Thursday, March 31, 2022

Why you shouldn't trust Google translate

 On Sunday I pasted a bit of Esperanto text into Google Translate. It rendered the word "geonkloj," which means "aunts and uncles" as "geeks" in English. Interestingly, when I pasted the word "geonkloj" by itself, without its surrounding text, Google translated it as "uncles," closer but still not right.


Wednesday, March 30, 2022

The Sorokin Dialectic (part 3).

 The attainment of the modern mind did not end history, rather it marked the beginning of a new dynamic. It is with the modern mind, birthed of the axial shift, where ethical systems could be examined critically and competing worldviews became possible. A profound change in human cognitive skills now allowed us to entertain different notions of truth and ethics. We became philosophical beings. 

When ideas guide conduct they become social forces and the tensions between different philosophical world views act as a motive force undergirding history. These world views can be adopted as markers of different social groups, nations, religions, classes, ethnic groups, and so forth. They also have the power to create new social groups or to merge existing ones. Philosophical orientation, world view, has close links to human tribalism. Intensifying it in some instances and reducing it in others.

The struggle between different principles of explanation, epistemologies, and different conceptions of ethics can be characterized as a dialectic. Although imperfect, the most important empirical and theoretical discussion of this dialectic is found in the writings of Pitirim Sorokin.

 Pitirim Sorokin

The Russian born sociologist Sorokin had a different experience in Soviet Russian than Vygotsky or Luria. Before the revolution, Sorokin had been imprisoned by the Czar three times for his political activity. After the overthrow of the Czarist regime, he served as private secretary for Kerensky and was a leader of the Social Revolutionary Party. He was sentenced to death, but later exiled instead, by the Bolsheviks in 1922 . His experiences with war and revolution turned him away from his early optimism and belief in progress. 

Sorokin settled in the United States where he taught at Harvard and founded its sociology department. He was a prolific writer and researcher. An intellectual nonconformist, he became skeptical of all political establishments, including Western liberal forms. Despite his anti-sovietism, he did not become a cold warrior, and the FBI viewed him with suspicion. He became a Tolstoyan pacifist and an early opponent of the war in Vietnam. He was sympathetic to the Catholic Worker movement and corresponded with activists Dorothy Day and Ammon Hennacy. Civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr and Bayard Rustin read, and were influenced by, Sorokin’s writings.

Sorokin, following Tolstoy, believed that humans possessed a body, a mind, and a soul. The mind pursues knowledge and uses reason. The soul uses intuition to know about the supersensory realm, while the body is grounded in the senses. The interaction of these tendencies produce an individual’s orientation towards truth, an epistemology. At different historical periods different truth orientations would be dominant.

This framework led Sorokin to a cyclical theory of history and to question notions of linear progress. However, a review of Sorokin’s own data supports a more complex picture and gives evidence for both cycles and progress in history. In addition, especially in his later writings, Sorokin did come to endorse at least the possibility of progress.

His most important work, an overlooked classic, the four volumed Social and Cultural Dynamics, represented the culmination of an extensive analysis of the cycles of dominant ideas in Western civilization.

Reading Sorokin, one is struck by his methodological rigor and his commitment to empirical observation, but also by his willingness to include spiritual categories and intuitions as factors in cultural change. 

Sorokin employed the methodology of content analysis. Content analysis involves examining artifacts, such as texts and images, and making inferences from those sources. Sorokin’s project was massive. He and his associates examined Western art, architecture, music, drama, literature, philosophy, ethics, and law produced over thousands of years. Other researchers have found his data on philosophic trends the most tractable. It is this aspect of his work that has won the admiration of many contemporary researchers for its comprehensiveness and methodological rigor and I will focus on it here.

Sorokin’s method was to divide time into 20 year increments, identify the great thinkers in each of these intervals, then classify these thinkers into one of several epistemological categories. The thinkers were also rated on a 12 point scale for degree of influence. 

Sorokin came to see history propelled by the clashing influences of contrasting epistemologies. For Sorokin an epistemology is a system of knowledge and Sorokin identified six different schools:

1. Empiricism - sensory perception is the source of knowledge. 

2. Rationalism - truth about the world through reason, values logic and mathematics over experience

3. Mysticism - truth comes from superlogical intuition and experience 

4. Skepticism - Doubts the possibility of knowledge

5. Fideism - sees faith as a legitimate source of knowledge and accepts faith as its own justification. 

6. Criticism - Sorokin also calls this agnosticism and describes it as “a somewhat middle position between empiricism, rationalism, and skepticism.” that accepts accepts both empirical and rational knowledge, but rejects the possibility of any kind of transcendent knowledge. 

In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History Hegel observe that 

"religion is the sphere in which a nation gives itself the definition of that which it regards as the True. A definition contains everything that belongs to the essence of an object; reducing its nature to its simple characteristic predicate, as a mirror for every predicate, – the generic soul Pervading all its details. The conception of God, therefore, constitutes the general basis of a people’s character.” 

This could equally apply to Sorokin’s epistemological categories. They help us understand the guiding spirit, “generic soul” of different historical periods. 

According to Sorokin, the six epistemologies could, in turn be clustered into two overarching categories he called mentalities or super-systems:

1. The ideational mentality, which incorporated rationalism, mysticism, and fideism. 

2. The sensate mentality which subsumed empiricism, rationalism (at least its non-religious forms), and skepticism.

The sensate/ideational distinction maps onto ages of science and ages of faith respectively and mirror the difference between flesh and spirit. 

Finally, Sorokin posited a third super-system he called idealistic that represents a synthesis between sensate and ideational approaches. 

As Sorokin saw it, none of these epistemologies by themselves could adequately describe reality. He wrote “no single system comprises the whole of truth; nor is it, on the other hand, entirely false." Each system of truth “is partly valid, yielding cognition of some important aspect of the complex of true reality.” While one school would dominate for a time, its deficiencies would eventually become obvious, and it would fade and be replaced by one its competitors. 

The dominance of any one school of truth did not mean that absence of the others. Even though our age is often characterized as secular and scientific, there is no shortage of spiritual alternatives. Many have predicted the end of religion with the rising prestige of science, the failure of this prophecy would not have surprised Sorokin.

For Sorokin, history could be understood as cyclical shifts between different dominant world views. His student, Talbutt  described this approach as “rough dialectics.” 

The word “dialectic” is most associated with the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, and Sorokin’s approach breathed new life into Hegel’s otherwise moribund speculations. According to Hegel, history is moved forward by a dialectical process where a thesis gives rise to its own antithesis, and eventually these contending forces create a new synthesis (the terms thesis, antithesis, and synthesis do not actually appear in Hegel, but were used by Fichte to describe Hegel’s philosophy).  

In and of itself, Hegel’s dialectic seems metaphysical and there is no ready explanation how this dialectic substantiates itself in the real world. Hegel is most known for his influence on Marx, who re-framed Hegel’s dialectic as contradictions in the system of production, and as the struggle between social classes.  But reading Marxist discourse, one is struck by the arbitrary way dialectics are deployed. Many Marxists claim dialectics as a form of reasoning akin to formal logic. But they have failed to provide a rigorous exposition of this logic that would allow one to reach consistent conclusions from the same premises. However, other Marxists use dialectics in a metaphorical sense to describe the struggle between contending social forces.

Sorokin’s dialectic explains history as the clash between rival schools of epistemology. Moreover, he provides quantitative evidence of this process.

Sorokin, working with the philosophers I. I. Lapshin and N. O. Lossky, searched a large number of encyclopedic references and identified the partisans for the different schools of epistemology. They measured the influence of each partisan by the number of scholarly monographs dedicated to each philosopher and used these values to calculate the fluctuating influence of the six epistemologies over the period from 580 BCE to 1920 CE.

There is a problem with Sorokin’s approach to assigning influence. The scholarly monographs were often written long after the the associated philosopher was dead, but the value was assigned to the period when the philosopher lived. In some cases, such as the ancient Greeks, centuries or even millennia might separate the lives of a philosopher and the publication of a monograph. Sorokin admits that “this naturally distorts, somewhat, the real situation.” Sorokin believed that this distortion was minimal.   

How well did Sorokin’s data support his model? Several scholars, experts in content analysis, have looked at his data set and have been impressed by the rigor of his procedure.  Klingemann, Mohler, and Weber, however, point out some possible limitations in the quality of Sorokin’s data for the period prior to 1500 CE, for example the scarcity of ancient texts and uncertainty about their dates (Coulborn and Du Bois made this same point in 1942). We can be certain, given events like the loss of the great library of Alexandria, that our knowledge of ancient philosophical discourse is incomplete. However, this criticism would not apply to the Sorokin data between 1500 and 1920. A period that roughly bookends the dominance of print technology in the West. Gutenberg invented movable type in 1439, while radio broadcasting became common in the 1920s. Mass commercial cinema also begins in the early 1900s. Thus, we can view the period between 1500 and 1920 as the the era when the printed word was the central means for discourse. 

Researchers also noted limitations in Sorokin’s data analysis. Sorokin tended to present his data as descriptive statistics in the form of tables or figures. As Simonton pointed out: “the reader is frequently requested to ‘eye ball’ massive tables of numbers in order to ‘see’ the predicted relationships, the expected relationships are by no means obvious however.” 

A more appropriate approach to Sorokin’s data would be a modern time series analysis. Time series analysis is a kind of correlation research where the variables of interest are regressed against time as the independent variable. Typically the behavior of the independent variables can be decomposed into several components. These include 1) long term, sometimes called secular, movements, this would mean longterm directional change, 2) cyclical variation, these would be wave like oscillations, and 3) a random variation or error component. Long term positive movement would be evidence of progress, while cyclical variation would be evidence for Sorokin’s hypothesis. It is important to note, that the first two components are not mutually exclusive, it is possible to have both long term directional change and still have cyclical change around the directional trend line.  

The first person to point out that Sorokin’s data might contain a linear trend was the sociologist Hornell Hart. In a 1939 review, Hart took the trouble to count the times Sorokin denied the existence of any evidence of progress in his data (at least 19). Yet when Hart reviewed the same data, he found clear evidence of progress. He noted “Sorokin’s inability to discover any long-time trends in human culture is a source of major distortion in his conclusions.” 

Similarly, the sociologist Paul Horton found that Sorokin was so committed to a cyclic view of history that he failed to see trends even when they appeared in his data. Horton found that “Sorokin avoids discovering any trends among his volumes by following a simple formula - if there are any fluctuations, then there is no trend.”  Horton charged Sorokin with escaping “refutation by defining trends out of existence.” 

In their reanalysis of Sorokin’s data, Klingemann, Mohler, and Weber  found a combination of trend and fluctuation. At least since the Renaissance there was a linear trend towards increasing empiricism. The correlation between time and the influence of empiricism was r = 0.739. This finding counts against the hypothesis of no directional change. A figure on page 137 in the second volume of Sorokin’s Social and Cultural Dynamics, shows the phenomenal upswing in scientific discoveries and inventions since the middle ages. This upswing is consistent with the findings of Klingemann, Mohler, and Weber and inconsistent with Sorokin’s hypothesis of no progress. 

Another criticism of Sorokin is the Eurocentric focus of his work. Sorokin freely acknowledged that his work might not generalize to other civilizations. But he did suggest that the main currents of Asian thought might be analogous to those at work in the West. 

For example, in East Asian civilization we could frame the dialectic in terms such as Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism (Shinto in Japan). The philosopher John Plott who wrote a multi-volume global history of philosophy occasionally used the sensate and ideational distinction in his description of Asian philosophies. 

And, as we will see, the ideas of some Asian thinkers, including Gandhi, caused Sorokin, late in his career, to re-evaluate and see some possibility of progress.

In 1937, the philosopher John Herman Randall wrote a scathing critique of Sorokin’s antiprogressivism. He noted, not unfairly, Sorokin’s lack of understanding of and sympathy for science. Talbutt made a similar observation, locating it in Sorokin’s reliance of Tolstoy’s skeptical view of the physical sciences.

Randall points out that Sorokin’s misunderstanding of science led him to equate Greek science with the science of the enlightenment. Seeing modern science simply as the cyclical recurrence of ancient science.  But, according to Randall, Greek science was largely separate from technology, while post-enlightenment science was closely integrated with application. Greek natural philosophers were a class apart from the artisans. Thus, their science stagnated because of its isolation from practical concerns and its reliance on untested speculation. Nor did the ancients have a clear sense of scientific method. Bacon’s writings really do represent a revolution in human thought.

This too close equating of ancient science with modern science may explain the large cycles that Sorokin saw in his data. For if you think Greek science is identical to modern science then you are likely to see a bump in science in Greek Antiquity and its fall off with the decline of classical civilization. Only to rise again with the birth of modern science. 

And Sorokin persistently, even maddeningly, failed to note the differences between ancient and modern science. While he labeled both as sensate, he failed to note how they diverged.

In his reanalysis, Hart  makes a telling observation. Using Sorokin’s data Hart was able to distinguish between sensate philosophers who were primarily materialists and those who were empiricists. Hart wrote, “according to Sorokin’s data, the ancient wave was primarily materialistic in philosophy and secondarily empirical in method. The wave rising for the past nine centuries is primarily empirical in method and only very subordinately materialistic in philosophy.” 

More recent work by Clark  shows that the overall trend of technological progress since antiquity has been positive. While the rate of technological improvement was very slow before the industrial revolution, it was both incremental and positive. Contrary to the the common view, European medieval technology was more sophisticated than classical technology. 

Sorokin failed to see that the rise of modern science was a revolt against the authority of the ancients, not a recapitulation of their dogmas. The rigorous empiricism of modern science did a better job of describing the world than its competitors and its increasing dominance marked a real shift in human consciousness.

Sorokin had predicted that after 1908 the pace of scientific discovery would decline, a consequence of his cyclic view of history. But by the late 1950s, he grudgingly conceded that his he was wrong on this point. 

In Hart’s critique of Sorokin, he noted several more limitations. In addition to his failure to distinguish between ancient and modern science, Hart found that Sorokin’s categorization of systems of truth was not quite right, and suggested another category called “authoritarian,” which based truth on appeals to tradition or authority. An example of this would be believing something because it was in a sacred text. Hart also postulated the existence of “commonsense” worldview, which engages all the systems of truth. In all cultures most people have operated using commonsense. But Hart granted Sorokin his larger point, “intellectual leaders in various epochs have been dominated to varying degrees by the various methods of truth-seeking, and the cultural consequences have been momentous.” 

Cycles Fluctuating along the Line of Progress

 Once we mathematically extract the linear component from Sorokin’s data, clear evidence for cycles in the systems of truth emerge for the period since 1500. Cycles for systems of truth average about 148 years. Klingemann, Mohler, and Weber, noted that these cyclic patterns are similar to cycles they observed in American and British political discourse.

As we have seen Sorokin’s data seems to provide some support for both his cyclical view of history and for a trend related to scientific progress. But we have also seen the limitations in his research. There are reasonable doubts about his the representativeness of his data prior to 1500, his Eurocentrism, his measure of influence, and the analytic categories he employed. Given these limitations, can we be confident in the Klingemann and colleagues interpretation of Sorokin’s work; a dialectic of competing world views, superimposed on a trend towards greater scientific knowledge and technical sophistication?

One test for any hypothesis is to look for consilience with other observations. When different sets of facts all converge on the same conclusion, we say that the hypothesis is supported by consilience. An example of this would be evolution, where evidence from diverse disciplines, including paleontology, geology, genetics, embryology, and comparative anatomy all support the fact of life’s common descent. Similarly, we would like to find evidence outside of Sorokin’s original analysis. 

One such data set is material collected by Sorokin’s student William Boldyreff, who classified all the individuals with entries in the 1849 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica as ideational, senstate, or mixed. His method of measuring the influence of each person was more straightforward than Sorokin’s, he simply counted the number of lines the encyclopedia dedicated to each individual. This seems like a reasonable, if imperfect, measure. It is important to note that Boldyreff’s assessment was made independent of Sorokin’s. At the time of his analysis Boldyreff was unaware of Sorokin’s findings. 

Once again, limiting ourselves to the data from 1500 to 1849, we see that there are clear trends in the data, matching the findings of Klingemann, Mohler, and Weber. A rising tendency towards the sensate world view and a decline in ideational points of view. Unfortunately, because the data set ends at 1849, there are only seven data points since 1500, limiting the meaningfulness of additional analysis.

Outside of Boldyreff, no one has directly attempted to replicate Sorokin’s analysis with more recent or more comprehensive data. However, a better test would be something other than content analysis. We should look to see if Sorokin’s findings are consilient with research using other methodologies and other data sources.

If we examine the findings of the World Value Survey we find evidence to support Sorokin’s central contention of a struggle between ideational and sensate world views. 

The World Value Survey has been administered since the 1980s to samples in over 90 countries. It has one big advantage over Sorokin’s research project in that it is a direct survey of people using representative samples. It allows us to make inferences about the actual value orientation of populations. This is clearly better evidence than Sorokin’s content analysis of elite discourse.

The World Value Survey was designed to study differences between the cultures of nations. Many claims are made about national differences in culture. For example, some nations are said to be more collectivist and others, more individualist. The idea here is not that everyone in a particular culture is the same, but that there are average differences between nations and that these differences can have consequences. In the past, such assertions were made based upon anecdote and speculation. Political scientists Welzel and Inglehard created the World Value Survey to explore these claims empirically.

Specifically the survey was designed to examine national differences in norms, beliefs, and values. When we look at the definition of these variables we can see some overlap with the categories of interest to Sorokin. According to Welzel and Inglehard, beliefs are “what people think is factually right or wrong,” Values are “what people think is morally good or bad,” and norms are “behavioral guidelines that are socially sanctioned.” 

 By analyzing responses to the World Value Survey, Welzel and Inglehart identified two dimensions that capture cultural differences between nations; 1) sacred versus secular values, and 2) survival versus emancipative values. The first variable, sacred versus secular values, seems a reasonable proxy for Sorokin’s sensate versus ideational systems. The fact that the sacred - secular factor emerges as a polarity provides support for Sorokin’s interpretation. There is a dialectic between these two ways of thinking.


While Sorokin presents (but dismisses) evidence in his work for trends in the history of civilization, we can find ample evidence that trends do exist. Horton, for example, lists a number of long term trends:

1. Increasing knowledge about the physical world

2. Increased ability to record and share information

3. Improvements in technology

4. Increasing magnitude of cultural interaction

5. Increased socialization of functions once performed by family or kin group

Horton notes that while the movement of these trends have not always been linear, there have been fluctuations and revisions, their increase over the long run is unmistakable and undeniable. 

Many of these trends are related to the growth of scientific knowledge and technical skill and, as I have noted, even though he failed to notice it, this trend is observable in Sorokin’s own data.

Moral Progress

Sorokin research on conflicting schools of morality also show no change over time. But frankly, this may be more the consequence of deficiencies in Sorokin’s research. Here he distinguished between three ethical systems, the ethics of principle, the ethics of love, and the ethics of happiness. But this system of classification is deeply problematic. The divisions are not clear and many moral philosophies fall outside of his categories. For example, rule utilitarianism combines ideas from both principle ethics and happiness ethics. More significantly, philosopher Peter Singer, echoing Sedgwick, makes the case that the best measure of moral progress would be the expansion of our circle of moral concern and Sorokin’s analysis does not really get at this issue. 

Steven R. Smith  has attempted to model Singer’s expanding circle by looking at the 25 most populous nations and plotting when each adopted particular social protections. The protections he looked at were; 1) the abolition of slavery, 2) woman’s suffrage, 3) unemployment benefits, and, 4) abolition of capital punishment. All of these variables showed clear tends, all with an upward slope.

Any notion of progress needs some explanation of its motive force. It is not enough to point to some trend line and extrapolate that it is bound to continue. Singer  explains the progress of ethics as a consequence of reason. Given a certain set of assumptions (such as the assumption that ethics must entail equal consideration of every person), reason has to be constrained by those assumptions as mathematics is constrained by a set of axioms. Science too, is constrained by certain facts and regularities in the physical universe. As Luria’s research has shown, our capacity to reason abstractly, is linked to larger social transformation. As  access to education and interaction with scientific concepts increases, so does the human capacity for moral reason. 


As previously noted, Klingemann, Mohler, and Weber  discovered cycles in Sorokin’s data.  They point out that the cycles revealed in Sorokin’s data resemble cycles discovered in other content analytic research, particularly studies of American political party platforms and British political. Consilient with these observations is a large literature, particularly in political science of cyclical ideological shifts.

 Sorokin believed that these cycles were the result of competition between imperfect epistemologies. The reign of any one epistemology was always unstable because each could not encompass the whole of truth. Klingemann, Mohler, and Weber  argued that these transitions were effected by generational shifts. They pointed out that individual conversions, while they do take place, were unlikely to occur at a high enough frequency to account for the changes. Rather, they wrote:

“we believe that the cycles observed in Sorokin’s data reflect population replacement, in which one cohort holds some epistemological theory quite strongly. Each succeeding cohort holds this theory less strongly, until attachments to the theory are so weak that a new theory rises to supplant the old.” 

The Sorokin dialectic presents an important opportunity to examine the relationships between social, religious, ideological, economic, and psychological change. It forces us to integrate our understanding of how individuals changes their minds with our understanding of societal level shifts in world views. 


A stage can be understood as discontinuity in history, a sharp break with what has gone before. Such a break would clearly not be cyclical. It may or may not be part of a monotonic trend. It is also possible that stages could be part of a trend that we cannot discern, either because our sample of such discontinuities is too small, or that we are simply unable to discover the pattern.

Sorokin does acknowledge the existence of at least one discontinuity in history, the birth of Christianity. This occurred in his writing on the cycles of moral and ethical thought. 

Here, Sorokin is quite clear, he believed that the ethics of love begins only with the advent of Christianity and his tables show no evidence for a love based ethic prior to 100 CE. One is tempted to see this as a kind of special pleading on Sorokin’s part for his Christian religious views. In any event, even if Sorokin was correct about the exceptional nature of Christian ethics, it would seem to undermine his notion of a purely cyclical history. Indeed, we can regard this as an admission that history may contain stages.

The notion of stages has proven persistent, especially in the field of developmental psychology where stage theorists like Piaget and Kohlberg remain widely influential. These models have criticized by those who view development as more continuous, claiming no sharp breaking point. But the evidence suggests that while some developmental changes are continuous, such as a child’s reading ability which improves over the course of schooling, others such as a child’s ability to recognize the conservation of volume shift suddenly and irrevocably. 

In history there are a number of candidates for stages. For example, the rise of moralizing gods (see the writings of Norenzayan), the axial age, the invention of settled agriculture, and the industrial revolution  can all be seen as profound transformations in both the way people live and in the way they think. Yet these facts do not seem to enter into Sorokin’s view.  Of course his data set includes only data after the invention of settled agriculture and the advent of literacy, so we should not be surprised that he does consider their importance. On the other hand, the beginning of the axial and the associated cognitive shifts noted by many scholars also does not appear in his findings. Here we might defend Sorokin by noting that his findings were reported prior to the publication of Jasper’s book and Sorokin could not be expected to test a hypothesis of which he was unaware. In addition, given the already noted limitations of his data prior to 1500, we might not expect him to see the signature of the axial age in his findings. 

But certainly, the industrial revolution and its many consequences should somehow be reflected in his data. As we have observed, Sorokin’s findings show an upward trend in scientific knowledge, and it seems likely that this trend is linked to the rise of industrial society.

Sorokin and the Future

In his writings Sorokin often seems pessimistic, he dismisses the notion progress and sees history as an endless repetition of cycles. In his early work, after his encounter with Bolshevism, he was skeptical about the possibility of human equality. Later, he predicted the falling away of our sensate culture. At times he expressed a nostalgia for the middle ages and complains about modern music.

Yet, later in life there was a shift in Sorokin’s thinking and he held out some hope for the world. Two factors seemed to have occasioned this change. First, his realization of the destructiveness of modern weapons, which, in turn, led to his activism for nuclear disarmament. If humanity now possessed the power to destroy itself, then the survival of the species depended on some means of reducing of human violence. The tension between worldviews needed to be mitigated or, at least, made non-violent.

Thus, late in his career, Sorokin became interested in the how we might increase altruism and he founded a center at Harvard for the study of altruism, where he held conferences, conducted research, and published books. 

Second was his contact with Eastern thought, in the 1940s he comes under the influence of Sri Aruobindo and Aurobindo’s student Chaudhuri. From Aurobindo, Sorokin adopted the concept of integralism.

Chaudhuri, also a professor of Asian studies, defined integralism this way:

“An integral vision of reality implies two things: first, immediate contact with the inmost nature of existence in its manifold richness of content; second, an integration of such different provinces of experience as common sense, science, art, morality, religion, and the like, in the light of one’s immediate insight int the heart of reality.” 

In 1965 Chaudhuri published a short volume titled Integral Yoga: The Concept of Creative Living. The book carries a foreword by Sorokin, who praised the work as significant for “Western psychologists, psychiatrists, educators, and moral leaders.” Chaudhuri was a perennialist, he saw all the religions of the world as having a common core. He wrote “being is the ultimate ground of all existence which different metaphysical systems and religious faiths try to explain in different ways.”  Moreover, he saw the possibility of integrating spirituality with scientific humanism. And he believed that integration would be made possible by a “Copernican revolution in the field of consciousness, i.e. by a transition from the egocentric to the cosmo-centric outlook.” 

If we understand “cosmo-centric outlook” to mean the expansion of human altruism to include all sentient, including future generations, then a vision of the future becomes possible. The synthesis of these two forces, the advance of scientific understanding and the transformation of individual consciousness, may finally resolve the Sorokin dialectic and move us to a new stage of history. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The prophecy of Richard Maurice Bucke

I first became of aware of Richard Maurice Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness from reading a book by the great logician and philosopher Raymond Smullyan. Like Smullyan I found Bucke's writing to be fascinating, and provokative. Sometimes he is quite mistaken and some of his ideas don't stand up to modern scientific scrutiny, but still I think there is value in his ideas about the evolution of human consciousness. Here is a short selection from his book;

 “The immediate future of our race, the writer thinks, is indescribably hopeful. There are at the present moment impending over us three revolutions, the least of which would dwarf the ordinary historic upheaval called by that name into absolute insignificance. They are: (1) The material, economic and social revolution which will depend upon and result from the establishment of aerial navigation. (2) The economic and social revolution which will abolish individual ownership and rid the earth at once of two immense evils—riches and poverty. And (3) The psychical revolution of which there is here question. 

Either of the first two would (and will) radically change the conditions of, and greatly uplift, human life; but the third will do more for humanity than both of the former, were their importance multiplied by hundreds or even thousands. The three operating (as they will) together will literally create a new heaven and a new earth. Old things will be done away and all will become new. 

Before aerial navigation national boundaries, tariffs, and perhaps distinctions of language will fade out. Great cities will no longer have reason for being and will melt away. The men who now dwell in cities will inhabit in summer the mountains and the sea shores; building often in airy and beautiful spots, now almost or quite inaccessible, commanding the most extensive and magnificent views. In the winter they will probably dwell in communities of moderate size. As the herding together, as now, in great cities, so the isolation of the worker of the soil will become a thing of the past. Space will be practically annihilated, there will be no crowding together and no enforced solitude. 

Before Socialism crushing toil, cruel anxiety, insulting and demoralizing riches, poverty and its ills will become subjects for historical novels.  

In contact with the flux of cosmic consciousness all religions known and named to-day will be melted down. The human soul will be revolutionized. Religion will absolutely dominate the race. It will not depend on tradition. It will not be believed and disbelieved. It will not be a part of life, belonging to certain hours, times, occasions. It will not be in sacred books nor in the mouths of priests. It will not dwell in churches and meetings and forms and days. Its life will not be in prayers, hymns nor discourses. It will not depend on special revelations, on the words of gods who came down to teach, nor on any bible or bibles. It will have no mission to save men from their sins or to secure them entrance to heaven. It will not teach a future immortality nor future glories, for immortality and all glory will exist in the here and now. The evidence of immortality will live in every heart as sight in every eye. Doubt of God and of eternal life will be as impossible as is now doubt of existence; the evidence of each will be the same. Religion will govern every minute of every day of all life. Churches, priests, forms, creeds, prayers, all agents, all intermediaries between the individual man and God will be permanently replaced by direct unmistakable intercourse. Sin will no longer exist nor will salvation be desired. Men will not worry about death or a future, about the kingdom of heaven, about what may come with and after the cessation of the life of the present body. Each soul will feel and know itself to be immortal, will feel and know that the entire universe with all its good and with all its beauty is for it and belongs to it forever. The world peopled by men possessing cosmic consciousness will be as far removed from the world of to-day as this is from the world as it was before the advent of self consciousness.”

Monday, March 28, 2022

Tolstoy on vegetarianism

 This site is a useful compendium of vegetarian writings by and about Tolstoy.

"Count Tolstoi has reduced all that he writes to actual practice in his own life" - The Guardian, 1890

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Sir Benjamin Richardson and the "innocent diet"

 "On the whole, I am bound to give judgment on the evidence of the teeth rather in favour of the vegetarian argument. It seems fairest of fair to read from nature that the teeth of man were destined—or fitted, if the word destined is objected to—for a plant or vegetable diet, and that the modification due to animal food, by which some change has been made, is practically an accident or necessity, which would soon be rectified if the conditions were rendered favourable to a return to the primitive state.... By weighing the facts that now lie before us, the inference is justified that, in spite of the very long time during which man has been subjected to an animal diet, he retains in preponderance his original and natural taste for an innocent diet derived from the first-fruits of the earth." Sir Benjamin Richardson, quoted by Henry Salt, 1906


Friday, March 25, 2022

Sir Richard Owen on the human diet

 "The apes and monkeys, which man most nearly resembles in his dentition, derive their staple food from fruits, grain, the kernels of nuts, and other forms in which the most sapid and nutritious tissues of the vegetable kingdom are elaborated; and the close resemblance between the quadrumanous and the human dentition shows that man was, from the beginning more especially adapted 'to eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden.'" - Sir Richard Owen, quoted by Henry Salt, 1906


Thursday, March 24, 2022

Henry Salt on "abstinence from flesh"

 "if we look back for examples of deliberate abstinence from flesh—that is, of vegetarianism practised as a principle before it was denoted by a name—we find no lack of them in the history of religious and moral systems and individual lives. Such abstinence was an essential feature in the teaching of Buddha and Pythagoras and is still practised in the East on religious and ceremonial grounds by Brahmins and Buddhists. It was inculcated in the humanitarian writings of great "pagan" philosophers, such as Plutarch and Porphyry, whose ethical precepts, as far as the treatment of the lower animals is concerned, are still far in advance of modern Christian sentiment. Again, in the prescribed regimen of certain religious Orders, such as Benedictines, Trappists, and Carthusians, we have further unquestionable evidence of the disuse of flesh food, though in such cases the reason for the abstinence is ascetic rather than humane. When we turn to the biographies of individuals, we learn that there have been numerous examples of what is now called "vegetarianism"—not always consistent, indeed, or continuous in practice, yet sufficiently so to prove the entire possibility of the diet, and to remove it from the category of generous aspiration into that of accomplished fact." - Henry Salt, 1906


Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Ask Petco to stop selling guinea pigs purchased from breeders!

  From an email I just received from Leilani Farm Sanctuary:

"As the pandemic recedes and kids return to school, parents are surrendering guinea pigs to the humane society in record numbers. To combat this problem, we have asked Petco to stop selling guinea pigs purchased from breeders. We are communicating with Petco's corporate office and have invited the local manager to visit the Sanctuary.

The overpopulation of homeless guinea pigs on the island prompted the Maui Humane Society to ask us to take in sixteen new guinea pigs. "


The Sorokin Dialectic (part 2)


Julian Jaynes

Every so often a book emerges from the fringes of the academy proposing a radical change in our understanding of the world. These books explode into public consciousness and often disappear like a passing fad. But occasionally some work lingers in the back of our minds, it makes an impression that we can’t shake.

Such a book was Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Although dismissed by many, there remain a number of scholars who still write of it with admiration and, indeed, there exists a Julian Jaynes Society, dedicated to the study of his works.

Jaynes claimed Vygotsky as his greatest influence and like Vygotsky he felt that the origins of human consciousness were rooted in social history. Jaynes claimed that consciousness was of relatively recent origin and that ancient peoples lacked consciousness.

The most common objection to Jaynes is the apparent absurdity of the idea that ancient people were not conscious. How could pre-modern people possibly not be conscious? If dogs and other animals are conscious how could whole civilizations be populated by unconscious people?

Jaynes’s answer is startling, he accepts that animals are not conscious. He agrees that human intellectual life “is different from anything else we know of in the universe. That is a fact. It is as if all life evolved to a certain point, and then in ourselves turned at a right angle and simply exploded in a different direction.” 

Note how this contradicts the general tendency of modern cognitive ethology to regard animals as conscious.  Jaynes had a low opinion of animals that did not reflect well on him. While Darwin presented evidence for continuity between the human and animal mind, Jaynes held that the chasm between humans and animals was “awesome.”  Jaynes thought Darwin was naïve. In a curious piece of reasoning Jaynes rejected a hypothesis that the reticular activation system (RAS) of the brain might be implicated in consciousness, merely because humans share the RAS with other animals. This hypothesis may well be false, but what is of interest here is the faulty reasoning Jaynes used to reject it. Because his baseline assumption was that animals are not conscious, he believed consciousness could not rest on any feature we share with our nonhuman relatives.

Most people understand consciousness to be the individual’s sense of awareness, sentience, that ability to have experience. The fact that is like something to be a person (or a bat, as philosopher Thomas Nagel noted).  As David Chalmers has pointed out, understanding the mechanisms of consciousness, indeed, how such a thing is even possible, is a deeply hard problem, to date unsolved. From this vantage point, Jaynes’ contention that ancient people were not conscious seems absurd. Most people agree that animals have consciousness. Jaynes even acknowledges that animals have emotional lives “marvelously similar” to ours. But how is it possible to have an emotional life without consciousness?

A careful reading of Jaynes shows that he meant something else altogether. For him consciousness might be better described as the modern volitional self. That sense that we have free will and are acting in the world with agency. It is precisely this sense of agency that he claimed was lacking in the writings of ancient authors. What we find in ancient works, such as the Iliad, is that people take actions upon the instructions of the gods. These mandates were often spoken, and individuals saw themselves as carrying on divine instructions. Jaynes noted that the ancients heard the voices of the gods and he likened the phenomenon to the audio hallucinations experienced by people with schizophrenia. Note for example, that Eve does not make a decision to eat the fruit of the tree, but instead, is instructed (”beguiled”) to do so by the serpent. This story is from the J text of the of the Pentateuch, believe to be its most ancient source.

Jaynes pointed to a poverty of language about internal mental states in the Iliad. We learn of Achilles’ actions but not of his mind. The world is controlled by the gods. 

Jaynes called this ancient state of being - “bicameralism,” upon the idea that the distribution of language functions across the brain’s right and left hemispheres was implicated in the hearing of divine voices, that is audio hallucinations.

We cannot directly interrogate our ancestors, we cannot have them fill out psychological inventories, nor can we take psycho-physiological measurements. We do, however, have some of the words that they wrote. By examining ancient texts we can make inferences about the authors. Comparing, for example, the Iliad with the Odyssey, many scholars  have noted the much greater emphasis on introspection in the Odyssey. While the heroes of the Iliad, act under the tutelage of the gods, the Odysseus of the Odyssey is shown to be introspective, even experiencing regret.

 Diuk and colleagues attempted to quantify this shift using a computational technique for identifying themes in text called latent semantic analysis. Sure enough, looking at both Greek and biblical texts, they found a rise in introspective language over time.

For example, when they compared the Tanakh (the Hebrew Testament), with the Christian Testament and Augustine’s Confessions. In accordance with the hypothesis of rising introspection, the older Tanakh showed the least introspection, while the most recent text, the Confessions, showed the most.

Similarly, when they examined Greek texts, they discovered, again consistent with Jaynes’ hypothesis, an increase in introspective themes during the Greek golden age.

“In a sense, we have become our own gods” -  Jaynes

Jaynes postulated a specific set of anatomical and functional foundations for bicameralism. He pointed to a region of the brain’s left hemisphere, Wernicke's area, involved in both written and spoken language. He hypothesized that there is a matching region in the right hemisphere and that these two symmetric structures communicate through a bundle of neurons called the anterior commissure. According to Jaynes, the right hemisphere is the source of auditory hallucinations, the voice of the gods. While the left hemisphere hears the voices and follows their instructions.

While interesting, Jaynes central thesis does not rest upon his neurobiological speculation. What is central is the argument that ancient people experienced a consciousness radically different from our own.

Indeed, Jaynes proposed that our ancestors perceived the world in ways that psychologists would now describe as schizotypal. Schizophrenia is a mental disorder where an individual loses connection with objective reality. Schizophrenia is not a “split personality.” That is a common misunderstanding. Rather, people with schizophrenia experience delusions and hallucinations.

We have a tendency to view mental disorders as discrete states, either you are schizophrenic or you are normal. But in reality many disorders are simply extreme versions of conditions we all have. Schizotypy refers to schizophrenic like traits short of full blown schizophrenia. Many people walk among us, hold down jobs and raise families, yet still experience some of the symptoms of schizophrenia. These people may experience audio hallucinations or have strange delusive beliefs. There are a number of questionnaires used by psychologists to gauge a persons level of schizotypy. Typically these questionnaires consist of lists of schizophrenic symptoms from sources such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. Respondents are asked if they have experienced any of these symptoms. It turns out that many people exhibit as least some of degree of schizophrenic like traits.

There is interesting research on schizotypy. People who score higher on measures of schizotypy also are more likely to have beliefs in the paranormal or conspiracy theories. On the other hand, creative people tend to have higher schizotypy scores. 

Thus, the notion that large segments of the population could experience hallucinations of speaking gods, is not that far fetched. If society was organized to normalize and legitimate these experiences then these hallucinations might play an important role and determine what constitutes normal consciousness.

Along a similar line, there has also been a shift in the role that dreams play in society. In ancient times dreams were thought to be of such great importance they, if Biblical accounts can be believed, could sway the policy of a Pharaoh. It seems that for our ancestors the hard distinction we now make between dreams and the waking state was less certain. Today, dreams are mostly seen as a personal or ephemeral concern.

The shift from the ancient to the modern mind seems to have occurred too rapidly to be explained by a genetic mechanism. However, as we have seen, the work of Vygotsky and Luria suggests that shifts in social structure can produce changes in mentalities. It seems we have moved from a society that prioritized and incentivized schizotypal thinking to one where schizotypy is more marginalized. Schizotypal thinking did not go away but it became a more private affair, not something that received social sanction.  

Jaynes was not alone in seeing some kind of fundamental shift in human consciousness at the dawn of history. We have already discussed Norenzayan’s hypothesis of the big gods. Norenzayan, Jaynes,Henri Frankfort, Bruno Snell, Karl Jaspers, and Hajime Nakamura all found evidence of an ancient disjuncture in human awareness. These thinkers were not in complete agreement on the details and the data are still too fragmentary to resolve the differences between them. But a review of their work strengthens the fundamental contention that there has been substantial cognitive change since antiquity.


Archaeologist Henri Frankfort argued that ancient thought was mythopoeic. While modern scientific thought tries to resolve the disparities between individual perspectives through a process of repeated observation and experimentation, mythopoeic thought put anecdotal experience at the center. The ancients experienced the external world not as inanimate but as alive with conflicting supernatural forces. Humans were dependent on these forces and their survival dependent on aiding the beneficent forces and placating those hostile to well being.

One important consequence of mythopoeic thought was that there was “no sharp distinction between dreams, hallucinations, and ordinary vision.”  The boundary between dreams and everyday reality was more porous.

Thus, we might gain some access to the ancient mind by examining our dreams. We are clearly conscious in our dreams (a fact that serves as additional evidence against Jaynes’ idiosyncratic use of the word “consciousness”), but most of us do not have the same sense of volition that we have in our waking state. In dreams we are swept along through a tide of uncontrollable events. This may be how our ancestors experienced their waking states.

There is one important exception to this and that is the experience of lucid dreamers, individuals who are able to assert control over actions and responses in the dream state. Lucid dreamers have accomplished in their dream states what modern people have accomplished in their waking state - the sense of volition. This is a startling possibility, for it implies that our sense of free will is a historically determined construction, one that our ancient ancestors did not posses.


In 1947 philosopher Karl Jaspers published his book, The Origin and Goal of History. Although the idea had already been proposed by the Scottish folklorist John Stuart-Glennie, Jasper, apparently unaware of Stuart-Glennie’s writings, noticed a profound change in the character of human thought during the period between 800 to 200 B.C.E. He called this epoch “the axial age.” Axial because it was a turning point, a hinge of history, as some have called it.

Zoroastrianism in Persia, the Hebrew prophets, Greek philosophy, Vedanta and Buddhism in India, and Taoism and Confucianism in China, all have their origins in the axial period. Jasper suggested that this clustering was not accidental and it ushered in a “breakthrough” in human consciousness.

He specifically claimed that, in thought, people of the axial period were closer to the modern mind than to the mentality of those who came before. He wrote: “We are infinitely closer to the Chinese and the Indians than to the Egyptians and the Babylonians. The grandeur of the Egyptian and Babylonian world is unique. But that which is familiar to us only starts with the new age of the break-through.” 

It is hard not to notice the influence of Hegel on Jaspers. One point of departure for Jaspers was his break with the Hegel’s Eurocentrism. The axial age was not a phenomenon distinct to Europe, indeed Europe was on the periphery of the axial age developments. Nor did Christianity represent the pinnacle of historical development, other traditions represented axial breakthroughs that must be seen as co-equal with Christianity.  Other writers have extended the axial age to include Mexico

What is the evidence for the axial age? The Seshat Global History Data-bank, has given researchers the opportunity to test Jasper’s axial age hypothesis.

The Seshat Data-bank includes historical and archaeological information from societies across the world for the period between 4,000 BCE to 1,900 CE. Mullins and colleagues  examined the data looking for evidence of axial transformation. They noted that the evidence presented by Jaspers was largely anecdotal, and often focused on specific individuals, such as Buddha or Confucius. It is also not clear why other figures, such as the Pharaoh Akhenaten were not considered axial.

Instead of trying to shoehorn the transformation claimed by Jaspers into a specific historical period, Mullins and co-authors looked for “axiality” independent of any time period.  

Their results did point to a reality of axiality, but not confined to the narrow time period proposed by Jaspers, nor confined to the few geographic areas encompassed in Jaspers’ original formulation. For example, they found evidence of axiality in Egypt prior to Jaspers’ dates and in Cambodia after the end of the period suggested by Jaspers.

Thus, while Jasper’s time frame was probably too narrow, there is evidence for something like the shift he proposed.

“The Olympian gods were laid low by philosophy” - Snell

How then should we characterize the modern mind? First of all it is volitional, it has a sense of agency that the ancients seemed to have lacked. We think of ourselves as the authors of our actions, we have a strong sense of free will.

Second, modern people are philosophical in the sense that they act in accordance with some system of truth. The modern mind is a philosophical mind.

In his book, The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature, Classics scholar Bruno Snell made an argument similar to Jaynes. Snell tells us “the Iliad and the Odyssey, which stand as the source of the Greek tradition, speak to us with a strong emotional appeal; and as a result we are quick to forget how radically the experience of Homer differs from our own.”  Along the same lines, he wrote “there is no denying that the great heroes of the Homeric poems are drawn in firm outline; and yet the reactions of an Achilles, however grand and significant, are not explicitly presented in their volitional or form as character.” 

Snell notes a difference in language between ancient and moderns, and claims “the stranger the other tongue, and the further we are removed from its thoughts.” 

Snell finds in the writings of Homer the same concreteness of thought that Luria found among the illiterate peasants of the U.S.S.R. He particularly notes the poverty of Homer’s language for describing the mind.

Like Jaynes, Snell notes the dependence of the Homeric heroes on instructions from the gods, “Homer does not know genuine personal decisions; even where a hero is shown pondering two alternatives the intervention of the gods plays the key role.”  The Homeric Greeks understood their internal lives “as the intervention of a god.” 

But later Greek thought takes a radical turn. According to Snell, “by about 600 B.C. these efforts had developed into a search for uniform principles whereby men hoped to eliminate the obscurities and uncertainties which best their various fields of vision.”  It is this “search for uniform principles” that forms the basis for the modern mind. It is the beginning of the great dialectical struggle between different schools of truth that characterizes our world even today.

Among the Greeks we see, in the difference between Alcmaeon and Parmenides, the great debate that came to dominate Western intellectual life.

Alcmaeon was a physician and a follower of Pythagoras, while Parmenides was the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy. According to Snell. “Alcmaeon advances - inductively, we would say - from the perception of the senses, from human knowledge, to the invisible; Parmenides receives a divine instruction to put aside as illusion all sense experience and the process of becoming which the sense apprehend.” 

Thus, the modern mind brings with it a struggle between two ways of knowing, empirical versus intuitive, or, perhaps, materialist versus spiritual.


Perhaps the most expansive student of the shift to the modern mind was Hajimae Nakamura, who examined the transition from mythic culture to philosophy across both Western and Eastern cultures.

Nakamura’s  book Parallel Developments asserted that “in different areas of the world similar problems, even if not similar concepts, emerged at certain stages of cultural development.”  and “the history of ideas in each cultural area has undergone a similar development with respect to intellectual problems.” 

Nakamura endorsed a stage theory for the history of ideas: “I would rather not specify how many stages one ought to admit, though I firmly believe that there have been some stages.” 

Nakamura began his exploration with the Vedic India. He chose this as his starting point both because it was in his area of expertise, but also because it provided one of the longest unbroken sequences of documentary records. At each stage of development he makes comparisons of the Indian data with information from other cultures, including Greek, Hebrew, Chinese, and Japanese.

Like the other thinkers we have been discussing Narkamura notes a disjunction in human thought sometime between 800 and 500 BCE. He tied this shift to the rise of urban culture and trade. These social changes led to a decline in the power and prestige of the priesthood, an increase in the influence of money and the merchant class.

These societies, while sufficiently wealthy to support intellectual work, also experienced widespread uncertainty and unrest. All this gave rise to a new consciousness. According to Nakamura “a need was felt for new principles or criteria by means of which one could relate oneself meaningfully to the new world that was coming into existence.” 

With the axial shift we see a decline in the importance of sacrifice. Sacrifice to the gods was common in the pre-axial world and sacrificial offerings could include material possessions, animals, or people. We see this in ancient texts like the Vedas and in the Iliad. 

But with the new consciousness, sacrifice is questioned and de-emphasized. This fact suggests that the shift to the modern mind involved both cognitive and ethical change.

The intellectual ferment that accompanies this period leads not to one new view of the world, but to competing interpretations of both reality and ethics. Sorokin writes, “some of the cultures and their mentality may not develop this ethical mentality up to the level of the integrated ethicophilosophical systems. Others more integrated cultures develop it. In the former cultures, the division of the actions, relationships, objects, and events into right and wrong exists, but it is not welded into a consistent ethical system, with its principles, hierarchy of values, and their ‘justification.’ For such a step a high degree of  analytic thought and a considerable degree of ethical controversy are necessary. These conditions may not be present in many simpler societies.” 

According to Nakamara, we see this tension between competing world views in India with different Upanishadic schools, the pre-Socratics in Greece, and the period of the “hundred schools” in China. The rise of philosophy allows the development of heterodoxies. The clash of these world views is a cause of historical change, as human actors follow the dictates of a particular truth system.

The clash of ideas is also an effect of the struggle between different human groups such as, nations, classes, castes, and religions. As Marx pointed out social conditions and positions can sometimes dictate the adoption of particular world views.

These systems of truth and ethics are not stable, and their interaction sets up the dialectic that will dominate culture from the axial period to the present. Sometimes there is bitter hostility between them, at other points, there are attempts at synthesis. To date, these tensions have not been resolved. This dialectical process, still underway, remains a motive force for history. A study of this dialectic will help us understand how human altruism, while expanded beyond narrow kinship groups, is often still limited to bounded groups of nations, co-religionists, or ideological cliques.

Although flawed, the most detailed analysis of this dialectic can be found in the work of Pitirim Sorokin.



Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Herny Salt on the history of meat eating

 "During the last half-century, however, as we all know, the unhealthy and crowded civilisation of great industrial centres has produced among the urban populations of Europe a craving for flesh food, which has resulted in their being fed largely on cheap butchers' meat and offal; while there has grown up a corresponding belief that we must look almost entirely to a flesh diet for bodily and mental vigour. It is in protest against this comparatively new demand for flesh as a necessity of life that vegetarianism, as a modern organised movement, has arisen." - Henry Salt, 1906


Monday, March 21, 2022

Geothermal energy

 Geothermal energy is an attractive source of renewable energy. There are yet unsolved technical problems that prevent its widespread adoption, but those problems seem more tractable than those faced by nuclear fusion. It has the potential to be a decentralized source of power, because, at least theoretically it could be deployed anyplace on earth.


Sunday, March 20, 2022

Henry Salt quotation:

  "The raison d'être of vegetarianism is the growing sense that flesh-eating is a cruel, disgusting, unwholesome, and wasteful practice" - Henry Salt, 1906

Saturday, March 19, 2022

A Venezuelan Esperantist on Ukraine (In Esperanto)


"Can human cooperation expand to the global scale in time to avert catastrophic climate change?"

 Here is a highly interesting and provocative paper by Steven R. Smith. One its real contribution is his attempt to model moral progress by charting the effects of different social movements. Here is the abstract:

Can human cooperation expand to the global scale in time to avert catastrophic climate change? Prospects for a sustainable future depend on binding commitments that respect biophysical limits, which in turn depend on political support and global/intergenerational levels of moral concern. Numerous studies in the social sciences indicate that transcending parochial, group-level cooperation to the global scale requires some form of unifying "superordinate goal". This research explores what this transformative humanitarian goal might consist of, and what factors most influence the dynamics of human cooperation. Two quantitative models of cooperative social dynamics are developed and analysed: 1) Historical - analysing the global growth of social insurance provision and the abolition of slavery, including their key structural (macro) predictors; 2) Experimental - analysing the dynamics of cooperation and the consideration of future generations in a multiplayer social dilemma game. Longitudinal growth curve modelling (LGCM) of these models’ data allows many variables to be simultaneously combined into a single group of path coefficients, represented as a network of relationships over time. Preliminary results in the historical model a) confirms the view that social complexity expands more rapidly than cooperation, b) The rate of acceleration of cooperation required to ensure sustainability within the available time greatly exceeds the historical trend

This is a clarion call to get our act together.


Friday, March 18, 2022

Tolstoy on the expanding circle of moral concern

 “Humanity comes into being and moral consciousness grows in it, at first reaching a point when it sees the moral impossibility of eating one’s own parents, then of killing the superfluous children, then of killing captives, then of holding slaves, then of making the members of the family mind by beating them, and then – one of the chief accomplishments of humanity – the impossibility of attaining the aggregate good by means of murder, and in general by means of violence."

-Tolstoy from Letter to a Revolutionary


Thursday, March 17, 2022

Classic Esperanto text book available for free

 Ivy Kellerman Reed was an American linguist and Esperantist. Her, still very good, Esperanto textbook  A Complete Grammar of Esperanto, is available electronically here. If you prefer a pdf version, you can find it here.

I found it particularly helpful to work through her exercises translating English sentences into Esperanto.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

The Sorokin Dialectic (part 1)


In 1931 Soviet neuropsychologist Alexander Romanovich Luria traveled to central Asia to study the psychology of the people in that region. His goal was to test a bold hypothesis proposed by his colleague and mentor, Lev Vygotsky.

Though trained as a literary critic, who wrote a dissertation on Hamlet, Vygotsky became one of the giants of developmental psychology, the field that studies how behavior and thinking changes over a life span. It seems fair to say prior to Vygostky that most developmental theories emphasized the idea that the stages of cognitive development are encoded into the child at birth. It was also then common to use analogies from botany to describe child development. The child was seen as a plant unfolding through a prearranged sequence from seed to flower. It was no accident, as Vygotsky wryly noted, that children were sent to a place called kindergarten. 

In contrast, Vygotsky embraced a radically different understanding of development. To him, the child’s major task is to become a competent member of society. This meant that the goals of development would be specific to particular cultures and historical contexts. For example, it is now considered important that children in the first years of school learn to read and write. Yet reading and writing are cultural inventions, less than 10,000 years old and the need for mass literacy arose only with the industrial revolution. In modern societies, the ability to read and write had become important developmental milestones. While some developmental sequences, such as the transition from crawling to walking, may indeed be hard wired into us, others are created by society and, then, transmitted by culture.

Vygotsky and Luria built on this observation. Just as people create and improve physical tools to manipulate the environment and pass this technology onto future generations, they also invent psychological tools. A psychological tool (sometimes called a cognitive tool) can be understood as a technique or strategy that alters human cognition or behavior. Physical tools alter the material environment, psychological tools are cultural inventions that change how we process information or how we behave. For example, the Hindu-Arabic number system is a case of just such a tool. Hindu-Arabic numbers allow us to perform calculations much more efficiently than previous systems of representing quantities. If you doubt this, try doing multiplication with Roman numerals. Reading and writing themselves are cognitive tools - they allow us to create an external form of memory and receive information from distant sources. Cognitive tools shift human consciousness in important ways. In a well documented example, mass literacy has allowed masses people to directly read and interpret scriptures, with the importance consequence of loosing the authority of priestly mediation. 

An inescapable consequence of this view is that different cultures and different socio-economic arrangements encourage different mentalities. This would be particularly true of different historical stages and different levels of social complexity. From Vygostsky’s view we should not expect ancient people to think about the world in the same way as modern people do.

At the time Vygotsky wrote, there were, according to Luria, two dominant approaches to understanding the psychological difference between modern and ancient people. One point of view, associated with the French scholar Levy-Bruhl, argued that there is a fundamental psychological gap between modern and premodern peoples. The alternative view was to deny the existence of such a gap. This position was articulated by the anthropologist Franz Boas, who claimed that the ancient mind does not differ in any qualitative way from the modern mind.

Boas and his followers played an important role in discrediting claims of racial superiority, they argued, correctly, that the biological hardware of the human brain does not differ significantly between human groups, or between modern and ancient people. What they ignored, however, is that the cognitive software that we run on those brains could be different across historical epochs.

Working within a Marxist framework, Vygotsky and Luria proposed a third model. While they accepted the evolution of human mentality, they located the source of change not in biology, but in socio-economic and historical forces. They asserted that our own thoughts, which we believe to be private and intimate, are in fact, deeply shaped by social forces. In this view, the link between the individual and the larger society is language. So while animals can think, human thinking resembles an inner monologue.

Developmental psychologists had noted that children often spoke out loud to themselves, with little or no concern about an audience. Traditionally this behavior has been labeled egocentric speech as distinct from communicative speech, and it is thought to be related to the young child’s difficulty in taking the perspective of others. But Vygotsky amended this view with the hypothesis “that egocentric speech is actually an intermediate stage leading to inner speech.” 

This is a startling proposal. Vygotsky is saying that in the course of development we internalize the external linguistic environment and, in this sense, even our thoughts are social in origin.

Vygotsky and Luria were explicit in their rejection of the central claim of the Cartesian world view. While Descartes asserted, “I think therefore I am” as the foundational axiom for all philosophy, Luria countered with,“the perception of others and the processes of self-perception are shaped through social activities.” In other words, self-consciousness itself is the product of socialization and impossible without language.

One can pause here and ask: how plausible is this Vygotskian claim? How could we think that consciousness is the exclusive property of humans or that animals cannot think because they lack a human language? Here we see the influence of a bias towards human thought which, in the light of emerging knowledge of animal cognition, is no longer tenable. Curiously, Descartes also had a similar bias against animal consciousness and cognition.

While it is clearly false to disparage the abilities and sentience of non-linguistic animals, it is clear, that for the human animal, language is a bridge to larger social forces and plays a strong role in shaping our mental architecture. In turn, our individual psychology binds us to and shapes the larger social world.

Our humanness is then tied up with our sociality. To understand how our mind evolved we need to understand human social cooperation. Indeed, standard evolutionary models do not seem to predict the high degree of altruism we observe in people. No explanation of human cooperation is possible without an understanding of human culture and psychology. To understand our sociality we must understand how cultural change has shaped the mind.


Now, if the Vygostskian view is correct, then we can expect that people living a premodern life would think about the world in a radically different way than modern people. The dramatic transformations that took place in Soviet Uzbekistan during the 1930s, where illiterate people living a traditional life style, resided in proximity to people receiving modern education and taking employment in schools, factories or on collective farms, provided an opportunity to test this proposition.

The people Luria interviewed included illiterate villagers “not involved in any modern social activities,” as well as people who had “access to a technological culture and mastery of mechanisms such as literacy and other new forms of knowledge.” 

Luria’s research consisted of lengthy interviews where he  presented “specially developed tests that the subjects found meaningful and open to several solutions, each indicating some aspect of cognitive activity.”  Luria was particularly skilled at neuropsychological diagnosis. A number of tests he developed are still used by physicians today.

In this case, the tests Luria used consisted of deductive reasoning problems where “the solution could be either graphic-functional and situational, or abstract and categorical.”  He borrowed this functional-situational versus categorical-abstract distinction from the work of psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein.

Goldstein described these two orientations as concrete and abstract and wrote “in the concrete attitude we are given over passively and bound to the immediate experience of unique objects or situations.”  In the abstract orientation, he claimed that “we transcend the immediate given specific aspect of sense impressions, we detach ourselves from the latter and consider the situation from a conceptual point of view.” 

In a typical interview Luria would ask participants to classify and name geometric figures such as circles, triangles, and squares. Only the most educated, students in the teacher training program, identified the figures with their geometric names. Indeed when, given an incomplete figure they would say it was “something like a circle,” or “something like a triangle.” 

In contrast individuals with less formal education tended to describe the shapes with names of everyday objects. For example, they would describe a circle as a plate, a bucket, or the moon. A square might be called a door, a house, or an apricot drying board. When shown an incomplete circle, Luria would receive responses such as a bracelet or an earring. For Luria, such response confirmed his view “that the perception of geometrical shapes varies from one culture to another.” 

Prior to Luria’s work, most psychologists assumed that basic syllogistic reasoning is a universal feature of the human mind. But when Luria asked unschooled and illiterate peasants to reason syllogistically, he received surprising responses.

For example, when presented with this problem:

“In the far north, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the far north. What color are the bears there?” 

Luria found that “as a rule, many refused to accept the major premise, declaring, ‘I’ve never been in the north and never seen bears.’”  The interviews revealed that while people could reason well about their direct experience, they were unable to abstract the process to events and objects outside of the particularities of their lives.

From these observations, Luria concluded “the facts show convincingly that the structure of cognitive activity does not remain static during different stages of historical development.” 

Luria’s mentor, Vygotsky, died of tuberculous in 1934. Around this time his work fell out of favor with Soviet authorities and, until 1956, three years after Stalin’s death, his books were banned. Luria continued to research and publish but refocused his work onto more strictly neurological topics.


While a Marxist, Vygotsky’s approach was too heterodox for the new Stalinist orthodoxy. Vygotsky had read widely in a number of languages and his writing bears the influence of thinkers such as William James, Jean Piaget, and Spinoza. Moreover, Vygotsky’s cultural psychology was accused of chauvinism. It was claimed that his theories devalued the thinking of peasants and workers.

This last point is important to explore because similar accusations have been made against other efforts to understand the evolution of the human psyche. Let us be clear, Vygotsky and Luria rejected any notion of biological inferiority of premodern people. They saw the differences embedded in social and historical forces. They did, however, accept a theory of progress.

Notions of progress have fallen out of favor, and the phrase “the myth of progress” has become an unexamined truisms.

Progress can be understood as some directional change toward the good. It is hard to draw up a balance sheet on history. One can find trends that have improved, such as improvements in health and literacy. At the same time it is easy to see trends, such as climate change, that imperil our future.

The work of Vygotsky and Luria offers us an avenue for constructing a viable theory of human progress. Shifts in technology and sociocultural arrangements are closely linked to shifts in human mentalities. At certain historic junctures, there have been dramatic revolutions in our cognitive architecture.

Understanding these changes will help us solve some enduring mysteries. These include the origins of human hyper-altruism, the fact of moral progress, and the rise of abstract philosophic thought.

In addition, using ideas borrowed from sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, I will demonstrate that there is a dialectic in modern thought between secular and spiritual ideas that powerfully shapes our behavior.

Finally, I will argue that further refinement of rational/scientific thinking and the fact of moral progress will result in both a new consciousness and a new more altruistic civilization.