From one extreme to another?


Liquid                      -                    Solid
Progressive              -                    Conservative
Chaos                       -                    Order
Surface                     -                    Depth
Unlimited                 -                    Limited
Sky                           -                    Ground


In 1958 I wrote the following:

'There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.'

I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. 

As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?

[Harold Pinter]
Nobel Lecture, 'Art, Truth & Politics'


In this post I talked about the idea of exclusion, and made the case that exclusion is inherent in creation. In other words, whenever a thing comes into being (be it an physical object, or a mental construct), it does so by not being all of the other things it could have been. From a chaotic multitude, certain characteristics are selected and this collection of elements constitutes the thing in question. An order, or direction, is imposed.

You are tall and not short; you like quiet places rather than busy ones; you are Left and not Right: creation is a process of narrowing down; from all possibilities, to these ones.

All structures are made from constituent parts; including and bonding separate elements into something greater (if it is a healthy structure it will be coherent, i.e. its parts will follow a common set of instructions; if it is unhealthy, it will be incoherent). In this sense, structure is also synonymous with ‘story,’ ‘category,’ ‘group,’ ‘identity,’ and so on. Any ‘thing’ that you can think of will be composed of other ‘things’. Any ‘thing’ has borders, and defends its borders. A borderless ‘thing’ is no ‘thing’ at all.

From this it follows that any structure, by its nature, is exclusive; that exclusion is a vital element in how we build structures. A thing is this thing because it is not every other thing. You are who you are because of your preferences, the things that you say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to; that you include and exclude.

However, exclusion is not a fashionable word these days, which is one of the reasons why I feel it important to assert its value. It is a vital part of a balance, and as such has a crucial role to play in how we apprehend the world.

Postmodern culture - that is, the culture that more or less predominates at the minute - arose in part as a reaction to too much structure. It is accordingly characterised by the urge to break structure down, and was crystallised in the philosophy known as post-structuralism, espoused by the likes of Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze (if you look at the binary at the top of this page, then postmodernism is characterised by those words on the left hand side).

At its heart, postmodernism is opposed to any form of categorization (i.e. structure-building) because categorizing excludes, limits, and separates. Its god is Hermes, the shapeshifter; he who dances from here to there but never stays put; never puts down roots. Like quicksilver, he refuses form, and eludes all categories.

Postmodernism started life as a reactionary movement; a tugging on the pendulum of culture, a pendulum that had swung, in the eyes of many, too far in one direction. But like any reactionary movement, it was inherently imbalanced. In order to counteract the prevailing trends of the day it took an oppositional stance: inasmuch as white was the shade of the establishment, it clothed itself entirely in black.

And this is the crucial point. By defining itself in opposition to what had gone before it threw the baby out with the bathwater. A balanced approach would have been to combine the best of black, and the best of white; to have recognised that to deny either is pathological; and to have made gray the shade-de-jour. Yes, the pendulum must always swing, but it needn’t go to  extremes. Swinging from one extreme to another is the characteristic pattern of the manic-depressive; and as most manic-depressives would attest, it may be fun from time to time (jet-black and snow-white are much sexier than shades of gray), but it is also unsustainable and destructive. If a healthy society is truly what we desire then we must seek homeostasis, the temperate middle path.

The postmodernist mindset fell in love with one side of the opposition - became enamoured with black - and pushed the other side into the darkness. It placed emphasis on those concepts that were associated with a lack of structure - ‘fluidity,’ ‘inclusion,’ ‘relativism’ - whilst devaluing those associated with structure - ‘solidity,’ ‘exclusion,’ ‘absolutism.’ In other words, it repressed a whole section of human experience.

In consciously denying these elements it condemned itself to unconsciously enact them: witness, for instance, its moral absolutism, or its exclusion in the name of inclusion ('no-platforming,' 'safe-spaces'). Repressed elements will always find a way to the surface, generally emerging as symptoms, or pathology; as blind spots, or sore spots. Accordingly, our cultural landscape is becoming increasingly pathologized. Disturbing data points are cropping up all over the place; chattering, doubting voices assail the postmodern psyche. A split is occurring.

How the prevailing order deals with these symptoms is of crucial importance to us all. We are facing another pendulum shift, and the critical question is whether we will once again swing into another imbalance; whether we will heed the lessons of our time, or whether we will again, in our disgust at the current way of things, attempt to repress one side of the balance in favour of the other.

I'm writing this as a reminder to myself as much as anyone else, because at times like this it is always tempting to vilify the old and make heroes of the new; to raise the qualities of the incoming order whilst denouncing those of the outgoing. But in vilifying one side of the balance we also make a villain of the corresponding aspect of ourselves. Collective repression goes hand in hand with individual repression. As a result we're unable to see that the villain isn't really a villain at all; that, as unfashionable as he may now be, he still has many positive qualities, and many important things to share.

It is vital that we retain the positive aspects of postmodernism, and do not, in our haste to distance ourselves from it, reject it outright. 

This would be an immature reaction, a knee-jerk venting of pent-up emotion. Whilst it may have gone too far, it was not all in vain. Nor is it now irrelevant. And its proponents are not, for the most part, villains.

It has been said that evolution works by transcending and including. If we are to evolve then we must find a way to include what came before and to integrate it into something greater, rather than seeking to erase it from our memory.

It is becoming ever more clear that we must begin to allow to the surface those things that postmodernism has held under for so long. We must begin to accept the importance of structure, and all of its analogs (limits, exclusion, solidity, fixity). But in doing so we must resist the temptation to make virtues of these elements at the expense of their counterparts.

After an excess of one thing, its opposite will always seem disproportionately appealing; but we must keep our heads; and keep our eyes on both sides of the balance.


Unfortunately, we are somewhat unpracticed in polytheism. We don’t know how to acknowledge all the squabbling gods together. When one god lets us down we tend to redirect all our worship to another.

Yet swapping the groundlessness of our Hermes-pathology for the fundamentalism of a Senex-Pathology is no solution to our problems. Far better to learn from Hermes that all the gods are to be worshipped.

A polytheistic Hermes consciousness is something we desperately need. It is a necessary protection against the oppression of new and old orthodoxies.

The development of a Hermes consciousness in this century provided a long awaited relief from the domination of Apollo and Prometheus. The Enlightenment invited humankind to see the world clearly for the first time. The technological revolution invited us to break free from the domination of the gods and gain control of our world. If Hermes asserts anything, it is that we must honour all the gods equally, and allow soul back into the world.

It is consistent with Jungian theory to argue that it is the suppression of Hermes for so long which has led to this outbreak of the negative Hermes, and the best way of dealing with this is to acknowledge and value the positive manifestations of the god: imagination, flexibility, intuition, the sense of the sacred, playfulness, irony, delight in paradox, grace, heterogeneity, complexity, healing, transformation.

[Bernie Neville]
‘The Charm of Hermes: Hillman, Leotard, and the Postmodern Condition’, Journal of Analytical Psychology (1992), p. 351-2


Related posts:-
Land and Sea
Life Amongst the Rubble
The Perils of Radical Subjectivity 
Forever Becoming
The Real Thing
Walk a Straight Line 

The Dance of Hermes


Thank you for your podcast. I enjoyed listening to you describe your processes, even though they were just small snapshots. I think the ways by which artists arrive at their art is as interesting as the art itself.

Your thoughts represent for me a way of thinking, indicative of the intellectual Left that confuses me to no end. They embrace Continental philosophy and all its post-modern approaches to epistemology; they'll argue that the almost impenetrable obfuscation and equivocation inherent to the ideas of Derrida, Lacan, et al. are in actuality where its complexity of thought and meaning reside, for truth only exists as a reflection of the context of the time and space (and the culture therein) of its conception...

... but where politics is concerned, Rationalism and Empiricism are suddenly redeemed. Out goes the post-modern ambiguity of truth and meaning, out goes Relativism. In comes the arguments that there is most definitely a proper and scientific way of structuring society, and people would realise this universal objectivity if they were just educated enough [...]

Getting somewhat back to the idea of themes for this album rather than discussing politics in general - I'm a fan of your techniques and you incorporation of stylistically Japanese elements to your music, but I'm disappointed that as a resident of Japan you've restricted your perspective to the west and its politics. Shinzo Abe, having just won the upper house elections, is pushing to rewrite Japan's pacifist constitution. What's happening in Japan?

And even if you're too disconnected from Japanese society, because of the language barrier, to have a proper perspective, I'd expect Japan to be a richer source of thematic inspiration for you. You seem to utterly loath England's (as you see it) insular, xenophobic, inward looking spirit. But you've moved to a country arguably even more insular, xenophobic and inward looking, and which was made (arguably) culturally richer for it through the retention of its traditions and unique character -- from the geographical separation being an island provides, to Sakoku of the medieval period, to modern Japan that has fewer foreigners than any other developed country in the globalised first world. How do you reconcile that and explain it to yourself? Do you not see the cognitive dissonance? Do you not see maybe the benefits of being Sakoku?

I might be wasting my time with this line of enquiry because I'm half expecting a thoroughly glib retort of "Whites doing it = bad, foreigners doing it = good". Either way, I'm enjoying your album, despite (and maybe because of) my finding its themes somewhat depressing and ugly at times.

Momus > Heigardt

It's interesting to have some critical points raised, reminds me of the old blogging days. I'll try not to be glib, but I'm sure I'll inevitably leave you dissatisfied.

Basically, opinions (including my own) interest me a lot less these days, particularly when they're supposed to be rational and consistent, part of a large logical worldview which all ties up and is all moral and neat and good. The game of saying that someone is "hypocritical" seems a particularly sterile one: people are living paradoxes, they express vacillating and contradictory points of view, or emotions, or ideas; they're dialectical, the way I describe my songwriting as being (one day's work correcting the perceived flaws of the previous day's work).

This is what interests me these days. I would feel silly singing about the pacifist constitution in Japan. I feel it's not my job, as a precarian "permanent tourist" here, to do that. I do appreciate the ironies (my preferred term) of the lack of immigration here. And actually, when I do encounter enclaves of immigrants in Japan, I like and am drawn to them (except, yes, you guessed it, enclaves of white Westerners here), the same way I am in Europe. But there's certainly something to be said for Sakoku also, in preserving a system of cultural differences.

You seem to expect me to be logical: I would rather say I'm psychoanalytical. Psychoanalysis is good at seeing contradictions as something we live through and live out, something foundational and inherent in us, something basic to our humanity. I find that a lot more interesting than taking the line that it's hypocrisy or a logical flaw in one's worldview. To be human is to play out a series of paradoxes and contradictions (desire, sublimation, guilt, anger, frustration, desire again), and to make art is to turn that into a theatre of personae. You cannot make art with a neat, consistent, watertight worldview. Well, you can, but it's going to be bloody boring art.

Leigh > Momus

Here’s a story:
I’ve found you tremendously frustrating over the years, and yet, in spite of myself, tremendously interesting. I think of you as Peter Pan; your eyes are unusually youthful; as if you’ve studiously avoided something your whole life, something that, to most people, is important. These other people get lines and wrinkles from this thing that they think is important; it ties them to the earth and they get bogged down, become like trees, all weathered and worn and static.

The spirit of Hermes is in you Momus; you’re quicksilver, dancing from here to there and never staying put. You seem to refuse form, and all of its analogs: commitment, devotion, and so on. And yet, you are devoted, or so it seems, to art. A paradox.

People think they have you pinned down, they call you a hypocrite, but you slip out from under, greased and nimble. You thought I was that, but I never was; never am; never will be. As soon as you pin me down I will shape shift, become something else. Even age can’t catch you.

Cognitive dissonance is no problem, because it assumes consistency, shape, form. Cognitive dissonance doesn’t trouble old Hermes, his merry dance leaves it standing. Hypocrisy likewise. Sterility is what happens when things stand still, when the sediments gather. Yours never do.

People are living paradoxes; people are everything and nothing. But some, in becoming a ‘person,’ feel it important to dig a flagpole into the ground and say ‘here,’ ‘this,’ ‘now.’ They repress, ignore, cut-off and pare-down; and this is part of the sacrifice they make. Some go too far, and believe in the fiction that they’e created. Some are able to see through it; I’ve built this castle, but its made of sand. And some never build a structure at all; they dance around other people’s … oh, but what a lovely dance it is … ; )

Momus > Leigh

Thank you, that was delightful! So much more substantive than a social media "like".

I do appreciate people who can think and write and know their psychoanalysis and their Greek myths, especially when they're defending my cognitive dissonance with such admirable... cognitive consonance!

(By the way, I posted this having checked the box that says "I'd rather post as a guest". On my own blog! I think that rather confirms what you're saying.

Comments from this blogpost on MrsTsk

Connotations proliferate like a cancer and at every step the previous sign is forgotten, obliterated, since the pleasure of the [Hermetic] drift is given by the shifting from sign to sign and there is no purpose outside the enjoyment of travel through the labyrinth of signs or of things.

[Umberto Eco]
The Limits of Interpretation, p. 31

The romantic withdraws from reality. He does this ironically, however, and in a spirit of intrigue.

Irony and intrigue do not constitute the state of mind of a person in flight, but rather the activity of a person who, instead of creating new realities, plays one reality off against another in order to paralyse the reality that is actually present and limited.

He ironically avoids the constraints of objectivity and guards himself against becoming committed to anything. The reservation of all infinite possibilities lies in irony. In this way he preserves his own inner, genial freedom, which consists in not giving up any possibility.

He regards being taken seriously as a violation because he does not want the actual present confused with his infinite freedom.

Irony is not, however, supposed to destroy reality. On the contrary, retaining the quality of real being, it is supposed to make reality available to the subject as an expedient and make it possible for him to avoid any definitive position.

[Carl Schmitt]
Political Romanticism, p. 71-3

It is inherent in romanticism that it perhaps claims to be incomprehensible and more than human words can intimate. 

This need not mislead us, for in general the logical tactics of its claim are thoroughly wretched. We need only take note of the way the romantic attempts to define everything in terms of himself and avoids every definition of himself in terms of something else. 

It is romantic to identify myself with everything, and yet not permit anyone to identify me with the romantic.

[Carl Schmitt]
Political Romanticism, p. 7


We should not overlook, however, the point that for the romantic subject every form of art that is used was also merely an occasion, just like every concrete point of reality, which served as a point of departure for the romantic interest.

The mood of the subject was the focal point of this kind of productivity. It remained both the terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem, regardless of whether a lyrical poem, literary criticism, or a philosophical argument was at stake. 

The object was always nothing more than an occasion.

In this state, it is by no means the case that the external world is negated. Every concrete point of the external world can be the “elastic point”: in other words, the beginning of the romantic novel, the occasio for the adventure, the point of departure for the fanciful game.

Thus the "sensuous coloration" of the romantic, in opposition to the mystic. The romantic, who has no interest in really changing the world, regards it as good if it does not disturb him in his illusion. Irony and intrigue provide him with enough weapons to secure his subjectivistic autarchy and to hold out in the domain of the occasional.

[Carl Schmitt]
Political Romanticism, p. 97-8 

Related posts:-

Order / Chaos

Order                         -                      Chaos
Life                           -                      Death
Known                      -                      Unknown
Permanence              -                      Change
Masculine                 -                      Feminine
Collective                  -                      Individual
Authoritarian             -                      Libertarian 

Within any structure there must be those elements that are mainly interested in order, those elements that are mainly interested in chaos, and those elements that are in-between; that are at times interested in order and at other times interested in chaos.

This arrangement represents a universal balance of opposites. Both order and chaos are vital for the health of any structure, and an imbalance in favour of either can be classed as unhealthy and potentially life-threatening.

Order is characterised by the coming-together of separate elements. We order the world by conceptualising what we experience, which is another way of saying that we take separate and unrelated experiences and create connections between them, creating a new unit from those formerly separate elements.

Chaos is characterised by a flow in the opposite direction, by the separation of enjoined elements. Whenever we break something apart we are moving towards chaos.

We can see an example of this arrangement in the structure of the atom: the electrons are interested in chaos, the protons in order, and the neutrons mediate between the two.

In this sense, those within a society who push towards individualism are swinging the pendulum towards chaos; and those who push towards collectivism are swinging it towards order.

Neither direction is inherently better than the other, rather they form a dialectic; which is another way of saying that they are always in conversation with one another. The health of the structure depends on this conversation, upon each side having a say.

When it comes to a society we call those who are mainly interested in order 'authoritarians' (amongst other things) and those who are mainly interested in chaos 'libertarians' (amongst other things). The authoritarian impulse is to move towards a single point of power. If we picture a pyramid, then the authoritarian favours the top, the capstone, and favours a movement up towards it. The libertarian impulse, on the other hand, is to move towards multiple points of power, which is a move down the pyramid towards the many blocks that form its lower layers.

In this sense the authoritarian impulse is synonymous with idealism, or abstraction. The idealist is also interested in the upward movement towards something singular and all-encompassing, and the ultimate aim of idealism is a concept that can encapsulate everything. Again, abstraction can be visualised as the journey up a pyramid, from the multiple concepts that form its bottom layers, to the all-seeing totality of the capstone. One of the drawbacks of idealism is that its process takes us further and further from 'reality,' from the raw data of the ground-level. The idealist is always in danger of losing touch with 'the real world,' in floating off into abstractions.

The libertarian impulse is synonymous with empiricism, a move towards raw non-conceptualised experience. The empiricist is interested in the move down the pyramid, preferring the specifics of parts to the generality of wholes. One of the drawbacks of empiricism is that as it moves ever closer to reality it loses the ability to make sense of that reality. The empiricist is always in danger of drowning in the chaos of experience.

The libertarian impulse has as its goal a state of anarchy in which there are no social norms, and is in this sense a hetrogenising influence, preferring diversity over similarity.

The authoritarian impulse has as its goal a strict all-inclusive ideology to which all must conform, and is in this sense a homogenising influence, preferring similarity over diversity.

I remember a long while back I read a paper on why human beings have two hemispheres […] roughly speaking, the left/linguistic hemisphere attempts to impose predictable structure on the world, simplifying it.

Its not exactly an ideological simplification, its more like a practical simplification, because the world is so complex that unless you chunk it into categories it overwhelms you. So you have to chunk it into categories. And those categories aren’t exactly descriptions of things or objects, they’re more like tools for operating in the world.

And then the right hemisphere keeps track of anomalies and exceptions, and tries to build those slowly into the category system so that it doesn’t blow the category system […]

There was an example of this that a researcher named Goldberg offered. He’d trained a neural network to recognise images of fish, and the same […] network to recognise images of birds. But when he showed it a Penguin it blew the category structure, so that all fish became birds and all birds became fish.

Now, the postmodernists like Derrida claim that category structures were primarily tools of power and oppression - which to me is an absurd claim, because that’s not their primary use, even though that may be one of their consequences, and one of their occasional uses. And he became very very concerned about who the category systems marginalised, and what the consequence was of that for them.

[…] Its a really fundamental problem, that categories exclude; but then of you include the excluded in the category then you blow the category structure […] this is partly why right-wing Christians were so opposed to homosexual marriage.

What’s happening very rapidly is, because the binary category has been violated you get an explosion of chaotic identities. So its gone from two, to […] three, to […] thirty one in New York, and seventy online; and then there’s this additional explosion which is being promoted by people, who aren’t concerned with the category of gender identity but with other categories like human vs non-human identity.

[…] its a really interesting example of how binary categories maintain order, and if you violate them to include those who are excluded what you produce is an up-swelling of unmanageable chaos.

[Jordan B. Peterson ]
'I discuss chaos and order with Theryn Meyer, reasonable transperson'

The situation of homosexually inclined males in Yucatan is much different from that of members of the urban gay subculture of the United States. Because homoeroticism is much more diffuse in the society, there are not separate subcultural institutions for homosexuals.

[…] We can question whether a separated gay subculture, a minority lifestyle built around sexual preferences, is more preferable to integration of gender variance and same-sex eroticism into the general family structure and the mainstream society. We can use the American Indian concept of spirituality to break out of the deviancy model, to reunite families, and to offer special benefits to society as a whole.

[Walter L. Williams]
The Spirit and the Flesh, p. 143, 275

[...] authoritarianism is not a stable personality trait. It is rather a psychological predisposition to become intolerant when the person perceives a certain kind of threat.

It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group, kicking out foreigners and non-conformists, and stamping out dissent within the group. At those times they are more attracted to strongmen and the use of force.

What pushes that button is a] “normative threat,” which basically means a threat to the integrity of the moral order (as they perceive it). It is the perception that “we” are coming apart [...]

"The experience or perception of disobedience to group authorities or authorities unworthy of respect, nonconformity to group norms or norms proving questionable, lack of consensus in group values and beliefs and, in general, diversity and freedom ‘run amok’ should activate the predisposition and increase the manifestation of these characteristic attitudes and behaviors."

[...] authoritarians are not being selfish [...] They are trying to protect their group or society.

"[T]he increasing license allowed by [...] evolving cultures generates the very conditions guaranteed to goad latent authoritarians to sudden and intense, perhaps violent, and almost certainly unexpected, expressions of intolerance."

[...] whenever a country has historically high levels of immigration, from countries with very different moralities, and without a strong and successful assimilationist program, it is virtually certain that there will be an authoritarian counter-reaction, and you can expect many status quo conservatives to support it.

"Ultimately, nothing inspires greater tolerance from the intolerant than an abundance of common and unifying beliefs, practices, rituals, institutions, and processes. And regrettably, nothing is more certain to provoke increased expression of their latent predispositions than the likes of “multicultural education,” bilingual policies, and nonassimilation."

[Jonathan Haidt, and Karen Stenner (in quotations)]
'When and Why Nationalism Beats Globalism'

Many of my clients think that if they set any boundaries for their dogs, they automatically become the bad guy. That's certainly the problem John Grogan and Jenny Vogt had. Without discipline they could not accomplish respect. They could not give Marley the rules, boundaries and limitations he needed in order to live a more peaceful life. He ended up full of [...] instability.

By giving a dog rules, boundaries, and limitations, you don't "kill his spirit." You just give him the structure he needs in his life in order to find peace and allow his true dog self to emerge.

[Cesar Millan]
Be the Pack Leader, p. 39

Pribram and McTaggart [...] contrast “entropy” (as the movement of the inanimate world – which is towards chaos and disorder), with the coherence of consciousness which creates order.

This view is to some extent supported by Braud’s examination of interpersonal connection.

Braud (MacTaggart, 2003, p. 180) has indicated that human interaction results in the synchronisation of brainwave patterns, and that the person with the most cohesive pattern has the greatest influence on the EEG patterns of others.

[Maretha Prinsloo]
'Consciousness Models in Action: Comparisons'

The strongest and most evil spirits have so far done the most to advance humanity: again and again they relumed the passions that were going to sleep - all ordered society puts the passions to sleep - and they reawakened again and again the sense of comparison, of contradiction, of the pleasure in what is new, daring, untried; they compelled men to pit opinion against opinion, model against model. 

Usually by force of arms, by toppling boundary markers, by violating pieties—but also by means of new religions and moralities. In every teacher and preacher of what is new we encounter the same "wickedness" that makes conquerors notorious, even if its expression is subtler and it does not immediately set the muscles in motion, and therefore also does not make one that notorious. 

What is new, however, is always evil, being that which wants to conquer and overthrow the old boundary markers and the old pieties; and only what is old is good. 

The good men are in all ages those who dig the old thoughts, digging deep and getting them to bear fruit—the farmers of the spirit. But eventually all land is exploited, and the ploughshare of evil must come again and again.

Nowadays there is a profoundly erroneous moral doctrine that is celebrated especially in England: this holds that judgments of "good" and "evil” sum up experiences of what is "expedient" and "inexpedient.” One holds that what is called good preserves the species, while what is called evil harms the species. In truth, however, the evil instincts are expedient, species-preserving, and indispensable to as high a degree as the good ones; their function is merely different.

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
The Gay Science, 4

[…] any organisation has to strive continuously for the orderliness of order and the disorderliness of creative freedom. And the specific danger inherent in large-scale organisation is that its natural bias and tendency favour order, at the expense of creative freedom.

We can associate many further pairs of opposites with this basic pair of order and freedom. Centralisation is mainly an idea of order; decentralisation, one of freedom. The man of order is typically the accountant and, generally, the administrator; while the man of creative freedom is the entrepreneur. Order requires intelligence and is conducive to efficiency; while freedom calls for, and opens the door to, intuition and leads to innovation.

[E.F. Schumacher]
Small is Beautiful, p. 203



Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin …

We’re all constantly telling stories; from personal mythology, to collective folklore. They are the way in which we breathe meaning into things. They bring sense, and direction. They guide us, tell us which steps to take, and when. Sometimes we update them, or rewrite them. Sometimes we scrap them and start anew.

A story is akin to a constellation, something that brings together what was separate; from atoms, to planets, to human beings. Stories are what bind us; they get us moving in the same direction; promote cohesion, and harmony. ‘Tribe’ is another way of saying ‘a shared story.’ When a story is shared it becomes a truth, at least among those who share it. But what was yesterday considered a truth, may today be considered a delusion.

In times gone by a collective story - a story of the people - would be commonplace. The stronger this story - the greater its reach and influence - the stronger was the collective. A shared story is a place in which to live, offering shelter from the whirling confusion and maddening incoherence of the outside world. Of course, in erecting walls it also places limits; and those societies with the strongest stories also have the firmest boundaries.

Without a shared story, a group is no more than a collection of individuals. In an environment like this, individual stories take precedent. No longer bound by the imperatives of the group, each individual is free to move in whatever direction they wish, and the synchronised choreography of the collective gives way to the freeform improvisation of the individual.

Society is, then, a collection of stories; from personal fiction to collective folklore. Whilst our modern societies are increasingly individualistic, the individual story has not gained total precedent. As long as we wish to be more than isolated units, then we will always need stories to bind us. 

However, the kind of overarching fiction that defined traditional collectives doesn’t seem to be so common today, due perhaps in part to the scale and diversity of our societies. Whereas once an entire society would have been bound by a single fiction, this unity has since fractured. Yet, whilst ‘grand narratives’ may not be fashionable, we still have our various tribes: from those that believe in the stories of holy books, to those that believe in the stories of science books.

We may, then, have our short stories; but we’re certainly no longer all on the same page. This lack of a common story has created a vacuum in which new stories compete for dominion. One tribe claims it has the story, whilst another rubbishes its claims and offers its gospel. There is also a growing chorus of individual voices, each offering their own interpretation on how things are, and what we should believe. This blog is one example among many.

From scientific theorists, to religious theorists; from pulpit to blog post; from expert to amateur: stories abound. Our age faces us with a confusion of tales to choose from. How, then, do we do our choosing?

From canon to conspiracy

In the diagram opposite I’ve pictured a society as a series of concentric circles, the largest of which define its boundaries. To transcend this boundary is to step outside of the society. 

The inner circles represent the differing voices within the society, or the differing stories advocated by these voices. I’ve offered real life examples of the kind of voices that you could be exposed to within my own society, here in England. I offer these examples based on the kind of things these voices generally say, which isn’t to say that they are forever anchored at certain points on the spectrum. David Icke’s trajectory attests to this.

At the centre we have voices that seem to be widely accepted. They espouse ‘mainstream’ stories and are exemplified by the Prime Minister who, being the focal point of officialdom, is an arbiter of official truths. If, for instance, the Prime Minister were to suddenly veer off-piste and start spouting ‘conspiracy theories’ then this could lead to one of two things: either the Prime Minister would be ousted from their role, or; the conspiracy theories would be accepted as mainstream truths. Because the role itself does not allow a condoning of fringe fiction, either the stories must move inwards, or the person move outwards.

As we move further out the voices become less mainstream and more contentious; bringing us to the niche stories of the ‘lunatic fringe,’ as exemplified by the likes of David Icke. One of the many reasons that David Icke could not be Prime Minister is because he holds beliefs that are entirely incompatible with the current set of accepted core truths.

From centre to outskirts

In all things there is a pull towards dissolution, and an opposite pull towards unification. This tug of war is everywhere, at all scales; from a society, to the bodies that make up that society, to the cells that make up those bodies. It is the interchange between life and death.

We can describe a society, much like the nucleus of an atom, as a centre of attraction; which is another way of saying a centre of life. To be part of a society is to be within its field of attraction. So whilst those near the outside may appear to be opposed to many of the central truths of the society, it still exerts a pull upon them, albeit a comparatively weak one. They have not left the society, and are still a part of it, if only minimally.

The centre of a society is where its attraction is at its strongest. It is the area of greatest overlap and, therefore, of greatest consensus; and is where its accepted truths reside. These are popular fictions, hardened into granite-like truths through endless repetition. They're generally regarded as self-evident, and so are rarely questioned. They are deeply rooted and not easily displaced.

The further we move from the core, the weaker its pull becomes. Those voices at its centre are less diverse because its core truths - those fundamental stories that bind it - are exerting more of an influence. As with our example of the Prime Minister, voices must align with these truths or move further out. You cannot, generally speaking, be a mainstream voice whilst rejecting mainstream truths; or at least, not insofar as you pose a threat to the status quo.

Like any centre of life, be it a galaxy, a planet, or a human being, a society exists by preserving its core fictions. For instance, an important part of the story of ‘liberal democracies’ is that every person within that society ought to be granted free speech. Another is the belief that democracy is the best system of governance. If these fictions were ousted by counter-fictions, then the society would cease to exist (in its current form at least) morphing into something else instead. It is fictions such as these that separate liberal democracies from, say, illiberal autocracies.

Consider your own personal fictions, those strands that thread together to make you who you are. Which of these, and how many, would have to change before you became someone you no longer recognised?

A society is, therefore, most conservative at its centre. If we see a society as a point of life, attracting things toward it, then its core is the focal point of this attraction; the point that pulls towards unification, and life. And life is, essentially, a conservative process, a combining of things.

Those that reside nearest the centre will, then, tend to be more interested in preserving and defending its core truths. As I’ve mentioned, these voices tend to be more homogenous because they ‘tow the company line’ and are less interested in questioning collective assumptions or exploring alternatives. It is, after all, not in their job description. Every collective - every structure - needs those individuals that guard its premises and work to keep it structurally sound, and these people fulfil that role. They are its antibodies, working to conserve the status quo.

Icke himself refers to this area as the ‘postage stamp consensus’ alluding to its narrow range of voices. However, having polarised himself at the fringes - having cast his anchor at a certain location - he views things in a rather one-sided way. In choosing a side he is unable to transcend the binary itself and see the value of both sides. When he talks of his opposite, of the central area of society, he uses embattled language. He does not talk of its value, or even seem to recognise that it has a value. In this he mirrors the way that the centre tends to talk about people like him, on the fringes.

The further we move from the centre of attraction the weaker its pull becomes, and the less influence its core truths have upon people. This leads to a greater diversity of voices, especially around the fringes. This is the place that entertains heretics and blasphemers, iconoclasts and dissenters. Core truths are handled roughly, without reverence; are tested to the point of failure. Once their shells are cracked their fictional nature is exposed. What was once objective and beyond question, becomes subjective and questionable.

If the core is the conscious mind of a society, then the fringes are its unconscious. As with our own unconscious, the outer limits breed alternatives to the status quo; and whilst they can pose a threat to the prevailing order, they also serve as a source of rejuvenation and creativity. After all, many of a societies core truths will have started life in the shadows of the lunatic fringe (let us not forget that at one point the world was flat). Destruction and creation go hand in hand; the fringe threatens the centre - unconscious threatens ego - but also balances it. One could not exist without the other - although in truth, both are part of the same process.

In my diagram I’ve marked out five concentric circles, illustrating a relatively diverse range of voices; from the very conservative to the very dissentious; a diversity that seems to show a large degree of permissiveness - when it comes to speech at least. Indeed, I think that my society, as with other Western democracies, can be characterised by its lack of boundaries; it does not erect the kind of towering perimeter walls that we see when we look at other, less permissive, cultures.

Its worth bearing in mind that we’re talking about freedom of speech, not freedom of action. When it comes to action, we are certainly much more limited. As Gene Ray reminds us, “one may question the bourgeois paradigm, only not in any way that is effective or has results; one may play with the symbols of radical politics, but one must not act on them; anyone can say the emperor has no clothes or even scream it within the closed walls of a gallery, but no one may cut off his head.”

So more freedom means more diversity. If there are no walls to stop them, frontiersman will always be tempted to explore new territory. It is in their nature to pull away; to look for alternatives. In this they are analogous to the process of genetic mutation, allowing an organism to change and evolve in response to environmental demands. They maintain a critical amount of diversity, offering fresh insights when they are needed (and when they aren’t). They are the hand that stirs the sediments; the oil that prevents parts from seizing. If evolution is important to a society then it must allow its fringes to flourish; it must allow an area in which alternatives can be proposed. The fact that voices such as David Icke’s are permitted could be seen as a sign that our society currently allows this area, to some extent at least.

It’s worth noting that not all societies value the idea of evolution in the way that ours does, and accordingly these collectives tend not to allow the kind of permissiveness that characterises ours. For example, orthodox religious communities - such as the Amish - erect tall walls around their culture; and patrol these perimeters vigilantly.

If I were to draw my circular diagram for an Amish society, then it would likely consist of only one or two circles, as opposed to five. Theirs is a restrictive environment, in which certain things must not be said, as well as done. Yet, whilst I, peering in from a distance, may characterise it as restrictive, those on the inside will no doubt feel differently. Walls may confine, but they also protect. The Amish have managed to maintain a strong cultural identity in the face of powerful outside influences; due, in no small part, to their strong boundaries.

A chief concern of communities like these - and that faces any organism with a relatively narrow range of voices - is how to prevent stagnation. So whilst permissive societies must always guard against dissolution, restrictive societies must likewise guard against petrifaction.

Seeing through

I think that there are ‘truths’ at all levels, from the core to the fringes, and that whilst they may seem contradictory, each is vital to the other as part of a larger balance. Inasmuch as both central and fringe voices are crucial to this balance, then neither ought to be dismissed out of hand. Truths contradict; fictions do not.

I recognise that most of the things that I am talking about are very simple, and perhaps very obvious. I think that this conversation is important, not because it is original or revelatory, rather that it brings to mind a simple truth; one that, in an age of partisan polemic, of mass projection and scapegoating, we are apt to forget: that there is no ‘other’ out there, only parts of ourselves that we don’t yet know.

Carl Jung proposed that a whole and balanced individual is someone who is able to transcend a one-sided perspective and to see value in both sides of an opposition. In order to do this we must become multilingual, gaining an understanding of languages other than our own.

We see that the spectrum of voices is not only out there, but is also in here; and that to countenance ‘other’ voices, strange voices, is to shine light on our own dark recesses: a process that naturally leads to an enlargement of the self. Indeed, the word ‘development’ forms close kinship with words like ‘enlargement’ and ‘growth’, and is often associated with the image of ever increasing circles, or a radiating spiral. Returning to our diagram, it may be that a whole and balanced individual is one who is open to voices from all five circles, from the centre to the fringes - the conscious to the unconsious - and who is able to up anchor and voyage between them when necessary.

Jung described this enlargement as ‘individuation,’ a process of making the unconscious conscious. It is like fishing in a vast dark sea and dragging strange and sometimes horrible things to the surface. Instead of casting them back into the depths - away! be gone! - our task is to bring them closer, and accept that these things are our things. It is making the foreign, familiar; the blind spot a seen spot.

The more things we bring to the surface, the less repulsed we will be when we see them in others. If we can, for instance, find that part of ourselves that is open to outlandish theories then we will be more amenable to the likes of David Icke. We needn’t believe in his theories, but we also needn’t reject them out of hand, or condemn him for holding them.

Jung once went as far as to propose that the way to world peace was through this process of finding the other within the self. However, he also inferred that individuation isn’t for everyone; that for some it may be neither possible, nor appropriate. It may be that some of us must believe that the world is ‘real’ and not ‘fictional’; that stories are stories and truths are truths; that the game is a matter of life and death, and not just a game. It may be important that there are those of us who believe in the superiority of red, and ignore the virtues of blue; or vice versa.

But if this is the case, then it is equally important that there are those of us who can mediate this divide, by seeing through things to their relative, fictional nature. It is important that there are those who can listen to a wide range of voices within a society; who can fish their stories from the narrow banks of the mainstream, or the wide expanse of the lunatic sea. Lines of communication between opposing parties must always remain open, and emissaries must carry messages between them; lest they get it into their heads that the opposition really is evil and must, therefore, be wiped out.

Inasmuch as we live in an age of bitter antithesis, of diversity and fracturing, in which the stories that bind us are breaking down, or are already long gone, and in which new fault-lines appear daily; then the ability to see-through, and synergize, is vital.


Psychologically speaking, so long as conscious and unconscious are enemies, the ego experiences itself in constant danger of death.

Once they are in harmony the ego experiences itself open and supported by the maternal matrix of love.

[Marion Woodman]
Addiction to Perfection, p. 42


Part of what’s happening in the United States is an increasing conflict between people of different temperaments and we don’t really understand how to mediate between that anymore.

Those that are on the tolerant end of the political distribution tend to think of those who are their opposites as intolerant. But they’re not necessarily intolerant, they’re also justice seeking; and justice is one of the hands, according to Jung, that God uses to keep the world in balance.

Its a very rough situation in the political realm when either side of a temperamental distribution make the a priori proposition that their particular temperament stands for the only virtues that are dominant and ceases to talk to the other side.

One way across that divide is for each of us, depending on our particular political stance and perhaps our inbuilt biological temperament, to note very carefully that just because we think that the way we view the world is virtuous doesn’t mean it isn’t with its attendant vice, and it also doesn’t mean that all the vice that we don’t have stacks up on the other side of the political distribution.

Even in those moments where you think that you’re at your best and proclaiming virtues that you think are universal you may have a blind spot that makes it impossible to talk to people who don’t think the same way you do, and then you might frighten yourself after that realisation by coming to understand that people that you can’t talk to you can only fight with. And thats a bad outcome.

[Jordan B. Peterson]
'Tolerance as a vice'


Related posts:-
Centre / Periphery
The Colour Wheel
Casting a Shadow
From Separation to Connection


Bureaucracy    -           Trust
Law                 -           Custom
Formal             -           Informal

When a thing reaches a certain size the bonds between its constituent parts begin to weaken. These bonds consist of the sorts of things that tie things - tie people - together; and imperative amongst them is 'trust.'

Because real trust does not function at larger scales, we must invent ways of simulating, or augmenting it. In much the same way that we augment the human eye with telescopes and microscopes in order to allow us to 'see' at non-human scales, we augment our human capacity for trust with bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy is, amongst other things, a formalised simulation of 'trust.' It substitutes trust engendered through familiarity, with 'certification' by means of 'testing.' For instance,  I do not need a criminal record check (known in this country as a DBS check) in order to be around the children of friends or relatives, but I do need one in order to work with children in my community.

In modern societies we are asked to experience ourselves as a part of an increasingly large collective. If we look at the diagram above, where once circle A would have defined the boundaries of our collective, now it is defined by D.

As the perimeters of our collectives widen, the need for simulated bonds increases. If human trust fails beyond the borders of A, then any level beyond this will require artificial trust. At these levels it is our red tape that binds us; and increasing levels of scale (i.e. complexity) require increasing amounts of red tape.

The fact that we often feel bogged down by red tape is a sign that we're operating at an unhealthy scale. I'm not saying that there are too many people, rather that the way we think of ourselves - and organize ourselves - is dysfunctional.

Inasmuch as we are imbalanced in favour of the large-scale, then our remedy must involve tipping the scales back toward the small-scale. In practical terms this involves, amongst other things, devolving power; splitting our over-grown structures into smaller pieces, and reducing the scale of things to a level in which artificial trust is manageable, and in which human trust can thrive.

How do you define a nation?

It is a land whose citizens, in their overwhelming majority, share a common culture, sense of identity, heritage and traditional roots.

[James Goldsmith]
The Trap, p.48

Although there is some debate among scientists, it seems clear that approximately 50,000 years ago our species existed in pretty much its fully formed version, complete with language and art [...] There hasn’t been much evolution—biologically, at least—in the intervening tens of thousands of years.

Our species likely evolved to adapt to an environment that was native to Africa all those many millennia ago. And this environment looked very different from today’s.

We evolved to live in small groups or tribes of perhaps 20 to 50 individuals. Many of these people, in fact, would have been related to us. Certainly, all of these people would have known each other.

[David B. Feldman]
Does Truth Still Exist, or Are There Just Alternative Facts?

[...] social capital refers to the broad levels of trust and efficacy in a community. Do people generally trust one another and help one another out? Do people feel an incentive to take care of commonly held resources (for example, to clean up graffiti in public parks)?

Most studies of social capital employ two simple meaures, namely, how many organizations people belong to and how people answer a question such as, "Do you think most people would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance?"

What [researchers] have shown is that at the levels of states, provinces, cities and neighbourhoods, low social capital predicts bad health, bad self-reported health and high mortality rates [...] high degrees of income inquality come with low levels of trust and support which increases stress and harms health.

[...] we have chosen to forgo the social capital that comes from small, stable communities in exchange for unprecedented opportunities for mobility and anonymity. As a result, all measures of social epidemiology are worsening in the U.S.

[Robert Sapolsky]
'Sick of Poverty'

A true city is not an encampment for transient visitors, nor a complex of motorways, nor an ephemeral agglomeration of living quarters. 

It is a long-standing human settlement, a community spanning generations, a complex social organization inspiring commitment and pride. Every architectural blight, every symptom of social breakdown, should pierce deep into the heart of its citizens and provoke a salutary reaction. 

Siena, in Italy, is perhaps the best example of a healthy city. That is why it has maintained social stability and a negligible incidence of crime.

[James Goldsmith]
The Trap, p. 78

We always need both freedom and order. 

We need the freedom of lots and lots of small, autonomous units, and, at the same time, the orderliness of large-scale, possibly global, unity and co-ordination. When it comes to action, we obviously need small units, because action is a highly personal affair, and one cannot be in touch with more than a very limited number of persons at any one time. But when it comes to the world of ideas, to principles or to ethics, to the indivisibility of peace and also of ecology, we need to recognise the unity of mankind and base our actions upon this recognition. 

What I wish to emphasise is the duality of the human requirement when it comes to the question of size: there is no single answer. 

For his different purposes man needs many different structures, both small ones and large ones, some exclusive and some comprehensive. Yet people find it most difficult to keep two seemingly opposite necessities of truth in their minds at the same time. They always tend to clamour for a final solution, as if in actual life there could ever be a final solution other than death.  

For constructive work, the principal task is always the restoration of some kind of balance. Today, we suffer from an almost universal idolatry of giantism. It is therefore necessary to insist on the virtues of smallness - where this applies. (If there were a prevailing idolatry of smallness, irrespective of subject or purpose, one would have to try and exercise influence in the opposite direction.)

[E.F. Schumacher]
Small is Beautiful, p. 53-4

Because self-rule was achieved only with difficulty - requiring an extensive habituation in virtue, particularly self-command and self-discipline over base but insistent appetites - the achievement of liberty required constraints upon individual choice.

This limitation was achieved not primarily by promulgated law—though law had its place—but through extensive social norms in the form of custom. This was so much the case that Thomas Aquinas regarded custom as a form of law, and often superior to formalized law, having the benefit of long-standing consent.

Liberalism reconceives liberty as the opposite of this older conception. It is understood to be the greatest possible freedom from external constraints, including customary norms. The only limitation on liberty, in this view, should be duly enacted laws consistent with maintaining order of otherwise unfettered individuals.

Liberalism thus disassembles a world of custom and replaces it with promulgated law.

Ironically, as behavior becomes unregulated in the social sphere, the state must be constantly enlarged through an expansion of lawmaking and regulatory activities. “The Empire of Liberty” expands apace with an ever-enlarging sphere of state control.

The expansion of liberalism rests upon a vicious and reinforcing cycle in which state expansion secures the end of individual fragmentation, in turn requiring further state expansion to control a society without shared norms, practices, or beliefs.  

Liberalism thus increasingly requires a legal and administrative regime, driven by the imperative of replacing all nonliberal forms of support for human flourishing (such as schools, medicine, and charity), and hollowing any deeply held sense of shared future or fate among the citizenry. Informal relationships are replaced by administrative directives, political policies, and legal mandates, undermining voluntary civic membership and requiring an ever-expanding state apparatus to ensure social cooperation.

A massive state architecture and a globalized economy, both created in the name of the liberation of the individual, combine to leave the individual powerless and overwhelmed by the very structures that were called into being in the name of her freedom.

[Patrick J. Deneen]
Why Liberalism Failed, p.xiii, xiv, 62-3

Related posts:-

Passed on


Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.
And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.

[Rainer Maria Rilke]
Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke


Parents should always be conscious of the fact that they themselves are the principal cause of neurosis in their children ...

What usually has the strongest psychic effect on the child is the life which the parents (and ancestors too, for we are dealing here with the age-old psychological phenomenon of original sin) have not lived. 

This statement would be rather too perfunctory and superficial if we did not add by way of qualification: that part of their lives which might have been lived had not certain somewhat threadbare excuses prevented the parents from doing so.

To put it bluntly, it is that part of life which they have always shirked, probably by means of a pious lie. That sows the most virulent germs.

[C. G. Jung]
The Development of Personality, CW 17, pars. 84, 87


April:  You don't want to go, do you?

Frank:  Come on, April. Of course I do.

April:  No, you don't. Because you've never tried at anything. And if you don't try at anything, you can't fail.

Frank:  What the hell do you mean I don't try? I support you, don't I? I pay for this house. I work 10 hours a day at a job I can't stand.

April:  You don't have to.

Frank:  Bullshit! Look, I'm not happy about it. But I have the backbone not to run away from my responsibilities.

April:  It takes backbone to lead the life you want, Frank.

Dialogue from Revolutionary Road (film)


Related posts:-
Go Your Own Way
Path of Maturation

How Simple is Too Simple?


Simple                      -                    Complex
Zoom-out                  -                    Zoom-in
Abstract                    -                    Concrete
General                      -                   Specific
Heaven                      -                    Earth


I recently took an online personality test at 16 Personalities. The site states that there are sixteen core personality types (first identified by Myers and Briggs) and that all of us can be allocated to one of them. Using a questionnaire to gauge a respondent’s personality traits, it suggests a personality type based upon the intensity of these traits.

I found its results interesting, informative and useful. However, having spoken with others about such tests, and having perused some opinion online, I know that many people dislike them.

A common criticism, and one that I’d like to address, is that they over-simplify a complex subject.


A human being is certainly a complex subject, and to group all of the myriad individuals in the world into sixteen categories is certainly reductive. No two human beings are identical, and each of us, when viewed from a certain distance, is entirely unique.

As with all ‘things,’ a human being is comprised of details. Every detail is a point of distinction, thus the more details we see the more difference we see. In this sense, a detail is synonymous with a difference. Let me offer a couple of illustrations:

1. I am short sighted. If I remove my glasses I no longer see as much detail, and things - including people - become a lot more homogenous.

2. I draw two circles on a piece of paper using a compass and pencil. I try my best to draw these circles in an identical manner, locking the compass so that its legs remain at the same angle, and applying the same pressure when drawing the circle. When I look at my circles they appear identical.

However, when I examine them under a microscope my smooth pencil lines become something else altogether; they turn ragged and incoherent, as unique and unrepeatable as a Jackson Pollock painting. The microscope has allowed me to see details that I had formerly overlooked; and it is these details that form the difference between my circles. 

Things, then, can be seen as either simple or complex, depending on our viewpoint. When we zoom-in and look for details, they appear complex; when we zoom-out and look for generalities, they appear simple. Inasmuch as it is true that beneath every simple view there lies complexity, it is equally true that above every complex view there is a unifying simplicity. Neither is more truthful than the other.

The '16 Personalities' test is founded on the notion that people, in spite of their complexity, can be simplified and sorted into sixteen broad categories. Indeed, for me one of the appeals of this theory is its simplicity. When it comes to understanding ourselves, and each other, I think there is much to be gained from taking a simple view.


In our daily lives we encounter a multitude of ‘things’ - from desks, to chairs, to cups, to roads. If we were to take every thing we encountered as an individual - in other words, as something unique in itself, rather than a single instance of a more general type - then we would barely be able to function. It would be like arriving in an alien world, in which nothing is familiar.

For instance, instead of a ‘cup’, we would encounter a hard object, with a cylindrical shape and a strange curved protrusion. Its label ‘cup’, is a shortcut; it gives the object a meaning, or direction - ‘this is for drinking from’ - but in doing so, it also distracts from all other possible directions; all of the other things that this object could be. Our shortcuts may limit possibilities, but they also allow us a crucial measure of expediency.

The process of getting to know things is, then, a process of simplification. We group similar things together and give them a label - conceptualise them - and relate our concepts to one another. Inasmuch as we are predisposed to conceptualise, we are also predisposed to simplify.

And yet the infinite complexity of reality can never truly be pinned down by concepts. It is liquid, constantly slipping out from under our definitions. We can pour it into a glass, and observe how it takes on the shape of its container. But nothing lasts forever, and eventually our glass will crack, and shatter; and its contents will spill out, go here and there, and become other things; new things.

If our intent is to accurately represent things as they are, then we must accept that all of our containers, our concepts - indeed, our whole way of looking at the world - is an over-simplification; because no matter how hard we try, we can never capture everything. There will always be something left out, or overlooked. Every picture is incomplete. This is probably what Eckhart Tolle was referring to when he said that “To reduce the aliveness of another human being to a concept is already a form of violence.” 1

Thus, we find ourselves caught between the chaotic infinity of creation, and the harmonious unity of the Creator. We are not omniscient: we cannot see every thing, only some things. Our experience is, then, always a concession of sorts; founded, as it is, on the acknowledgement that in order to experience things we must simplify them.

The question is: how simple do we want to make things?


It seems to me that the answer to this is determined by the context in which it is asked. In other words, what are the intentions of the person doing the asking?

If you want to view yourself, or human beings in general, as complex things that cannot be simplified into types, then certainly a personality test will be an ‘over-simplification.’ If you want to view them as things that can be seen as both complex and simple, then a personality test will not be an ‘over-simplification.’ Intention is key.

If it seems like I’m pointing out the obvious, then I’m doing so in order to bring to mind something that is all too often forgotten: that what is true for you may not be true for me.

‘Simplify’ is a judgement, a statement based upon observation that ought to be true for most observers. ‘Over-simplify’ is a value-judgement, a statement based upon personal standards or priorities, that will likely not be true for most observers. Thus most will agree that to group human beings within sixteen personality types is to simplify them. However, a smaller number will agree that to do so is to over-simplify them.

I labour the point because I find that we often seem to forget this distinction. It is all too easy to get trapped into one view and to think that it is the best view, or the only view. When we do this we lose sight of the bigger picture, of the continuum of views in which our own is contained.

Whilst it is true that each of us is entirely unique, I think it is equally true that each of us can be reduced to the black and white simplicity of a binary. From one view we are analogue, from another we are digital. Which of these is the most useful is defined by those doing the looking. It may be that in situation A it is more appropriate to see complexity, whereas Situation B may demand simplicity.

Seeing human beings as unique individuals, as things that are too complex to be grouped, is one way of looking at them; and this view has much to offer us. But if we feel that we, or human beings in general, are too complex to be grouped then this suggests that we’ve fallen into the trap of believing that there is only one way to look at things - that there is only complexity. This view is unbalanced, because it chooses to see only one half of the binary whilst ignoring the other; it makes its home within complexity and forsakes simplicity.

We needn’t pick sides. Both the simple and the complex view are open to us, and both offer us something that the other cannot. To see things simply needn’t be a denial of complexity, as long as we recognise that we are choosing to use the simple-view; and thus, could also choose not to.

Telling stories

Along with the '16 Personalities' test, I also took an online version of the ‘NEO Personality Inventory test’. Much like '16 Personalities', the ‘NEO’ test is a questionnaire consisting of a series of statements (e.g. ‘Make friends easily’) which must be rated based on how close they are to describing the respondent in question. There are five categories of applicability to choose from, representing a sliding scale from ‘Very inaccurate’ to ‘Very accurate.’

Although the process of these two tests is relatively similar, they differ in the way in which they present their results. On completion '16 Personalities' labels its respondents with one of sixteen core personality types, and presents a description of the various attributes of this type. The NEO test does not go this far; rather it presents the ‘Big Five’ personality traits (Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, and Openness to Experience) and shows how much of each trait the respondent possesses. This is done with a percentage value.

Whilst the '16 Personalities' test also shows how much of certain traits the respondent possesses, again, through percentage points, it goes one step further in that it attributes a particular meaning - or tells a particular story - about these values.

In telling a story we take separate things - objects, people, places - and weave them together in order to convey sense. A story synthesises, organises, and directs its contents, pointing them in the same direction in order to serve a shared meaning. It is synonymous with a constellation - an imaginary line that links a number of separate points, aligning each with a higher purpose.

For me, part of the appeal of a personality test is that it helps me to explain myself. Aspects of my personality that I may have looked upon negatively - my need to be alone at certain times, my tendency towards abstract thinking, my tendency to get lost in thought - are suddenly attributed meaning and importance; and instead of looking upon these things as deficiencies, I am given permission to see them in a more positive light. In giving such permissions - in spite of how simple they may seem - an explanatory story can have a significant impact upon the way a person views themselves.

For instance, the fact that we can now describe certain people as 'autistic' allows us to better interpret and understand behaviour that may previously have been viewed as deviant. Every label is a generalisation, and ’autistic’ is no different. However, prior to the invention of this label autistic people were more likely to be held to the general norms that are imposed on the wider mass of society, and their behaviour was interpreted accordingly. In some cases this may have led to them being seen as  ‘deficient’ or ‘strange’; because, judged against the yardstick of normality, they are. The concept of ‘autism’ gives sense and meaning to their behaviour - it explains it - and in doing so, allows us to accept it for what it is and to view it as more than an aberration. It erects a fence around these behaviours and creates a space in which they are acceptable; both to those on the outside and those on the inside.

Every collective has a strong centre of gravity, a dense core which defines and protects its norms. Thus the more rarefied members of a society, those outliers that do not conform as strictly to its norms, always need a certain amount of protection from its gravitational pull. There will always be a temptation for those in the middle to view those further out as aberrant; and in light of this to want to bring them inwards, and make them conform to more common ways of being.

If a person is not sufficiently anchored then they may fall prey to this centripetal force, casting off important elements of themselves as they are pulled inwards. A story provides this anchoring. It ring fences a way of being, making a person less vulnerable to homogenising forces.

I think the simple recognition of difference can be a profound step for many, and especially so when this difference is reinforced as something that is important and necessary. In my own experience I have come across many people who believed, albeit perhaps unconsciously, that everyone ought to be more like them, and who criticised and condemned others for being different. I am frequently guilty of it myself.

For me this is one of the invaluable uses of personality typing: its stories, those sixteen fictional types, give meaning to the many differences that we see in one another. By attributing value to behaviours that may otherwise be dismissed as deficient or aberrant in light of personal or societal norms, they foster an understanding and respect for those differences.

As with the label ‘autistic’, a personality type gives us permission to be ourselves; and, crucially, to accept ourselves. It also provides a positive spin on our behaviours, suggesting that they are not only acceptable, but vital to the wider scene; that our sharp corners and strange angles are designed to fit into something larger.

Of course, the pendulum swings both ways: and where a label can be liberating, it can also be restrictive;  condemning someone to a seemingly rigid definition. In this we see a timeless paradox at play: our structures provide us comfort and shelter, but they also confine us. The more bricks we add, the more confined we become.

Yet, if we see our structures - in this case those sixteen personality types - as stories, then we can understand that they are not definitive; that they are fiction, and thus needn’t be taken too seriously. Psychologist James Hillman described a fiction as “a formula that must necessarily posit itself as beyond criteria of true or false […] fantasies by means of which we fashion or ‘fiction’ a life or a person […]” 2

Psychologist Adolf Guggenb├╝hl-Craig adds, “Such creative fantasies are often quite far removed from so-called reality; they are as unreal, and as true, as fairy tales and myths. They use imaginative images to grasp the nature of the other person […] Even if they are not expressed, fantasies also influence the other person, awakening new living potential in him […]

[They] are related to the nature of the other person; they represent, in symbolic-mythological form, his life potential […] Everyone needs to fantasy about himself, to circle about and awaken his own potential in mythological or fairy tale form.” 3

We can, then, see these sixteen types as fiction, or fantasy; whose proof is in whether they resonate with us - whether we find them useful, or satisfying.

Creating Types

Must we see ourselves as representative of a type? Does each of us not have our own unique case-history, our own individual story?  Is it not enough to say that everyone is different, and that individual differences ought to be respected?

Whilst every individual has their own set of whys and wherefores that make their behaviour understandable, it is, as we’ve seen, impractical (if not impossible) to apprehend every thing we encounter as something new and unique. It is impractical to learn the story of every person we meet; to spend time mapping out their terrain in order to learn their shape; and clearly, not every person would even be capable of doing this.

This is where a collection of general types comes in handy. They act as a set of common stories, as shorthands we can all use in order to further our understanding of each other. For some, even the simple knowledge that there are different types of people could be a revelation.

I think it is vital that we use whatever tools are at our disposal in order to further our understanding of each other and ourselves. Attaining this understanding is a challenge that faces any collective, and its health depends upon how successful it is in this. A society that does not understand and respect the diversity of its members may well end up promoting certain types of people at the expense of others - in thrall to red, it overlooks blue - and end up hopelessly imbalanced.

With this in mind, I think we can gain much from personality typing, in spite - or because - of its simplicity.


1 Tolle, Eckhart, Stillness Speaks, p. 20
2 Hillman, James, Healing Fiction, p. 13
3 Guggenb├╝hl-Craig, Adolf, Power in the Healing Professions, p. 45-7


When the type (generic concept) reduces the individual thing to a shadow, the type has acquired the reality of a collective idea.

But when the value of the individual thing abolishes the type (generic concept) anarchic disintegration is at work.

Both positions are extreme and unfair [...]

[C. G. Jung]
Psychological Types, p. 37


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