Thursday, December 28, 2006

Tribalism

Imagine a family unit or a group of friends, and the variously helpful and malicious actions between them. Why do they remain in each other's lives?

Generally, we say that people make friends and keep them, or stay active within their family structure, because they feel close to these people and want to live alongside them. We say that this means augmenting the efforts of those they care about whilst minimising their risks and losses. We state this quite naturally, but we forget that on the ground this just doesn't look right.

Psychologically, the principle of common advantage doesn't enter the awareness of people when they have to make any one of the vast number of petty decisions that make up their everyday lives. It doesn't happen that whenever someone picks up a newspaper for someone else, they really consider why they do so. Reason doesn't really seem to have an input. We'd want to say, however, that although everyday action isn't derived from rational principles, it is nonetheless true that altruism is the determining factor. Again, I say this doesn't look right.

While it's probably true that people have in the main no conscious knowledge of the grounds of their relationships, this doesn't mean that tribalism (call it whatever) is a good thing rather than a bad thing. The way that an individual behaves within a network of people they are close with is often predatory. Mood swings are sent rippling out, having a negative impact upon others, and yet this isn't an arbitrary action - real positions of power and dominance are effected in this way. Indeed, we all know groups of people who constantly abuse and vie for position over each other. We know also that most friendships are borne solely out of the desire to feel better about oneself, without any thought for those people thereby befriended.

Victimisation seems a large part of tribal behaviour, and is perhaps directly proportional to the stupidity of the people bound into the tribe. This is particularly striking when we become momentarily assimilated into a tribal community, and a pecking order asserts itself roughly upon us, manifesting itself in our reactions to the feelings aroused by the abusive behaviour. Let us assume that people remain in these relationships through stupidity (though what exactly this means we'd have to do work on): What do we do when we are caught up in a tribal drama?

Patience and tolerance are key of course. Yet insofar as we are already caught up in a tribal drama, we are being buffetted around - we are ourselves reacting, rather than acting virtuously. Retrospectively, however, we can identify patience and tolerance as desirable, in the sense that it is good to act patiently and tolerantly in an abusive tribal situation. But we know that these are lesser goods - that it is better to avoid these situations in the first place (where we don't know that we have the strength to deal with them).

To help inform this issue, see Spinoza's Ethics, Part IV, Propositions 69-71. The Curley translation states these as:

P69: The virtue of a free man is seen to be as great in avoiding dangers as in overcoming them.

P70: A free man who lives among the ignorant strives, as far as he can, to avoid their favors.

P71: Only free men are very thankful to one another.

This last proposition is the one that elucidates the status of the tribal community. Insofar as people know why they network with each other, and act according to reason and virtue to secure their common advantage, this is a true community, and those within it are noble. But of the tribal community, the Scholium to P71 states in part:

"The thankfulness which men are led by blind desire to display toward one another is for the most part a business transaction or an entrapment, rather than thankfulness." (Penguin,1994)

7 Comments:

Blogger editor said...

While your focus on serious thought is admirable, it seems that you are addressing personal problems in very complex philosophical terms. I sense that a happier solution to these problems might be found in a more straightforward approach.

3:57 PM  
Blogger News is Good said...

Your argument is inadequate.

First, you set up an antagonism between 'personal problems' and 'philosophy'. Philosophy, as an academic area, is just as useful in dealing with why people might buy a newspaper for each other as much as understanding Descartes - which shows nothing other than you are making an assumption that the "personal is not philosophical". This is the same, in my understanding, in saying that we should not take the personal very seriously, we should not examine it and understand its causes and reasons and conclusions, our effects on ourselves and each other. To take this to the extreme, why not throw bricks out of windows if it makes you feel better? After all, there's no point understanding this in philosophical terms.

Your endorsement of a 'straightforward approach' is just as vaguely meaningless, showing nothing other than your own assumptions. Is philosophy not straightforward enough? And should we deal with personal problems 'straightforwardly'?

Let us imagine what 'straightforward' might mean. Let us say that it is 'to do what, on the face of it, appears best to us'. A world full of individuals who do this will, of course, be a nightmare. I would counsel you that thoughtfulness is an excellent barrier between oneself and wrongdoing. In fact, it seems straightforward to me to be thoughtful when dealing with personal issues... and to be thoughtful, I must explain, is to me to be explicitly philosophical.

Perhaps to be straightforward is to act on 'common sense', i.e. a shared appreciation of what is 'normal'. This just substitutes personal thoughtfulness for a herd instinct of what is right, which is demonstrably somewhat historically and culturally relative. For example, it may well be quite common-sensical now to use basic psychology when discussing a personal problem - motivation, evolved drives of behaviour, therapy, role-models and social learning etc. - when in the past, and in other countries, this would not be present.

It seems, then, that you are stating that 'straightforward' and 'philosophical' do not mix. However, you do not show why straightforwardness is different to philosophical - philosophy is not necessarily lacking the straightforward. In fact, it is often much more straightforward than common sense, because you know what you are doing and why, rather than relying on some shifting outside force of conformity to certain values.

You are also stating that to be straightforward is better than to be philosophical, without actually saying why. I hope that some of the examples above might make you question this.

8:20 PM  
Blogger editor said...

No I'm not saying that. I'm saying that in your case, the particular problems you are encountering, which are to do with how you relate to other people, might be better solved without recourse to various debates with the subject of philosophy. It is what you are attempting to do with philosophy which I think is unnecessarily complicated. Let's just leave philosophy to one side for a moment and let us know what happens in these encounters which cause you to be upset.

10:21 PM  
Blogger Atum said...

Hello editor. Just to be clear - the post is mine: News is just picking up on the issues with you.

That said, thanks for your comments.

On the style of my writing: I'll admit that it arises out of a recent situation I've been in, but rather than write for the sake of bellyaching I prefer to write something others can appreciate on their own terms.

A point of agreement with you, I think, is that the problem of how I relate to other people is an issue worth attention (though I would add that this is also your problem, and everyone's problem, and that this is why I write the way I do - I'm not really the focus of attention in these matters). I do think you're worrying, however, about my apparent strain and effort to attempt a rigorous solution, and that I'm abusing myself somewhat in the process. Perhaps I should explain this a little bit.

My current thought is bound up with the philosopher Spinoza, which you may have noticed from my - by now, annoyingly regular - references. My concern is with virtue ethics, which is often counterintuitive and surprising in its conclusions, so it would be hard for me - indeed, unnecessarily complex - to consider solutions that puport to be straightforward. I hope this makes some sense.

11:47 PM  
Blogger editor said...

As a test, have you not tried working through these problems without reference to Spinoza? I really think it is worth it. You could always go back to Spinoza if it doesn't work out. But the practice of thinking through problems in plain terms is actually good philosophical method. Then, later, you can compare and discuss these other issues in which you are interested. Only refering to your personal situation in oblique terms is not good method because, as with any academic writing, the terms must be clearly defined.

9:29 AM  
Blogger News is Good said...

Atum has said "My concern is with virtue ethics". You reply: "As a test, have you not tried working through these problems without reference to Spinoza?"

Again, you are in error due to ommission - what are 'these problems'? Are you even sure that Atum is writing about his problems? To me it seems that, while something has affected him recently, he wants to understand something greater than just his own experiences - he is not talking purely about 'what happened with my family'. In fact, he is talking about virtue ethics, which is exactly what he said. These fantastical 'personal problems' seem to be largely an invention.


Let me clarify what I mean in the context of the rest of your comment:
"Only refering to your personal situation in oblique terms is not good method because, as with any academic writing, the terms must be clearly defined."

Perhaps the post is not so much about Atum's 'personal situation' than how one academic philosopher can use Spinoza to explain one facet of human existence, one that Atum himself has recently experienced. Rather than him trying to use philosophy to resolve a personal situation, he is using a personal experience to examine a philosophy.

Conclusion: One can talk about 'experiences as problems' without 'having a problem' with them.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Atum said...

"As a test, have you not tried working through these problems without reference to Spinoza? I really think it is worth it. You could always go back to Spinoza if it doesn't work out."

As News points out, you're ignoring the fact that what is primary in an analysis of 'things that cause me to think' (I'll use this instead of 'problems') is HOW I think [apologies for capitals: never figured out how to italicise on this thing], and that how I think is dominated by philosophy. Currently I attempt to understand things with reference to Spinoza's Ethics, but this is because I am in agreement with Spinoza's system. It's not that it's below me, or something like this, to engage with 'things that...' on a down-to-earth level (whatever you're calling this - it's my experience that common sense is whatever a person wants it to be): I reject a common sense (analysis?!) of 'things...' because I am invested in philosophy, which I have cause and good reason to pursue. I simply have no motivation to invoke common sense, and 'try it' is just empty encouragement.

I'd like, though, if you're up for it (and you seem interested in how to deal with 'things...'), you to give an account of why:

"...the practice of thinking through problems in plain terms is actually good philosophical method."

Which I guess could begin with an account of how 'things...' can be seen as atomic (that is, singular, transparent) constituents of philsophical debate. Your words:

"Only refering to your personal situation in oblique terms is not good method because, as with any academic writing, the terms must be clearly defined."

Good luck!

11:05 AM  

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