An Open Invitation to a Metamodern Sociology

—An ironically sincere invitation to future scholars—

This article was first published as an independent chapter in the book Dispatches from a Time Between Worlds: Crisis and emergence in metamodernity, from 2021, an anthology edited by  Jonathan Rowson and Layman Pascal. The following text has been slightly edited to fit the format of an online article.

Before we begin, it is important to mention that “Metamodern sociology” can mean two quite different things, viewed from opposite but mirroring positions:

  • First meaning: The descriptive sociology of metamodern society – its emergence, social logic, structures, causes, consequences, dynamics, central processes, culture and lived experience. This line of inquiry expands into sociological descriptions of “metamodernity” as a certain societal condition, and into “metamodernism” as a social, political, cultural and academic movement. In other words: This is sociology applied to metamodernism; sociology in any qualitative or quantitative form with metamodernity and/or metamodernism as its object of study, “the sociology of metamodernism”, if you like. As such, it can be categorized alongside other “hyphen sociologies” like the sociology of poverty, the sociology of religion, the sociology of death – and so forth.
  • Second meaning: The discipline of sociology itself, as understood, practiced and developed from sensibilities pertaining to the culture and philosophy of metamodernism. This guides us towards the question: What does society look like from a metamodern lens? How does a metamodern sensibility (in terms of ethics, ontology, spirituality, aesthetics, epistemology and political goals) shape the discipline of sociology, if, indeed, such a disciplinary delineation is still deemed appropriate to the metamodern observer? Such questions can be answered only through developments of sociology proper, i.e. the proposition and argumentation for novel theory, meta-theory, methods, methodology, and the topics and rationales for research questions within sociology.

The two meanings are, unsurprisingly, intertwined. Hence, they should also be discussed together, reflecting upon each other. Yet, they must be clearly distinguished as separate issues, and only then be carefully braided as two streams.

In the following, the focus will primarily be upon the latter of the two – sociology as viewed from a metamodern understanding – but it ends with briefly revisiting the topic of how metamodern society can be studied, a few suggestions primarily for aspiring scholars of this uncharted field.

Against periodization

A guiding light in both angles of approach, however, is that there is indeed something that can meaningfully be called metamodern (a descriptive), metamodernity (a state of affairs in society, a certain configuration) and metamodernism (a certain sensibility, movement or project). This is and remains the working hypothesis of metamodern sociology.

At the heart of it all is a simple developmental model: the idea that societal development occurs through a number of profound, qualitative shifts: from modern society, to a postmodern deconstructive critique of the latter, to a metamodern synthesis of these two, the later taking deliberate steps to reshape modern society and its prevailing social logic, drawing upon, but not limiting itself to, the postmodern critique. After the postmodern deconstruction, follows the metamodern reconstruction. Or, rather, reconstruction is the endpoint of deconstruction; the former follows from the latter.

That is, ultimately, what metamodernism is about; it takes modern society itself as its object, picks it apart with a postmodern sensibility, and then begins to put the parts together in new ways, into new relations, human and posthuman (including other fundamental categories such as technology, the biosphere and non-human animals). Modernity flows from the dynamics of pre-modern society (traditional, or what I have termed postfaustian, which in turn builds upon earlier stages[i]); postmodernism can only emerge from the backdrop of modern society; metamodernity (or: metamodern society) emerges as people can conceptually and socially step outside of the “modern world” and view it as an object that can be reshaped from the inside-out, in synthesis with the multiple anti-theses produced by postmodern critique.

A few words about this progression, from the modern, to the postmodern, to the metamodern, would be in order. There is, in my mind, a widespread misunderstanding of how this is to be approached – the fallacy of periodization, a description of historical epochs that are taken to have certain properties: a modern period, a postmodern period, and a metamodern period.

Adorno famously wrote that “Modernity is a qualitative, not a chronological, category”.[ii] This comment incisively captures the crux of the matter: Viewed from a sociological vantage point, there is little meaning in historical periods and years. Historiography, in the words of Wilhelm Windelband, is ideally an entirely ideographic enterprise, i.e. it describes chains of events qua events, and it focuses on the particularity of facts and emergences located specifically within space, time and sequence. Sociology is located within the social sciences, and as such it always strives towards at least some generalizability, i.e. it is ultimately what Windelband would have called a nomothetic endeavor, a study of regularities of the social universe. Periodization can never be truly ideographic nor nomothetic. Obviously, modernity did not “occur” during certain year, nor did it end and postmodernity begin at another year. As the 19th century classical sociologists struggled to grasp it, modernity is a certain pattern of widely interconnected phenomena, certain abstracted qualities that seem to describe deep-rooted properties of a society in its entirety; the explanatory relations between said properties.

Much confusion has come from this fallacy, and, as a result, the exploration of the modern, postmodern and metamodern quickly reaches an analytical impasse in many, or even most, of its students. Vermeulen and van der Akker have suggested that metamodernism is a period shaped by certain events, but they cannot provide any full description or explanation for as to which pattern connects these events.[iii] Correspondingly, contemporary sociologists have been reluctant to describe the present period as “postmodern” and have suggested terms such as “late modern” (Giddens)[iv], “liquid modernity” (Bauman), “second modernity” (Beck) and so on – perhaps, a wise caution. In my view, these sociologists notice the fact that, yes, there are indeed new trends and social logics cropping up in society, but that the prevailing social logic is fundamentally still guided by what may be described as modernity.

The simple reason for this confusion, I believe, is that the question is incorrectly posed. The answer to the question of “when is modernity/postmodernity/metamodernity?” always depends upon the more fundamental question of what each of these is. The answer to that question, in turn, depends less upon certain historical events, and more upon how these three categories are defined; firstly, as different sequences of unfolding logics or dialectics, the latter following from the dynamics of the former; secondly, as different aspects or dimensions of each (I will describe six such different aspects shortly).

The idea of “the metamodern” is thus a heuristic tool; it does not presuppose exactly what “metamodern” is or means, but it stipulates that such a phenomenon can be explored and that the concept’s predictive value can increase as the descriptive, deductive, analytical and interpretive concepts are developed and refined.

In accordance with metamodern sensibilities, the concept of metamodernism can itself be viewed as being held with “sincere irony” – a synthesis between the sincere belief in progress (of developmental psychology, stage models of perspectives upon the world, dialectical dynamics that seem to stabilize around certain equilibria), and the ironic distance to any such models and sense of direction, an admission that our models and paradigms are always limited and, ultimately, partly mistaken. But even “the synthesis” can be taken as too literal, too monolithic and uncritically held as a belief. Hence, the metamodern sociologist’s belief in metamodernism is rather a proto-synthesis; a proposed, ironically held heuristic of descriptive and prescriptive models of society and reality.

Metamodernism in six dimensions

With this pragmatically self-depreciating view in mind, the complex we call metamodern-metamodernity-metamodernism can be viewed in six distinct but deeply interrelated ways:

  • as a cultural phase that comes after and redeems the cynicism and irony of postmodernism with a “new sincerity” which coexists peacefully with postmodern irony (such as in the work of Vermeulen and van der Akker, comparable to the work of cultural theorists on post-postmodernism, digimidernism, transmodernism, performativism, postconstructivism, enactivism – describing trends within culture at large, pop culture, visual arts, theatre, architecture, literature, music, film and so forth);
  • as a developmental stage of society and its institutions, one that emerges and stabilizes after modern society (such as my own work, comparable to Ken Wilber’s integral theory, Jürgen Habermas’s and Günther Dux’s developmental sociologies, ideas about new Kondratiev waves of economic life, like Paul Mason’s “postcapitalism”, economic stage theories like Klaus Schwab’s “fourth industrial revolution”, Manuel Castell’s “network society” and, more indirectly, the holistic sociologies of Roy Bhaskar and Edgar Morin);
  • as a meta-meme, i.e. a deep-lying pattern-of-patterns within the realm of meaning-making and symbols, with its own social, economic and technological dynamics, that are likely to emerge together in a coherent, non-arbitrary manner in historical sequence, where the different parts resonate with one another and mutually reinforce each other, particularly around the emergence of a digitized internet society (this is explored in my own upcoming work, The 6 Hidden Patterns of History and it has a precedent in e.g. the work of Jean Gebser);
  • as a relatively late and rare stage of personal development – cognitive, emotional, existential and relational (as studied in adult development psychology, where later stages of a more self-transforming mind are studied in different ways by such theorists and researchers as Robert Kegan, Susanne Cook-Greuter, Michael L. Commons, Michael Basseches, Kurt Fischer, Theo Dawson, Terri O’Fallon, Clare Graves, Gerald Young and others, myself included with my work on the “effective value meme” of a person);
  • as a certain paradigm, with its own philosophy with accompanying theologies (which includes a family of ideas concerning ontology, epistemology, aesthetics and ethics – such as Karen Barad’s agential realism and onto-epistemology, Quentin Meillassoux’s speculative realism, perspective-participatory views of reality and “entanglement”, belief in potential rather than actuality as the ground of reality, developmental views of emergence, chaos, complexity and cybernetics, multi-perspectivalism, the revisiting of process philosophy in Whitehead and Peirce, critiques of anthropocentrism and humanism, holistic views that put spirituality and studies 1st person phenomenological or experiential perspectives at the center, developmental semiotics and cyber-semiotics, syntheistic theologies, transdisciplinary studies and meta-theories which map out non-arbitrary relations between different injunctions into reality, fractal perspectives of reality and phenomenological experience in which for instance the relation between natural and social sciences are viewed as contained within one another in fractal patterns, relationality as an ontological basis, deconstructive critiques of the naïve experience of the self as a discrete object, transpersonal perspectives that try to go beyond ideas of “the individual” and “the collective”, critiques of linear statistical inference in favor of the study of emergent patterns, a holistic view of information theory, and an embrace of both-and thinking and self-critical embrace of paradox and the brokenness of reality’s self-organization; these abstractly interrelated strands represent different versions of neo-Hegelianism and post-Kantianism, tending towards “non-dual” spirituality and a distancing from Cartesian dualism in its various forms). Obviously, the interconnecting links between all of these philosophical projects are far from evident; rather, I hold, there is a profound structure to the metamodern mind, the contours of which can thus far only be vaguely sketched, and much work remains to be done in terms of formulating the key principles underlying the metamodern philosophy proper, as well as within the sociology of knowledge concerning from which social contexts such ideas emerge;
  • as a certain movement or project, emerging primarily in relatively “progressive” countries and segments of “developed” societies, largely from postmodern strata of the population (animated by sentiments of oscillation, superposition (in the quantum sense), or both-and thinking, where you hold two polarities in mind at the same time: such as sincere irony, informed naiveté, magical realism, relative utopia, the crossroads of fact and fiction. This movement – with its intermeshed strands of cultural, aesthetic, political, psychotherapeutic and organizational efforts – is driven by ideals of creating open participatory processes, collective intelligence, inner work and “embodiment”, co-development, and an experimental view of rituals as well as attempts to “re-construct” everyday life and social reality, as well as attempts to bridge and synthesize perspectives of the Left and Right and the different sides of the culture wars, e.g. between traditionalists and progressives. Metamodernists tend to emphasize inner development as a political and sociological issue, deliberation, process and perspective taking as political tools, and focus on the intersection of inner depth and outwards complexity. The demographics of this movement is primarily drawn from what I have termed the Quadruple-H population (Hipsters, Hackers, Hippies and Hermetics – more on these below)).

As the reader may have noticed, periodization is not one of these six categories. Metamodernism is not a period, not an epoch. It is what Sean-Ebjörn Hargens has termed a “multiple ontological object”[v]; it is many realities at once, and no single aspect or angle-of-attack captures it fully or even very meaningfully and usefully. Metamodernism is thus both a cultural phase, and a developmental stage of society, and an abstracted meta-meme, and a stage of personal development (with different complexly intertwined sub-categories thereof), and a philosophical paradigm, and a movement with a certain project for culture and society.

I would like to be direct here: Until scholars, students and other agents of metamodernism learn to distinguish between these six meanings of “metamodern”, there can be very little progress made – analytical or political – towards metamodern understanding and goals in society. Attempts at periodization will remain arbitrary, bordering on nonsensical, unless one specifies which aspect of the metamodern one studies.

Clearing the analytical fog

Let us consider a few examples of analytical difficulties of this complex, multidimensional landscape:

  • There can be metamodern elements in singular works of arts and culture long before today’s wave of metamodern arts (Salvador Dalí, for instance, is generally termed to be a “modernist” in art history text books, but a quick analysis of his paintings reveals a strong postmodern current with significant metamodern elements);
  • there can be minorities of people with metamodern personalities and values in a society that is dominated by modern values and institutions but in which there are also large minorities with pre-modern and postmodern values and corresponding stages of personal development;
  • there can be philosophers who work from an underlying metamodern paradigm but fail to see and name that same paradigm (or choose not to, for various reasons);
  • there can be metamodernist movements manned and driven by people who do not embody corresponding stages of personal development;
  • there can be agents who tap into the social logics pertaining to the metamodern meta-meme, but who do not themselves think and act in accordance with metamodern cultural sensibilities;
  • there can be leaders who enact the cultural logic of the metamodern phase in their communication and agency, but who are themselves by no means metamodernists and do not lead metamodern movements (Seth Abramson has made this case for Donald Trump);
  • there can be artists who partake in exploring metamodernism as a movement and cultural phase, but whose work is largely devoid of metamodern elements;
  • there can be entire societies affected by the social logic of the metamodern meta-meme, but the institutions of which are still modern or even pre-modern…

… and so forth. Hopefully, then, the analytical fog can clear.

Different methods and analytical tools are required to study, understand and enact each of these six dimensions. Metamodern sociology must be one that non-arbitrarily traverses this landscape of six dimensions, selecting and coordinating appropriate theories and methods to understand the different dimensions and their interrelations. For instance, an understanding of the metamodern stage of personal development cannot be understood through further developments of cultural theory; it requires a solid foundation in developmental psychology and adult development. Likewise, developmental psychology alone cannot guide the understanding of how metamodern institutions can be created in society for it to self-organize at a transnational, global level, tackling wicked issues such as climate change and technological disruption. All six paths must be mastered, not by one single person (that is all but impossible), but by the community of students of metamodernism. These students must, in turn, be capable of communicating across these six dimensions and be able to grant recognition and fair, critical appraisal of one another’s work from different angles.

As for periodization, this can only become meaningful retrospectively, once the dimensions of study are specified. If one argues, for instance, that we live today in a cultural phase of metamodernism, and finds examples thereof in arts and popular culture – which are distinct from postmodern sensibilities of critique, irony and deconstruction – then one misses the obvious fact that we do not today live in a society organized around metamodern institutions, i.e. institutions created against the backdrop of a metamodern philosophical paradigm and governed by populations at metamodern stages of personal development. In other words: This one-dimensional analysis misconstrues a late modern society, with postmodern elements, as being “metamodern” and thus cuts the impetus for a truly metamodern movement short.

Likewise, naturally, modernity can be periodized either as a 20th century phenomenon, as stretching back to the beginnings of industrialism, as rooted in the Enlightenment, as emerging during the Scientific Revolution of the 1600s, as appearing in the arts and culture of the Renaissance when perspective entered into painting and the modern Western musical scale was completed in the 1400s, to precocious late medieval thinkers of science and progress like Roger Bacon – or even to forms of proto-modernity in antiquity and the state formation of Qin China. Modernity is a qualitative, not a chronological, category.

The same can be said about postmodernism, the earliest signs of which harken back to the Enlightenment (with Rousseau), clear forms begin to emerge during the 19th century, dominant forms take hold in what is conventionally called “modern” art in the first half of the 20th century, and clearly formulated philosophies of postmodernism (often tied to poststructuralism) which stretch back to at least the 1960s – and then becoming a dominant social logic or phase in the 1990s’ popular culture.

I would like to stop for one more caveat. A distinction should be made between students of metamodernism who stop at the descriptive stage of inquiry, and those (like myself) who combine a descriptive and prescriptive approach. I believe that, if one sees and understands metamodernism in this richer and more multi-dimensional sense, one cannot remain entirely neutral to the developmental path of society; one is morally compelled to act to bring about a metamodern society, reorganizing the limits to the systemic dynamics and life-worlds of modernity. Just as medieval society appears crude, irrational and immoral to the modern mind, so does modern society appear needlessly grim and “un-enlightened” to the metamodern observer. Hence, I should like to underscore that the metamodern sociology of which I propose an outline in this article can and will have a prescriptive and normative element: with sincere irony, with informed naivety, with pragmatic romanticism, it is a moral imperative for metamodern sociology to study society in ways that can offer self-critically held proto-syntheses; visions and plans for a qualitatively different and ethically desirable future society.

It should further be underscored that this moral impetus does not come from a posited “direction of history”, from the idea that metamodernism is a later or future period or epoch; if “progress” is tied to time and arbitrarily delineated epochs rather than to analytical distinctions and categories, one is promptly returned to the teleological fallacy, i.e. in believing that time itself progresses history along a certain pregiven axis of linear development. The moral impetus emerges, instead, from the ethics and sensibilities of the metamodern mind and from an understanding of the advantages, in terms of human and non-human animal thriving and reduced quantities of suffering, conferred by the emergence of metamodern society and its societal properties. Metamodern psychology emerges from modern psychology, transcending and including it; the same is true of a metamodern philosophy and ethics; and the same is true of a metamodern society. Metamodern society is not a utopian vision[vi]; it is simply another social logic that flows developmentally from modernity, taken to its own endpoint, which is postmodernism, taken to its own endpoint, which is metamodernism.

Sociology in an evolutionary context

Let us now revisit sociology as an academic discipline evolving in rhythm with society, so that it may be considered from a distinctly metamodern perspective. In this view, there is modern sociology (but not quite a pre-modern one; it begins there), a postmodern sociology, and then the potential for a revamped form of the discipline – a metamodern sociology.

Since its programmatic formulation in the 19th century, despite eager and repeated efforts from the onset, sociology has never fully managed to establish itself as a “science” in the sense that its basic theories and tenets can be agreed upon by all practitioners and be taught in textbooks. The textbooks of sociology to this day still all present an array of different and partly competing, partly overlapping, perspectives, methodologies and models. Whereas the natural sciences also depend upon the society of the people who ask the questions and perform the research, they allow for a certain distance to the shared and experienced life-worlds of everyday life. Inquires of social science, in contrast, have a considerably closer tie to the issues and questions pertaining to a certain society in a certain time – to everyday life. Mechanisms for alleviating poverty are only studied in a society in which people feel that this is a realistic and meaningful endeavor; ethnographic studies of honor killings can only crop up in a society in which a significant group views such practices as alien, harmful and immoral; questions of the nature of the relation between states, markets and civil society can only emerge in a context where these categories are viewed as defined objects in the first place – and so forth.

Hence, sociology has largely reflected and partaken in the dominant strands of thought and understanding of society at large – from a distinctly modern sociology, geminating in the 18th century with Montesquieu and Tocqueville, originating in the middle 19th century with Comte, peaking with its programmatic formulation in the “classics” (Marx, Spencer, Weber, Durkheim, Tönnies, Dubois, Martineau – with premonitions of later developments in rogue thinkers like Gabriel Tarde and Georg Simmel), maturing, aging and decaying in the mid-20th century with Talcott Parson’s structural functionalism, and surviving to this day in the form of conventional, quantitative studies of social phenomena – to a distinctly postmodern turn, beginning in the 1960s with social constructionism, “French theory” and poststructuralism, taking over the bastions of conventional academia within social science and humanities in the 1980s and 1990s with various strands of critical theory, discourse analysis, the linguistic turn, radical constructivism (rather than “constructionism”), feminist scholarship, queer theory, postcolonialism and intersectionality.

Between these two bodies of intellectual and social pursuit – modern and postmodern sociology – one can place certain figures and strands that served as portals between the two realms of thought and research; ideas that were proto-postmodern and in that sense “before their time”: Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge, Levi-Strauss’ structuralist anthropology (harkening back to Saussure’s linguistic structuralism of the 1920s, and later radicalized into full-fledged postmodern poststructuralism in the hands of Foucault and other French theorists), the symbolic interactionism that grew from Goffman’s situationist sociology of everyday life and its rituals, Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology (the study of how people in practice implicate a larger social order underlying each everyday interaction) – and, of course, the Frankfurt School and other strands of humanist socialism and psychoanalysis. All of these started bonfires in the project of modern sociology, particularly against the backdrop of the socialist and humanist campus radicalism of 1968 and the 1970s; fires that spread and eventually reached the heart of the discipline, reshaping it in its entirety.

Modern sociology is driven, in some way or form, by a will to understand society “as an object” by means of the scientific method, and thus ultimately to reshape it in accordance with a “rational” will of the observer. This holds true whether it is Marx’s view of stages of economic and societal development, Durkheim’s (pre-)statistical study of “social facts” (such as the suicide rates that reproduce themselves with frightening regularity in different segments of a given society from year to year), or Weber’s attempt to use a qualitative analysis of ideas, values and religion as driving forces and his study of the emergence of a distinctly “modern” state bureaucracy, market and civil society.

All of these observers try to somehow understand what modern society is by using, in some sense, “scientific” approaches. When Comte coined the term “sociology” in 1838 (although it has recently been shown that this was not a first), he imagined it as an entirely positivist science, one that would study society as a natural object like any other, and eventually serve to bring full rationality to all human relations, including the organization of the other (natural) sciences. He thus imagined a developmental model of society in which a scientific modern society was the final stage, and here sociology would take its place as the governing principle, establishing itself as “the queen of the sciences”.

Whereas the other classical modern theorists were not as direct and grandiose in their understanding of sociology (except, perhaps Marx who didn’t directly subscribe to the term “sociology”, but claimed to have discovered the science of how society develops), they were all somehow part of this underlying project. It is true that Weber departed from positivism in favor of a more interpretative sociology, but he still described modern society as rational and driven by a goal-rational order. Durkheim described rites and rituals in religions, and held that even modern people are in some sense religious, and tribal religions in some sense rational (even “irrational” beliefs can be shown to have “rational” underpinnings and functions from a societal perspective) – but Durkheim did subscribe to the “pregiven” ontological reality of social facts that can be studied “objectively” by means of empirical research. In other words, modern sociology was a child of modernity and its roots in the Enlightenment.

Postmodern sociology revolted against the modern project itself. The underlying supposition that a precise and correct understanding of society could bring about societal progress was put into serious question. The French philosopher Derrida’s sophisticated “deconstruction” became a north star of this cultural and academic sentiment: the issue is not to “objectively describe” the social world, but to look to its cracks, its exceptions, its loopholes, its paradoxes, its self-contradictions and underlying meanings. As long as the observer takes the presuppositions of society, which are layered in language itself, for granted, she can never truly study society from “from the outside”, since she will always be caught within the conceptual structures of that same society.

The postmodern mind notes that, yes, the truth may set you free, it may well emancipate individuals and groups in society, but the truth is never a straightforward matter of facts and method. The question is always, and always remains, “whose truth?”. The critical, postmodern, sociologist feels that there is not one path to the truth. The truth is always context dependent, and never free from issues of preconception, the cognitive schemata of the observer. These, in turn, are always dependent upon society itself and its organization, which is always infinitely larger than one’s own perspective thereof. Society and “the social” constitute a stronger and more pervasive force than modern sociology could have believed. Behind every truth claim there is a corresponding claim to power and authority, and truth-seeking and ideas of progress can never be entirely divorced from power relations in society, from specific interests and worldviews. Hence, all of science and all of the applications of social science are dependent upon the social position and perspective of the observer. There is never, in Thomas Nagel’s words, “a view from nowhere”. This echoes, of course, the philosophy of Nietzsche and his notion of “the death of God”, a clear premonition of postmodern philosophy. The proposition that “God is dead” should hence not be understood theologically, but epistemically; as soon as one takes a particular, situated, perspective to be universal and independent of the observer, one has implicitly introduced a “God” into the equation, i.e. a belief in an ultimately umpire of truth claims. But this umpire is, in reality, always out of reach.

I would argue, thus, that postmodernism represents a form of higher secularization vis-à-vis modernity. Modernity makes short notice of the traditional God above the clouds, the God of private revelations of singular prophets. The modern mind commits itself to public revelation by means of a scientific community, verifying or falsifying the factual and explanatory claims of each researcher. It is based upon objectivity-through-mutuality. Postmodernism points out that these verifications and falsifications will always be dependent upon the shared taken-for-granted worldviews, values and interests of the scientific community, which itself is always located within a society that defines the rules and limits of any inquiry. Most questions, of all possible ones, are simply never asked; most interpretations never considered. As such, postmodernism finishes what modernism started; it kills off not only the literal (theological) God but also the implicit (epistemological) God-behind-the-scenes.

Such limits to the scope of inquiry are never arbitrary; they are themselves structured in recognizable manners, usually revealing a power structure of some kind. A simple example from today’s world: Scientific inquiry has long shown a close connection between humanity and the animal realm; yet, serious inquiries into the ethical consequences of this indisputable fact remain a fringe issue in the sciences and in society at large. Animal rights is viewed as a non-respectable and quite secondary issue, despite its enormous consequences in terms of real, ongoing suffering. This is not due to some methodological fault on behalf of science and research, but rather to the weak position that non-human animals have within our society. Unable to organize and to voice their perspective, the questions of animals, a simple “why?” in the face of imprisonment, slavery and industrial violence, are simply almost never raised, and when raised, seldom taken seriously.

Truth, then, is a slave to power. How, then, can the truth break free? The postmodern mind employs critical theory and a deconstructive sociology, to somehow grasp the surrounding culture, the construction of meaning, morality and norms. This is an excavation of the underlying power structures that shape us so fundamentally that it precedes even our ability to ask a question, to make a certain kind of truth claim, even our direct perceptions. And this is revealed by systematically examining the self-contradictions and paradoxes of modern society, its language and meaning-making.

For this reason, the postmodern mind eschews all “grand narratives”, in the words of Lyotard. It is incredulous towards the overarching “liberal” world, and even to its Marxist-Leninist alternative. The direction of development is not pregiven, not ordained; time is not an arrow pointing towards progress. If you believe in one given “background space” within which you place society and your sociological inquiry, then you will always end up reproducing the claim to power inherent in that pregiven background space. There is, rather, a multiplicity of perspectives, each with their respective underlying power claims – and it is by breaking such perspectives against one another, in a “parallax view” (Zizek), that the inconsistencies of each single one is revealed. No one has the truth, not even the physicists. There is no “ground of reality” and no high priest who knows what it is.

Where does this, then, leave the postmodern mind? In a perpetual questioning, an infinity of intellectual and cultural resistance; in ever new variations of critique. Foucault is the emblematic example of this position. He and other intellectuals take on a role corresponding to the priesthood in traditional societies; they chastise us and question us with the fervor that stems from seeing a more ethical and fairer world, one that is always, in practice, impossible.

By no means is the postmodern questioning of the modern world complete. It has produced many cultural victories, from feminism, to anti-racism, to anti-postcolonialism, to revealing the hidden injuries of class – all of which have fueled movements and emancipations. But to this day, animal rights, to name one issue, has remained peripheral and animal slavery largely unquestioned.

And yet it is not a stretch to claim that the postmodern critique has reached an impasse as an academic project. The postmodern intellectuals have retreated into the ivory towers of academia, refining the code and critical methodologies, but decoupling themselves from leadership and creative reorganizations of society’s institutions that are direly needed. A widespread resistance to postmodernism has taken hold in politics, in internet rogue intellectuals, and in the sentiments of society at large. Different forms of neo-reactionary, conservative and identitarian or “alt-right” movements have stolen the momentum and the imagination of a generation of young. These have tired of the cynicism and self-critique of postmodernism and its corresponding sociology, longing for a less bewildering and more self-assertive stance towards life, society and existence. The postmodern stance of perpetual questioning simply does not allow for hope, sincerity and belief, as these are always taken to be new forms of oppression in disguise.

And this is where metamodern sociology enters the picture. It begins from a similar move, one of further secularization. If postmodern sociology always posits that there are power structures controlling our behaviors and knowledge claims, metamodern sociology eschews even this belief. Rather, metamodern sociology begins from the proposition that power structures are only truly surface phenomena, shadows of a deeper and impersonal reality: the reality of complex emergences that crisscross one another. There are hence, ultimately, no power structures to “question” or even simply “remove”. Instead, there are processes that guide the emergence of the perspectives in the world, and this in turn guides behaviors and results.

Because we cannot relate to society without taking a position based upon our perspective, the metamodern mind argues, we should own up to the perspective that we take, and the developmental direction implied by that view. We should then deliberately employ the sociological methods to shape society, its culture, institutions and economy, in this desired direction. This sense of direction is held, again, with sincere irony. We may know full well that our perspectives are limited and our visions partly imaginary, but we choose to take the risk, with informed naivety.

Postmodernism can only ever be a critique of the existing modern society, affecting some patterns here and there. Metamodernism, as a movement and sentiment, seeks to suggest new paths for society altogether: a new overarching equilibrium. This has long been taboo in the social sciences. But it is time that the taboo is broken, and that creative minds use the sociological imagination to suggest concrete futures and make visible new potentials.

In this sense, metamodern sociology marries the progressive impetus of modern sociology and its will to take modernity “as an object” that can be shaped and directed, to the multi-perspectival, deconstructive and “ironic” stance of postmodern sociology. This can, admittedly, be done in more or less fruitful manners. At worst, it is a shotgun wedding, where the worst of both worlds are combined – for instance, an undermining of scientific rigor in the name of relativism and unrealistic suggestions about a future utopia. At best, it is a nimble bifurcation between critique and progress, where new suggestions are carefully scrutinized and evolved. Or better yet, borrowing a term from quantum physics: metamodernism holds the modern idea of progress and the postmodern critique in superposition to one another – depending upon the participant perspective of the observer, each new inquiry can lead either to critique and resistance, or towards a path to deep progress.

If modern sociology is about “reality”, the societal facts of the matter, and postmodern sociology is about “perspective”, the differing views of the facts of the matter, then metamodern sociology is about “potentials”, i.e. the larger realm of all possibilities contained within the multiplicity of mutually interacting perspectives. Metamodern sociology thus seeks to reorganize the generative conditions of how all of these perspectives emerge, evolve and interact.

Modern sociology asks: What is society?

Postmodern sociology asks: How is society viewed, by whom, and why?

Metamodern sociology asks: How do these views of society emerge, and how can they be made to emerge in ways that are beneficial from a multiplicity of weighted and compared views?

The generative conditions of perspective in its necessary multiplicity. This is the ultimate object of study for a metamodern sociology. Metamodern sociology thus takes up the task of cataloging, understanding, comparing, and non-arbitrarily evaluating the many perspectives of society, self, and reality. The evaluation of perspectives is, of course, only something that can be done by having some over-arching meta-theory or larger conceptual space within which the perspectives can be placed in relation to one another. Hence, the metamodern divorce from the postmodern is completed: the postmodern mind would not have allowed for the formulation of an over-arching meta-theory, a narrative of narratives, a perspective of perspectives. And yet, this is what each metamodern sociologist must work on: a suggested map of meaning, one that can always evolve and be scrutinized by others – or “co-developed”.

This map-making is, naturally, an enormous task that can never be concluded. But it is only through such a work that one can hope to suggest pathways for society which, for all future, will consist of many competing and contradicting perspectives. Deconstructing and critiquing perspectives of others, or even of oneself, cannot be enough. One must, sooner or later, reveal from which meta-theory one is working, and from there on say how and why the great multiplicity of perspectives can be evolved. This is a synthesis of modern and postmodern sociology; but as the metamodern mind also builds upon and attempts to transcend and include the postmodern perspective, it must always remain a proto-synthesis – i.e. not a synthesis held to describe the actual development of what Hegel called the world-soul, but a “good enough for now, safe enough to try” attempt to act in good faith.

Hence, beyond its intellectual underpinnings, metamodern sociology is also an act of faith – of ironic piety – or even, if you will, of enlightened madness.

Describing metamodern sociology

Let us then examine some properties of metamodern sociology in its current embryonic form. To reveal my own (hopefully) enlightened madness, I would like to stress that these tenets are my own postulates, and that they can and should be challenged and developed.

Developmentalism of perspectives. It is a tenet of metamodern sociology that perspectives are not arbitrarily ordered, but that they emerge in recognizable patterns. A poststructuralist critique of literature has never emerged in a tribal society with no writing; quantum theory has never emerged in a traditional, pre-modern, society. Even if strands of thought can be linked backwards in history (process philosophy back to Heraclitus and so forth), there are indeed specific ideas that build upon one another: multiplication builds upon addition. And these sequences are, in turn, always dependent upon social and material – ultimately, even biological – conditions, with which they interact. Postmodernism did not emerge before modernism, nor could it have. For this reason, metamodern sociology always looks for meaningful and explanatory developmental sequences, putting them into relation to one another on some kind of developmental scale. This developmentalism thus accepts at least some minimal form of stage theories; and these stage theories are not mere phases (childhood, maturity, old age) but indeed stages (addition, multiplication, power functions). Each stage must be, in clearly definable terms, either more complex than the former, or, at a minimum, be derived from the former and qualitatively distinct. For instance, one may study how people, such as police officers, think about an issue like “race and ethnicity”; some will reflect upon these matters in simpler terms, “black people commit more crimes”, others in more nuanced and complex terms “some groups in society are underprivileged and are thus driven into crime more easily”, and some in yet more complex terms “through my work and perspective, I have a role in recreating the crime statistics that keep up the over-policing of some ethnic groups, which breeds exclusion and resentment in these groups”. In the minds of different observers with distinct perspectives, the same phenomenon appears differently, with different conclusions. These three suggested perspectives are not merely outcomes of different personalities, but they build upon one another: there is a developmental sequence – and if more police officers are supported to independently being able to think in accordance with the more complex perspective, this is likely to be more aligned with their dealings with the complexities of society and criminal justice. To eschew all developmental sequences of such perspectives is to flatten the view, as it were, projecting a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional surface. This is what the metamodern sociologist calls “developmental blindness”. Unfortunately, postmodern sociology is more or less developmentally blind, which explains a large part of its impotence to create workable pathways for culture and society to take.

Meta-theory and map-making. It is another unfortunate limitation to contemporary sociology that students are not taught comprehensive maps of the theoretical landscape of sociological theories, so that choice of theory and perspective can be selected non-arbitrarily, with well-argued motivations. There is a severe lack of meta-theory. Rather, the choice of theory, and indeed, the entirety of academic careers, are based upon which theories happen to “speak to” the individual scholar, often being defined by earlier work on the particular topic of study. Sociologists become “interactionists”, “constructivist feminists”, “Marxists”, “middle-range theory institutionalists” and so forth, depending upon whim and chance, often unable to communicate meaningfully across these sub-disciplinary boundaries. This is an enormous waste of potential, as the meta-theoretical space is sub-optimized. To be fair, prominent sociologists like Jeffrey Alexander and Georg Ritzer have indeed presented meta-theoretical maps of the territory, but these have not taken a central place in the education of sociologists, and a researcher is generally not expected to give convincing reasons for his or her position within a larger meta-theoretical map. Neither do a few courses on the “philosophy of social science” grant students a comprehensive map, as these also simply enumerate a host of competing positions. Metamodern sociology is different: It begins and ends in meta-theory, always naming the underlying meta-theory, one’s own theoretical position within it, and always returning to the meta-theoretical map once the theoretical and empirical dive is concluded, feeding something back to this fundamental “ground-level” of social science. A good place to start is Ken Wilber’s comprehensive work on “integral theory”, which includes several important meta-theoretical maps – but it is a telling sign that one must look to relatively esoteric writers beyond the discipline, like Wilber, to find good material for such mappings. In short, the emergence of the many perspectives in sociology and its large body of theories is not arbitrary; it covers different aspects of injunctions into the nature of society. If there is any one thing that particularly prevents sociology as an academic discipline from becoming a proper “science”, it is this lack of meta-theoretical maps – all the perspectives and injunctions end up beings “smashed together” in a grand, confusing hotchpotch. By going to the source, to the map-making of the sociological territory, one can begin to restore order to this cosmos, and thus specify which truth claims are relevant as basic tenets of each form of injunction, ridding the landscape of redundant and contradictory theories. Metamodern sociology must thus work from a more highly abstracted and complex level, zooming in on different phenomena from different theoretical perspectives, all the time explicating why and how each zoom is made. Naturally, one’s meta-theoretical map – if you will, one’s underlying paradigm made explicit – will also shape one’s view of what society is and how it functions.

Fractal methodology. In a corresponding manner, choice of research methods and methodological considerations must be based upon which injunction into reality is being made, i.e. it must be non-arbitrarily selected against the backdrop of a meta-theoretical map, and how the studied phenomenon is located on the meta-theoretical map. The crux here is to avoid that research is steered primarily by the “sunk costs” of the time and effort it takes to master each research method, qualitative or quantitative, a division that today divides the discipline. It is not realistic that all researchers should be able to master all methods of research, but the methodological development of each scholar should be strategized in relation to their position on the meta-theoretical map and the sociological community as a whole should optimize its distribution of research skills, while investing time and effort in learning a shared language that facilitates bridges between different methodologies and research programs.

Holistic. Bearing in mind that “holistic” already has a meaning within sociology, and that the term is used as a catchphrase in many context, often meaning an acceptance and inclusion of “spiritual” aspects of life, it should still be underscored that metamodern sociology is a holistic endeavor, albeit of another kind. Holism, in this context, should be contrasted with “reductionism”, and it flows from the above point about meta-theory. Much sociological ink has been spilled considering the relation between material (economic, technological conditions) and the culture of society. Reductionism, in its different guises, holds that either a) the economic system, or b) the overarching culture and its inherent meaning-making and implicit power relations, or c) the interactions and rituals of everyday life, or d) the social-psychological process of how humans are socialized and their personalities are formed, constitutes the “most fundamental” aspect of society, to which its other dimensions can ultimately be reduced (hence, “reductionism”, note that this includes cultural reductionism). The metamodern sociologist uses a meta-theoretical map to study how, at a minimum, these four dimensions emerge together; how they interact and define each other. Hence, one cannot arbitrarily seek to explain societal phenomena from any one of these fundamental fields of emergence. Depending on how elaborate one’s meta-theoretical map is (others are possible, not just these four fields), one is obliged to always explain the phenomenon as holistically as possible, not leaving out any dimension, or at least explaining why and how one limits one’s inquiry. In an expanded sense, this holistic perspective should reach into the body, both as a biological-medical entity, and as a lived and felt embodiment of social experience – as well as into the biosphere and ecology.

Transpersonal perspective. This one flows, in turn, from the above tenet. The transpersonal perspective holds that society consists neither of atomized or interacting individuals, nor of societal systems and cultural structures and collectives, nor even of networks of people. Rather, lending from disciplines such as depth psychology and deconstructive critiques of the “individual self” in cognitive science, the metamodern sociologist views humans as multi-layered, open, interacting processes that emerge together – one’s agency cannot clearly be delineated from another, nor from the society within which it unfolds. For instance, you can use a marketing strategy (an artefact found in a book, a societal condition) to affect my purchasing behaviors without my knowledge thereof; where, then, does my agency originate? Neither in the individual nor the collective, neither in you nor in me. This approaches, of course, what Gilles Deleuze called “the dividual”. The transpersonal perspective views behavior, and perspectives, as emergent through and beyond the individual. In this sense, human happiness and suffering are also emergent at the transpersonal level, at the level of depth psychology shaped by society, but also, on higher layers of the conscious mind, actively acting upon that same society. This leads us, clearly, to questions about how our “self” emerges in society and how it evolves over the life-span, inexorably linking metamodern sociology to developmental psychology and the stages of adult development – hence to issues of healing, trauma, and the human body. For instance: How much does unhealed trauma steer the political behavior of members of society?

Complexity and emergence. Norbert Wiener famously wrote an article about complexity; the evolution from mechanics (linear, predictable causation) to chemistry (aggregates of many processes, each of which is unpredictable, but that statistically add up to a predicable whole) to complexity (highly unlikely events, that emerge against all apparent odds through complex interactions, such as the emergence of biological life). Sociology has, naturally, followed a similar path: from Comte’s focus on “forces”, lending from the mechanics of his time, to a statistical science with quantitative method, apparent already in Durkheim but flourishing after the breakthroughs in mathematical statistics in the 1920s, to a search for ways to describe complex emergences in many contemporary sociologists. Metamodern sociology may well employ mechanical and statistical thinking and methods, but its home base must remain firmly based within complexity. A distinction can here be made between “lateral complexity”, which looks at how patterns emerge through the interactions of many smaller units (championed by e.g. the Santa Fe Institute and the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and cybernetics of different brands), and “hierarchical complexity”, which studies how more complex phenomena, including behavioral and cognitive patterns, emerge from less complex ones (championed by Michael Lamport Commons). This holds an important key in the divorce from the postmodern focus on “power structures”; the metamodern sociologist generally views pathologies in society as not one monolithic structure, but as an emergent pattern of many smaller, often counter-intuitively trivial, occurrences. Further, limitations to extensions of solidarity and oppressive factors in people’s lives, are viewed as pertaining to limitations to hierarchical complexity, i.e. that complex phenomena are somehow treated with a flattened, too simple, perspective. This is a less moralistic and more dispassionately descriptive intuition to build from.

Self-development and participation. Last but not least, the metamodern sociologist must understand that her own inquiry into any matter is an act of participation, which always affects the questions asked, the interpretations made, the findings presented. For this reason, the metamodern inquirer must always return to looking inwards, and to support her own healing and development in terms of theory/perspective, paradigm, stage of cognitive complexity, emotional foundation and motivations for inquiry, and relation to the field of study and society at large. Freud famously suggested that Napoleon conquered Europe to get back at his big brother. Correspondingly, the sociologist can easily spend a lifetime studying male oppression to address the trauma of a poor father and some disappointing boyfriends. More often than we like to believe, each of us is driven by simpler and cruder logics, interests and emotions than we would like to admit – and this will naturally shape any inquiry we undertake in society. Hence, the question becomes how one’s sociological inquiry is embodied within oneself. Naturally, emotions and reactions against perceived faults injustices in society constitute a legitimate source of motivation for sociological inquiry, but it is the task of the critically minded sociologist to scrutinize even one’s own moral outrage – or, for that matter, one’s indifference and boredom – towards societal issues. From a holistic, meta-theoretical and transpersonal view, work must be done where it is due, and sociological analysis does not exempt any observer from issues pertaining to the deeply personal and psychological realm. This leads us, again, to issues of depth psychology, even to forms of self-development and self-exploration that include contemplations, meditation and in some cases responsible use of psychedelics. This is because our sensing and wounded selves always participate in our sociological endeavors.

Key questions about metamodernism and society

Let us turn again to the second meaning of a “metamodern sociology”, namely the sociology about metamodernism. There are, of course, countless imaginable topics of such a field, but some few currently stand out in terms of their obviousness and pertinence.

  • Developmental demographics – how are different populations in different societies distributed across the stages of adult development (and in which kinds of adult development?), and how does this affect said societies and their interactions? Which demographics begin to display metamodern values, and which roles do these play in society?
  • How do developmental differences of perspective play out in society, and how can arising conflicts be mitigated, narratives translated and mutuality or solidarity across different perspectives be improved? How can metamodern perspective be situated and employed to serve such mediating purposes?
  • How do the institutions and culture of society affect and generate different distributions of developmental demographics? How can inner development be supported throughout society – empirically speaking? What problems or obstacles complicate and/or prevent such measures?
  • Which different pathways, social settings and cultural practices lead people to partake in metamodern movements and sentiments – and how do these interact? My own suggestion here has been that certain segments of the creative class should be studied: Hipsters, Hackers and Hippies (Triple-H). The first segment constitutes those who work with inner dimensions and subjective states, the second segment with symbols, arts, culture and narratives, the third with technology and information. These three cross-pollinate to create metamodern culture. I have later suggested the addition of a fourth segment (hence, a Quadruple-H population): the Hermetics. This last group work with meaning-creation, inventing symbols and rituals that try to grasp cultural realities that are yet only intuited. They are called Hermetics after the occult Renaissance movement, corresponding to the seeking for larger meaning patterns (believed at the time to be found in an original source identified as Hermes Trismegistus). Each of these groups have their own brands of excesses and pathologies (suggestions – Hippies: new age cults; Hipsters: cultural snobbery and ivory towers; Hackers: techno-utopian tunnel-vision of the Silicon Valley style; Hermetics: slides into anti-scientific occultism and complex flirtations with the far right) – and they have different lines of convergence and conflict. Metamodern movements must become proficient at including and mediating between these strands, while being able to discern pathological and excessive elements. This, I believe is a rich field of study!
  • The economy of cultural and informational capital – including the battle for human time and attention. This playing field of the internet economy, and its networked logic, is where metamodernism emerges, thrives and goes awry.
  • The mapping out of different utopias (and eutopias, “the good place”), their interrelations and how they connect to the metamodern, and their cultural dynamics in society, and how they relate to attractor points in the development of society, i.e. to new balances and social logics that are likely to grow and manifest in society given its current dynamics.

There are, clearly, central issues about metamodernism of which we still today know very little – and where the work of prescient researchers can make all the difference. Only one such topic is enough to fill the career of a talented social scientist. Seeing that metamodernism is not per se a “good” phenomenon, but a descriptive of certain elements that can be argued to be fruitful or harmful from different perspectives, few things are more important than exploring “the metamodern” from the perspective of rigorous research.

I hope this article can inspire fellow scholars to engage in metamodern sociology and begin the important work of describing the metamodern.

To conclude, sociology and metamodernism both share a key concern: to take modern society “as an object” that can be described, interpreted, related to, and ultimately reshaped; both entities work to see through and go beyond the modern. Hence, the argument can be made, that metamodernism belongs at the heart of the future of the sociological discipline, i.e. a sociology true to its own promises must become metamodern in its perspective – and, conversely, that sociology belongs at the heart of metamodernism. When metamodernism attempts to assert itself as a new self-organizing principle of society, it must be able to “see” modernity as the substrate upon which it operates. This follows, as the reader may have noticed, the pattern of subject-object theory: that with which one was earlier identified and took for granted, one’s “subject”, becomes an “object of awareness” from the new and higher vantage point — higher, of course, according to one’s developmentally informed meta-theory.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ’12 Commandments’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

[i] Freinacht, Hanzi, 2017: The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One. Wroclaw: Metamoderna.

[ii] “Modernity is a Qualitative, Not a Chronological, Category”, is taken from Theodor

Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott, London

1978, p. 218.

[iii] Vermeulen, Timothy and van der Akker, “Periodising in Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect, and Depth after Postmodernism (Radical Cultural Studies),

[iv] Giddens, A., 1990, in “Classical modernity and late modernity”, p. 38.

[v] Hargens, Sean-Esbjörn, 2010. An Ontology of Climate Change. Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 5(1), pp. 143–174.

[vi] Freinacht, Hanzi, 2019: Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two. Wroclaw: Metamoderna.

New, Graduate-level Course on Metamodernism Available

We are pleased to announce a new, graduate-level course on metamodernism with Emil Ejner Friis and Daniel Görtz.

Last year’s Metamodern Masterclass was a great pleasure to design and organize. My own expectations were easily surpassed. All tickets sold out, reviews were positive, students learned advanced metamodern theory, teachers developed their skills and perspectives, and new networks were formed, new alliances forged, new horizons explored. The crowd gathered was a delightfully balanced representation of the Hacker, Hippies, Hipsters, and Hermatics, as the theories themselves would predict.

This year’s course will be held in July 1st – 26th. If you want 2024 to be the summer of new perspectives, of metamodernism, by all means read on and find out more about the course content and how to sign up.

This masterclass will be an intense experience. It is by far the most advanced offered thus far, corresponding to a university graduate-level course. The masterclass is specifically designed for those wanting to ground their lives and livelihoods in metamodern theory, practice, values, and networks.

If you want to acquire the deepest understanding about metamodernism available, and then use that as a grounding for your life (professionally, personally, politically) this is the course for you. It won’t be easy, but it is doable, and it is – we believe – what the world needs more people to dare to try.

HOW IT WORKS

The course runs for 2½h/day of presentations and workshops (19:00 – 21:30 CEST), plus (optional) daily course work of about 1h: (reading, reflection, preparation, application, etc.), Monday-Friday for three weeks. If you miss the live sessions, you can watch recordings. To those who are interested, there will be hangout sessions at the end of each class.

It is recommended that you are familiar with metamodernism beforehand (for instance, having read Hanzi Freinacht’s books) and that you commit significant time, concentration, and effort in order to benefit from the course.

The course chiefly includes new and hitherto unpublished content and discussions – and includes thorough sneak-peeks on coming Hanzi books. The course material (articles, etc.) for each day is sent out weekly during the course. This is included in the masterclass.

After the 3-week masterclass itself, there is a 1-week PRACTICE WORKSHOP. Here we will work together to get every participant into the “game of life” faced by metamodern-inclined people who wish to make it in the world, to succeed, to contribute, to find their tribes, and to manage their roles within mainstream society.

The masterclass is followed up with one personal call with the tutors, wherein feedback is offered for the further development of learning, perspective, and possible next steps. This is instead of a formal examination: you create something within your own field and the tutors offer feedback from the perspective of what has been discussed during the course.

Additionally, the masterclass offers great opportunities for networking and co-creating projects with the other participants.

We warmly look forward to taking this journey with you. May we together bring the metamodern network to life in the real world, in your life, and beyond.

MASTERCLASS schedule:

Week 1: FULLER UNDERSTANDING OF METAMODERNISM (from the upcoming Hanzi Freinacht books)

  • Monday: The Six Metamemes and The General Principle of “Skewed” Development
  • Tuesday: The Hidden Rhythm of History (and how to make world history your dance floor)
  • Wednesday: The Golden “Art-Always-Comes-First” Principle
  • Thursday: Outcompeting Capitalism
  • Friday: The New Class Analysis (and where you fit in)

Week 2: DEEP DIVES

  • Monday: How to Recognize Metamodern Culture in Daily Life
  • Tuesday: The Both-Ands of Metamodernism
  • Wednesday: -=[ participatory symposium ]=-
  • Thursday: The Destruction of Postmodernism by AI
  • Friday: The Depth Psychology of Aesthetics

Week 3: NEW HORIZONS

  • Monday: Attractor Points, Non-Linear Development, and the Secret Art of Seeing Around Corners
  • Tuesday: The Foundations of Metamodern Economics
  • Wednesday: The Core Principles of Metamodern Ethics and Justice
  • Thursday: Epistemic Corruption and Sensemaking
  • Friday: The Listening Society and How to Get There (before it’s too late)

— END OF COURSE —

PRACTICE WORKSHOP: Living and Thriving as a Metamodernist

  • Monday: Don’ts and Dos in Metamodern Life
  • Tuesday: Five Metamodern Career Paths (and how to pursue them)
  • Wednesday: Beating the New Enemy: Postmodern Sklavenmoral
  • Thursday: Staying Sane in a World on the Brink of Madness
  • Friday: Kill your Guru, Find your Meta-team

Pricing

The pricing is set to correspond to the lower end of what a university masters course of similar length would cost.

Abundant: £950
Standard: £900
Low income: £800 (limited to 10 places)

If you have questions and/or if you want to hear more about the course before you commit you are welcome to send an email to emil@metamoderna.org (with a short presentation of yourself) and schedule a video call with Daniel or Emil.

 

Tickets can be purchased here: https://dandelion.events/e/the-metamodern-academy

 

Your hosts

Daniel Görtz (b. 1983) has a Ph.D. in Sociology and has previously taught at the University of Lund in Sweden (social psychology, research methodology, criminology). During his conventional career, he was a police ethnographer who rode police cars all through the night and discussed matters of work, life, and racial profiling with open-hearted officers. Since those days, Daniel has moved into a chalet (with a Jacuzzi) in the Alps to write and philosophize alone, been part of the Berlin metamodernist scene, and worked as an in-house tech philosopher.

He remains a renegade scholar who lives and breathes ideas, research, teaching, and learning at the hinterlands of our times.

Emil Ejner Friis (b. 1981) is a theory artist and a teacher of metamodernism, he is a co-founder of Metamoderna and one of the writers behind Hanzi Freinacht. He has spent the last ten years trying to figure out how to create a listening society, a kinder and more developed society that deeply cares for the happiness and emotional needs of every citizen.

He has tried and failed at creating a metamodern political party, he has tried and failed at creating a metamodern IT company, and he has just plainly failed at ever finishing his not-so-metamodern university studies by being drawn to all kinds of adventures to try and save the world instead. For the past year, he’s been living on a remote tropical island where he has been swimming with dogs.

When he’s not writing and theorizing, he’s conspiring with other metamodernly inclined hackers, hipsters, and hippies to outcompete modern society. To pay the rent he sells words, all the best words.

Emil is a skilled and experienced speaker with a reputation of being entertaining and good at making complex ideas easier to digest.

Why Are So Many Metamodernists So Miserable? And What Can We Do about it?

Since I ventured into this crazy space of metamodern hackers, hipsters and hippies more than a decade ago, I’ve met an abundance of extraordinarily talented people; wonderful and kind individuals with great courage and fierce determination to make the world a better place—and with what can only fairly be described as correspondingly chaotic personal lives.

Over the years, I’ve met so many people who’ve completely crashed and burned despite having been quite functional and prosperous only a few years earlier. Oh boy, the things I have seen. I have seen people burning out, and in turn becoming chronically ill. I have seen people ending up poor and unemployed after years of dedicating their lives to projects that never lifted off. I have seen the typical problems with addiction and substances that follow from a hectic life filled with disappointments and lost chances. I have seen people getting lost in rabbit holes of misinformation and conspiracy theories. I have seen people leaving their families behind to join dangerous cults. I have seen people going crazy, behaving in weird and destructive ways. And I have seen people who’ve ended their own lives.

My book Nordic Ideology was dedicated to two friends who had killed themselves during the writing of the book. And I’m afraid that my next book is going to have similar sad dedications.

What’s going on? Why are so many of “us” feeling so miserable? And what can we do about it?

If we start with the whys, I believe there are three overarching reasons for the pain and suffering we find in our community:

1) Metamodernists Are Sensitive Creatures

The first reason is that metamodern folks tend to be highly sensitive people who’ve suffered emotional and spiritual trauma, not only from life in general, but also more specifically from the way modern society works.

It makes sense that many of those who dedicate their precious time and attention to the creation of a listening society do so because society is causing them, or has caused them, considerable pain and distress. After all, if life in the modern world had been a great experience, if things always tended to work out in one’s favor, and if things resonated deeply with one’s beliefs and values, why change anything?

The metamodern crowd is also more neurodiverse than the average bear. ADHD, autism, OCD, dyslexia, and so on, are all significantly overrepresented in the metamodern community (indicating that these far-from-equilibrium neurologies are conducive to metamodern perspectives). And there’s even an overrepresentation of people who’re gay, non-binary, transgender, or have other sexual orientations or gender identities diverging from the norm. As such, people are more likely to have had, and still have, difficulties in life. Accordingly, mental issues such as depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, and even psychoses are more prevalent in the metamodern community than in society at large.

But being sensitive and different is not the only thing that is making life difficult for many metamodernists; having vastly different values is in itself a root cause of mental unhappiness.

2) Having Vastly Different Values than Most People Sucks

In many ways, it really sucks to have values and perspectives that are, well, “lightyears ahead of the mainstream”, if we are to believe the metamodernist. Not only are you going to feel alienated and be misunderstood in many or most social settings of mainstream life, the same is likely to occur among the supposedly alternative and counter-culture folks. It’s not fun to be the only pomo in the village—but it’s even worse to be the only metamodernist in the metropolis. Or in the tunnel of postmodernist proselytes.

Metamodernists are so few and far between that adopting a metamodern mindset often becomes a very lonely journey. So, on the one hand, there’s the isolation from not being around others with similar values and perspectives, but there’s also the suffocating and alienating feeling that comes from living in an environment that subscribes to—in the eyes of the metamodernist—crude and stupid values and perspectives.

Both the isolation and the suffocation can make you sick. But that’s not all, it can also make you broke and unemployed.

3) Being Metamodern Makes You Unemployable in The Conventional Economy

Just think about it: Modernists won’t understand anything you say, and postmodernists will hate everything you say (unless you smalltalk or try to please them). And together with the earlier value memes, they make up around 97-99% or more of the population, depending on where you live. Obviously then, getting a job can be rather challenging, especially when you try to use some of your unique skills and perspectives in your work and no one understands or appreciates what it is that you do, or could be doing if you had a more accommodating environment to start from.

The thing is, value memes can’t be friends. And sometimes that even applies quite literally. I know people who have lost good friends after having become metamodern, or have started to have fights with their partners and loved ones over intellectual topics that never used to cause much discord before. People can generally be jovial about it if disagreement pertains to different points of view within the same value meme, but if you suddenly questions the entire ontology of someone else, and if that someone else can’t sufficiently argue back why you’re wrong, it can be difficult for the latter to keep the gloves on in the fight.

And that’s among trusted friends and family. Taking all that metamodern jazz out among folks who don’t know who you are and (surprise!) they probably won’t like you very much. In many cases they will actually hate you, but in both cases you can end up being marginalized economically unless you learn to keep your mouth shut.

Here’s a tip for you: don’t tell the professors at a university department where you want to work that there is this new way of thinking that is vastly superior to the one they have invested their entire life into. You probably won’t get the job (true story).

And if you thought metamodern theory would empower you since it enables you to more clearly dissect other people’s arguments and in turn propose new lines of thought most non-metamodernists cannot sufficiently counter. Shockingly enough, though, no one likes someone who always wins the arguments. And I guess you can deduce for yourself what the result of that is if that someone is in a position of power to give you a job, a grant or whatever. Yeah, woke is not the only bloke in town to go broke.

Gloomy words, I concede, but all hope is not lost.

If the game of life is set to “difficult” for metamodernists, these also tend to have more resources to draw upon when it comes to meeting the challenges and to transform them to wisdom, inner growth, and meaningful change. Metamodern mindsets, psychologies, worldviews, values, and sensibilities do not emerge from challenges alone, but equally from healthy and, in a deep sense of the word, privileged backgrounds. The greatest personal growth, the most complex worldviews, emerge where rather bad conditions are met by correspondingly high levels of support. Metamodernism grows from the barrel of misery’s guns, yes, but only on the most flowery of fields. Where education and support meets tragedy, that is where tragedy can be surmounted and growth be consolidated. This is the tale of guns and roses.

This is all a way of saying that metamodernists are a force to be reckoned with not in spite of their vulnerabilities, but because of them. And that, my fellow cocreators, is why metamodernists tend to be interesting people. Some bear that interesting quality more elegantly than others, but that’s not the point. The point is to look again at the misery and notice what’s glittering in the grime.

Not all of them can realistically contribute greatly to a positive and profound change—but when the metamodernist responds to their own predicament, they are also, in the very same move, finding ways to respond to the deeper tragedies of our time and culture. From that grows resolve, resilience, and, surprisingly, solutions to the ailments of the world that only a crazy person with very happy tears could have imagined.

Take stock, comrade, of your intellectual, social, and spiritual resources, and set forth on the learning journey life has pushed you onto. You are learning not only to turn your own life around, but to write new values on new tablets.

The following, which was originally posted on Hanzi’s facebook profile, has been added (29-02-2014) after the article was first published due to some of the reactions it attracted on social media:

Regarding the article I published yesterday:

First of all I need to add that I’ve also met an abundance of highly functional and very impressive personalities. Generally, people in this space are forces to be reckoned with. But with this caveat aside, I need to stress that when I used the term “metamodern”, I was in fact referring to the overall space that I seem to have landed in, whether people identify as metamodernists or not, be it the liminal space, integral movement, emerge network, and so on, or just people who’re simply into spirituality and psychological development. As such, I’m not just talking about people who read Hanzi books and think metamodernism is cool.

From the replies that I received, on this platform and others, I got the impression that people were quick to imply that “sure, no wonder those crazed Hanzi fanboys are going bonkers, but not me, and not the thing that I’m part of”. However, please look around, my dear friends, none of these spaces that most of y’all are participating in are immune to people crashing and burning in their strivings to develop themselves and live out their dreams to become changemakers in the world. Sadly, things go belly up again and again.

Finally, I also wish to state that I simply do not buy into the typical responses that I’ve encountered in this space sooo many times: that people are “stuck in their ego” (unlike ego-less me!), that they should do more x, y or z (usually the stuff the person is into themselves), or that there’s just something plain wrong with them. This is just bad social theory my friends.

I hope that together we can address the dire issue that people around us end up suffering and destroying their lives in their quest for personal growth and changing the world. People, and the world, deserve better.

For more leads on how to successfully lead a metamodernist life, visit the following links:

Neuroatypicality Is the Shamanism of Late Modernity: Neuroatypical people often have a mixture of very strong and very weak sides compared to the average. This puts them in a strange category besides the conventional hierarchies of society.

https://medium.com/@hanzifreinacht/neuroatypicality-is-the-shamanism-of-late-modernity-2d5f27295690

 

Don’t minimize conflict. Minimize resentment: AKA: “The scale of conflict resolution”.

https://medium.com/@hanzifreinacht/dont-minimize-conflict-minimize-resentment-2084083ce916

 

Acceptance, not Tolerance, Is the Elixir of a Good Society: Growing the inner capacity to accept things-as-they-are may be the best investment ever for society—and no, cultivating acceptance doesn’t lead to complacency in the face of injustice.

Acceptance, not Tolerance, Is the Elixir of a Good Society

 

Real rebels risk disapproval: Fake rebels just stay on the safe side and “critique”. The irony and sarcasm of the last few decades just don’t carry any longer — it’s time for sincere irony, or ironic sincerity.

https://uxdesign.cc/real-rebels-risk-disapproval-9a0ff332fa29

 

Why Quitting Is for Winners: Maybe the problem isn’t that you’re a quitter. Maybe it’s that you stay where you shouldn’t.

https://medium.com/@hanzifreinacht/why-quitting-if-for-winners-3b1e4ca50b47

 

Your Social Status: A Reflection from the Stance of Sincere Irony: To “stand up straight with your shoulders back” is even one of Jordan Peterson’s rules of life, indeed, his Rule 1. That’s a good suggestion, I suppose. But the question is how one does that.

https://medium.com/@hanzifreinacht/your-social-status-a-reflection-from-the-stance-of-sincere-irony-57bd79e32d6b

 

…and of equal importance, here’s a couple of articles about what not to do:

 

3 BS Traps when Working with Hipsters, Hippies, and Hackers: A list of the three most common pitfalls when entering the “saving the world” business of the creative class.

3 BS Traps when Working with Hipsters, Hippies and Hackers

 

How a Psychedelic Sex Cult Infiltrated a German Ecovillage: This is the story of an idyllic German ecovillage known as the ZEGG and its infiltration by a dangerous cult named Go&Change. It’s also a story about sexual abuse and two dead children.

How a Psychedelic Sex Cult Infiltrated a German Ecovillage

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ’12 Commandments’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

What can stop the AI apocalypse? — Grammar. Yes, only grammar.

The sociological/psychological fallout of AI is not decades away: right here, right now, we are watching in slow-motion the major meltdown of our shared sense of reality. The only thing that can save civilization from utter destruction? Basic English grammar. Hear me out, guys.

Part One:

Introducing the idea: “If the disease stems from a large language out of whack, the solution is grammar writ large”

 

As my friends Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin of the Center for Humane Technology (CHT) explain in their April 9th YouTube presentation, the AI revolution is moving much too fast for, and proving much too slippery for, conventional legal and regulatory responses by humans and their state power.

1.1 What Large Language Models bring

Crucially, these two idealistic Silicon Valley renegades point out, in an accessible manner, exactly what has made the recent jump in AI capacity possible:

  • The discovery that AI can treat language as probability, and from there on, most anything as a “language” of sorts: DNA sequences, yep, robotics and motoric learning, yes actually, music, definitively, generation and recognition of images and sounds, yes, hacking and cryptography, also yes, persuasion, yes of course…

In other words, the Large Language Models (LLMs) provide a basis for rapidly reshaping and generating solutions for all of the above, which creates a quantum leap in different capacities and possible combinatorics of these. They mention empirical and already-existing examples like literally reading human minds with an MRI scanner or hacking a simple WiFi router to use it as a surveillance 3D camera. And, of course, there’s the whole thing about soon creating entirely lifelike videos of people doing and saying things in realistic environments. It will be increasingly hard to know what is real and what is not. It will be hard to resist manipulation and persuasion. It will be hard to know where we begin and the agency of the machine ends. It will be increasingly hard not to lose our minds as our shared sense of self and reality (our sociality, which we rely upon for our sanity) fractures.

The situation, for all its innocuous expression or innocent feel at the present moment (“we’re just talking to a new chatbot and facilitating our web searches, where’s the harm in that!”), is dire. The sheer weirdness that is about to be unleashed does not need to wait decades for Nick Bostrom-style superintelligence

[[If AI superintelligence happens at all, that is. As another friend, cognitive scientist John Vervaeke, points out in his April 22nd YouTube essay, we still don’t know if there are ceilings to how AI develops; development often happens in leaps and plateaus, as any developmental psychologist will tell you.]]

1.2 One metric fuckton of sheer weirdness

All the prerequisites for roughly a metric fuckton of sheer weirdness are here already — as the extremely versatile and potent LLMs are mass-deployed and become the tools of “just about anyone”. The scale and effect of this fact, in its sociological and psychological ramifications (not to mention economic and political ones) is in itself a rollercoaster ride of Nietzschean proportions.

I define, by the way, “one metric fuckton of sheer weirdness” as the amount of weirdness it takes for our shared reference- and knowledge system to break down, i.e. for our civilizational sense- and meaning-making to fracture. Simply stated: for us to go mad at a civilizational scale. Insanity writ large.

As dreadlock tech guru Jaron Lanier has stated: The danger isn’t that AI destroys us. It’s that it drives us insane. Even if we remain agnostic about Nick Bostrom’s existential risk superintelligence general AI, we can be fairly certain that we have a sociological moment of impact starting more or less yesterday. There’s just no way new capacities of this magnitude come about with this kind of speed, and then everything just goes back to normal. For all we know, normal might never happen again.

1.3 My central point being: we need AI to learn and explore its own grammatology for it to become a sane and “moral” agent

Now to my central point:

  • If the diagnosis is civilizational madness,
  • and the cause is AI based on the universal structure of language-modeled-as-probabilities (the world’s smartest person, complexity scientist Stephen Wolfram, describes it here)
  • then the way to structure AI behavior is fundamentally an issue of grammar — or to be more specific, of the further abstracted form of meta-grammar called grammatology(a term coined, to my knowledge, by philosopher Jacques Derrida); or to be yet more specific, it is an issue of “the grammatology of AI-to-AI interaction”… or to be as specific as we can at this point, it is an issue of “the grammatology of human-to-AI-to-AI-to-human interaction”,
  • and then only grammar can save the world from madness and the self-destruction that follows.

In other words: AI acts, as what philosopher Bruno Latour would have called a “material agent” (albeit an unusually vibrant form of material agency), upon us humans. It thus reshapes us as human beings, in turn, of course, reshaping the ecologies of the Earth. John Vervaeke points out in his video essay that AI is thereby, by affecting who we become as persons, constituted as a moral agent. This holds true regardless of its status as sentient or “conscious”. Vervarke argues that AI should thus be treated as a transcendent project of moral upbringing, like raising a child (an argument strikingly reminiscent of philosophers Alexander Bard’s & Jan Söderqvist’s idea of “syntheism”, co-creating God through the internet).

This material moral agency, in turn, is going to have some shape or pattern, and that pattern can be understood by studying the “grammar” used by the AI, i.e. how its generator functions “language” (I’m deploying the word as a verb) morally significant realities into existence.

The “grammar” of how the AI acts is the AI’s grammatology: the emergent pattern of interacting AIs and humans that becomes a layer of “second-order cybernetics”; the pattern of patterns.

It’s not enough to say that “there should be a second order cybernetics that regulates the AI”; as John Vervaeke points out in his essay, this would only recreate the same problem at the next level.

1.4 An “ecology of AI-human mind”: a social AI versus the Sorcerer’s Apprentice

But there can be an ecology of interacting AIs and humans, an “ecology of mind” to speak with the words of polymath biologist Gregory Bateson. In such an ecosystem, there is not one hierarchy of control, where the top can always go crazy and then we’re all cooked; there is a tug-of-war, cycles of birth and death, a Montesquieuian balance of power dynamic that never lets one category rule all others, and the co-evolution of the four fundamental principles of sociality: cooperationtradecompetition, and play.

[[Notice, by the way, that I am not suggesting a purely cooperative AI, where competition is thought of as only a set of prisoners’ dilemmas to get rid of; a notion often implied in the Game B community and by Daniel Schmachtenberger, but one that I have relentlessly critiqued for years as fundamentally flawed, always leading to the exact opposite of its intended direction. I.e. it’s a miscalculation that will only lead to dystopias. As I say: we want an AI that co-evolves into a full-blown ecology, and ecologies are harsher and more tragic environments than even economies, although they generate yet greater beauties, and that implies that cooperation co-evolves with competition, trade, and play; each of which transforms and is refined with stage-shifts in evolution. That said, I generally appreciate both the Game B community in general and Schmachtenberger in particular; it’s on this point I feel they go wrong. I go through this reasoning in some detail in my books.]]

Grammatology offers us ways to study that pattern-of-patterns. It offers a way of measuring not one particular variable to maximize or optimize (how much dopamine, how many clicks, how many votes, how much profit, how much “saving the whales”). These may be good or bad variables, but they are always in some way uni-dimensional and risk some version of a paperclip creator gone mad, shredding through all life and mineral alike to create more paperclips. Or why not the risk of the obedient but out-of-control brooms of the sorcerer’s apprentice?

AI and society: Disney’s 1940 rendition of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (originally a 1797 poem by Goethe).

Grammatology corresponds to the arcane spellbook in the movie above. The sorcerer masters the spellbook and can, luckily, stop the out-of-whack-AI. Mickey Mouse couldn’t.

1.5 The master of magic

In this analogy, the grammatologist, or the meta-theorist, is the master of magic (i.e. AI’s capacity to bring about emergent properties that could not be predicted), the sorcerer. And the core principle behind mastering magic is to see and accept the paradox that it cannot be controlled, only co-evolved through an interplay of cooperation, trade, competition, and play. Nor can it be structured or brought under the will. The sorcerer sources powers that lie beyond him by matching them with the states of mind within himself — he doesn’t force them.

You cannot force a force greater than your own. But the magic of AI can be responded to: collaborated with, competed with, traded with, and — crucially, lest we forget — played with.

And there is a playbook for that.

Yes, most AI will optimize for one variable or the trade-off balance between a few variables. But even as AIs become more multi-dimensional, there is always an infinity of things-outside-of-the-parameters-of-the-current-system to be disregarded and dispassionately shredded into building blocks for what happens to be defined as meaningful within the system (sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s systems sociology already said as much about bureaucracies and markets).

1.6 Optimize for… RESONANCE

So the interactions between AIs (including the systems of humans) must optimize for something else, a kind of meta-variable set within a much further abstracted property-space (one that is defined, it can be added for readers familiar with my other work and influences, at the Cross-Paradigmatic order of complexity in the MHC, Model of Hierarchical Complexity). And that variable is…

  • the resonance (speaking with German sociologist Hartmut Rosa) of the entire system of human-AI-AI-human interactions.

And the larger property-space within which “resonance” is achieved or measured is, again, grammatology: the underlying structure of language use, its musicality or proportionality or balance or even justice. Not harmony. Not even truth, beauty, and goodness (as even ugliness and lies have their place in the larger scheme of things), but resonance.

[[For MHC buffs: Note that I am not claiming that Hartmut Rosa’s formulation of resonance is at the Cross-Paradigmatic Stage; it is very clearly not; all I am saying is that resonance across fundamentally different paradigms (AIs optimizing for completely different variables, human minds caught up in completely different life narratives, and so on) is something that can work as a Cross-Paradigmatic concept to optimize for; it would then need a clearer formulation than that of Rosa, and that’s where grammatology and similar fields come in.]]

It’s a stance of surrender to, and participation in, the advent of AI, but with an uncompromising commitment to finding the deepest possible truth of how reality and information are structured so that our responses to AI are non-arbitrary and can be effective for human goals, or for sentient goals at large. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it’s a lot like the productive stance towards the gods: dispel them and worship them with sincere irony (a concept you can explore in depth here).

It’s a “YES” to the rollercoaster; to the terror we must face and reconcile with to surmount the spiritual challenge to our civilizational sanity. We’re facing the dragon, yes. It’s here. It’s not a yes to everything the dragon does. It’s a yes to the challenge and an acceptance of the fact that we brought it upon ourselves. But we’re not killing the dragon. We’re teaching it grammar.

I will use the rest of this essay to make some introductory steps towards seeing what such a grammatology looks like and how it interfaces with an understanding of the whole AI dilemma. But first, let me briefly get a little declaration of interests and biases out of the way.

X. Interlude:

A declaration of interest and other disclaimers. [Don’t skip.]

 

Normally, I write as a representative only of my own trademark publishing, Metamoderna. I view myself as an unaffiliated and unapologetically free radical, a rogue scholar who values the fierce independence of my deepest voice, including the inalienable right to be outrageous or downright obscene.

X.X The Archdisciplinary Research Center

In this particular case, however, I wear the hat of (meta-)Director of the Archdisciplinary Research Center (ARC) — a non-profit that gathers high-quality meta-theories and coordinates them in a collaborative spirit in order to find the most universal possible patterns of knowledge available to humanity.

ARC draws social scientists, philosophers, computational scientists, psychologists, and also has an artistic presence. Besides hoping to contribute to the common good with this essay by hopefully reducing existential risk, I also have five goals that are more for the benefit of myself and allies.

It is my intention to:

  1. bring attention to ARC’s important work,
  2. charge the milieu in and around ARC with deeper purpose and more emotional energy stemming from the relevance of the organization’s work to such a fateful issue as AI,
  3. increase the funding of ARC’s work,
  4. bring about further bridges and collaborations between CHT and ARC (and possibly other key agents in the field), and
  5. inspire small teams of idealistic hackers around the world to learn meta-theory (which includes grammatology) and to use it to balance out the emergent ecologies of mind of AI and human interactions. (We’ll get back to this part.)

These interests shape, if not my beliefs and statements per se, at least the angles and biases I bring to the table: emphasizing the importance of the deep-philosophical and trans-disciplinary sides of the issue at the expense of other perspectives that can be just as important to achieving a safer and more sustainable AI development.

I wish to underscore just how improbably rich an intellectual milieu the ARC is becoming. The meta-theoretical framework of “grammatology” that this essay is based upon is drawn directly from the hitherto unpublished work of one of ARC’s committee members, philosophy professor Bruce Alderman. (Following Alderman, I use the word “grammatology” in a wider and different sense than Derrida’s original formulation).

[[Edit 4/28, correction: Alderman’s work is published as a chapter in 2019nanthology, Dancing with Sophia.]]

And that’s just one of the meta-theoretical projects that ARC members are working on. It is not as powerful and useful as a successful coordination of the “arches” that hold across multiple such models could be. I am saying that there’s plenty more of where this champagne came from, much of which I cannot reveal as other scholars are the main authors and have ownership.

Also, for the sake of full transparency, the — well — prompt for this essay, including an offer of two workdays of funding was provided by the Finnish company Pandatron (more specifically, their in-house philosopher Lauri Paloheimo). They are a small team specialized in using AI for improving group-level relationships and transformations in organizations.

So if you, by reading this essay, also come to sense or believe that meta-theoretical work is instrumental to guiding the future of AI and its impact upon the world, then, as Banksy says, show us the Monet — and ARC plus allies, myself included, will show you new Nietzschean rollercoaster rides of potentially civilizational relevance.

Banksy, 2005. “Show me the Monet.” Who needs Midjourney when you have Banksy?

Banksy, 2005. “Show me the Monet.” Who needs Midjourney when you have Banksy?

 

X.X Irreverent seriousness

I should further mention that I am fully aware of the dissonance between writing about issues of significant ethical weight and applying my trademarked irreverent humor. I have the luxury of writing before the largest AI-related disasters occur, so we can still be joking about it because it feels so abstract to us. I write this way, of course, to encourage the article’s spread and enhance readership retention. Also, it’s a kind of tick I have. (Analyze, please.)

But let there be no doubt that I take the issue of the wider complex of AI-related threats very seriously and do not have a gung-ho stance towards it: on the opposite, I am struggling not to be paralyzed by the sense of “who am I to write on such a critical topic” and the very substantial risk that I might be wrong, and still be listened to, and thereby may contribute in the wrong direction, accelerating the madness and de facto raising the likelihood of large-scale collapse or other bad news. In moments like these, we just have to act from our deepest intuition and conscience and see what happens. Time is also of the essence.

(In case any of the jinx gods are reading: I’m just acting cocky. In reality, I do fear you, and I am knocking wood this very moment.)

Part 2.

Grammatology and resonance in AI-to-AI interaction

 

Now, let us unpack the main argument so we can see in full: How an applied grammatology can set the guiding principles of human-AI-AI-human interaction.

We will soon get to introducing Bruce Alderman’s formulation of that field — but let me approach it by means of the work of two other intellectuals, (biologist-philosopher) Donna Haraway and (physicist-philosopher) Karen Barad, and one Silicon Valley renegade cyberactivist and poet, Anasuya Sengupta.

2.1 Cyborg tipping-point

The first and perhaps most fundamental point to make is that the AI revolution is a direct expansion, if only at a higher level of intensity, of Donna Haraway’s idea of the cyborg: the intricate blending of humanity and machine as the driving force of cultural history. Humans have not been “pure animals” for a very long time. We thrive the most in temperate zones (agriculture, infrastructure, and disease control all benefit) but as nude tropic apes we would freeze to death there without clothes, fires, and homes: extensions of humanity that go beyond the biological confines of the body.

Cyborgism is more pronounced today as layers upon layers of technology interface with our blood (vaccines), with our senses (from walking sticks to electronic limbs with sensory capabilities), and of course with our minds: Tiago Forte’s “second brain” — the computer that orders our mind and behavior and vice versa. Our sociality, our emotions, our relationships are mediated by flickering screens and, of course, shaped by these. Humanity is a technological self-creation to the extent that we would not even be definable as humans without our technologies. This is, of course, simply because technology is the material embodiment of culture itself; that’s why the technosphere shapes every square meter of the Earth’s surface when culture becomes the driving principle under the Anthropocene.

The historical tendency of culture’s development is that the machine-part of the cyborg speaks back to the biological part with increasing autonomy. The machine part grows, so to speak, because culture matures. Steam engines say more than stirrups. Televisions say more than steam engines. AI says even more than social media algorithms. Seemingly paradoxically, this makes us more empowered and powerless both at once: we control nature more and more but we are in turn increasingly controlled by technology and unable to delineate our “self” from it.

Today, we are reaching the point at which the technology part of the cyborg speaks equally or more to the biological self than vice versa. We are reaching “tipping-point cyborg” (not, then, peak cyborg). This means that we need to begin to truly, well, relate to the technology. It’s a little bit like the animistic beliefs that preceded organized religion and modern rationality (both of which tend to view objects as mechanical, not alive), except it’s a post-mechanistic version of animism. We’re aware that it’s just “determined chaos” and “just a machine” and that there’s no “machine spirit”; but we act, with ironic sincerity, as though there was a machine spirit — because it’s the best possible heuristics for getting a full-on embodied and emotionally rooted productive responsiveness to the emergent properties of AI and machine learning.

In other words, Haraway’s cyborg perspective underscores what John Vervaeke also said in his April 22nd video essay, namely that the main response to the advent of AI must be of a spiritual and introspective nature: it is by setting forth on a common project for a deepened and renewed relatedness to technology, that we can ride the huge waves coming our way. Or to put it as succinctly as possible: if AI starts to listen to us and adapt to our every move, we can only “win” by mirroring it, and being equally attentive to it, even to the point of treating this wild piece of silicon clockwork as though it were alive. Because, in the end, when we don’t know where we begin and AI ends, then AI is essentially as alive as anything Mary Shelley could have conjured up.

2.2 Diffraction: human-AI-AI-human intra-action

Now, we all know that aliveness in turn always comes from a rich interaction with the environment. We’re all emergent patterns of other interacting patterns. So are our knowledge structures. Karen Barad’s employment of the concept of “diffraction” from physics offers an analogy that has been influential since the publication of her major work, Meeting the Universe Halfway, in 2007. Diffraction is the phenomenon when waves or matrices break against one another and thus create a new emergent pattern. Examples in images be:

Diffraction: here, two slits let through waves that break against one another, resulting in an emergent interference pattern.

 

This is what happens if you add waves to one another: a seemingly more complex pattern emerges. It’s the underlying mechanism behind the phenomenon of diffraction.

 

Karen Barad, a feminist philosopher interested in the embodiments of knowledge (and thus power) in society, meant that we should also view truth claims and science itself as emergent patterns that gain a life of their own through human (and other) interactions. The interacting agents, in turn, are only constituted as agents through their position in the larger pattern. Hence, they don’t just interact, they intra-act. Their studying and measuring of reality cannot be separated from who they are, where they were, what they are, how they relate.

This holds true, I suppose, across all of reality and across all possible knowledge of it. But, if anything, this perspective becomes painfully pronounced in intra-actions with the AI: AI can only exist because it feeds on human civilization and knowledge coded into text and other digestible data — but humans are in turn subjected to the power of AI, and thus deeply reshaped by it, because AI coordinates more data than we can and knows, well, us. The AI soon knows us better than we can know it, or even know ourselves.

The mindset that comes to the fore is thus one of expanding our very sense of self towards including the technological environment, and from there on taking up the role of intra-acting, not only with the AI itself, but as a unity with the AI vis-à-vis the patterning structures of reality; i.e. what I here call the grammar of life, the underlying language structures, the grammatology. So, with Karen Barad, we get a definition of the fundamental relationship at hand:

  • [human-to-AI-to-AI-to-human intra-action]viewed as one entity, intra-acting in turn with → [all of the rest of reality, viewed as external to that boundary around humans and AI, but as structured according to non-arbitrary grammatological patterns that must be uncovered and followed for suffering to be avoided and for life to be perpetuated].

If we don’t follow the patterns of reality we get dissonance. That means, basically, we get suffering. So the task is to structure reality into resonant wholes.

We must create AI that shapes the overall pattern of AI-to-AI interactions (a rich research field in itself, and a prime example of complexity science, the perhaps simplest example being stuff like, as reported last week, the game of soccer literally emerging from two opposing robots simply told to “score” the ball in opposite goals).

2.3 Grammatology, AI, and social justice

Now, this is where Wikipedia’s own drop-out, my friend Anausya Sengupta, comes in. If we seek relational proportionality and resonance across the AI-humanity axis, we must of course also feed this intra-action with socially proportional perspectives, i.e. with social justice. Today, our AI could hardly be a justice-oriented machine, given the skewness of its underlying information material. I’ll just quote from the feminist collective Whose Knowledge that Anausya is co-founder and member of:

Using Wikipedia as a proxy indicator of freely available online knowledge, we know that only 20% of the world (primarily white male editors from North America and Europe) edits 80% of Wikipedia currently, and estimate that 1 in 10 of the editors is self-identified female. Studies by Mark Graham and colleagues at the Oxford Internet Institute have found that 84% of Wikipedia articles focus on Europe and North America, and most articles written about the global South are still written by those in the global North, so that even where content is present, skewed representations remain.

Please stop for a moment to consider this: Our very civilizational sanity and survival depend upon balancing the informational diet of the AI, so that it can itself produce emergent patterns that resonate through and across societies… But the Internet is roughly as skewed and distorted as the power relations of global humanity at large.

It is a tragedy that Dalits (India’s caste of untouchables) rarely, if ever, get to define themselves in dominant discourses or at the web’s central stations, Wikipedia or Google search results. But the problem becomes so much worse for all of us as AI now affects the whole planet based upon a completely distorted balance of the world’s knowledge, experience, and embodied common sense. It acts on the whole with great efficiency and speed, but it cannot speak for the whole. What you can expect is increasing dissonance, a spiraling insanity, as the “human-AI-AI-human intra-action” system disconnects from the rest of reality, from the larger scheme that contains the actual multiplicity of the world’s perspectives.

If we don’t want to spiral into virtual madness with real social consequences, we need to balance out the reality projected into the digital realm: the encoded information.

That doesn’t involve silly stuff like decolonizing physics (which arguably has echoes of the Soviet practice of condemning “bourgeois pseudoscience”, something not even Stalin was fanatical enough to encourage). But it does mean that AI itself must be used to more proportionally and correctly represent the lives, experiences, and embodied — or intellectual — knowledge of the world.

And yes, those boundaries are drawn along the lines of familiar categories such as class, gender, sexuality, geopolitical centrality, and so on: the voices of the “subaltern”. But what the AI should arguably be able to do, which we couldn’t as easily, is to also find categories of the subaltern that are not identifiable by clearly visible external markers. Is the world’s narrative told, who knows, by extroverts rather than introverts? It’s not a far-out guess that the AI could see such patterns and balance out the knowledge base from which our civilization operates.

And here’s the best part: There can be any types of patterns that wouldn’t even have human names or a language to describe, but that are subject to the gravest epistemological injustice. Potentially, then, because the AI is comfortable with relating to complex topologies, it could actually avoid the entire issue of the clumsiness of the use of collective social categories (gender, race, etc.) for improving social justice; a clumsiness that always leads to new residuals of unintended injustice and thus to stronger reactionary movements than the social justice activists could have anticipated. It could, in theory, see exactly which combinations of factors are discriminated against in which contexts, and address those specifically (maybe it’s only overweight women that are penalized in this or that context, not all women, and so on). By targeting social injustice but being free from the confines of crude collective categories, we could have an engine that generates justice with only a fraction of the byproducts of polarization and conflict.

Utopian? Maybe. I’d call it “protopian”.

In short, if we apply the AI to balancing out human-perspectives-as-projected-onto-the-web-as-data, not only can we get a more just and sane society; we can also help to retain an AI that remains on the sane and just side in the first place.

Or, yet more succinctly: a sane AI is also a social justice AI, but one that dodges the traps of present-day social justice and intersectionality discourses.

Let me underscore: if we fail to do this, we instead unleash AI powers that widen social gaps and fracture knowledge systems into different continents where people become entirely unable to comprehend one another, leading to social and psychological decay.

2.4 Basic English grammar sets the stage

Time to teach this machine some grammatology.

 

Okay, so now we know this much:

  • AIs need to be created that interact with other AIs in order to balance these out so that the overall emergent pattern has enough resonance, and this includes our human embodiments as well as the sociological realities we reflect.

Bruce Alderman’s grammatology, then, is one suggestion for a starting point of seeing how such resonance can be studied and hopefully operationalized. Earlier, I mentioned the musicality, or even “the appropriateness” of each operation, as the steering principle. Let me expand on that.

We might wish to tell the AI to be, well, “ethical”. That would involve certain “rules of conduct”.

ChatGPT certainly has those. If you try to get it to talk dirty, it comes back like a picture-perfect schoolboy, cap in hand, and says it cannot do anything inappropriate. Now, an admittedly fallen mind like my own only needs a few minutes to hack that: I went for discussing “Freud in the style of Dave Chapelle”, and before long, ChatGPT was spewing forth stuff that would have made PornHub blush. Atta schoolboy.

In complex systems like life, rules don’t really work (Jordan Peterson, they don’t). We need something else. Something beyond rules.

Let’s expand with another example. There’s a recent hit song by this musical savant; you might have heard it: Purple Rain, by Prince. The refrain goes: Puurple rain ↑, puu-urple raaain ↓.

But if I would have sung the refrain: Puuurple rain ↑, puuurple rain ↑, puuurple rain ↑, puuurple rain ↑

By the fourth repetition, I bet you’d do most anything to stop me from continuing. There is something within us that just knows that there should be a conclusion to the upwards part, and that it “should” go downwards. Same old up and up is not really a song, it’s just not. You long for the conclusion, for it to come down. If I insist on not concluding, like the sorcerer’s apprentice’s brooms, or like an out-of-whack AI, you will soon long to end me.

Same with grammar. If start I to without write grammar, something within you reacts instantaneously and tries to bring it back into order. There’s an insult that takes place to the deeply seated, implicit, “order of things”.

Now, grammatology is a step up in levels of abstraction from grammar. Something can be grammatically correct, but grammatologically, well, off — if “incorrect” is too strong a word. There’s nothing “incorrect” about composing a song that goes up and up in mindless repetition. It’s just off. It flies in the face of our sensibilities.

Today’s AI has, impressively, learned grammar. It follows grammar’s rules. But it has not learned grammatology. It has not learned the sensibility to create and uphold balanced discourse and appropriate behavior. Any “rules” we hand down to it, it WILL slip out of sooner or later, like a potty-mouthed schoolboy.

And — crucially — the ethics of rules are always contextual.

2.5 Beyond rules: On the freedom to eat sand

To get a fairly absolute example of a rule that bears across cultures, I sometimes use, “Don’t feed sand to humans, yourself included”. Except, of course, there are moments when eating sand is entirely appropriate: We all ate some when we were toddlers; I to this day have a sense of the visceral explosion of culinary disappointment in my mouth as the wet gravel crushed against my teeth. And yes, that made my world richer and me a slightly wiser participant in it. We may further imagine an avant-garde artist who sits in a museum, slowly eating sand, being watched in admiration by those rich cultured ladies in shawls — as a “comment” upon carbon-based humanity’s enslavement to silicon computers. A strict rule would preclude these two very legitimate expressions and moments in the melody of life. Indeed, it would have oppressed us, trampled our sacred freedom to eat sand, and while that may not seem as much of a transgression, there is always a price to pay for oppression somewhere down the line: madness and bloody revolution.

Instead of a rule then — instead of a “utopia of rules” — we need a wider sense of the “structuring principles of the context” of which we are part in order to formulate not a rule but a generative pattern that can distribute our “eating sand” occasions as rarely as they deserve, but no less than so.

You could call it a situated meta-rule, but it should in turn be read from a pattern, a meta-theory, one that helps to determine if and when a certain kind of action is appropriate, advisable, or even acceptable. The meta-rule only emerges momentarily to regulate this one instance, to see how it resonates with what comes before; then it falls into the background again. It dissolves.

[[Side-note. In the social sciences, the study of how such underlying implicit orders are invoked and upheld continuously by interacting agents is called “ethnomethodology” after Harold Garfinkel’s formulation. But this research program resisted uncovering the underlying grammatology, precisely because its scholars never wanted to get caught up in rules. They didn’t have the analytical tools at their disposal to understand that beyond linear rules and norms, there lie new horizons of non-arbitartrily ordered grammatology.]]

Again, we’re not looking for “harmony”, but for resonance. Harmony suggests that there is no room for disharmonious instances, for transgression and ultimately creativity. The pope wants harmony; his organization has lots of strict rules, and he ends up running history’s most successful industry of pedophile rings, AKA the Catholic Church. Pythagoras wanted mathematical harmony and added rules to achieve it in the lives of his disciples until the Pythagorean math-cultists couldn’t even eat beans and pee on fires, the basic freedoms of life. And his community collapsed. Rules have their place, certainly; harmony has its place (within the bounds of one Beethoven piece, harmony is great) — but they’re not the master patterns of intra-action, of sociality.

And — again — if AI works by treating everything as language (and language as probability), this means that the AI is bound by the rules of grammar, and thus by the meta-rules of grammatology.

2.6 The wisdom of the machine

I don’t have a catalog of how grammatology is to be read and applied by the AI. But my point is that we, or at least the key players of AI development, need to learn grammatological thinking if we are to create counter-balancing forces of AI-on-AI interaction (and on human-AI-AI-human interaction, of course). Such AI-targeting AIs should in turn discover grammatology’s patterns and measure its own success by the amount of resonance that is produced as a result of the interference pattern. This requires learning from human sensibilities, from embodied wisdom.

But the impossibility of rules in the larger scheme of things, is, by the way, the exact reason that “wisdom” (which a lot of people, John Vervaeke perhaps most prominently, think we should teach the AI) cannot be formalized and taught, only after-the-fact admired. It’s situational. It’s sensitive, as butterflies say, to minute differences of initial conditions. Wisdom is to be found, as the sages and saints have long tried to remind us, in the eternal depths of the now, not in the formalization of rules that carry across time and context. Wisdom is “timeless” not in the sense “static”, but in the sense that it cannot be caught in time. It’s an emergent pattern within the whole; in this case, “wisdom” is a measure of how well the human-AI-AI-human intra-action interfaces with the grammatological structures of reality.

So, sure, optimize AI for wisdom. But when we operationalize that, it simply means training the grammatological sensibility of the AI. Crucially, however, wisdom is entirely impossible without sociality, without being kept in check by forces other than our own, by being part of a larger community (yes, this ultimately applies also to lone wilderness sadhus, whose relatedness to their asceticism is entirely socially constructed). Whenever you wreck the feedback cycles of everyday life, we go batshit crazy, either from depression, megalomania, solipsism, paranoia, or why not all four. That is, after all, why dictators always become tyrants before you can count to five and democracy remains the worst form of government except all others that have been tried. Beings with socially co-constructed selves need to balance each other out in order to remain sane. To be hyper-sane — to be wise — means that we need to balance each other out even more, but with yet greater sensitivity for how each of us can sometimes bloom into unexpected and uncomfortable surprises that nevertheless prove to be appropriate in the larger scheme of things.

Or, we could just say, wisdom is an emergent property of adhering to grammatology — at least when it comes to LLM-based AI, where language is the key structure, and thus that AI is thus based on grammar (grammar-as-probability).

2.7 Expanding upon semiotics to include all of reality

Now, in Bruce Alderman’s book chapter, Sophia Speaks — An Integral Grammar of Philosophy, he points out that much of the fundamental “theories of reality” are based on semiotics, particularly on the idea of shifting between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person perspectives (me, you, he/she/it). It is based on pronouns. Interestingly, this is a structure that, more or less, carries across all of the world’s some 7000 languages. And, so, you get stuff like subjective reality and phenomenology (1st person perspective) and objective science that you and I have to verify or falsify together (3rd person reality).

Have you noticed, by the way, that there are two major attractor points in today’s world of high achievers: professionally talented people all sooner or later end up living in America doing some version of buying, merging, and selling companies; meanwhile, intellectually talented people all sooner or later become interested in some version of semiotics. And from there on, intellectuals stumble into the field of meta-theory; trying to understand the structure of reality across the sciences and humanities.

What Bruce Alderman’s stroke of genius granted was that, wait a minute, we here have a basis for philosophy based on pronouns, but philosophies are equally possible to be generated from each of the other basic categories of words. Why stop at semiotics and pronouns in particular? Alderman goes through six such categories of philosophical roots, showing that they are indeed already represented within philosophy. See overview below:

Screenshot from Bruce Alderman’s work. All rights reserved for Bruce Alderman. (Excuse the page break at the end.)

 

We shan’t go into details of Alderman’s work; it’s many pages of dense referencing and reasoning; but we can note that it follows that any philosophy that is based on only one of these categories will very likely miss out on performing fundamental operations that are present in how reality has become structured and represented in language.

Speaking with Alderman’s above schema, even if you get “the process” right (as is so fashionable these days), you might still get the corresponding “appearance” wrong, and link it to the completely wrong “substance”. And so on. I have since long tired of the people who insist on verbing the shit out of reality, when “process” is clearly only one dimension out of several. (If anything, Alderman’s work shows with crystal clarity that there is little use for insisting that we all be, for instance, “materialists” — a trend for which I hold equal contempt. The structure of language, our only way to encode reality, will always encompass much more than the material substance at hand. Why focus on one dimension and ignore the others that are very apparently present and relevant to structuring reality?)

We could also arguably add the two last word categories of grammar:

  • conjunctions (and… but… or… while… because) and
  • interjections (Oh!… Wow!… Oops!).

[[Side-note. Conjunction-philosophy is arguably formal logic and/or assemblage theory of Manuel DaLanda’s kind, if we add it to Alderman’s above sceme. But interjection-philosophy? I don’t know, but for some reason, I think of Jacques Lacan’s formulation of the real. And Diogenes. Never mind.]]

All in all, we can see that we have eight forms of operations that need to be balanced against one another in order to form meaningful larger wholes. Yes, even interjections fit into the melodies of language use. We may need to interject, to “throw something in between”.

2.8 The transpersonal, posthuman virtue spiral

Now, exactly which “probabilistic grammatology” that reflects sanity, or even hyper-sanity or wisdom, cannot be known in advance. We’d need the AI’s help to figure it out, just as the AI would need us to learn from our sensibilities and embodied virtues (and moral compass). But — and this is a big but — we can be almost entirely certain that insanity is at hand when the grammatological structure becomes too lopsided, dissonant, off.

My favorite, and simplest, example of this is that the narratives of two sides of a conflict can be analyzed by seeing who uses the most adjectives. I only half-jokingly like to say that adjectives are evil. Read North Korea’s news sources, and you will see what I mean: the glorious people are walking down the street, the goodhearted leader is supreme in the democratic republic because he resists the fascist imperialist Americans with his powerful socialist missiles, and so forth. Nothing wrong with the grammar there, but the grammatology, the balance between different deployments of grammatical operations, is revealing…

Anyone with that much need to define the value of every noun for the reader or listener definitely has something to hide. Adverbs have a similar slant, of course: trying to define how verbs should be interpreted for the listener. The side that claims that the other party “maliciously walked into the room and looked around with a cold, calculating stare that I met only with helpless innocence” tends to be the bad guy. The truthful side, the one with a narrative that adds up, will be able to simply stick to the facts and events, and these will speak for themselves, using adjectives for clarification and not nearly as profusely.

Now, that’s just one example of an unbalanced grammatology that reveals that the information feedback cycle in question is somehow short-circuited: there is not a free flow of information where forces are balanced out into a transpersonal “ecology of mind”. What other grammatological madness could we imagine or identify — from the lack of balance in the sequentiality (as studied in the discipline of Conversation Analysis) of who speaks and when, to staying too long on explaining a particular noun that nobody has asked about (a typical form of “framing a conversation”), the repetition of a certain class of words, the lopsidedness of who mentions verbs and thus commands agency, and so on…

If each of the eight categories of words suggests a basic dimension of how intra-action is structured (a more complex model, then, than just the three of true, good, and beautiful, which can be viewed as grammatological sub-categories of the “pronoun” dimension), then the protection against insanity is arguably to find the balance between these; the non-static balance, the one that hears “the next note to play”, or at least stops a broken record from playing too many off notes, before it consumes the known universe and spits out paperclips.

2.9 Metacogntion, sanity, and madness

In terms of what is trendy within contemporary psychology, we must train AI to have metacognition, to think of and relate to its own “thoughts”. I guess that’s a good a translation to contemporary science-kosher language and operationalization of the term “wisdom” as any.

But meta-cognition is itself a very insufficient concept. The fact remains, of course, that simply noticing and thinking about cognitive operations is not in and of itself sufficient to be wise: wisdom comes from the implicit structure by which thoughts (or other mental operations, such as “command of attention” which is normally not included in our concept of “thoughts”) are then addressed and possibly corrected, brought into resonance with a pattern-of-patterns. If you think stupid thoughts about your thoughts, and even dumber thoughts about those meta-thoughts, well, that’s the infinite regress Vervaeke was talking about. Madness is almost always some kind of meta-cognition gone haywire: “The thoughts… the thooouughts… they won’t stop, pleeaase make them stop!!”.

Again, again: What we need is a community, a civil society as it were, an open system of flows of checks and balances — a posthuman and transpersonal “ecology of mind”. That’s the anchor against drifting into madness, into a posthuman, AI-induced insanity.

On the positive end of potentiality, if we manage to set in motion that humans teach AI grammatology, and AI improves upon human relationships and mental health, and then humans become wiser in what they reflect back to the AI, this could be the closest thing to a stairway to heaven: a transpersonal, posthuman spiral of increasing virtue.

But let’s not get carried away. The madness scenario seems more plausible.

Part 3.
Meta-Teams and An Army of Children

Dall-E sample: Army of Children

 

By now, I imagine many readers would object that I have started to sound more than a bit like Saruman, acknowledging the dangers of AI, and still advocating a kind of cyborgian community with it: “There can be no victory against the forces of Mordor. We must join him, Gandalf… It would be wiiiise.

So my answer to the AI threat is… More AI?

3.1 Fight or flight are not the options

But what I am suggesting is not a prostration before our new AI gods, as the complexity scientist Johannes “Yogi” Jäger blogs about, warning us of the blank stare of techno-trancendentalists and often the often super-rich optimists of AI. AI is not God and certainly not Jesus — but AI is also not a marching army of orcs from Mordor led by Sauron. Orcs don’t translate texts for us and curate content. Orcs don’t coordinate topologies of probabilistic potentials (which is, by the way, precisely the “Meta-Systematic Stage” for MHC buffs out there.) AI is, of course, both useful and dangerous because it is a powerful set of tools.

I am suggesting a relatedness to the AI: one that involves critique and resistance. It’s a balance between the four mutually co-evolving dimensions of sociality: cooperation, trade, competition, and play.

So, cooperate with AI, yes. Trade with it and use it for trading with other people, yes. Compete with it and resist it, yes. Play with it, yes. And coordinate which of the four operations to take, and deliberately evolve how and when each of these four operations takes place. The options are not fight, freeze, or flight. It’s a complex and it’s a broken both-and.

Taken together, it’s a “playful struggle”, where the AI is met with a certain kind of sensibility, what has been called a metamodernist sensibility or structure of feeling: sincere irony, pragmatic romanticism, informed naivety. This stance is neither utopian nor dystopian: it’s Protopian, in that it rests in the present moment, the now, and works to increase the potential of wisdom emerging from the AI and decrease the likelihood of tragedy.

3.2 Shifting the cymatics of AI-to-AI interference

And so, we are looking at the task of training AIs that interfere with one another in a larger ecology (and are in turn interfered with) and stabilizing as different informational “biotopes”.

Such informational biotopes can follow different patterns. There is unlikely to be one blueprint for all of them. Closely related to the idea of “diffraction” described above is the image of cymatics, which maps out families of stabilized patterns of interacting waves:

Cymatics: different sound wave frequencies create different emergent patterns in a medium consisting of a membrane with a powder or liquid on it.

 

AI-on-AI interference will likely create a whole matrix of different patterns that can emerge and stabilize in terms of grammatological topologies. This creates a rich generator function that can create not “one AI-human stable ecology”, but more something corresponding to the biosphere’s world of interrelated ecologies that nevertheless share some planetary commons (the atmosphere, “Gaia”, etc.).

We need an ecosystem of human-AI-AI-human that self-regulates and creates equilibria which thus contain its incomprehensibly wild dynamism without resorting to oppression or too direct attempts at top-down control (human masters over AI tools).

3.3 The social quality of friendship within the meta-teams is crucial

Thus, in the end, the world cannot be saved from the dangers of AI by lone agents or organizations, nor by regulators (even if these are truly indispensable, they cannot act nearly as fast and they do, after all, deal with rules and legal frameworks). The world can be saved, first and foremost by what I have described as meta-teams. The 11th Commandment in my book, 12 Commandmentsis “Kill your guru, find your others [meta-team]”. The meta-team is a small number of closely allied friends who collaborate professionally in order to achieve idealistic and political goals. It’s a bit like the fellowship of the ring, or why not a Dungeons & Dragons group of adventurers: you’ll need a wizard (techie), a fighter (business person), a cleric (ethicist), and a rogue (a hacker). I go through the real-life dynamics of cultivating such meta-teams in the Internet age in the book.

The social structure and friendship of these groups shape, in turn, the nature of the knowledge they produce (as my friend, complexity scientist Chuck Pezeshki likes to point out). The Center for Humane Technology urges the world to humanize tech, but of course, what “humanize” means in practice depends on what it means to be human. And that, in turn, is socially co-constructed. So there’s a flow from how we create a social setting for each other and what kind of AIs we are capable of putting out there into the world. This becomes particularly pertinent in cases that literally involve training an AI: the AI combines and applies knowledge, but it must be trained by the social sensibilities and conscience of the members of the meta-teams themselves, in order to know in which patterns to do so. The team cannot know what grammatological patterns that should be supported in the first place, but they can learn grammatology and meta-theory and reason together, based on embodied and uniquely human experience, and thus guide the AI in its discoveries of the grammatological patterns of other AIs. And, in turn, their mistakes can and must be balanced out by other meta-teams and their AIs. Even the heroes compete with one another, sure. It’s just a refined competition: You compete by creating the best and most loyal group of friends with the most mutually reinforcing and complementing talents and the deepest shared sense of purpose that charges the setting with selfless emotional energy and high motivation. Not the worst competition in the world, when I come to think of it. (It even involves, as the Finnish IT company Pandatron is working for, using AI to help self-regulate those social relationships within the group.)

The meta-team must build on mutual goodwill and respect, as well as a sense of doing something important together for the benefit of others. The most successful meta-teams would likely combine the elements of metamodernist demographics: Hackers, Hippies, Hipsters (Triple-H populations), and possibly Hermetics (so, Quadruple-H populations) as I have discussed elsewhere.

In chaotic systems like the one at hand here, where every meta-team can train AIs that affect many others, each of them has the potential to actually shift the course of this development in a decisive manner. More likely, of course, is that the “savior” comes in the form of an emergent property of the mutually interfering work of many such meta-teams — like anti-fragility. It’s like we’re driving downhill in a car stuck on full throttle and only have the handbrake (i.e. regulations); we’re going to need to steer as well, and fast! Pull the brake, sure, but also, and most importantly go with the flow and steer.

3.4 The multitude takes charge

Steering at a second order of complexity: at the grammatological level. “Cyber” means steering. We’re talking about second-order cybernetics. What my buddy Bill Torbert (after Chris Argyris) calls double-loop and triple-loop learning — in cyberspace and beyond. This, I claim, comes about precisely by mustering the powers of what philosophers Hardt & Negri call “the multitude”. Many perspectives break against one another, and right there are the waves of a higher order, emerging through chaos.

The multitude: At this point, many such meta-teams need to form and start combining a grammatological understanding with AI training and AI-AI interaction. As a sum-larger-larger-than-its-parts, together they form a swarm, contributing to “good noise” in the human-AI system, making it “anti-fragile” (Nassim Taleb argues that the right amount of noise makes stuff anti-fragile, so that it grows and adapts in the face of adversity rather than coming crashing down at the first unexpected event; another argument for eating sand, by the way).

Personally, I believe that such meta-teams can and will emerge from the idealistic side of the Ethereum and Holochain communities respectively (and their overlaps) as these already contain the necessary combination of talent, tech, informational centrality in the networks, idealism, and often enough resources to not have to work normal day jobs. MetaGame is one context for such people to get together. The Ethereum community has generally been disillusioned and disoriented for the last few years due to a lack of ideological clarity (too stuck in libertarianism, etc.) and the lack of capacity to self-organize into patterns of higher complexity.

[[For MHC buffs: it is about coordinating at the Paradigmatic and Cross-Paradigmatic orders of complexity. This is where stuff like grammatology comes in.]]

For those of you who fit this description and read this: pick up your sword, ride like the wind my son; you’re the defender God has sent. Co-create your meta-team and start creating the AI that balances out the grammatological patterns of other AIs. Restore balance to the force. Grammatology is complex, sure, but it starts from simple terms of basic English grammar. If you cultivate your meta-team and invest in bridging meta-theory and tech, you can begin to explore grammatological patterns with the AI helping you and you helping it.

Or said with unapologetic poeticism: Many meta-teams together must form a networked army of children, engaged in playful struggle, sporting ironic smiles at their own self-importance, surfing the edge of madness and hyper-sanity, following the depths of the eternal now so closely, to react from the heart, as time slows down as the AI develops with more and more frames per second.

I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: Our world will be conquered, ruled, and transfor­med by an army of children.

Children armed, of course, with basic English grammar.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ’12 Commandments’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

 

[[In this particular essay, Hanzi writes as Director of the Archdisciplinary Research Center ARC and has received support from Pandatron.]]

Mind of Dalí, hands of DALL-E

AI art as dreamtime and the advent of metamodern art-as-emergent-relationality

Euthanasia of the Postmodern Art Zombie

I have come to maintain that the current flood of AI-generated art spells the absolute endpoint of the postmodern arts in the widest sense of that term.

Postmodern art, viewed in this deep-structural and inclusive manner, i.e. as an expression of the “postmodern meta-meme” or cultural stage of development, began in the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, reached maturity in fin-de-siècle expressions such as impressionism, absurd displays like Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (a porcelain urinal that becomes art *because* it’s in a museum) and early 20th century movements like futurism and eventually the catch-all “modernism” (so the art of high modernity was in fact quintessentially postmodern, it’s just called “modernism” due to the misnomer stemming from its concurrence with high modernity; this is the case as art is always ahead of the rest of society in terms of memetic development) and peaked with Andy Warhol’s bridging of pop, kitsch, and fine arts. These last phases also came to be called “postmodern art” in the mainstream textbook vocabulary taught at art schools but, again, let me stress that I mean that postmodern art in the deeper and more inclusive sense is being terminated by AI-generated art.

Since Warhol’s time until today, postmodern art has more or less been stagnating, where the once historically significant transgressions of artists have been attempted again and again — the repetition has set in like a broken record, and instead of evocative social evolution, the art world has largely come to signify some artful if colorful combination of snobbery, nonsense, refined versions of finance bubbles, and sheer fraud. (See my earlier article on NFTs as flowers of evil that can nevertheless save the world).

Now, while postmodern art as a truly generative expression ended decades ago, its zombified existence has indeed outgrown the size and influence of its earlier genuine expressions — it’s been alive and well, as far as Frankensteinian monsters go.

In face, then, of the existential horrors of AI art (we thought they came for our clerk jobs and that we would become painters of life itself, but they came for our most exquisitely creative endeavors), I would like to offer instead a *celebration* of a strange kind of progress, namely, the euthanasia of the postmodern art zombie itself.

But just to briefly take stock of the existential horror of AI art (not then, the “existential threat” of general AI, i.e. that it could end life on the planet as we know it, a prospect of which I am still a hard agnostic; but like agnostics of religion with God, I don’t find myself worrying much about it), I would like to stress the following:

Let us, by all means admit it: AI art is sublime. It is mind blowing. It is thrilling. It is absolutely beautiful. It is original. It artistic. It is dreamlike. Deny it all you want, protect your pride and integrity, sure. Meanwhile, prompted AI is literally winning art competitions and spellbinding a world.

To those who deny it, for those who claim there is no “spirit” in AI art, I challenge you: cover the hands of the artwork and perform a blind test. Given that postmodern art experts have mistaken literally chimp-made art for highly avant-garde works, I bet my car and birthday cake, you’re chanceless. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So is depth, aura, and authenticity. That’s the grim bottom-line of postmodernity at large — and it’s a truth that has unexpectedly emancipatory potential once realized, as I have mused earlier in a long-read essay on the nature of “sincere irony”.

The *really* interesting part here is that there is something distinctly, well, *metamodern* about the AI-generated art. Through its shameless and absolutely massive stealery of other art, of the tender hearts and life projects of thousands upon thousands of actual human artists, all mixed into the chaos engine, bringing its own weird sense of order to the virtual world, it not only brings the postmodern insight and disenchantment (everything is surface, everything is structure, everything is stolen, power works by being able to direct and steer the knowledge and minds of others…) to its logical conclusion: the most original, participatory, and sublime art *is* the most crudely pirated one…. Speaking with Walter Benjamin: “aura” and “authenticity” are brought about by nothing less than theft combined with statistics. It also, and just as importantly, is the direct expression of the life conditions of the Internet age, as the adage goes since the best film of last year, it’s Everything, Everywhere, All At Once.

How, then, does the zombie of postmodern art die? Well, it dies by its own sword: crude market forces, in turn relying upon the control of surface appearances, of the setting of “scenes”. And, by all means, off with their heads — not every small and authentic struggling artist out there (their tragedies are real enough, and warrant respect), but the money-bloated madness of the bastions of today’s high-end trade between the super-rich and the fake cultural capital that money cannot actually buy them, as well as the really ugly and incomprehensible public monuments, sculptures, and paintings that we all spend so much taxpayer money on. There are many artists, and much artwork, I really won’t miss. Let the machine take them.

The key takeaway thus far is this:

  • The AI art revolution is for postmodern art what photography was for modern art: a death sentence.

Once photography barged in during the late 1800s, emblematically around the same point history when painting technique had been refined to the point of practically reaching photorealism, the “modern” art project that had begun in Renaissance died. In the bloody paintpangs of that revolution of culture, modern art died, and postmodern art rose. Before long, pissoirs were the taking the stage alongside increasingly bizarrely pointy Picasso women. Postmodern artists will continue to exist just as photorealistic and classically correct painting continues to this day, but they will lose their position of relevance and status.

“Remember, Look Down at Your Hands. The Fingers: Watch the Fingers”

In dreamtime, there are no hands.

 

We can further notice another deep, structural analogy between AI art and dreamtime.

Consider the fact that AI, so far, for all its apparent ingenuity and stolen talent, cannot paint hands. What else cannot do so? Actually, looking at one’s hands is the very prompt people use to jolt themselves into states of lucid dreaming: during the day, you remind yourself to look at your hands hundreds of times. At night, when asleep and dreaming, you might remember to also look at your hands. In the dream, though, your hands will look somehow surreal, weird. Our dreaming minds cannot paint them, even while recognizing its own mistake. You realize you’re dreaming, and you gain control of the dream, you enter the state lucid dreaming, where you can consciously conjure up whatever fantasy your mind desires or wishes to explore.

Among the artists of textbook “modernism” was the surrealist Salvador Dalí, and in his work, he also expressed intuitions that were decidedly ahead of his time: many forms of what can only be thought of as metamodernist symbolisms and sentiments were present (for instance, images of the sacred which where also revealing and disenchanting, mirroring the metamodernist principle of sincere irony). And, of course, Dalí painted dreams. The earliest forms of AI art looked decidedly psychedelic — between dream and waking state and with strange sensual and fractal-like alterations — today’s rapidly advancing AI art looks more and more, well, dreamlike.

It’s a dream machine. We’re reapproaching what Australian aboriginals have called “the everywhen”: moments and events mashed up beyond space and time. In the popularized mistranslation that goes back about a century, the anthropology of religion has called it “dreamtime”.

Metamodernism: Art-As-Emergent-Relationality

Screenshot from a random feed on my Pinterest home page.

 

To wrap up the conclusion, then, we actually can begin to see what “metamodern art” truly is. Indeed, we didn’t even need the AI to see it: it was already on Pinterest for all to see. The sheer variance and creativity that came from *human* minds (not AI) using all available tools, digital and others, and seeing all other artists, and being influenced by all of the world, was staggering. The amount of “newness” was available for all to see, but it was among all the small artists, only a few of the big ones at art galleries represented it.

But it is not every piece of work in and of itself that represents “metamodern art” — no, it is the relation between them that becomes apparent when you scroll through them at Pinterest: it’s the larger structure of greater variance and generativity that is the metamodern art project. “Metamodern art” is in the relationship between all of the existing artwork, which by the way is exactly what AI is chewing right through, hence its incredible creativity. It’s in the betweeness itself. This is the art-as-emergent-relationality that I referenced in the subtitle to this essay.

On Pinterest, you can see how the number of truly unique artists and imaginations, drawing upon one another and using so many different artistic toolkits, has formally exploded. AI just brings this to the next level. We were almost there already. Now it becomes obvious to all but those in the most stubborn denial: visual creativity has become common. It has become cheap. Pastiche or anything else, it’s all there. That doesn’t make it any less wonderous with every unique artist, no. It just means that there are so many more of them.

The metamodern artist, then, is faced with a task that many are already rising to meet: the category of “art” was itself a modern construct, and we are now breaking out of that category. Art conquers the world in a wider sense. And in this conquest, the artist is not the one that paints the most authentic and sublime painting, but the one that imagines that which others could not have imagined, and could thus not have prompted and AI to perform, and that the AI would not be able to steal from the mash of existing art history.

The metamodern artist becomes the person to break away from the dream machine and to lucidly imagine that which was literally unthinkable to man and machine alike. Aesthetics can in this phase draw upon the inexhaustible fountainhead of creativity: nature, and thus natural science. My own favorite example are the these sculptures of mathematic ingenuity, by John Edmark. You can’t ask an AI to invent that:

Art breaking out of its confines — into science, into design, into the sociological imagination, into political relevance. Again, many *are* doing it. Welcome to the real world.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ’12 Commandments’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

NEW EBOOK: 12 Commandments

Hanzi Freinacht releases the hitherto boldest and most comprehensive challenge to Jordan Peterson’s self-help psychology: a self-help for progressive and complex minds. Out Jan 1st 2023.

12 Commandments: For Extraordinary People to Master Ordinary Life

 

In this sincerely ironic challenge to psychologist Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life, Hanzi Freinacht (a sociologist and philosopher) takes off fast in his trademarked irreverent and wild style of writing. His weapon of choice: laughter. His most potent tool: tears. His commitment marks every page: uniting intellect and emotion, ordinary life and playful struggle for a better world.

Hanzi guides the reader through an unforgettable journey of highs and lows, light and darkness, and all the way back to ordinary existence. Life, death, love, terror, rage, unhinged sexual desire, faith, spirituality, politics, God, family, and idealistic strivings to change an ailing world—all topics are woven together into one and the same philosophy of life, crystallized into 12 Commandments that you will want to obey as if your life depends on them.

This is no book for the ordinary person. No, the already-extraordinary, the misfit idealist, the maverick, these all find a structure to life and solace for their sorrows in these pages. Readers are guided back to ordinary existence, to where their different journeys began. This book is a secret bible for the transnational class of creatives and idealists that Hanzi is native to. It seeks to reestablish sanity and peace of mind to very people who can make a real difference in the world.

The 12 Commandments are:

1. Live in a mess, moderately
2. Fuck like a beast
3. Live sincerely, ironically
4. Turn workout into prayer
5. Quit
6. Do the walk of shame
7. Sacrifice immortality
8. Heal with justice
9. Burn your maps
10. Do what you hate
11. Kill your guru, find your others
12. Play for forgiveness

You must read each of these to understand the depth of their meaning. And you must obey them—if you are to master ordinary life and make it a homestead for your extraordinary adventures.

You can find the ebook on Amazon. Print versions will be up shortly.

A Four-Dimensional Fractal Approach to Ethics

How the fractal nature of the integral four-quadrant model can help (dis)solve the paradoxes within ethics.

Many years ago, shortly after having discovered Ken Wilber’s very useful four-quadrant model, it occurred to me that, within ethics, there are basically four (not three, not five, but four) main branches or schools of thought if you don’t count amoral philosophies such as nihilism (but these cannot be used normatively, only in a larger “meta-ethical” context). Having noticed that oftentimes things come bundled in four, just to fit snuggly into the four quadrant model, of course made me wonder whether or not the four schools of ethics would somehow align with Wilber’s model.

Spoiler alert: I can already reveal that the answer to that question is that the four schools of ethics fit very well into the four quadrants!

The reason this is interesting is that the four-quadrant model is very good at guiding us towards resolving, or dissolving, apparent paradoxes. And in philosophy, the different schools of ethics have usually been at odds with each other with no resolution in sight. Hence, the four quadrant model might come in handy here.

The four schools of thought within ethics are: rule-based ethicsconsequentialism (or utilitarianism), virtue ethics, and contractualism (or social contract theory). In the following, I will not only show how each of these corresponds to the logic of one of the four quadrants; I will also show how seeing this pattern can help answer many puzzling questions within ethics.

From there on, you can construct ethical solutions at a much more complex level and in a more coherent manner—i.e., you can become more ethical, do more “good”. That’s what this is about.

The Big Three and Wilber’s Four Quadrants

In his books, Wilber speaks of the so-called “Big Three”: TruthBeauty, and (normative) Goodness. The idea about these three separate domains of inquiry has run through Western philosophy as a red thread since Plato introduced the triad 2500 years ago—until Wilber finally broke with the tradition and added a fourth. Kind of.

In Europe during the medieval period, scholastic thinkers provided a more systematic treatment of these three concepts and began referring to them as the “transcendentals” (i.e. properties of being). Ontologically speaking, the transcendentals are what is common to all beings, indeed to all being. Cognitively speaking, they are initial foundational concepts since they cannot be traced back to anything preceding them.

The three transcendentals have remained prominent within Christian theology, particularly in Catholic thought, yet these three distinct properties of being have in many ways also been a fundamental feature even within modern secular Western philosophy. If we take Immanuel Kant’s three critiques, for example, they can be seen as inquiries into each of the transcendentals:

  • Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1781 (truth)
  • Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, 1788 (goodness)
  • Kritik der Urteilskraft, 1790 (beauty)

Karl Popper is perhaps most famous for his philosophy on science, but he also contributed to metaphysics with his three worlds model. This is a way of looking at reality that involves three interacting worlds:

  • World 1:Objects. The realm of states and processes as typically studied by the natural sciences. These include the states and processes that we seek to explain by physics and by chemistry, and also those states and processes that subsequently emerge with life and which we seek to explain by biology. (Truth)
  • World 2:Subjects. The realm of mental states and processes. These include sensations and thoughts, and include both conscious and unconscious mental states and processes. World 2 includes all animal, as well as human, mental experience. Mental states and processes only emerged as a product (or by-product) of biological activity by living organisms, and so only emerged subsequently to the emergence of living organisms within World 1. Mental states and processes are the products of evolutionary developments in the World 1 of animal brains and nervous systems, but constitute a new realm of World 2 that co-evolved by its interaction with the World 1 of brains and nervous systems. (Beauty)
  • World 3:Intersubjectivity. The realm of the “products of thought” when considered as objects in their own right. These products emerge from human “World 2” activity, but when considered as World 3 objects in their own right they have rebound effects on human World 2 thought processes. Through these rebound effects, World 3 “objects” may—via World 2-motivated human action on World 1—have an indirect but powerful effect on World 1. In Popper’s view, World 3 “objects” encompass a very wide range of entities, from scientific theories to works of art, from laws to institutions. (Goodness)

As you can see above, each of these worlds correspond to one of the big threes introduced by Plato.

Jürgen Habermas, the perhaps greatest social theorist alive, similarly acknowledges the existence of these three separate worlds. He has written that:

“With any speech act, the speaker takes up a relation to something in the objective world [Truth, World 1], something in a common social world [Goodness, World 3] and something in his own subjective world [Beauty, World 2].”

—Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1987).

He also argues that each of these worlds has its own “validity claim” which are:

  • Propositional truth(referring to an objective state of affairs, World 1)
  • Subjective truthfulness(or sincerity, World 2)
  • Normative rightness(cultural justness or appropriateness, World 3)

Given the distinct properties of each of these worlds’ validity claims, it also means that none of them can be reduced to the others. Each of these validity claims must be exposed to its own particular kind of evidence. In a way, this is what David Hume pointed out regarding the naturalistic fallacy, the philosophical notion that later would be named Hume’s Law where he argued that you cannot derive an “ought” from an “is” (i.e. getting truth mixed up with goodness).

Max Weber, the father of modern sociology, emphasized the differentiation between the big three in his definition of modern society. According to Weber, modernity’s primary ambition is to separate objective experiences, ethical evaluations, and personal preferences from each other—that is, the modern separation between science, politics, and religion.

The inability to separate the big three has been a source of philosophical quarrels and misunderstandings throughout Western thought for centuries. And whenever two opposing groups have emerged on one topic or the other, membership has usually relied on whether one favored either the interior (subjective, beauty, and goodness) or the exterior (objective, truth) dimensions of reality. Notable examples are the medieval debate of the problem of universals, or the later secular philosophical debate between rationalists and empiricists. The latter was exactly what Kant tried to resolve with his three abovementioned critiques.

But despite the modern project’s quest to separate the three domains, and Hume’s assertion that you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is” more than 250 years ago, still to this day and age, people tend to mix up the different validity claims and emphasize one domain at the expense of another—with much confusion as a result. The century-old lack of understanding between the natural sciences and the humanities, for example, is mainly derived from the fact that the former works within the exterior, objective domains of Popper’s World 1, and the latter primarily within the interior, subjective and intersubjective domains of Popper’s Worlds 2 and 3.

This is where Wilber enters the picture.

Wilber’s Four Quadrants

Many of my dear readers are already familiar with Wilber’s four quadrants, so I’ll keep it brief. To those of you who still don’t get it after my presentation here, I’ll recommend you look up the four-quadrant model and Wilber’s integral philosophy elsewhere—or simply ask in the metamodern community online. Plenty of metamodernists come from the integral scene.

Now, if you look at the model below, you can see that Wilber has added a fourth dimension to the classic three-dimensional one. In a way, it’s kind of an open goal: If you have intersubjectivity (Popper’s World 3), you ought to have interobjectivity too. Makes sense right?

But apart from that, what exactly does the model describe, and what is it that makes it so elegant that it has all but literally amassed a cult-following?

Well, let me explain: If you look at the margins of the model above, you will notice four different categories: individualcollectiveinterior, and exterior. These are the four fundamental properties of reality, according to this model, which in four different combinations add up to four separate dimensions. They are as follows:

  • Interior / individual:The transcendental idea of “beauty”, which corresponds to Popper’s World 2 of subjective truthfulness, belongs to the upper left, subjective quadrant in the model above. That is because this is the dimension of the individual’s inner mental experiences, including aesthetic experiences (as the saying goes, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”). Consequently, the upper left quadrant is about the states of affairs that can be stated in “I-language”: the realm of consciousness, phenomenology, psychology in many of its modes, and spirituality.
  • Interior / collective:The transcendental idea of “goodness”, World 3, belongs to the lower left, intersubjective quadrant. This is the dimension of normative rightness, of social constructed reality of symbols and discourses. These properties belong to the interior left half of the four-quadrant model, just like beauty, since they cannot be accounted for objectively. But since questions of ethics and symbolic meaning is not just about single individuals, but the relation between individuals, it belongs to the collective half of the model. The lower left is therefore concerning state of affairs that can be stated in “we-language”: the realm of culture, ethics, hermeneutics, and symbols.

So far, so good.

The transcendental idea of “truth”, World 1, has as mentioned been split into two separate dimensions in the four-quadrant model. That is because in this world of propositional truths, of objective state of affairs and physical objects and events, there is, like in the abovementioned interior dimensions, both an individual and collective dimension with two very different validity claims. The first one (exterior/individual, upper right) is that of classic empirical science, think Newtonian physics, scientific method, particle physics; the second (exterior/collective, lower right) is that of the systems sciences, think meteorology, ecology, evolution theory, chaos theory.

  • Exterior / individual: The upper rightquadrant is thus the dimension of objective matters that can be assessed individually: empirical facts that are true in-and-of-themselves; states of affairs that can be stated in “it-language”.
  • Exterior / collective:And finally, in the lower right corner, this is where you find the inter-objective quadrant. This is the dimension of objective matters that can only be understood systemically (viz. the collective lower half of the model); state of affairs that can be stated in what might be termed an “its-language”: what are the systems that create the ebbs and flows of economies, weather, living organisms, ant colonies, and so forth. What makes an ant colony into just that? It’s not a matter of simply adding up the list of 30.000 ants. It has to do with how the relatively simple behaviors of each ant together create something that is not exactly “one thing”, but exists quit objectively nevertheless, as a set of relations: the colony. The system. The whole.

Let me elaborate on this distinction a bit. The upper right quadrant is about individual objects and events that can be observed and understood, for instance, through the scientific method of isolating phenomena and analyzing the results (both of which are about separating things into their smallest individual constituents in order to gain understanding). The lower right quadrant, on the other hand, is about the phenomena that emerge from the interaction between those individual objects and events; about the wholes rather than the parts. Remember hearing the saying that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”? This means that the whole, i.e. the phenomenon that emerges from the interaction of the individual objects in the upper right quadrant, cannot be derived from or reduced to the mere sum of its constituting parts. The holistic understanding required to perceive the interobjective phenomena of the lower right quadrant runs counter to the reductionism of the objective upper right and is exactly why we are dealing with two different dimensions with two different sets of validity claims.

The thing is that the two exterior dimensions have their own very different forms of validity claims, just like the two interior ones. Understanding how a single particle behaves is drastically different from how billions of particles behave in a complex phenomenon like a weather system (or just any statistical mechanics). The same applies to the difference between understanding a single human organism, and that of millions of humans interacting in a society—particle physics operates within another language than meteorology; biology within another than economics or sociology.

The systems sciences cover a broad array of theoretical fields such as chaos theory, complexity science, cybernetics, and so on. Compared to classical physics, which can trace its roots back to antiquity, systems science is relatively new. Charles Darwin, with his theory of evolution, can be said to be one of the first chaos theorists, but it was not until the 20th century that systems science emerged as a discipline of its own. It is therefore not strange that modern Western philosophy has not made the distinction between the two exterior dimensions before the second half of the 20th century.

(Wilber’s “Integral” is, in a way, the result of new age spirituality marrying systems science. Kind of. So it is not surprising that it is here we find the break with the tradition of the big three.)

If you are still struggling to wrap your head around the four-quadrant model, you can take a look at the illustration below where I have plotted a few examples of how different academic disciplines, methods, and thinkers can be positioned within the four quadrants:

And by “rationalism” here, I mean the philosophical tradition of emphasizing people’s own rational thinking in finding out what’s true. I.e., it emphasizes the truth of rational thinking, of our conscious processes, not of the facts in and of themselves.

What I want to emphasize above is the position of ethics in the lower left corner of the four quadrants. This shows, what Hume stated 250 years ago, namely that you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”—or in Wilberian integral language: don’t derive a “we” from an “it(s)”.

Now, my intention here is not to teach integral theory, others have done a far better job elsewhere. All of this is only to prepare you for my inquiry into how the four quadrants’ puzzling fractal nature can help us in ethical matters.

Fractal nature? Yes, this is where the four quadrants start to get really interesting. You see, each of the four quadrants can be split into four additional quadrants. In fact, the four quadrants should not really be understood in absolutist terms, but rather in relative terms. That is, ethics remains an intersubjective field relative to physics or psychology, but within the domain of ethics itself it, in turn, contains elements that, relative to each other, are either subjective, intersubjective, objective, or interobjective. It’s like a fractal: each time you zoom in, the same pattern emerges over and over again—but with new information emerging at each level.

But before I move on to demonstrate how, let me first introduce you to the four schools of ethics.

The Four Schools of Ethics

It is commonly agreed upon that normative ethics can be divided into three major categories: Deontological EthicsTeleological Ethics (or “consequentialism” which will be the term I use in the following) and Virtue EthicsI would argue, however, that deontological ethics ought to be divided into two separate schools, namely: rule-based ethics and contractualism.

Before I explain why this is, let me first introduce the four schools of ethics. If you’re already familiar with these, just skip ahead. I’m not saying anything you can’t find in a school book. And obviously, all I’m offering here is pretty basic and only touches the surface. If you want a more in-depth understanding, look stuff up, study, and come back in two years a wiser and nerdier person.

Rule-based Ethics

Rule-based ethics is perhaps best explained by Kant’s categorical imperative. The categorical imperative signifies an absolute, unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself. Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative is as follows:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

And the second formulation goes like this:

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”

The second formulation is interesting because it takes human life as a value—an end in itself and not only a means—into account. This is, of course, the foundation of the idea of human rights.

The categorical imperative is quite similar to the so-called Golden Rule, historically found throughout most literate pre-modern cultures:

  • In its positive form stated as: “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.”
  • In its negative form stated as: “One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated.”

According to Kant, it is not the consequences that determine whether an action is right or wrong, but the principles behind it. Stealing and lying are not wrong because such acts tend to hurt people, or that people generally do not like being stolen from and lied to, but because these acts violate certain logical (and tautological) principles. For example:

  • It is wrong to steal because the concept of “stealing” in itself implies that there exists such a thing as property rights—otherwise you wouldn’t stealbut merely take. This means that by declaring that you or anyone else stole something, you simultaneously imply that an ethical principle was broken, namely the right of property.
  • It is wrong to lie because the act of speaking in itself implies conveying what one believes to be true. If you do not tell the truth, you violate the implied premise that by speaking you are passing on correct information. Consequently, if lying became a universal law (categorical imperative), speech would be rendered meaningless—which I guess we can agree defeats the purpose of speaking.

According to Kant, these are contradictions in a conceptual sense, and thus philosophically erroneous because they undermine the very basis for their own existence.

These are examples of moral absolutism, i.e. the idea that certain actions are intrinsically right or wrong regardless of the consequences, but also the intentions behind them. According to Kant however, no action can possibly be conceived as morally sound without “a good will”, and the consequences of an act cannot be used to judge whether it is based on such a good will since good consequences can arise by accident from an action motivated to cause harm and vice versa. A person thus has such a good will only when they act out of respect towards a moral law, and because they have an inclination of duty to do so. Therefore, the only thing that is truly good in itself is a good will. This also asks one of the greatest questions within rule-based ethics: Is it the intention, i.e. the will to do good, or the conduct according to morally good rules that matters the most?

The second formulation of the categorical imperative has the problem that it potentially collapses into an infinite amount of rules handling exceptions, i.e. “lying is always ok when…”. It does not advocate what exactly any universal law should entail, only that one’s conduct should be in accordance with it in any similar situation, thus allowing the universal law to lie or steal in situations where one would like it to be a universal law. For example, who wouldn’t want it to be a universal law to always steal food and give it to the starving? This line of thought allows an endless regress without violating the good will or the maxim to have a certain conduct to be a universal law. Endless regress is however an unfavorable philosophical position since it puts us back to square one and leaves us just as ignorant as before about how to handle ethical dilemmas.

The greatest problem though is that the potential bad consequences of good principles are ignored and that any work around this problem tends to land in some kind of consequentialism—the opposite of rule-based ethics.

Kant’s categorical imperative is based on the concept of universalizability, which means that an action is morally sound if an action could become a rule which everyone would act upon in similar circumstances. But the problem remains that it does not say why anyone would want their actions to be universalized, or why anyone should bother acting morally, in the first place? This, however, is a job for the next branch of ethics to give an answer to. Let’s have a look at contractualism.

Contractualism

Contractualism, or social contract theory, revolves around the idea that the foundation of our governments and their legal frameworks, and the social rules we conform by, are derived from implicit social contracts or unspoken agreements that we have entered into with each other because we have a self-interest in everyone upholding them and because they serve the common good. This also means that the social contracts are negotiable, just like the authority of governments, and that the rules can change over time.

The most famous social contract theorist is perhaps Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote The Social Contract in 1762, from where the name of this school of thought is derived. Other famous classic social contract theorists are Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. The main questions addressed by these thinkers are the origins of society and the legitimacy of the state, and how people have voluntarily consented, either explicitly or implicitly, to yield some of their freedoms—and submitted to the authority of the state (or other larger social whole) in exchange for protection and privileges.

The point of departure for most social contract theories is a heuristic examination of the human condition absent from any political authority. According to Hobbes, the “state of nature” is a condition that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, due to a “war of all against all”, as the “natural condition” entails everyone having unlimited “natural freedoms”, a “right to all things” including the right to do with others as they wish. From this starting point, Hobbes wishes to demonstrate that rational individuals voluntarily would consent to give up their natural freedom to cause others harm (if others did the same) by forming a political authority in order to obtain the benefits of protection from civil strife.

This marked an important departure from medieval natural law theories that used to give precedence to obligations over rights. The question of the relation between natural and legal rights is an important aspect of social contract theory. Legal rights are those bestowed onto a person by a given legal system, while natural rights are those not contingent upon the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and therefore universal and inalienable. Natural law theory challenged the divine right of kings and became an alternative justification for the establishment of a social contractpositive law, and government—and thus legal rights—in the form of classical republicanism. Hobbes, however, objected to the attempt to derive rights from natural law, arguing that law and rights, though often confused, signify opposites, with law referring to obligations while rights refer to the absence of obligations.

Retaining only the central notion from Hobbes that individuals in a state of nature would willingly come together to form a state, Locke’s conception of the social contract is that individuals in a state of nature would be morally bound by “the law of nature” not to inflict each other harm. However, without any government to protect people against those seeking to injure or enslave them, they would agree to form a state that would act as a “neutral judge” to protect their “lives, liberty, and property”—the three natural rights according to Locke, contrary Hobbes’ notion of the single natural right to do as one wishes. Another major difference between Hobbes and Locke is that while Hobbes advocated near-absolute authority, Locke argued for inviolate freedom under law, with the legitimacy of the government derived from the citizens’ right to self-defense. Rather than a state of nature, in which each individual acts as judge, jury, and executioner, the right of self-defense is transferred to the state to act as an impartial, objective agent.

Rousseau claims that the existence of inalienable rights is unnecessary for the existence of a constitution or a set of laws and rights. His idea of a social contract is that rights and responsibilities are derived from a consensual contract between the government and the people. The aim of the social contract is to determine whether there can be a legitimate political authority since people’s interactions in a society seem to put them in a state far worse than that of a state of nature. Rousseau’s version of social contract theory is based on an unlimited, indivisible, and popular sovereignty as the foundation of political rights. Rousseau differs from Locke and Hobbes by arguing that a citizen cannot pursue their true interests egoistically, but needs to subordinate to the law created by the citizenry acting as a collective. Only with the existence of a direct rule by the people as a whole in lawmaking is liberty possible. But as people often do not know which conduct benefits the greater good, the role of the legislator is to advocate the values and customs promoting this—summed up by Rousseau in this paragraph:

“Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”

Hence, enforcement of law, including criminal law, is not a restriction of individual liberty since the citizen explicitly agreed to be constrained if, as a private individual, he did not respect his own will as formulated in the general will. Because laws represent the restraints of civil freedom, they represent the leap made from humans in a state of nature into “civil society” according to Rousseau. (Note: “civil society” in this classical language of philosophers did not mean football clubs and local community gatherings, but more something like “a peaceful, functional, and civilized society”).

Although the Sovereign’s edicts may be arbitrary and tyrannical, Hobbes saw absolute powers vested in government as the only alternative to the anarchy of a state of nature. Alternatively, Locke and Rousseau argued that we gain civil rights in return for accepting the obligation to respect and defend the rights of others; giving up some freedoms in return for others. The central premise of social contract theory is that law and political order are not natural but human creations. The social contract and the political order it creates are simply the means towards an end—the benefit of the individuals involved—and legitimate only to the extent the government fulfills its part of the agreement. According to Hobbes, citizens are not obligated to submit to the government when it is too weak to act effectively to suppress factionalism and civil unrest. Locke argues that citizens can withdraw their obligation to obey or change the leadership through elections or other means, including, when necessary, violence, when the government fails to secure their natural rights. Rousseau, on the other hand, was more concerned with forming new governments than with overthrowing old ones.

The concept of inalienable rights was criticized by Jeremy Bentham (the founder of modern utilitarianism) and Edmund Burke (the “father” of conservatism) as groundless, claiming that rights arise from the actions of government, or evolve from tradition, and neither can provide anything inalienable. Another criticism of natural rights theory is that one cannot draw norms from facts. As mentioned, this is the is-ought problem, or the naturalistic fallacy, also known as Hume’s law.

More recent contributors to social contract theory who deserve to be mentioned are John Rawls and Robert Nozick.

John Rawls’ contribution to contractualism is an approach whereby rational people in a hypothetical “original position”, setting aside their individual preferences and capacities under a “veil of ignorance”, would agree to certain general principles of justice and legal organization. By asking the individual to propose which rules should govern society in a situation where no one knew where or in which social class to be born, Rawls believed we could come closer to an answer to what a just world should look like.

In opposition to Rawls, Robert Nozick proposed the idea of a minimal state, “limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on”, arguing that when a state takes on more responsibilities than these, rights will be violated. To support the idea of the minimal state, Nozick presents an argument that illustrates how the minimalist state arises naturally from anarchy and how any expansion of state power past this minimalist threshold is unjustified since it violates the Lockean rights of liberty and property and since any redistribution of wealth must be based on consent in order to be justified.

Where Rawls to some extent bases his theory of justice on Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative’s proposition that one should ask what one would want to become a universal law, Nozick’s entitlement theory, leans towards the second formulation which sees humans as ends in themselves and never merely as means to some other end—even the end of the common good.

To sum up, contractualism is about the implicit as well as explicit rules under which we collectively, more or less voluntarily, have agreed to submit in order to protect and promote our own and others’ interests, whatever these may be in a given society. The greatest ontological problem is the issue of natural versus legal rights. From where exactly are rights to be derived, and how are they justified? And what about the individuals who are not, or do not have the power (minorities, the unborn, animals), to negotiate the social contract?

Virtue-based Ethics

Virtue-based ethics can be traced back to Greek antiquity and is one of the oldest moral philosophies. Virtue-based ethics is not concerned with labeling actions good or bad, but rather with determining the moral character of agents. For example, rather than asking whether lying is right or wrong, it is the concern of whether a person is honest or dishonest that is important here. A knife is neither good nor bad, but either sharp or dull. Similarly, a horse can be said to be strong or fast, simply calling it “good” would be meaningless to an advocate of virtue-based ethics.

The go-to name for virtue ethics these days has become Alasdair MacIntyre. Since the 1980s, he has been bridging his way back to Aristotle’s thinking, claiming that a relevant version of virtues can be reconstructed in our day and age by looking at what the rules of each craft, art, or game require of their respective participants for these to fulfill the purpose inherent to that game. This is, argues MacIntyre, more in line with the insights of 20th-century sociology, which emphasizes that people are always embedded in meaningful contexts. Take away that context, and you’ll have a hard time knowing what would be the “good” thing to do. Define the context (“we’re playing chess”) and at least you’ll be able to see what some of the relevant virtues are. In chess, for instance, honesty means not cheating or intentionally distracting your opponent, and so forth. If you win the world chess championship with the help of the edge your cleavage gives you, it’s not an expression of the game of chess in its ideal form. And so, virtues are learned together with real, human skills in real, living settings. (But, as you will see in the sections below, my own expositions emphasizes that the virtue must always be observed in the behavior of specific person, regardless of how it affects the game being played in this particular instance—don’t be fooled by surface appearances; on a deeper level my view aligns with MacIntyre’s, at least as far as I can see.)

Virtue ethics has been rather neglected since antiquity but has enjoyed somewhat of a comeback since the second half of the 20th century, especially among feminists. The ethics of care is a normative ethical theory developed by feminist scholars—notably Carol Gilligan, also a developmental psychologist with stage theories of personal development similar to my own. It holds that moral action centers on interpersonal relationships and care or benevolence as a virtue. This school of thought emphasizes the dilemma that certain behaviors are regarded as virtuous regardless of whether it benefits the greater good, or obeys certain universal principles. For example, the virtue of parenthood is judged on the basis of how well one succeeds in caring for one’s children—not how well the overall consequences of one’s conduct serve the greater good of children in general, or if any action therein is in accordance with some universal principle. You may be an altruistic person if you seek to spend most of your time helping poor orphaned children, and you may be an honest person if you never lie or steal, but you are nevertheless a bad parent if you neglect your own children because you spend too much of your time helping out at the orphanage or let your own children starve because you do not wish to steal food for them. You may be altruistic and law-abiding, but you are not a virtuous parent. The same can be said about the virtue of being a loyal friend. The whole concept of friendship is about caring more for a specific person than for a stranger. If you show everyone else the same amount of care as your friends you might be considered altruistic, but you are not loyal.

Again, virtue ethics is not concerned about universal principles or overall consequences. The terms “good” or “bad” have by some virtue-based moral philosophers even been proposed to be abandoned altogether. Instead, the moral emphasis should be on which terms are used to describe the action itself, and thus the moral character of the agent conducting them in that setting.

Consequentialism

Consequentialism is a class of ethics that includes a large number of sub-categories such as utilitarianismrule consequentialismstate consequentialismethical egoismethical altruismtwo-level consequentialism, and negative consequentialism, that all have in common that it is the consequences of an action or rule that are the ultimate basis for any normative judgment. Each of these mentioned forms of consequentialism emphasizes the individual versus the collective to varying degrees, and many of them combine elements from the other three main schools of ethics. In the last regard, utilitarianism is consequentialism in its purest form. This class of consequentialism can be summed up by the mantra “the greatest good for the greatest number”. The main idea here is that the proper course of action is the one maximizing overall happiness and reducing overall suffering.

But it should be mentioned that recent developments in consequentialist ethics have departed from this mantra and simply focus on reducing the suffering prevalent in the universe. Here, an underlying influence is Buddhist philosophy and spiritual insight. My own comrade, Magnus Vinding, counts among these thinkers. He in turn often refers to Brian Tomasik, a dude who really wants to reduce suffering in the universe, judging by his prolific and diligently made output about everything from the suffering of shrimps to the question of whether even atoms might suffer. He wants the whole hullabaloo to cease altogether.

But for simplicity’s sake, let’s stay with the most well-known and established forms of this ethics. Utilitarianism is often seen as related to hedonism, the idea that pleasure is the only intrinsic good and that one should strive towards maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Ethical hedonism is the idea that all people have the right to do everything in their power to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure possible for themselves and that every person’s pleasure should far surpass their amount of pain. Utilitarianism does differ from this line of thought by adding the crucial aspect that what matters is aggregate happiness; the happiness of everyone and not just the happiness of any particular person. According to Jeremy Bentham, the father of modern utilitarianism, the fundamental axiom is: “the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong” He even introduced a method of calculating the value of pleasures and pains, which became known as the hedonic calculus. John Stuart Mill, a student of Bentham’s, on the other hand, rejected this purely quantitative measurement of utility and argued that certain kinds of pleasures are more highly valued than the pursuit of other pleasures. According to Mill, the pleasures of the intellect are intrinsically better than those of mere sensation.

Preference utilitarianism as advocated by John Harsanyi rejects hedonistic utilitarianism as it is far from obvious that everything we do is motivated by a desire to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. He also rejects Mill’s idea of ideal utilitarianism, since it is just as evident that the goal of “mental states of intrinsic worth” cannot be seen as a primary preference by most people. He says that “in deciding what is good and what is bad for a given individual, the ultimate criterion can only be his own wants and his own preferences.” So: help the greatest amount of beings get what they wish for as much as possible.

Rule utilitarianism is the attempt to bypass the common critique of utilitarianism: that what is good for a greater number can be bad for some individuals, and that the consequences of a certain action often cannot be predicted. As such, this sub-category of consequentialism emphasizes that we should act according to certain rules we know usually lead to the greatest good. Rule utilitarians argue that following rules that tend to lead to the greatest good will have better consequences overall than allowing exceptions to be made in individual instances, even if better consequences can be demonstrated in some instances. This does cause the problem, however, that it in practice becomes hard to differ from deontological (or rule-based) ethics and that it shares the same problem of endless regress as the categorical imperative: namely that collapse eventually occurs, because for any given rule, in the case where breaking the rule produces more utility, the rule can be sophisticated by the addition of a sub-rule that handles cases like the exception. This process holds for all cases of exceptions, and so the rules will have as many sub-rules as there are exceptional cases, which, in the end, makes one seek out whatever outcome produces the maximum utility. In the end, we are left with the same ethical dilemma that we started out with and rule utilitarianism does not provide any answers a basic utilitarian approach would not have given us after all.

So, we have four major schools of normative ethics: rule-based ethics, contractualism, virtue-based ethics, and consequentialism. Each, I would claim, come with its own validity claim:

  • The validity claim of rule-based ethicsis that an action has to be in accordance with universal principles that can be justified a priori and deduced from self-evident premises derived from the action itself in order to be considered ethically valid—ultimately regardless of context.
  • Contractualism’s validity claimis that the rules regulating our conduct have to be based on a priori principles that must be mutually agreed upon by reference to the relationship between actors in order to be considered ethically valid.
  • The validity claim of virtue-based ethicsis that an action cannot merely be judged as good or bad in itself, but what matters is the moral character of the agent which can only be judged a posteriori, and then only by reference to a description of the action or property itself viewed through the lens of its particular social context.
  • Consequentialism’s validity claimis that actions can only be considered ethically valid if the outcome of these a posteriori happen to have preferable consequences overall, and then only by reference to some collective end based on the relationship between all actors.

Identifying these four validity claims takes us to the next step in this inquiry, namely how to apply the integral model to these different perspectives on ethics.

How The Fours Schools of Ethics Fit into Wilber’s Four Quadrants

Now we have finally reached the exciting part where I get to demonstrate the fractal nature of the four quadrants. When we zoom in on the lower left quadrant (the dimension of intersubjectivity, of which the domain of ethics is part) we can divide the quadrant into four sub-quadrants—one for each of the four schools of ethics.

In the model below you can see where I have positioned each of the four; and in the following I will explain why.

As you can see in the model above, rule-based ethics has been placed in the upper left quadrant of the intersubjective ethics sub-quadrant. The upper left quadrant is the dimension of Popper’s subjective World 2, the domain of Wilber’s “I-language”. It is interior and individual—relatively speaking. That is, relative to the three other schools of ethics.

Before we go ahead, please note that what follows is extremely counterintuitive to almost all readers. Whereas several authors, including Wilber himself, have discussed the fractality of his model, none have taken the full consequences of it: each time you zoom within the model, the nature of the four quadrants change. Fractality is not sameness, but self-similarity. So, we are studying questions like: Given that philosophy is a unified field that can be approached from four quadrants, and given that ethics is the lower left quadrant of philosophy, what then is the upper right quadrant of the lower right quadrants of philosophy? What is the right that is within the left, and the up that is within the down? It’s a kind of sudoku, just with philosophical concepts.

Before you know it, some very strange, but ultimately highly logical patterns appear. It is very important to keep this in mind before you start thinking “bUt tHiS sChoOl of eThIcs iS …” Instead, you need to think “what is this school of ethics in relation to this other school.” Zooming is not straightforward: every time you zoom, the quadrants twist and turn—just like a fractal, if you zoom in on any part of it.

Okay, let’s go:

Rule-Based Ethics

  • Why interior?Rule-based ethics belongs to the interior half of the four-quadrant model since it is concerned with ethical reasoning proceeding from theoretical deduction a priori, rather than observation or experience a posteriori. (A priori knowledge is knowledge that is acquired independently of any sensory experience, as opposed to a posteriori knowledge which is derived from experience.) The universally valid principles that rule-based ethics is looking for can thus only be found by gazing inwards and by determining through deductive logic what constitutes sound moral reasoning.
  • Why individual?Rule-based ethics belongs to the individual upper half since it focuses on the ethical validity of singular actions, categories of actions or properties in themselves. Unlike contractualism where it is the relationship between individuals that determines whether an action is ethically valid, rule-based ethics does not need to take the social context into consideration. It merely seeks to determine whether this or that action is ethically valid in itself. This is what gives rule-based ethics the “self-referential” tag.
  • Tags:“a priori” and “self-referential”.

Contractualism

Contractualism has been placed in the lower left quadrant; the dimension of Popper’s intersubjective World 3, or Wilber’s domain of “we-language”. Contractualism is thus interior and collective.

  • Why interior?Contractualism belongs to the interior left half since knowledge about the social contract, just like its deontological cousin rule-based ethics, can only be attained through deduction a priori. The social contract is not a piece of legislation, like a country’s constitution, that we can learn about through our experience of simply reading it. Only through heuristic thought experiments, like that of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, or by simply trying to unravel the social logics of a community by gazing inwards towards the hidden discourses and social imaginaries of a culture, can we deduce why we have the rules we have and whether they are sufficiently justified and upheld.
  • Why collective?The reason why contractualism belongs to the collective lower half is because of the inherent social aspect to this school of thought. This is where it differs from its deontological cousin, rule-based ethics, and the reason why I believe it is important to sharply distinguish between these two forms of deontological ethics. Contractualism is not really interested, unlike rule-based ethics, in finding out what is ethically valid in absolutist terms. It is the relation between individuals (or individuals and groups of individuals) that determine the ethical validity of actions, and furthermore the ethical validity of institutions (which per definition are relational or collective state of affairs). This is what gives contractualism the “relational” tag.
  • Tags:“a priori” and “relational”.

Virtue-Based Ethics

Virtue-based ethics has been placed in the upper right quadrant, Popper’s objective World 1, Wilber’s “it-language”. Virtue-based ethics is thus exterior and individual.

  • Why exterior?Virtue-based ethics belongs to the exterior half of the model because its ethical claims are derived from actions and properties in the objective world that we can only learn about a posteriori. Obviously, we can only assert that a knife is sharp or that a horse is fast after having observed, in the physical world, whether that is the case or not. The same applies to whether someone should be considered a good and caring parent: you have to glean the virtue (or lack of it) from their behavior. Whereas rule-based ethics is concerned with whether honesty is a virtue or not, which must be established a priori, virtue-based ethics is more concerned with whether a person is honest or not—which obviously, only can be established a posteriori.
  • Why individual?What virtue-based and rule-based ethics have in common, however, is that they are both concerned with singular actions, properties or categories. Reasoning within virtue-based ethics does not, much like rule-based ethics, need to take the social context in which an action takes place into consideration. Virtue-based ethics thus earns the “self-referential” tag because the ethical qualities of an action or property is simply derived from the action or property itself and not from its relation to any other entities. (Although MacIntyre’s form of virtue ethics derive virtues from social contexts to justify their existence, this is actually a way of using the relational logic of contractualism to create a more solid foundation for virtue-based ethics. More about this later.)
  • Tags:“a posteriori” and “self-referential”.

Consequentalism

The last of the four major schools of ethics, consequentialism, has been placed in the lower right quadrant. Just like virtue-based ethics it also belongs to the objective dimension of Popper’s World 1, but in the four-quadrant model it belongs to the separate dimension of interobjectivity, Wilber’s domain of “its-language”—the dimension missed by the classic “big three” model.

  • Why exterior?Consequentialism belongs to the exterior right half of the model since it can only be determined whether an action is good or bad after having observed the consequences of that action. Thus, induction, rather than deduction, is the method employed by this school of thought. That means consequentialism, just like virtue ethics, gets the a posteriori
  • Why collective?:Consequentialism belongs to the collective lower half of the model because of its inherent relational and collective nature. Just like social contract ethics, the ethical validity of actions within consequentialism is determined  That means that ethical reasoning is not derived from observing and evaluating the action itself, but from its interactions and interconnectedness with a greater whole. Few consequentialists would argue that it is just about maximizing the good consequences and minimizing the bad consequences for a single individual. Utilitarianism, for instance, is fundamentally about the greater good: the greatest good for the greatest number. Since such an outcome can only be determined by considering the relation between multiple actors, this school of thought earns the “relational” tag.
  • Tags:“a posteriori” and “relational”.

How the four schools of ethics complement and collapse into each other

It should be obvious by now that “taking sides” regarding which school of ethics to follow is a foolish endeavor. The same can be said of any impulse to entirely discard one or more of the schools. Obviously, all four schools have important perspectives to offer. But the question still remains how exactly to use them and how to manage and reconcile their differences. Just knowing about the four schools and how they fit into the fours quadrants does not in itself suffice to resolve ethical paradoxes.

In the following I will attempt to show not just how the four schools complement each other, but also how they depend on each other and ultimately collapse into each other.

Rule-based ethics and consequentialism can, in a way, be said to be the “two major” categories of normative ethics. Typically when we are having ethical disagreements or tricky ethical dilemmas, it is because one side subscribes to the Kantian branch of deontological ethics and the other to some version of pure utilitarianism. It is also the apparent incompatibility between the two in our contemporary thinking that is the reason we are still discussing silly hypothetical thought experiments like the trolley problem and so on.

If we look at the four tags we have identified using the four-quadrant model we can see why: rule-based ethics is a priori and self-referential, consequentialism is a posteriori and relational—the exact opposite. (Contractualism and virtue-based ethics are of course also direct opposites in this regard, but they are in way more back-up solutions to the “two majors”. More about this soon.)

In the following I will show how the “two major” schools, rule-based ethics and consequentialism, ultimately dissolve into each others logic, and I will show how the “two minor ones”, virtue-based ethics and contractualism, do not make sense without each of the two major ones.

A) Rule-based ethics is ultimately teleological

It is impossible to entirely divorce rule-based ethics from consequentialism. When you follow Kant’s advice and ask if you would want a certain type of action to become the basis for a universal law, the answer will ultimately rely on a posteriori conditions—and these stem from one’s experiences with the objective world.

Just think about. Lying is tautologically erroneous, yes, because it contradicts the very foundation the act itself rests upon, which would, if becoming a universal law, render speech meaningless. So far so good. But why would we want to avoid that? Who says making speech meaningless is bad in the first place? To fully answer that we would eventually have to resort to consequentialist argumentation and talk about all the bad things that would happen if speech ceased to be a reliable thing in our lives. (Oh, and by the way, isn’t “speech being rendered meaningless” also the description of a consequence, rather than any abstract principle, to begin with?) You get the picture: In order to formulate a pure principle or ideal, you must always depend on some implicit idea of the consequences of not following that principle.

The thing is, at the exact point where rule-based ethics reach philosophical bedrock (that is, the point where our perpetual questioning “why, why, why?” takes us no further), we land in the opposite camp, in the very place that on a surface level appears to contradict the way we have been reasoning up until then.

We may well ask rule-based ethics questions such as: Why ought universal laws to be considered a good thing? Why should actions not be carried out if they contradict themselves? Why should one treat other people the way oneself wants to be treated? When attempting to go beyond the philosophical bedrock, the answer is ultimately found in the consequences of such conduct and the need of sound principles to guide us in relation to that. And when asking what the point of a “good will” is truly about, the answer must ultimately be that it is to have good consequences for other people; otherwise, what would the intrinsic value of a so-called “good will” consist of? The “good will” must in the last instance be concerned with wanting to do good to others and wanting others to fair well. These are consequences. Arguing against that, without pulling god into the equation, renders the notion of a “good will” quite meaningless, or at least makes it appear rather empty. After all, what is the worth of some good will acting in accordance with some higher principles, if it is not in relation to something else in the objective world?

Here the critics of rule-based ethics have a point. To firmly ground rule-based ethics in the real world, it will need assistance from consequentialism with its a posteriori quality, pulling rule-based ethics out of its a priori void, and with its relational aspect, attaching these principles to a more solid social context.

Curiously, the same kind of philosophical structure appears when we attempt to push consequentialism beyond its philosophical bedrock. Let’s have a look at that.

B) Consequentialism is ultimately deontological

Consequentialism cannot be divorced from rule-based ethics either. In the end, consequentialism is ultimately based on deontological principles. In the case of utilitarianism, for instance: the principle of utility—which is to be deduced a priori, not induced a posteriori. Simply put: “So maximize happiness and minimize suffering for as many as possible. Sure. But making that argument is not in and of itself a maximization of happiness and minimization of suffering, is it? You just made it up, out of thin air.”

Once more, the same structure of thought appears from the dissolution of rule-based ethics, which after a series of “why, why, whys” takes us towards the utmost foundation of consequentialism. When asked why one would like utility to be the measurement of ethical conduct, for instance, you cannot use objective arguments; you cannot point at empirical results themselves and show how good all the consequences are. You need a principle that is subjectively valid in order to anchor these results in something meaningful; you need, to resort to deontological ethics in order to get the whole thing to make sense.

Why some consequences are to be considered good can only be answered in relation to certain principles defining what is good to begin with. Why should we act in accordance to maximum societal utility? Because of the principle of universalism, and the principle of treating others the way oneself wants to be treated. What is ultimately good is found within oneself, not out there among the objects of the world.

The reason that we are still wrestling with the same ethical dilemmas century after century is that we have been accustomed to assuming that the world of ethics is flat; that a linear logic permeates the world of normative ethics, so when you reach the end of a world corner (the place where you hit philosophical bedrock), you simply fall of the edge. But the world of ethics is not flat. It is round, spherical. Or, rather, toroidal (donut-ical). The moment you hit the edge of one world corner, you end up at the beginning of another. We all need to stop being ethical flatearthers. We must all become ethical donuts.

C) Virtue-based ethics and contractualism also depend on each other

Remember that virtue-based ethics received the self-referential tag? (The reason why it was positioned in the upper individual half of the four-quadrant model) That is because this school of thought is focused on determining the ethical value of actions in themselves. But whether a type of action should be seen as a virtue or a vice more often than not depends on the social context.

If we take a Viking society, for example, loyalty to one’s own tribe and raising one’s children to become fierce warriors would be considered virtues in those days; in a modern humanistic, democratic society, on the other hand, such an upbringing would be considered child molestation and racist—both vices, if you’re unsure. In the U.S. it is not uncommon for a lot of people to consider tax a form of theft; in Sweden, on the other hand, people often say that they are happy to pay their taxes. And in some Middle Eastern countries, most people think the greatest vice is to insult and criticize the one and only true religion, whereas in other more secular countries, being critical of religious dogma and other authorities is considered one of the greatest virtues.

Any social contract needs to take into account what people consider virtues. If the majority of the population consider taxes theft, well then there’s certainly very little basis for the creation of a welfare state. And if most people are religious fundamentalists, creating a secular free-speech society is very unlikely to work.

So, on one hand the social contract depends on what people actually consider virtues and vices to begin with, and on the other hand, the virtues themselves depend on whatever social contract is in place. The two are intimately connected and cannot really be conceptually separated.

But why would I call virtues and contracts the “minor schools of ethics”, you may ask?

Well, it is difficult to determine whether something is a virtue or a vice without at least considering some aspects of rule-based ethics and consequentialism. Is sharpness a virtue when it comes to knives? According to which principles? Or what observations? You get it. Without rule-based ethics and consequentialism, virtue-based ethics would simply appear rather empty.

The same can be said about contractualism. This school of thought can answer why one is to act morally in the first place, and which obligations are reasonable to expect from others. But released from any aspects of consequentialism or rule-based ethics, this line of thought would, just like virtue-based ethics, appear rather empty and ultimately quite meaningless. It is, after all, concerned with justifying both the rules and potentially good or bad consequences of our actions.

As with virtue-based ethics, contractualism needs both principles and consequences to make sense. A social contract needs to be based on principles in order to function, and if the purpose of a social contract was not to provide good consequences to its subjects, what would be the point?

What’s it all good for?

So, what are we going to do with these insights? Well, I believe that beyond the benefit of better seeing how the different theories on normative ethics complement each other and fit within an integral framework, this model can also be used as a practical guide when making ethical decisions.

For example, the upper individual schools of ethics in the four-quadrant model, rule- and virtue-based ethics, are suitable for, yes, individual decision making, whereas the lower collective two, contractualism and consequentialism are suitable for, surprise, surprise, collective, that is, political decision making. Let me give you a few examples.

On an individual level it is often very difficult to know the full consequences of one action or the other when you are prompted to make an ethical choice. It can therefore be preferable to simply base your actions on sound principles you already know are ethically valid. We may be in a situation where we are tempted to tell a benevolent lie, a lie intended to benefit the person deceived and other people included. We cannot be sure, however, that our intentions will have the desired consequences. After all, the truth has a tendency to come back and “bite you in the ass”, as the saying goes. As such, as an individual you might better just follow the well-proven principle of telling the truth—in the long run, it will most likely pay off for everyone included. Besides, calculating the consequences for all beings in all times of each of our actions is… a costly and time consuming endeavor. We’re better off with rules of thumb, with virtues: “I am the kind of person that…” (such identity statements have, by the way, also been shown to have the highest effect on actual behaviors—calculations next to nil).

Things are a bit different on the collective level however. (And no, this is not where I am going to defend the common practice of lying among politicians, although it sometimes can make sense from a utilitarian calculus.) On a societal level, a more utilitarian approach to decision-making is often more productive since we have more statistical and scientific knowledge at our disposal. If you look at the actual results in politics, you will notice that the utilitarians are more likely to have their way—even despite losing debates to those who base their argumentation on rule-based ethics. For example, it is easy to win the moral high ground by arguing that it is principally wrong to tax people (the Right), or that it is principally wrong to close the borders for people in need (the Left), but in the end, the solutions that materialize in the real world are more often than not based on utilitarian considerations simply because they tend to be more practical—that is, have the best overall consequences.

So where do the two “minors” fit into this? Well, virtue-based ethics and contractualism can in a way be used as “back-up” doctrines when you need to double check if what you are doing is sound and reasonable.

You may have felt a slight resistance when I said that utilitarian solutions with the best overall consequences tend to prevail in politics. Obviously, we could make decisions about redistributing the wealth of rich countries to poor countries and thus have even better overall consequences. But this is where we need to consider the social contract.

When making political decisions it is very important to ensure that, whatever you are doing, it is in accordance with the social contracts in place. If your decisions are guided by some narrow-minded form of utilitarianism that people find appalling, it can easily backfire. You may come up with this brilliant utilitarian calculus of redistributing most of your citizens’ wealth to good causes, but if that goes against the majority’s sense of justice they are very unlikely to play along—and the well-intended consequences will never materialize anyway.

Similarly on an individual level: Figuring out whether your actions should be considered virtues or vices, or both, is a good way to ensure that you are not guided by a too rigid form of Kantianism. You may choose to follow the divine principle of truthfulness and thereby feel that the only right thing to do is to reveal the location of the Jews when the Nazis come knocking on your door. You might be honest, yes, but you are also a snitch.

When it comes to combining consequentialism and virtue-ethics, this is where things get interesting for political metamodernism. Skilled politicians and statesmen have all tended to pay attention to both utilitarianism and social contract theory. Virtue-ethics, on the other hand, is a school of thought that has been more or less hibernating since antiquity and only quite recently has become relevant again. As such, we have been less trained in using this kind of thought productively. But it is not a coincidence that virtue ethics is back. The kind of consequentialism metamodern politicians and activists ought to pursue should not only make sure their utilitarian calculus do not violate the limits of the social contract. Metamodernists should expand upon these narrow notions of statecraft and develop the idea of how we create the best possible conditions for virtues to emerge. Just think about. How could we create a society where virtues such as truthfulness, generosity and kindness would spontaneously emerge in abundance? Such consequences go beyond the simple utilitarian calculus regarding how many resources we could possible redistribute to where it is needed the most without people protesting too much. The combination of consequentialism and virtue-based ethics would take us from a society where people accept their submission in return for mutual interest, to a society where our inner spontaneous inclination for altruism is maximized and unleashed.

Here is an overview of how to combining the various schools of ethics:

  • Rule-based ethics + virtue-based ethics:Good for personal decision-making.
  • Consequentialism + contractualism:Good for political decision-making.
  • Rule-based ethics + contractualism:Best overall principles.
  • Consequentialism + virtue-based ethics:Best overall consequences. (Of interest for metamodern politics)

Adding one of the minors can help us avoid the most notable shortcomings of a too rigid application of Kantianism and a too instrumental application of utilitarianism. And in the case of consequentialism and virtue-based ethics, we get an additional ethical doctrine within politics—one I think is crucial for the creation of a listening society. More about this in my upcoming book.

Even More Fractal Ethics…

I bet some readers are still thinking about the fractal nature of the four-quadrant model that I showed you before and may be asking, what happens if we zoom in one additional level? Congratulations, you’re a true nerd and may save the world one day.

Could I help myself trying to gaze into the fractal? Of course I couldn’t. Am I going to write another 10.000 words about it in this article to make sense of what I saw. No I’m not. That will be the topic of a future book on metamodern ethics that I will write one day, hopefully before I die.

If you are familiar with some of the key concepts from each of the four schools of ethics, however, I can briefly show all strivers for ethical mastery out there what I found and how it fits into the four quadrant model:

(And yes, this is also deeply counterintuitive, but there are arguments to back these suggestions up, just not ones we’ll get into today.)

As I said, this is going to be the basis of a future book of mine. But, since we cannot know if I am going to drop dead before that, I just wanted to throw the main ideas out there—maybe some of you will beat me to it and put together an even better metamodern four-quadrant understanding of ethics before I ever finish my book. And we may all be better off for it.

Thank you for tuning in. May you all bestow goodness upon the world and each other, in all four quadrants.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

The Economy of Happiness

It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s how the economy makes us feel: it’s about time, attention, and human drives.

[Note: This text is originally in Swedish. It has been AI translated and checked for errors. Traces of the translation may remain.]

Happiness is quite difficult to grasp and is therefore difficult to make the goal and meaning of politics. It is much easier to relate, for example, to the hard currency in which we measure our material resources. There is no one who can point to happiness and say exactly what it is. Yet our need to understand and politically relate precisely to happiness and suffering is increasing.

The next level of economics is therefore about transforming the human drives that govern our actions, our economic production, our consumption, and our entire working lives. This is what we call the economics of happiness: managing the entire stream of human actions in a sustainable way that promotes the greatest possible well-being for all. The simplest way to understand this is to ask: what levels of happiness and suffering do we create through the use of our time and resources, and how sustainable are these levels?

When we ask these questions and make policy out of them, we will have begun developing an economy of happiness. The economy of happiness means that we use society’s resources in a comprehensive and conscious way to reduce suffering and improve quality of life. Just take a minute to think of how many resources we have: so many talented and inventive people with so much money and materials at their disposal. Are these resources currently being used in the best possible way to create happiness and meaning? Are we really creating safety and freedom in the best possible way? It is a reasonable assumption that we can make much better use of our resources. Surely it would be strange to assume that society could not be improved, truly improved in depth.

It is not just a question of managing material resources, but of managing all of life. It is about how we spend our collective time and attention—and what results this produces. Above all, it’s about reallocating our time and attention so that we achieve greater happiness in a more sustainable way. It is by transforming the human drives of our economic systems that we can make the economics of happiness more effective. The means to this end is so-called “economic co-development”.

1. Happiness Economics for Sustainable Development

It is important to distinguish between some currently common perspectives on how the economics of happiness relates to sustainability. Four options are presented below. The fourth option represents the metamodern stance.

  1. The first way to create more sustainable development with greater well-being is called “absolute decoupling”. This seeks to decouple economic growth from its environmental impact. This may involve emphasizing the consumption of culture and services rather than goods, and focusing on a shift to green technologies.
  2. The second approach is to question economic growth with the aim of eventually shrinking the economy and its ecological footprint. Instead, it emphasizes alternatives to economic growth and ways to reduce the overall volume of economic activity. This approach is often referred to as “degrowth”.
  3. The third approach, “inner development”, is about emphasizing the measurability of happiness and making it a more important part of our policy-making. Renowned economists have highlighted this perspective, for example in the World Happiness Report 2012, which was also the basis for the UN conference on the same topic.
  4. The fourth option is “economic co-development”. Here, inner development is used not only to reduce consumption, but to create the conditions for a transformation of the entire culture and economic systems. In other words, it is about using insights from all three of the first perspectives to manage the economy of happiness in a socially and ecologically sustainable way. It is this perspective that is explored in the following. The common thread in economic co-development is the emphasis on a balance between “inner” and “outer” development. Economic co-development constitutes the “growth” of the economy of happiness.

So-called “inner development” is thus needed to make a sustainable society possible, because inner development leads to fundamental change in society itself. Inner development is our most important tool for a rich and sustainable economy of happiness.

2. What Is Inner Development?

Inner development is about how we experience reality—about our emotions and drives, our fears, our relationships, our desires, our self-images, our trust in each other, our states of mind, our ability to see beauty in the world and in existence, our self-knowledge and our fundamental relationship to life and death, happiness and suffering. Inner development is not free. It does not come without great effort, strong priorities of both human and material resources.

What can inner development look like in practice? How do we develop our needs, our personalities and the everyday contexts in which we live, consume and work? There are, of course, many different ways of answering these questions. But there is also a very simple answer: inner development is turning our attention inwards. It is about putting time and effort into the painstaking work of examining ourselves, releasing the tension in our shoulders, in our backs, noticing the knots in our stomachs, noticing how our thoughts fly and go in all directions. We can do this in two ways.

  1. Self-observation: One way is to be guided in how to notice our own attention and then to practice individually observing our thoughts, feelings and impulses through, for example, body exercises, meditation, relaxation and mindful presence. In this way we master our own emotions and reactions. Our relationship to life’s big questions develops and changes. Our freedom and independence increase. It is well known and scientifically proven that the personality and personal development of managers are crucial for the functioning and development of companies. This is known as leadership development. The same applies, of course, to all employees in a workplace. After all, we are all, in a sense, our own bosses.
  2. Exploratory conversations: The second way is to engage in some kind of conversation where we get to know ourselves and our unconscious motives and behaviors. There is, of course, the therapeutic conversation with trained psychologists or other counsellors, but also group conversations. Companies and organizations can consciously and actively involve people in an ongoing conversation about the basic aims and objectives of the workplace, about what kind of development they want to see. In many workplaces today, it would be perceived as embarrassing if someone asked too deep questions. This is where cultural development is possible. Understanding our own and each other’s motives, desires and motivations is crucial to the economics of happiness.

3. Balancing Internal and External Development in our Economic Systems

Outer development is about things we can see and touch. It is about developing new products and services, new public services, new urban environments, better transportation, infrastructure, healthcare, energy supplies and so on. When economic systems develop, it is also outer development.

Since happiness and suffering can be explained both by the outer reality around us and by how we ourselves experience that reality, we need an economic system that supports both outer and inner development. Today’s economic life—in which we work and produce, in which we consume, in which we allocate our attention and time—overwhelmingly emphasizes outer development. The challenge will therefore be to balance outer development with inner development. We need to start seriously prioritizing inner development throughout economic life as well. This should be done in ways that are scientifically and experientially sound—ways that we find promote long-term well-being and alleviate the many small and large sufferings we experience.

So we can become better at prioritizing how we use the stream of attention and action through which we create our outer and inner reality. It would therefore be valuable to have a well-functioning democratic conversation about how we can develop our inner dimensions.

It is becoming increasingly clear that our current economic systems are failing to enhance well-being in a way that leads to sustainable development.

Developing the internal dimensions is crucial if we are to bring about far-reaching changes to economic systems in an ecologically and socially sustainable direction. Inner development is the most direct way to change the human drives at work in economic systems. It is high time that inner development started to be used more actively and consciously.

4. How Do we Change the Driving Forces of the Economy?

What exactly is the economy? The economy is not some impersonal machine far away from us. We create it anew every day by striving, wishing and demanding. The economy is created by our desires, by what we want and achieve in life—and how we and our earth can satisfy those needs.

We all have motives and drives that guide our actions and influence where we direct our attention in life. We often try to achieve what we feel we lack—it may be pleasure, security, community or recognition. In other words, the driving force in economic life is nothing more than the sum of our desires and dreams. It can sometimes be difficult for us to know exactly what these are. Sometimes it is only in retrospect, when we look back on our lives, that we understand what drove us to prioritize this or that, what drove us to act, why we made the choices we did.

If we are poor, we are driven to work for our survival, to put food on the table and a roof over our head. Then it is the fear of not surviving that drives our choices and priorities. If we are at risk of exclusion and loneliness, then we are driven by a desire to ensure that we are allowed to participate in society so that we can make friends, find a partner, and have a daily life in the context of other people. If we have doubts about our own worth and abilities, then we are driven by a desire to perform, to achieve results that win the recognition of others. In this way, our perceived needs set limits on what we can allow ourselves to do, say and think.

But there are also actions that cannot be directly attributed to something we lack, actions that seem to stem from an abundance, from spontaneous joy in life. Some of the things we do, say and think are expressions of a sincere desire to pass something on, to make something happen, to follow our conscience and our values. Other things we do merely to adapt to the hard facts of life, because we feel we have to since the price would be too high if we did not. We can therefore—somewhat simplistically—talk about two types of drivers in economic life: scarcity-driven action and abundance-driven action.

Scarcity-driven action is when we do something because we have to, when we cannot afford to feel what we really want. It is when we work because we fear losing our job, or when we consume because we feel we have to fix something with ourselves (appearance, style, lifestyle, status, to appease anxieties), when we fail to react to injustice because we feel the price would be too high (for example, we take part in the enforcement of decisions we do not consider ethically correct because we do not want to lose the esteem of our colleagues). Other examples are when we stress and sacrifice our well-being to meet the expectations of others, or when we suppress emotions to fit in. Then it is obvious that we are driven by perceived shortcomings, by our unmet needs. The same principle applies in our private lives: when we continue to be in relationships that harm us or do not serve us, when we choose not to live our dreams to avoid feelings of shame—then we are acting in a way that is driven by scarcity.

Abundance-driven action is when we use our spontaneous creative faculties. We make an effort because we have a positive desire or longing to create something or share something with others. It’s when we feel genuinely inspired, when we believe in what we are doing, when we think our work is so important that we would even pay someone else to do it if we had the chance. It is when we act from our heart and do our work out of love rather than fear of loss or failure. It is when we act from a place of abundance and pass this lust for life on to others.

Admittedly, there is no escaping the fact that scarcity-driven actions will remain present in most people’s lives. After all, not everything can be fun and inspiring. But is scarcity-driven actions really something we want for ourselves and each other? Is it ecologically and socially sustainable to build our economic systems on people’s fears and perceived shortcomings? The only answer is that we have the most to gain by expanding abundance-driven action and ridding ourselves of as much scarcity-driven action as possible.

5. What Is Economic Co-development?

In the economics of happiness, economic co-development is the equivalent of “growth” in the material economy. Economic co-development is about making society richer in terms of happiness and joy of life, making the economy of happiness more efficient in a sustainable way. Abundance-driven action is, in a happiness-economic sense, far more efficient than scarcity-driven action. Abundance-driven action creates much more freedom in our everyday choices. Scarcity-driven action arises precisely when we feel we have no real choice. Abundance-driven action causes less suffering during the effort itself—since it is a labor of love—and it creates services and products of a higher quality because we really care about the outcome of our work. This kind of work makes us feel that our time is valuable, that we are allowed to engage. Perhaps most importantly, it allows us to follow our conscience, to not feel that we have to sell out our values or sense of right and wrong—that we have a choice.

To increase the proportion of abundance-driven and reduce the proportion of scarcity-driven action, we need to create the conditions for us to feel that our needs are secure: provision, community, recognition and so on. Increasing the proportion of joy-driven action is therefore deeply linked to building the next level of welfare—the listening society, discussed in my previous post. Only when we feel truly safe and have good self-esteem can we be expected to act on the basis of inner freedom.

At the same time, more companies, workplaces and other contexts need to be created that actively and consciously support us in our abundance-driven actions.

Developing the economics of happiness requires extensive inner development—development that makes us feel more alive, that makes us experience reality in a more loving and playful way. As our perceived needs change, so do the drivers of the economy. We demand different goods and services, we make different demands on our employers, we start and run businesses with both mind and heart.

The conscious and active development of our inner world creates demand for new services and products. To meet this demand, new economic systems are needed, based more on joyful work and cooperation. These new systems contribute to the creation of a changed economic culture, in which our expectations and demands on ourselves and each other are transformed. This changing culture leads us to perceive reality differently and therefore to reassess our priorities in life. This in turn leads to a change in our needs—and so on. Desires/needs, behaviors, systems, and culture must develop hand in hand. The new needs (inner development) need to be supported by corresponding changes in the other three fields, and development takes place in small steps. No one can change economic systems overnight.

As shown in this figure, economic co-development is when inner and outer development dynamically reinforce each other towards greater well-being and sustainability.

It is by prioritizing more of our time and attention towards inner development that we can expand abundance-driven action.

6. How Do we Create a Truly Free Economy?

What is economic freedom? Many times when people talk about a “free economy” they mean a market with as little government intervention and regulation as possible. Instead, according to the ideas presented above, a “free economy” is defined as an economy with as little scarcity-driven action as possible. The above reasoning has shown that a large part of our economic system cannot in a deeper sense be said to be characterized by “free exchange” and “free choice”. Are we really free when we are driven to work, perform and consume by fears and perceived deficiencies? How free are we when we feel we need to act against our conscience or work for something we don’t feel a sincere commitment to? And are we really free if we are unconsciously influenced to consume through advertising, for example?

In a way, of course, we are always free because we are the ones who make the choices and priorities. But there are different degrees of freedom. The fact that freedom can be deepened thus applies both in democracy and in economic life. So if we consider ourselves free today, we can be even freer in the future—free in a deeper sense.

Existing economic systems can be developed to create deeper freedom. An unfree economy—characterized by fears, shortcomings and manipulations—can explain why economic life today often benefits neither ourselves, our fellow human beings nor the biosphere. We are simply not free enough to make choices from our hearts. Creating real economic freedom is therefore about economic co-development, finding balanced ways to develop the functioning of the market through our collective intelligence. Such freedom will allow, among other things, much more creative and diverse entrepreneurship.

7. How Can we Make Society More Equal and Fair?

Class divisions—what can we do to bridge them? There have been discussions on how to develop the economy of happiness, but not yet on how to make the distribution of happiness and suffering more equitable. Almost everyone experiences some happiness in life—and we all have to go through suffering. But often we see that some of us seem to suffer far more than others, that some of us are knocked out in the games of everyday life, that the weakest and most disadvantaged suffer the most. Does it have to be this way?

It seems that life must always contain a certain amount of competition between us humans: we can’t all live in the same place, have the same life partner, have the same job, be the best employee of the month, be a rock star. We have different circumstances and different kinds of talents. Sometimes we are winners, sometimes we are losers. We all want to play good and admirable roles in life and we sometimes have to take risks to win each other’s recognition, to be seen as successful, intelligent, courageous, loving and so on. We have to play the game of everyday life—a game that can sometimes be too hard for us.

There are three basic ways to relate to this “great game of life”. The first way is to deny the game. We try as far as possible to ignore the fact that there is competition between human beings. We then try to create justice by ignoring the advantages of some and the disadvantages of others, by finding ways to smooth over the differences between us. We deny the game because we simply cannot accept the great injustices. Unfortunately, this means that many of us never learn the rules of the game and therefore never have the opportunity to take control of our lives.

The other way is to embrace the game instead. Then we believe that some people “deserve” to be better off than others because they have demonstrated “good” human qualities. Those who are struggling can learn from those who are better off, so that they too can succeed in life. Then we adapt to the fact that life is sometimes hard and that everyone is ultimately responsible for themselves. The danger of embracing the game is that we start to defend the injustice. Not everyone can always be a winner in the game of life, so even if everyone learns the rules of the game, some people will be knocked out.

The third approach is to want to change the game. Then we don’t deny that people have to compete with each other, but we also don’t accept that life is unfair and that some people have to suffer so that others can have a good time. It is, of course, the third approach that is in line with the economics of happiness.

I have previously written about each of these approaches to the game of life under the titles: Game DenialGame Acceptance, and Game Change.

8. How Can the Games of Everyday Life Be Changed?—From a Society of Tolerance to a Society of Acceptance

We can redistribute happiness and suffering in society by making the everyday game as open, transparent and fair as possible. It is by changing the rules of the game itself that we can make life gentler, more forgiving, less driven by fear. We need to give people more chances, less reason to feel like failures, less reason to lose hope. Our inner development is crucial here.

In the light of the economics of happiness, a fairer, gentler game in all aspects of life—in friendships, in love, in the labor market—will lead to an increase in abundance-driven action and a decrease in scarcity-driven action. But again, how can the game be changed?

There needs to be a transition from a “society of tolerance” to a “society of acceptance”. A society of acceptance is one where we not only tolerate each other’s differences, but actually manage to accept and appreciate each other the way we are. After all, it is not so flattering to be tolerated by others: “I don’t like you, but I’ll let you be”. We all want to feel accepted for whom we are. The amount of acceptance (and of course tolerance) depends a lot on the everyday games we create together. Acceptance can develop and grow as the contexts in which we live become more accepting, more loving if you like.

The society of acceptance is slowly cultivated through changes in culture. Our culture can evolve: how we view success and failure, how we judge ourselves and each other. Our inner perceptions of reality can evolve through the cultivation of our social and emotional intelligences. Economic systems can be redesigned to support new forms of consumption, livelihoods and work. In this way, the social game itself can be changed, how we behave and interact in everyday life. In other words, through economic co-development that creates inner security and deeper community, the suffering caused by the games of everyday life is reduced. We get more chances, we judge ourselves and each other less harshly, we can afford to be ourselves to a greater extent.

In other words, through economic co-development creating inner security and deeper community, the suffering caused by everyday games is reduced. We get more chances, we judge ourselves and each other less harshly, we can be ourselves to a greater extent—and we allow ourselves to ask deeper questions about the purpose behind our actions. The economy of happiness becomes richer and we can “afford” greater acceptance.

An important consequence of the evolution of the games of everyday life is that it becomes less important that people have a certain position in society—for example, employed or unemployed. Hierarchies become less pronounced and it becomes less crucial to “have a good job” in order to feel like a valuable person. Class divisions are narrowing. The symbolic value of money decreases. We become more equal.

9. How Does the Economy of Happiness Relate to Ecological and Social Sustainability?

The economy of happiness does not, of course, replace the material economy—it merely complements it. We still need to create and allocate material resources and this has ecological footprints and undesirable social consequences in different parts of the world.

What economic co-development can do is help us become less and less trapped in our own economic systems. Economic systems can be designed more consciously to meet internal needs. This facilitates a fair distribution of resources, facilitates difficult transitions to green and ecologically sustainable systems and leads to more ethically conscious production and consumption. It is also reasonable to assume that such an economy would be much more stable than today’s, for example in times of crisis—simply because it rests on a stronger psychological and social foundation.

So it is not so simple that happier people necessarily have fewer material needs. But freer people can more easily make the right decisions and the necessary adjustments. Well-being and sustainability go hand in hand.

10. The Need for an Economy of Happiness

Our current economic thinking is not enough. We need to think differently. We need to act differently. And we must behave in new ways. Clearly, we can do better. In terms of happiness, our current economic system is just too inefficient. We need to be better stewards of our own actions, of our collective creation. We must learn to manage our attention better, to focus it collectively on what can fundamentally change society for the better.

It is not enough to have societal development that gives us “more of the same” that we already have: more jobs, more welfare, more day-care places, higher wages. We must create something new, develop what we already have, take it to a new level. What we need to change to develop our economy is how we interact, how we talk and relate to each other—both personally and politically.

We need to develop a language, a way of thinking and doing politics that allows us to talk together about the really difficult and deep issues of social life. We need to develop a new political culture. The democratic culture we have today deserves our respect and is admittedly good at solving many problems. But there are also sufferings that our current political culture simply cannot cope with. That is why a new political thinking is needed.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

What Does the Next Level of Welfare Look like?

How an expansion of the depth and reach of our welfare services can save the welfare state

[Note: This text is originally in Swedish. It has been AI translated and checked for errors. Traces of the translation may remain.]

What does the next level of welfare look like?

Such a question can of course only be answered through the participation and involvement of many people.

What we can do here and now is to begin drawing the outlines of a welfare society that touches upon all aspects of life, and that supports us in both our own personal development and in our relationships with one another.

If you have read my books, you’d know that I call the welfare society of the future the listening society. This is also the title of my first book in the series on metamodern politics. The listening society is simply the welfare society we would wish for—whatever those wishes turn out to be once we have tried them out and developed them through good, open conversations. Like the term metamodernism, “the listening society” is a concept that needs to be filled with many meanings, large and small, that together form a greater whole.

The listening society is a higher level of welfare than that which exists today. In contemporary welfare societies, like the Scandinavian ones, most of us are guaranteed basic material security and safety. We rarely have to worry about whether we will have food on the table, and we can feel confident that we and our loved ones will receive medical care when needed. At the same time, there are higher rungs on the pyramid of human needs that our society is unable to guarantee: to feel a deep and meaningful sense of community, to receive recognition, to experience good self-esteem—and, to feel that you are living out your dreams. The listening society is a welfare society where everyone is guaranteed not only survival and security, but also to experience a warm, meaningful community, a good sense of self and opportunities for fruitful personal development.

Conventional Welfare vs. The Listening Society

What are the contours of our existing welfare society? What does welfare mean today? And what might the word “welfare” mean in the future?

The welfare we know today is a fruit of the modern industrial society. When, for the first time in history, we were able to produce an abundance of life’s necessities—that is, food, clothing, warm and safe housing, and medical care—the question arose as to how this abundance should be distributed so that no one would have to go without these basic necessities. All across the industrial world we tried to find answers to this question: through government, through civil society or through the market. All modern democracies chose a middle ground of some kind between the state, civil society and the market, albeit with different emphases. For certain historical reasons, the Scandinavian countries chose, as is well known, to give the public sector, the state, a decisive role in the distribution of wealth and the guarantee of security. This model has proved successful in many ways.

Over the last thirty years, however, it has become increasingly clear that the common security and personal freedom that we have tried to create are under threat. We now live in a world which—due to a long series of changes in the global economy and in different parts of the world’s political landscape—has become so complex and opaque that industrial society’s answer to the question of welfare has become obsolete. We seem to need new answers to the question, a new level of welfare. Welfare can be reinvented and broadened—and above all, it can be deepened to meet the demands of the new era. Let’s take a closer look at the traditional welfare of the industrial society and how it can be developed to become more efficient and comprehensive.

 

 

You may recognize the figure above as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What the figure conveys is that our traditional welfare society seeks to guarantee only the most basic human needs of food, survival and security. In contrast, there is no explicit purpose to guarantee us a warm, meaningful community, a good sense of self and opportunities for fruitful personal development throughout life’s long journey.

The listening society, then, is the endeavor to include higher human needs in the guarantee that we give ourselves and each other. This is, of course, no easy task and must be seen as a long-term goal comparable to the building of the traditional welfare society—a process that went on for over a century. It is not self-evident how we should go about ensuring that the higher needs are met. What is needed here is a joint, long-term effort to find solutions in the various areas of social life: in public health and healthcare, in schools, in work-life, in social services, in every area we can think of.

Can the Listening Society Save the Welfare State?

But does it really make sense to try to broaden and deepen our welfare state at a time when the existing welfare is already under threat? There is, after all, an increasingly fierce international competition for jobs and investment. Would it not be more realistic to just focus on saving what can be saved of the existing welfare?

An answer to this is to be found in the link between our more basic material needs and our higher emotional needs. If we humans fail to form a good community with each other—how can we expect to guarantee each other’s security and survival in a dignified way? If self-esteem and recognition are too unequally distributed among us—how would we want to enter into communities with one another? And if we lack opportunities for meaningful and creative lives—how can we have enough abundance of will to compassionately engage in democracy and the common good? The listening society thus cultivates our collective intelligence. That collective intelligence is in turn the strongest guarantor of both strong, deep welfare state and a healthy, competitive market economy. The listening society is thus both an end and a means.

Let’s take a closer look at the questions we need to ask ourselves to secure each of the higher needs:

Belonging/community:

Far from everyone feels part of a meaningful community. Many children never experience good and reliable friendships growing up—we all know the stories: the adolescence boy who gets stuck at home in front of the computer, does not develop important social skills, cannot get a girlfriend, and then has difficulty adjusting to adult life. When we send our children to school, there is no guarantee that they will have friends and be allowed to form the social bonds they need for their development. But the same applies not only to children, but also to adults. Many adult men, in particular, lack deep friendships and go on long lonely paths through life, never talking about feelings or deeper issues with anyone, even though they may have a job and a family. Many adult women feel different and alienated, suffer from loneliness—especially in later life. Both women and men go through long, difficult years of being involuntarily without a life partner or other positive sexual relationships. Even within marriage, our relationships often do not exhibit genuine closeness. A similar situation exists in the world of work. Many people’s professional lives are devoid of truly rewarding cooperation with other people. Others struggle to even enter the labor market, to participate in social life: the unemployed youth, the tuckered out old man, the socially awkward and deviant. The lack of community is a companion of so many people. And the fear of exclusion is a driving force in so many people’s lives. Many of us die alone.

How do we ensure that no one goes through life involuntarily without good friendships? That as many as possible have a life partner, if they want one? How do we keep families together? How do we ensure that people feel part of society and have a sense of community at work or in their neighborhood? That no one has to grow old and die alone? A wide range of actions are needed, from pre-school age, through the school years, in adult relationships, in the workplace, and in health and social care for all ages. So many concrete situations need to be changed to better promote the formation of positive bonds between people. Emotional and social intelligence need to be developed at all levels.

Recognition/self-esteem:

Even more of us will never experience a lasting good sense of self. The “good girl”, on the outside well-functioning and charming, may suffer from severe doubts in the face of all the high standards of achievement and beauty ideals. Her doubts may turn into self-hatred and lead to destructive or self-harming behavior. Many of us struggle through a long work life without gaining real recognition and strong inner self-esteem. People need recognition, we need some kind of affirmation that we are good people and that we are valuable to others, both personally and professionally. A lack of self-esteem is often seen as an inherent weakness of the individual rather than a social and political problem. But lack of self-esteem is also a social problem of major proportions. It is common that socially excluded people struggle with their self-esteem, but it also affects many “successful people”. It is often this deep psychological need to get others recognition that drives them to push themselves to achieve what they perceive to be valued by others. This, however, often creates suffering and arouses feelings of deep resentment. Lack of affirmation and self-esteem can also affect our close relationships and, more importantly, simply make us afraid to follow our dreams.

What do we need to do so that no one has to feel like a bad, failed or unwanted person? How can we ensure that we are not just tolerated, but actually loved, recognized and accepted? Here too, efforts are needed throughout society: to actively and consciously build each person’s self-esteem from the earliest childhood.

Personal development/self-actualization:

Even fewer people have the opportunity to live truly exciting and fulfilling lives. How many people do you know who really follow their dreams in everyday life, who go their own way without having to ask for permission? More and more of us have creative and exciting careers, but for most of us everyday life never becomes the beautiful adventure we know it can be. Many of us carry a deep longing to use our lives to do something truly meaningful, something where we give a unique and beautiful gift to our fellow human beings and to the world. Too many of us feel that life is just passing us by, that what we deep down wanted to create or contribute to is getting further and further away. This can be heard in many people’s statements that “life isn’t that great after all”.

What needs to change for everyone to find good, meaningful work in life? How can we ensure that no one’s life needs to become a colorless hamster wheel? Or even worse, that people never get the chance to use their deepest drives and talents? We need a flexible working life that does not leave us out of the loop or lock us into particular roles. Furthermore, people need support for their personal development throughout life, not least in relation to life’s most difficult and profound crises.

When all these needs are met, all that remains is to deepen oneself, to find meaning and to try to do good for others and for the world. Finding deep meaning in life is therefore the top black triangle at the top of the pyramid in the figure above. But how do we get there?

Can these needs be met for more people than in today’s society? What would a welfare society look like that could guarantee something more than just security? Can our children be guaranteed psychological well-being and good social relations? Can we guarantee that everyone grows up with a good self-esteem that follows us through life? Can more of us use our everyday lives to create something that really matters to us? How can we create such a new level of well-being?

One way is to create a vision of the welfare society of the future that sets us in motion. Visions of the future can certainly blind us and make us careless. But at this point we can allow ourselves to think about what a society would look like where all people—as far as is practically possible—were guaranteed both a warm community, a good sense of self, and meaningful personal development. What would such a society look like? How would exclusion, ill health and crime be affected? How would mental health be affected? In what ways would everyday life be affected? Would even the first two steps (safety and physical needs) on the ladder of needs be better safeguarded? In other words: What would life be like if we succeed in making the listening society a reality?

It is only by finding many small and large solutions, by trying things out together, that we can find the answers to these questions. To create the listening society, we must cultivate, develop and make good use of our collective intelligence. By developing the capacity to listen to all citizens, we can use the collective knowledge and insights of many more people to improve society. So we need to use collective intelligence to create a listening society. A good start is to gather around new ways of talking about politics, to experiment with different forms of political encounters to create the good conversation.

The vision of the listening society also offers clues to what the next level of economy might look like: the economy of happiness. When the economy, consumption and working life are no longer driven by people’s desire to secure belonging and recognition, when people rest in themselves regarding these needs, it becomes easier for us to make truly free and informed choices. Today, much of the economy is driven by our insecurities: young people are afraid of having the wrong clothes, mobile phones or bodies, adults of having the wrong car or furniture. Many of us work at things that we know do no good to ourselves or others, but choose to adapt so as not to lose our position in society. Many of us learn early in our careers the importance of lying and deceiving to succeed—especially higher up in business and government. But we can find ways to describe, talk about, and measure progress in what matters most to people: that we live happy lives. This is a key to achieving socially and ecologically sustainable growth, growth in people’s well-being and self-fulfillment.

Here we are moving away from the “society of tolerance” and into the society of acceptance. Modern democracy is based on the idea of tolerance, that we must tolerate each other even if we disagree or have conflicting interests or values. By opening up to acceptance, we can begin building a society based on sincere feelings of community, respect and compassion. In a listening society, everyone would feel included, seen and heard. Everyone would feel deeply accepted for whom they are. Building the listening society is about making life richer for us as human beings, transforming our inner experiences. Here we are approaching a new form of economic thinking, where happiness and suffering are at the center rather than the growth and distribution of material resources.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.