Humanity’s Responsibility for Itself

5 August 2010


Edmund Husserl saw the imperative of humanity taking responsibility for itself.

I take the title for today’s post from Appendix X to Husserl’s The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, which appendix was an attempt by Eugen Fink to provide an outline for the completion of Husserl’s last book. The last line of this proposed plan reads simply: “The indispensable task of philosophy: humanity’s responsibility for itself.” Fink showed his outline to Husserl in 1936, and although no systematic effort was made to expand Fink’s outline into a complete text, I think that Fink did capture Husserl’s outlook and intention. Given a thorough knowledge of Husserl, the text writes itself.

We cannot yet say that humanity has taken responsibility for itself, for its fate, for its continued existence in the world, but we can come to an understanding of how this might be possible. This is a visionary exercise, however, and there is more than one vision for a future of humanity in which mankind has taken responsibility for himself. I have written elsewhere on several occasions that there are many ways to divide up history, and that the work of historical periodization is never finished (e.g., in The Space Age). So too for the future: there are many ways to envision the future, and the work of such envisioning is never finished.

While there are many potential futures for our species, and even many distinct futures in which humanity takes responsibility for itself, one thing we can say about any and all of these scenarios is that, if we do attain to true self-responsibility as a species, this will merit a major turning point in human history, a point of transition equal to being counted as a shift in integral history.

The Kardashev scale is a method of measuring an advanced civilization's level of technological advancement... first proposed in 1964 by the Soviet Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev... a Type I civilization has achieved mastery of the resources of its home planet, Type II of its solar system, and Type III of its galaxy. (from Wikipedia)

On at least one occasion I have mentioned the Kardashev scale (in
A Quick Note on Heideggerian Cosmological Eschatology), which would measure human civilizations by the energy of which they are capable of harnessing. This is a very practical way, and an industrial-technological way, of measuring and classifying civilizations. According to the Kardashev scale, we have not yet achieved the status of being a Type I on the Kardashev scale, and I think that we can safely say that if and when we do pass that technological mark, it would constitute a shift in integral history and the advent of a new historical period. We should keep this kind of easily quantified periodization in mind when we consider more subtle and less easily quantified bases for historical periodizations. (Note added 06 December 2014: I no longer agree with some of the ideas expressed in this paragraph; I have written more in depth about Kardashev in What Kardeshev Really Said.)

Historians and anthropologists sometimes speak of a “Neolithic Moral Revolution” to indicate the emergence of social hierarchy and stratification, which emerges more or less coincident with settled civilization and urbanization. Settled societies that grow beyond the size of a hunter-gatherer band based on the extended family come to require socio-political organization, and this in turn begets social hierarchy. This is a shift in integral history of a very different kind than that which would be recorded by the Kardashev scale.

If and when it comes to pass that we do take responsibility for ourselves, this too would mark a shift in integral history like that of the emergence of culture and social structures in the Neolithic. We cannot pin down such a transition with the kind of precision that can be brought to the quantification of technology and energy use, but we can still recognize the significance of a periodization based on such a division.

In a couple of recent posts — Three Conceptions of History and Revolution and Human Agency — I outlined a conception of history that I called the cataclysmic, such that we understand “the cataclysmic conception of history to be predicated upon a presumption of the lack of human agency in the world (i.e., human non-agency).” I primarily developed this idea in relation to revolutions understood as dramatic changes in socio-political structures: we can understand our role in such events as being active agents in the accomplishment of a goal, or as passive sufferers to whom such events happen.

It has since occurred to me to think about the Industrial Revolution in this context, and I also thought in this connection about some posts I have written about the attempts by contemporary society to come to some kind of social consensus for living in an industrialized society. In Fear of the Future I wrote that, “Disaffection with and alienation from industrialized society is a function of the failure to achieve a social consensus for living in industrialized society. Without a social consensus, society drifts and is utterly at the mercy of the dehumanizing forces of industrialization.” I also wrote that, “Nothing could stop the relentless transformation of society wrought by the Industrial Revolution, but the fact that individuals were powerless before forces greater than themselves virtually guaranteed that personal protests against the industrial order would be the primary form of outlet for the frustrations of contemporary life.”

Societies can supply the materials, and individuals can invent things like the steam engine, but as of yet no one can control the consequences of their inventions.

Without realizing it at the time, I had formulated a cataclysmic conception of the Industrial Revolution as something that happens to us but which we do not control, except for some details. In hindsight, I see that I still agree with this conception, now explicitly understood as a cataclysmic conception. While the individual actions of human beings brought the Industrial Revolution to fruition (Watt’s invention of the steam engine would be an example of this), once begun the Industrial Revolution has wrought changes to society that neither individual nor society has the power to stop or to change.

There being entire societies around the world at the mercy of a transformation as dramatic as the Industrial Revolution has had profound consequences for individuals and societies alike. Both experience something like dissociation from extreme exposure to their own lack of control and helplessness. This has in turn led to the desire for the recovery of self-efficacy, which is sometimes imagined in surprising ways. Our film industry has created countless explicitly depicted apocalyptic scenarios, which in Fear of the Future I recognized thus: “apocalyptic visions graphically illustrate the overthrow of the industrial city and the order over which it presided,” and that, “While such images are threatening, they are also liberating.” (I have also discussed apocalyptic scenarios in Imaging a Worse World and Expanding on a Comment)

Thus an attitude of nihilism directed at industrialized civilization becomes both a form of protest and a gesture toward an ideal in which individual and social self-efficacy is restored through the elimination of a social force that has transformed our lives in a way that lies beyond our control. In the midst of our comfortable lives in industrialized civilization we forget the degree to which our ancestors were at the even greater cataclysmic mercy of the weather; one storm could mean starvation in the following season. But I think that these scenarios of self-efficacy through the extirpation of civilization appeal to something even deeper, perhaps to a Rousseau-like imagination of the noble savage. Indeed, it is the noble savage seen through the prism of democracy and Enlightenment universalism: every man a noble savage. It is bizarre, I admit, but that’s not my fault.

Charlton Heston as The Omega Man: Everyman a noble savage in the urban jungles of our post-apocalyptic future.

The very fact that we can recognize ourselves as being at the mercy of the forces of the Industrial Revolution and powerless to change what happens on a large scale points to a conception of social efficacy beyond any that has been instantiated in history to date. In some early posts to this forum I wrote about the possibility of intelligent institutions (in It Takes All Kinds to Make a World and Intelligent and Insightful Institutions, inter alia). There I made a rough distinction between unintelligent institutions that cannot cope with change, intelligent institutions can that can cope with external change, acute institutions that can cope with internal change, and ultimately insightful institutions that can proactively anticipate changes not in order to prevent them but in order to adapt all the more successfully to them.

Once seen in this perspective, we can imagine a world in which human self-efficacy has reached the point at which massive historical events like the Industrial Revolution could be managed intelligently, putting us in control of events rather than leaving us at their mercy. This conception allows us to define the kind of moral revolution mentioned above that would mark a shift in integral history:

Human beings and human civilization will have achieved maturity when they can take control of historical events that they themselves have set in motion.

The very idea of human beings taking control of their own destiny has been the basis of a great deal of apocalyptic and dystopian literature and film, as well as being the idea behind such movements as “transhumanism,” which probably has far more critics than advocates. Thus I expect the advent of human self-responsibility, thus also human maturity, not only to be difficult to bring about for the obvious reasons of human finitude and moral failings, but I expect that such developments that aim at ultimate human self-responsibility will be actively if not bitterly opposed, and that they will indeed be opposed on moral grounds.

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Caspar David Friedrich 'Sunrise Over the Sea': the dawning of human self-responsibility is as bright as a sunrise.

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