Human Nature and the Human Condition Again

29 December 2013

Sunday


Four conceptions of history - human nature and human condition

Recently I was rereading an older post, Changing the Human Condition (which was, itself, a reflection on an earlier post, Human Nature and the Human Condition), and I realized that there is much more to say about conceptions of history that I outlined and the possibilities of change both in the human condition and in human nature.

In several posts I made a quadripartite distinction among conceptions of history based on the postulated scope and efficacy of human agency:

● Political History is predicated upon human agency

● Cataclysmic History is predicated upon human non-agency

● Eschatological History is predicated upon non-human agency

● Naturalistic History is predicated upon non-human non-agency

In the post cited above, Changing the Human Condition, I had contrasted conceptions of human nature and conceptions of the human condition, and their amenability to change. I did not realize at the time, though it is obvious now, that we can logically exhaust the permutations of the possibility for change in human nature and the human condition (at least, according to the schema above — a more subtle and sophisticated schema would have additional permutations for change), as follows:

Both human nature and the human condition are amenable to change

Neither human nature nor the human condition are amenable to change

Human nature is amenable to change, but the human condition is not.

The human condition is amenable to change, but human nature is not.

No doubt all four of these are represented in some Weltanschauung or another, and one can readily identify traditions that correspond to these permutations. Heraclitean thought would recognize the mutability of all things; Parmenidean thought (and Eleatic thought more generally) would deny that same mutability that the Heracliteans find to be universal. Indeed, these four possibilities of change correspond neatly to the four conceptions of history I have outlined (as shown in the illustration at the top of this post).

I have previously explicitly argued (in Changing the Human Condition, among other posts) for the plasticity (or mutability) — within certain limits — of the human condition, from which the plasticity of human nature follows in so far as human nature is a function of the human condition:

Human nature is a function of the human condition.
The human condition is a function of la longue durée.
Therefore, human nature is a function of la longue durée.
La longue durée endures, but is not permanent.
Therefore, human nature endures, but is not permanent.
Human nature, as a function of la longue durée, reflects the paradigm of metaphysical history within which it takes shape.

While I still think that this argument says something interesting, I might perhaps formulate it differently today, making a finer distinction between human nature and the human condition. Human nature does not reductively supervene upon the human condition; both are subject to change, but each can change independently of the other — again, within certain limits.

One way to think about change in human nature is in terms of conversion, i.e., a religious conversion experience. The idea of a conversion experience is a kind of change in human nature that occurs independently of the human condition, and in so far as the non-human agents that can effect historical change under the eschatological conception are supernatural agents, and an individual human being comes to recognize the authority of such a supernatural agent in a conversion experience, a conversion experience is a personal experience of the eschatological forces that shape human lives and human history.

Conversion experiences are probably as old as the human condition, so that one might say that the conversion experience, the openness (or, if you prefer, the vulnerability) of individual human beings to radical experiences of personal change in part defines the human condition and makes the human condition a function of human nature, rather than vice versa.

The antiquity of conversion experiences is described in From Death to Rebirth: Ritual and Conversion in Antiquity:

Unfortunately, the ancients, with their penchant for narration and description, never attempted to define systematically what they meant by conversion. But we are not altogether at sea, for in antiquity a set of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin terms meaning “motion” and “change” appear frequently in ancient texts to designate conversion. They denote a “turning towards, from, away, return….” The Hebrew root is shub; the Greek, [s]trephein; the Latin, [con]vertere. All three point directly to a physical or material move or change, yet indirectly to a change of spirit or mind, specifically to a change of conviction and way of life.

Thomas M. Finn, From Death to Rebirth: Ritual and Conversion in Antiquity, New York and Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1997, pp. 19-20

If a sufficient number of persons have a conversion experience, their collective conversions can force a change in the human condition, making that which was once exception into a normative condition. (Again we see the possibility that the human condition can be dependent upon human nature, rather than vice versa as I assumed in my earlier formulation.)

Contrariwise, a macro-historical revolution is a planetary “conversion experience,” that is to say, a conversion of the human condition in contradistinction to a conversion in an individual human nature. When the agricultural revolution swept over the planet and transformed peoples everywhere from nomads and herders to settled peoples, the whole of humanity essentially passed through a “conversion experience” — the conversion to a settled life as part of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

The possibilities of change in the human condition and human nature need to be treated with greater subtlety, though for purposes of roughing out an understanding of the world there is always a tension between a rigorously parsimonious formulation, which makes an excellent albeit abstract foundation for scientific research, and a more nuanced formulation that might perhaps be more suited to a literary context than a scientific context.

As I implied above, my schema of four conceptions of history based on four particular permutations of agency could easily be expanded to include more possibilities of other agents. Additionally, it would be worthwhile to also include a distinction between being intrinsically changeable and being subject to change by outside agents, i.e., a distinction between change coming from within (within an individual, or an historical period, etc.) and change imposed from without.

Merely outlining these possibilities gives me a flood of ideas that I must attempt to discipline and put into order, which I will hopefully approach in the patient and methodical spirit of rational self-understanding that I seek to provide in these posts. More to come, then, in the coming year.

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