In his celebrated Treatise of Human Nature (Book II, Section 3) David Hume opined:
Nothing is more usual in philosophy … than to talk of the combat of passion and reason, to give the preference to reason, and to assert that men are only so far virtuous as they conform themselves to its dictates…. The eternity, invariableness, and divine origin of the former have been display’d to the best advantage; the blindness, unconstancy, and deceitfulness of the latter have been as strongly insisted on. In order to shew the fallacy of all this philosophy, I shall endeavour to prove first, that reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will; and secondly, that it can never oppose passion in the direction of the will….
We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of reason and of passion. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than so serve and obey them….
Back in the eighteenth century when Hume wrote, this was a controversial opinion. A certain kind of rationalism dominated Western letters. Its dominance would only grow, and Hume would be credited with contributing to it (for, e.g., his assault on the credibility of belief in miracles). In recent decades rationalism has lost a lot of ground. It still has forceful voices, but its credibility as a system seems to be overall on the wane. What (if anything) will replace it?
Theories of Human Nature.
The history of Western thought alone discloses at least nine theories of human nature (Leslie Stevenson, in an interesting little introductory volume, aggregated seven).
- (1) “Man, the rational animal.” The theory of the Platonist-Aristotelian axis, in which reason or rationality is our essence and uniqueness among the many life forms we see around us, and the job of working out both the structure and applications of reason falls to philosophers. For Plato, as with Descartes much later, reason is first exemplified in mathematics and geometry, where exactitude reigns supreme, where operations provide complete logical closure and deductive epistemic certitude, and which point to a realm of perfect Universals or Forms apprehended in a prior existence and relearned in the course of education for wisdom (Plato’s “The Cave” in The Republic being one illustration of the process). Aristotle followed up with his working out of the first (that we know of) comprehensive systems of logic in words such as Prior Analytics. Hume, though, was not the first philosopher to argue in response that this applies only to relations of ideas as he called them, not matters of fact. (Leibniz, for example, distinguished truths of logic from truths of fact.)
- (2) “We are sinners.” The view of Christianity, as seen in the Old and New Testaments. We are capable of reason, but as “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Our reason has fallen as well, and is as vulnerable as any other human capacity to error and corruption. In his Summas St. Thomas Aquinas tried to unite Aristotelianism and Christianity into a single system, and the result was such concepts as natural law as well as the cosmological argument. We have “two books,” the Holy Scriptures and the “book” of nature, and can learn something of the divine intellect by studying the latter. But when push comes to shove, because we are sinners only Christ can save us. For quite a while after Aquinas’s time, few major philosophers would have argued with this. Even the first architects of the scientific revolution would have agreed with its essence.
- (3) “We are machines.” The view of early materialists such as Etienne de la Mettrie, author of L’Homme Machine (Man, the Machine) — in which we are, first and foremost, made of material substance (as Descartes called it) with all that this implies, including no Christian “life everlasting.” The view that death is the end for us — lights out, totally — goes back at least to Epicurus. In modern times, early materialism is one consequence of the failures of Cartesianism: explaining, for example, how two fundamentally different “substances, corporeal and incorporeal, could interact. Far easier to cut one or the other out of your ontology. Idealism or immaterialism eliminated “matter” (Berkeley). Materialism eliminated “mind” (de la Mettrie and several Enlightenment philosophers who came in his wake).
- (4) “We are products of class.” The view of Karl Marx, noted for the detailed analysis of capitalism (he coined the term) in his multi-volume Das Kapital, in light of his “materialist theory of history”; his materialism differed markedly from that of de la Mettrie and Enlightenment materialists, from his incorporating Hegelian dialectic into his thinking. History disclosed a progression of revolutions. The bottom line for human societies: we have to produce the means of our survival and advancement. Consciousness is thus tied to the means of production, and to who owns / controls it. That is, those who own the means of production (the bourgeoisie) “dictate” this consciousness and all its manifestations, including philosophy and religion, while those who own only their capacity for labor (the proletariat) are subverted into a false consciousness. Under capitalism, Marx argued, the conditions of the proletariat would worsen until they precipitated mass revolution on a global scale, during which control of the means of production would be wrested from the bourgeois capitalists and placed in the hands of the proletariat workers. We need not review the whole worldview. Human nature, for the Marxian, is tied to history and economic arrangements. It changes when these change. Utopia will someday be not only possible but an inevitable product of economically-based historical development.
- (5) “We are products of drives” such as the unconscious: Sigmund Freud’s view. What our unconscious is doing may be revealed in dreams; hence Freud’s first major work was The Interpretation of Dreams. We have different drives, those of the id (which is instinctive, biological, and sexual, seeking immediate satisfaction), the ego (the conscious mind in its dealings with the world around us), and the superego (the “societal mind” from which the ego derives societal “right versus wrong” obtained in childhood and continually reinforced, by religion, public education, and other institutions). These can clash with one another, and the result will be neurosis, to be cured or at least diagnosed and alleviated through psychoanalysis. Freudianism became the first “depth” psychology.
- (6) “We are products of conditioning of various sorts,” argue behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner whose first premise was that only empirical science can tell us anything useful about human behavior, that its methods are experimental, not merely intellectual, and that what we’ve learned is that not just can we understand behavior in terms of conditioned responses to stimuli but actually learn to control behavior by supplying stimuli that lead to desired forms of human mass behavior. Skinner held that not taking charge of the causes of human behavior was jeopardizing civilization. “We can no longer afford freedom” in the conventional sense: a single-phrase paraphrase of his bestselling Beyond Freedom and Dignity. While the idea of technocracy had been around since the 1930s, its programs received a boost with this kind of thinking, from Skinner’s specific idea of a “technology of behavior,” although he had lesser-known predecessors such as Wilhelm Wundt and Edward Thorndike. Where Skinner excelled was in being a kind of scientific celebrity who could sell his ideas to the scientistic wing of the literati. What some picked up on were hints of an actual scientistic-technocratic Utopia.
- (7) “We are innately aggressive as products of evolution,” contended Konrad Lorenz in his On Aggression. To be sure, all of the above except (1) and (2) accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, and it is likely that adherents of (3) would have accepted it had they known it was coming. Adherents of (4) made some changes to it (not approved of by “orthodox” Darwinists). Where Lorenz and his associates believe the behaviorists and others go wrong is their being compelled to play down the innate drives that explain our aggressive and warlike tendencies. We are, in the last analysis, an aggressive species. Conflicts are inevitable; resolutions only temporary until the next source of conflict erupts. Historically, perceived scarcity of the resources necessary to power an advanced civilization have become a source of conflict, even when ideological differences are blamed.
- (8) “We are absurd, a ‘futile passion.’” This is the view of existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, and in a less extreme form, Albert Camus. We are born into this world, not having been asked, and in the absence of a God to reveal morality and give us direction, it is up to us to decide what to make of ourselves. We have absolute freedom to decide; we are “condemned to be free,” Sartre said. To rely on any theory — even an evolutionary one — or any justification outside one’s own will and choice is to refuse to assume responsibility for our choices and lives. When choosing, what we are saying is that “This is what it means to be a human being.” Yet since there exists no “rational” (logical, eternal) basis for choice any more than there is a theological one, our choices must be made “in anguish.” Full recognition that life is absurd but must be lived anyway is what it means to live “authentically.” Unless one decides life is not worth living. For Camus, this was the fundamental philosophical problem: suicide (“The Myth of Sisyphus”). A person can still enjoy life in its moments, though, even if death extinguishes it. What is interesting is how the existentialists expressed themselves most clearly not in philosophical treatises or essays but in novels, plays, and short stories (e.g., Sartre’s La Nausée and Camus’s L’Etranger). Arguably, members of the Beat Generation (1950s) and possibly some of the Hippies (1960s) became “native existentialists” (see Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, or Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aide Acid Test).
- (9) “We are problem-solvers.” This view seems to be inherent in a form of pragmatism that may or may not embrace some of these other views in modest form, but emphasizes our capacity as creative agents, relying on experience, discerning patterns within it, and turning to reason for explanations, predictions, and solutions. While there are elements of a “proto-pragmatism” in Hume, pragmatism that is conscious of itself is an American phenomenon. The founding American pragmatists are C.S. Peirce who wrote essays such as “The Fixation of Belief” and William James who penned “The Will To Believe” among many others. John Dewey is typically cited as a third figure in a triad, but Dewey’s thought has always seemed to me to derive from a cross-pollination of Hegel, Darwin, and perhaps behavioral psychologists such as Thorndike. More likely follow-ups to Peirce and James might be George Herbert Mead and Clarence Irving Lewis; later, Willard Van Orman Quine “shifted” analytic philosophy “toward pragmatism” (see his famous article “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”) having incorporated technical logic and analyses of science. The final figure worth mentioning is doubtless Richard Rorty, whose book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature subjected epistemology and philosophy since the time of Kant to a detailed critique and found it “optional”; drawing on the later writings of twentieth century philosophers Dewey, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein to more recent thinkers such as Kuhn, Feyerabend, Derrida, and others, he urged a rejection of any kind of philosophy that seeks to be “foundational” with respect to the rest of culture or any specific institution such as science or practice such as politics.
For a pragmatist the bottom line is that we are problem-solvers. This is as open-ended as it looks. For what is a problem? It can be anything that motivates a person to at least consider pursuing a course of action that will relieve or solve the problem. This will doubtless change from person to person, and will definitely change from one historical epoch to the next, and from community to community. But if a person believes his/her actions really will succeed in solving an identified problem which may be a severe pain point, that is a definite plus! It seems to me that a pragmatist could look at the edifice of modern technological systems and what economic progress we have made and conclude that some of us have been very good at problem-solving — and that there are literally millions of unsung heroes out there who are competent and in control of the bulk of their lives because they have faced and solved a sequence of immediate problems. These may be problems associated just with growing up and facing setbacks along the way, assuming the responsibility that comes with becoming an adult, identifying some scientific puzzle and coming up with an original solution for it, or developing some new instrument or using some new technique not seen before, but which solves a problem for a group of people.
These are bodies of ideas, not facts, of course. Some are compatible with others; for surely it is conceivable that no one “theory of human nature” does the job. I’ve not here delved into whether human nature is “fundamentally good” or “fundamentally evil.” Whatever else one says, we’re fairly complex entities with a lot of facets to our personalities and makeup. Many of us are motivated by quite different things. We can all draw on specific events of our lives, or in some cases events in the world we observed, that became turning points and shaped us. I have a certain amount of sympathy for (9), but I see us as still being very far away from having fully faced, much less solved, the massive problem of how to get along with one another, especially in the face of ideological differences, or how to grapple with the problem of how to control that minority in our midst that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that is obsessed with power, or even how to master ourselves where we need to. We remain trapped in illusions, not just about power and the fact that some seek it as an end in itself, but about ourselves and our unwillingness to face truths sometimes staring us in the face but are too unpleasant to spell out. Suffice it to say, I do not believe we will ever see the see the Utopias of (4) or (6).
I doubt that my list above is comprehensive. Readers will doubtless think of ideas I missed, or important variations on those I did discuss. They should feel free to note this in comments. Reviewing such ideas as these seems to me helpful, if we are to arrive at some kind of preliminary answer to, “Who Are We, Really?” That is, after all, the first great problem of philosophy-psychology. And in a world that manifests great simplicity in some contexts but great complexity in others, we might not want to rule out anything even if we disagree with some of their premises or think they got some specifics wrong.
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