Wednesday, September 27, 2017


I bet you didn't know that cleaning has a philosophy.  Or that it warrants an article.

But think about it.

What is cleaning?


In order to have cleaning, you have to define dirt.  This isn't as easy as it sounds.  To make the point quickly, here is a phrase that has made it into the national press at various times:

'Ethnic cleansing'

This phrase causes revulsion in many circles, because it applies a philosophy of hygiene to culture.  It is at the very edge of what I am talking about, but it illustrates a key issue when it comes to the philosophy of cleaning: first, you have to define what you mean by dirt.

Generally, we operate with a practical definition that we rarely think about: that dirt is what we all agree we don't want present, and therefore that cleaning is removing the things we all agree we don't want present.  We spend very little time in polite society thinking about what we assume is dirt, what we assume is undesirable.

So, to have a concept of cleaning at all, you have to divide your world into two parts:

1. Things you don't want near you
2. Things you do want near you

You then start to try to remove item 1 from your presence, whilst retaining item 2.


You will notice that our concept of cleaning depends on a concept of presence.  That is to say, you are trying to remove so-called 'dirt' from your presence.

There are two ways to do this:

1. Simply move the dirt away from you
2. Change the 'dirt' so that it becomes 'non-dirt'

I propose that the first option is what we might call 'lazy cleaning'.  We are simply passing on the problem to somewhere else.  A little like the nuclear waste industry, which often ships danger around the world, in order to expose other people, who are not ourselves, to risk.

The second option is more interesting.  It implies some kind of process of reconciliation: changing the situation so that 'dirt' becomes something more acceptable.  The dirt does not need to go somewhere else (which seems to me a ridiculous way to behave - passing on the problem to others).  It can stay right with you, but a change is necessary.

Using the ethnic cleansing analogy, we are considering alternatives to simply shipping 'undesirables' out.  We instinctively realise that the latter is wrong on two counts: firstly, because these 'undesirables', even though maybe difficult to live with, are as valuable as us; and secondly, because there is not an infinite supply of different locations.  It is therefore logical to seek to manage undesirable things, or what we perceive as 'dirt', in our presence, rather than ship it away from us.


Let's now sub-analyse option 2 above.  How can we change the 'dirt' so that it becomes non-dirt?  This breaks down into two options:

1. Change the nature of the 'dirt' so that it becomes harmless to us
2. Change our nature so that we cease to be harmed by the 'dirt'

Taking the first option first: how might we change the 'dirt' around us, to make it more 'hygienic', without 'shipping it out'.

An example might be packaging of foodstuffs.  Current food packaging creates a mountain of 'rubbish' (stuff we don't want near us, so we ship it out of our houses using undesirable-receptacles called dustbins).  Existing practice simply passes the problem on to others in another place and time.  We bury our mess in landfill, or ship it to other locations.

How can we change the nature of the dirt?  Well, we can change our packaging so that it does not need throwing away, and at the end of its life simply merges harmlessly into our environment.

And looking at the second option: how might we change our own nature?  Well, rubbish is only undesirable because we see it as so.  Hoarders have actually worked this out.  They change their nature so that they can accept all the rubbish around them.  It might be unpalatable to others, but it is a simple solution to the problem of dirt: learn to live with it.

Applied to our 'ethnic cleansing' question: having rejected 'shipping undesirables out' as a selfish and ignorant option, we can either: 1. try to change the person we have 'othered', or thought of as undesirable; or 2. try to change ourselves so that we learn to live with the person we have 'othered', or thought of as undesirable.


You may notice yourself reacting differently to the two examples above.  We generally value humans more than we value packaging, and therefore:

1. With items we value higher, such as humans, even if they make our lives a misery, we prefer to change ourselves to adapt to their presence, rather than trying to change them.  So our 'cleaning' involves self-change.
2. With items we value less, such as packaging, we feel more OK about trying to change their nature.  So our 'cleaning' involves changing externals.

This is not always the case.  You will be able to think of some people who use option two for everything.  They value themselves above everything, and therefore, whenever they feel 'unclean', they will set about trying to change aspects of their environment, including other humans... everything but themselves needs to change.  The problem is always external, and never lies in themselves.

Most people would accept that these latter people are wrong (i.e. that we can't always be trying to change the outside world to suit ourselves).  In fact, we can apply a sliding scale of hygiene, so that:

1. More selfish people tend to solve hygiene problems by either shipping the undesirable out, or trying to change it
2. More selfless people tend to solve hygiene problems by adapting themselves, so that they no longer see 'dirt': they see opportunities for self-adaptation

We all exist somewhere on this sliding scale.  You will have things you value highly (usually friends); and things you don't value so much (usually enemies or objects).  And your happiness, or cleanness, will usually involve adapting to the former, but trying to change or distance the latter.


Now I would like to propose that selfish people have much, much more cleaning work to do.  We should feel sorry for them, because their work is never done!

Think about it.  A selfish person wakes up in the morning.  They are surrounded by things they value less than themselves.  Therefore, when they experience difficulty, their solution is always to (a) ship the problem away from themselves, or (b) try to change everything and everyone but themselves.  How exhausting!  Such a person will have a never-ending response to their own suffering.  They are permanently employing themselves as a kind of police of the whole world, constantly trying to throw people and things out, or to change every single thing around them to suit themselves.

The reason they are likely to collapse in exhaustion is this:

1. They have divided the universe into 'desirables' and 'undesirables'
2. They are allergic to undesirables, and therefore spend all their time trying to push them away
3. They are allergic to self-change, and therefore spend all their time trying to change everything around them


A good question is: do we have to divide our world into desirables and undesirables?

We are questioning our whole concept of cleaning.  Because without that division, we have no basis on which to clean.  Because nothing is, in fact, dirty.  Dirt simply does not exist.  Everything is neither desirable nor undesirable.  It just is.

I'll leave you with that thought.  Obviously it is an impossible thought.

I mean, who would want to think that there is no need to clean, that our work is done, that everything is OK?