Originally posted on janetthomas:

The distinction between a person and a human being is a relatively recent concept. It is derived from the philosophy of John Locke, who states that a person is ‘a thinking, intelligent, being, that has reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself, the same thing in different times and places’[1]. This distinction has led to an arbitrary and exclusionary criterion that differentiates human beings into person and non-person or part-person types, with a non-person being considered of no moral significance and a part-person being only partially morally significant.

Human beings are a member of the species homo sapien which, like other plants and animals, have identity and continuity as a member of their species. For Immanuel Kant the source of human autonomy comes from the combination of our sensibility and understanding[2]. For John Locke, consciousness always accompanies thinking and the understanding of self, and…

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political_world_map_1200The modern state, which was born from the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, gave unrestricted control of the state to its rulers. This was the beginning of the concept of state sovereignty which is still dominant today. The most potent shaping forces in the contemporary world are the interactions of states when enforcing their interests, capabilities and goals. However, during the latter half of the twentieth century the supremacy of the state is under challenge. Global affairs are now dominated by intergovernmental organizations that transcend national boundaries. Global international organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union have become independent global actors which implement their own foreign policies. Also groups of people carrying on various enterprises, such as multinational corporations, are examples of nongovernmental organizations which also transcend national boundaries and exert their influence globally.

Post Cold War, the United States has dominated world politics with the political scientist Francis Fukuyama even suggesting that it signaled ‘the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of government’. However because of the ascendance of other great powers such as China, Japan, Russia and India others such as the journalist and foreign policy advisor Fareed Zakaria arguing that a ‘post-American’ world has arisen through which many other state and nonstate actors direct and define global society’s responses to global challenges. While the United States remains the greatest military power, other dimensions are emerging industrially, financially, educationally, socially and culturally that are moving the globe away from American dominance.

Although some suggest that competition between states could be renewed as they jostle for power in commercial relations, they also manage their security relations collaboratively which can be seen through their cooperation in fighting terrorism. The danger of the polarization of these states into two antagonistic camps could be managed through newly developed international rules and institutions that can manage these mixed-motive relationships. Rather than a quest for hegemony, these great and emerging powers are active trading partners and the question arises will these commercial relationships reduce the potential for future military competition?

Multilateralism could be the approach that these great powers take to cooperate to achieve global solutions to problems that affect all of their citizens. In an ever shrinking global environment in which all actors are increasingly reliant upon each other, a new global system of power and responsibility is more widely distributed. How these great powers will make their choices about war and peace will affect all people and determine the fate of the humanity.

A new concept of responsible sovereignty is emerging which requires states not to protect only their own people but also to cooperate across borders to protect global resources and address transnational threats. This entails intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and non-government organizations (NGOs) providing a greater role which ‘differs from the traditional interpretation of sovereignty being non-interference in the internal affairs of state’. Global problems require global solutions and an increasingly greater number of non-state actors have arisen on the world stage to engineer adaptive global changes.

The United Nations is the most prominent IGO to have emerged in the last sixty years. Its Charter sets its agenda as the maintenance of peaceful and amicable relations between states based upon humanitarian values and the attainment of common ends through the harmonization of state actors (143). Although it is challenged by persistent financial troubles it is an adaptable and reforming institution that remains the forum of choice for negotiation and promotion of humanitarian concerns. Through its claim to represent ‘the collective will of humanity’ it is in the position to act on issues of global relevance such as shaming human rights violators, combating global pandemics, and promoting conflict-prevention measures.

Increasingly, NGOs are becoming more influential in global politics through their ability to lobby and influence international decision making. This activism is able to transcend the traditional distinctions between what is local and what is global. Five of the most visible types of NGOs are non-state entities that comprise of ethnic or indigenous peoples, transnational religious groups, transnational terrorist groups and multinational corporations. However, while these groups have a strong participation in world affairs some of their influence can often be minimized by differing groups pushing policies in opposing directions.

With the world being far more interdependent than ever before and transactions across state borders increasing through the movement of people, information and trade, non- state actors are becoming more important to the shared concepts of people across the globe. The centrality of the state as an insular actor is declining. Although our constructed images of global politics are resistant to change, change is possible through the reshaping of our insular perceptions. By ridding ourselves of false assumptions about other people we can reshape the future of world politics so that it does not rely on the insular attitudes of singular states but on the basis of a global people. As the philosopher Martin J. Siegel observes: “War for survival is the destiny of all species. In our case, we are courting suicide [by waging war against each other]”. It is the realisation of this by state leaders that will finally lead to the end of the concept of the sovereign state.

Originally posted on janetthomas:


The concept of modularity within the mind has been expounded by its adherents since 1983 when Jerry Fodor wrote “The Modularity of the Mind”. While Fodor claimed that modularity was confined to input systems such as perception and language (Robbins, 2010) others, such as Carruthers, have since put forward theories for massive modularity of the mind which include modules for high-level cognition such as beliefs, problem-solving and planning (Robbins, 2010). Carruthers’ theory of massive modularity rests on the criterion that mental processes must be encapsulated systems. For Carruthers, they would be weakly encapsulated, while for Fodor they would have limited accessibility but complete encapsulation (Robbins, 2010).

Prinz (Prinz, 2006, p.22) uses Fodor’s (1983) criteria for modularity to contend that input systems and central systems are not modular. Jesse Prinz’s argument against modularity within the mind is based upon his view that the mind, alternatively, contains systems that are distinguished by…

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‘The house as a machine to live in’ and the ‘living sculpture’ are two Modernist architectural concepts which can be adapted to twenty-first century use. While global urbanization has invariably led to environmental depredation in the twentieth century, it is through well-considered architectural practice that human habitation can adapt to the changing natural environment and help to improve the high-density built environment that will be necessary in the future. This essay will look at various architectural philosophies as well as a biological example of high density living to research how these concepts can achieve a new context.


    Termite mound -Cape York,Australia

Termites engineer their environment to high level yet completely utilise renewable resources, and are an architectural inspiration for passive ventilated structures both as working machines and sculptural forms.To enhance the survival of the termite in a harsh environment, evolution has seen fit to create a…

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And was Jerusalem builded here

   among these dark Satanic mills?

  William Blake, 1804


These lines from Blake’s poem refer to a period of great change in the Western world – the Industrial Revolution. At this time two of England’s greatest Romantic landscape painters were to emerge, each with a distinct viewpoint from which they addressed their work. In this essay I will expound the idea that these two landscape artists painted their worlds from respective utopian and dystopian views. The concept of utopia is a state where everything is for the best and all is in harmony. Contrarily, the concept of dystopia is a state where everything is as bad as it possibly could be. Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775- 1851) revealed a more inquisitive attitude toward industrialization, whereas John Constable (1776-1837) was far more nostalgic and wistful for an Englandof another time. Constable’s view…

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This essay attempts to describe the role of semantics in the study of linguistics, its ability to reveal the connection between cultures, and its ability to describe human experience. Contemporary studies of semantics are also done through cognitive experiments that use imaging technologies. However, the study of semantics may be constrained by the huge variation in word meaning across cultures. The future of semantics lies in explaining such variational discrepancies and accounting for them.

What are semantics?

Expressing and communicating meaning is essentially the function of human language (Goddard 2011). Meaning is the knowledge acquired by the human brain through experience which is represented symbolically in language. The relationship between the knowledge acquired about an experience and the words used to describe them are known as semantics (Binder et al., 2009). Semantics is a core field of linguistics and is crucial in the attempt to describe and account for linguistic competence (Goddard, 2011). Much of the foundation of semantics originates from logic and the philosophy of language (Chierchia & McConnell-Ginet, 1990).

Semantics reveals the connection between languages and cultures, with language being the main way in which children are assimilated into their society’s practices and beliefs (Goddard, 2011). From a scientific perspective, the accessing of this stored knowledge about the world is a cognitive function known as semantic processing. Semantic processing is essential to human behaviour. It allows us to access acquired knowledge, reason, plan, and problem solve. It is also integral to language function, with impairments to processing being part of such disorders as dementia, asphasia, schizophrenia, and autism (Binder et al., 2009).

The study of semantics arose when it became apparent that for most languages syntactic structure relied upon word meaning within an expression (Goddard, 2011). A distinction between language competence and performance is important in linguistics in order to gain critical data through which theories can be tested. For example, linguists often rely upon the intuitive judgements of native speakers to ascertain which string of words composes a grammatical sentence. Therefore semantics adopted three concepts:

1) Generative grammars made in artificial languages can be thought of as models for natural languages;

2) these generative grammars are realised as cognitive systems in the human brain; and

3) they are distinct from observable linguistic behaviours, yet also explain them (Chierchia & McConnell-                    Ginet, 1990).

However, the main theoretical controversy in semantics is what the nature of the optimal system of semantic representation could be (Goddard, 2011). One of the commonsense views of semantics is that the meaning of a word is structured idea within the user’s mind. As we grow we receive pre-packaged concepts that allow us to quickly communicate and share ideas with those around us (Goddard, 2011). John Locke contended that as all able bodied humans share the same sense organs they also experience the world in similar ways which enables the acquisition of similar ideas about the world. Renee Descarte’s contrasting view was that such concepts as time, causation and identity show that they could not possibly be solely derived from our perceptions. Therefore, one of the main approaches to semantics is the aim of finding a universally applicable system of meaning. As we can translate between languages, it seems that a universal framework underpins our understanding and is shared by all humans (Goddard, 2011).

Some properties of semantic competence are producing linguistic meaning. Presumably, this can be done through understanding the single words within a sentence and the algorithm for combining them. A good example of this is Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem Jabberwocky. Therefore, the concept of a universal semantic base was trying to discover the categories and rules that combined this universal vocabulary. However, advances in neuroscience have also allowed us to investigate how semantic processing actually operates within the brain through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) (Binder et al., 2009).

What are the techniques used to study the brain mechanisms involved in semantics?

In the studies investigated by Binder et al. (2009), fMRI and PET experiments were conducted using written and spoken words as stimulus materials. The goal of these experiments was to identify the brain systems used for accessing meaning from words and see how conceptual knowledge is organized and accessed. All the experiments involved healthy adult participants. It was found that ‘all consciously executed, goal-directed tasks require a minimum set of domain- general processes that include maintenance of attention, direction of attention to relevant information (external and internal), maintenance of this relevant information in short-tem memory store, maintenance of the task goal and task procedures in working memory, decision, response selection, and error monitoring (Binder et al. 2009).

The Binder et al. analysis also included studies that made a comparison between human primates and non-human primates. These studies found that the human semantic system a network of parietal, temporal and prefrontal heteromodal association areas, which are greatly expanded in human primate brains compared with non-human primate brains.The Binder et al. 2009 analysis of current scientific studies on semantic processing also concluded that the most dense activation of foci was in the angular gyrus. This region of the brain is virtually non-existent in the lower primates and is greatly expanded in the human brain in comparison with the macaque monkey. The angular gyrus is connected almost entirely with other associated regions and receives almost no direct sensory stimulus inputs.

Some fMRI studies have shown that the angular gyrus is activated in response to semantically anomalous words embedded in sentences, which suggests that it plays a role in integrating individual concepts onto a greater one (Binder et al., 2009). Research done by V.S. Ramachandran, director for the Centre of Brain and Cognition at the University of California, found that the angular gyrus is most likely responsible for the human ability to comprehend metaphor (Kiderra, 2005). Therefore, it is asserted by Binder et al. (2009) that the angular gyrus is a high level area for retrieval and conceptual integration, playing a particular role in sentence comprehension, discourse problem solving and planning.

A further analysis of relevant fMRI studies on semantics by Cappa (2012) confirmed that the underlying knowledge within the neural system is distributed throughout the brain. While brain  activity is elicited through these requirements, it was found in one study that the lack of temporal activity was unexpected, especially as this was a role given to Wernicke’s area for word comprehension. However, another study interpreted this finding by concluding that ‘semantic processing is automatically engaged whenever subjects are exposed to a meaningful stimulus’ (Cappa, 2012). Language tasks, such as the assessment of verb processing are associated with perceptual and conceptual tasks and generally associated with the activation of the motor and premotor regions. Further studies  based upon sensory and motor verbs accurately predicted a relationship between the cortical area of predicted activation and the verb meaning (for example ‘touch’ and the somatosensory cortex) (Cappa, 2012).

How have studies on the brain constrained or highlighted semantics?

Languages have a huge variation in word meaning across cultures. For example, it could be assumed that all languages would have a word to describe a single hand or one’s hair. Yet the Russian word raka describes the entire arm, and in Yunkunytjajara (Central Australia) mangka describes head-hair while the word yuru describes body-hair as well as fur. One also might think that all languages would have a separate word to describe such pervasive things as mountains, clouds or trees. However, in Yunkunytjajara one word, punu, covers both tree and bush, or apu covers both mountain and hill. The word clouds is covered by several words thatdescribe different types of clouds in Yunkunytjajara. Even concrete meanings are not universal across languages. English words such as privacy, work, shame, or guilt are abstract concepts particular to certain cultures. In this way, language is a unique way of describing and thinking about the world and therefore studies on the brain may constricted by such subjectivity of understanding across cultures (Goddard 2011).

So, is a universal syntax or semantic structure a feasible part of universal grammar? All languages seem to refer to space and spatial relation and regenerate them to refer to more abstract concepts as possession. However, the precise details are not universal. Two types of components are involved in meaningful language- informational significance, which connects language with the world; and cognitive significance, which links language and semantic knowledge. Informational significance is something shared between many individuals. An example is a statement such as ‘the door is closed’, which is easily understood because it can be concretely depicted in that it involves information given to grasp its meaning. Also, language allows us to externalise out thoughts and share our imaginings so that informational significance is not only related to physical phenomena but also mental phenomena. Cognitive significance depends upon matching representations rather than having the same links to situations. For example a statement such as ‘this is yellow’ is subjective and will not necessarily be represented identically as a general understanding but it achieves a degree of consensus of informational significance. Our communication relies upon the fundamental similarities that we experience and some meanings are meaningful even if they cannot be matched concretely. Therefore, this aspect of meaning highlights the importance of how communicated information is processed (Chiercha & McConnell-Ginet, 1990).

Questions for future studies of the understanding of semantic processing?

Binder et al. (2009) proposes that future analyses of cognitive imaging studies should concentrate on establishing an ontological system for defining the activation of cognitive processes. Such an objective system would rest upon axioms concerning stimuli through consensus and would allow for a common theoretical framework.

Goddard (2011) hints at such a system when he states that semantics is about what knowledge people have of their language. It is not enough to know that people use these words; we need to be able to describe what they know about a word’s usage. Goddard also highlights another problem, that of anglocentrism in the study of semantics. Using English as metalanguage to describe other languages necessarily involves bootstrapping English cultural notions onto other cultures that may not have the same types of concepts or equivalents. Cappa (2012) is also concerned over the interpretation of cognitive imaging studies and whether observed activation in some actually reflects semantic processing and not ‘epiphenomena’ rather than an actual correlation of semantic expression with activation of visual or motor imagery. Cappa (2012) also states that further studies could be carries out of the antero-lateral temporal cortex, as it is an anatomically complex region that is a crucial hub of semantic processing and is only beginning to be investigated in finer detail.


The aim of finding a universally applicable system of meaning will assist neuroscience in investigating how semantic processing actually operates in the cognitive system. Human semantic systems are greatly expanded in comparison to non-human primates that infers our use of description and meaning is necessary for our survival. One of the key areas of the human cognitive system is the angular gyrus which is a high level area for retrieval and conceptual integration. In order to explore how such integration can influence human problem-solving abilities the aspect of meaning that relies upon the fundamental similarities that we experience highlights the importance of how communicated information is processed. Therefore, research into the universal understanding of meaning seems as necessary to linguistics as the investigation into universal grammar.


Binder, J.R., Desai, R.H., Graves, W.W., & Conant L.L., (2009), “Where Is the Semantic System? A Critical Review and Meta-Analysis of 120 Functional Neuroimaging Studies” in  Cerebral Cortex, December 2009;19:2767—2796

Cappa  S,F., (2012), “Imaging semantics and syntax”, NeuroImage,61 (2012) 427–431

Chierchia, G. &  McConnell-Ginet, S., (1990) Meaning and Grammar: An Introduction to Semantics, Cambridge : MIT Press,1990

Goddard, C., (2011), Semantic Analysis: A Practical Introduction, Oxford University Press

Kiderra, I. (2005), “Grasping Metaphors: USCD Research Ties Brain Area To Figures of Speech”, UCSD News, University of California, San Diego, retrieved on 16 January 2013 from: http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/archive/newsrel/general/RamaMetaphors.asp


Originally posted on janetthomas:

Nicholas Georgouras, The Thinker (1980), Pentelicon marble

In this essay, I will argue that theories can create dilemmas for artists when they wish to create spontaneously or expressively. However, the knowledge of the philosophy of art and art history is important as a background for artists upon which they can base their works. I will use the prescribed text Why theory? and the essay Artist’s Labor by Derek Whitehead  to show how I have shaped my understanding of theory and the thought processes used in the creation of an artwork.

Paul Klee (1879-1940) once declared, ‘The artist does nothing other than gather and pass on what comes to him from the depths. He neither serves nor rules- he transmits.’ (Ed.Read 1948, p.15) It may be argued that when an artist states that they do not want to contaminate themselves by theories, they are forgetting that theory…

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The Village

Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom . . .

M. Night Shylaman’s 2004 film The Village was written and produced at a time when the United States was unilaterally invading Iraq under the lie that it had weapons of mass destruction. It was an elaborate fabrication of the truth that involved many experts and world leaders acting as rational counsellors for the security and protection of ‘free peoples’. The film features an idyllic rural community run cooperatively by a group of elders. The story involves an elaborate fabrication that is devised by the elders of the community to enact a consequentialist outcome, where the best moral action is the one with the best overall consequence. The Utopia the elders devise to escape a perceived wicked world is to ensure the best of all possible lives for their families. But while the elders are eminently reasonable, patient and kind they need to fabricate a danger in the forest that surrounds their village so that no one will leave. To rule through fear is usually the method of tyrants and this village could not seem any less a tyranny. However, the philosopher Lars Svendson warns of the colonisation of fear in our lives, stating that it is tyrannies not democracies that thrive on the politics of fear. This essay will explore the allegorical context of this film and its relationship to contemporary Western political philosophy and its utilitarian foundation.

The community of The Village is a close group of isolated settlers, running their own small society through a cooperative of elders. By their dress, houses and lack of modern facilities, the film appears to be set in the nineteenth century. The elders of the community wish to separate themselves from the outside world and its perceived criminality and insanity, which they saw illustrated in the murder of loved ones and their own fear of such a death. The elders transfer this fear of death subliminally into their community through a fear of the forest and the supposed creatures that it contains. This seems analogous to contemporary Western nations’ fears of immigration and terrorism; that our societies are becoming gated nations into which we barricade ourselves through our fear of others. The opening credits of the film reflect this sense of fear. Through the use of panned upward shots of bare, black branches against a sombre grey sky and haunting flute music, thoughts of chilling fairy tales about witches are introduced, with the branches also symbolising a barrier against the sky. Two loud drum beats emphasize a potential unseen threat. The music of flute and drum beat gradually crescendos to a full orchestral climax. The following scene opens on the villagers attending the burial of a young child who has died of disease. Set on the side of a hill with a wooden watch tower in the background, the diagonal view holds the crowd and gives the impression of a lack of balance as the scene shows a father grieving over a little coffin. The imbalance in the composition of this image appears to reflect the fearful imbalance that underscores the village. The elders have established this community as a safe utopia of communitarian and cooperative values but are wilfully blind to the fact that their deceit endangers the lives of other members of their community. Edward Walker, the leader of the village, hints at this moral compromise when he states at the funeral table: “We may question ourselves at moments such as these. Did we make the right decision to settle here?” But then he dismisses this thought: “We are grateful for the time that we’ve been given.”

In this scene, the main table is shot with a large house in the background. The house represents the solidity and security of the villagers’ world, with the table laden with food such as corn and bread in the foreground, highlighting such security and comfort. As sounds of strange animals howling in the background make heads turn at the table, the camera looks out of the village to a dark forest. The people look and listen forebodingly to the sounds and sight of the forest and its invisible threat. The camera then focuses on retarded Noah, who thinks the sounds are funny and laughs and claps his hands to the disapproval of the others. This scene sets the narrative for the main climax of the film. Noah is the danger in the midst of the villager’s safety, with the elders being the cause of his disability in that it was likely caused by lack of medical attention. In the context of contemporary Western society, we fear those that we cannot see, yet it is those around us that may be a direct threat. The massacre of students at Columbine, or of little children at Newtown, reveal how our obsession with security and scaremongering can rebound through its effects on people who are mentally ill.

The opening scenes show the villagers at work attended by sweet, idyllic music which quickly changes to show a shallow creek reflecting the vertical lines of black tree trunks against the sky. A figure dressed in a red cloak walks slowly across this reflection revealing red to be the colour of the unspoken threat. Like Thomas More’s Utopia, The Village is essentially an allegory, through which the narrative can provide a thought experiment on the concept of the gated community, or even the gated nation. We live in an age of a “War on Terror”, a misnomer that relies upon fear to enact it. We are gradually tyrannised through our long established rights as citizens being compromised by an appeal to security, and a media propaganda machine that feeds our fears of an unseen threat. Walker also uses such a technique to instil in the children a fear of the surrounding forest. When Walker sees a group of children outside the schoolhouse looking down at something with the watch tower in the background, he gently questions the children about it. The camera then gives a close up of a dead mutilated animal lying on the ground with the sound of flies buzzing around it. Inside the schoolroom Walker again gently and appealingly asks the children questions about the animal and how it may have died. The children describe the manner of its death and say it is murder. Walker asks them: “But who has done this heinous act?” “Those of whom we don’t speak have killed it,” answers one girl decisively.

In Utopia, reason puts the rational above the reasonable, and it is a rationality that involves its own truth3. The authority that rules over Utopia is responsible for the well-being of the community and that authority does not want its truth to be questioned4. Lucius Hunt, one of the young men of the village, nervously stands in front of the elders in the hall and states that, following the death of the young child from disease, he wishes to go through the forest to the towns so that he can obtain medicines for the settlement, reasoning that the creatures in the forest will not harm him because they know his intentions are pure. Behind Lucius, the door, windows, furniture and decorations in the hall are perfectly symmetrical representing a place of reason and judgment, except for a yellow cloak worn by the forest guards hanging on a rack to one side. This represents the community’s imbalance in that they must guard against horrors that do not exist. The camera then shows the circle of elders, also completely symmetrical, looking disapprovingly at Lucius but saying nothing.

Throughout the film the elders address the village problems rationally. This is illustrated when Lucius’ mother addresses the village in the hall about another mutilated animal corpse that is found. She stands in the mid-symmetrical point of the room, representing balance and reason, and shows care and concern through holding a young child. She patiently applies the logic that the perpetrator must be a mad coyote, not ‘those who must not be named’. Mrs Hunt addresses their fears saying that it could not be ‘those who must not be named’ as they are much larger and if they had breached the village boundaries, the elders would have known. Through this faulty logic Mrs Hunt allays the villagers’ fears because they desire them to be allayed, and she manages their panic, which would seem a good idea if she were not deceiving them about the existence of any danger at all.
John Dewey criticised utilitarianism on the grounds that its ethical criteria relies upon ‘holding that the morality of all acts is measured by their efficiency in establishing a certain end’5. Rather than the act being moral in and of itself at the time, actions are rationalised upon the basis of some future moral purpose even if the action of the present is immoral. When Lucius confesses to the elders and the villagers that he has brought an attack upon the village through going into the forest, Walker goes to him and tells him not to fret: “You are fearless in a way I will never be.” The elders’ intentions are good and the ends that they wish to achieve are moral. However, through their deception they cause harm to their children.

Bertrand Russell stated: “Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death…”6. Lucius is regarded suspiciously because he does not fear to think. Ivy, Walker’s daughter, who has also become blind through lack of medical attention, asks him: “How is it that you are brave when all the rest of us shake in our boots?” He tells her, “I need not worry about all that, only what needs to be done.” The night scene on the verandah is made extremely intimate through the mingling of the steam from their breaths in the cold air. Afterwards, in a conversation with her sister, Ivy rejects a utilitarianism that would allow her to have the love her sister, who had been in love with Lucius, did not receive. “The sacrifice of one love for another love is not right and I will not have it,” she says. However, while we learn Ivy’s sister no longer desires Lucius, none of them appears to recognise the desire and love that Noah has for Ivy, his closest friend.

Ivy’s control over Noah is illustrated in an early scene where she implores him not to hit people so that she does not have to lock him up. Noah has diminished responsibility. He is fascinated by the monsters of the forest and is responsible for an attack on the night of Walker’s eldest daughter’s wedding which had left mutilated livestock all over the village. Noah is bereft learning of Ivy’s intention to marry Lucius. He goes to Lucius house, where Lucius is writing, and shows his distress. Lucius realises Noah’s distress is about Ivy and he turns away from Noah to place his note back on the desk. The camera closes in on the back of Lucius’ head. He turns to look at Noah and the expression in his face turns to horror; there is no sound but only Noah’s sorry face. The camera looks down to Lucius’ belly where Noah has stabbed him deeply with a knife. The violent fear the elders have utilised by mutilating forest animals to scare the villagers has come home in the violence that Noah perpetrates upon the innocent Lucius, and it mirrors the violence that they have tried to flee.

When Walker tells Mrs Hunt that he has sent Ivy to the towns to get medicines for Lucius, she is overcome. However, this reveals that the true motivation for Walker is not Lucius’ life or his daughter’s happiness but his secret love for the widow, Mrs Hunt: “It is all that I can give you,” he repeats meaningfully. This revelation adds a new dimension to the narrative and shows that Walker is blind to his selfish intentions and sees them wrapped in innocence. The other elders accuse him of revealing a secret that he was under oath to protect and he declares: “We have protected here innocence.” But Mrs Nicholson asks: “How could you have sent her? She is blind.” “She is more capable than most in this village,” Walker replies. It then cuts to a scene of Ivy in the forest at night, sitting in utter terror with her hands over her ears. The camera draws away from this view and shows dense undergrowth, with the sounds of cracking twigs and howls. The terrible danger Ivy is in is shown in the next few scenes where she falls into a deep pit left by a fallen tree and is pursued by Noah dressed as one of the monsters.
The final scenes of Ivy running anxiously along the road and climbing the perimeter fence which is disguised by vegetation, is juxtaposed with a scene of her parents revealing what is in their secret box. While shown against objects of comfort and security such as a hearth and a kettle, they lock their door and take a key to open up their black box. The key and lock become features of a community that is supposed to be based upon trust. Ivy scales the perimeter fence and is found by a security guard. Although he surreptitiously assists Ivy, he is advised by his boss not to speak to people: “It’s a very easy gig Kevin. Maintain and protect the borders. That’s it.” This highlights the obsession with ‘homeland security’ since September 11, 2001 and the level of secrecy and opacity that is required of its keepers. What is also implied is the level of money that would be required to maintain Walker’s lifestyle, and its own cost upon the surrounding world, especially from the source of such wealth.

Ivy’s return through the forest mimics the beginning of the film with the forest’s black branches and trunks closing her within it. The stream again shows a reflection, only this time it is Ivy’s yellow-cloaked figure that crosses it. The final scene shows the elders standing around Lucius’ bed when a young man tells them that Ivy has returned and that she has killed one of the creatures of the forest. The elder’s realise that it is Noah that she has killed and while his parents sob, Walker tells them that they will give Noah a proper burial after telling the villagers that he has been killed by the monsters, and that his death has allowed their secret to continue. The elders slowly agree to this decision and Ivy walks in. The final shot is a close-up of Ivy’s face saying to the unconscious Lucius, “I am back.” This implies that Ivy has accepted the burden of the elders as well and wishes to continue it. However, as the film finishes here, one cannot but wonder what the candid and truthful Lucius will think about being complicit to such a scheme when he awakes, and the consequences of that.

While the trailer for the film casts it in the horror genre, the true horror of the film does not lie in any perceived threat but with the actions of the elders in perpetuating their lie. They will sacrifice their young people in order to maintain their comfort and security. After the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the United States, hundreds of thousands were dead, and their own youth were maimed and killed in extraordinary numbers. Eventually, six years after the film was made, it was revealed that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction; that the conspiracy to convince allied nations to go to war against a powerless people came from those who stood to gain the most from such an invasion, and that these people were a few of the wealthiest people on the globe. On second viewing, the film becomes a parable for our time.

REFERENCES: Dewey, J. (1893), “Self-realization as the moral ideal”, Philosophical Review, 2:6
Nancy, J.L., (2012), “In Place of Utopia” in Existential Utopia: New perspectives on Utopian Thought, Vieira, P. & Marder, M. (eds.) Continuum International Publishing Group
Russell, B (1916), Principles of Social Reconstruction, (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1916)
Russell, B., (2009), The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, Routledge
Svendson, L. (2010), The Philosophy of Fear, Reaction Press


Antti Laitinen, It’s My Island. Δράση κατασκευής νησιού, 14 – 25 Ιουνίου 2009.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

In the above poem John Donne articulates poetically the argument that Charles Taylor puts forth in his description of the self as being dialogical. Individualism is a modern concept based in the humanist perspective of the Renaissance. Modern philosophy, economic theory and political thought are all bound to uphold the rights of the individual. Such a concept has created political freedom, economic prosperity and self-expression. However, it is also responsible for an egotism and self-centredness which results in alienation and an unwillingness to contribute to the common good[2]. Taylor argues that ‘we see ourselves as selves, because our morally important self-descriptions push us in this direction’. However, a human being also exists within an ethical environment that must be assessed in accordance with some standards. To not have this environment would be totally disorientating and cause a crisis of identity[3]. To assess whether individual identity and agency can be accounted for sufficiently by a concept of a social or dialogical self, this essay will explore Taylor’s concept of the dialogical self and its ability to sustain agency.

Taylor contends that while we speak of ‘self’, our ancestors or other cultures might say ‘soul’. This shift in thinking has led to radically reflexive practices in the modern world. While thinking about one’s health or welfare is not radically reflexive, the active examination of subjective experience, such as scrutinizing one’s own thinking, is radically reflexive. Also, while the concept of the self is a notion of modern Western culture, even earlier societies had a sense of reflexivity. This can be seen through linguistics, as reflexive pronouns exist in all sorts of languages. This reflexivity can be seen as post-Cartesian thinking where one disengages from embodied prejudices and thinks outside the embodied self. Another form of reflexivity is the creative imagination, especially in the arts, which is a principle form of self-expression and individual identity in post-Romantic times[4].

A human being’s sense of self is established in the context of their ethical space. The concept of identity is related to ‘who I am’. I situate myself in a contextual environment that may include my relationships with family and friends, and my abilities and the occupations in which I am, or have been, engaged. This identifies what is ultimately important to me and how that relates to where my identity is in relation to this. It is not just a bare sense of self-awareness, which has no ethics attached. It is the concept of identity which is attached to this thick concept of the self involved in a moral situation that is a product of the disembodied perspective that has shaped the modern self. A crisis of identity results from this environment being disrupted, or becoming uncertain, where you may not know who ‘you’ are. Therefore the sense of self and its ethical space can also be profoundly culturally relative, with each sense of good having its own telos and standard of law[5].

In the modern world each individual has been expected to be a thinking mind that is self-reliant for their judgements. Yet, this thinking has recently been questioned with globalisation bringing new worldviews and cultural resources from non-Western societies into the debate. There is now a more intercultural understanding of global society[6]. The disengaged first person singular view can be found in the foundational works of Descartes and Locke, and this view of the self is made up of representations of the outside world and the fears and desires that accompany them. For Taylor, this is the basis of monological consciousness[7]. However, this notion of monological consciousness leaves out the body and the other.

Emmanual Levinas considered contact with the face of another as primarily ethical[8]. For Jean-Paul Sartre, it is when one is aware of another’s gaze that one becomes reflectively conscious. Through another’s gaze one becomes aware and recognises itself as the object[9]. Philosophers such as Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein see the agent not essentially as a receptor of representation but as a being who acts in and on the world. What distinguishes its agency from something that is inanimate is its capacity for inner representations[10]. Through its body an agent reacts to the world and acts within it, recognizing patterns of appropriate action and the norms that accompany them. Pierre Bourdieu uses the word habitus for this level of social understanding[11].

The other plays its role in the encoded understanding of the rituals played between the self and the other. These rituals between people are coordinated action that sustain integrated agency, such as two people sawing or playing a duet, or in an orchestra or ensemble, or dancing. For Taylor, an important feature of human action is rhythm or cadence. It is crucial for these actions that they are shared. We must place ourselves in a common rhythm for them to work. When gesture is coordinated it has a flow. However, it falls into confusion when the flow is lost and becomes inept and uncoordinated. Therefore, the acts of a single agent can be called monological acts, while the acts of two or more can be called dialogical acts[12].

As an action is dialogical when there is a sharing of agency, these shared actions require a shared understanding and make up a common agent. Integration into a common rhythm is one of the features that this form of understanding can take. It s found in political and religious movements whose members are scattered but brought together in a common purpose, such movements as those Occupy Wall Street[13] or Anonymous are examples of movements that are scattered but have a common purpose to redress global injustices, and whose agents work together for this common purpose. They use the satyagraha or non-violent resistance method advocated by M.K. Gandhi.

As no man is an island, the monological subject is inadequate as an understanding for human life. An individual agent can only operate in the world effectively as a constituted part of a ‘we’, whether that be family, tribe, community, society, etc.. Taylor argues that ‘much or our understanding of self, society, and world is carried in practices that consist of dialogical action.’ Therefore our identity does not consist only in our individual properties as we are also aligned with some social space and we define ourselves within this space through our dialogical actions [14]. Being able to understand the actions of another through putting oneself in their shoes, so to speak, is an important feature of maturity and prevents egocentricity [15].

Taylor extends Dennet’s concept of a narrative self and states that human beings are not only constructed of their own narrative but also of conversations with others. Alexis de Tocqueville asserted that democratic individualism posed an obstacle to civil society through its propensity for each person to withdraw into their own family/friend circle, leaving society to degenerate into ‘downright selfishness’. Individualism tends to predispose humans ‘not to consider their fellow creatures’[16]. Schopenhauer contends that as all malevolence is grounded in the idea that one is absolutely separate from other beings (‘someone else’s pain is no matter of mine’), so kindness is grounded in the unconscious knowledge that there is no ultimate reality in individuality. As this silent awareness grows kindness passes into altruism, the subordination of self-interest to those of all other beings[17].

How can the dialogical self account for identity and agency when the self appears to be such a subjective concept? How can individuals work together as a common agent? In order for the exercise of agency individuals must rely on social recognition in order to be able to form and sustain a self that has agency and identity. In the process of maintaining a stable self the exercise of agency depends upon social infrastructure which provides the framework for an individual’s identity to be formed. Once identity is formed agency can follow in the form of personal autonomy[18]. In the path to a mature personal autonomy that allows us to rely upon our feelings and intuitions, develop our sense of belief and to consider out projects and accomplishments worthy, we are constantly vulnerable to autonomy-undermining injustices, such as material deprivation or disruption to the social nexus[19]. The central idea put forth by Honneth and Axel is that the agency that comprises autonomy requires that an individual is able to sustain certain attitudes to oneself such as self-trust, self-respect, and self-esteem, and that these self-conceptions are dependent on the attitudes of others[20].

In her response to David Velleman’s claims that an individual’s self-image is made reflexive by some association to another that represents it as a subject, Catriona Mackenzie contends that this is like saying a person’s self-image is like a third-person representation of the person. While Velleman’s analysis of identity tends to ignore the perspective of others in relation to how these perspectives are used in our own summation of ourself, this third-person perspective, argues Mackenzie, is what allows an individual to recognise themselves as an individual[21].

A good example of the consequences of a breach of mutual recognition that comprises our dialogical self, are practices and institutions that express attitudes of denigration and humiliation. They erode an individual’s self-esteem and agency through a process that results in feelings of shame and worthlessness. Therefore, this example of identity and agency eroding effects of denigration make it clear how important an individual’s social environment is, since the autonomous self appears reliant on the establishment of relationships based upon mutual recognition[22]. Taylor also recognises this relationship between individuals and mutual recognition, stating that dignity is bound to the notion of ‘self-worth’ and that this notion probably exists in every culture[23]. It is reflected in such international documents as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)[24].

The UHDR is an instance of the establishment of legally institutionalized relations of universal respect for the autonomy and dignity of human beings, which is central to self-respect. Self-trust is reliant upon close relations of love and friendship. Also, networks of shared values within which community members can be acknowledged are central to self esteem[25]. These three relationships and their social contexts are significant in their contribution to autonomy[26]. The revolution in the seventeenth century of the theory of law began this expression of universal moral norms, of the right to life and liberty. What is different about modern concepts of morality is that they are bound in rights[27]. That these rights were decided by a group of people representing other the demands of other people from across cultures shows that a dialogical understanding of the self is not only sufficient but necessary for human identity and agency.

Perhaps the most important concerns that we have about the autonomous rights bound in such legislation is its respect for the life, integrity, well-being and the flourishing of others. We infringe them when we steal or kill, maim or terrorise them, or even refrain from helping them when they are in distress. People may differentiate who they owe this moral concern to, but most contemporary thinking would say that they are universal to humanity and many would say to other animals as well[28]. The contribution that identity makes to being a morally accountable agent arises out of our concern for our own self. Such contributions may be a sustained interest in our future and, through a dialogical perspective, we present ourselves in social exchange with others to further the interpersonal enterprise of moral accountability and the realisation of a possible future for us all[29].

What is needed for an identity was explored by one man, Neill Ansell, recently. After a life of wandering he settled on becoming a hermit in a small cottage in Wales for five years. He lived self-sufficiently and so remotely that he hardly saw another person for weeks on end, and had no neighbours, vehicle or phone. He writes that in the first year he kept a diary of reflections on day to day events. By the second year the diary had become a nature journal on what birds he had seen or a record of the weather. By the third year it was a mere almanac recording any significant event within that year. Rather than solitude leading him to protracted self-reflection and self-awareness, as Ansell thought it would, he notes that he began to forget himself with his focus being turned completely to the world around him. Ansell writes: “It was as if we gain our sense of self from our interaction with other people; from the reflection of ourselves we see in the eyes of another. Alone, there was no need for identity, for self-definition… I am an absence, a void, I have disappeared from my own story.” This appears to confirm Dennett’s description of how human animals use narrative to construct a protective shell of identity around themselves.

Dennett describes his concept of a narrative self in this way: “We are almost constantly engaged in presenting ourselves to others, and to ourselves, and hence representing ourselves in language and gesture, external and internal…Our human environment contains not just food and shelter, enemies to fight or flee, and conspecifics with whom to mate, but words, words, words.” Interestingly, it was when Ansell felt a compulsion to have children that he decided to leave his isolated life and go back to live in the city. Taylor’s concept of the dialogical self appears to correlate with Ansell’s need for other human life. In an addition to Dennett’s concept of the narrative self, Taylor states that human beings are not only constructed of their own narrative but also of conversations with others. Conversation can move beyond simple coordination and attain a common rhythm. With one acknowledging being the listener as the other one speaks and vice versa. The self-interested bore is impervious to this rhythm and so convivial atmosphere is lost.

Such self-interest as seen by individualism tends to predispose humans ‘not to consider their fellow creatures’. Alexis de Tocqueville asserted that democratic individualism posed an obstacle to civil society through its propensity for each person to withdraw into their own family/friend circle, leaving society to degenerate into ‘downright selfishness’. For Schopenhauer all malevolence, such as selfishness, is grounded in the idea that one is absolutely separate from other beings (‘someone else’s pain is no matter of mine’). Therefore, Schopenhauer argues that kindness is grounded in the unconscious knowledge that there is no ultimate reality in individuality. As this silent awareness grows kindness passes into altruism, the subordination of self-interest to those of all other beings.

Perhaps the most important concerns that we have about the autonomous rights is its respect for the life, integrity, well-being and the flourishing of others. We infringe them when we steal or kill, maim or terrorise others, or even refrain from helping others when they are in distress. People may differentiate who they owe this moral concern to, but most contemporary thinking would say that they are universal to humanity and many would say to other animals as well. The contribution that identity makes to being a morally accountable agent arises out of our concern for our own self. Such contributions may be a sustained interest in our future and, through a dialogical perspective, we present ourselves in social exchange with others to further the interpersonal enterprise of moral accountability and the realisation of a possible future for us all.

Therefore, of the many accounts of selfhood, the dialogical self stands out as one that explains a human being’s position as part of the world. We are indeed clods of earth that are parts of the main, as Donne elicits so beautifully. When another human is violated, so is our own humanity. Our identity is bound inextricably with our place amongst others and within the greater world. We are involved in humanity through being human and it is in the protection of this identity that we must act, for a breach of humanity does not simply happen to another it happens to us as well.



Abelsen, P. (1993), “Schopenhauer and Buddhism”, Philosophy East and West, 43. 2 Anderson,J.& Honneth, A., (2005), “Autonomy, vulnerability, recognition, and justice” in Autonomy and the Challenges of Liberalism: New Essays , Christman, John Philip; Anderson, Joel , 2005

Ansell, N. (2011), “My Life as a Hermit”, in The Observer, 27 March 2011

Chaibong, H. (2000), “The Cultural Challenge to Individualism”, in Journal of Democracy, 11.1 (2000)

Dennett, D. C., (1991),”The reality of selves” in Consciousness Explained , Dennett, Daniel C.; Weiner, Paul , 1991

Donne, J. Meditation XVII, No Man is an Island, Souvenir Press Limited, 1988

Kühler, M. & Jelinek, N. (2010), “Autonomy and the Self”, in Preprints for the Advanced Study in Bioethics, Münster 2010/10

Levinas, E. (1961), “Totality and Infinity” , trans. Alphonso Lingis, Martinus Nihoff, Dordecht, (1987)

Occupy Wall Street (n.d.), http://www.occupywallstreet.net/ accessed 18/11/2013

Oshana, M. (2013), “Self Identity and Moral Agency” in Autonomy and the Self, Philosophical Studies Series, Vol 118

Sartre J.P., (1943), Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, trans. Helen Barnes 1956, Routledge Press

Taylor, C. (1989), “Inescapable frameworks” in Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity , Charles Taylor

Taylor, C. (1991), “The dialogical self” in Interpretive Turn: Philosophy, Science, Culture , Hiley, David R.; Bohman, James; Shusterman, Richard , 1991

de Tocqueville, A. (1838), Democracy in America, 2.2.2, trans. Henry Reeves, (Kindle Edition)




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