by phoebe lily page
In these times, the systems that structure our lives have changed – or disappeared. The ways we move through our environments have changed. We leave a wide berth for those we meet in the street, and we welcome our friends and colleagues into our living spaces, albeit through the lens of a camera. How we inhabit our bodies, perhaps no longer adorned in stylish clothes, has altered as we shift into different ways of being in our homes, and in ourselves. The social circles we maintain, the way we work and study, the way we experience joy and anxiety, all have changed. Perhaps not all in ways that we desire, and some perhaps bring a new sense of comfort and delight.
There’s a tendency to interpret change as a break from habit that causes discomfort and a longing for the routines that are now left as memories – that jerk to our attention as we move around in autopilot. Yet, change is integral to so many of the systems we participate in and create for ourselves. Change, slight or vast, offers definition to our lives. In a sense, philosophy, as the history of thought, traces these changes and engages with the very idea of change itself too.
The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus considered the world as an eternal flux. One of the fragments remaining of his thought is:
"Just as the river where I step
The world, the river, and ourselves, are continuously changing and never remain precisely the same, yet we can still recognise them. The changes form part of their identity. Even though the river, for example, appears stable, the flowing water, eroding riverbed and different inhabitants means it is not as static as it seems. We could say, then, that what stays the same is the constant flux of the world.
In the 18th Century, Kant wrote in the Critique of the Power of Judgment that we should conceive of living beings as different from natural objects, like rivers, because the former seem to have purposes. For Kant, this is only ever a regulative judgment, one that we cannot know for certain. However, it is important to think about living beings in this way because the purposiveness suggests that the living beings are creating their own responses and actions in relation to the environmental stimuli they encounter.
This sense of being able to produce one’s own actions in response to the changes in the environment is central to the concept of self-organisation. Self-organisation is a concept that is woven throughout the history of philosophy in different forms, extending into how the cosmos is formed, the construction of matter and all the wonders of what we call nature. For the present purpose, it can help us understand how we conceive of the activity of social systems – how they adapt, transform themselves and seemingly appear on their own accord.
It need not be the case that a self-organising system sets out with an intention to reach a certain goal as the outcome is not always predictable. However, contemplating what it means to be self-organising, to create changes through our actions and how they impact the systems we participate in can be crucial for recognising that we are active beings in a dynamic world. For, self-organisation is premised upon the mutual recognition of the interdependency of the changes present outside of us, and those which we create. We are both formed by, and forming the world, our social systems and our sense of self.
Change is occurring continuously; however, some of those changes originate in how we act; we are not merely passive. If change gives definition to our lives, and if we do organise ourselves to generate new responses as individual systems and as participants of social systems, then the impetus to consider how we act is not only vitally important for how we navigate the world as if distanced from it, but rather how we are of the world, immersed in the interconnected systems that together form our sense of community and our own wellbeing.
We have seen this in response to the current pandemic as a number of social movements have formed. People have organised themselves to help others take care of those around them. In Bristol, the Mutual Aid Network is formed of individuals coming together with an ambition to help those who are vulnerable and self-isolating access necessities and to find joy and support one another. If we follow the idea of self-organisation as autonomously creating our actions in the world, then all the people involved are the parts of the system that together have created a network that brings new activity into the world that was not present before, nor was it possible without the volunteers organising themselves in order to build systems of resources to be shared within communities.
In addition to Mutual Aid and similar networks as instances of community self-organisation, we can think about how we, too, are capable of responding to and creating our actions in the world and in ourselves. Reflecting on Alison’s previous post on Kierkegaard and anxiety, if we consider ourselves to be self-organising too, then we cannot always build the environment that we find ourselves in, for we are both formed by and forming history; however, we can choose possible ways through the change and build the future – we are part of the endless flux.
In a time when our mental wellbeing is strained, change is not always welcome, yet we can create how we react. In personal reflections on change and being faced with uncertainty, anxiety, and a dramatic change that rings through all aspects of life as previously known, a line from Frightened Rabbit’s “Skip the Youth” (from The Winter of Mixed Drinks, 2010) came to mind:
"if you don’t stare at the dark, if you never feel bleak, life starts to lose its taste."
Feeling bleak and out of sync can be challenging, and yet, this experience creates new conditions to form new ways of being. The contrast creates depth and a moment to pause – if we are, as proposed here, self-organising, then asking questions of how to act, how to create changes and how to accept the new environment is a task we all can take on as individuals and as a society. We can ask: how, in my power as a being that organises itself, do I wish to go forth?
In short, change is perhaps continuous as Heraclitus argued, and if we are self-organising active beings, then the changes may not always be the ones we are hoping for, but we can forge the path ahead. Either by participating in social networks like Mutual Aid, in our bodies, or our relationship to any aspect of the environment. Change brings definition – or taste – to life, and we can and do create tiny changes.
UK Philosophy and COvid-19
Do you want to know how philosophy is relevant to COVID-19? The British Philosophical Association is collecting resources on this topic. For further information, have a look at their website.
Philosophy and the pandemic: reading suggestions!