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A Platonic perspective on inertia, imagination, and initiative

Melissa Lane, Professor of Politics, Princeton University.

I begin with a diagnosis of the global credit crunch of 2009 presented by the British Academy in reply to a request by the Queen to explain why had no one noticed that the credit crunch was on its way.  Their reply: ‘the failure to foresee the timing, extent and severity of the [financial] crisis and to head it off {, while it had many causes,} was principally a failure of the collective imagination…{of many bright people, both in this country and internationally, to understand the risks to the system as a whole}.’   My contribution to this panel will focus on the idea of the collective imagination in two respects. I focus first on the idea of its frequent failure to adapt quickly enough, which I call ‘inertia’.  I present this as a possible refinement to the model of innovation on which the meeting is based: if innovation is organized by interactive changes in artifacts and agent space, the latter may be characterized by significant lags in the development of the new values, needs, and identities which would facilitate healthy and productive responses to emergent changes.   In my second point I will turn to offer some refinements to the model of the ‘exactive bootstrapping dynamic’ of changes in agent space.   These refinements are drawn from the account given by Plato in the Republic.

First, on inertia.   Whereas the paper laying out the basis for this meeting  stresses the ways in which civil society might engage in monitoring and steering innovation cascades in directions governed by attributions of the common good, I think it is useful to begin by acknowledging that civil society may also sometimes tacitly block such productive developments, resulting not from its intentional value commitments (which are highlighted in the ‘directedness’ definition of civil society in the meeting document) but rather from its inertial attachments to certain pre-existing valuations and identities.  These can form a limiting horizon, making some possibilities not so much literally unthinkable as outside the boundaries of ‘normal’ processes of reasoning and of ‘normal’ standards of the desirable and the admirable.

This phenomenon is widely evident in relation to measures needed to address climate change.  The cost-benefit motive presupposed by both market solutions and many state-led interventions fails to motivate, or to overcome resistance, even in cases where it would seem at home.  Two examples: Peter Head of ARUP, a British construction company, has remarked that most builders do not build in zero-impact ways ‘because they believe it isn’t possible’ – even when it demonstrably is;  and The Economist has reported that a municipal ban on plastic bags in Delhi is partly failing in its effect because “the desire to pay the penalty is sometimes greater than the desire to change your mindset”.   Such beliefs about possibility and normality are part of the collective imagination  which can inhibit both the desire and the capacity for members of civil society to engage productively in shaping innovation policy toward the collective good.

I turn now to my second point, which is to draw out of Plato’s texts as well as modern psychology and sociology an account of how rationality and desire may change in tandem: a specification of the microdynamics of the bootstrapping process of change to the collective imagination, if you will, explaining how people can come to think differently because they have come to desire differently, and also to desire differently because they have come to think differently.   I will distinguish four moments in this dynamic.

(a)Rationality and desire as both habituated at the same root


TEXT A:  [Socrates]:  [The children will thus be prevented from] ‘…being brought up among representations of what is evil, and so day by day and little by little, by grazing widely as it were in an unhealthy pasture, insensibly (lanthanosin) doing themselves a cumulative psychological damage that is very serious.  We must look for artists and craftsmen capable of perceiving the real nature of what is beautiful, and then our young men, living as it were in a healthy climate, will benefit because all the works of art they see and hear influence them for good, like the breezes from some healthy country, insensibly (lanthane) leading them from earliest childhood into close sympathy and conformity with beauty and reason [emphasis added].’

[Glaucon]: ‘That would indeed be the best way to bring them up.’

‘And that, my dear Glaucon’, I [Socrates] said, ‘is why this [early-childhood musical] stage of education is crucial.  For rhythm and harmony penetrate deeply into the mind and take a most powerful hold on it, and, if education is good, bring and impart grace and beauty, if it is bad, the reverse.  And moreover the proper training we propose to give will make a man quick to perceive the shortcomings of works of art or nature, whose ugliness he will rightly dislike; anything beautiful he will welcome gladly, will make it his own and so grow in true goodness of character; anything ugly he will rightly condemn and dislike, even when he is still young and cannot understand the reason for so doing, while when reason comes he will recognize and welcome her as a familiar friend because of his upbringing.’ (Plato, Republic, 401b-402a, emphasis added)

Notice here the emphasis on the subconscious, insidious effects of cultural media on children, which I have brought out by adding italics.  As Plato knew, and as modern psychologists have confirmed, culture affects our minds very often subconsciously, making us more receptive to certain images and arguments than to others, and effecting a subtle transition from what we are used to, to what we come to be willing to accept when put to us rationally.  Habit shapes the mind.  Indeed, neuroscientists now say that it also shapes the brain (the brains of children who experience loving attachment differ from those of children deprived of it, as neuronal connections go on developing, or stagnating, into adolescence) – which is one way of convincing us that its effects are as permanent and significant as Plato already supposed them to be.   To educate children is to make their minds, their brains, their selves different: it is to shape their imaginative horizon in ways which will then form the way they reason and what they come to desire.

(b)Desires which grow into commitments (in the sense of commitment analysed by Harry Frankfurt and Amartya Sen), which then shape the further formation of other desires.

Text B:   Socrates]: ‘Now, we surely know that, when someone’s desires (epithumiai) incline strongly for one thing, they are thereby weakened (asthenesterai) for others, just like a stream that has been partly diverted into another channel … then, when someone’s desires flow towards learning and everything of that sort, he’d be concerned, I suppose, with the pleasures of the soul itself by itself, and he’d abandon (ekleipoien) those pleasures that come through the body – that is, if he’s a true philosopher (philosophos) … (Republic VI, 485d6-8, d10-e1, trans. Grube/Reeve in Cooper, ed., Plato. Complete Works)

As I have argued elsewhere,  Plato is here describing someone with motivations which are habitually or temperamentally (Plato calls it ‘naturally’) at odds with the prevailing collective imagination.  Such a possibility is one way to make sense of the otherwise exogenous account of changes to norms in ‘new norms’ literature in law and economics, which appeals to ‘norm entrepreneurs’ whose motivations otherwise remain obscure.   This is a case in which desires can serve to modify other desires.  In Plato’s account of those he calls the ‘natural philosophers’, the strength of their desire for learning inhibits bodily desires from mutating into greed or lust; in the case of members of civil society, those gripped by a sense of ecological crisis may be willing to challenge inertial attachment to the status quo by means of civil disobedience and other forms of active vigilance, organization, and agitation.

(c)Reason governs appetites and evaluative judgments by reshaping them.

While desire may sometimes curb desire, reason may also step in – and commitments are, after all, compounds of reason and desire. Reason’s government of appetite and the non-intellectual desires – the most familiar Platonic relationship between reason and desire – is described as ‘constitutional’ rather than ‘tyrannical’ in the sense that reason must not simply slap down appetites in a brutal and external sort of way: that won’t work, or at best, it will only work some of the time and will always be vulnerable to resistance.  Instead reason needs to get into the innards of our appetites and our attractions, to reshape what we find important and compelling, what we are attracted to do, what we care about and find appetizing or repellent. We see this in text C:

TEXT C:  [Socrates]: ‘And won’t the most ridiculous thing of all be to see the women taking exercise naked with the men in the gymnasium? It won’t only be the young women; there will be elderly women too, just as there are old men who go on with their exercises when they are wrinkled and funny to look at.’

‘Lord!’ he [Glaucon] said, ‘that’s going to be a funny sight by present standards.’ (452a-b)

[… Socrates]: ‘…it was not so long ago that the Greeks thought – as most of the barbarians still think – that it was shocking and ridiculous for men to be seen naked. When the Cretans, and later the Spartans, first began to take exercise naked, wasn’t there plenty of material for the wit of the comedians of the day?’

Glaucon: ‘There was indeed.’

Socrates: ‘But when experience showed them that it was better to strip than to wrap themselves up, what reason (en tois logois) had proved best lost its absurdity to the eye.  Which shows how idle it is to think anything ridiculous except what is wrong.  Indeed, anyone who tries to raise a laugh at the sight of anything but what is foolish and wrong will never, when he is serious again, make goodness the object of his admiration.’ (452c-e)

The key sentence leaps off the page: ‘what reason had proved best lost its absurdity to the eye’.  Here is Socrates summing up the process of bootstrapping changes in the political imagination.  Argument, or other inducement to act differently, can change the way we see the world, what we count as reasons, and what we see – or do not see – as ridiculous.  Conversely, too, what we currently see as ridiculous will limit the arguments that we are willing to hear.  The bootstrapping process of political-cum-imaginative change is sometimes inhibiting but can also be sometimes empowering.

(d)The cumulative bootstrapping dynamic of individual – civil society – polity interaction

TEXT D:  [Socrates]: ‘…once we have given our system a good start…[his own interjection] the process of improvement will be cumulative.  By maintaining a sound system of education and upbringing you produce citizens of good character; and citizens of sound character, with the advantage of a good education, produce in turn children better than themselves and better able to produce still better children in their turn…’ (424a-b)

Here the Platonic analysis of the political imagination takes a final step in  demonstrating the systemic effects that one’s own character and decisions has on the character of one’s family and one’s society.  Thus on Plato’s account, by behaving virtuously, I not only benefit myself, I also contribute to shaping a better society.  The just social system is not only cumulative, but also self-reinforcing, as Socrates points out when discussing the feedback-effects of just actions on the psychology of the person who carries them out.

In a word, the virtue of the Republic – and the virtue required by the monitoring and organizing tasks needed to turn innovation policy in more positive directions — is sustainable virtue.  Just actions not only issue from an internally just soul; they also reinforce the order of that soul, whereas unjust actions would tend to undermine or dismantle it (“don’t just actions produce justice, and unjust actions injustice?”).  Every action either reinforces a good habit or reinforces a bad one.  To act unjustly, say by pursuing one’s desire for money through sharp business practice, is to feed that appetite for money while simultaneously weakening (through disuse, through subversion) one’s rational ability to control it.   To act justly, by subduing one’s appetites where good judgment says it is necessary, is to cultivate the ability of self-control and so to reinforce one’s character and the happiness it constitutes.

Extended to the ecological context, we find that virtue is not only a path to sustainability; it is a sustainably self-motivating one.  We have seen that the dynamics of the relationship between reason and desire are complex: reason ideally governs desire, but can do so only when both have been habituated at the same root and by the same process, and when desire itself has operated so as to curb certain other desires from forming.   Rather than speak of reason or desire individually, therefore, we can speak of the collective ‘imagination’ which is the result of this interactive dynamic.   It governs not so much what is strictly thinkable but what is acceptable, normal and admirable.  It can help to explain both the inertia which may inhibit civil society engagement with the challenge of reshaping innovation in sustainable directions, and the initiative which some civil society actors may be willing to exhibit in so doing.  Inertia, imagination, and initiative, I propose, are terms which can help to illuminate the dynamics of innovation which we are gathered to consider.

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