I’m Matthew J. Brown aka Matt Brown aka Mattbrown aka Matt. Known online since about 1994, or anyhow before I kept any records of such things, by the handle “the hanged man.”

I am an Associate Professor of Philosophy, which I teach at The University of Texas at Dallas in the School of Arts & Humanities. I am also the director of the Center for Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology, which organizes research projects, puts on public lectures and conferences, and advocates for understanding and improving the relation between human values and culture with science and tech. I also do a bit of work in cognitive science, history and philosophy of psychology, and comics and pop culture studies.


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Notes on Anthony Weston’s How to Re-Imagine the World

Anthony Weston‘s How to Re-Imagine the World: A Pocket Guide for Practical Visionaries is, like Fesmire’s John Dewey and Moral Imagination and Johnson’s Morality for Humans, a book about moral imagination and its importance for our decisions about how to live. Unlike either of those books, though, there is not a whit of philosophical theorizing about ethics in this book. As Weston puts it in his opening words, “This book is a guide to creative thinking in service of radical social transformation” (p. 1). And that it is. In its small 142 pages it covers a wide variety of exhortations, strategies, and tips for creative thinking about our lives and our world.

Weston is relentlessly positive, perhaps even Romantic, without coming across as utopian in an out-of-touch, unconstrained idealism sort of way. The emphasis of the book is on vision and ideas. This is not a guide for practical activism on the ground, though there are tips and suggestions here and there about how to bring visions and ideas to life. No doubt, those truly hardened by Realpolitik and incrementalism, and many others besides, would find this book hokey and unrealistic. I see it as an invitation to be perceptive about the actual, and bring the imagination to bear in order to discover the possible. One of the best parts of the book is that it is constantly fleshing out its advice with examples that are fleshed out enough to be suggestive, but brief and sketchy enough so that you don’t get bogged down in the details. Again, some may find the style off-putting, but I liked it.

The book is organized into 23 very punch chapters (plus an exhortatory introduction and a brief afterword). The chapters are organized into five sections that are labeled with a few sentences describing major themes or strategies rather than section headings. The first section deals with the importance of working from a big-picture vision of the social reality one is aiming for. Visions inspire, bring people together, give us something positive to strive for, rather than merely a problem to fight against. The second section deals with strategies for creative or generative thinking, different ways of coming up with creative ideas that could drive social change. The third section goes in a somewhat more practical direction, providing suggestions for how to look for “tipping points” and other dynamics that make radical change achievable. Here I was reminded of Fesmire’s discussion of moral imagination as “creatively tapping a situation’s possibilities.”

The fourth section of the book discusses the way that cultural institutions, practices, norms, and world views can act as barriers to change, but also can be shifted and reconstructed to make change possible. The final section deals with more practical issues of how to build momentum behind idea, make alliances, and achieve goals. (This, for me, was the least satisfying part of the book, in part because it didn’t seem to disclose very concrete possibilities for change.)

As an aside, I think there is a bit of the book where Weston neatly captures, in plain, easily digested language, the valuable insight from Martin Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology.” (At least, the take-away that I find valuable enough to keep teaching the essay.)

Let us adopt the term Resourcism for the worldview (assumption or ideology) that the Earth is essentially just a set of resources for our use. Trees are just standing lumber; rocky hills are just gravel pits waiting to happen; other animals are just living meat, and even you and I may be reduced to customers or ‘Human Resources.’ Take all of this to its logical conclusion and of course we have environmental crisis, an Earth being sucked dry. But it is hard to recognize the root cause when we don’t have a word for it Resourcism shows this world-view for what it is: a relentless, single-minded, narrow value-system, and certainly not the only one possible. (p. 115)

In sum, there are a few good reasons to read this book. If you’re in need of a boost to your moral imagination, if you’re hungry for social change but dissatisfied with the binary, oppositional terms of contemporary debate, or if you want to teach your students to think creatively about ethics and political philosophy, in terms of possibilities rather than abstract theories and criteria. Don’t expect a lot of philosophical depth or intellectual rigor, though; that’s not what this book is trying to do.

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