The wisdom of Janus - RSA

The wisdom of Janus

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  • Mindfulness

We need to train our minds to deal with the world. With growing evidential justification, the advocates of mindfulness argue that a practised ability to shut out the clamour of modern life and to silence the meaning-making narrative inside our heads enables us to be wiser, happier and healthier.

Others, like Matthew Crawford in his uplifting latest book, 'The world beyond your head: how to flourish in an age of distraction', urge us to cultivate attention. We should immerse ourselves in a skilled activity so that our minds, interacting with the tools we use, generate the combination of efficacy and well-being that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls 'flow'.

I am a lazy and irregular practitioner of mindfulness and I rarely if ever achieve 'flow' but I want to argue for a third cognitive discipline, one less comforting to its users but, arguably, of greater value to society. For want of a better phrase I'll give this discipline the title 'the wisdom of Janus'.

Janus is the Roman god of change and transition often depicted with two faces, symbolising his ability to look at once to the past and the future. But it is not so much the virtues of looking across time as seeing contrasting perspectives that I want to extol. Specifically, the wisdom of Janus is manifest in an ability to hold simultaneously two contrasting but valid views of the human condition and of how to improve it.

Three moments at which we need this wisdom spring to mind.

The first is captured by Antonio Gramsci's famous injunction to revolutionaries to combine 'optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect'. The wisdom of Janus gives us the capacity to look forward with hope while looking around and back with dispassionate realism and rigour.

Too much blind hope and we are consigned to disappointment and disaster; some of the worst crimes of humanity were committed by people who thought they could make the world perfect. Too much informed scepticism and we will risk falling into lethargy providing excuses for inaction in the face of the urgent needs of the world's dispossessed and of the clear evidence that - despite our many frailties - human beings can be the authors of progress.

The second moment concerns structure and agency, the degree to which our destinies are either sealed by circumstance or are ours to shape. Our inability to hold both ideas in our heads leads to an untold waste of intellectual and political energy.

I confronted an example last week at a seminar about welfare reform. When a speaker referred to the importance of the early years of a child's development they were upbraided by another speaker in the following terms: 'writing off kids because they have a hard time when young is typical of a paternalistic, patronising professionalism that seeks to infantilise the working class. The fact is if you take a three year old, however damaged, and stick them with a caring family of millionaires they are almost certain to do well in life'.

Knowing the intelligence of my readers I hardly need point out the sophistry of this argument. The point is not that all damaged three year olds will fail, nor is it to suggest that damaged three year olds subsequently given exceptional remedial support won't be likely to thrive. The point is that if two groups of three year olds - those who have had secure and loving infant years and those who have not - then enjoy similar subsequent resources and opportunities the former group is systematically more likely to thrive than the latter.

Probability is neither trivial nor is it fate. Yet, although this is obvious, sometimes lengthy heated public debates or - on a bad night a whole edition of Moral Maze - will meander noisily around an inability to hold these two ideas together.

The third dichotomy calling for the wisdom of Janus concerns rigour and detail, on the one hand, and accessibility and practical application on the other. This may seem like a humdrum or overstated problem. Yet, witness our academic community which generally stands proudly on the obscure high ground of the divide and our political and journalistic community which is equally prone to favour the approachable but treacherous low ground.

The world is very complicated. Even with the best data and computers we can't process or apply all the knowledge relevant to any difficult issue, and when it comes to complex social behaviour not much can be predicted with accuracy. Yet as leaders, policy makers and voters we need to do the best we can when we make plans and form decisions. If the alternative to practical rules of thumb is dogma or randomness then it is rules of thumb that we need.

Some might say the answer to the final dichotomy is to have theories about the world that are both entirely true and easily applicable. This is not just foolish but dangerous. Neo-classical economics and crude Marxism respectively were just such theories - arguing that all human behaviour could ultimately be traced to rational self interest in the former case and class interests in the latter. We know the catastrophic consequences that resulted from such reductionism.

Janus has two faces pointing different ways. The wisdom of Janus is the ability to hold two different perspectives and whilst, at any given time, one or the other will always be at the front of our minds to keep the other corrective view never far from our attention.

Like mindfulness and flow the wisdom of Janus is not something we can achieve without commitment and practice. As Hume intuited and modern psychology has confirmed, emotion is generally the master of reason. When I am in a good mood I am inclined to optimism, agency and generalisation and have an almost infinite ability to rationalise an intellectual disposition which is, in fact, the result of the sun shining, someone smiling at me in the street or a rare West Bromwich Albion victory. And when the Baggies lose, the rain falls and someone pushes in front of me on the tube I am highly skilled at proving things never change, we are the victims of circumstance and any attempt to describe the world intelligibly is a simplistic denial of the complexity of real life.

The wisdom of Janus makes us individually more effective and, more importantly, enables us to transcend a million false dichotomies and instead listen, learn and act with clarity. I really think I can practise it brilliantly. Then again, in the face of my character and the complex nature of the world, I have to accept I might fail.


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  • Yes! 
    The emerging Theories of Everything point to the holonic structure and dynamic of universal or natural law.  Holonics can be defined by two rules: 1 Everyone is right, 2 There are no rules.  This reflects understanding at the leading edge of science where light is both wave and particle, where the distinction between matter and energy disappears and where the outcome of natural law is a bet on possibilities (M-theory).  One fact remains.  Truth exists and is the core of existence.
    With that in mind it is imperative that humankind evolves holonic systems that can adapt to the tensions of our world.  But do not be deceived in to imagining that we can "have it all".  If our behaviour is without the laws of nature, nature will prevail.  The biosphere has given us all the consumption it can.  It is disintegrating.  Humankind must reduce consumption whatever Janus' views are.  And to do that we will have to face the reality that however great, powerful, rich, intelligent we each are, each of us must step back and live with enough ...
    (More tech, data and rationale in Common Sense - see table of contents.)

  • Matthew Taylor wrote "Knowing the intelligence of my readers I hardly need point out the sophistry of this argument." We ( book & blog reasders) quote authors and their published works, as we should. But reading, and the (new or old ways of) thinking it should generate, is less and less likely. And so, more and more quality multimedia (RSA Animations) techniques must find their way to the "must read" heap. How to encourage the use the RSA website, and every other link we can activate needs action in the context of Matthew's interesing piece on mindfulness and beyond, is a worthwhile challenge?

  • I believe mindfulness, in the way you are describing it, could also be Keats' negative capability - as he wrote: "that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason".

  • Hi Matthew,

    People seem to periodically discover this way of thinking.

    Roger Martin, for example, wrote a book about it a few years back called 'The Opposable Mind'. He wrote that this kind of thinking "produces possibilities, solutions and new ideas. It creates a sense of limitless possibility. Conventional thinking hides potential solutions in places where they can't be found and fosters the illusion that no creative solution is possible".

    It has long been much researched by Adult Development researchers and goes by names like dialectical or post-formal thinking. So it's in the area of Prof Kegan's Self-transforming mind (Level 5) and the 'Clumsy' and integrative thinking that begins to emerge there (and you have written about before).

    The 'Next Stage' organisations that Frederic Laloux told the RSA about recently seems to be built on this kind of thinking.

    Isn't the big question how best to make the RSA itself as hospitable as possible to this kind of thinking...?

    It might be a cop-out, but - as you know - I always thought that the one easy way to make such a shift is to choose new members of RSA staff who think along these lines, rather than ones who don't (in particular when you're down to the last two candidates for senior positions). These are likely to be the transformative leaders, the change agents. Might be worth having another talk with HR to try to get this factor taken into account. It's easier than changing all kinds of structures, processes, cultures etc. (Though you could, of course, just implement the whole Holacracy system - a la Zappos!).

    Get the right people on board and they'll naturally start changing all these things - and lo and behold the Teal/Next Stage RSA you've called for will exist before you even know it...

    Matthew Mezey

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