For more recent article about Charles Taylor see Joshua Rothman’s November 11, 2016 “How to restore your faith in democracy” in New Yorker Magazine.

Published in 2007…

It is surprising that so little attention outside of Quebec is being paid to one of the most robust contemporary exercises in democracy, the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences. This commission on the social accommodation of religious and cultural minorities in Quebec, is participatory, accessible online, completely bilingual (French/English), pluridenominational and intercultural. Building on Quebec’s model of sociocultural integratation the Commission is examining issues related to managing diversity in a society committed to democratic participation and the protection of human rights. Issues discussed include relations with cultural communities, immigration, secularism with a focus on the management of religious diversity. Renowned Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, (1931-) and sociologist Gérard Bouchard will oversee the commission’s one-year mandate. The process includes gathering information from public and on-line forums.

Taylor argued that the media have promoted an image of Quebecers as exclusive by focusing on the most explosive racist and zenophobic comments. The moderate majority in Quebec are participating in the forums and are very welcoming toward immigrants and their cultures, and don’t adopt an attitude of exclusion (CBC 2007-11-16).


Some 88% of immigrants in Québec live in the Montréal area and account for 19% of the population (9.9% of the population of Québec). The population of Quebec is 7.6 million with 47% living in the Montréal area (GQ 2007:16).


1948 The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted.

1960s Debate[s in Quebec “sought to redefine powers and the division of responsibility between the State and the Catholic Church (GQ 2007:6)”

1960s “Québec has ranked among the top 10 host countries of immigrants* among the OECD countries [since at least the 1960s] (GQ 2007:16). Source: United Nations, Trends in Total Migrant Stock, 1960-2000, 2003 Revision, Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2004.

1970s Quebec adopted a “sociocultural integration* model or perspective. The sociocultural integration model compelled the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences “to reexamine interculturalism,* relations with the cultural communities, immigration, secularism* and the theme of Québec’s identity as part of the Frenchspeaking countries and communities of the world. In a word, it is, in particular, the management of diversity, especially religious diversity, that appears above all to pose a problem (GQ 2007:10).”

1975 Quebec adopted its own Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. “Québec’s political system is both democratic and liberal. It is democratic inasmuch as political power is vested, in the last analysis, in the hands of the people, which delegates such power to representatives who exercise it on their behalf for a given period of time. Our democracy is thus representative,* but is also liberal in that individual rights and freedoms are deemed to be fundamental and are confirmed and protected by the State (GQ 2007:12).”

1977 Quebec adopted the Charter of the French language (Bill 101), stipulating that “French [is] the language of Government and the Law as well as the normal and everyday language of work, instruction, communication, commerce and business (GQ 2007:12).”

1981 “It is generally agreed that the main thrust of Québec’s integration policy was initially defined in 1981 in “Québécois—Each and Every One” which rejected federal multiculturalism* policy in favour of a policy of “cultural convergence.” “Québécois—Each and Every One” (action plan for the cultural communities), Québec, 1981, 78 pages. To our knowledge, this action plan dating from 1981 is the first government document to sanction the notion of a “cultural community (GQ 2007:14 footnote 23).”

1982 Canada incorporated a Canadian charter of rights and freedoms into the Constitution Act.

1985 “Although it is rarely formally spelled out in legislation, accommodation is deemed to be included in the right to equality that the charters recognize. It is a mechanism that the Supreme Court of Canada, which drew inspiration from a concept already recognized in the United States, sanctioned in 1985 in order to combat indirect discrimination,* which, following the application of an institutional norm* such as a statute, rule, regulation, contract, administrative decision or customary practice, infringes a citizen’s right to equality or freedom of religion (GQ 2007:8).”

1985 “March 20, 1985 resolution of the Québec National Assembly on recognition of the rights of the aboriginal peoples (GQ 2007:11).

1989 May 30, 1989 resolution of the Québec National Assembly on the recognition of the Malecite Nation (GQ 2007:11).

1990 “The Énoncé de politique en matière d’immigration et d’intégration was adopted which proposed the notion of a “moral contract*” that establishes, in a spirit of reciprocity, specific commitments by the host society and newcomers. The integration framework proposed adopts the basic principles mentioned earlier, i.e. Québec is a liberal democracy* in which French is the common public language, and specifies the nature of the desired relationship between the host society and immigrants (GQ

2007:14) The Énoncé stipulates that Québec is: • a society in which French is the common language of public life; • a democratic society that expects and encourages all citizens to participate and contribute; • a pluralistic society, open to extensive cultural contributions within the limits imposed by respect for basic democratic values and the need for intercommunity dialogue. Source: Au Québec pour vivre ensemble. Énoncé de politique en matière d’immigration et d’intégration, ministère des Communautés culturelles et de l’Immigration, 1990, page 15. (GQ 2007:14 footnote 24).

2007-01 The municipal council in the Mauricie town of Hérouxville adopted a code of conduct for immigrants in January. Seven of the region’s 10 towns moved quickly to support the list of rules. The Muslim Congress of Canada is considering a human rights complaint against the town.

2007-02-08 On February 8 “Québec Premier Jean Charest announced the establishment of the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences in response to public discontent concerning reasonable accommodation (GQ 2007:5) [T] he current debate is taking place in a unique context of pluridenominationality (GQ 2007:6).”

2007 “Almost all Western nations are facing the same challenge, that of reviewing the major codes governing life together to accommodate ethnocultural differences while respecting rights (GQ 2007:5).”

2007-11-16. CBC. 2007. “Quebec accommodation hearings are serving a ‘great need,’ co-chair says.” http://www.cbc.ca/canada/montreal/story/2007/11/16/qc-boutay1116.html

2007-11-21 CBC. 2007. “Montreal immigrants fuel debate on accommodation.” http://www.cbc.ca/canada/montreal/story/2007/11/20/qc-accommodation1120.html

Keywords used in Consultation on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences

[A]ccommodation related to cultural differences [. . .] “is based on the principle of negotiation, whether or not it is formal, between two parties, usually an individual and an organization, the first of which claims to be the victim of discrimination. Such negotiation seeks to strike a balance between each party’s rights without imposing an undue burden on the party targeted by the complaint.” [A]ccommodation practices or arrangements fall under two largely overlapping spheres, the citizen (cooperation) sphere and the legal sphere (GQ 2007:5).”


CBC. 2007. “Quebec accommodation hearings are serving a ‘great need,’ co-chair says.” http://www.cbc.ca/canada/montreal/story/2007/11/16/qc-boutay1116.html

CBC. 2007. “Montreal immigrants fuel debate on accommodation.” http://www.cbc.ca/canada/montreal/story/2007/11/20/qc-accommodation1120.html

GQ (Gouvernement du Québec). 2007. Accomodation and Differences: Seeking Common Ground: Quebecers Speak Out: Consultation Document: Dialogue Makes a Difference. http://www.accommodements.qc.ca/documentation/document-consultation-en.pdf


French philospher and superstar of atheism Michel Onfray’s (Onfray 2007) movement of evangelical secularism depends on a moral mathematics of risk society. At its most extreme it advocates a form of instrumentalist social atomism and radical anthropocentrism.

Onfray refers to the influential writings of Nietzsche, who combines philosophy with a searing aesthetic to unsettle 19th century ethics, ethos and morals. Nietzsche work is permeated with a heightened moral relativism where individuals are free to choose their own virtues and vices subjectively and interchangeably. But Nietzsche’s avatar Zarathustra is not advocating a new religion. He is following in the Enlightenment tradition wherein the modern individual perceives religion to be pitiably self-delusional and comfortable. And I never forget that Nietzsche wrote against a late 19th century backdrop of a distorted form of Christian/utilitarianism driving unfettered destructive colonial expansion.

These masters of today- surpass them, O my brethren- these petty
people: they are the Superman’s greatest danger!
Surpass, ye higher men, the petty virtues, the petty policy, the
sand-grain considerateness, the ant-hill trumpery, the pitiable
comfortableness, the “happiness of the greatest number”-!
And rather despair than submit yourselves. And verily, I love you,
because ye know not today how to live, ye higher men! For thus do ye
live- best! (Nietzsche 1892)

The brilliance of the canonical writing of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Foucault, Deleuze and even Derrida, is not enough to provide incentive to transform inner ethical orientations or to change outward moral behaviour. Marx was not a Marxist. Derrida himself deconstructed the Author. These leaders of thought provide useful concepts and robust arguments but not comprehensive systems intended for universal adoption. Their space-time dependent oeuvre never claimed to provide comprehensive manifestos with an ethos, code of ethics and a will for social change under accidental temporal and spatial conditions.

Moral orientation imposed through legislation and education aims at protecting current and dominant (not necessarily democratic) concerns of society. Such ordinances and curriculum are necessary in a civil society but they provide at most a minimalist state protection for those at-risk of social exclusion. At their worst the algorithms of moral mathematics ensure a legal and civil method to heighten the vulnerability of the most vulnerable. See Foucault on crime, punishment and discipline.

Nietzsche’s concept of authenticity which is a form of self-making in the register of the aesthetic is incompatible with that form of imposed morality, the Christian-inspired ethic of charity for the Other crushes an individual’s elemental, instinctive and powerful desires (Taylor 1991:65).

In contrast the inner ethical orientations ( BIC 2006 ) of moderate civil religion relevant to social, historical, economic and political context are constituted by a concept of faith as conscious knowledge expressed in action (‘Abdu’l-Baha 1915:549) combined with an an ethos of caring and mutual trust. This concept of faith is held in tension by the use of the faculty of reason to prevent fanaticism and superstition. First it is to know and then to do (‘Abdu’l-Baha 1915:549).

Taylor (1991:10) describes the fading of moral horizons, the loss of meaning, the eclipse of ends, rampant instrumental reason and the loss of freedoms as all part of the malaise of modernity. He cautions that atomist and instrumentalist approaches promote a debased and shallow form of authenticity (1991:120).

keywords: moral mathematics, consequentialism vs deontology, 

Webliography and Bibliography

‘Abdu’l-Baha. 1915. Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Baha.

Bahá’í International Community (BIC). 2006. “A New Vision for Humanity’s Future.

Colbert, Stephen. 2007. Unquisition. May 3.

Derrida (1990) in Le droit à la philosophie du point de vue cosmopolitique.

Etzioni, Amitai. 2007a.”The West Needs a Spiritual Surge” >> Amitai Etzioni Notes. March 6, 2007.

Etzioni, Amitai. 2007b. L’Occident aussi a besoin d’un renouveau spirituel.” Le Monde. 7 avril.

Hitchens, Christopher. 2007. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Twelve/Warner Books.

Higgins, Andrew. 2007. As religious strife grows, atheists seize pulpit.” Northwest Herald. >> nwherald.com. April 13.

Kinsley, Michael. 2007. “In God, Distrust.” Sunday Book Review. New York Times. May 13.

Lacroix, Alexandre, Truong, Nicolas. 2007. “Nicolas Sarkozy et Michel Onfray: Confidences entre Ennemis.” Philosophie Mag. No. 8. >> Philomag.com

Onfray, Michel. 2007. Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1892. Thus Spake Zarathustra. Trans. Common, Thomas.Taylor, Charles. The Malaise of Modernity. Concord, Ontario: House of Anansi Press.

Charles Taylor distinguishes between ethics and morality by describing the latter as “that part of ethics which is concerned with our obligations to others, in justice and benevolence.” In the course that he is currently teaching (2007) Taylor examines how,

For some thinkers, this is the really important department of ethics, far more significant than questions about what constitutes a good or worth-while life. For others, this primacy is quite mistaken and unacceptable. This issue is often fought out under the description “the primacy of the right over the good”. If one accepts the primacy, certain questions open up: viz, utilitarianism versus a Kantian approach. If one refuses this primacy, then another set of questions become important, because there are a host of different ways of defining the good life (Taylor 2007).

Nussbaum (1994) rejected pro-patriotism arguments in favour of a more cosmopolitan identity which prioritizes human rights above a sense of national belonging. She began her essay with a quote from 4th century BC Cynic Diogenes who, “Asked from what country he came, he replied, “I am a citizen of the world.”4

The Stoics stress that to be a citizen of the world one does not need to give up local identifications, which can frequently be a source of great richness in life. They suggest that we think of ourselves not as devoid of local affiliations, but as surrounded by a series of concentric circles. The first one is drawn around the self; the next takes in one’s immediate family; then follows the extended family; then, in order, one’s neighbors or local group, one’s fellow city-dwellers, one’s fellow countrymen — and we can easily add to this list groupings based on ethnic, linguistic, historical, professional, gender and sexual identities. Outside all these circles is the largest one, that of humanity as a whole. Our task as citizens of the world will be to “draw the circles somehow toward the center” (Hierocles 1st 2nd CE)1, making all human beings more like our fellow city dwellers, and so on. In other words, we need not give up our special affections and identifications, whether ethnic or gender-based or religious. We need not think of them as superficial, and we may think of our identity as in part constituted by them. We may and should devote special attention to them in education. But we should work to make all human beings part of our community of dialogue and concern, base our political deliberations on that interlocking commonality, and give the circle that defines our humanity a special attention and respect.

The Stoic model is of course imperfect since Stoic process of drawing the circle toward the centre was based on assimilation. There was no concept of a sophisticated Derridian “philosophy from a cosmopolitical point of view” or a “politics of friendship” which unsettles relationships to the stranger, the unfamiliar, the unheimlich.

Taylor has deplored the fact that most of us are content to not question what we value. What are the ethics and morals that are most important to us? Where and when did we adopt them? Was it conscious choice or osmosis? Pondering these questions in moral philosophy is not part of our everyday lives. As we slide towards a form of world citizenship, we will need to know ourselves so the values that are important to us are the ones we end of defending.

While Charles Taylor2 (1994) admired Martha Nussbaum’s (1994 ) with one caveat, he disagreed with her proposal that cosmopolitan identity replace patriotism. And of course they are both correct. Nussbaum’s call for a more inclusive global citizenship based on responsibility and caring is essential to the sustainable futures. But for all appearances we are still national citizens (Rorty 1994). However, the concept of the Westphalian nation-state has a historical beginning and its future form may be quite different from what we now experience. National sense of belonging will be quite different a decade from now just as it was prior to 911 when these articles were written. As we move into the unknown area of morality in a post-national world, will the secular humanist discourse be enlightened enough to stretch our sociological imaginations and allow us to negotiate solutions to seemingly irreconcilable differences.
Writing in Palestine3 in 1917 Abdu’l-Baha, a Persian spiritual leader called for a unity of the Orient and Occident, the North and the South. He called these concentric circles, ‘collective centres of human association and unity’ which were necessary for the prosperity of the world of humanity. However, he reminded his audience that these centres are accidental and temporary, composed of matter not substance, and therefore vulnerable over time to being swept away by revolutions and upheavals. He compared the transitory nature of these concentric circles of belonging and responsibility to the eternal and everlasting spiritual collective centre which is capable of embracing all races of men.

In the contingent world there are many collective centers which are conducive to association and unity between the children of men. For example, patriotism is a collective center; nationalism is a collective center; identity of interests is a collective center; political alliance is a collective center; the union of ideals is a collective center, and the prosperity of the world of humanity is dependent upon the organization and promotion of the collective centers. Nevertheless, all the above institutions are in reality, the matter and not the substance, accidental and not eternal — temporary and not everlasting. With the appearance of great revolutions and upheavals, all these collective centers are swept away. But the Collective Center of the Kingdom, embodying the Institutes and Divine Teachings, is the eternal Collective Center. It establishes relationship between the East and the West, organizes the oneness of the world of humanity, and destroys the foundation of differences. It overcomes and includes all the other collective centers. Like unto the ray of the sun, it dispels entirely the darkness, encompassing all the regions, bestows ideal life, and causes the effulgence of divine illumination. Through the breaths of the Holy Spirit it performs miracles; the Orient and the Occident embrace each other, the North and South become intimates and associates; conflicting and contending opinions disappear; antagonistic aims are brushed aside, the law of the struggle for existence is abrogated, and the canopy of the oneness of the world of humanity is raised on the apex of the globe, casting its shade over all the races of men. Consequently, the real Collective Center is the body of the divine teachings, which include all the degrees and embrace all the universal relations and necessary laws of humanity. (Abdu’l-Baha 1917)


1 Each of us is, indeed, as it were circumscribed by many circles, larger and smaller, comprehending and comprehended, according to various mutual circumstances (Hierocles 1st 2nd CE)

This essay is hosted on a Charles Taylor resource site by Professor who describes it as “a response to Martha Nussbaum’s “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism” which appeared in the Boston Review (Vol. 19, No. 5). Taylor’s response is part of an excellent discussion which includes Hilary Putnam, Benjamin Barber, Judith Butler, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., William E. Connolly, Sissela Bok, and several other excellent thinkers. For Nussbaum’s reply to her critics, see “Asking the Right Questions,” from the same issue of the Boston Review.”

3. Delivered on March 8, 1917, in the summerhouse (Isma’il Aqá’s room) at `Abdu’l-Bahá’s house in Haifa, Palestine and addressed to the small, emerging community of Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada. Throughout his writings there is an insistence on the unicity of God and inclusivity though union and diversity, so that ‘divine teachings’, Holy Spirit, the Cause refers to a progressive religion which is constituted by all world religions.

4. The irascible Cynic Diogenes is perhaps not the most noble example of a world citizen since he lived by the precept that one’s personal happiness was “satisfied by meeting one’s natural needs and that what is natural cannot be shameful or indecent. His life, therefore, was lived with extreme simplicity, inured to want, and without shame.” Asked from what country he came, he replied, “I am a citizen of the world.” (Diogenes. vi.). His world citizenship was not based on the responsibility or caring of a world citizen rather on his insistence on dismissing societal norms for his own sense of happiness. See Grout (1997-2007). Diogenes is perhaps a citizen of the world in the same sense as Humphey Bogart as Rick in the 1942 film Casablanca who declared his nationality was “drunkard” when interrogated by German officers. His companion joked that “That makes Rick a Citizen of the World.”


Abdu’l-Baha. 1917. “Tablet to the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada.” Tablets of the Divine Plan. Haifa, Palestine.

Abdu’l-Baha. “The Divine Plan: The Cause of Baháu’lláh.” Baha’i World Faith.

Diogenes Laertius. 4th BC. “Diogenes the Cynic.” >> Classical and Hellenistic Greece: Essays on Greek history and culture and the later Byzantine empire. Encyclopaedia Romana and Greece. University of Chicago.

Grout, James. 1997-2007. Classical and Hellenistic Greece: Essays on Greek history and culture and the later Byzantine empire. Encyclopaedia Romana and Greece. University of Chicago.

1st 2nd CE.Conduct towards Relatives.” >> completepythagoras.net

Nussbaum, Martha. 1994. Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism.” Boston Review. 19:5.


Rorty, Richard. 1994. The New York Times. 13 February. The New York Times (13 February 1994), philosopher Richard Rorty urges Americans, especially the American left, not to disdain patriotism as


Taylor, Charles. 1994. “Why Democracy Needs Patriotism.” Boston Review.

Taylor, Charles. 2007. Theories of Ethics: Course Abstract. School of Law, Northwestern University

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Ethics and Morality at the Interstice between Patriotism and the Cosmopolitical Point of View.” >> Speechless

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Ethics and Morality at the Interstice between Patriotism and the Cosmopolitical Point of View.” >> Google docs


With our stunning window view of eagles gliding effortlessly over the waters of Finlayson Arm along the ridges and forested steep hills of Sanich Peninsula, we chose to sit side by side more like an awestruck audience than a couple ordering dinner at a restaurant. Within an hour of my arrival at the Victoria airport I felt like I was in another country. Neither the January weather nor the temperate rain forest in its spectacular topography were part of what had become familiar to me as Canadian. I’d already lived in five provinces and Canada’s newest territory but this warm land was nothing like anything I had experienced. Most of the rest of the drive along the dark and winding highway was an anticlimax to that view, that is until we came to the Malahat lookout.

Eighteen months later we are again faced with a choice. Today may be the last day of familiar habits repeated day after day. I’m not sure if I have seen, experienced and learned enough yet to be able to leave.

When I first arrived I devoured maps and trail books to lcoate myself in this unfamiliar topography. Mountain trails traced on a map are useful when you are hiking between and around rocky outcrops, ancient trees and stumps, narrow footpaths . . . Deep in among the Garry Oak, Arbutus and Douglas Fir hilly slopes and valley confuse the hiker who ends up not really knowing if she is ultimately reaching a higher level or heading downhill. Like yesterday when we heading out looking for the low trail along the shore of Tzuhalem and ending up in Genoa Bay having crossed to the other side of the mountain just by putting one foot in front of the other.

Google earth offered seemingly endless potential for locating myself in space and time. But now I realize that it is most useful for tracing where I have been. Flickr lets me geotag my digital photos and visual art works unto scaled maps so I can zoom in to exact locations. Google video lets me float my shaky images and breathless voice in cyberspace describing what I am seeing in the ‘here-and-now’ so that my future self can better remember places that were once familiar.

I have learned the names of the wildflowers that grow under the oaks, fir and deciduous trees of Mount Tzuhalem. I have learned to name it by latitude and longtitude. I know its smells and sounds. I know how to dress in layers in this ecosystem that constantly changes from cool to warm to rain, wind and sun. I know its panoramas and vistas and the names of the mountains and bodies of water that surround it. But I could still get lost here and end up far from my goal.

And this is the glitch in one’s ethical topography of self. The everyday habits, the things that make a home a home, can be taken away either by choice or necessity from one day to the next. And there you are in some unfamiliar place, re-examining again, locating oneself again.

For those who can control how their lives unfold or seem to think they can, habits repeated day after day, reinforce values and make ethical decisions automatically without a lot of reflection.

But for the nomads, the one’s who travel, the unfamiliar shakes us into thinking consciously, deliberately about entrenched habits, values, goals and perhaps even the meaning of life. This is why this phrase remains with me as a question mark, a point of departure for a line of deep reflection that will never end . . .

an ethical topography of Self and the Other based on an authentic relationship of mutual respect

It is by encountering the stranger, the unheimlich, by getting lost in unfamiliar topographies (Taylor 1989, Murray 1991) that we open ourselves to encountering the Other in a spirit of hospitality and friendship that transcends our habitual ways of knowing. It is the unheimlich that puts into perspective that which we held to be true, about ourselves, our beliefs and our values. If the stranger offers us something that resonates or is dissonant with our own beliefs we are compelled to take them out in the light of day, to examine them with new eyes. It is as if in the mirror-pupil of the Other we see ourselves reflected. If we are mutually respectful we will accept that we are answerable (Bakhtin) to that Other and will at least closely examine our own reflection in her eyes. If we are truly practicing hospitality from a cosmopolitical viewpoint (Bennington and Derrida 1997) we will examine those unchallenged assumptions about our values in a more precise and logical way. We will use more precise instruments and acknowledge that somethings were not as they once seemed and our belief in them need to be revised. Others resonate so soundly that it is evident that they are part of our authentic selves.

I see this outer topography as a metaphor for the inner self. Reconfiguring rivers in that intellectual, emotional, spiritual landscape is to me like reconfiguring entrenched habits of thought or behaviour. It won’t happen through human nature but takes a conscious act of will. Through the conscious re-evaluation of our everyday habits and by willfully changing then repeating them day after day we can more clearly evaluate values, behaviours and with greater lucidity and reason (Changeux and Ricoeur 2000b).

1. This is how I have come to internalize Charles Taylor’s moral topography of self. Psychologist Murray summarizes Charles Taylor’s concept of the moral topography of self.

2. Shields’ concept of an ethical dialogical relationship between self and the other has informed my understanding:

Dialogism offers us the potential within a more sophisticated theory of semiosis to position Self and Other, seeing their relationship for what it is, an ethical one of mutuality in the social construction of meaning.


Bakhtin. Answerability.

Changeux, Jean-Piere and Paul Ricoeur. 2000b. What Makes Us Think? A Neuroscientist and a Philosopher Argue about Ethics, Human Nature and the Brain. Translated by M. B. DeBevoise. Princeton: University of Princeton Press.

Bennington, Geoffrey and Derrida, Jacques. 1997. “Politics and Friendship: A Discussion with Jacques Derrida.” Centre for Modern French Thought. University of Sussex. 1 December.

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Reconfiguring Rivers Ethics Human Nature and the Brain. >> Speechless.

Murray, K. 1991. “A Life In The World In Australia.” Australian Cultural History. 10:32-45.

Shields, Rob. 1996. Meeting or mis-meeting? The dialogical challenge to Verstehen. British Journal of Sociology: 47.

Taylor, Charles. 1989. “Moral Topography of Self.” in Messer L A Sass and R L Wootfolk (eds) Hermeneutics and Psychological Theory: Interpretive Perspectives on Personality, Psychotherapy and Psychopathology New Brunswick Rutgers University Press.

If our minds are what our brains do (Dennett 2003:i) and changing entrenched brain pathways may be harder than we think (Merkl 2007) is the logical conclusion of an entirely naturalistic Darwinian human evolution a more just, humane world or a dystopia? Or you tried to change your mind but your brain wouldn’t let you.

Dennett (2003) argues that the evolution of the human brain over deep time has followed the laws of natural science and that human free will is an emergent phenomena of that same physical process. He forcefully argues that biological determinism does not limit human behaviour to predictable, inevitable outcomes.

Dennett contends that recognition of the true nature of man as an exclusively physical body proscribed by the laws of nature will provide a stronger, wiser doctrine of freedom (Dennett 2003:22) than the belief that the reality of man resides in her immaterial, immortal human soul capable of defying the laws of nature (Dennett 2003:1).

Man’s evolution towards moral thinking and existential interpretations is constituted by higher levels of evolution, more advanced outcomes of the natural evolution of entities towards emergent changes that allowed them to avoid harm and reproduce themselves (Dennett 2003:22).

While Dennett draws on arguments from biology, cognitive neuroscience, economics and philosophy proposing provocative and original arguments, there is a lack of the psychological or sociological2 imaginations in his work. It is in the area of habits (particularly those that are institutionalized or community-sanctioned) that flaws may be revealed in Dennett’s arguments of a logical evolutionary conclusion of an emergent salutary human nature incapable of overriding its material brain yet somehow managing to move beyond its own autopoietic system. Would human nature not follow evolutionary pathways towards conservation of the familiar while eliminating that which is uncomfortably unfamiliar from everyday life? What are the ethical implications for sustaining an authentic pluralism, diversity of cultures? It is in this area of an expanded Derridian hospitality towards the stranger, the unknown that Dennett’s secular humanism fails to respond.

Like Dennett, William James1 (1986:369 cited in Tursi 1999) perceived the same evolutionary principles at work in inorganic matter that have been applied to organic matter. In the same year that James developed his ideas on the relationship between the birth of human consciousness, habit and knowing, Freud explored the concept of habit formation as simple agents of conservation that are instinctual reaching deeply back through consciousness, through organic and even organic compulsions. James seemed to perceive the evolutionary changes in human consciousness as radical agents of variance and development. He aligned habit and knowing so that free human agents develop habits by force of will and character. James regretfully admits that habits are difficult to change after the age of thirty (1890). Freud’s theorized that an organism, including a human being, is disposed towards repeating its own lived experience while protecting itself against unsafe levels of stimulation from the unknown, the unheimlich or the uncanny. Freud argued that the cerebral cortex as the seat of consciousness, recorded negative past experiences of unfamiliar stimuli protected itself by constructed hardened defensive shields against outer stimuli. James acknowledges the way in which habitual sequences and customary feelings provide us with an agreeable feeling of being at home with oneself, whereas unsafe levels of excitation from uncustomary, unfamiliar, incongruous representations evoke distress, doubt, misunderstanding and irrationality (Essays in Philosophy 345). For a more in-depth thoughtful discussion see Tursi (1999).

James “advocates idiosyncrasy, spontaneity, and originality as enrichments to a malleable world, he always returns to habit (Tursi 1999). We reconfigure the unfamiliar or uncanny, the unheimlich to a more welcome pattern (Pragmatism 122).

Just as rivers can be reconfigured so too can our neural networks but deep entrenchment of fast flowing rivers in their time-worn river beds are less flexible, less plastic and more embedded.

It may seem easy to change your mind, but if it’s your brain we’re talking about, maybe it’s harder than we think. A University of Houston professor is looking into this with research into something called ‘brain plasticity (Merkl 2007 ).’

Key Words: brain plasticity, free will, entrenched core beliefs, reconfiguring entrenched brain pathways, habits, character, morality and meaning,


1 The work of William James, considered by his followers as canonical, has been derided by his critics as classist and elitist. I consider it fortunate that his work has again found a legitimate place even with these critics. James began or contributed to so many debates that have been recently resuscitated.

2 Pierre Boudieu’s studies on the reproduction of social values through cultural institutions through schools and museums, for example, reveal the degree to which entrenched societal values continue to be reinforced in a hidden curriculum that benefits exclusive, powerful social strata. In Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argued that genocide was the logical conclusion of the Enlightenment project with its promise of a better society based on shared western values. The Other who refused modernity would be eradicated through a process of natural selection that ensured a safer world for those with more power to reproduce themselves.

Not just for radicals, but for many mainstream liberals too, the road that began in the Enlightenment ends in savagery, even genocide. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues: ‘Every ingredient of the Holocaust… was normal… in the sense of being fully in keeping with everything we know about our civilisation, its guiding spirits, its priorities, its immanent vision of the world – and of the proper ways to pursue human happiness together with a perfect society (Bauman 1989:8).


Zygmunt Bauman. 1989. Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p8

Dennett, Daniel C. 2003. Freedom Evolves. New York: Penguin.

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “You tried to change your mind but your brain wouldn’t let you.” >> papergirls. May 3. http://papergirls.wordpress.com/2007/05/04/you-tried-to-change-your-mind-but-your-brain-wouldnt-let-you /

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© Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. “If our minds are what our brains do (Dennett 2003:i) and changing our brain’s habits may be harder than we think (Merkl 2007) can we achieve a wiser, stronger freer society through a process of purely natural selection as Dennett predicts?” >> Speechless