"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
If a hastily put-together profile on LinkedIn is to be believed, Bernard den Ouden was a professor of philosophy at the University of Hartford from 1969 until 2012. A friend of mine took a den Ouden course at U of H before the man retired. Even in the twilight of his career though, this professor inspired my friend to look at the study of philosophy as a fundamentally practical enterprise. While their class visited Native American reservations in North Dakota or pondered den Ouden’s work with women’s rights groups in Egypt, the role of theory never strayed far from that of practice. My friend gave me his copy of Are Freedom and Dignity Possible?, and I’m using that copy to cobble together this review.
Den Ouden’s short book, 124 pages in paperback, embodies the same spirit of his classes and activist career. Here we have a roughly even mix of theoretical perspective (the nature of creativity, intelligence, reason and freedom, for instance) and practical application (sustainable technology, private-sector welfare, community organizing). In truth, the length of the book does a disservice to the complexity of the subject matter, but as a primer for thinking philosophically about human development it is a success. His chapter on “Nietzsche’s Theory of Excellence” marks a particularly scintillating contrast to those killjoys who focus too much on Nietzsche’s pessimism.
Anyway, I’d like to focus on three themes in the book to give some perspective on what it means to think philosophically (and practically!) about human development: appropriate technology, social and community-based projects, and how people achieve balance in their activist lifestyles and initiatives.
First, the appropriate technology movement involves using home-grown technologies to help areas with inadequate infrastructure or insufficient access to water and food. Appropriate technologies should satisfy three standards:
1. They should be simple.
2. They should be sustainable.
3. They should be extremely inexpensive.
And ideally they should be part of a comprehensive plan to develop the social, political, and economic atmosphere of a community.
For example, den Ouden describes efforts to restore ancient wells in arid areas of northern Africa. Well restoration is labor intensive, which provides communities with opportunities for the unemployed. While they’re working, these community members are also developing expertise in a valuable skill. Over time they can improve their skills during well maintenance and by finding innovative solutions to problems that arise. They may even pass down this skill to future generations. Meanwhile, if they can get enough income from their work, they can help more young people get an education. It may seem too good to be true, but den Ouden cites several examples of technology projects that succeeded in this way, including irrigation and drainage initiatives, windmills and stove technology.
It’s important to note that in many regions of the world, huge numbers of people remain unemployed not because they lack education and training, health or the will to work. They don’t have jobs because elite members of their societies don’t permit them to earn an independent living. In fact, den Ouden argues that the same bullsh#t happens all over the world:
“Many economies and related social structures function in a very deliberate way to keep the poorest of the world’s poor disenfranchised and utterly vulnerable. Often moneylenders, police forces, military officials, and legal systems work in concert with the rich and the powerful to exclude vast numbers of individuals and communities from opportunities to improve their lot. The poor are often barred from participating in meaningful political processes relating to the rule or governance of their communities or countries.”*
Den Ouden points out that in Bangladesh, moneylenders keep landless farmers in a state of chronic debt. This makes these farmers always available to work for very low wages. Other scholars call this phenomenon “wage slavery,” and point to where comparable circumstances may be the norm even in the U.S.
But besides the basic point that everyone should be able to provide for their families and exercise their freedom in doing so, a lack of opportunities also translates into a lack of human dignity. Moreover, den Ouden’s description of women becoming literate and thereby forming a sense of personhood (they no longer saw themselves as merely instrumental to the needs of their families) also makes a strong case for increased independence (through a steady income and education) in allowing human dignity to blossom.
By contrast, other development projects that target community issues with technological solutions can involve overly complex machinery requiring sophisticated and expensive maintenance. Projects like power-generating playgrounds, high-tech water pumps and more failed to make a difference in some areas because they forced communities to be dependent on the groups who imposed the technology from the outside.
Implicit in the appropriate technology movement, den Ouden sees the benefits of approaching development as a kind of social project. Creativity, especially the creativity to solve community problems, does not take place in isolation, he says (contradicting the mythical archetype of the lone creative genius). Rather, the best development projects will involve everyone getting together to brainstorm their collective needs, create an inventory of their resources and then put a plan into action:
A. Community meeting
B. Needs assessment (employment, food, water, sanitation …)
C. Collect information (community expertise, construction supplies, land …)
D. Develop a plan
E. Delegate responsibility
G. Seek feedback
H. Successive iterations of the plan
Den Ouden points out that the solutions communities come up with themselves are more likely to succeed. These communities are empowered when they tackle their own issues and realize their own strengths. They are more invested in putting their plan into action and keeping it going. And again, these initiatives maximize the freedom and dignity that activists like den Ouden feel are central to ethical development.
Importantly, for individuals eager to engage in such work to benefit their communities, den Ouden stresses that there must be a balance. This balance finds a middle ground between obsessive interest in improving one’s character and selfless devotion to public life. Proper balance not only preserves the sanity of the activist (surely you remember the very public breakdown of the founder of Kony 2012), but it can also safeguard the social initiative. This seems like a truism, but a balance between the individual and the public is also important when it comes to policymaking.
Interestingly, den Ouden points to a lack of balance in the debate about welfare in the United States. Conservatives, he says, are too individualistic in their thinking. They believe that all persons receiving public assistance have the tools within them to overcome economic hardship. They advocate cutting social programs because they think the recipients become weak by relying on them. Ultimately, they reduce the enormous complexity of poverty to essentially a conversation about personal willpower.
Liberals, on the other hand, are too enamored with solutions raining down from society at large, he says. Social programs run the risk of becoming swollen, inefficient and indifferent bureaucracies that put forth a one-size-fits-all solution to communities of unique individuals.
Finding a middle ground between both extremes, den Ouden points to Wisconsin’s welfare reform. The state essentially delegated welfare to private, non-profit organizations who diversified the meaning of a welfare “safety net” to include transportation, childcare, healthcare and job training (instead of just a check in the mail). These temporary, long-term services allowed 90% of recipients at the start of the program to transition into the job market and independence.
“The logic of (former Governor) Tommy Thompson’s reform was and is not to give up on welfare recipients and say, ‘Here is the money, don’t bother us and we won’t bother you.’ It is a process of mutual responsibility. It will be difficult to stay the course and find creative and constructive solutions for those who are the most difficult to serve, that is, those for whom the transition to the workplace is riddled with problems and barriers. The key will be that society and communities, through their commitment, their public policy support, and through their public administrations and their staff organize themselves such that the seemingly incorrigible cannot evade responsibility and the truly needy receive the long-term support that they genuinely need.”
In a truly unexpected departure from the social and environmental themes of the book, den Ouden digresses in his final pages to discuss his personal health problems. I can’t stress enough how bizarre this portion of the book becomes.** Using the oblique language of philosophy and “embodied consciousness,” den Ouden perplexes his readers with a story about how he injured his back lifting heavy things for an elderly person and now lives with chronic pain. Try not to cringe too hard while he continues by expressing his annoyance with people who ask the question “How are you doing?” and the deleterious effects of pain on his sex life. And finally, try not to read too deeply into his abstractions about suicide as possibly a welcome gambit to secure lasting “peace or even some repose.”
It seems a shame that an otherwise provocative book could so quickly descend into chaos in its final chapters. Frankly, after turning the final page I hardly know whether I should look into the potential of appropriate technologies in my community or call up the author and see if he’s okay.
On second thought, I guess he wouldn’t like that.
*I plan to discuss this claim and the history behind it in a future blog post about colonial (U.S.) American history, Bernie Sanders and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
**Although another review of this book sees den Ouden’s discussion of his personal pain as a means for empathetically engaging with the suffering of the disadvantaged.