Machiavelli – or another way

5 Machiavellian lessons for King-of-the-World

The self-serving leader. Low in morals, toxic, taking all down with them as they go. Well, Silvio Berlusconi is warming new fires today. That downward journey is a one person show.

💭😈 Such a wicked thought: naughty me. It brought Machiavelli’s “The Prince” to mind (written in 1532 CE). This blog is aimed at more fitting, self declared, “King-of-the-World” archetypes: Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. Both now finding rule of law not to their taste. As to other judgement: a just world is but one belief. I believe that around five hundred years ago , Machiavelli had both of them pegged. [Perhaps he pegged we Europeans one and all. 1532 CE is also the year Henry VIII defied Rome. And the year Francisco Pizarro killed a living God and stole all of Inca’s gold]. Here are five Machiavellian lessons that circle back around.

#1 invite the conflict that reveals the better way

This Machiavellian reading begins with a tell-tale sign that the wrong people are in the tallest chairs. Namely, those that surround themselves with the less threatening and agreeable.

“There is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except letting men understand that to tell you the truth does not offend you”

Machiavelli (The Prince)

#2 live with dissonance

This is a futile bind that must eventually invite conflict

On the one hand, inviting that free opinion. And in doing so making friendly those that count

“It is necessary for a prince to have the people friendly”

But on the other hand retaining the steadfastness of leadership

“He ought to question them upon everything, and listen to their opinions, and afterwards form his own conclusions”

What is revealed by this conflict and dissonance is a constant weighing up. But weighing up based on the best of information, not the easiest. This is firstly, prudence of judgement

“Prudence consists in knowing how to distinguish the character of troubles, and for choice to take the lesser evil”

Such choices are not always picked from more fruitful, but the less sour. This is therefore secondly, the capability to making better choices as a result. Even if that choice is harder but more coherent to the bigger goal.

“He who does otherwise is either overthrown by flatterers, or is so often changed by varying opinions that he falls into contempt”

This balancing then leads to the more diligent Machiavellian Prince retaining more difficult felt angst. This remains that same notion of dissonance, but one that is held not passed on (as the defensive decision-maker would do). But with clarity, not deceit (to oneself)

This leads to a second double-edged impossible reality (#3 and #4).

#3 Tyranny

Firstly, when to dictate

“pursue the thing resolved on, and be steadfast in his resolutions”

… or liberty?

or when to give way, but not too far

“And there is nothing wastes so rapidly as liberality, for even whilst you exercise it you lose the power to do so”

Machiavelli (The Prince)

#4 tomorrow

Secondly, making room for what is important (not urgent). This is the impossible planning toward a vision but having access to means to adapt constantly. Covid-19 proved neither were in place. Nor would they be today.

… or today

Quentin Skinner offers access to other Machiavellian writing. This next citation originates from private letters – where an indignant dignitary (Pandolfo) is defending how he conducted his affairs of state – a remark that applies well to the need to situationally adapt

“wishing to make as few mistakes as possibile…I conduct my government day by day, and arrange my affairs hour by hour; because the times are more powerful than our brains”

Machiavelli (Legation L912)

If Pandolfo is right (that situational response is all), this begs the question who then is planning for the long-term? Perhaps we only think long-term when the short-term is not demanding our time:

. . . never in peaceful times stand idle, but increase his resources with industry in such a way that they may be available to him in adversity.”

Which is to bring us back to a final lesson that returns us about – back to surrounding ourselves with those capable of offering that more difficult truth. Or making the executive decisions in our stead. In the long-term the capability to build is building the capability to be replaced. Nonetheless, if we are capable enough then surely that is what we invite – if we are capable.

#5 Nurture capability

Related to the first therefore- i.e., #1 invite the conflict that reveals the better way – note the capability of those being rewarded. In other words the servant steward is a capable person; capable enough to both admire and enable capability in others. Honouring peers with peerage as a service to debt, does not count…

“A prince ought also to show himself a patron of ability, and to honour the proficient in every art”

Machiavelli (The Prince)

There is much to learn from the King-of-the-World dilettante – i.e., those with a care for the prize but not the serving in the role. Machiavelli saw plenty like that, and rated very few. We now see them, too. We know what they crave, and see how they behave. All too well, we know how they fail when real crisis demands leadership. Even the better Machiavellian fights to keep the better peace. The capable leader has power enough to empower more. Machiavelli, “The Prince”, the more principled diplomat.


That was a little fun, written in a moment between my research write-ups and reading. My PhD relates conflict to governance, and both to wider notions of shared intentions (collaboration, cooperation, competition). Machiavelli “The Prince” formed part of reading that did not make it to my philosophical worldview (i.e., the support to my methodology). Quentin Skinner introduces Niccolò Machiavelli exceptionally well. Both are well worth a read.

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here:

PhD and me – methodology

Taking in the worldview

A blog about the hard slog in the face of reality – in the philosophical sense as the underpinning of decisions of method.

I can now kill at will. Two months of reading little else but philosophical and methodological literature, and I can now identify positivist positions; consider the empirical merit of perhaps supporting naïve observation by critical realism; or, I can reflect upon taking a classical pragmatic perspective and similarly seek to better underpin an empirical research approach. I can also therefore kill a dinner party conversation, just as quickly as attention has just been killed in this blog.

Suffice to say therefore, that in beginning to consider anything more detailed than quantitative or qualitative method of data collection or analysis – much more is to be considered. Every PhD student probably deals with this learning differently, but it is individually won learning, and not something won overnight. If you want to know why a PhD can be a lonely place, or at least a quiet place, this perhaps offers some clues.

The last two months have been quite eventful – I have chalked off a few PhD milestones all students must pass through. Having past through my six month formal progress review unscathed, all focus turned immediately to my transfer preparations. The transfer is a big deal, because it is pass / fail in deciding if the combination of me as a student, and my research as a contribution to knowledge, both have merit enough to be continued. Most student pass – so do not let that put your off – but enough do not pass to reveal the reality of threat offered by this key event. It is a right of passage all PhD students much endure. My own deadline for that submission is the end of July.

I can also report two more major milestones have been successfully met in the last six weeks. A conference poster has been prepared and placed in public viewing of my civil engineering school peers. My first conference development paper was also submitted – and to my delight accepted for presentation in a few months time. Having moved into a tentative place of conference attendance I have also been permitted (indeed required) to offer peer review to other academic conference paper submission hopefuls. A separate blog will be offered on that conference experience, once a little further progressed. For now however – and with conversation killing intent – all has become very real (or relative), and appropriately filled with existential angst (or possibility of deconstruction). But all in a good way.

…to be continued

Happy Birthday, me

50 years of hurt… well, actually I think they have been pretty good to me thus far

“Three Lions on a shirt,
Jules Rimet still gleaming,
[50] years of hurt,
Never stopped me dreaming…”

Three Lions
Song by David Baddiel, Frank Skinner, and The Lightning Seeds

I turn 50 today. 18th December 2022. By coincidence a football World Cup Final plays out today, too: France vs Argentina. As a 50 year old Englishman, that is not my birthday choice of World Cup Final. If I were to dwell upon that English stereotype, my 1980s are well defined by the “Hand of God”. So too is the Falklands War (“guerra de las malvinas“). My father was still in the Royal Navy in 1982 – albeit behind a desk by then. When that first French-made Exocet Missile hit HMS Sheffield on 4th May, a reality of war sank deep into my psyche all the same. On balance – and I am more balanced than to let history define my day – I will lean more towards François Mitterrand than Diego Maradona today. But it is my birthday, so I’ll cry if I want to.

Two topics will be addressed in this blog: three if we are counting football. The other two topics will be less melancholy than may first appear. Please don’t be put off therefore, as I reveal those topics to be [1] suicide, [2] death. Both I and this blog will be more upbeat than these topics suggest.

If you know me at all, you will know why suicide is fitting to mark this birthday {here}. In mid-July 2019 I was not thinking of any future at all. However, life 2.0 has come about by that prompt. I began an MSc within a few months of that lowest day. I graduated with distinction the next year. Another MSc soon followed, and here I am in 2022 turning 50 as a full-time PhD candidate. I am probably as happy as I have ever been. Doing precisely the one thing that I thought beyond me. And all that because of those many challenges over so many years, not despite them. I am now so much better mentally prepared.

The sense of disconnection I felt in 2019 is not unusual. Over 1,000 men aged 45-54 die via suicide year-on-year in England. This is around 20% of all suicides for all age and gender groups (better statistical insight here). I could write for days on this subset of the population who seem set towards self-destruction. However, this wider social crisis is one we all share. Around 1,000,000 people in England remain diagnosed with depression each year. Table 1 below presents the numbers. This table reports the total number of people diagnosed with depression via GPs. The table reflects age and gender. Please note that the age spread, which shows depression effects all ages, hits hardest in the working and family rearing age in life – so most everyone. It can also be noted that for every 5 people depressed, 2 are men but 3 are women. That’s significant, and alarming. So, why do I think we should be more candid in our self-reflections on matters like death? Well, for me at least, it proved invaluable in my return from the brink, and therein finding my better cause.

GenderAge group2017201820192020
Males16 to 24 years51,07756,63662,92245,356
Males25 to 34 years86,25396,432106,73078,825
Males35 to 44 years78,20883,07089,24265,489
Males45 to 54 years81,97683,98085,21658,138
Males55 to 64 years53,81554,94658,93941,757
Males65 to 74 years19,16520,01721,03416,166
Males75 year and over 10,04211,45913,29911,814
Females16 to 24 years98,935109,967119,82599,229
Females25 to 34 years141,516152,384165,591136,739
Females35 to 44 years125,347124,836130,572103,990
Females45 to 54 years128,280122,479123,63987,887
Females55 to 64 years82,58883,99187,38865,650
Females65 to 74 years37,31137,55438,27528,208
Females75 year and over 25,55326,42429,13224,330
Table 1: Year-on-year clinical depression numbers in England by age group and gender 2017-2020 (Source: Office for National Statistics, General Practice Extraction Service Data for Pandemic Planning and Research (GDPPR), NHS Digital)

Finding purpose is a core theme of existential philosophy. Albert Camus describes the absurdity and meaninglessness that can arise in the face of life’s challenges and hardships. He argued that individuals must find their own meaning, rather than relying on external sources or guidance. Martin Heidegger’s concept of authenticity, or “being-toward-death,” is closely related to this too. We are each “thrown” into the world, and we must confront our own mortality if we are to be authentic and true to ourselves. The Frenchman, Albert Camus perhaps followed the Friedrich Nietzsche concerns for finding meaning despite the absurdity and meaningless. Whereas the Frenchman Jean-Paul Sartre was perhaps more aligned to Martin Heidegger in seeking the meaning that is there to be found. Other philosophers who guide such thought include Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich. Each of these philosophers approached the question of meaning in life in a somewhat different way. All have helped me. From 2019 to now, I have been retraining and learning anew, taking responsibility for creating new meaning for myself and what new possibility that can thereafter reveal. Whenever I am unsure, I just think on what I will look back upon with pride or regret, and that helps shine a light upon my path.

This blog, marking my 50th birthday, therefore faces both of these topics in good cheer. In my first 50 years I have served, I have consumed, I have built and I have experienced. I am fortunate that my love is reciprocated and continues to be cherished and nurtured. The second half of life will involve more loss, and who knows how many more years that represents. But whatever that count, these are years left to become more than I am today. What I do know is that I need less going forward than I did in the first fifty years. I now have pretty much all that I need. I have a handle on my wants and know them all to be near. Any more wants than that are increasingly labelled as unnecessary greed. My platform is built, so it is contribution that comes next. And that possibility is good enough for me.

Back therefore to the world, and to cups only one can own, and other such zero-sum games. It is right to remember football is not life or death. Both Argentina and France may be permitted to misquote Bill Shankly today, and say that football is more important than that. Philosophically, I find myself existentially supporting individual meaning. My personal raison d’être, but perhaps beyond the purity and chastity reflected in the fleur-de-lis. I can muster more French than I can Argentinian it would seem. Argentina have other philosophy and culture to admire. They do claim a hand of God, and are blessed indeed by the feet of Lionel Messi. But on this, the first day of my 50th year, I am responsible for my own goals: so don’t cry for me, Argentina.

Plato – The Republic

Still reflecting in Plato’s cave

Essays not withstanding, I managed a revisit to Plato’s “The Republic” this weekend. This passage caught my eye:

“the object of our legislation…is not the special welfare of any particular class in our society, but of the society as a whole; and it uses persuasion or compulsion to unite all citizens and make them share together the benefits which each individual can confer on the community; and its purpose in fostering this attitude is not to leave everyone to please himself, but to make each man a link in the unity of the whole”

Plato – The Republic – Book VII pp242

Watching the news, and ignoring political overtones, these words seem to reflect yet to be learned truths…

100 posts

Time, cost, or quality

Existence before essence. With over one hundred blogs offered I’m revisiting some basic principles of priority. The natural emergence of my blog topics seems to be me a key part of my process. I still have much to say. Much to read. Much to do. My research will carry me through.

But my personal intention to blog daily is now reaching its natural point of peak. I wish to retain the flow. But I also journal. I work. I research. I prepare for MSc exams.

From here-on-in it is daily blogging, perhaps. More correctly, it is affording as much time and as appropriate an amount of opportunity cost directed towards the deliberate attention to maintain quality of output. Quality, time and cost. Those seem to me the correct iron-law inspired priorities to guide my hand.

That’s my project musing for this evening. I return now to an existential crisis. A crisis of perspective for which Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Satre maintain. There’s a project angle here I am yet to land within this very different philosophical discourse. All the time I need – the luxury that projects are universally denied – now my ally and with it more possibility to understand.


About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here:

Project Chatter #99

Time-bound intended change

Podcast appearance here. My thanks to Project Chatter. And to Paul Goodge, who never disappoints.

I like to think the thread of my argument is consistent. I like to think my research, consulting, and personal perspectives align. The shared discussion in this podcast was enlightening for me. I make no claims to philosophical expertise, more amateur curiosity, but I have loved gaining new insight from the little I have so far grasped. I still have to pinch myself that I get to say this stuff out loud. And in the company of such great people.

We talk in this podcast of perspectival challenge. Of communication. And of boundary lines. Over the weekend I have pushed at a few more of my own. I must admit from my first visit this weekend to Martin Heidegger’s philosophy, it has me hooked. It’s a tough read. Immediately challenging, to even the few perspectives I thought I’d settled upon. Maybe all.

No way I can offer anything meaningful yet. It’s taken me two days just to grasp the outline of his Being and Time 1927 thesis. Only reading in detail the introduction and chapter one…and only then with regular visits to Herbert Dreyfus to steer me through {here} 🤯

But he’s making much of boundaries I didn’t even think to ask were there…

I hope you check out the podcast. And that the conversation started continues and expands anon.


About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here:

Making sense

Behaviour through a third lens

This blog takes on a third example of how to examine and thereby prepare to make better decisions toward behaviours. Bringing qualitative technique back alongside the quantitative techniques we are told are our future norm.


Sensemaking – What Makes Human Intelligence Essential in the Age of the Algorithm

by Christian Madsbjerg 2017

when we commit to losing a part of ourselves, we gain something profoundly new in exchange. We gain insight. I call the practice of cultivating these types of insights sensemaking.

Christian Madsjberg 2017, Sensemaking pp5

In my opinion some of the sentiment of Madsbjerg has a sense of flow about it. He references “phronesis” to mean an Aristocratic synthesis of knowledge and experience (ibid pp6), and the type of leaders that become as one with the systems, societies, and organisations, they are stewarding “as an extension of their body” (ibid pp7).


From a social psychology we have theories that help explain the contextual nuance behind our social interactions. Social Representations by processes of objectification and anchoring which group or categorise based upon shared (communicated) experiences; or anchoring from pre-existing systems of thought. Madjsberg introduces similar influence pertaining to why people in that culture act the way they do (pp6).

He then (pp8) also identifies with the philosophical addresses objective reality becoming subjective understanding. Referencing Heidegger to reflect upon these unspoken assumptions “that on the basis of which beings are understood”.

we stop seeing a room as a space filled with individual items and we start seeing the structures form a cultural reality…nothing exists in an individual vacuum

Christian Madsjberg 2017, Sensemaking pp11-12

He addresses these meanings as philosophical terms reflecting our spoken exchanges. Highlighting contemporary philosophers and their terms: “Habitus” Pierre Bourdieu; “The discourse” Ernesto Laclau, Michel Foucault “The conversation”

In cognitive psychology there is reason to challenge all ideas of comparison between mind and computer, and the linear processing of information this represents. Madjsberg presents this same challenge with more philosophical underpinning. He rejects Cartesian understanding, arguing this “is meaningless without without studying the world” (pp39). Arguing a little later that sensemaking is the missing connective tissue (pp43), and that we must understand the holistic vs the atomised (pp49), and recommend us to read “no exit” by Sartre (pp51) and highlighting Google’s Ray Kurzweil 2012 book “how to create a mind” and the associated Pattern Recognition Theory of the Mind (PRTM) to which he observes “but it’s not how the brain works…” (pp52).

Heidegger helps conclude this philosophical analysis Hubert Dreyfus “Mind over Machine” as the pre-eminent interpreter of Heidegger (pp55-56). Madjsberg argues that these philosophical interpreters both argue against the mind as a rational calculator. Madjsberg instead presenting a framework of how experts achieve mastery through an engagement with culture and social context (cf. pp57-60 for his 5 stages from novice to expert).

Here are additional categorised concepts. Most pithy phrases, and all explanations are Madsbjerg’s.


thin data is facts. Thick data is how we relate to the many different worlds we inhabit e.g., sensing the stress in a room (pp15)

pp70-75 four types of knowing: Objective; subjective; shared; sensory. These wide types enabling greater understanding e.g. pp76 pattern recognition or synthesis; pp79-81 literary economics. Reason, emotions, judgement, and analysis.

lack of thick data ability in boardrooms, “imagination and intuitions of top leaders are starving” pp16


time and space – reframe to a problem of a phenomenon pp99-100


pp15 Savannah not the zoo. Phenomenology of human behaviour in social context; pp18 see its ghosts

the thing in itself

pp93-96 . Avoid getting caught up in what is “real”. Example, pp96 the same champagne in a plastic cup or a fine glass from a white gloved waiter leave you with very different experience

always return to the thing itself

Edmund Husserl

Heidegger (Husserl’s best student) reversed the philosophy to focus upon social structures of worlds as opposed to Husserl’s reflecting on the thinking of the individual. cf. Sartre and existentialism


pp192 “without care, everything is correct and nothing is true

pp154-155 William James “the principles of psychology” references to attention as focalisation, concentration, of consciousness vs other thoughts. “My experience is what I agree to attend to”

Madsbjerg presents this in a number of forms. pp183 become a connoisseur; pp187 alchemy of sensemaking by being in it. He also reflects upon what is not technical understood (pp191), concluding that “care cannot be replaced with Moneyball type atomised analytics” (pp194).


as opposed to manufacturing. pp123 problem solving human behaviour with no hypothesis or clarity of what is known needs sensemaking creativity that comes through us not from us

Related to THICK DATA is need for wider perspective because, he argues pp22, our complexity is artificial and our data is inappropriately contextualised. pp21 Abductive logic affords creative insight, but that requires us to accept dead ends and serendipity. It is messy and needs a confidence to remain doubt for indeterminate amounts of time.

pp130 “grace” as creative insight travelling through us via our social sphere not from us. [the later examples on pp146 akin to flow].

pp131 psychologist Wolfgang Kohler “three Bs” bus, bath, bed as three places where environment engenders creativity. Heidegger referred to “the middle voice” or old Greek word “phainesthai” which erases the distinction between subject and object – rather how they are revealed through us not by us.

pp158 “with a click, the left and the right are equally satisfied” pp159 “the metaphor” pp160 “the derring-do is actually in the service of site constraints” rather than the signature of the artist.


pp107-108 “mood mentality” neither comes from outside or inside but from our very existence in the world.

pp116 theory of reciprocity (cf Marshall Sahlins three models of giving) give to get more vs get the same vs no expectation of return;

pp 114-116 Heidegger three levels of empathy:

  • below awareness threshold which we adjust to. It may be cultural clothing norms, or particular nuance of language. Sociologists and anthropologists have debated for 100 years whether this has a socio-animalistic or formal structural undertone.
  • awareness when it’s wrong. Often triggered from first level empathy moving to this second
  • Analytical empathy which is systematic, framework and theory supported. “This is sensemaking. Theory unlimatelg reveals the insight” pp116

pp168 “assessing and responding to the core emotional interests in the room” Sheila Heen Difficult Conversation (Harvard business school) pp169 in a room full of executives who is respected? Who is carries weight of insight? Who is seen as difficult? Who is trusted? Who is beloved?

pp170 reading the leader’s relationships, including the relationship with themselves. Self-conscious, cynical, invested, self-deprecating or at least self transforming?

pp171 reading the culture of the company: competitive; egalitarian; creative; hard-nosed; underdog or alpha. Changing points and tensions.

pp173 “reading between the rules”

pp175 be with the people to read them. If you cannot be with them, then read their fiction. The descriptions of the human experience.

pp176 “the gulf of veneer” vs walking in their shoes

pp177 understanding the antagonistic world. pp178 know who you talking to, and who they are really talking to pp179 which means you must know the culture.

pp182 the key is navigating the other persons emotions. The most dangerous negotiation is the one you do not know you are in.


pp101 discourse analysis – words and concepts meaning and significance.

pp116 symbols and nuance of meaning; discourse theory showing words in context (cf Ernest Laclau and Chantal Mouffe); binary codes of social systems (cf Niklas Luhmann); stage-managed impressions (cf Erving Goffman’s “the presentation of Self in Everyday life” 1956); Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theories of language – “don’t think, but look” as most language of cooperation is not verbalised.


Abductive – nonlinear – educated guesswork of most likely.

cf Peirce 1877 “the fixation of belief”; 1899 “first rule of logic”; 1903 “pragmatism and abduction”. Observing that Pierce was critical of deductive or inductive logic the former asserts correctness, and the second asserts unknowns are knowable with more technical ability.


not GPS. pp23 sensemaking shows the breadth of textural context needed. Following the North Star not head stuck upon the gps.

pp173 teaching is a negotiation. You’re negotiating for engagement and credibility. Once content is known you can speak from inside the content and thereby respond in the moment to the context.

pp195 Heidegger “meaningful difference”. The opposite in nihilism which corporate hierarchy is filled with. cf Heidegger 1954 “the question concerning technology” which he argues has not only replaced our gods but also replaced us. Optimisation of the material rather than flexing with it to find its best repurpose. pp197 we do this with people as interchangeable widgets vs “the source of meaning in our lives is not in us…it is in being in the world…we can all bring out what is best in ourselves” Hubert Dreyfus.


v | behaviour | t

As a foil to the biological and behaviourist sentiments of Robert Sapolsky, Christian Madsbjerg’s equally contemporary writing presents the more nuanced reflection of what the mind offers in problem solving, rather than the explanations of behaviour as bio-chemistry and the brain.

The significance of sensemaking as presented in this wonderfully engaging book is its engagement with philosophical discussion in a practical way. Principally reflecting upon the necessary skill sets we all need when managing the very human reality in decision-making. This is the third blog from me this week addressing perspectives on behaviour. All of which I treat as equally valid in potential for understanding behavioural challenge, and therein the means by which controls and directions to decision-making can be outlined.

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here:

The golden rule

One rule to unite us all

There is a single rule we can each apply in life. A single sentiment that, according to an accomplished historian of origins of beliefs and moral teachings, sits at the heart of all. The golden rule.

This blog offers a little compassion in response to today’s news headlines, all of which – to me at least – share nothing but despair. I introduce an author who has written extensively of this shared message from our past. She has traced it back to a time period of our shared history from which numerous great people found commonality of paths for humanity, in their own way, and from many corners of our shared world.

Origins of the Golden Rule

In 2006, Karen Armstrong, in her book, “The Great Transformation – the world in the time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, and Jeremiah“, presents a shared history. Or at least histories running parallel and toward a common truth. It is a book written with all the academic prowess and worldly grace one would expect of a historian of all religion. A historian whose own path was moved from vows of order to more direct intent upon spreading a compassionate message to us all.

The axial age (800-300 BCE)

This book remains focused upon the Axial Age. A remarkably pointed part of our shared history. When we, as a globally dispersed peoples, turned ourselves toward belief systems in ways we still hold as true today. This is a time span of five-hundred years from 800 to 300 BCE. A period that, in timeframe at least, connects faiths, fables, philosophies, and enlightened thought from around the world.

There is philosopher, mystic, and theologian, all represented as influencer, translator, or narrator toward this message. Socrates, the Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Jeremiah. All laying foundational stones as platforms of hope, wisdom, and compassion, whether in our science, our logic, or how we choose to believe, strive to know, or to pray. These wise people of old, the theologians, the philosophers but also in their teachings, fables, and their doctrines. All being shown to have this same sentiment at their core.

treat others as you would have others treat you

the golden rule

This one Golden Rule, she argues with some persuasion, presents a connection to all. Enabling a circle of disparate but shared history, happenstance, or necessary change, finding way to be reunited by this one rule that binds it all.

Our faltering project in the news today

I read this book again last night. I reflected upon it anew this morning. My reading of the news confirming we perhaps all awoke a little more suspicious of our neighbour. In Leigh-on-Sea, a servant of the people murdered whilst at his duty within his community (cf. BBC). In Kandahar, Islamic State claiming culpability for 47 Shia worshippers killed within the sanctity of their place of worship (cf. Sky News). A 16-year-old boy charged with murdering a boy of 18, on a playing field in south-west London (cf. BBC). In the US, a man expected to plead guilty next week to shooting dead seventeen school children and staff in a Florida school in 2018 – an action he forewarned and then committed when he was aged 19 (cf. Sky News). In other inquiry, an obstructive witness to the bombings in Manchester declining an invitation to aid inquiry, and now to be forced to take the stand next week (cf. BBC). The inquiry into the suicide of the former head of the Royal Marines in October 2020, confirms a firearm removed from his possession days before he was found to have hanged himself at his home (cf. BBC). The deadly game of cat and mouse between border patrols and people smugglers across the sea from Calais to Dover, reportedly seeing 1,835 people reaching UK in 2019, increasing to 18,720 so far in 2021 (cf. BBC citing Home Office statistics).

None of these headlines directly connected to each other. But all seemingly connect in other ways. Desperation, ill-will, them and us, all interfaces and division. All representing boundaries. Gaps between the lives of people. Divisions. Distance. Distant until by one will, such distance is shortened again. With the reality of one life foisted upon another. Thrust desperately, angrily, violently, with malice. Each an intended change to deny life itself.

It seems easy to have a lessened grip on our compassion at moments likes this.

Hope is alive in the Golden Rule

By whatever means or belief we each hold, Karen Armstrong’s message is clear. All of these paths of origin of belief contain the same message. From 800 BCE to today. All such circumstance leading to origins of axial revolution, she reflects upon as intending to lead us the same way.

In her book “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life” she captures the essence of this sentiment into modernity. In this contemporary examination of the Golden Rule, she writes:

“One of the chief tasks of our time must surely be to build a global community in which all peoples can live together in mutual respect; yet religion, which should be making a major contribution, is seen as part of the problem. All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao. Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule, “Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you,” or in its positive form, “Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.” Further, they all insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group; you must have concern for everybody — even your enemies.”

Karen Armstrong “Twelve Steps to a compassionate life”

A rule for every moral compass?

I consider my own moral compass to be well set, with or without a badge to label its form. My obedience to its wisdom perhaps not always honoured as closely as it might, but the sentiment of all teaching I have taken to be true seems suddenly connected to this singular truth. Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you. That seems to me a worthy Golden Rule to hold us all. A Golden Rule to apply to all our intended change.

Perhaps the biggest of my own many faults is hubris. Or perhaps hypocrisy. Or therein both. I have neither the learning nor good sense to preside more carefully around these most emotive and divisive subjects. Karen Armstrong has many supporters but there are plenty learned people who would disagree. Secularists who deem her too apologetic. Academics who express despair at sentiment too far forgiving of intolerances the other way. Reference to well known polymath thinkers who openly hold views in opposition to her own.

I park myself well shy of the depths of intellect necessary to follow all thread of each alternative and no doubt valid perspective. What is clear to me however, is that some of the essence of this Golden Rule sits well within my own working hypothesis of visibility | behaviour | trust.

v | b | t

Visibility | b | t

We can seek to clarify our own intentions by this rule. See if those intentions would be welcome in reverse. We can look at the bigger projects we feed into and ask the same. Demand to see the visions of those that lead us, and see if the Golden Rule therein applies too.

v | behaviour | t

As with all behaviour there is need to have control. And this one rule sits as a centre-piece to them all. This is fairness. This is compassion. This is respect. These are the behaviours or at least intentions, attitudes, beliefs, that are informing our actions. Actions and motivations of ourselves and as a whole. This is to consider all our projects actors. All other projects to which we connect. And the world as its ultimate passive actor and its frame.

v | b | trust

Herein also is trust. Trust that ancestors in their suffering and sacrifice have held a future promise true. Trust that in all of us this rule can emerge. That from the past versions of us all to the here now, we are derived from those who walked this same path to that same destination. Whatever that destination is, it is one we arrive at together, or individually fall apart. Trust starts with this Golden Rule. It gives a purpose. It gives the justification for us each to be better. A Golden Rule that demands better of us all. By comparison, right now we have no trust. That is true in construction. I think it true at all scale of cooperation. We trust only that we cannot trust. We trust only that we are each selfish. Perhaps in time, we can trust each other to ensure that selfish is what we are not.

A single rule to connect all our projects

As we all scramble around a little today – and every new day that we are trying to find a thread of hope amidst so many headlines to divide us all – perhaps in this one rule we have a single golden thread that connects all humanity, all projects | within projects, that we can each remind ourselves applies always. And a check of ourselves, and all others. How we can each individually better hold to this self regulating control upon our behaviour. Ultimately, our one shared project’s Golden Rule.

treat others as you would have others treat you

So says the compassion in us all

To find out more about Karen Armstrong and her charter for compassion (click here)

To find out more about how I am attempting to connect this Golden Rule to our projects – and find better ways to connect our projects of mind to our projects of management – feel free to subscribe to my daily blog, as linked here.

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

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Is seeing, believing?

What truth can we know from sensed perspective?

This blog is a brief summary of my own thoughts before going into tutorial discussions this week. It might be interesting to post a before and after perspective to a great question set within my cognitive psychology module this week.

Group question: What does the distinction between sensation and perception imply when discussing one’s “truth”?  If there are, in fact, multiple “truths” what does the lack of objective reality mean for scientific psychology?

I had a few immediate pithy sentences come to mind. Who do you believe?  The truth is out there…  You can’t handle the truth!  Is the truth even knowable?

I was tempted to reflect upon philosophical truth in wider sense but personal truth seems hard enough. The hard problem…

Physiological truth

The bounds of our experience are closely connected to our senses. Therein how we interpret the information received. Technology allows us to expand some of the ranges of our senses but even with this expanded translation of reality we perceive, interfaces are crossed between us and the reality known. If indeed reality itself is more than a belief.

Even without artificial aid, the sheer scale of data we gather is extraordinary. From lecture materials just read, the precision of the data captured by our eye is almost innumerably complex. The interconnections of cells and pathways connected to sight are 100,000,000,0004,000 which presents more possible connections than there are atoms in the universe. From this unimaginably large array of data connections – once over whatever interface exists between reality and perception – we can then process what we determine to be thousands of objects at any one moment. To which data we may add touch, hearing, smell, and taste; bodily awareness and spacetime positioning. Even considering just the relays of these receptors not all is fully understood. By example, there are receptors in our skin we know exist but only best guess their purpose.

Perceived reality

What then of the processing itself?  We have innate abilities considered unique in the animal world.  Our physiological orientation associated with touch concentrated in body parts unlike other mammals.  Our tongue physiologically more acutely connected by touch than cats, or dogs, rabbits, or rats.  Our fingers more intimately registering a range of touch.  Klatsy et al. (1985) 95% of 100 common objects (e.g. fork, brush, paper clip) correctly identified by blindfolded subjects i.e., identified by ‘feeling’ them.  At some point in our anthropology, tongues enabled sound to be morphed into repeatable and more complex phrases of noise.  The dexterity of our opposable thumbs offering information gathering potential and control enough to mould and craft.

The brain’s Somatosensory cortex receives and processes the layers of information derived from touch. Each skin location is represented by a corresponding cortical area (orderly ‘topographic map’ of body). The processes space in the brain demonstrated to be greater for some areas of the body than others.

somatosensory cortex
(Graphic source unknown but adapted from Penfield, W. & Rasmussen, T. The cerebral cortex of man. New York: Macmillan, 1950, via UoN lecture notes)

This is a mapped area of the Somatosensory cortex. Devised from Penfield & Rasmussen, 1950 work on patient responses during brain surgery.  The amount of cortex are reserved for more sensitive skin areas are represented by larger areas of cortex where ‘more neural hardware’ is present.

Not mentioned in these lectures was a wider comparison of other more distant specie relations. The octopus has the same number of neuronal cells as a dog (~500m), and twice that of a cat. Yet only 10% of those are in each of it’s two brains, with the majority of the rest divided equally in each of its eight arms. Our principle sense is sight – imagine that! The octopus dominates its perspective via its sense is smell – through its skin. It also has semi-autonomous ability to morph specially adapted skin to mimic hue, form, and texture of the environment it is in. How different must the organisational structures be to have more decision-making made near the source. The High Reliability Organisation of the animal world. Here then are senses and interactions with a less centralised perception in a range of information alien to our own. What truth does it smell that we cannot see?

Intentional change

Crucially and uniquely, is our capacity to imagine and to symbolically rework information into repeatable and transient inner form and temporal bound.  Within these mechanisms we gain insight.  We predict.  We learn.  We find ways to repeat, communicate, and adapt.  I am yet to encounter the psychological explanations for this within this course, but other reading informs me this is unique to us. Noam Chomsky is on our syllabus but not until next term. Crucially this symbolism enables intervention, interpretation, adaptation and theme. A rework of information as translated from nature whilst not fully knowing what that necessarily means.  We operate through best guessed grey spaces.  Summarise, approximate, prioritise.  We predict based upon imperfect information, errors, and change. What is truth when there is always a necessary approximating and therefore an unknown?

Scientific truth

By what measure can we deem science as singular truth? And by extension therefore psychology. As examples, Aristotelian revisions by Galileo.  Newtonian physics revised by Einstein who for twenty plus years thereafter resisted but slowly accepted the notion of quantum mechanics – which his theories cannot fully square.  Within living memory for many was the witness of the Kuhn vs Popper debate which pitted the historic realities of the settled science practices vs the acclaimed scientific method of falsification, which Popper advocated was our norm but which Kuhn reflected upon as no more than an ideal. Reality vs best practice therefore not harbouring singular truth – or at least not for long. Within this framework of discourse sits the question of whether mathematical precision can ever replicate what our limited instruments of measurement can perceive as real.  And to what extent the bounds of human knowledge and sensory perception can be extended by the technology we build – and may one day soon be replaced.

Moral and ethical truth

Kant, Hagel, Nietzsche or Foucault all parked for another day. Here I will only dwell upon legal truth – as onus of proof. In the narrowest of definitions here sit more interfaces of truth.  Innocent until process demonstrates guilt.  The ownership of a better, more believable, subjective truth. The intent or the transit by a letter in the post assumed sent.  Or the intentions of words – contract or intent – hermeneutics – at the risk of the drafter or interpretation of the reader as forever at risk of latter-day revisits of old truths.  New science to old facts. Fingerprints or DNA affording hidden reality to be revealed.  All of which requires a level of trust in the moral and ethical agreements of people, and the technology by which we rely.  We have a sensed record and perception of its meaning, but is this ever unquestionably right, or unequivocally true?

Socratic discourse, know more to know we know less

This is a group question for debate amongst peers this week.  A moment of perhaps coming to our senses or a sense check of what is known.  Offering perhaps a sensible solution.  Perhaps seeing is believing as we push this around all week.  Even if we collectively agree on what we think we might know, can we be sure we agreed to the same thing?  Can we be sure we communicated it without error?  Can we ever really know anything?  Or just hope to narrow the gap on the unknown.

In truth, Socrates was probably right.  If Plato’s writings in his name are to be believed. To be wise, is to know we do not know…

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here:

Trust in philosophy

What do Stanford say about trust?

These are summary notes and observations from reviewing the philosophical considerations of what trust is, in one of the best free resources of academic thought I have found. In summarising this encyclopaedia entry (link here and below), there is positive confirmation that visibility | behaviour | trust (v | b | t) reflects other conclusions of interactions between these three variables I am attempting to integrate into project assessment. However, it also presents some rather tricky obstacles if trust is to be a meaningful assessment criteria aimed toward measuring likelihood of project success.

This single entry in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (SEP) is around 15,000 words. It comes immediately to the point by presenting trust in terms of risk. Next is an exploration of what conditions are required to enable trust. Comparison is also made to trustworthiness, which is reflected upon as a property, not an attitude as is required to have trust. For a trusted relationship to exist, both parties are required to have the property of trustworthiness.

One ongoing challenge I have set myself is testing through examples that visibility, behaviour and trust are functional parts of a whole. This encyclopaedia entry presents a connection to all three…

“The trustor might try to reduce this risk by monitoring or imposing certain constraints on the behaviour of the trustee; but after a certain threshold perhaps, the more monitoring and constraining they do, the less they trust this person. Trust is relevant “before one can monitor the actions of … others” (Dasgupta 1988: 51) or when out of respect for others one refuses to monitor them. One must be content with them having some discretionary power or freedom, and as a result, with being somewhat vulnerable to them (Baier 1986; Dasgupta 1988).”

The highlights and underlining in this quoted extract are my additions.  The key observation here being that in my own enquiry to seek evidence of a v | b | t relationship, this acknowledged encyclopaedic resource offers a unifying link more succinctly than I could otherwise have hoped.

This therefore appears a satisfactory venture into the philosophical discussion. However, further observations are reflected upon below. These are useful additional details but each presents new challenges to my ongoing enquiry.

Reliance vs Trust

A further subtlety offered is to distinguish mere reliance, from a breach of trust. The SEP presents this via Annette Baier (1986: 235) “although people who monitor and constrain others’ behaviour may rely on them, they do not trust them if their reliance can only be disappointed rather than betrayed.”  This presents a challenge to my own thinking on what behaviour is to trust therefore, and in the context of project relationships requires me to consider again my v | b | t core.  My only counter to this observation is the additional factoring of the control framework to necessarily consider reliance or trust by all project parties and whether adequate levels of interaction have been permitted to enable a shared interest in outputs the project itself can rely.  This passage revisits the vulnerability of the one party. I pose this as a vulnerability to the project itself.  With less trust, there becomes a greater reliance upon this control framework.  I flag this here as an open question to resolve.  (cf.  Goldberg 2020 via SEP).

Developmental trust

“therapeutic trust” (Nickel 2007: 318; Hinchman 2017 via SEP) which is highlighted as a dynamic attitude toward another – with hope of eliciting an improving trustworthy nature in time. In a project setting I would equate this to the many leadership and management challenges of coaching and development of skills, and the delicate balance of offering increasing responsibility and the controlled hope for a responsive (i.e., changing) trustworthy behaviour. (cf McGeer 2008: 241; Horsburgh 1960 and Pettit 1995 via SEP). As with reliance vs trust in a project context, this is a two way interaction with an appropriate control environment providing backup to this trust gap.

Competence plus motivation

“When we trust people, we rely on them not only to be competent to do what we trust them to do, but also to be willing or motivated to do it.” This too draws upon an external evaluation, albeit deficient, with the SEP referencing Jones criticisms of risk-assessment theories making no attempt to distinguish between trust and mere reliance and therefore criticized for this reason (cf. Jones 1999 via SEP). Other accounts of motivation deemed to require distinctions be made of motives being a determinant of whether trustworthiness is availed (cf. Katherine Hawley “motives-based” theories (2014) via SEP). A third category is also presented; “non-motives-based theories”, which are also not risk-assessment theories (Hawley 2014, SEP). Each strive to distinguish between trust and mere reliance, though not by associating a particular kind of motive with trustworthiness.

Acknowledging a potential boundary case

Perhaps the crucial reflections upon this philosophical summary is to acknowledge the difficulty arising if attempting a singular understanding of what trust and trustworthiness are – whether or not this is beyond mere reliance and reliability. The SEP entry presents the complexity of determining if trust is warranted, and whether such determinants are internal to the trustor or able to be externally accounted for.

Significant problems to my enquiry can now be flagged by virtue of this one summary of the philosophical framework of trust. Trust’s value and therefore its measurement is problematic. Accounts disagree on its rational justification (or even if rationality has different qualities in consideration of trust) or the potential for its illusory properties, or their misrepresentation. The SEP entry gives reason to think trust and distrust have great value when deemed very high and become integral to moral and societal norms and social contracts. Trust is also deemed essential in the exchange of knowledge and therefore wider truth. It argues that it is trust that enables human cooperation, and commitments to future return.

Some hard truth

But I have to therefore ponder upon whether trust can become a tangible measure at all. This SEP entry presents a difference between truth and end-directed rationality. Questions are posed on what trust is – is it an emotion, or a belief, or something else building up to a mental attitude? Various theories are offered across each. It poses questions as to how can trust be developed, and from what to what?

Upon my first reading of this account therefore, I conclude any modelling involving trust as a variable is unlikely to reach quantitative precision given the abstract and diverse parameters it could entail. This is useful. It informs and better frames my ongoing research. Flagging an upcoming obstacle of some size. The very real constraints to which this whole enquiry could ultimately be bound.

I trust you agree with my caution…

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here: