Monday, March 26, 2012

Where does it come from . . .

Preamble: I've begun writing this piece on March 26, 2012. I don't know when I will finish it. I also don't know whether I will ever have time to edit it as a piece of writing. So, you need to forgive me for various kinds of stylistic errors you may find there. Feel free to leave comments.

My name is Masood. It is also spelt as Masud or Mas'ud or Masoud or one of many other ways.

I was born and raised in Tehran, which I recently visited, but now live near San Francisco working for an Information Technology firm.

My brush with philosophy began a long time ago, perhaps in pre-kindergarten years. Children always wonder about things.

My more formal study of philosophy began in high-school when I first purchased Al-Ghazzali's Alchemy of Happiness in Persian. This was not required reading but I was so mesmerized by the brief two-page extract in our high-school Persian reading book that I felt I needed to read the rest of the book. In the years before the revolution, I also dabbled into Ali Shari'ati's work and the works of some French philosophers. The latter studies' credit goes to a classmate who wanted to introduce me to what he called dialectic materialism. It all "made sense" for a while, which is why I ended up also looking into the writings of "revolutionaries" like Marx, Engels, Lenin, and later into the writings of Mao. At least the latter had some easier flavor to it. All-in-all, these later, Marxian writings were rigid and did well to kill my desire to learn more philosophy.

At this point in my life, and in the midst of war and savagery that the Western world had helped unleash on my country of birth, I turned within and focused on my studies as a scientist and technologist, going through engineering graduate school, with a focus on scientific computing. Family life and responsibilities made it impossible to pursue intellectual interests for pure, "non-practical" reasons.

While working on PhD research and then dissertations, which was focused on computational dynamics, I ran into Chomsky's work on linguistics and politics and also came into contact with some friends who were more committed to philosophy than I had ever been. This drew me back in. I took an advanced course in linguistics and another one in political philosophy. I cannot truthfully say I had no remnants of philosophical interest in me prior to this rebirth. Early in my graduate engineering work, I had taken a course in sociology of knowledge, and my interest in science and engineering always did have a philosophical bent to it. The undertone was there. So, when my interest was rekindled, I had built an intuitive and multi-faceted understanding of reality. However, something was missing, and this was unlocked when I began working as a journalist (writing for one of the university papers), taking art and meeting the person who later became a close friend and my wife. She had great influence on me given her youth and enthusiasm but also her sensitivity and tendency to reflect on emotional issues. I owe much to her patience and her matter-of-fact simple method of looking at things and discovering them.

One thing led to another. In the year I was busy writing my PhD dissertation, I also enrolled in the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. It is hard to explain, at this point, how it came that I applied for this program but it is also not relevant to the story here. From the start at Berkeley, I also began taking philosophy course. During the first year, I had gone through a fantastic course on Plato taught by one of the outgoing classical philosophy professors there. It was a busy academic year. In the second semester, I was completing my dissertation, taking journalism and philosophy courses at Berkeley, teaching a course on programming at San Francisco city college and applying for jobs in China.

Once the academic year completed, I took a year off, and we headed to China. It was summer of 1990. We arrived in Anda and Daqing, in Heilongjiang province of PRC, in August. We had travelled through Shanghai and Harbin. They settled us in a guest house. I was teaching some courses on plant design but had an amazing amount of time to study and reflect, particularly during the late fall, winter and early spring, and during Manchurian deep freeze. We had a chance to become more familiar with Chinese culture -- I had taken courses on China's modern history as an undergraduate -- and I devoted my remaining time on devouring books on philosophy, going over multiple original writers -- including Hume, Kant, Russell and others -- as well as a sweeping two-volume work on the history of philosophy by my Plato professor at Berkeley. I also read much in philosophical logic (from W.V. Quine), and devoured a course book on computational linguistics. In Manchuria, life was simple but the time it afforded was incredibly invaluable. All this was preparing me to delve into philosophy, even more deeply, on my return.

While in Heilongjiang, I remained in communications with my Plato professor. He sent me a packet of his own writings to read. (I still have to finish this packet.) I also wrote to some computational linguists who had authored the book I was reading, and had a chance to go to Indiana the next year to study computational linguistics but decided against it and returned to Berkeley. The year in China had given me intellectual direction.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Jacques Derrida, 1930 - 2004

I originally wrote this entry on October 11, 2004, and published it on

Following Jacques Derrida's death last week, Derek Attridge and Thomas Baldwin write this introduction to his work and life in the Guardian. I know very little about Derrida and, in general, about French philosophy after Rousseau (except for a bit of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, I found forays into Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes completely ungainful) but I've heard a great deal of praise for Derrida's work. The Guardian article certainly provides a nice introduction to the significance of what he was trying to do. The greatest surprise for me was Derrida's connection to Algeria and soccer:

Jackie Derrida - he later adopted a more "correct" French version of his first name - was born in El-Biar, near Algiers, into an indigenous Jewish family. He attended local primary schools and, in 1941, entered the nearby lycee, already subject to anti-semitic Vichy laws. The following year, he was expelled as a Jew, and was not able to recommence regular schooling until 1944. Even then, he did not settle down; he dreamed of being a professional footballer and failed the baccalaureat in 1947. These were years of intense reading, however, including Rousseau, Nietzsche and Paul Valery.

Guardian, Oct. 11, 2004


Mark C. Taylor's


Weber Reinhard's letter to The NYT at

Remembering Jaques Derrida

The U of Chicago book:
Philosophy in the Time of Terror

Action, Individual and Organization

I originally wrote this entry on October 9, 2004, and published it on

Scottish Philosopher and Christian thinker, John MacMurray argued in his seminal work, The Self As Agent (1957), for the centrality of action to our existence. "Action," for MacMurray, "is choice."

Time, and indeed action, of which it is the form, cannot be object for a subject. It can only be experienced in action. In such experience of time, the characteristic structure is a dinstinction between past and future. When the agent moves, his action continues. At any point in this continuing movement he is aware of the distinction between past and future. The past is what has been done; the future what has not been done but remains to do. That part of the movement which is past is already actual, the part which is future is not actual but only possible. In general, therefore, the past is the field of actuality, the future the field of possibility. The present is simply the point of action . . .

In action, then, the Agent generates a past by actualizing a possibility. This 'generation', or 'bringing into existence', is pratical determination, and the actual is the determinate. To act, therefore, is to determine; and the Agent is the determiner . . . We may therefore define acting as determining the future. The past is then that which has been determined, and is, in consequence, completely determinate . ..

The Self As Agent (pp. 133-134)

What becomes to our propensity to act, i.e. to determine the future, when it comes to our activity within large, formal organizations?

Chester Barnard (The Functions of the Executive, 1938), writing at about the same period as MacMurray's philosophical musings sees "a need of action as a primary propensity and instinct" even when we are acting within organizations. The need for action extends beyond individuals to organizations (in which they have to organize themselves because of various limitations imposed on individuals in making choices through individual action).

. . . Correlative with this is the observation that enduring social contact, even when the object is exclusively social, seems generally impossible without activity. It will be generally noted that a purely passive or bovine kind of association among men is of short duration. They seem impelled to do something . . .

. . . Where the situation affects a number of persons simultaneously they are likely to do any sort of mad thing. The necessity for action where a group of persons is involved seems to be almost overwhelming. I think this necessity underlies such proverbs as 'Idle hands make mischief,' and I have no doubt that it may be the basis for a great deal of practice within armies.

The Functions of the Executive (pp. 117-118)

Organizations die if they cannot provide for purposeful and satisfying action of individuals, while guaranteeing a sense of choice-making which can only be authentic in local groupings.

In large organizations, the possibilities of participation increase with the greater possibilities offered for association and action. Returning to a concept of choice similar to MacMurray's, Barnard notes that this greater number of possibilities and also the conflict of obligtaions they accompany, "may induce a sort of paralysis of action through inability to make choice."

In short, we have a propensity to make a choice, to determine the future, through our actions, but in large organizations, such choice-making actions are often frustrated.

Situations that frustrate such choice-making and action-determintation, degrade our personalities and lead us to a state of being lost.

The activities of individuals necessarily take place within local immediate groups. The relation of a man to a large organization . . . is necessarily through those with whom he is in immediate contact. Social activities cannot be action at a distance . . . [This] justifies a statement made to me that comradeship is much more powerful than patriotism, etc., in the behavior of soldiers. The essential need of the individual is association, and that requires local activity or immediate interaction between individuals. Without it the man is lost. The willingness of men to endure onerous routine and dangerous tasks which they could avoid is explained by this necessity for action at all costs in order to maintain the sense of social integration.

The Functions of the Executive (119)

So, what is the upshot of all this philosophizing?

Action summarizes our being, and organization is often a necessity to take particular types of action. Local, (often informal) immediate groups within organizations function to limit and make more effective our action-choices whose frustration will put us in danger of becoming lost. We take on large, dangerous tasks not because of some large ideal but to ensure comradeship and local social cohesion.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

In-formation Worship

I originally wrote this entry on October 1, 2004, and published it on

The very concept of in-formation has implications that suggest an input / output model of human beings.

Many explain their mistakes away by simply noting that they just didn't know, they just didn't have enough information. Problems are often tracked to failure of information systems where the real problem is denial, a lack of most rudimentary understanding of the common principles governing human existence.

There is a distinction between not knowing and not having enough information.

Knowing is about knowledge. It can be gained by education ("to draw / bring out / lead out / rear from within"). As John Dewey, the noted American philosopher of education, has argued, we gain knowledge by acting within the real context of our civilization and culture. Knowledge can also be gained by meditation and revelations of particular kind. Some have even spoken of sacred knowledge or knowledge of the sacred but rarely have I seen anyone speak of sacred data although I've observed many speaking of data, whether "scientific" or otherwise, as if it was sacred.

In contrast with knowledge, in-formation is about data. Data has nothing to do with us, is outside of us, and our involvement with it is of secondary concern. It is the odd among us who like to be a fragment of data in someone's book. No soldier (in fact, no one) wants to be a "++" on a bodycount variable. Life proves they are not.

Data is usually collected within an artificial, experimental context. How often do we drop spheres of the same size but different masses down the Leaning Tower of Pisa as Galileo Galilei once did?

Our involvement with data (despite Heisenberg's Principle) is secondary.

Data can also be obtained by simply looking into a database of one sort or another. However, any correspondence with reality is derivative.

The conclusion is drawn, often, that if only we had enough (or more, since it is never enough) information, everything would be done more efficiently, more effectively.

This sort of explanation may have some validity in very narrow fields of engineering or technology but not with respect to real social action or organizational behavior. Robert S. McNamara was able to deploy his data-oriented expertise to good effect in order to boost fighter plane production during World War II. However, the same attitude failed badly in Vietnam. What went wrong? Obviously, a data-driven approach to reality was insufficient for grasping and dealing with it, no matter how (relatively) powerful the data gathering and processing facilities.

IT tools and data representations should not be confused with reality even if super-computers do a very good job of simulating some very limited aspects of the world.

What matters includes reality that goes well beyond in-formation and information processing.

For example, as Mencius, the great Chinese philosopher and a student of Confucius' grandson taught his audience, "things of the same kind are alike" including human emotions. We can learn much more about reality and the effect of our actions on others by simply trying to put ourselves in others' shoes. Given the Mencian observation regarding the commonality of human emotions, it is no surprise that those who want to obscure their ability to experience the emotions of the other, begin by vilifying (and, yes, ridiculing) the other. [This talk about commonality of emotions reminds me of something else: The education of emotions is the most important type of education any human being can receive.]

On the other hand, as John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid have noted, information worship only helps drive a distance between the real (including the social context of our actions) and us.

Storage does not correlate with significance, nor volume with value. Standing atop gigabytes, terabytes, and even exabytes of information will not necessarily help us see further. It may only put our heads further into the clouds. . . . Indeed, mankind, as Samuel Johnson presciently noted, needs more often to be reminded than informed. If we keep looking down the same tunnel, we are likely to keep encountering the same problems. To avoid them . . . we all need to get outside the information tunnel, look around, and appreciate the social life that lies beyond and makes it possible.

The Social Life of Information

So, are the stuff in our databases the Pyramids (Al-Ahram) of our time? Will they survive as long as the Pyramids have?

Mencius on the Common Nature of the "Heart"

I originally wrote this entry on October 4, 2004, and published it on

Many commentators have recognized Mencius (Meng Ke), a philosopher-prophet of ancient China, to be second only to Confucius in importance, with an influential pedigree running over some 2000 years and an undisputable authority for over 1000 years.

The following passage, one of my favorites, is a fragment from D.C. Lau's translation of Mencius:


Mencius said, 'In good years the young men are mostly lazy, while in bad years they are mostly violent. Heaven has not sent down men whose endowment differs so greatly. The difference is due to what ensnares their hearts. Take the barley for example. Sow the seeds and cover them with soil. The place is the same and the time of sowing is also the same. The plants shoot up and by the summer solstice they all ripen. If there is any unevenness, it is because the soil varies in richness and there is no uniformity in the fall of rain and dew and the amount of human effort devoted to tending it. Now, things of the same kind are all alike. Why should we have doubts when it comes to man? The sage and I are of the same kind. Thus Lung Tzu said, "When someone makes a shoe for a foot he has not seen, I am sure he will not produce a basket." All shoes are alike because all feet are alike. All palates show the same preferences in taste . . . It is the same also with the ear . . . It is the same also with the eye . . . Should hearts prove to be an exception by possessing nothing in common? What is common to all hearts? Reason and rightness . . . '

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Organization, Information Systems and Philosophy

I originally wrote this entry on September 30, 2004, and published it on

The Interdisciplinary Committee on Organizational Studies at the University of Michigan School of Information appears to have held a very interesting session in the fall of 1999 on organization and information.

I noticed a large number of presentations from some of leading thinkers in this area, including ones by Huberty Dreyfus (on "Nihilism on Line: The Promise and Dangers of Information on the Internet") and David Blair (on "Is the Philosophy of Language Relevant to Information System Design?"). The record for each presentation comes with presentation slides and streaming media recording which should be worth sampling as a useful complement to the slides. (I have not had a chance to do this myself.) For a complete list of all presentation at ICOS fall sessions see here.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Plato on Writing to Forget

I originally wrote this entry on September 17, 2004, and published it on

I took my Plato with Professor Wallace Matson in Berkeley some 15 years ago, and I still have the copy of Plato we used as our text. When I took it off my bookshelf and looked at it tonight, I noticed I had even underlined and made many comments on the margins of the part of Phaedrus that is about writing, and yet, I had to read a mention of those sections (well, erroneously, a mention of Pheado instead of Phaedrus) in Dreyfus' On the Internet to go back and try to find them. Dreyfus has written a couple of paragraphs on the material in Phaedrus but I think Phaedrus already contains many of the critical elements in Dreyfus' argument which seeks to deflate some of the (unjustified?) hype about the Internet.

In Phaedrus, Socrates critiques writing and finds deficiencies in it (and I suppose in reading) which are absent in rich conversational dialogues. Such dialogue leads to deeper learning and exchange.

Take for example, the following paragraph, which should ring strikingly uncanny for a software developer today.

Then anyone who leaves behind him a written manual, and likewise anyone who takes it over from him, on the supposition that such writing will provide something reliable and permanent, must be exceedingly simple-minded; he must be ignorant of Ammon's utterance, if he imagines that written words can do anything more than remind one who already knows that which the writing is concerned with.

Ammon was an Egyptian sage-king, whose beautiful discourse on writing Socrates had just shared with Phaedrus, the young man fond of compositions on love.

More on "Ammon's utterance" later!