiri, să trăieşti, că o conspiraţie a imbecililor, a serviciilor secrete îţi ameninţă viaţa domină România. Nu poate avea cineva o idee a lui, un sentiment, o părere. Nu. E a stăpânului, a mogulului, a ruşilor, a lui Băse, a lui Ponta. Nimic nu e întâmplător. Grupurile se fac şi se desfac şi, mare ciudăţenie – cei care erau duşmani neîmpăcaţi devin prieteni la toartă, iar cei care se pupau în bot la guvernare şi în Parlament şi-au jurat moartea. Dacă iubeşti câinii, vrei să-mi omori pisica.”

Asta să fie oare soluția? O sinucidere colectivă lentă prin marasm socio-economic? Să „pierim” cu toții?

N-ar fi mai bine să-i demonstrăm lui Florin Iaru că se înșală când spune „Crezul meu e că oamenii nu se schimbă niciodată.”?
Eu unul sunt convins că nici măcar el nu crede cu adevărat așa ceva!. Altfel ce rost mai avea să scrie articolul…
Așa că… la treabă! Dacă suficient de mulți dintre noi ne hotărâm că „așa nu mai merge” și ne îndreptăm în primul rând pe noi înșine cercul vicios descris de Iaru va deveni unul virtuos. Nu e nevoie să ieșim cu parul pe stradă pentru a-i pedepsi pe „ceilalți”  – așa cum au făcut minerii in ’90 la chemarea lui Iliescu. Este suficient să nu mai întoarcem, vinovați, capul când lângă noi cineva își bate joc de altcineva, spunându-ne că „n-are rost să mă bag dacă nu mă afectează direct”!
Păi tocmai d-aia trebuie să te bagi, așa cum și cât poți tu, tocmai ca să nu ajungă să te afecteze și pe tine. Ca să mai fie cine să îți sară și ție în ajutor dacă vei avea vreodată nevoie.

Altruismul are o explicație cât se poate de rațională, nu este pur si simplu un moft. Societățile care au grijă de membrii lor – fără să îi sufoce, supraviețuiesc mai mult iar membrii lor sunt mai fericiți decât cele care funcționează după legea junglei.
Iar asta e tot de la Durkheim citire.
%d bloggers like this: