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Transcripts of some of the discussions on CYC-Net's email discussion group

Question of tautology in CYC


A discussion that followed from the publication of Hans Skott-Myhre's article in CYC-Online December 2014 which can be viewed here.

Hello Hans,

In response to your article published in CYC-Net titled The Question of Tautology in CYC, although an interesting premise, I believe that your philosophical stance with regard to the notion of circular logic or generally accepted premises does not take into account the issue of safety and protection of children.

To clarify, if we were to completely abandon the notion of tautology with regards to accepted basic premises like the fact that we as adults have more power over children and should therefore protect them, then I ask you, how are we to protect them? In addition, if you were to argue that the notion of adults having power over children is an incorrect assumption, then I would suggest to you that your argument would be flawed because children are reliant on adults for their survival. Some could argue (and I am sure you might), that the notion of childhood is a myth, but the fact is, children are physically and financially reliant on adults, and this very fact in itself, creates a period or measure of time that is conveniently labelled childhood. I believe that we try to label or categorise and build basic premises to enable us to make sense of the world around us, and if there are no real accepted truths (as you suggest), and there cannot be any absolutes, then our existence is pointless. Perhaps you may respond that what I am suggesting is typically human and therefore ego-centric, but I am not suggesting that humans are better or worse, simply that “truths” in all realms of life, be it the truth of honey bees communicating with one another in a sophisticated ritualistic dance about time, distance and travel or be it the truth that children are reliant upon adults, do exist.

Furthermore, you write that the idea of the Anthropocene is driven by tautological reasoning and imply that the Anthropocene movement sprang from egocentric tautological ideas. I disagree. I believe that movements like the Anthropocene movement sprang from a true desire to try to “fix” the mess we have made. I have watched numerous presentations by a variety of different scholars from different backgrounds; presenting their different perspectives on the subject of the Anthropocene, and reading your thoughts on the subject, painted a very negative and dark view of the nature of man. Unfortunately, the whole issue of the Anthropocene movement has been muddied by a loss of focus because some scholars are dividing into different camps by questioning the motives and thinking of those involved in exploring the notion of the Anthropocene. I think that if one simply watches the introductory video about the Anthropocene movement (and I am not suggesting that this is what you did), and then forms conclusions about this movement, it could be argued that there is a tautological premise to the video because it does tend to put “man” at the centre as being the only influential organism; this is unfortunate because it is a big “turn off” for a lot of people, but it is just a video, and the subject of the Anthropocene is much bigger than the simple introductory video. If we radicalise the talk about the Anthropocene, and create enough division, nothing productive will come out of all this debate and speculation, and after all, what is all this debate about, if not to produce something or try to move forward in one way or the other.

Anyway, just a few thoughts. Hopefully more will chime in and we can start a conversation!

All the best,

Delphine Amer

Hi Delphine,

Thanks so much for your thoughtful response to my article. You are correct that my article did not address issues of safety and protection. However, this is not because the line of thought I outlined could not encompass these issues. It was simply that this wasn't the focus of the piece. Thanks for the opportunity to think with you about these concerns.
Let me start with your correct assertion that many of our basic premises in CYC are indeed tautological. By this I mean that they are internally self confirming in the manner I described in the article. This includes, as you point out your assertion about power relations between adults and young people and the question of protection and safety. While this is indeed one way to think about our role as adults vis a vis children, it is not the only way we could conceive of the relation between power, hierarchy, protection and hierarchy. I would certainly not argue that adults do not exercise power over children. Nor would I argue that children are not, to varying degrees at various ages more or less dependent upon adults for their survival. However, I would argue that these sets of relations are not unique to adults and children. In fact we are all engaged in some form of power relation with others upon whom we depend, from governments to corporations to friends and co-workers and so on. These power relations most often have some promise of safety related to our ability to survive. This is why we subject ourselves to the state with its police and military and to the corporation for food, shelter and so on. Indeed, the tautological relation of power, safety and survival is a ubiquitous logic that permeates the logic of our current historical moment.

The problem with such logics, in my opinion is that there is no reason to think that 1) there is any relationship between exercising power over someone and safety and 2) that these relations actually end up providing the safety promised. If adults having power over children, the state having power over citizens, and corporations having power over life sustenance actually functioned we would all live lives of safety and our survival would be assured. in fact the obverse is true. Indeed, I would argue that safety and security are best sustained through seeking out our common interests without regard to hierarchy and putting the varying capacities we all have (including both children and adults) to work cooperatively in the service of the survival of all. I have written extensively on this and so won't belabor the point here.
As regards your point about not having any accepted truths leading to a meaningless existence. I never meant to say we shouldn't have any accepted truths. Simply that such understandings should be interrogated regularly to see if they still function. In my view, accepted truths are habits of thought and like all habits serve certain purposes to the degree they allow us to perform daily tasks without having to think about everything we do. The problem is that some habits either never really worked or have ceased to serve our needs. We are familiar with this in our daily habits and I would suggest we should similarly examine our social and cultural habits as well. Contrary to the belief that this would lead to a life without meaning, I would argue that it leads to a life rich with an ever shifting tapestry of meaning.

You also seem to conflate absolutes of thought with being human. While humans (I am using a habit of thought—human—for convenience sake here) do have the capacity for producing absolute beliefs, they also have a rich history of producing an ever proliferating field of diverse thought and belief. It my opinion, this is one of the admirable things those beings called human do (although as I implied in the article, I am not so sure we are the only species capable of doing this). You also mention absolute belief as ego-centric and relate this to being human. This is much too complicated to go into here but the concept of an ego or even an individual self is not an absolute truth but a fairly recent historical convention developed in Europe sometime around the time of renaissance. As such it emerges at the same time as the concept of the human with similar power implications and political projects. The capacity to conceive of absolute belief precedes these thought habits by millennia and so I don't think there is any direct relation.

Finally, I agree that the anthropocene was an effort to solve certain historical problems. I never intended to say that it was ego-centric. Indeed, as I mentioned above the ego and the individual are products of the anthropocene rather than being motivators (although the relation is complicated once these habits of thought—self, ego, individual get going). For myself I do not hold a dark or negative view of the nature of what you call "man". In the first place I don't hold that there is such a thing as man (it is a habit of thought that can be broken and reconfigured if necessary) or a fundamental nature to any living thing (again this is a habit of perception and thought that can be broken or shifted as necessary). My argument is that it might be useful to think seriously about breaking some of our habits of thought about who we are in relation to the rest of the planet. For me, the categories you have introduced human, child, adult, safety, security, ego-centric and so on, all deserve examination as to whether or not they still function in the ways we intend them to. If they work for you, I cannot imagine why you would want to break these habits of thought. If, however, the world strikes one as not functioning particularly well for either children or adults then new habits of thought might be in order.

Thanks again for the opportunity to think with you about this. I look forward to your further thoughts as well as others.


Hans Skott-Myhre

Hello again Hans,

I agree with you that even though we have many tautological assumptions about guaranteed safety in power relations (parent/child, woman/man, state/citizens and so on), these assumptions need to be examined because it is pretty obvious that in reality, power is abused and safety is compromised. Working co-operatively seems to be the only answer to these problems. The only issue I think that becomes complicated when caring for children (purely from a pragmatic perspective) is the question of whether the child has the capacity to co-operatively make realistic and beneficial choices about themselves, their lives and what will happen to themselves or in their lives. I think that models like CPS (collaborative problem solving) do help in this regard, and can be used effectively with children as young as three years old. However, if as an adult, I was to “co-operate” with a six year who only wants to eat ice-cream morning, noon and night, where would that leave the child? More than likely, in the long run, the child will be left with cavities and childhood diabetes. I guess this is where the CPS comes in – trying to generate a solution that works for both parties. Just recently in Canada, a very interesting case about the capacity to consent to medical treatment has been featured in the news. A young aboriginal girl who was diagnosed with cancer chose to forgo chemo treatment in order to use traditional medicines. There was quite an uproar about this with the Children’s Aid, the hospital and lawyers involved; a very interesting discussion.

Philosophically, I totally agree that accepted truths need to be examined, and history has shown us that change only happens when accepted tautological reasoning is questioned.

Your comments about the concept of an individual self or ego being a “human” construct are correct and brought to mind the opposite view, reminding me of Desmond Morrison’s book The Naked Ape, and again, I can only agree with you – we do need to recognise that everything (including us) is simply a part of the whole. Funnily enough, even though Desmond Morrison shows us that we are not unique in our “humanness” but simply (as he puts it) a more evolved primate (and what can be construed as "evolved" also need to be questioned), he still writes from what some could view an ego-centric position about us having the largest brains and so on. More recently, Steve Taylor has written The Fall in which he asserts that it is not natural for human beings to kill and oppress each other and so on, and he writes that the Golden Age of man or the original paradise have an archeological factual basis. I haven’t read this one because I believe that he has a religious stance which would not sit well with me, since I believe that organised religions that place “man” in the centre of the universe are largely responsible for much of our tautological reasoning.

I think that once we “get over ourselves” as a species, we might begin to appreciate that there are immeasurable ways of thinking and being and much of these ways are not yet understood or even examined. For instance, have you ever watched videos of black crows problem solving? Quite amazing to see.

As far as the Anthropocene movement is concerned, do you think that there will ever be any consensus that will help us to move forward or at least begin to change the way we do things in order to benefit the whole? I think that the question remains a political one. The right kind of people need to hold the power (back to power again), or better still, the “idea” of political constructs and systems needs to be examined, dismantled and hopefully reengineered to develop systems with or without power structures that will be able to put change into motion. Sadly, money/power are synonymous and a system has evolved that is not sustainable – after all, money is just paper, and we can’t just carry on making things, breaking things and digging bigger and bigger landfills.

Mmmm…this could become a very gloomy discussion but hope springs eternal, so let’s hope that vision and compassion will win out in the end.

All the best,

 Delphine Amer

Hi Hans and Delphine,

Thank you for a timely encouragement to think out with the dominant paradigms. I constantly try to break my socialised habits of thought and consider other possible worlds. I can see how the mental leap that Hans prescribes asks a lot of people working at the coal face weighed down by oppressive ‘realities’. What we really lack is the opportunity for discussion in our own spaces aimed at dreaming the possible. We also struggle to see the other possible worlds that already exist modelled on some of the philosophical reasoning that Hans brings to us. I would point readers to the social pedagogic practice of for example forest schools.

“So long and thanks for all the fish”

Jeremy Millar

Well, Jeremy, may we encourage you to use this space for such discussions - there are so many influences, possible influences and, well, just possibilities, that we need to be open to them all - not all will work for all of us, but nor should we all just gravitate to the expected (social directed?) norm. The interest in expanding practice meaningfullness inspires us all, I hope, to consider something different than that which we might usually consider. I think of us all as friends in a common mission, and while we do not always agree, I think we do agree on the most important of our desires - to be the best that we can be in being with young people.  Heck, I am even willing to consider things I don't understand (often the most fun and useful exercises, as I have said elsewhere).  When Douglas Adams said "Goodbye and thanks for all the fish', for those who may not know the reference, he was referring to the little fish which, once inserted into the ear, translated everything - sometimes, I must confess, I wish I had one of those little fellas :)

Thom Garfat

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