Reflective Essays on Changing Society and Selves across Time
Professor Gilder is from the United States of America (PhD, The Ohio State University), with professional academic experience spanning over thirty-five years of teaching undergraduate and post-graduate programs at colleges and universities in the USA, Romania, Korea, and Liberia, as well as being a higher education specialist consultant for (inter) national organizations such as the Open Society Foundation and UNESCO (among others). In Romania, he is affiliated with the Department of Anglo-American and German Studies at the Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu and the UNESCO Chair in Quality Management of Higher Education and Lifelong Learning.
Philosophy and wisdom teach us that the only constant for human realms and realities within society and the inner selves is change and this is also the leading idea of Eric Gilder’s book, Reflective Essays on Changing Society and Selves across Time. He argues therein that personal and social transformations cannot be separated in any serious investigation of social change.
The human universe is described in its most specific and profound aspects by interaction, communication, action and change. But which are the foundations of change? The facets of change are explored following the technological and communicational dimensions of modernization and development, which are the prevailing preoccupations of the author. The sources of meaning are situated in the change for development and in social values communicated and engaged in the “taming” and orientation of beneficial change.
Meaning and communication should precede action and technology in the constitution of social projects of change and in the statement of meaningful finalities. Obviously, they might be instrumental at any stage (in communicating about action in preparing activities and in unfolding actively the projects sustained). While the technological drivers of change are important, as they always were, beginning with the fire, the wheel and the plough, there is always a specific ideal of change, an extraordinary idea or a “program”, structured as a specific architecture of social values that governs social “leapfrogging” from whatever current stage of development toward a pursued evolution mark, that is, preferably, a human target, intentional and well-thought.
The original arguments developed in this book involve educational and knowledge considerations. Our Digital Age both challenges and restructures the manner we approach knowledge and knowing. The impact of this change is amplified in contemporary times of radical communication and networking, unprecedented in human history.
As Eric Gilder emphasizes in one of the chapters of this book, by comparing and contrasting four diverse theoreticians of reasoning (philosopher and critic Richard Weaver, legal theorist Chaïm Perelman, social theorist Jürgen Habermas, and rhetorical critic Walter Fisher) „social knowledge is probabilistic in nature, i.e., not certain”, hence any decision making should relate to “a pluralistic epistemic framework” combining in a specific vision Richard Weaver’s idea of argument by “definition, analogy and circumstance”, legal theorist Chaïm Perelman’s “universal audience” construct, social theorist Jürgen Habermas’ “ideal speech situation” and rhetorical theorist Walter Fisher’s “narrative paradigm.” Such flexible constructs in decision making and social change design take into consideration, on the one hand, the ever increasing body of knowledge in contemporary times and the „mosaic of competing values” that may decide the success or failure of any development project.
Changing societies affected by speedy transformations are endangered and one of the most tremendous dangers is the deterioration of meaning, the loss of meaningful interactions, actions and relations. Meaning is always affected by varied personal, social, historical and cultural cartographies which need to engage and interest others, “to communicate” in order to gather relevance and eventually support for the projects of development and change they sustain. “Home truths” and other truths encounter, clash and wrestle every day, via conflict and quarrels, via rumors and gossip, via friendship, narratives and emotions that shape and restructure visions and attitudes along the way.
Another chapter emphasizes that education represents the governing force and the reconciliatory factor for the competing visions of mind and embodied social knowing. If there is a market of ideas, then its “freedom” is less a result of “objective” competition in front of neutral and objective evaluators forming an ideal public, but more a consequence of the concurrence of popularity, marketing and fashions, often in contrast with the educated choices of ideas, based on thoughtfully conceived archaeologies of value. Eric Gilder turns to the lessons provided by J. S. Mill and Joseph Tussman (Government and the Mind, 1977; Obligation and the Body Politic, 1979) in “developing individuals who are mindful of society”, ethically and socially conceiving a valuable path for common development.
Fashion and whim, private interest and private gain promoted in the name of education does not nurture a developed and developing society, but merely stagnation or even decadence. Individual rights and desires and social needs on the long-run should be complementary crucial aspects in promoting well-balanced social development.
Dialogue and, even more, third cultures of dialogue (see Fred L. Casmir and his theory of a dialogical third culture) formed between students and teachers, as well as between the educated public and society at large are crucial for the beneficial and meaningful social change.
In a chapter capitalizing upon a discussion with two students (Henrieta Anișoara Mitrea and Bogdan Vasi), Eric Gilder emphasizes the role of the third culture of dialogue as both instrument and context for the “properly-employed Socratic methodology”, such as the heuristic reading group focusing on the works of Anthony Giddens and Slavoj Zizek, or Krishan Kumar and Bernard Paqueteau (1994-1995, 1995-1996) encouraging “fruitful thoughts in developing minds” in a then newly free Romania.
Technological inventions (for instance, the IT contraptions and other amazing ideas), which have proven their down-sides, are not to eclipse our critical, dialogical and heuristic abilities, in order to relate to the world, to “see” the world and transform it for the better. Education and meaningful communication are the guarantors that the ethical being should remain governed by ethics and not by narrow, short-term interests, by entertainment, technology, power or money. We should rely on education as the majestic path to both reliable ethics and reliable knowledge, in transforming societies.
For Eric Gilder, dialogue and information, quality communication and education enhanced by nowadays technology provide the safe-guards for the “information superhighway” channeling Confucian ethical ideas about the actualization of “truth, sincerity, and love” and not about the “advertisement-littered” communication manipulating the “mass-merchandised false consciousness”. Social communities should hopefully become educational and educated ethical communities, carefully measuring success by ethical and emancipatory means and not solely, or mainly, by individual popularity and prosperity.
The individual should be fully present and conscious, that is, responsible against the call of social transformation, but educators are crucial in instilling and nourishing the aptitudes for social responsibility. The right to selfishness is no harbour for failed social evolutions or for the value and meaning bankruptcy of the lonely and arid egoistic life. Success has always a personal and a social component. As I have noticed upon a different occasion, the revolutionary roads of the human beings originate in their ethical selves. This is the key to interpret the fluxes of meaning within the odysseys of change.
Scientific Researcher II Henrieta Anișoara Șerban, PhD
Institute of Political Science and International
Relations, „Ion I. C. Brătianu” (ISPRI)
Bucharest, the 12th of October, 2019