These notes may help to explain my web pages!!!


1: what is ‘imagining other’?


                                                Back to index page for this website:          Imagining Other Index Page.


Other Links:                Imagining Other 2: New Ways of Seeing. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Imagining Other 3: alternatives.

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Notes on William Blake

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Books for Why 'Imagining Other'? 



A. Summary:             1. # Why 'imagining other'?

                                    2. # What is meant by 'imagining other'?


B. Further notes:      1. # Imagine! 1.1 # Creativity 1.2 # The social basis 1.3 # Imagination and the arts

                                    2. # 'Meaning' and imagining

                                    3. # Society

                                    4. # 'Other' (4.1 language 4.2 society. ‘Others’: 4.3 women; 4.4 race; 4.5 Jews; 4.6 stories/fairy tales/myths; 4.7 refugees)

                                    5. # Imagining other: two levels

                                    6. # Conclusion.


Other topics bookmarked:


#altruism        #Baggini, Julian       #Bloomfield (Leonard)        #Christakis and Fowler (‘Connected’)            #consumerism          #cynicism      #de Saussure          

#Earls, Mark (school of life)                       #empathy (and sympathy)             #epigenesis              #Foucault             #Hoggart, Richard               #nature or nurture, genes, IQ etc  #neuroplasticity       #Amos Oz            #populism    


A. Summary:

1. Why ‘Imagining Other?

Because I believe that we need to create another - and better - world. But we can only begin to do this if we use our imagination – to picture how things could be ‘other’.


I use the word ‘imagine’ deliberately (see below). Imagining is not ‘thinking’ but using a non-verbal skill we have to ‘picture’ new things.

This implies that thinking, or ‘reasoning’ alone is not enough to help us get beyond the existing state of affairs.

It is, of course, extremely difficult to ‘think differently’, to go against the ‘established paradigm’.  Foucault in particular showed how there is a web of ideas, assumptions, ‘discourse’ etc that surrounds us – and he called it ‘power’... As a teacher I wanted to use thinking and reasoning, of course, – but critically, to challenge existing ways of thinking and assumptions amongst my students. That is, I tried to escape from the straitjacket of the accepted (bureaucratic, hierarchical) thinking of the ‘powers that be’ by using a critical and interdisciplinary approach.

This is tricky – of course – for several reasons:

1.1 We are used to thinking in terms of isolated ‘disciplines’ such as: politics and political philosophy, economics, sociology, and business studies. Whilst all of these disciplines are represented in these notes, at the same time I see them as linked with each other [note (i) below].

 It has always been my view (and hence my career as a ‘liberal studies’ lecturer – see the notes on my biographical background) that these disciplinary boundaries stand in the way of any attempt to change the world. They do this because they underpin the power of the ‘intellectual’ specialists who are able to make decisions in their own sphere of interest without ‘outsiders’ understanding or interfering.

However, I want to see a world in which ordinary people collectively organise and manage their own lives – where we are not controlled and directed by a small powerful minority. Some would call this stance libertarian socialism (but perhaps such labels only get in the way!)

To take control over our lives we do need to understand the world around us, and I believe that we can all understand the world – society, economics, politics…


As Tom Paine [Political Philosophy notes on Paine] said, (of politics, but I believe this applies to all the ‘social sciences’): the science of government is “of all things the least mysterious and the most easy to understand”, but it has been “enveloped... [with] mystery, for the purpose of enslaving, plundering and imposing upon mankind”. 


            Note (i) – everything is inter-connected...

For example, ‘corporate social responsibility’ – as I treat it – involves an awareness of: the history of the development of business, an understanding of different perspectives on

economics, the phenomenon of power (a ‘political’ concept), the sociology of inequality, ethical notions of responsibility etc.


The study of the history of political thought should be – in its essence – ‘critical’ as it should raise questions about current regimes and ideologies, as well as examining notions of

justice’ ‘law’ ‘power’ and ‘the good’...


The study of social movements clearly involves a number of ‘disciplines’ – sociology and politics especially; whilst each social movement raises a specific set of issues that need

to be dealt with in their own terms (feminism, ecology, work, war etc). An article in New Left Review 108 (Nov/Dec 2017) demonstrates how in the 1960s the different strands were



1.2. Another difficulty in thinking ‘outside the box’ is due to the fact that we live in an age that is dominated by a belief in science, and although the best scientists acknowledge that their ‘knowledge’ is always provisional (until disproved) too many people have a simplistic, unquestioning view of scientific knowledge. For this kind of ‘believer’ science has found, or will find, the answer to everything. So long as they can quote a ‘scientist’ they believe there is no need for further discussion [note (ii) below].


This naivety only serves to reinforce the power of the already most influential – since their ‘authority’ is likely to go unchallenged. Of course, the most influential people will almost certainly have wealth behind them, and although science should be used to determine facts, too often it is twisted by vested interests – especially those of large corporations. The so-called differences of opinion over global warming are a powerful example of this. Global warming - causes and disputes.


I would also argue that most people have a very narrow view of what is meant by ‘reason’. This has been the case since the so-called Enlightenment, but it has been exacerbated recently by the neo-liberal agenda supported by the Thatcher/Reagan axis, and continued in this country by Tony Blair. This agenda is based on a particular view of human nature - the idea that we are all self-interested individuals trying to make rational calculations over what is best for us. This ideology of course only serves to reinforce the self-centred pursuit of wealth and power by those who already have more of both than the rest of us!! It also makes those who do not succeed blame themselves for not trying hard enough, rather than seeing the inbuilt limitations imposed by the economic system.


For more thoughts on science & reason see How enlightened was the 'Enlightenment'? Part 3 - science.


            Note (ii) Some scientists, we are told, deny climate change [notes here and here] – some deny we ever put a man on the moon!


2. What is meant by ‘imagining other’? Why ‘other’?


            = imagining “other” ideas, than the accepted “norm”…


            = imagining “other” ways of life than our individualistic, consumer-oriented society …


= imagining “other” ways of thinking than cynicism and selfishness, and the passivity that follows from these…


that is, imagining ideas, institutions and practises that liberate and empower. See: New Ways of Seeing and Alternatives.


B. Further notes:


1. Imagine!


I want to use the word imagine in a particular way - perhaps not the everyday usage.

I hope that these notes will go some way to explaining what I mean:


1.1 Creativity:


To imagine, in its most commonly used sense is: to form a picture or image of something; this is an act of creation.


            We can imagine things that do not exist (unicorns) or have not happened (the end of the world).

            We can conjure up in our presence things (or people!) that are not really there.

We can create images (symbols) that convey meanings beyond what they immediately represent (icons, flags, works of art, logos; but also words themselves: see below). 


1.2 The social basis of the imagination:


To imagine, in this sense, is to create, and imaginative creation is an essentially collective or social ability. Is it possible for me to imagine something that has meaning only to me? This is very unlikely, because the picture, words, symbol or whatever that I use has a meaning that society has given it – or if I am genuinely creating a new meaning, this will disappear with me unless I communicate it or share it with others.


I nearly said to create is an “essentially human” ability, but we do not know whether animals imagine in the way we do… and we have often found that what we thought was an exclusively human ability is also shared by animals! But we can be fairly sure that animals do not share their imaginary creations - nor act on them - in the way, or to the extent, that humans do. They do, of course, learn from each other – sparrows are more successful at the moment, because they flock together, and they share knowledge of how to retrieve food from bird-feeders; while tits are more solitary and as a consequence, it is believed, are not succeeding so well. (2017/18 RSPB bird survey).


Update (October 2016): in a book – ‘Are we Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? – Frans de Waal argues that some animals (e.g. capuchin monkeys) are ‘inequality averse’: if two are not rewarded in the same way for something they have done, then the one with the least good reward gets angry. ‘All human societies have the same moral basis’. (Matthew Cobb, reviewing this book Guardian Sat ct 8th 2016) Children are acutely averse to inequality – not just when it affects them negatively, but also displaying generosity toward the have-nots’. De Waal takes this insight back to German biologist Jacob von Uexcull, who argued that before we can understand an animal’s behaviour we have to understand its ‘Umwelt’ or ‘surrounding world’ – i.e. its ecology... An approach that is ‘holistic and empathetic’ contrasting strongly with the ‘arid dead end of BF Skinner’s behaviourism’. Has other interesting points e.g. about teaching – which humans do, but not (yet?!) animals (who watch and learn but do not actively teach each other).And touches on consciousness/self-consciousness (recognising oneself in a mirror).



Susan Greenfield, a scientist specialising in the brain, argues that what makes us human is not simply a desire for status, but the ‘expression of that status through symbols dependent on a cultural context, which is in turn dependent on a personalised, individual brain’ (New Statesman, 28th June – 4th July 2013). It seems to me that there are many other human traits or behaviours – fighting and loving for example! – that we carry out using symbols (flags – and flowers).


There are many ways in which we share and act on our imaginary constructs,


of which two are most basic, or fundamental:


            - meaning, or language, and


            - society, that is through social institutions – anything that is socially instituted (as Castoriadis would put it). An important aspect of this side of imagining is how we are encouraged by society to imagine others (see below)…


And, of course, these two - language and society - are inseparable. 


1.3 Isn’t imagination mainly to do with the arts?


The above argument might seem controversial, since it is more common to associate the imagination with the arts, or culture.

Of course these are manifestations of a particular kind of imagination, but I am arguing that there is a deeper level of imagination that underpins even art, literature, culture etc.


At the same time I believe that the experience of art, literature etc, is valuable, and does “exercise” our imagination. In particular, through the arts we get insights into other peoples’ ways of thinking and living. This, of course, means approaching the arts with a sense of seriousness and not simply as a form of entertainment!! As Jeanette Winterson said: “art asks people to be more than they are, better than they are; it asks for intensity, concentration and effort….”


I also like Daniel Barenboim’s account (Guardian 13.12.08) of the West-Eastern Divan orchestra, whose role is like that stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, endowed with reason and conscience, and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood…


“Music, unlike any other art or discipline, requires the ability to express oneself with absolute commitment and passion while listening carefully and sensitively to another voice which may even contradict one’s own statement. This is the essence of musical counterpoint… Without equality one cannot speak of dialogue but only of soliloquy… “


Barenboim is a United Nations Messenger of Peace…


“The human being does not want to be dependent, but knows that complete independence is unattainable; therefore the only constructive way of life is one of interdependence.”



2. “Meaning” and imagining:


When we give something (an object, a feeling, a person, a concept) a name, we use our collective imagination in choosing to identify that thing with a collection of sounds and/or visual symbols that become its name.  “A rose is a rose is a rose…” and, as Paul Ricoeur said: “The symbol sets us thinking.”


This is an act of the imagination, since in naming we are making a connection that is not “really” there - between the object and the name, between the object and the image (iii). I am largely following the ideas of Cornelius Castoriadis here. (** See the references and links below, on the work of Castoriadis)...


More recently, anthropologists have noted that there was a crucial stage in human evolution when the ability to symbolise arose – thus Lauren Laverne (in an article on the increasing power of Google to store and shape our collective memories) refers to refers to ‘symbolic capacity’ of humans which sounds to me very much like Castoriadis’s contention:




- in the text there is a reference to the radical anthropology group (Chris Knight, Nina Power – alongside whom I used to work at UEL!!): http://radicalanthropologygroup.org/pub_knight_power_watts_big.pdf


And in another article, a review of a book by an Israeli writer:


Harari organises humankind around four different milestones. About 70,000 years ago, the cognitive revolution kickstarted our history, and about 12,000 years ago the agricultural revolution speeded it up. Then came a long process of unifying mankind and colonising the Earth until, finally, the scientific revolution began about 500 years ago. It is still in progress and may yet finish us all off.

The first of these – the cognitive revolution – was the real game-changer; a genetic mutation that altered the inner wiring of Homo sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate in an altogether new type of language which could not only convey information but also create imagined worlds. It was this ability to forge common myths that enabled H sapiens to cooperate flexibly in large numbers, and thus to see off rivals such as the Neanderthals, wipe out hostile animals and cultivate crops. Similarly, says Harari, it was by building pyramids – in the mind as much as on the ground; imagined orders and hierarchies – that humanity advanced.

The philosophy that emerges, however, is not what you’d necessarily expect from an Israeli with a background in medieval military history. History, for Harari, is largely made up of accidents; and his real theme is the price that the planet and its other inhabitants have paid for humankind’s triumphant progress. There are indicators of this in an elegiac passage on the destruction of the megafauna of Australasia and South America and a rapturous account of the life of Buddha, but it is only when he reaches the modern era that Harari brings his own views to the fore. He sees modern agriculture’s treatment of animals as one of the worst crimes in history, doubts whether our extraordinary material advances have made us any happier than we were in the past, and regards modern capitalism as an ugly prison. What is more, current developments in biology may soon lead to the replacement of H sapiens by completely different beings, enjoying godlike qualities and abilities.

Another aspect of this phenomenon/ability (to symbolise) is that whilst there is a real thing there, (and a real name) the connection or association between the thing and its name is arbitrary (“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”). This is a point made by linguists such as de Saussure and Leonard Bloomfield. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structural_linguistics


Once we have named things we can share our understanding of them. (If I have a name for something that no-one else knows or uses, how can I talk to anyone else about it?).  We can then act together, or not, as we choose (“global warming”).


Note (iii) It is interesting that the concept of ‘metaphor’ is being used to understand how the internet works and the effects it is having on society (see John Naughton in the Observer Discover pages – e.g. 14th July 2013. A metaphor is yet another example of the way that two things are ‘brought together’ in a comparison that brings out some common aspect or similarity between them. What is meant by a ‘firewall’ in computing, in relation to the Chinese government’s attempts to control the internet? John Naughton asks. And he suggests that perhaps the metaphor of ‘waterworks’ applies better!



The importance of ‘conceptual metaphors’ is explored by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in Metaphors We Live By (1980) – these are ‘pre-linguistic’ such as the idea that one ‘explodes’ with anger, or that whatever is ‘ up’ is good and whatever is ‘down’ is bad... Metaphors like these – and those used in speeches etc – affect how we do things (says Sarah Bakewell, author of How to Live, a Life of Montaigne, in Guardian (7th Sep) p 54).


3. Society:


As we build up communities of shared meanings - using language - we create societies. Since we are so deeply involved in our society (*), and since we have no clear picture of how it came about, in all its complexity and richness, we tend to think of it as “natural” or “God-given” or the “product of history” – but it is none of these, it is our creation. In Castoriadis’s terminology we have ‘instituted’ it – society is an ‘institution’… This means, firstly, that we made it, and we can change it. We can change it all, or part of it.


Mark Earls, of the School of Life, argues that we are the social ape, we live in groups, and we use each other’s brains to navigate the world – we call this ‘culture’. What people around us do shapes what we do – as Christakis and Fowler show in ‘Connected’... if a friend gains weight, or takes up smoking (!), I am more likely to do so. This works, they say, across a number of steps of connection. See www.theschooloflife.com 


Therefore we can create another society. Other people have (already) created other societies. Change is possible.


However, again, the basic problem, and what leads us away from this realisation of our own responsibility and power, is our tendency to see the ‘institution’ that we have created (religion, the law, the state, custom/tradition etc) as something ‘given’, something ‘natural’, and therefore something that ‘determines’ how we live (and think!).


Deterministic views and theories take many forms:

- much religious thinking (we cannot avoid ‘sin’),

- Marxism (in many of its incarnations... despite the fact that Marx argued that we are most human and most fulfilled, when we are free to create, and that we need to in control of the things we have created: this is ‘communism’),

- and surely there is something deterministic (or fatalistic) in neo-liberalism (the market cannot be regulated – a view which tends to go with the statement that it should not be regulated).


I reject determinism, since it works against our ability to free ourselves.


Moreover, contrary to Julian Baggini [see below, #note (v)], I would say that cynicism also is a kind of determinism (or fatalism) – if you expect nothing better, how will you ever get anything better?


Finally, it is important to stress that these (social) institutions do not control us by themselves, but that some people (politicians, religious leaders, bureaucrats...) will use the fact that it is easy to convince us that these institutions are out of our control in order to hide the reality that they themselves are in control!!


(Or are they? Existentialists, drawing on Hegel, have argued that neither the master nor the servant is free...)


It is easy to come to feel that once a society, or an event, or history, is imagined in a certain way then it is very difficult to change it... However, see Fintan O’Toole’s piece in Guardian 1st Feb 2016. The Easter Rising has been interpreted in any ways, and has become an idea that violent minorities can seize on to fight against existing power structures. But it was also a struggle for a republic of equal citizens.  Like the way we re-imagine a work of art, the social imaginary can be changed too.


4. Other…


4.1 Language as a social/shared phenomenon:

“No man is an island, sufficient unto himself”… The existence of language indicates shared understanding – when I speak or write in English, other English speakers will (hopefully!) understand. Of course, many societies use more than one language; but the point remains, as pointed out above, that language is a social phenomenon.


Societies, then, are formed on the basis of shared understanding and co-operation – though of course there may also be conflict! Each individual acknowledges the existence of others and, consciously or not, acts as part of a collective. The collective protects the individual, and we can go further: without conscious and deliberate co-operation with others we would not have survived as a species. (See my notes on Kropotkin).


4.2 The other as a threat:

Yet, for some people some of the time, others seem to be a threat or a danger. Many - perhaps all - of the conflicts between people (especially within and between societies and nations) necessitate some people seeing others as so different and distinct from themselves that they must control or exploit, remove or destroy these “others”.


A recent book that warns of the danger of this, when politicians indulge in ‘populism’ is: Twenty-First Century Populism, edited by Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonell – populism, they say, appeals to voters because it ‘pits a virtuous and homogenous people against ... ‘dangerous others’ who together are depicted as depriving the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice.’ The Observer cited this in its editorial (31st March 2013) in response to Cameron’s xenophobic remarks about immigrants... Update: the pro Brexit referendum is populist in this sense – and frightening! Further (post-referendum) update: the country has voted for Brexit – and I for one feel that what carried the most weight in the arguments leading up to the vote was fear over immigration...


Sub-groups who become the ‘other’: Charles Shaar Murray (former NME journalist) also writes about this (Guardian 05.04.13) and ‘hate crime’ – quoting Frank Zappa’s late 1960s song: “We are the other people”... at the time, supporters of the Vietnam war “routinely repressed and intimidated [...] war protesters, radicals and the visibly identifiable cultural dissidents then classified as ‘freaks’ or ‘hippies.’” In Britain today Goths and emos are attacked (a goth teenager Sophie Lancaster was murdered recently). The real issue is how governments in trouble and their media allies focus discontent onto ‘others’ who become convenient scapegoats – while trying to convince us that we are part of the same ‘us’ as the government and its media supporters. Murray describes the “backdrop of a government whose entire domestic policy represents one monumental hate crime against the most vulnerable members of an increasingly fractured and unstable society.” And he says “the day we collectively realise how many of us are now the other people will be the day that we start the journey towards rendering the very notion of hate crime obsolete.”






There are many examples of groups becoming ‘other’ – and much that could be said about each... Here is just a sample, with little further comment:


4.3 Women:

As Simone de Beauvoir pointed out: to most men, “women” are the “other” – with the consequence that they are not accorded the same status or respect.

(See my notes on Simone de Beauvoir: Political Philosophy part 21 - feminism also the notes on Fritjof Capra at Imagining Other 2: New Ways of Seeing).  


4.4 Race:

In race conflict, another race is seen as a threat or an obstacle to one race’s happiness, or even to its survival. As Amos Oz argues: to Israelis, Arabs are the “other”.  Toni Morrison (Guardian Sat Oct 21st 2017) has written: ‘Narrative fiction provides a controlled wilderness, an opportunity to be and become the Other. The Stranger. With sympathy, clarity, and the risk of self-examination.’ (The reader may, or may not, embark on self-examination as a result f becoming the Other...) 


4.5 Jews:

For the Nazis, Jews - as a category - were “the other.” And this enabled the Nazis to cease to regard them as even human… (See notes on David Grossman at Imagining Other 2: New Ways of Seeing).


4.6 Stories (fairy tales, myths) and ‘othering’:

A theatre piece at the Edinburgh Festival 2016 deals with the Cechen attack on a school in Beslan in 2004.  By presenting two children’s views of what happened, the play (Lyn Gardner says in the Guardian 10th August 2016) ‘makes you question the way such events are usually presented and the way myths are constructed... The show equates the children’s fairytales with the tales that adults tell about the real world; the stories that stoke division.’  Hence the title of the play: Us/Them. 


I like the comment by Laura Jane Grace, transgender member  of punk band Against Mel – when she realised Donald Trump had become President of the US – ‘’I wrote about the election mainly. Writing is the radical act of not losing hope.’ (Guardian Guide 9th Dec 2016). [I often think this when I try to write poetry... it’s often an expression of hope, sometimes for the impossible!!!]


There was also a piece in Saturday Dec 3rd Guardian on writing: Amanda Michalopoulou says that ‘In an era of fear and division, fiction plays a vital role in dramatising difference and encouraging empathy.’ ‘Nothing that is human is foreign to literature’. ‘Fiction teaches us to think creatively about difference’ and  ‘...the more education falls into decline because of a lack of imagination (not to mention funds) the more literature is called upon to serve as another form of education.’ ‘When we read the emblematic works of the European tradition we begin to trace the outlines of a coded, radical understanding of the other. Unconsciously we begin to accept that the other is always a mystery and that easy characterisations lead nowhere.’


4.7 Refugees/migrants:

In the last few years (writing in 2016), the world has seen the worst refugee crisis since the second world war. Europe has not responded well – although Germany, under Angela Merkel’s leadership, has tried to make refugees welcome, the UK has allowed the narrative to be dominated by such as UKIP, especially in the referendum on Europe.


Australia has also come into the limelight, although their ‘problem’ has existed for a good many years. A batch of official files has been leaked from Nauru, one of the offshore ‘processing centres’ the Australians have as a way of removing the ‘problem’ from their own territory. The files reveal a huge amount of abuse – especially of children – and conditions that are appalling. Here is a link to a piece that gives a succinct overview:



5. Two ‘levels’ to imagining other…


5.1 At the first level: empathy, altruism...


5.1.1 Imagining (again).


At this point I do not want to try to go further into all this question of “the other”. I simply want to argue that we can only break down the barriers between people and their “others” if we can encourage the use of the imagination. 


            What would it be like to be that other person?


5.1.2 The main barriers to being able to do this are:  consumerism, individualism...


The modern materially-driven, consumerist, and individualistic world stops most people from actually asking themselves to use their imagination at all (as Grossman points out in his writing).


Richard Hoggart pointed out half a century ago, in Uses of Literacy, how the old working-class culture with its sense of “decency” (which implies an imaginative sensitivity to the effect of one’s behaviour on others, as well as “standards” or shared values) has been eroded and replaced with a “mass” culture. Hoggart’s basic argument, in The Uses of Literacy was that ‘thraldom at the hands of the Means Test and the Public Assistance Committee was about to give way to thraldom at the hands of mass entertainment’ – as DJ Taylor puts it. It seems to me that nearly all “culture” has in fact now been replaced with “mass entertainment”! (See Saturday Guardian, 24.02.07, DJ Taylor on Hoggart as “Working class hero”). See:



Despite the abundance of communications media, bringing us so many images and sounds, it has all become a spectacle, for our passive entertainment.


Choice (once a key issue for existentialists) is reduced to a question of consumption and “life-style” and not of values.


We are urged to ask what we would do with our Lottery winnings, not:


            How would I live on $1 each day, as millions do?


We are encouraged to be “trendy”, “Fashionable” etc, not to ask:


            Can I [a white male in an advanced society] imagine what it would be like to be someone else, somewhere else [a woman, or black, or a refugee….]?


We spend (collectively!) millions of hours watching listening to and thinking about “celebrities” – I guess we are supposed to envy these people? After all, although the aim of a consumer society is to make us all feel satisfied by buying things, at the same time we have to be convinced that we could have more. We must be dissatisfied – and temporarily satisfied at the same time. (See my notes on John Berger, in: The Consumer).


5.1.3 Sympathy, empathy...


But I am not pessimistic: interestingly, Adam Smith (economist who laid down the rules for a market economy!) argued (and I agree!) that we all have the ability to “sympathise” – to imagine how another feels (whether they are happy or sad, etc). Notes on Adam Smith are at: How enlightened was the 'Enlightenment'? part 6 - Adam Smith. Smith’s views on ‘human nature’ are compared with those of Rousseau and Kant at: How enlightened... part 6 - Smith, Rousseau, Kant.


I am also impressed by the Buddhist approach to empathy – through an awareness that we all live in a condition that is insecure and challenging, we need to have compassion both for ourselves and for others. Matthieu Ricard is a powerful exponent of this: www.matthieuricard.org/en/


June 24th 2013: Mary Robinson on what makes us human:



Update October 2016: Rafael Behr in Guardian Weds 12th Oct describes an experiment: imagine a scene in which a man stands in front of two haystacks; an assailant appears (an ape or a man in an ape costume) and the first man hides behind one of the haystacks, in full view of the assailant. When the assailant goes off to get a stick, the man hides behind the other haystack. When the assailant returns, an adult observer knows that he thinks the man is behind the first haystack, but children up to age five impose their knowledge on the assailant (i.e. don’t realise he doesn’t know what they know).  This ability to empathise is a result of our being social – needing to be able to know what another thinks. (Some other primates can also do this...)


Update, January 2013: The Observer ran an excellent article on ‘empathy’ by Mark Honigsbaum, citing Adam Smith but also exploring what some modern neuroscientists tell us:



This article raises a host of issues, and includes some fascinating information – for example, that rats will open a cage with another rat in it even if they gain no reward; that when Buddhists meditate their levels of empathy are increased... However, the main point I would draw from it is that ‘empathy’ (in the sense that Adam Smith used the idea of ‘moral sentiment’) has two components: an ability to imagine what another feels; and a sense of morality, fairness or ‘right and wrong’. This is borne out by the article’s discussion of psychopaths and people with autism: the former may identify what another feels, but not care about it; the latter may not understand at first what another feels, but can come to understand and then feel strongly (sympathise?).


It is also argued, in a recent book on autism (The reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida, trans. K.A. Yoshida and David Mitchell (Sceptre 2013) is written by an autistic young man, and explores the apparent absence of empathy in autistic people.), that autistic people do have the same feelings as the rest of us, but they lack the ability, the language, to communicate what they feel.


I believe that the capacity for empathy – or moral sympathy – is a basic human trait (and it seems it is shared by some animals...). I would go so far as to say that it aids our survival as a species, since it leads to justice and co-operation.


This idea was explored by Kropotkin (see Kropotkin and Anarchism)… It forms the basis of an anarchist ethics.


Simon Baron-Cohen: Zero Degrees of Empathy (Penguin). Empathy is always a leap of the imagination (says psychologist Dorothy Rowe, reviewing Baron-Cohen’s book, Saturday Guardian 26.05.12) since we have no way of knowing precisely what other people think or feel – our guesses come from our experience, but no two people have the same experience... so we have to imagine what that might be. Baron-Cohen (expert on autism) believes that empathy can be taught, and it is ‘like a universal solvent’ the way to resolve all interpersonal problems.’ Rowe has spent decades trying to get those who are not sympathetic to people with mental health problems to be empathetic – we are always more than our miseries.


Our natural instinct for altruism: Graham Music (consultant child and adolescent psychotherapist at the Tavistock and Portman clinics in London) has written a book: The Good Life: Wellbeing and the New Science of Altruism, Selfishness and Immorality, in which he argues that our culture – and especially the rewarding of altruistic acts extrinsically (which undermines our natural intrinsic pleasure at doing things for others) – is making us more selfish cold-hearted and mean. ‘A very monetised western world is going to make us more and more lose touch with our social obligations.’ http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/may/04/how-babies-turn-into-selfish-monsters


Tanya Gold (Guardian 7th May) quotes more points: ‘The higher up the social class ranking people are, the less pro-social, charitable and empathetically they behaved... consistently those who were less rich showed more empathy and more of a wish to help others.’ And: ‘Those with more materialistic values consistently have worse relationships, with more conflict... This is significant if the perceived shift towards more materialistic values in the west is accurate.’


Tanya Gold also points out (based on work by Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College Illinois), that if you love material objects you are less likely to love people and the planet.


See also: new ways of seeing #babies (how babies become selfish). 


5.2 At a higher (societal/global) level:


However, imagining what it feels like to be exploited or abused or discriminated against is one thing: imagining that things could be different, and that exploitation, abuse and discrimination could be removed, is another. This is where the very first point made above comes in: the societies we live in are our creation and we can change them. 


5.3 There are many theories, and points of view, that discourage us from feeling able to change ourselves and the world:


5.3.1 Cynicism.


This is where I take a stand against cynicism: too often nowadays people feel that there is no point in trying to change anything. Those who try to do something are often attacked – for example by being accused of “hypocrisy”. As Mark Lynas points out, (Guardian G2 01.03.07) Al Gore was picked on for taking a number of flights to promote the idea that we should fly less! Opponents can undermine your message this way, by making you look ridiculous. But “at a deeper level, the effects of this blame game can be even more damaging… [since] each time a potential “green hero” is shot down in flames, we all feel a little bit more cynical about politicians, leaders and society in general. Cynicism breeds selfishness and a de facto acceptance of the status quo – no cynic ever led a movement for positive social change.” (v)


I agree with Lynas that Gore was justified in flying round the world since he has shifted public opinion – and the potential savings in greenhouse gasses should easily outweigh his own contribution!  I like Lynas’s further point, that if you as a campaigner are “totally pure and virtuous, then that is seen as just annoying.” We can’t win!


The philosopher Julian Baggini has come out in favour of cynicism... http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jul/10/in-praise-of-cynicism. However, I think his argument is weak and woolly!!


For a start, he takes what seems to me to be a very narrow definition of a cynic (from the Oxford Dictionary): ‘distrustful or incredulous of human goodness and sincerity’ – and then says ‘what’s not to love about that?’ After all, a certain amount of cynicism is needed for satire and critical, investigative journalism. And of course, if we all trusted all people all the time, those who want to manipulate us would be free to do so.


Now I may not be much of a philosopher, but there is surely a difference between being ‘distrustful or incredulous’ of all people all of the time and having ‘a certain amount of’ distrustfulness etc!? And it is absurd to suggest that anyone would never have any inkling of doubt about anyone else’s motives!


In response to the accusation that cynicism leads to pessimism he admits that there are ‘lazy’ forms of cynicism where this happens - so, again, we are not talking about cynicism per se, but about varieties and shades of mistrust etc. And of course, as he goes on, we need to be ‘realistic’ – and we find that his argument is in fact about excessive pessimism or optimism, not about (‘pure’?) cynicism. And cynics are realists... so why use the word cynic in the first place? Oh but cynics reject the idea that there are only two poles, optimism and pessimism (how clever they are!).


He then has a go at Elaine Fox, whose studies in neuroscience suggest (he says) that our tendency to make optimistic or pessimistic judgements comes from our DNA shaped by our experience. I fail to see what he is getting at: where else can our temperaments come from than a mix of genes and experience? Fox is not arguing that our thoughts and beliefs are a product of brain chemistry – if she were, she would be the determinist. And to say that our observations of the world (negative or positive) might be rational and shouldn’t be just dismissed is beside the point. How do we know when our reactions are not realistic? Neuroscientists, as I understand it, are simply looking for patterns of reaction – and if someone is always negative, they might want to have the chance to change their reactions...


Enough, already! Baggini concludes by – again – advocating realism and being critical. (There’s a whole school of philosophy called critical philosophy he might like to look at!) And he concludes in defence of ‘intelligent cynicism’. If he’d started the article this way he might have convinced me of something!!!


5.3.2 The Hidden Persuaders.


Of course, advertising, marketing and branding are powerful influences on our behaviour. What makes me angry about them all is their method of working on us at a sub-conscious level. My chapter The Consumer (in my corporate social responsibility notes) discusses this further, and has useful references.


5.4 On the other hand, some recently developed theories lend weight to the idea that we can change (change ourselves, and hence our beliefs and practices).


5.4.1 A relevant debate is over whether/how much we are determined by our genes. Although it might seem a tangential debate, I believe it is very important and have included it here.

The ‘nature or nurture’ argument has been going on for a long time... Clearly, if we are shaped by our genes then there is little we can do to change ourselves – whereas if it is the environment that plays the major part in making us what we are, then something can be done about that environment (up to a point!)


Dec 2003: There are disputes over the role of the environment in relation to genes. The professor of molecular biology Johnjoe McFadden as written a book and a number of articles on ‘system biology’ – the argument that our genes operate within a larger system (both the cell and the body), and there are hardly any genes with a single function:



Jan 2010: Here is Oliver James, in an article entitled ‘Nature v nurture – what are the latest genetic findings?’



As scientists are learning more about the human genome, the emphasis is now on what traits (if any!) genes affect or determine.


Aug. 2012: Tim Spector’s new book ‘Identically different: Why You Can Change Your Genes’ sounds fascinating (review by Peter Forbes, Saturday Guardian review section) – the old nature/nurture argument is superceded, and genetic determinism is out of date, since we now know that only a small proportion of genes (about 2% of the genome) are ‘for something’ – ‘gene expression’ is the term for how the genes produce proteins primarily, and thence the phenotype (I looked this up online); only a very few ‘single-gene disorders’ exist (e.g. muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis) and ‘the genetic component of some multi-factorial diseases is exceptionally low’; and as Ken Weller used to say (perhaps he still does!) “It’s more complicated than that!” Spector claims that ‘personal experience can change our genes’ but also (more controversially) that genetic acquired characteristics can be inherited, although the characteristics only last a few generations. All this is down to epigenetics...



Sep 2014: Here is a link to an article on epigenetics which is the theory that our genes are shaped by our experience...



– and the experience of one individual can be passed on to their offspring...  when acquired characteristics are inherited, this must be through genes being switched on or off, without altering the sequence – as I understand it, (drawing on the Wikipedia link in this article).


June 2016: Steven Shapin reviews a new book: The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Guardian Saturday 28th May – Review p 7). Genes are not us – they respond to both the internal and the external environment. ‘The scientific jury is still out on the various versions of epigenesis.... [but] It would be as foolish to deny what our genes do as it would be to assert the sufficiency of our genes in making us who we are.’


Steve Jones also reviewed Mukherjee’s book (New Statesman 17 – 23 June 2016): ‘The term [epigenetics] was coined by one of my own teachers at Edinburgh, C.H. Waddington... He found that a sudden heat shock to the embryos [of fruit flies] led to the appearance of a few flies with abnormal wings among the adults. By breeding from these, he could obtain stocks that in time produced such flies with no need for a shock, proof that environmental stress could uncover hidden genetic variation (*). Unfortunately, the term has been hijacked and turned into a universal bridge between chemistry and biology. It is even used to revive the discredited idea that an organism can pass on characteristics acquired in its own lifetime.

That bridge goes too far. The idea that genes respond to external stresses can be traced to the first days of molecular genetics...  Quite why there has been such a fuss about a concept invented 70 years ago is not clear and is made no clearer here [in Mukherjee’s book].’


May 2017: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/may/22/scientists-uncover-40-genes-iq-einstein-genius By Ian Sample, on a study by Professor Danielle Posthuma, a statistical geneticist at the Free University of Amsterdam, who led the study published in Nature Genetics. This is specifically dealing with genes and intelligence


Crucial points here:

“It is thought that hundreds, if not thousands, of genes play a role in human intelligence, with most contributing only a minuscule amount to a person’s cognitive prowess. The vast majority have yet to be found, and those that have do not have a huge impact. Taken together, all of the genes identified in the latest study explain only about 5% of the variation in people’s IQs, the scientists found...

Eventually, the work may reach a point where the genomes of IVF embryos could be used to rank them according to their intellectual potential, even if the difference is so small as to be insignificant...

“Maybe one day we can say that based on your genetic makeup, it could be easier for you to use this strategy rather than that one to learn this task. But that’s still very far off,” she said. “I don’t think what’s written in our genes determines our lives.”


April 2018: an article in New Statesman, by Philip Ball, has revived the old nature/nurture argument:



I found this article utterly confusing!  Here is my letter in reply Letter


Here is a link to the Guardian’s editorial (!) on this, which seems much more sensible:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/01/the-guardian-view-on-intelligence-genes-going-beyond-the-evidence Extracts:

Robert Plomin, a psychologist at King’s College London. His latest paper claimed “differences in exam performance between pupils attending selective and non-selective schools mirror the genetic differences between them”. With such a billing the work was predictably greeted by a raft of absurd claims about “genetics determining academic success”. What the research revealed was the rather less surprising result: the educational benefits of selective schools largely disappear once pupils’ innate ability and socio-economic background were taken into account. It is a glimpse of the blindingly obvious – and there’s nothing to back strongly either a hereditary or environmental argument.

Shades of the Bell Curve!!

At best there is a weak statistical association and not a causal link between DNA and intelligence. Yet sophisticated statistics are used to create an intimidatory atmosphere of scientific certitude.

if genetic testing forewarned us of our fates; would the load be shared differently? Almost certainly so – and to the detriment of the poor. If intelligence is largely inherited and the reason for failure then attempts to remedy it are doomed. This is what is so pernicious and incendiary about these ideas: they conceal a tendentious opinion about compensatory social programmes


January 2015. A new theory: neuroplasticity: here is a book review by Jonathan Ree, of The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge:



But note that Ree is critical, saying: ‘the neuroplastic revolution is part of a contemporary stampede towards the moralization of medicine: patients are encouraged to blame themselves for their sufferings, and to think that their chances of recovery depend not on the luck or good judgement of their doctors, but on their own will power.’


Ree has a point about the excessive emphasis on the individual’s supposed ability to be ‘whatever they want’ – but I think this criticism of neuroplasticity is unfair, since the processes that have led – according to Doidge – to remarkable changes in peoples’ brains are not quick and simple, but require a lot of time, and, it seems, guidance...


6. Conclusion:


So, by imagining other:


We can change the way we think:


Consider how beliefs and attitudes have changed (in a positive direction) over time (but note: I am not suggesting that all we have to do is to think differently! Obviously many - though not, as some Marxists would argue, all - changes in thought came about as a result of changes in circumstances):


* women, and children have, at least in theory, “rights” that at one time they never had. Much of political history and philosophy ignored women (see my notes: Political philosophy part 21 - feminism) – but this has now changed, as far as philosophy goes, though women are still far from fully engaged in politics.


* language has changed: abusive terms such as nigger are no longer the accepted currency; and, despite the myths put about (by those who really want to stop political correctness), most people are sensitive nowadays to how the use of language can be hurtful


* there have always been “dreamers.” Many social experiments with greater democracy, the abolition of money, or of the family, may have been short-lived: and yet there are still dreamers, still experiments, and there is still hope – see for example: 'imagining other' part 2 - new ways of seeing.


And, things can be other!  


*Despite their many shortcomings, democracies are a step forward compared to ancient tyrannies, and ongoing practical international co-operation in the shape of the United Nations would have been thought of as utopian a couple of hundred years ago


            *the rules of war are often honoured in the breach, but there are such rules, and we are beginning to find ways of subjecting war criminals to legal process


            *throughout the world there are countless radical and progressive social movements and groupings pressing for a better world

- see for example: 'imagining other' part 3 - alternatives.


But, what kind of “other”?


The final point to make is that if we accept the above, then only in a world in which people are free to use their imagination, and free to act collectively to construct the kind of world they want, would we be free of exploitation, abuse, discrimination, poverty and suffering.


So we can go on as now:


*we can continue to tolerate “fundamentalist” attitudes that say “my beliefs are the truth, yours are wrong and/or evil, and you must either change your views or be eradicated”…. And then, of course, many of us will continue to live in fear of persecution and death. 


*we can continue to allow powerful minorities to impose their “realities” on us – spin-doctors, public relations experts, corporate marketing manipulators, authoritarian experts who do not give us the information we need to argue against their so-called knowledge… And we will go on doing just what benefits the powerful rather than what benefits us.


*we can be fatalistic, and opt out of it all, saying: “I can’t change anything…” And nothing will change: millions will continue to die of hunger, whole categories of people will be denied their rights as human beings, wars will continue to claim thousands of lives every day, the rich will get richer (since they don’t believe they can do nothing!) and the poor poorer, and quite possibly global warming will make the world uninhabitable in large parts – who knows, the human species may even disappear! 



* we can remember Martin Luther King’s words about the civil rights movement: “We all have a task to do and let us do it with a sense of divine dissatisfaction. Let us be divinely dissatisfied as long as we have a wealth of creeds and a poverty of deeds.” And Clarence Page (American journalist on the Chicago Tribune), looking back on the civil rights movement, added: “We may never achieve a perfect world, [King] told us, but we must never stop trying.”


The choice is ours.



(**) Note: I owe a debt to the late Cornelius Castoriadis for “sparking off” some of the above ideas – see:


-  my essay on Castoriadis:  Recommencing Revolution

-  and the informative website: www.agorainternational.org 


see also:

-  Biographical Background to the author of these pages


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