Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Merry X-Mas from X-M Philosophy

My dear friends,

Just a quick note to say I hope you and your cherished friends and family have a truly happy Christmas.

Be thankful for the bounty before you and know how lucky you are to have more than you can eat, more booze than you should drink and be in the company of those who mean the most to you.

The feast or festival is important to us as humans, beyond the various allegories we attach to them. It's important because without plenty we cannot appreciate scarcity and vice versa.

So raise a toast to each other and be contented, for the worries of the world will still be there when you're done.

Glad tidings, one and all,

the Filosofer


I'll be back in the New Year with more of my ramblings, but in the mean time I want you all to enjoy feasting!

Monday, 16 December 2013

Mind your Language

My dear friends,
"The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for." Ludwig Wittgenstein
When teaching medical students I use this quote regularly. Seldom has a sentiment been truer to me through my practice in life or in medicine.

During my more contemplative and playful moods I like to occasionally undertake a simple thought experiment. I came across it when reading a book by a modern French philosopher, Roger-Pol Droit. Try it yourself if you would like and you have a spare minute or two. 

Take a simple object. It has to be small and light enough to be held comfortably in your hands, e.g. an apple or pencil. Look at it. Speak it's name. Then repeat. Keep repeating it. The word should be that which most naturally relates to you the idea of the object to hand. Do this for at least one minute. Notice how as you keep saying the word, the object and word begin to separate from one another. The word, which is now just a sound becomes almost silly and is never exactly the same. The object remains static, unchanging. Note how the sound you make becomes partitioned from the idea of what the object actually is. Give the object to someone who does not speak a language you know and they will have the same idea of what the object is, but the sounds they use will be indecipherable.

The point of this thought experiment is to demonstrate how language is more than just letters on a page and sounds one makes. It's about the transference of ideas and thoughts. That example was just using a simple, small, everyday object. Something that can be seen, measured and felt. The idea behind what an apple is, for example, is relatively straightforward. Some ideas are not so simple to relate.

Let's think about how the transference of an idea occurs. An idea comes to mind and an area of the speaker's brain sends a signal to the body. Air is forced through the vocal cords that vibrate producing sound, a series of vibrations travel at a fixed speed towards the listener. The sound reaches the ear of the listener, the vibrations are transferred to their eardrum which move the three tiny bones in the inner ear, amplifying the signal that travels to their brain. The listener's brain then deciphers the signal.

That whole process works well for simple objects or concepts. Things which day to day affect everyone. But when an abstract concept is used there is always an element of trust involved and that trust is not always deserved.

Say a word like "Love", or "Fear", or "God." I know most people have an idea of what those things are, but they won't be my idea. Not exactly. So for language to work at all for these concepts, one must trust that the person listening has some clue as to what you mean when you say "Love" for example.

What do you feel when you hear the word "Love?" What is your idea of "Fear?" What is "God" to you?

I don't know. Nor will I ever truly know. Through years of contemplation and introspection I feel I am closing in on what I think "God" is. I may never get there. But have you taken the same thought journey as I have? Of course not. You've had your own. Just as valid, just as real. Just as all of us have. We experience our lives only through our own perspective, not through anyone else's. Your truth is just that, yours and no one else's. 

"God" is just one example. No one but you knows exactly what you mean when you use thousands of other abstract words. You may casually say that you are "Starving", when you're merely hungry, but you probably (I hope) do not really know what "Starving" is. You might say that you're "Terrified" about a job interview or a public speaking engagement. Yet that word might stir different feelings in a Holocaust survivor, or child soldier in the Congo.

It's all relative I know. I am not trying to belittle peoples emotions, but it is important to understand that language is not dead and the words you use are actually ideas and thoughts you are trying to express. Words are not just letters or sounds. 

A professional needs to know the words they use, because everyone in that profession will expect them to. It is required to make the transference of ideas to be as seamless as possible. Complicated matters will take an age to relate if every other technical word needs defining and agreeing upon before moving on. A doctor may know all the technical words they need for their profession, but should they eavesdrop upon a group of structural engineers discussing the construction of a bridge, they will probably find it difficult, if not impossible to follow the discourse.

It's not enough to think you know what you mean when you use a word, you need to actually know it, because sooner or later your ignorance will be found out. Again I am not preaching to anyone from a pedestal. Everyday I have to reference a word or phrase I thought I knew from childhood, learning its meaning and its origins. I do it to learn about my work and about our history.

I do this because I think what Wittgenstein said about language is true. Even if I have thoughts and ideas which transcend my limited language, what use is it to be unable to relate it?

I'd love to hear what you think.

Yours in words,

the Filosofer


You can contact the Filosofer at: xmphilosophy@gmail.com or twitter @xmphilosophy or on Facebook www.facebook.com/xmphilosophyblog

Sunday, 8 December 2013


My dear friends,

It cannot have escaped your attention that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela died on the 5th December. There were many subjects that I wished to discuss on this post, but I feel it would be churlish to not at least make mention of this one in honour of Mandela.

I am sure many of you have read at least one or two articles written about him since his death. I am also certain that many of you have read and shared a plethora of his most famous quotations. I am not being derisory, I have done so as well. So, as respite for you, I will not be talking about Madiba (that's what his friends call him, if you hadn't heard a thousand times already.) Instead I will be discussing on this week's post the reasons for the need of a man like Mandela and the miracle of his leadership.

We are, whether we know it or not, at an interesting point in the continued development of our species. We stand at a precipice, a tipping point, a place where see meets saw (or where teeter meets totter.) It is the result of discussions, like the ones we will have regarding the upcoming topic as well as those to come, that will define the world as it is and as we would like it to be. 

I use the word species above quite deliberately, because we are a species. From the pygmy tribes in South-East Asia, to the behemoths of north America, we are one species, in the strictest sense of the word. All humans can procreate to produce viable (i.e. fertile) offspring. Yet if one examines the historical record of human's interaction with any other group of humans, it is not difficult to see that we have always differentiated between ourselves, usually with a view to annihilation.

The history of man, is a history of genocide. The further removed from the history one gets, the more complete the genocides seem to be and more worryingly, how easily these atrocities are reduced to a few words so as to keep the narrative of some conqueror rolling.

Entire civilisations came and went. Their stories and knowledge lost in the spilt blood of generations. Made to endure the Carthaginian Solution of tyrants, whose own names are forgotten to all but the most learned of historians.

There was no nuance to the argument. They are different, whether it be their appearance, language, gods, traditions, laws, clothes etcetera. Therefore we are justified in taking their stuff and doing what we want to them. They are different. We are not.

As we move from ancient to modern times, we see that there has been no further improvement on the argument. Yes we sell it to each other using various subtleties, but the underlying feeling is always the same.

Our differences, however small, are the justifications for any and all of our interactions from benign to murderous. The differences we see prejudice almost all subsequent interactions. They are used to manipulate and guide us towards unsought paths, leading to outcomes undesired. It is easy and has been done since humans first walked this Earth.

It has always been the harder task to convince us of our sames. Those who have come to us whether through divine intervention or just dumb luck, to remind us that we are brothers and sisters, have oft been derided, scorned, ignored or crucified.

The miracle of Mandela was that not that he survived his formative years, but that he then went on to do something almost unprecedented in human history. He made the different see each other as the same. Not equal, that's not going to happen for a long time yet. But the same enough to sit and listen to each other's stories of cruelty, heartbreak and pain. The same enough to reconcile their differences and despite many flaws, try to build a country for all to live in. A country where all voices are heard, before the judgement of sight is imposed upon thought.

That was his miracle. That is how I will remember him.

Yours in thought,

the Filosofer.


A short one this week. Not heavy on the specifics either. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this or any other topic.

You can contact the Filosofer at: xmphilosophy@gmail.com or twitter @xmphilosophy

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Daddy Cool Part 1

My dear friends,

It has been nearly one year since I became a parent. It has been a rewarding and emotional experience for me and my wife. I'm sure that many of you who have children can relate to that. 

Ever since I've been a parent though, one thing has struck me as unusual. I don't know why I didn't expect it, perhaps I never really thought about it until I was made to. Why is there still so much disagreement on how to raise children? I was genuinely astonished. Think of any aspect of child rearing and I can find you at least two if not more, conflicting ways to do it. From breast-feeding to schooling and everything in between. It is a source of continued and sometimes quite vicious debate.

Surely, I thought, there must be some consensus? Something we must all agree on? I suppose it depends how you define "all." As nation states we have laws governing the minimum standard we expect for our children's treatment, but I don't need to tell you that the "minimum standard" is also highly variable across the globe.

As someone who is very much interested in history, I thought I'd delve there and see if I could make at least some sense of it. Not an easy task, because there is a genuine dearth of information re children in history, when compared to adult men and women. Children genuinely are the silent players in history, rarely mentioned but just as effected by historical events.

I feel it is important at this point to warn you. Some of what I will be presenting in this weblog post is uncomfortable in the very least and downright sickening at it's worst. That is my experience at least and I have a strong stomach and a healthy perspective. I will try and leave out the gratuitousness as much as I can. Yet I feel it is important that we examine our history fully, including the truly perturbing aspects, if we are to understand where we are today and the direction we are heading in the future.

There is a professor of history in an American University, that each year challenges his students to find him evidence of parenting techniques prior to 1850, that if practiced today, would NOT end in prosecution for the parent. To date not one student has managed this. Quite remarkable when you first hear it, but as soon as anyone picks up a book relating the story of children throughout human history, it becomes evident to see why. 

Let's start near the beginning...

Anthropologists that study the very earliest modern humans have been quite forthright about their findings and theories about how children were treated by their palaeolithic and neolithic elders. Infanticide was a common practice. Sometimes the tribe could not sustain another one of their number due to environmental reasons and usually the children were the first to suffer rejection from the collective. The youngest would go first and if necessary the next youngest and so on until the tribe was left with only sexually mature adults. It made sense to them. Children weren't useful and actually reduced overall survival, in times of hardship. It was a brutish, harsh existence.

Cannibalism seems to feature quite a lot also in the fossil record. People ate people. Kids are people too and easier to catch from opposing tribes. And it would seem that the vast majority of those eaten would have been children.

Fast forward to the ancient Mediterranean. It is a matter of historical fact that the civilisations of and around the Mediterranean used children for sexual gratification, some younger than my son is now. Reading the primary sources for this era makes one question the humanity of these people. It's easier to see them as somehow alien and unrelated to us today. It's much more difficult to try and understand their reasoning and psychology. It makes one ask deeply disturbing questions about themselves and humankind in general. It's also easy to forget that the adults that would do these things to children, were once children themselves and almost certainly were treated in a similar fashion.

There was no religion that prohibited such behaviour, no damnation culturally for it. To all at the time, it was normal. So normal in fact that when one reads the primary sources describing these behaviours it's as if they are talking about the weather. The history of General, then later Emperor Tiberius is full of sickeningly graphic accounts of what today would be considered paedophilia of the worst kind, but in the history is related as if he's a mild alcoholic. Or the works of Petronius Arbiter, a friend to Emperor Nero and satirist whose "Satyricon" is a romance featuring young boys.

I'm not picking on the Romans either, because there is plenty of evidence that such practices were widespread, from Carthage to Iona, Assyria and Greece. 

So what of the the Christian world? Surely the introduction of an increasingly moralistic world view coupled with a fear of eternal damnation if not at least being a pariah, would stem the suffering of children?

Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, "Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven."
Matthew 19:14
So Christ was for children being included in society and taught that one must be innocent and childlike in the presence of God to understand and be incorporated into the Kingdom of Heaven. That's my interpretation anyway, based on this and several other aspects of Christ's words as recorded in the New Testament. But the realities of Christian Europe in the Dark to Middle Ages, much as some would argue today, were far removed from Christ's message.

From around 300 - 1300 AD the spread of the Christian message did little to dissuade the practice of infanticide. It did however make vogue the custom of abandonment, often at the steps to a church or monastery. Children became subject to new dogmas and so in addition to the murders and rapes and regular beatings, came religiously inspired violence. 

Children were described as "changelings" if they were somehow physically deformed or mentally deficient. Physical and mental disability aside, St. Augustine said some children as "suffer a demon," and are "changelings" if they merely cried too much and needed to have "the devil beaten out of them." Death was not an uncommon occurrence during these of demonic exorcisms

Babies were swaddled and bound for years. The belief being that children's limbs could potentially become evil-shaped if left loose, or they could tear off their ears, scratch out their eyes, break their limbs or touch their genitals. The infants were often tied to chairs all day, lest they crawl on the floor "like an animal."

Aside from the physical aspect of the children's treatment at the hands of their guardians, is the plethora of psychological tricks and strategies for creating the kind of behaviour deemed necessary for the development of a good person. Stories from eastern Europe to the colonies in the Americas are abound with such practices. Children were sometimes literally scared to death.

In Europe, when a public execution was to occur, a special area right at the front of the crowd watching, was reserved specifically for children. They were made to stand and watch the condemned as the various charges were read and the appropriate punishment meted out. Once the execution was ended, the children were then beaten, severely. This was not a punishment, but a lesson. That lesson was, "Remember this day."

This sort behaviour, as well as countless other forms of what can only today be described as torture, persisted as necessary for well over a thousand years. Generation upon generation meeting out the same brutal judgements upon the next.

From 1500 AD until 1750 AD, children were given a slight reprieve from the physical punishments, but sexual exploitation was still rife. To understand how widespread this was, one must know that even the royal princes and princesses, heirs to the throne, were not exempt from this. The practices that occured are so utterly repellent I don't want to describe them here, but for those who are curious what makes me so squeamish, I will link to various historical source websites at the end.

Around 1750 came the newly formed study of Child Psychology. One of the earliest proponents of this new field was a German writer called J. Sulzer wrote in one of the first books dedicated to child-rearing,

These first years have, among other things, the advantage that one can use force and compulsion. With age children forget everything they encountrerd in their early childhood. Thus if one can take away children’s will, they will not remember afterward that they had a will…[sic]
[it is necessary] to drive out willfullness from the very beginning by means of scoding and the rod…
[it must begin] in the child’s first year.
Versuch von der Erziehung und Unerweising der Kinder (Attempt at the education and instruction of children) 1748

This was generally the mindset for most of the child psychologist that were adhered to by parents from across Europe. Even today there are high profile proponents of such forms of child-rearing, maybe not so much the physical aspect, but the psychological aspect certainly.

Change in attitudes on how to raise children has been exceedingly slow over the past few thousand years. The idea of parental "love" for the child seems to really be an invention of modern times and not in ingrained, hard-wired, immutable and inalienable feeling that I and many others today experience.

But before we start judging our ancestors too harshly, we must remember that context is easily lost with hindsight. Not that I'm making excuses, but it is important to keep context in mind whenever history is discussed, especially such a bleak and sinister aspect of it. We must never forget that these people, in the most part, did not consider their behaviour as abhorrent, but actually beneficial.

It should also be considered that, despite the deaths meted out by adults on children, for whatever reason, the greatest killer of children, even today, is disease. Thousands of pathogens, unchecked by antimicrobials and immunisations, took the vast majority of infants and children before they were five years old. The average ages of our ancestors is so low, not because people died at 25, it's because so many died before 5. If you were one of the lucky ones to survive up to your fifth birthday, chances were you'd live a good few decades after that.

Imagine the psychological strain that would put on a parent. There are many stories recounting the devastation that disease wrought on individual families. One that always wrenches my soul when I think of it, is the story of a pilgrim family in Maine, late 17th Century, where a husband and wife had thirteen children, not one of which survived beyond adolescence. Imagine having to bury every child. Imagine thirteen pregnancies, thirteen labours, thirteen illnesses, thirteen last rites and thirteen funerals, all for your own children.

That is just one family, in the history of humanity there are many more whose stories go untold.

Is it any wonder that perhaps parents didn't attach too strongly to their children? It is considered today that one of the most soul-destroying events for a parent, is the loss of a child. Imagine if almost every parent you knew had lost one if not multiple children to death and disease. How different would your outlook be then?

It is also worth remembering that all of the terrible things done to children throughout history, still occur to this day. Rape, torture, kidnapping, slavery and murder. We may be much more advanced technologically speaking, but there are those who are still very much mired in the darkest corners of the human psyche.

So, the fact that there is no concensus on child-rearing is because raising children without fear of death and with genuine parental love, is a relatively new phenomenon in the human experience. And it is still not universal amongst humans, the reasons for which we will discuss in Part 2 of Daddy Cool. It won't be the next blog post I do. I think I'll need a little breather after this one.

I'd love to hear what you think on this and any other subject,

Yours in thought,

the Filosofer


Thank you for making it through that, I commend your sticktoitivness. Here are some links for you, should you wish to look deeper into todays subject matter.

  1. History of Children
  2. Children and Youth in History
  3. The Association for Psychohistory - the science of historical motivation

Suggested reading:

  1. The History of Childhood by Lloyd deMause (Can be found in HTML format on link 3)
  2. A History of Childhood by Colin Heywood
  3. Childhood in the Middle Ages by Shulamith Shahar
You can contact the Filosofer at: xmphilosophy@gmail.com or twitter @xmphilosophy