Interview with Leemon McHenry about his forthcoming book The Event Universe

I’d never heard of Whitehead before. I am intrigued (as ever) by thinkers who challenge normative thinking and excited at the possibilities such thinking can create.

Christopher Watkin

TheEventUniverseRecently I interviewed Leemon McHenry about his book The Event Universe: The Revisionary Metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead (UK) (US), the newest addition to the Crosscurrents series. The book is available for pre-order and scheduled for publication in July. Leemon’s other books can be found here.

Chris Watkin: You write in the preface that The Event Universe has been a long time in the making, and indeed it is clear that the book is the fruit of sustained and persistent reflection dating back to the mid 1990s. What set you on the journey to writing The Event Universe, and is it the same book you had in mind from the beginning?

Leemon McHenry: The Event Universe is pretty much what I had in mind from the time I began to think about what problems I wanted to tackle. I didn’t think I’d ever get…

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Learning to talk to one another – politics and practical judgement

Working inside a large bureaucratic organisation where means and ends are largely dictated by political considerations outside the organisation’s ability to influence, I can see the corrosive effects of the race from judgement. Thinking is done by an elite few, disseminated to the many who provide the service. Our own experience and judgement not only count for nothing, but are positively discouraged through sanctions. The behaviour this engenders is that it is safer to follow the rules than to think for ourselves. A good example of what can happen is illustrated by the demise of the Liverpool End of Life Care Pathway. It was a framework which nurses and doctors followed without understanding the underlying judgements that created it in the first place. The Pathway became discredited. In our complex world we seem increasingly to defer to systematised experience and not to trust our own. Just look at the proliferation of people selling quick wins and how they do it: Ten steps to a fitter body; the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. We are encouraged to learn from others in order to overcome the limitations of our own cognitive abilities and the narrowness of our experience. We are social animals and have a natural tendency to calibrate our thinking in response to our social surroundings. Perhaps if we improved the quality of our thinking instead we might avoid the trap of alienation outlined in Chris’s blog.

Complexity & Management Centre

I went to hear Prof Colin Crouch promote his new book The Knowledge Corrupters: Hidden Consequences of the Financial Takeover of Public Life at the Institute for Government.

Crouch’s thesis is that the financialisation of public institutions reduces the meaning of what they do to a limited number of numerical targets and performance indicators often of a financial kind. This has the effect of also reducing the spectrum of knowledge we need fully to be employees, citizens and customers and constrains expert judgement. It has the effect of trumping all other valuations of particular organizational or social problems with one supposed truth, that of the bottom line or a financial target.

One example he gives of the consequences of financialization from the UK is the monetary incentive offered to GPs to refer more patients with suspected Alzheimer’s disease for further medical tests. The incentive is problematic on a number…

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My Adventure Begins

How do we train our brains to overcome depression and anxiety? If we think we can cure (remove the symptoms) then we could be setting out on a path to failure (increased depressed and anxious feelings). Being aware, observing our feelings as they arise, seems to work for most people. Here’s a blog from someone living with depression and anxiety and the story of a plane flight. She did really well. I celebrated with her.

Adventuring With Anxiety

I had an epiphany.

No, wait, please don’t go! I promise it’s not as lame as it sounds.

Last week, I got on a plane and flew hundreds of miles to see 15 people I’ve known via World of Warcraft for just shy of two years. As someone who struggles with social anxiety, it was terrifying and exhilarating.

But my epiphany began on the plane, specifically when it first started to move away from the gate, and my carefully crafted facade of calm shattered into a million shards. We were merely taxiing through LAX and I felt like I was about to have a heart attack as the stewardesses were finishing up their safety routine. My face had that queasy, loose feeling you get when you know all the blood’s been drained out of it.
I was at a crossroads.

As I clutched my armrest, wondering idly if I’d get…

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A Matter of Life and Death: the Fourth Act in Shakespearean Tragedy

For those of us who love potentiality and resist commitment to a course of action – do we prefer fourth acts to fifth?

Edinburgh University Press Blog

By Lisa Hopkins

Having an associative mind is often a source of shame, but it does occasionally have benefits. Two separate moments of mental abstraction came together to help me think about the fourth acts of Shakespearean tragedies. Watching King Lear at the West Yorkshire Playhouse with a worry at the back of my mind about the parking meter and how much longer there was to go, it suddenly dawned on me that I knew perfectly well that we were in the fourth act. Asking myself how I knew that, I realised that it had to do with tonality, and specifically a feeling of calmness and openness, as if the play saw many directions lying open before both it and its hero, even though I knew that all those possibilities were about to be abruptly and brutally cut off. The idea of writing something about fourth acts immediately felt the…

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The power of words

I have recently experienced two occasions when a single word has caused debate. The debate has centred on whether the words in question are appropriate to the audience in terms of persuading them to behave differently.

In both cases the audience is employees. In both cases, the organization in question requires employees to change behaviour in order to achieve efficiencies (do more with less) which are deemed pivotal to survival in this age of austerity and limited resources.

One organization is a charity. The other is a UK National Health Service Foundation Trust.

The words in question: in the charity, the word is ‘commercial’. In the NHS, the word is ‘productivity’.

In both cases, these words have met with implacable resistance. They are not only not part of the vocabulary; they are words of an ideological enemy. Many people who work for the two organizations do so precisely because, at some level, their values eschew the idea that care could or should be constrained by financial considerations.

As a Board member in both organizations, I have to grapple with some stark financial realities. My charity is in a precarious position. Grant funding is drying up; contracted services lose us money. We are fishing in a donations pool that is rapidly drying out. One of our best hopes for securing our future is to attract private customers – hence our need to be more commercial. We are competing against other businesses. We have to provide an excellent service at a price which makes us a surplus which will eventually (once we’ve paid back the money we borrowed to survive) be reinvested in charitable activities.

To me, that is the reality. The end justifies the means. And I have no problem with the means (if that means being more ‘commercial) because I’ve worked in the private sector most of my life. To me, commercial just means understanding how to apply one’s resources as effectively as possible in order to achieve good outcomes for customers and a surplus for reinvestment.

To others, it obviously means something far more sinister and threatening.

So, do we use a less sinister and threatening word when communicating with employees; or do we use it to convey the nature of the reality we find ourselves in? How do we take employees with us when we need their behaviours to change, but they deny, consciously or unconsciously, that the platform beneath their feet is burning?

It could be argued that this clash of words (and the ideas they represent) is a failure of the two organizations to engage their employees over a long period about what is happening in the world in terms of diminishing financial resources. Part of that engagement would necessitate a shift in the use of language.

All very well, but language is enmeshed in our beliefs of how we each see the world. Organizations are not necessarily trusted by their employees – they tend to want different things. Productivity is about losing jobs and making me work harder, isn’t it? Commercial is about being focused on money at the expense of people, isn’t it?

To tell an employee that s/he is working on a burning platform is not enough. They have to feel the heat and smell the acrid smoke.

My view is not to be apologetic about using language that one part of the organization (the Board) uses to mediate the (often grim) realities it faces. If others feel uncomfortable then it is up to Boards to communicate the grim realities in plain language rather than find acceptable stand-ins that blunt the message and which allow employees to continue as if the need to use resources efficiently and effectively is somehow for the birds, not for them.

The Post-Mortem of Labour Scotland

Labour’s rout in Scotland. A considered piece from EUP here. One factor not mentioned is Labour’s gradual move to the right in the UK as it allowed itself to be drawn into a dance where the music was chosen by others in order to win over Middle England. Scotland has remained consistently left of centre – and Labour has all but vacated that space.

Edinburgh University Press Blog

Three years ago, Gerry Hassan and I published a book entitled ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’. We envisaged that, unless radical steps were taken, Labour’s influence in Scotland would steadily decline. Speaking personally, I did not envisage a total rout at the polls. Why did it occur? And what does it signify for Labour’s future north of the border?

It is too early to offer a confident answer to the first question, so what follows is tentative.

To understand Scottish Labour’s plight, one needs to make a distinction between long-term historical forces and contingent political factors. In ‘The Strange Death’ we chronicled the steady unravelling of the social and institutional supports that, for a generation and more, had sustained and underpinned Labour rule in Scotland: council housing as the dominant form of housing tenure, high trade-union membership and a Labour-dominated local government.

From the late 1970s, slowly and unevenly…

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