avoiding becoming embittered by interminable debates going nowhere

Regular readers tell me they have difficulty sometimes with my philosophical jargon and all these isms. Some have suggested I provide notes, a glossary or some other explanatory device.

Since my retirement and with the complex incapacitations of chemotherapy, I have had time on my hands, so I have been writing this story about my journey, which I thought might help readers understand a little better where I am coming from.

It is a little longer than I anticipated and a wee bit more detailed, but if you are sitting comfortably, I shall begin.




The subtitle of this blog is Mindfulness, Munro bagging and Cancer. This reflects the journey I have taken in recent years through the experience of cancer, exploring Scottish geography and attending Tibetan teachings; away from believing my thinking was in any sense important, towards what is sometimes called Secular Buddhism or mindfulness practice, and which just as easily could be called peace of mind.

Before the diagnosis, I still believed that what I thought about in the abstract spaces I was able to conjure up for myself was something with which I could identify, something to which I should attach or attend so that I could turn it into words to be recorded for posterity. Since the diagnosis, after the painstaking construction of a little book of aphorisms I intended to be a final statement to the world, I have been letting go of this idea, slowly learning instead to allow my thoughts to float past and to give no special status to the apparently abstract, private space where they seem to reside.

The rediscovery of my passion for the Scottish landscape was crucial; with this experience I encountered much upon which to reflect, as well as space in which to do so, without trying to write it all out. Slowly also I found words to record faithfully my excursions, gradually gaining the confidence to weave the experience with the personal, political or philosophical issues I had been contemplating on the way. Where the journey brought me into contact with the edifice of medical science, my mind was consumed by reactions; the general principles I learned from my mother about health and nutrition were brought into sharp focus and my entire philosophy was tested in practice

During the same period, I attended a number teachings given by Buddhists – most notably His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa. I also attended several meditation retreats – most happily one of the last led by His Holiness Lama Yeshe Rinpoche on the Holy Isle. As a consequence, I now also read Tibetan philosophy, discovering here much more peaceful and expansive, but no less rigorous ways of training my mind than l have been able to glean from dominant Western traditions. It has also been fascinating to discover that many of the conclusions I have reached, while reading at the edges of Western philosophy, are similar to the basic teachings of Tibetan philosophy – albeit framed by very different vocabularies.

I have learned thus to attend to what is actually important in life – love, compassion and ordinary everyday experience – and to liberate my judgements from the very complex values that are so deeply embedded in the societies, languages, cultures, narrative structures and systems of power to which inevitably we all become accustomed. In this way, I have been able to write much more fluently about my experience, and honestly to chase down ways of thinking that have created confusion and resentment, or have otherwise been standing in the way of clarity.

Clarity of thought and peace of mind are for me now the purpose of thinking. This is very different from the pursuit of Truth engendered by dominant Western traditions. Finding clarity or peace of mind often means confronting muddled and delusional ways of thinking, which is as much about confronting the habits of behaviour and conduct upon which these are based, and therefore historical forces, social conventions and established powers.

How difficult this becomes, will depend on how deeply embedded are these ideas in ordinary life, how personally we take them, how strongly we attach to them, how solid we make them, how convinced we become that how things are for us is the same for all, without actually asking one another or connecting together to make common sense of our conditions.




Thinking, in any purely abstract sense becomes then extremely problematic. Ways of thinking are intimately tied to practical activity, to forms of life and social conventions, to particular languages and cultures, and always express or implicate certain roles, positions, expectations and configurations of power. But despite the complexity of this, it is possible, for polemical and pedagogic purposes, to extract ways of thinking from their contexts, and to characterise these as perspectives or isms.  

With the proviso that all isms are always analytical, abstract theoretical constructs, rarely appearing with any purity in actual circumstances, discourses or narratives, they can be used by the native wit with which we are endowed, as a common sense way of examining from the viewpoint of natural reason, both ideas themselves and the assumptions upon which they are based.

Although there always arises here a danger that these isms become straw men, easily ignited by the passion of polemic, they can always be cajoled into revealing whether or not the ideas they express are reasonable or make any kind of sense, and how they relate to common experience. In this way we can come to a clearer understanding of their power, how they are connected to each other, how they have changed, if at all, with changing times, and the extent to which they create confusion or stand in the way of clarity.

By far the most truculent and persistent of all the isms is dualism. Of all the delusional ways of thinking under which Western consciousness labours, this is the most deeply embedded. In fact, it is the attitude to the world that characterises western thinking in general. It comes in many forms.




There are many dualisms scattered throughout everyday language, embodied in common narratives and discourses, and sustained by predominant political processes. On the whole, these are invisible, in the same sense that a fish does not know it is wet or that we believe the air we breath to be a kind of nothing through which we are free to move. Mostly, dualisms cluster around notions of value; what we believe to be good, true and right and how we talk about these things.

When abstracted from all particulars, dualisms require that everything there is be divided in two: black white, here there, up down, good bad, true false, right wrong, left right, male female, straight gay, reasonable emotional, ours theirs, virtual actual, sane mad, happy sad, natural social, material spiritual. The possible list is endless. Always the categories at either end of the dualities are abstractions; either generalised from very complex clusters of experience or plucked from the imagination of pure reason. One pole of the duality usually claims to be more valuable than or to have priority over the other, thereby propagating many other artificial asymmetries. This asymmetrical evaluation is called axiology.

That this intrinsic duality, this axiological structure, is inherent to language, can be illustrated easily; many ordinary words, such as but, however, although and nevertheless, as well as not, neither and all other phrases that have to do with negation, point always in two directions – to either one thing or another, one of which is more important than the other. That these oppositions exist so deeply in our languages, suggests that language itself is possibly the most powerful force encouraging dualistic ways of thinking. But there are many other forces to be considered. Any immediate reaction to an idea or way of thinking, for example, will always already embody several common dualisms – self other, truth falsity, here there.

There is a veritable plethora of architectural and political forces at work to perpetuate dualisms. Living in these societies, being accustomed to Western ways of disputation, dualisms are very difficult to avoid. In a recent post about the fractious condition of UK politics, I mentioned that the seating arrangements in the House of Commons ensure that debate becomes a battle for whose opinion is best, about who wins the debate game. As the weegingerdug put it recently, “British politics grants all power to the victor, no matter how narrow the victory, no matter how many are disengaged from the entire process.”  Which contrasts with parliaments in other places where the seating is arranged in a semicircle centred towards a single podium or chair, by which means discussion is directed towards reaching compromise from among a swathe of opinion.




Any mind seeking peace in the midst of this must make considerable effort. Rather than immediately to react to circumstances or against a contrary opinion, it is more mindful autonomously to think things through before responding, aware of what is engendered by so much dualism, and in command of agency. But this is very, very difficult – discourse too frequently amounts to little more than mindless reactions to phenomena or events and then reactions to reactions, inexorably piling up layers of ignorance, stupidity and delusion, after which discussion is pointless and meaningless.

It is easier perhaps in the private abstract spaces we create for ourselves to think beyond any dialectic, to imagine ideas without contrasting them with their opposite, without feeling the need to defend them against suggestions they might be untrue, immoral, irrational or impracticable, and without placing them anywhere in relation to established knowledge. And therefore to come to understand that the residue of this dialectic is heavy, that it embodies a negative energy. In the abstract, all dialectic is best understood as a particular moment of a much more positive and general notion of difference. In the real world however, there exists a continuous cacophony of disputes and oppositions, from which it is virtually impossible to escape. Attempts to speak beyond any dialectical, dualistic or binary conception of the way things are, do not often succeed.

The same phenomenon can be illustrated with reference to those philosophers of the Western tradition whose work was based on this specific motivation, by starting from places away from duality or in direct response to dualistic tendencies, explicitly to move away from binary thinking. To varying degrees, they were able to avoid being pulled back into the interminable tussle and confusion of reactive ideas, but in the wake of their work being endlessly interpreted and overwritten, it has come to be understood from within dialectical ways of thinking, regarded as anathema, or otherwise marginalised. 

Spinoza’s ethics, for example, is a specific response to the new dualistic metaphysics of Descartes. Marx wrote in response to Hegel’s dialectic, Nietzsche against dualisms in every form and appearance. Other figures from the modern pantheon (Freud, Wittgenstein, Foucault, Deleuze, Negri) have worked each in their own way to propagate ideas of quality, relativity and difference against predominant dualistic tendencies. Though I have no time and there is no space here to tell these stories, it is sufficient to note that being able to live outside any dualism is not easy, not even for famous philosophers, and that speaking of these things without becoming misunderstood is a rare and happy event. 




All this confusion is based on two and a half millennia of bad thinking, propagated by languages already structured by dualisms. It may well be the case that this simply is our lot, that our languages require axiology to function, that the confusions and restrictions this brings merely point to the inadequacies of language, to a realm of experience that does not seek to be named. Which is probably true, but the very existence of so many dualisms here in the West seems also to suggest there is something more fundamental going on than being limited by language or confused by syntax. Particularly while during the same period in the East, languages developed a very different structure and many non dualistic ways of thinking came into existence. Whether or not there is one fundamental Western dualism from which all others arise is an open question. There are several candidates.

Marxists will point to continuing efforts on behalf of the bourgeoisie to extract profit from labour, thereby reproducing class divisions. All social divisions, dialectic and binary ways of thinking arise then from these material conditions. Refusing to engage with any duality becomes now an element of the class war.

Once, I wrote a meditation on what society is, focused on the difference between what we call social and what we call natural, satisfying myself that the fundamental dualistic dynamic in our societies is our continuous active negotiation of the differences between what we call natural and what we call social. By both upholding social values in the face of natural forces and by defending natural space against social encroachment, we continue to draw very firm lines between society and nature, around which many other dualisms cluster.

Recently I have been reading a little book by Luce Irigaray called In the beginning, She Was, which is challenging my ideas about these things very nicely, and which demonstrates that the most basic dualisms of the Western traditions arise from inadequate respect for the duality of gender, from which all of human becoming is derived.

A number of philosophers, amongst whom Nietzsche, Derrida, Foucault and also Irigaray, identify what is called metaphysical dualism as the location of much confusion. This metaphysical dualism regards experience as appearance, no more than evidence for what, in his little book The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche called the “lyingly added” real world.


Metaphysical Dualism


Metaphysical dualism is simply the idea that beneath the appearance of things there is a more enduring reality. Immediately this entails an axiology, a value differential; superficial appearance being regarded as less important than underlying reality.

This is the basic assumption of the Parmedean Tradition, named after the Ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides, who first sought to describe things with reference to a real world behind appearance. The idea was developed by Plato into a more explanatory theory of the way things are – the Theory of Forms – which, after it was adapted by Aristotle, formed the basis of what was to become science.

Contemporary science claims the power always to know what is really going on, despite a plethora of appearance and experience. In our times, the power science wields over the surface of things to reveal the nature of things beneath is vested almost exclusively in its methods, both the practices by which it looks at its world (all of its metaphors are visual) and the protocols and habits formed by the assemblages of education, research and knowledge production within which it happens. Although each special science has its own repertoire of methods and knowledge base, no matter how complex and technical these have become, all embody the same metaphysical dualism – each produces knowledge of the way things really are.

Most commonly, metaphysical dualism is signified by the expression the external world. This is a very dense phrase, signifying a great deal more than intended by those who use it: The definite article implies that there is only one, the same for everybody, irrespective of perspective. External is one of those words that, by implying its opposite, points in two directions; it signifies another place, outside, different, at a distance from the place from which it is seen, also subjects who see this and a general subject role, which anybody could adopt in order to see what is really there. World simply signifies everything; as Wittgenstein pithily put it, the world is all that is the case.

The external world signifies then something like the eternally unique other place where all of reality is to be found, visible from a distance to anybody adopting a certain attitude, maintaining a certain gaze, deliberately excluding immediate personal experience. Every time we use the expression the external world, we are at some level assuming this metaphysical dualism to be the case, bringing it forth, and by default separating ourselves in some way from actual, present experience.

Actively thinking on the assumption that immediate perception is less important than an enduring external world excludes the infinite impermanence of things, it deliberately undervalues the actual experience of being alive here and nowand is guaranteed to create confusion, disjunction and alienation, by various degrees and at many levels. More commonly we are only partially conscious of the places where we undervalue our own experience in relation to so called actual reality, or confuse some external world or underlying truth with our own experience or perspective, or demand that others adhere to what follows from this. Truth affects us all in different ways. Clarity often arises simply from understanding these things to be the case, becoming aware of how they are manifest in the languages we use, perpetuated in our lives by repeating ancient habits of thought and conduct. If thereafter we think actively on the assumption that immediate perception is all we have to work with, that this is all that is the case, then the external world becomes an inert appendage. Lyingly added.

There are many ways of finding a way through the muddle to clarity, of living in such a way that metaphysical dualism does not infect consciousness. I believe myself that language is not only one of the greatest sources of confusion, it can also be a tool in the production of clarity. Peace of mind is very often simply a matter of getting the words right. By writing this story about the external world with which I have had most contact – the accumulated scientific knowledge and clinical judgment of the medical profession – I achieve a degree of clarity, but it is a complicated journey, and finding peace of mind under changing medical circumstances continues to be the greatest challenge I face. 




Throughout all my years of contemplation, study and writing I have been banging my head off the major consequence of metaphysical dualism; its explicit positive evaluation of the truth of the lyingly added real world and all means rational and scientific on the road towards it; the various ways we produce and talk about knowledge; and the belief that ours is the best knowledge available. In the West, we regard Truth to be the most important value there is; throughout history we have developed traditions within which it is preserved and venerated. We have taken our history to a place where great assemblages of institutions and methodologies are able to produce it, to express it and to use it to organise our societies. We are very happy with this state of affairs; we celebrate our efforts to enact social policies and undertake collective endeavours on the basis of best scientific practice. We have managed nevertheless in the process to ensure that many truths become ignored, undervalued and marginalised.

At the very origins of Western thought, ordinary everyday, common experience is devalued because it is subject to error, it does not necessarily reveal the actual way of things. Ever since, Western thought has been been labouring under this very irrational insecurity, in fear that it will always be in error. But error means only that we must learn to be more systematic, careful and circumspect, mindful of what we experience. Of course we can all be mistaken, we can be fooled, deceived, become convinced that falsity is truth, lies factual and delusion real. But these things happen not because of some intrinsic failure or inadequacy of our perceptual powers, some fundamental lack, which must be built into theories of mind, but rather because we have allowed external powers and reactive forces to become overpowering. From the contingent fact that sometimes we get things wrong, it does not follow that always and everywhere our immediate perceptions of actual reality are delusional, incorrect, untruthful or not be trusted.

During a previous life in academia, I tried (and failed) to write a PhD thesis. This would demonstrate that the modern science of psychology systematically excludes ordinary experience, while reducing mental phenomena to data to be used to judge whether theories are true, thereby holding together and providing the ideological justification for the institutions in which this knowledge is produced. My starting point was a short chapter of a two volume work by William James, first published in 1890 called The Principles of Psychology, in which is described the greatest mistake a psychologist can make; to wit, confusing the position of observing subject with the subject observed. Specifically, confusing the mental condition of the observer with the condition of the observed, or the observer’s reality with the reality of the observed. James described this as the Psychologist’s Fallacy and he encouraged his readers to make stringent efforts to avoid it. This was, I believed, an exemplary ethical attitude, best practice in the labour of understanding other human beings.

My scrupulous reading one hundred years later of introductory psychology textbooks indicated that understanding other human beings is now an industrial process regulated by statistical methodology and experimental procedures. The effect of this was that far from making efforts to avoid the psychologist’s fallacy, scientific psychology encourages its students to adopt practices that systematically engender it; when examined from a scientific perspective, human behaviour, subjectivity and consciousness turns out to be fundamentally scientific. I called this the Scientistic Fallacy. I was too young and intellectually unsophisticated to express properly the issues here, too much beholden to the same powers I believed I was showing to be complicit and problematic, too insecure and unsure of my own agency, still not able clearly to distinguish between my own intrinsic capacity and forces encouraging me to act in a particular way or adopt a particular way of thinking, still too embedded in the tradition of Western Philosophy. I had little confidence that I would be able to speak my truth to power, too willing to give power to truths not of my own making. Despite this failure, I have no doubt that scientism has been embedded into our systems of educating young people into our putative knowledge of human beings, nor that scientism is a real force infecting everybody who has any contact with any of the institutions of society.

Modern science believes that it and only it is able to reveal what is really going on in the external world. Almost every institution of society maintains some version of this evaluation. Many ideologues champion it as universal moral code – most famously professor Dawkins. Although everybody is affected by these forces in different ways, it is my experience that there is always a moment when we draw a line, establish a truth and sit there happy in the experience, content that things are thus simply as they are. Sometimes this rests on appeals to emotion, sometimes to personal experience, to what somebody else said, to moral or ethical principle, sometimes it draws upon what is regarded as scientific truth.

To an extent, this is simply an effect of individual uniqueness. It is what happens after this that becomes problematic. How we respond to truth; whether we identify with it, how we relate to each other when external powers encourage us that things are not as they appear to be, or when powers arrange things in such a way that certain patterns of conduct are preferable to the ways we would feel inclined to behave in their absence, or when they tell us that certain ideas and values are more important than those we have reached on the basis of our own experience. How we allow our differences of perspective on any so called external world to affect what we think of ourselves and each other. Most vitally, finding strategies for avoiding becoming embittered by interminable debates going nowhere.


Medical Science


The external world spoken of by medical science is held together by a cluster of isms. These are not only relevant to medicine, but also encapsulate ways of thinking that appear throughout discourse and society more generally to stand in the way of clarity and peace of mind. They also provide the powers that be or the establishment (or whatever other phrase seems appropriate) with an ideological substructure, those taken for granted metaphysical assumptions upon which many of the most powerful narratives of the world are based.




Undoubtedly we are all different. Each of us lives a unique trajectory, experiences things from a unique perspective, inhabits an entirely private world of thoughts and feelings. We are also social creatures. The fact of our individuality does not mean we are isolated, unconnected from each other; our individuality is a consequence of our social nature. We are what Aristotle called political animals. We work together, share resources and knowledge, help each other out. Were it not for the intimate relations we have with each other we would not experience any individuality at all, we would not become aware of our differences from one another and we could just as easily take it for granted that everybody experiences things in exactly the same way, that we are all the same.

In fact, in order for its external world to make any sense, this is what science must assume. If the external world is to be the same for everybody, then everybody must be essentially the same, endowed with the same perceptual abilities and cognitive faculties. Under which circumstances, for the purposes of scientific investigation, society becomes a collection of isolated individuals who relate to each other by rational choice or habit, whose conduct and behaviour are determined on the one hand by the causal forces science seeks to uncover, and on the other by simplistic notions of freedom, rationality and individuality. Society appears as entirely functional, a positive power, which both shows us how we should relate to each other and expresses our individuality, which does not interfere with our freedom, and which is built unashamedly from the bottom up. Individualistically.




In previous posts I have banged on about the perils of mechanism at great length. It is simple enough to state as the idea that the external world behaves like a machine, according to well defined principles or laws of motion, which can be described using technical or mathematical languages. In practice, when properly thought trough, mechanism becomes very much more complicated. Some narratives imply that the external world, and in particular that bit of it which consists of human bodies, is an actual machine; others that mechanism is simply a convenient way of describing or thinking about it.

The story of a drug will for example be told something like this; it will have been manufactured at great expense, according to the correct scientific protocols and with care for safety, so that every time it is administered it will transport a specific chemical to an appropriate bodily organ or location, in order then to interact with a process or chemical to bring about a determinate effect, causing thus an illness to be cured or symptoms to be managed. This chain of causality implies two kinds of mechanism, applying to the biochemistry of bodies and to the machinations of society.

The story of a drug is a description of a complex series of events, incorporating many interlocking patterns of social behaviour, processes of production, distribution, exchange, communication and care. The story is often repeated – the events it describes happen a great deal – and it is experienced by very many people, in many locations of society, both within and outside health services.

The implications of the many elements and stages of the events described in the story of a drug are profound; that drugs alone are able to cure or manage disease, that individuals are subject to the procedures and events described, defined by the particular illnesses or conditions with which they have been diagnosed, and the course their lives take determined by previously observed progressions of similar illnesses and conditions.




What then of agency? To what extent are the participants in these events conscious of what they are doing, willingly conducting themselves in order that the events be carried through as required, accepting the roles available for them and the power relations that obtain, being willing to believe their bodies to be actual machines.

The modern separation of body and mind is inaugurated by the philosophy of René Descartes, who proposed that the body be determined by mechanical processes, while the mind become subject to other principles. This stark distinction was challenged immediately by Baruch Spinoza with an ethics in which minds and bodies are simply different attributes of absolutely infinite substance rather than different substances, or, to put it less formally, that there are times when we can understand events as mental, times when events are best understood as bodily and times when some combination is appropriate. Although complex in its foundations and formality, Spinoza’s philosophy does not rule out things being understood under any other attribute of substance. It just so happened that in the seventeenth century Spanish Netherlands, where both Descartes and Spinoza produced their work, existence was understood dualistically, in terms of body and soul. This was bequeathed by medieval and scholastic tradition, just as Cartesian Dualism has been handed down to us. To cut a very long story short, while Spinoza’s work remains marginal, Cartesian philosophy has survived – most prominently in medical science, where bodies are separated from minds by the mechanics of physiology, biochemistry and pharmacology.

(Readers might be interested to explore these ideas further by visiting my essays about what Spinoza would have made of the modern world had he been alive today, and Hegel’s imposition of negativity onto Spinoza’s ethics.)

It is never easy to establish criteria by which activity that is machine-like, repetitive and unconscious can be distinguished from active willed conduct. In a previous life as a bicycle mechanic, with a particular expertise in building wheels, I repeated the same procedures for every wheel I built, employed exactly the same principles when calculating spoke length, and when weaving, tightening and truing. There was nothing whatsoever unconscious about this repetition. I like to think that it was not mechanical. Viewed from another place however, it may well have appeared so, and I have to admit that even from my own point of view, some wheels were completed before I knew it, as if my labour were entirely habitual, unconscious and mechanical.

Working as a bicycle mechanic, it became obvious that mechanism, understood as interlinked determinate processes that cause and constitute the taking place of events, even when understanding simple machines like bicycles, applies only to brand new products. Every bicycle I ever repaired was worn out in a slightly different way, attesting to the unique trajectory of use each had endured since purchase. Likewise it was obvious that the processes of production were not always consistent; of factory produced bicycles, some were just lemons. Likewise independent professionals who built bikes to order for individuals, despite employing the same mechanical principles, all worked to different standards, had different priorities and tastes, different ideas of perfection. Sometimes we too succumbed to the production of lemons, bikes that just would not work as desired or as the customer required.

There are always mechanical principles at work, but these are more like rules of thumb than hard and fast laws; mechanics and mechanistic explanations have limits of applicability, mechanical processes are in practice extremely complex and have indeterminate outcomes, or at least outcomes we are unable in advance always to determine. The function, operation and behaviour of any actual machine are brought about by quite unique circumstances.




In relation to my experience of cancer, it is taken for granted by the protocols of disease management that it will progress in a determinate way, that my future will be determined by biological processes over which I have no control, that inevitably I will succumb as the disease spreads through my body. I believe I have managed adequately to blow this one out of the water during the last six and a half years. Certainly, the disease has now spread to new locations in my body, and at the end of last year it left me incapacitated and dependent on medical intervention, but I have also established that my agency and my own experience of what is going on in my body are absolutely crucial, both to the course my life has taken and also to how this is understood.

I am often told that everybody reacts to the drugs in a different way, that despite the theoretical chain of mechanisms that brings about determinate physiological effects, the consequences on the person of the drugs will be unique and individual. At the same time, I am becoming aware of precisely how some of the pharmaceutical interventions do their job. I can feel for example how a drug called Tumsulosin helps empty my bladder. According to Wikipedia, “when alpha 1 receptors in the bladder neck and the prostate are blocked, this causes a relaxation in smooth muscle and therefore less resistance to urinary flow.” This I can feel, so I have no doubt that the mechanics of pharmacology works, that for certain purposes my body can not only be understood as machine-like, but actually behaves quite mechanically. This does not mean though that the external reality of bodies is always and everywhere mechanical, nor that it must be regarded as fundamentally machine like, determined to operate according to regular principles, essentially predictable.

The place of determinism is in my experience best expressed by using a more active grammar, by getting the words right. My expeditions into mountains and Buddhism have emphasised a kind of determination to do what has to be done in order to carry out goals, to achieve the peace of mind I seek. It is not that I am determined by forces beyond my control, rather that I am determined to participate in the causes of things.

I do not under any circumstances take my individual power for granted. Under all circumstances is must be produced from the resources at hand. It is not at all easy to grasp causes on the way past, so to speak, to perceive them in all their historical girth, to work towards what has not yet taken place, to move with the flows of forces that determine events. The mountain journeys during which this principle was most salient were on the Aonach Eagach ridge, and more recently walking up Meall Chuaich at the end of the first cycle of chemotherapy, where I wrote:

The trick is to perceive it in advance, to grasp this as necessity, to plan methodically, prepare mentally and expedite mindfully. The present is not a point on some convenient mythical continuum between past and future, where human agency acts there and then to make things happen. Rather this presence, this life, is an event with tendrils reaching back and forth into the experience of time, opening up possibilities and showing the way of necessity to anybody with the will to embrace it and the wherewithal to know what to do, of acting in keeping with forces that determine events rather than stand immobile in their way, reckless to the infinite impermanence of things.

Whatever the details and however I experience them all, I believe it is vital to frame understanding of what determines how things happen in such a way that dualism is given no authority. This means refusing to succumb to any tendency to oppose individual agency to abstract determining forces, and then to impose this dialectic on any external reality. Becoming aware of our own agency is a long and difficult journey, visceral, material, full of grubby details, but this is preferable to assuming individual power always already exists in some abstract solipsistic space; standing alone against external deterministic forces that in turn stand against individual desire, expressed in the choices we make in society, using an asymmetrical, restrictive rationality that is solidified in minds we have been led to believe should be separate from external reality.




Just as it is easier for scientific purposes, to reduce society to a coincidental arrangement of individuals, it is easy to imagine that a bicycle wheel is composed entirely of component parts and nothing else, that it is only a rim and a hub held together by tension between spokes and nipples.

At one level this is true, but the process of holding together involves labour and skill, an ability or power to take the parts and turn them into a wheel. The tension of the interlocking spokes and nipples that holds a rim at a perfect circle from a hub has been put there, either by a human being or by a machine in a factory. In addition to its constituent parts, the wheel also contains labour, and not only the labour of the wheel builder, also the labour of the manufacturing processes of the components, of the extraction of raw materials, the distribution and warehousing of the products, their development and marketing, all necessary financial administration, and so forth.

It may be said in response that the wheel itself must be understood as a mechanical thing, a completed product, that the labour and other processes involved in its coming into existence are peripheral, irrelevant to its actual operation, how to repair it when and if it fails or wears out. This might be true, analytically and only up to a point. Excluding labour from understanding how things work is nevertheless a grave error; both at a mundane mechanical level, where knowing, for example, if a wheel was built in a factory or by a human being, and if so by whom, is vital, and also, as Marx extensively demonstrated, when the value of labour is excluded from understanding production processes, perpetuating thereby the fundamental errors of political economy, and underpinning the many delusions and ideologies of capitalist societies.

The reductionism entailed by medical science is of course much more complex because it refers to biochemistry and pharmacology. As regular readers will know, since my hospitalisation at the end of last year and the experience these last months of being subject to the effects of pharmaceutical products, prescribed by protocols based on biochemical and clinical knowledge, my opinions about these things have been in transition. I have now given the mechanics of pharmacology, radiotherapy and chemotherapy a place beside the healing intelligence in which I have always had faith, and I now understand that medical science too relies upon these natural processes. And I accept that many kinds of mechanistic reductionism are necessary for it all to work.

I continue nevertheless to see what I see. However complex is the reality behind the story of the drug, however questionable the assumptions and knowledge used to justify it, however complicit it is with more general societal powers and ideologies, however tied to metaphysical tradition, it is fundamentally the story of a racket. Drugs are engineered to deliver a chemical to the right place at the right time in a body. Health services are designed to distribute the right drugs at the right time to the right people. It may well be that these do a job, but they are also turning over a great deal of labour, maintaining the profitability of many businesses, both locally and internationally. Anything that threatens the racket is undervalued, silenced or marginalised.

The powers at be here ensure that only manufactured pharmaceuticals can be used to treat disease, that only carefully managed methodological procedures deployed to develop and produce medicines, and that the only criterion by which the efficacy of drugs is to be measured is their power to prolong life. All of which systematically disregards complete human beings, endowed with agency and natural intelligence, it denies natural plant based preparations any place in treatment, and it is incapable of dealing with suggestions that diet and nutrition have anything to do with health or well being.




The coming into existence of things is frequently omitted from any understanding of the way they are. The external world is taken for granted as an object, never really regarded as living, becoming, transforming, impermanent. This is an element of the argument in the book I have been reading by Irigaray; it was also the issue Marx discovered quite quickly upon undertaking in Das Kapital his scrupulous analysis of the commodity. For Irigaray it is the exclusion of the fundamental difference between a man and a woman, a difference which at the same time brings the two together to generate life, spiritually, emotionally, materially, in all its grubby details; the reduction of this encounter to an abstract dialectic between opposite sexes where the roles of woman and man have nothing more to do with nature, but are manufactured by power, domination and ultimately violence. For Marx, the undervaluation and material exclusion of living labour at many levels of production and analysis is the base error of political economy, and how the bourgeoisie is able to obscure the fact that it is screwing the working classes, to pretend it is not extracting the value of labour and accumulating it as personal profit in order to sustain power, privilege, obscene levels of wealth, luxury and social distance.

It is no surprise then that the production processes of the pharmaceutical industry do not figure prominently in the stories we hear about drugs. But their trace lies in the predominance of mechanism, reductionism and determinism within the stories we do hear. For only in the production of things do mechanistic, deterministic or reductionist ideas and practices have any relevance. Only when products need to be engineered is it necessary to deploy mechanical principles. Only when drugs are scientifically developed and scrupulously manufactured, precisely distributed, is it necessary to establish protocols that will determine how things happen, to construct systems in which individuals doing a job operate particular elements of larger processes. Only under such circumstances is it necessary to reduce our understanding of the self-evident, demonstrable complexity of things to simple, simplistic categories.

It is often easier to accept the stories at face value, to ignore their inconsistencies and forgive their stupidities, to look the other way, not to pry into why we are hearing these things, and to accept that what we are not being told is not relevant.

After so many years trying to express what are regarded as unconventional, iconoclastic and sometimes even threatening ideas, all because I do want to know why the stories we hear are told as they are, after all this time grappling with the reactions to my investigations, coming to grips with my own reactions to these, and reading too much philosophy, I lose connection to why I bother.

Why did I even think about these things like this? What was the point? 

Clarity? Peace of mind? Chasing down illusion, muddleheadedness and deception?

Bad ideas and delusions will not disappear because minds are changed by others, because arguments are produced, however polite and well-mannered, in favour of contrary ideas, or that otherwise outline different ways of living in the world or thinking about it. Minds change when material conditions change, and changing material conditions is often scary, threatening and violently resisted.

This post has become much longer than I expected and it has taken me to places I had not anticipated. It has opened up more questions than it has answered, leaving behind a uneasy residue, a feeling that my readers have already abandoned me, while I churn out words at a laptop in the middle of the night, diverting myself from the indescribable discomfort caused as a chemotherapy drug works its way through my body. This too has been a story of a drug.

Maybe the point is just another reminder, that we are all subject to the same causal forces. We all face the same choices; to remain passive and become swept along with the tide of events, to react and become embroiled in interminable dialectics, or actively to seek out the principles that determine the events to which we are subject, and to join in.




In 1989 I was introduced for the first time to a book about Nietzsche by Gilles Delueze. In it I read the following snippet:

Nietzsche does not see ressentiment (it’s your fault) and bad conscience (it’s my fault) and their common fruit (responsibility) as simple psychological events but rather as the fundamental categories of Semitic and Christian thought, of our way of thinking and interpreting existence in general.

For thirty odd years, I have been wandering about inside the implications and consequences of this insight. It is undoubtedly an accurate characterisation of Western consciousness, underscoring how deeply we are motivated, in the name of reason, to mete out blame and to take on guilt, always missing the nuances of difference and the diversity beyond duality, structurally inclined to avoid ordinary compassionate relations with each other and ourselves.

These were the important ideas I wanted to turn into words to be recorded by history. Mostly though, what I wanted to say was fuelled by my own resentment, and because I was always aware of this, I never really managed to say it properly.

See here! You over there! You are only ever reacting all the time, without nuance distributing responsibility for events to individuals without paying heed to the utter complexity and diversity of causal process, leaving out so many or the forces that actually make things happen, glibly assuming that responsibility resides and should be accepted by only two subjects, other and self, them and us, unhistorically believing in the sanctity of the individual and of personal responsibility, uncritically mixing up truth with moral correctitude. Instead you should throw off all these dualisms, forget all the attachments you make to individual subjects and never think of opinions as true, good or right, but rather as more or less interesting, useful or beautiful. Be pragmatic, celebrate infinite diversity, understand what it means to take this deep inside your own thinking, learn to experience events as they take place. Wake up to being alive!

Always underneath was this feeling that others were at fault, delusional, mistaken, bound by ideology. I, at least, had sorted out my own mind, and so it was up to others to catch up, for me to show the way. I even believed that my efforts to avoid bad faith and resentment, which I believed to be humanity’s fundamental source of delusion, gave my opinions greater value, even authority, good reason why they should be written down and preserved for posterity. The same old hubris, still part of the problem, allowing external powers to overwhelm my consciousness, leading me to believe that I was something solid, that I could express my identity by attaching myself to some philosophy, to words out there, in the external world.

It has been a long journey away from this attitude. Probably it still lingers, despite my labours. But I make the effort to avoid it.

So now in 2019, I remind myself from time to time, quietly, that compassion is the very erasure of resentment, and leave it at that, allowing events to come and go, participating when appropriate, where necessary, living life to the full, throwing myself into each new experience, freely thinking, seeking clarity, discovering peace of mind, writing as I go.



Author: Duncan Spence

Mountaineer, retired bicycle messenger, philosopher, wordsmith, proofreader, Dutch translator.

4 thoughts on “Scholia”

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