Wilhelm Dilthey (19 November 1833 to 01 October 1911)

Every so often a term from philosophy — and by “philosophy” in this context I mean the kind of philosophy that is generally not read by the wider public, and which is therefore sometimes called “technical” or “professional” — finds its way into the wild, as it were, and begins to appear in non-philosophical contexts. This happened with Thomas Kuhn’s use of “paradigm shift” and with Derrida’s use of “deconstruction.” To a lesser extent, it is also true of “phenomenology” since Husserl’s use of the term. Another philosophical term that has come into general currency is “lived experience.” (There are also variations on the theme of “lived experience,” such as “felt experience,” which I found in Barry Mazur’s 2008 paper “Mathematical Platonism and its Opposites,” in which the author refers to, “…the passionate felt experience that makes it so wonderful to think mathematics.”) Recently I saw “lived experience” used in the title of a non-philosophical book, Nubia in the New Kingdom: Lived Experience, Pharaonic Control and Indigenous Traditions, edited by N. Spencer, A. Stevens, and M. Binder. A description of the book on the publishers website says that the approach of the volume provides, “…a more nuanced understanding of what it was like to live in colonial Kush during the later second millennium BC.”

This, I think, is the takeaway of “lived experience” for non-philosophers — that of “what it was like to live” in some particular social or historical context. One could easily imagine, “what it was really like to live” becoming a slogan on a par with Leopold von Ranke’s, “to show what actually happened” (“wie es eigentlich gewesen”). Both could be taken as historiographical principles, and indeed the two might be taken to imply each other: arguably, one can’t know what it was like to live without knowing what actually happened, and, again arguably, one can’t show what actually happened without knowing what it was like to live. Actually, I think that the two are distinguishable, but I only wanted to make the point of how closely related these ideas are.

I believe, though I cannot say for sure, that the philosophical use of “lived experience” originates in the work of Wilhelm Dilthey. If Dilthey did not originate the philosophical use of “lived experience,” he did write extensively about it earlier than most other philosophers who took up the term. (If anyone knows otherwise, please set me straight.) Since I am planning on making use of the idea of lived experience, I have been reading Dilthey recently, especially his Selected Works, Volume III: The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences (which corresponds to the German language Gesammelte Schriften, Volume 7: Der Aufbau der geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften), which has a lot of material on lived experience.

Dilthey is not an easy author to read. I have heard it said many times that Husserl is a difficult author, but I find translations of Husserl to be much easier going than translations of Dilthey. Dilthey and Husserl knew each other, read each others’ works, and they corresponded. Dilthey’s exposition of lived experience contains numerous references to Husserl’s Logical Investigations (Husserl’s systematic works on phenomenology mostly appeared after Dilthey passed away, so it was only the Logical Investigations to which Dilthey had access). Most interestingly to me, Husserl wrote a semi-polemical article, “Philosophy as Rigorous Science,” in which Husserl discussed Dilthey in the section “Historicism and Weltanschauung Philosophy.” Dilthey did not agree with the characterization of his work by Husserl. It was Husserl’s article that was the occasion of their correspondence (translated in Husserl: Shorter Works), and it is a lesson in the unity German philosophy to read this exchange of letters. In their correspondence, Dilthey and Husserl were easily able to find common ground in a language rooted in 19th century German idealist philosophy.

While the apparent ground of their common outlook was expressed in the peculiar idiom of German philosophy, both were also reacting against that tradition. Both Dilthey and Husserl were centrally concerned with the experience of time. Husserl’s manuscripts on time consciousness run to hundreds of pages (cf. On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893–1917)). Of Husserl’s efforts Dilthey wrote, “A true Plato, who first of all fixes in concept the things that become and flow, then puts beside the concept of the fixed a concept of flowing.” (cited by Quentin Lauer in The Triumph of Subjectivity from Dilthey, Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. V, p. cxii) Dilthey’s own exposition of time consciousness can be found in Vol. III of the selected works in English, Drafts for a Critique of Historical Reason, section 2, “Reflexive Awareness, Reality: Time” (pp. 214-218), where it is integral with his exposition of lived experience.

Of time and lived experience Dilthey wrote:

“Temporality is contained in life as its first categorical determination and the one that is fundamental for all others… Thus the lived experience of time determines the content of our lives in all directions.”

Wilhem Dilthey, Selected Works, Volume III: The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002, pp. 214-215.

I suspect that Husserl would have agreed with this, as for Husserl time consciousness was the foundation of the constituting consciousness. Dilthey also writes:

“That which forms a unity of presence in the flow of time because it has a unitary meaning is the smallest unit definable as a lived experience.” And, “A lived experience is a temporal sequence in which every state is a flux before it can become a distinct object.” And, “The course of life consists of parts, of lived experiences that are inwardly connected with each other. Each lived experience relates to a self of which it is a part.”

Op. cit., pp. 216-217

Here I have plucked out a few representative quotes by Dilthey on lived experience; this may give a flavor of his exposition, but I certainly don’t maintain that this is a fair way of coming to grips with Dilthey’s conception of lived experience. The only way to do that is by the lived experience of reading the text through and deriving from it a unitary meaning. I will not attempt to do that in the present context, as I only wanted here to give the reader an impression of Dilthey’s writing on lived experience.

Dilthey, as I noted, is not an easy author. Both Dilthey’s and Husserl’s discussions of time consciousness and lived experience are opaque at best. I keep at Dilthey despite the difficulty because I want to understand his exposition of lived experience. However, as I keep at it I cannot help but think that part of the difficulty of the discussion is the absence of a scientific understanding of consciousness. As I have mentioned many times, we simply have no idea, at the present stage of the development of our scientific knowledge, what consciousness is. Trying to give a detailed description of time consciousness and lived experience without any scientific foundation is almost crippling. I believe that the effort is worthwhile, but it is as instructive in how it fails as it is instructive in how it less often succeeds.

In this frame of mind I recalled a passage from Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic:

“Towards the middle of the eighteenth century, Pomme treated and cured a hysteric by making her take ‘baths, ten or twelve hours a day, for ten whole months.’ At the end of this treatment for the desiccation of the nervous system and the heat that sustained it, Pomme saw ‘membranous tissues like pieces of damp parchment … peel away with some slight discomfort, and these were passed daily with the urine; the right ureter also peeled away and came out whole in the same way.’ The same thing occurred with the intestines, which at another stage, ‘peeled off their internal tunics, which we saw emerge from the rectum. The oesophagus, the arterial trachea, and the tongue also peeled in due course; and the patient had rejected different pieces either by vomiting or by expectoration’.”

“…Pomme, lacking any perceptual base, speaks to us in the language of fantasy. But by what fundamental experience can we establish such an obvious difference below the level of our certainties, in that region from which they emerge? How can we be sure that an eighteenth-century doctor did not see what he saw, but that it needed several decades before the fantastic figures were dissipated to reveal, in the space they vacated, the shapes of things as they really are?”

Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic, New York: Vintage, 1975, pp. ix-x; Foucault cites Pomme, Traite des affections vaporeuses des deux sexes (4th edn., Lyons, 1769, vol. I, pp. 60-5)

Because of the theory-ladenness of perception, when the theory is absent or unclear, perception has little to go on and it is confused and unclear. We cannot describe with precision unless we can conceptualize with precision. The eventual development of an adequate science of consciousness — which may ultimately involve a revision to the nature of science itself — will issue in concepts of sufficient precision that they can be the basis of precise observations, and precise observations can further contribute to the precisification of the concepts — a virtuous circle of expanding knowledge.

I would not insist upon the theory-ladenness of perception to the point of excluding the possibility of any knowledge without an adequate theory to guide perception. In this spirit I have already acknowledged that there is some value in Dilthey’s attempt to clarify the idea of lived experience. If theory and observation are mutually implicated, and eventually can accelerate in a virtuous circle of mutual clarification, then the first, tentative ideas and observations on lived experience can be understood analogously to the stone tools used by our earliest ancestors. These stone tools are rough and rudimentary by present standards of precision machine tools, but we had to start somewhere. So too with our conceptual tools: we have to start somewhere.

Dilthey’s approach to lived experience is one such starting point, and from this point of departure we can revise, amend, and extend Dilthey’s conception until it becomes a more useful tool for us. One way to do this is by way of what has been called the knowledge argument, also known as the Mary’s room thought experiment. I have earlier discussed the knowledge argument in Colonia del Sacramento and the Knowledge Argument and Computational Omniscience.

Here is the locus classicus of the thought experiment:

“Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red,’ ‘blue,’ and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue.’ […] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?”

Frank Jackson, “Epiphenomenal Qualia” (1982)

The historical parallel of the Mary’s room argument would be to ask, if Mary had exhaustively studied life in colonial Kush during the later second millennium BC, and then Mary was enabled to actually go back and live in colonial Kush during the later second millennium BC, would Mary learn anything by the latter method that she did not already know from the first method? If we answer that Mary learns nothing from living in Kush that she did not already know by exhaustively studying Kush, then we can assert the equivalence of what it was like to live and what actually happened. If, on the other hand, we answer that Mary does indeed learn something from living in Kush that she did not learn by exhaustively studying Kush, then we ought to deny the equivalence of what it was like to live and what actually happened.

While this exact thought experiment cannot be performed, there is a more mundane parallel that anyone can test: exhaustively educate yourself about somewhere you have never visited, and then go to see the place for yourself. Do you learn anything when you visit that you did not know from your prior exhaustive study? In other words, does the lived experience of the place add to the knowledge you had gained without lived experience?

While Dilthey does not use the term “ineffable,” many of his formulations of lived experience point to its ineffability and our inability to capture lived experience in any conceptual framework (as is implied by his criticism of Husserl, quoted above). If what one learns from what it was like to live is ineffable, then we could assert that, even when our conceptual framework was as adequate as we can make it, it is still inadequate and leaves out something of what what it was like to live, i.e., it leaves out the component of lived experience.

But, as I said, Dilthey himself does not use the term “ineffable” in this context, and he may have avoided it for the best scientific reasons. Our inability to formulate the distinctiveness of lived experience in contradistinction to that which can be learned apart from lived experience may be simply due to the inadequacy of our conceptual framework. When we have improved our conceptual framework, we may possess the concepts necessary to render that which now appears ineffable as something that can be accounted for in our conceptual framework. We must admit in all honesty, however, that we aren’t there yet in relation to lived experience. This is not a reason to avoid the concept of lived experience, but, on the contrary, it is a reason to work all the more diligently at clarifying the concept of lived experience. Employing simple distinctions like that between what it was like to live and what actually happened is one way to test the boundaries of the concept and so to better understand its relationships to other related concepts.

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Pierre Pomme (1735 to 1812)

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Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility is not only a classic of English literature, but also a classic of moral psychology, investigating the contrast in temperaments between sense (in the person of Elinor Dashwood) and sensibility (in the person of Marianne Dashwood). This was one of the internal tensions of the Enlightenment, and Austen personalizes this tension in the lives of her memorable characters. The proneness to emotion (or, we might even say, emotionalism) represented by sensibility in the character of Marianne Dashwood was given philosophical expression in the the life and work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who pioneered the valorization of feeling even in the midst of the Enlightenment and its rationalism.

The more sober side of life, as represented by the self-sacrificing prudence of Elinor Dashwood, is a perennial tradition in western thought, most famously and anciently represented by Stoicism. The Enlightenment thinkers who distanced themselves from Rousseau’s emotionalism didn’t call themselves Stoics, but they were, after a fashion, Stoics by another name, and they were able to draw upon a deep philosophical well, including the great Stoic philosophers of classical antiquity. For example, Marcus Aurelius.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius introduced what we would today call a thought experiment — a thought experiment that has subsequently come to be known as, “the view from above.” Here is the locus classicus from the Meditations:

Look round at the courses of the stars, as if thou wert going along with them; and constantly consider the changes of the elements into one another; for such thoughts purge away the filth of the terrene life.

This is a fine saying of Plato: That he who is discoursing about men should look also at earthly things as if he viewed them from some higher place; should look at them in their assemblies, armies, agricultural labours, marriages, treaties, births, deaths, noise of the courts of justice, desert places, various nations of barbarians, feasts, lamentations, markets, a mixture of all things and an orderly combination of contraries.

Consider the past; such great changes of political supremacies. Thou mayest foresee also the things which will be. For they will certainly be of like form, and it is not possible that they should deviate from the order of the things which take place now: accordingly to have contemplated human life for forty years is the same as to have contemplated it for ten thousand years. For what more wilt thou see?

That which has grown from the earth to the earth, But that which has sprung from heavenly seed, Back to the heavenly realms returns. This is either a dissolution of the mutual involution of the atoms, or a similar dispersion of the unsentient elements.

Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, translated by George Long, Book Seven

This idea was taken over by Antony, Earl of Shaftesbury, who rendered the same idea in the more flowery English prose of his time:

“View the heavens. See the vast design, the mighty revolutions that are performed. Think, in the midst of this ocean of being, what the earth and a little part of its surface is; and what a few animals are, which there have being. Embrace, as it were, with thy imagination all those spacious orbs, and place thyself in the midst of the Divine architecture. Consider other orders of beings, other schemes, other designs, other executions, other faces of things, other respects, other proportions and harmony. Be deep in this imagination and feeling, so as to enter into what is done, so as to admire that grace and majesty of things so great and noble, and so as to accompany with thy mind that order, and those concurrent interests of things glorious and immense. For here, surely, if anywhere, there is majesty, beauty and glory. Bring thyself as oft as thou canst into this sense and apprehension; not like the children, admiring only what belongs to their play; but considering and admiring what is chiefly beautiful, splendid and great in things. And now, in this disposition, and in this situation of mind, see if for a cut-finger, or what is all one, for the distemper and ails of a few animals, thou canst accuse the universe.” 8

Antony Ashley-Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), The Philosophical Regimen, “Diety”

Here we have the Enlightenment mirror of a classic Stoic idea. I find it fascinating that this Stoic thought experiment is intended to communicate what is essentially a Copernican lesson — the smallness of human beings and their concerns in the “ocean of being” that is the universe. The view from above is a moral thought experiment rather than a cosmological or metaphysical thought experiment, and it draws upon Stoic cosmology and metaphysics in order to underline the central moral lesson. As a moral thought experiment, the view from above is to be compared to more familiar thought experiments of our time, the most obvious being the ability to imaginatively place oneself in the circumstances of another, and thereby by gain a visceral appreciation of the other’s moral experience. This latter idea is not only familiar to us in our ordinary day-to-day moral thought, but also forms the basis of John Rawl’s “veil of ignorance” thought experiment intended to define a just society.

The contemporary moral thought experiment that is so familiar to us places us in the midst of the ocean of being; its ontological parallel might be taken to be an object-oriented ontology that insists upon a “democracy of objects.” The Stoic thought experiment is profoundly anti-modern in so far as it places us above the ocean of being, putting the thought experimenter not in the shoes of another, but transcending the other, and transcending everything of this world. (Nietzsche — the modernist’s anti-modernist — has several similar passages, especially when he writes about hyperboreanism.) The ontological parallel to the Stoic thought experiment may be taken to be the Great Chain of Being, which is a hierarchical conception — an aristocratic ontology, if you will. While Stoic moral thought may be considered a perennial touchstone in western philosophy, its tenets, as we have seen, are in many respects radically alien to the modern mind. The “view from above” is intended to inculcate an noble attitude to the world, but the idea of nobility as a virtue has almost disappeared from a world in which aristocracy (presumably the social class with the greatest nobility) is considered at best irrelevant and at worst an evil to be extirpated.

From space we have achieved the Stoic ‘view from above,’ but we don’t interpret it as the Stoics would have interpreted it.

The nobility of the “view from above” is, at the same time, an invocation of what we today call the overview effect, though an overview effect conceived before an actual visual overview of our homeworld was technically possible and, perhaps more importantly, conceptualized in terms of Stoic reserve and moral distance. Since the Greek scientists of classical antiquity proved that the Earth is a sphere, and that it is indeed a world among worlds (an idea that the ancients called the infinity of worlds), there has always been the possibility of conceptualizing the overview effect, though it was only with twentieth century industrial technology that it became possible to see the sphere of the Earth and its place in the cosmos with the same eyes that had, until then, only seen Earth from its surface.

If the civilization of classical antiquity had not faltered, but had remained more-or-less intact until it had produced a technology capable of achieving Earth orbit, the overview effect as experienced by individuals of that civilization would doubtless have been taken as scientific confirmation of Stoic moral ideals. This is not, today, how the overview effect has been received. While a perennial form of moral psychology, the particular form of ancient Stoicism was an intellectual expression of a particular era of human experience; the selection pressures that shaped Stoicism, while partly reflective of perennial features of the human condition, have nevertheless qualitatively changed since classical antiquity.

The overview effect would have had an impact upon any conscious being, and especially upon a reflexively self-conscious being, regardless of the social milieu of any such being. Had it been possible for our Paleolithic ancestors to experience the overview effect, or for the Greeks in the time of Pericles, or the Mongols in the time of Genghis Khan, or for the Victorians to experience the overview effect, that effect would have been profound, but, in each case, interpreted and understood within the context of the conceptual framework of the conscious being who attains a homeworld overview. I have here used examples from different times and places of terrestrial history, but the idea can be generalized to the experience of any conscious being and its conceptual framework. As we have all learned from recent philosophy of science, all observations are theory-laden, and so too with the overview effect: all experiences of the overview effect are theory-laden, and the theory with which they are informally laden is the conceptional framework of the society from which the observer is derived.

A gold doubloon from Quito was nailed to the mast of the Pequod in Moby Dick.

Long before it was asserted that all observation is theory-laden, Kant put it like this: “Concepts without percepts are empty, percepts without concepts are blind.” (“Gedanken ohne Inhalt sind leer, Anschauungen ohne Begriff sind blind” in the section “Von der Logik Überhaupt” KdRV) This, too, is a perennial idea of western civilization — i.e., the idea that our perceptions are shaped by our conceptions; that we are blind without our conceptual framework — and we find it in a famous passage from Moby Dick, in which Melville describes the response of the crew of the Pequod to the golden doubloon from Quito nailed to the mast:

Now those noble golden coins of South America are as medals of the sun and tropic token-pieces. Here palms, alpacas, and volcanoes; sun’s disks and stars, ecliptics, horns-of-plenty, and rich banners waving, are in luxuriant profusion stamped; so that the precious gold seems almost to derive an added preciousness and enhancing glories, by passing through those fancy mints, so Spanishly poetic.

It so chanced that the doubloon of the Pequod was a most wealthy example of these things. On its round border it bore the letters, REPUBLICA DEL ECUADOR: QUITO. So this bright coin came from a country planted in the middle of the world, and beneath the great equator, and named after it; and it had been cast midway up the Andes, in the unwaning clime that knows no autumn. Zoned by those letters you saw the likeness of three Andes’ summits; from one a flame; a tower on another; on the third a crowing cock; while arching over all was a segment of the partitioned zodiac, the signs all marked with their usual cabalistics, and the keystone sun entering the equinoctial point at Libra.

Before this equatorial coin, Ahab, not unobserved by others, was now pausing.

“There’s something ever egotistical in mountain-tops and towers, and all other grand and lofty things; look here, — three peaks as proud as Lucifer. The firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious fowl, that, too, is Ahab; all are Ahab; and this round gold is but the image of the rounder globe, which, like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self. Great pains, small gains for those who ask the world to solve them; it cannot solve itself. Methinks now this coined sun wears a ruddy face; but see! aye, he enters the sign of storms, the equinox! and but six months before he wheeled out of a former equinox at Aries! From storm to storm! So be it, then. Born in throes, ‘t is fit that man should live in pains and die in pangs! So be it, then! Here’s stout stuff for woe to work on. So be it, then.”

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Chapter 99 — The Doubloon

After Ahab’s “not unobserved” soliloquy on the Quito doubloon, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask, Manxman, and then Queequeg look into the doubloon and gave their own account of it, each distinctive of the man, thus confirming Ahab’s judgment of the doubloon as a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm. Melville’s account, then, of how perceptions are shaped by conceptions is based on the differences among individual men, but there are also differences based on particular peoples from different times and different regions of the world. Indeed, all of the harpooners of the Pequod — Queequeg, Tashtego, Daggoo, and Fedallah — are representatives of distinct civilizations, though all have, by chance, been brought together on the Pequod. Each has his distinctive conceptual framework that overlaps and intersects with that of his crew mates, but which perfectly coincides with none of the others.

We too, today, have our peculiar conceptual framework, and it pervasively shapes our view of the world. It needs to be understood that our peculiar conceptual framework determines how we experience the world, and, in the case of the overview effect, “the world” means the planet entire. The overview effect appeared at a particular moment in human history, and, as a consequence, the overview effect was and has been primarily interpreted in terms of human experience in the twentieth, and now the twenty-first, century. That the overview effect appeared at the historical moment in which it did appear — relatively early in the development of a technological civilization, and immediately upon the advent of spacefaring capacity — is significant.

We are closer in time to Marianne Dashwood than to Candide, or indeed closer to Werther in his blue coat and yellow breeches than to Rameau’s Nephew. That is to say, our worldview is more akin to romanticism than to the Enlightenment, owes more the Rousseau than to Locke, though romanticism, too, has passed into history and into dust, and has been replaced by newer ideas and ideologies. Nevertheless, the romantic ideal remains stamped on western civilization and the experience of individuals within that civilization (moreover, romanticism, like Stoicism, is a perennial expression of the human condition), and it is the romantic response of primarily an emotional character that marks responses to the overview effect. This may not be obvious at first, but it becomes more obvious in comparison to the Stoic idea of the overview effect in the view from above thought experiment.

Astronaut Edgar Mitchell has been the most forthcoming in describing his unique experiences while in space. Mitchell had a particularly compelling experience while returning from the moon during the Apollo 14 mission:

“Perhaps it was the disorienting, or reorienting, effect of a rotating environment, while the heavens and Earth tumbled alternately in and out of view in the small capsule window. Perhaps it was the air of safety and sanctuary after a two-day foray into an unforgiving environment. But I don’t think so. The sensation was altogether foreign. Somehow I felt tuned into something much larger than myself, something much larger than the planet in the window. Something incomprehensibly big…”

“Then, looking beyond the Earth itself to the magnificence of the larger scene, there was a startling recognition that the nature of the universe was not as I had been taught. My understanding of the separate distinctness and the relative independence of movement of those cosmic bodies was shattered. There was an upwelling of fresh insight coupled with a feeling of ubiquitous harmony—a sense of interconnectedness with the celestial bodies surrounding our spacecraft. Particular scientific facts about stellar evolution took on new significance.”

Edgar Mitchell, The Way of the Explorer, New York: Putnam, 1996, p. 57-58

Mitchell was driven by his experience to read widely about religious and mystical experiences, eventually commissioning a study on esoteric practices. Mitchell’s sponsored study converged upon the idea of savikalpa samadhi, as a traditional (at least, native to the Indian tradition of thought) expression of what he experienced as an astronaut.

Astronaut Russell L. Schweickart has also given a detailed account of his experiences in space. Frank White has cited Schweickart’s experiences in his exposition of the overview effect:

“The Earth is so small and so fragile and such a precious little spot in the universe that you can block it out with your thumb. And you realize on that small spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you — all of history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it on that little spot out there that you can cover with your thumb. And you realize from that perspective that you’ve changed, that there’s something new there, that the relationship is no longer what it was.”

Frank White, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, Third Edition, Reston, VA: AIAA, 2014, pp. 36-37; Part III of The Overview Effect consists of statements by and interviews with astronauts and cosmonauts, all of which are relevant here. An account of Schweickert’s experiences also can be read in No Frames, No Boundaries: Connecting with the whole planet — from space by Russell Schweickart.

As Plato quoted by Marcus Aurelius gives a litany of the familiar things of this world — assemblies, armies, agricultural labours, marriages, treaties, births, deaths, noise of the courts of justice, desert places, various nations of barbarians, feasts, lamentations, markets — so, too, Schweickart gives a litany of the familiar things of this world — history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games — but the implied meaning and value of this terrestrial litany is different in each case. There is a difference between seeing these familiar things from a terrestrial perspective, and seeing them viewed from above, but what exactly is this difference?

Astronaut Ron Garan references the overview effect, but also formulated his experiences in space in terms of the “orbital perspective” and even “elevated empathy”:

“In addition to the overview effect, however, there is another element to the orbital perspective, which I call elevated empathy… For the fifty-plus years that humans have been flying in space, astronauts and cosmonauts have commented on how beautiful, tranquil, peaceful, and fragile our planet looks from space. These are not trite clichés; it truly is moving to see our planet from space. But looking down and seeing a border between India and Pakistan, recognizing the undeniable and sobering contradiction between the staggering beauty of our planet and the unfortunate realities of life on our planet for many of its inhabitants, also inspires empathy for the struggles that all people face.”

“This elevated empathy is an important aspect of the orbital perspective. Elevated empathy helps us realize that we are all riding through the universe together on this spaceship we call Earth, that we are all interconnected, that we are all one human family. This scar on the otherwise beautiful landscape was a compelling call to focus on the need for global collaboration to overcome the world’s problems, to recognize that, in spite of our disagreements, we should behave like a family, should communicate, support, stand by, and care for each other.”

Ronald J. Garan, Jr., The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of Seventy-One Million Miles, Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2015, pp. 64-65

All of these accounts are experiences of connectedness and of integration, not of establishing a distance from which the petty concerns of the world seem as nothing. The ordinary business of life on Earth — death and birth and love, tears, joy, games — takes on a greater significance; rather than being diminished by the experience of the overview effect, they are magnified by it.

The overview effect has changed and is changing human perception of our homeworld.

Let me return to one of the opening thoughts of Frank White’s The Overview Effect in order to refocus on the difference between the Stoic “view from above” and the overview effect as it has been experienced by human beings as a consequence of space travel. Here is a passage I have quoted many times previously:

“…mental processes and views of life cannot be separated from physical location. Our ‘worldview’ as a conceptual framework depends quite literally on our view of the world from a physical place in the universe.”

Frank White, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, Third Edition, Reston, VA: AIAA, 2014, p. 1

As we have seen above, an observer not only has a physical location in space, but also observes from the point of view of a particular conceptual framework, which we might call the observer’s “location” in what Wittgenstein called logical space. While Wittgenstein did not develop his conception of logical space in any detail, Donald Davidson formulated a conception of logical geography that entails locatedness in logical space:

“…to give the logical form of a sentence is to give its logical location in the totality of sentences, to describe it in a way that explicitly determines what sentences it entails and what sentences it is entailed by.”

Donald Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events, “Criticism, Comment, and Defence”, p. 140

Since we’re talking about the overview effect, “logical space” is more appropriate than the essentially terrestrial (if not geocentric — a conceptual geocentrism, i.e., geocentrism in an extended sense) idea of “logical geography,” but the terminology doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the idea of the relation of ideas to other ideas, which is a function of a conceptual framework. I would go further than Davidson and add to his account of logical geography the particular logic employed, because relations of entailment are relative to the logic used to derive what is entailed by what.

Davidson’s formulation is strongly linguistic, which may be understood as an artifact of the high-water mark of linguistic philosophy; the same point could be given a somewhat more traditional formulation by substituting “proposition” for “sentence.” In any case, an observer’s conceptual framework could be described as a location in logical space or logical geography, and this location involves the relationship of each idea within the conceptual framework to other ideas within the conceptual framework, as well as the relationship of the conceptual framework entire (in so far as it can be understood as a whole) to other conceptual frameworks or to ideas that lie outside the framework.

An observer, then, has a particular location in physical space as well as a particular location in logical space. These locations are not independent, but rather each informs the other: the observer’s location in physical space shapes his location in logical space, and his location in logical space shapes his location in physical space. The second part of this sentence may sound a bit odd. Think of it as a form of emergent complexity: the observer’s location in logical space does not physically create or physically shape the observer’s physical space, but it does transform this physical space through making it the space of an observer, and hence a vantage point from which to observe, describe, and understand the world. A standpoint comes into being, as it were, by being the vantage point of an observer; before that it is merely a coordinate in space, but it is not a standpoint, so that the existence of an observer brings a standpoint as a standpoint into existence. That is to say, a standpoint is an emergent complexity from space simpliciter.

When a Stoic assumes the standpoint of the view from above, he sees the world brought into existence by his standpoint, and when a contemporary astronaut sees the overview of the planet from space, he too sees the world brought into existence by his standpoint. From a purely formal point of view, these experiences are symmetrical. These standpoints are distinct in so far as they do not perfectly coincide (like the harpooners on the Pequod), but they overlap and intersect. The harpooners on the Pequod lived in close quarters and hunted whales together, so they had much in common. And we have much in common with them, as we do with the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius or the Stoic slave Epictetus, and more yet in common with the astronauts on the ISS. But there are aspects of experience that are narrower, and are thus shared by fewer individuals than the way in which all human beings share their experience of the human condition.

If humanity is able to project itself beyond its homeworld and to build a spacefaring civilization, the overview effect will be experienced from as many different standpoints as what was seen by the sailors of the Pequod when they looked into the Quito doubloon. Over time, the overview effect will be not one, but many. Our history has already supplied us with an example of this: if an astronaut came back from space and asserted that the overview effect made him wish to purge away the filth of the terrestrial life, this account would not be well received; it belongs to a different age and to a different conceptual framework. And if human beings use their advanced technology to change themselves (technology derived from the same industrial infrastructure that makes space travel possible), the human condition itself may change, and then the overlap of our experiences with those of our ancestors will be diminished. We will have less in common, and what we see when we look into the Quito doubloon will evolve over time, and humanity will be not one, but many.

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Overview Effects

The Epistemic Overview Effect

The Overview Effect as Perspective Taking

Hegel and the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect in Formal Thought

Brief Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought

A Further Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought, in the Way of Providing a Measure of Disambiguation in Regard to the Role of Temporality

Our Knowledge of the Internal World

Personal Experience and Empirical Knowledge

The Overview Effect over the longue durée

Cognitive Astrobiology and the Overview Effect

The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight

Planetary Endemism and the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect and Intuitive Tractability

Stoicism, Sensibility, and the Overview Effect

Homeworld Effects

The Homeworld Effect and the Hunter-Gatherer Weltanschauung

The Martian Standpoint

Addendum on the Martian Standpoint

Hunter-Gatherers in Outer Space

What will it be like to be a Martian?

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Harvesters, 1565,  Pieter Bruegel the Elder

“The Harvesters,” 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

What could explain the particularly brutal symbolic celebrations of mortality salience I described in Agriculture and the Macabre (notwithstanding the satisfactions of life in a subsistence economy)? In my previous explorations of this idea I advanced no causal mechanism or explanatory framework for the prominence of the macabre in agrarian civilization, but further thought on this question has suggested a possible explanation, or, rather, a cluster of related explanations that bear upon unique features of agrarian civilization that differentiate it from other modes of human life.

Agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is differentiated from the hunter-gatherer nomadism that preceded it both in its economic basis and its ideological superstructure, or, as I prefer to name the two, both economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure. For obvious reasons, the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (or EEA) of our hunter-gatherer ancestors differs radically from the settled life of agricultural peoples, and this alone would be sufficient to introduce a biologically-based discomfiture of settled peoples, whose way of life is essentially at odds with their instincts, the latter refined over millions of years, while their farming practices have at no point been in existence for a sufficiently long period of time to decisively shape the evolution of a species. There is, then, an existential mismatch between the economic infrastructure of the EEA and the economic infrastructure of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

There is also a mismatch between the intellectual superstructure of agrarian peoples and nomadic peoples. Joseph Campbell frequently made the point that the mythologies of hunter-gatherer peoples differs profoundly from that of agricultural peoples. A hunting people needs to reconcile itself with the daily practice of killing, while agricultural peoples often have myths of sacrifice, because the agricultural cycle demonstrates that life comes out of death, so that to make more life, it is necessary to make more death. The cognitive dissonance of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is a function of the agricultural mythos of sacrifice, which regards the individual as dispensable, and the intrinsic interest the individual has in his own existence. This sacrificial mythology of settled agricultural peoples is the ultimate affront to individualism, and no matter how much justification and rationalization is deployed, this affront would have been felt by every individual within an agricultural economy at some level.

It is often claimed today that individualism is a social construct of Western Civilization that is not present in other cultures, or, at least, not present to the extent that it shapes western thought. Now, it certainly could be argued that the particular conception and understanding of individualism as we know it today is a result of contingent factors arising from industrial-technological civilization that first emerged in Western Europe. One could readily identify points along the seriation of western civilization at which the individual took on a particular importance — Periclean Athens, the value of each individual soul in the Christian tradition, Florence under the Medici, the priesthood of all believers in Protestantism, the American Revolution, and the special place accorded to individual celebrity in today’s winner-take-all society. However, the idea of the individual, and the presence of individualism in the human condition, is not limited to the particular expression given to individualism since the advent of industrial-technological civilization, nor is it specific to western thought.

Individualism has a biological basis. In a famous paper, “What is it like to be bat?” (to which I previously referred in What is it like to be a serpent?), Thomas Nagel wrote that, “…the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.” We might similarly observe that there is something that it is like to be an individual. The kind of organisms that we are makes our individual bodies a locus of sensation, consciousness, and action. Each individual body is such a locus, sensing on its own, feeling on its own, acting on its own, and conscious of itself as an individual and as a unity. The very idea that there is something that we call the “human condition” is a reflection of the ontological individualism of human being.

One of the features of the human condition that has shaped the human mind most profoundly has been the loneliness of our individual consciousness. The existential loneliness of the self is a function of its emergence from a single brain, which is in turn a function of the kind of individual organisms that evolved on our planet. One might suggest many possible counterfactuals in relation to this isolation of the human condition, but the possibility of alternative forms of consciousness does not alter the individuality of our consciousness. The individuality of human conscious has issued in individualism as a social principle, realized in many different ways across different cultures. Egalitarianism is the social expression of the recognition of the individual as a locus of consciousness and agency. The egalitarianism of hunter-gatherer bands that dominated the vast bulk of human history before the recent emergence of civilization was in part a reflection of this biologically-driven individualism.

There is another counterfactual that interests me more at present than the counterfactuals of other forms of consciousness. Above I wrote, “farming practices have at no point been in existence for a sufficiently long period of time to decisively shape the evolution of a species,” and this is a statement that requires qualification. “Decisively” is the operative word in this context. Farming has undoubtedly shaped our species, but not yet decisively in the sense of resulting in speciation (keeping in mind that behavioral adaptation often precedes structural adaptation, so that the behavioral adaptation of farming might be expected, over a sufficiently long period of time, to give rise to structural adaptations). This suggests an interesting counterfactual, namely, an intelligent species that invents settled agriculturalism and maintains this way of life at a certain equilibrium (a high level equilibrium trap) for a biologically significant period of time, so that the species in question self-domesticates, and this domestication to settled agrarian life is reflected in changes in the genome — and perhaps also eventually in the phenotype.

Important qualifications need to be made to the above. We know from the fact that the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium does not hold that evolution is always occurring, even at a small scale that is only incrementally recognizable at in the genotype and phenotype. This is micro-evolution, and only results in cladogenesis over very long periods of time (more or less Darwin’s original gradualist model); macro-evolution resulting in cladogenesis over shorter periods of time probably involves specific selection pressures. The disruption to human life patterns caused by the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agriculturalism ought to be sufficient for the emergence of a new species, Homo agrariensis — not metaphorically, as we have so often come to speak of a “new breed” of man, but biologically — except that the developments of civilization continue to disrupt human life in new ways, so that no stabilizing selection occurs specifically driven by the agricultural mode of life.

Settled industrial-technological civilization has inherited much of the cognitive dissonance of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and even as our civilization today continues to ever so gradually replace the ideological infrastructure of agrarian-ecclesiastial civilization — like the planks replaced one-by-one in the ship of Theseus — much remains of the agricultural past (and even the agricultural macabre) in our institutions today. Industrialism is extremely recent in evolutionary terms.

While settled industrial-technological civilization has inherited much of the cognitive dissonance of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and one might assume that civilization simpliciter involves a radical departure from pre-civilized life that must entail compromises with the instinctual life (as was apparently Freud’s position in Civilization and its Discontents), this is not a necessary aspect of civilization. Other kinds of civilization have existed that did not entail the severe instinctual curbs of settled agriculturalism, and other forms of civilization may yet arise that are more in tune with human nature and the human condition.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Structure of Hope

20 February 2015


Kant on Hope

Kant famously summed up the concerns of his vast body of philosophical work in three questions:

1) What can I know?

2) What ought I to do? and…

3) What may I hope?

These three questions roughly correspond to his three great philosophical treatises, the Critique of Pure Reason, the Critique of Practical Reason, and the Critique of Judgment, which represent, respectively, rigorous inquiries into knowledge, ethics, and teleology. However much the world has changed since Kant, we can still feel the imperative behind his three questions, and they are still three questions that we can ask today with complete sincerity. This is important, because many men who deceive themselves as to their true motives, ask themselves questions and accept answers that they do not truly believe on a visceral level. I am saying that Kant’s questions are not like this.

In other contexts I have considered what we can know, and what we ought to do. (For example, I have just reviewed some aspects of what we can know in Personal Experience and Empirical Knowledge, and in posts like The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight I have looked at what we ought to do.) Here I will consider the third of Kant’s questions — what we are entitled to hope. There is no more important study toward understanding the morale of a people than to grasp the structure of hope that prevails in a given society. Kant’s third question — What may I hope? — is perhaps that imperative of human longing that was felt first, has been felt most strongly through the history of our species, and will be the last that continues to be felt even while others have faded. We have all heard that hope springs eternal in the human breast.

It is hope that gives historical viability both to individuals and their communities. In so far as the ideal of historical viability is permanence, and in so far as we agree with Kenneth Clark that a sense of permanence is central to civilization, then hope that aspires to permanence is the motive force that built the great monuments of civilization that Clark identified as such, and which are the concrete expressions of aspirations to permanence. Here hope is a primary source of civilization. More recent thought might call this concrete expression of aspirations to permanence the tendency of civilizations to raise works of monumental architecture (this is, for example, the terminology employed in Big History).

Four conceptions of history -- human nature and human condition

Hope and Conceptions of History

The structure of hope mirrors the conception of history prevalent within a given society. A particular species of historical consciousness gives rise to a particular conception of history, and a particular conception of history in turn defines the parameters of hope. That is to say, the hope that is possible within a given social context is a function of the conception of history; what hope is possible, what hope makes sense, is limited to those forms of hope that are both actualized by and delimited by a conception of history. The function of delimitation puts certain forms of hope out of consideration, while the function of actualization nurtures those possible forms of hope into life-sustaining structures that, under other conceptions of history, would remain stunted and deformed growths, if they were possible forms of hope at all.

In analyzing the structure of hope I will have recourse to the conceptions of history that I have been developing in this forum. Consequently, I will identify political hope, catastrophic hope, eschatological hope, and naturalistic hope. This proves to be a conceptually fertile way to approach hope, since hope is a reflection of human agency, and I have remarked in Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception that the four conceptions of history I have been developing are based upon a schematic understanding of the possibilities of human agency in the world.

All of these structures of hope — political, catastrophic, eschatological, and naturalistic — have played important roles in human history. Often we find more than one form of hope within a given society, which tells us that no conception of history is total, that it admits of exceptions, and the societies can admit of pluralistic manifestations of historical consciousness.

Hope begins where human agency ends but human desire still presses forward. A man with political hope looks to a better and more just society in the future, as a function of his own agency and the agency of fellow citizens; a man with catastrophic hope believes that he may win the big one, that his ship will come in, that he will be the recipient of great good fortune; a man with eschatological hope believes that he will be rewarded in the hereafter for his sacrifices and sufferings in this world; a man with naturalistic hope looks to the good life for himself and a better life for his fellow man. Each of these personal forms of hope corresponds to a society that both grows out of such personal hopes and reinforces them in turn, transforming them into social norms.

Woman's Eye and World Globes

Structure and Scope

While a conception of history governs the structure of hope, the contingent circumstances that are the events of history — the specific details that fill in the general structure of history — govern the scope of hope. The lineaments of hope are drawn jointly by its structure and scope, so that we see the particular visage of hope when we understand the historical structure and scope of a civilization.

Like structure, scope is an expression of human agency. An individual — or a society — blessed with great resources possesses great power, and thus great freedom of action. An individual or a society possessed of impoverished resources has much more limited power and therefore is constrained in freedom of action. In so far as one can act — that is to say, in so far as one is an agent — one acts in accords with the possibilities and constraints defined by the scope of one’s world. The scope of human agency has changed over historical time, largely driven by technology; much of the human condition can be defined in terms of humanity as tool makers.

Technology is incremental and cumulative, and it generally describes an exponential growth curve. We labor at a very low level for very long periods of time, so that our posterity can enjoy the fruits of our efforts in a later age of abundance. Thus our hopes for the future are tied up in our posterity and their agency in turn. And it is technology that systematically extends human agency. To a surprising degree, then, the scope of civilization corresponds to the technology of a civilization. This technology can come in different forms. Early civilizations mastered the technology of bureaucratic organization, and managed to administer great empires even with a very low level of technical expertise in material culture. This has changed over time, and political entities have grown in size and increased in stability as increasing technical mastery makes the administration of the planet entire a realistic possibility.

The scope of civilization has expanded as our technologically-assisted agency has expanded, and today as we contemplate our emerging planetary civilization such organization is within our reach because our technologies have achieved a planetary scale. Our hopes have grown along the the expanding scope of our civilization, so that justice, luck, salvation, and the good life all reflect the planetary scope of human agency familiar to us today.

earth eye

Hope in Planetary Civilization

What may we hope in our planetary civilization of today, given its peculiar possibilities and constraints? How may be answer Kant’s third question today? Do we have any answers at all, or is ours an Age of Uncertainty that denies the possibility of any and all answers?

Those of a political frame of mind, hope for, “a thriving global civilization and, therefore… the greater well-being of humanity.” (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape) Those with a catastrophic outlook hope for some great and miraculous event that will deliver us from the difficulties in which we find ourselves immersed. Those whose hope is primarily eschatological imagine the conversion of the world entire to their particular creed, and the consequent rule of the righteous on a planetary scale. And those of a naturalistic disposition look to what human beings can do for each other, without the intervention of fortune or otherworldly salvation.

How each of these attitudes is interpreted in the scope of our current planetary civilization is largely contingent upon how an individual or group of individuals with shared interests views the growth of technology over the past century, and this splits fairly neatly into the skeptics of technology and the enthusiasts of technology, with a few sitting on the fence and waiting to see what will happen next. Among those with the catastrophic outlook on history will be the fence sitters, because they will be waiting for some contingent event to occur which will tip us in one direction or the other, into technological catastrophe or technological bonanza. Those of an eschatological outlook tend to view technology in purely instrumental terms, and the efficacy of their grand vision of a spiritually unified and righteous planet will largely depend on the pragmatism of their instrumental conception of technology. The political cast of mind also views technological instrumentally, but primarily what it can do to advance the cause of large scale social organization (which in the eschatological conception is given over to otherworldly powers).

Perhaps the greatest dichotomy is to be found in the radically different visions of technology held by those of a naturalistic outlook. The naturalistic outlook today is much more common than it appears to be, despite much heated rhetoric to the contrary, since, as I wrote above, many of us deceive ourselves as to our true motives and our true beliefs. The rise of science since the scientific revolution has transformed the world, and many accept a scientific world view without even being aware that they hold such views. Rhetorically they may give pride of place to political ideology or religious faith, but when they act they act in accordance with reason and evidence, remaining open to change if their first interpretations of reason and evidence seem to be contradicted by circumstances and consequences.

The dichotomy of the naturalistic mind today is that between human agency that retreats from technology, as though it were a failed project, and human agency that embraces technology. Each tends to think of their relation to technology in terms of liberation. For the critics of technology, we have become enslaved to The Machine, and either by overthrowing the technological system, or simply by turning out backs on it, people can help each other by living modest lives, transitioning to a sustainable economy, cultivating community gardens, watching over their neighbors, and, generally speaking, living up to (or, as if you prefer, down to) the “small is beautiful” and “limits to growth” creed that had already emerged in the early 1970s.

The contrast could not be more stark between this naturalistic form of hope and the technology-embracing naturalistic form of hope. The technological humanist also sees people helping each other, but doing so on an ever grander scale, allowing human beings to realistically strive toward levels of self-actualization and fulfillment not even possible in earlier ages, perhaps not even conceivable. The human condition, for such naturalists, has enslaved us to a biological regime, and it is the efficacy of technology that is going to liberate us from the stunted and limited lives that have been our lot since the species emerged. Ultimately, technology embracing naturalists look toward transhumanism and all that it potentially promises to human hopes, which in this context can be literally unbounded.

uncertainty ahead

Hope in the Age of Naturalism

Given the state of the world today, with all its pessimism, and the violence of contesting power centers apparently motivated by unchanged and unchanging conceptions of the human condition, the reader may be surprised that I focus on naturalism and the naturalistic conception of history. If we do not destroy ourselves in the short term, the long term belongs to naturalism. Contemporary political hope, in so far as it is pragmatic is naturalistic, and insofar as it is not pragmatic, it will fail. The hysterical and bloody depredations of religious mania in our time is only as bad as it is because, as an ideology, it is under threat form the success of naturalistically-enabled science and technology. Once the break with the past is made, eschatological hope will no longer be the basis of large-scale social organization, and therefore its ability to cause harm will be greatly limited (though it will not disappear). The catastrophic viewpoint is always limited by its shoulder-shrugging attitude to human agency.

Most people cannot bear to leave their fate to fate, but will take their fate into their own hands if they can. How people take their fate into their hands in the future, and therefore the form of hope they entertain for what they do with the fate held in their hands, will largely be defined by naturalism. Perhaps this is ironic, as it has long been assumed that, of perennial conceptions of the human condition, naturalism had the least to say about hope (and eschatology the most). That is only because the age of naturalism had not yet arrived. But naturalistic despair is just as much a reality as naturalistic hope, so that the coming of the age of naturalism will not bring a Millennia of peace, justice, and happiness for all. Human leave-taking of the ideologies of the past is largely a matter of abandoning neurotic misery in favor of ordinary human unhappiness.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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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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Grand Strategy Annex

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The very idea of the “human condition” is one that we might call an “existential idea,” since in the best existentialist fashion it tries to get to the root of existence. When thinkers engage with the idea of the human condition they often enter into an existentialist idiom, wittingly or (more likely) unwittingly. And it’s not just philosophers — or moderns. Pope Innocent III devoted a whole book to the misery of the human condition, in which he wrote:

Who therefore will give my eyes a fountain of tears so that I may bewail the miserable beginning of the human condition, the culpable progress of human behavior, the damnable ending of human dissoluteness. With tears I might consider what man is made of, what man does, what man will be. Man is indeed formed from earth, conceived in sin, born to pain. He does depraved things that are unlawful, shameful things that are indecent, vain things that are unprofitable. He becomes fuel for the fire, food for worms, a mass of putridness. I shall show this more clearly; I shall analyze more fully. Man is formed of dust, of clay, of ashes: what is more vile, from the filthiest sperm. He is conceived in the heat of desire, in the fervor of the flesh, in the stench of lust: what is worse, in the blemish of sin. He is born to labor, fear, sorrow: what is more miserable, to death. He does depraved things by which he offends God, offends his neighbors, offends himself. He does vain and shameful things by which he pollutes his fame, pollutes his person, pollutes his conscience. He does vain things by which he neglects serious things, neglects profitable things, neglects necessary things. He will become fuel for the inextinguishable fire that always flames and burns; food for the immortal worm that always eats and consumes; a mass of horrible putridness that always stinks and is filthy.

Pope Innocent III (Lotario de Segni, before he was Pope), De miseria condicionis humane

This passage reminds me of Sartre’s analysis of slime in Being and Nothingness. It is difficult to be optimistic about the human condition when it is phrased in terms like these.

Pope Innocent III: something of a pessimist on the human condition.

Recently in Banishing Despair I wrote the following:

In order to “cure” the episodic and transient melancholia that is native to the human condition, and which everyone feels in those moments when their vital energies are at a low ebb, we would need to change the human condition itself, and there are definite limits on the extent to which we can change the human condition.

Indeed, in order to eliminate the possibility of existential despair one would have to eliminate the very possibility of Miserable and Unhappy Civilizations, which might well come about as a result of what comes after civilization, but these latter concepts constitute civilization as an historical idea; civilization as a political idea is problematic. Human agency has its limits, and in fact the same limits to human agency that make it difficult if not impossible to alter civilization by political fiat also are the source of transient despair and despondency. After all, did not Alexander the Great cry because he had no more worlds to conquer? (Or, in the alternative version, because, of the infinity of worlds, he had not conquered even one?)

The latter part of this quote invokes a distinction that I recently made in Globalization as Political Idea and as Historical Idea. I haven’t yet arrived at an elegant formulation of this distinction between the historical and the political, but even in its nascent and inchoate state I find that I can make use of it to bring a little analytical clarity to my thoughts, and in the above I have used it to distinguish between the historical and the political senses of civilization. One might also think of these as, respectively, the descriptive and the prescriptive senses of civilization. Civilization did not come about as a consequence of an explicit decision and action taken, yet the idea has a certain usefulness to describe what in fact human beings have done, even if they didn’t know what they were doing as they did it.

We can also distinguish the historical and the political aspects of both human nature and the human condition — or, if you like, the descriptive and prescriptive aspects of human nature and the human condition. This latter formulation immediately clarifies one source of disagreement over human nature. In several posts I have discussed skeptics of human nature, Sartre chief among them. The subtext of many skeptical accounts of human nature is that, if there is a human nature, this limits our freedom. Furthermore, if the limitation of human freedom is a bad thing, then assumptions about human nature that limit freedom are undesirable. Therefore, we must deny that there is a human nature in order to defend human liberty.

Please note that I am not defending this reasoning; I am only observing that this seems to be a common subtext of critiques of human nature, and even here the reasoning remains implicit, and therefore retains the philosophical equivalent of plausible deniability. Nevertheless, I believe I am right in this, and if I am right in my analysis I need only to further observe that one can explicitly deny a prescriptive human nature that constitutes an aim toward which human being inevitably converges while accepting a descriptive human nature based only on what humans beings have been in actual fact. Even then, it is obvious that the dedicated human nature skeptic may well continue to maintain that even a descriptive account of human nature implies a continuing condition that ought to be fulfilled in the future, but if such an objection is made, it becomes even more obvious that the motivation of the objection to human nature is not based on logic or ontology, but upon a moral objection.

In another context (Human Nature and Homo Economicus) I have managed to refine my formulation of the human condition into a few (six, to be precise) reasonably clear theses:

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.

In these theses I have attempted to show that way in which human nature and the human condition are inextricably linked, but returning to the problem of human nature from the perspective of the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive concepts, we need to separate the two again in order to ask four questions:

1. What is human nature descriptively? (What is human nature in fact?)

2. What is human nature prescriptively? (What ought human nature to be ideally?)

3. What is the human condition descriptively? (What is human nature in fact?)

4. What is the human condition prescriptively? (What ought the human condition to be ideally?)

While these are very large and very general questions that could not be satisfactorily answered short of several treatises, we can, however, get a sense of what is usually assumed by these modalities of human life, and we can do so in one or two words each, as follows:

1. moral corruption

2. moral perfection

3. misery

4. utopia

Some immediate observations can be made about this rather schematic summary. If the misery of the human condition follows from the moral corruption inherent in human beings, we call this original sin. If, on the other hand, the moral corruption of human beings follows from the misery of the human condition, then we have a position more or less like that of Rousseau, which is sometimes identified with the perfectibility of humanity. Further, if a utopian human condition would follow from the moral perfection possible for human beings, this is an affirmation of individual agency, and thus, in a sense, the antithesis of the idea of original sin and of the doctrine of salvation through grace alone. If, on the other hand, the moral perfection of human beings would follow from a utopian human condition, then we have something like behaviorism.

Now, of course I realize that by using “loaded” religious terminology like “original sin” that I am inviting misunderstanding, but I am willing to take this risk in order to place these concepts in historical context, which is to say, to place them in a larger context than that of our immediate concerns today. I want to get at the root of the idea, and sometimes the quickest way to the root is to use the term that will he instantly understood and which has the strongest emotional impact. From my point of view, the idea of original sin is just one of many exemplifications throughout human history of a conception of human nature as essentially evil. Many have believed this, but many also have believed that human nature is essentially good.

Similarly, there have always been those who believe that human beings are utterly at the mercy of circumstances (this position could be identified with what I have elsewhere called the cataclysmic conception of history) and who may therefore be considered behaviorists, since they believe that individuals and human nature are shaped by larger forces. Similarly again, there are always those who believe in the power of individuals not only to change their own lives, but also to change the lives of others. In its pure form, I have called this the political conception of history. There are all, then, differing conceptions of human agency, and therefore exrpessions of agent-centered metaphysics.

Whether or not you think it is worthwhile to attempt to change the human condition will have a lot to do with your attitudes to these questions, which I strongly suspect is largely a function of temperament. If you instinctively believe that human beings are at the mercy of forces we do not control, then you are more likely to believe that the human condition changes us than that we can change the human condition. But further complications arise, since the world may not be uniformly open to change; there may be things that we can change, and things that we cannot change, and so forth.

A distinction must be made between that which is amenable to change and that which can be changed. The difference here is the difference of agency. That which is merely amenable to change may or may not be changed as the result of the intervention of human agency (or the agency of any sentient being, human or otherwise, including successor species). That which can be changed is susceptible to human agency and admits of definite results. The future is amenable to change, but anything that we do to change the future may or may not have the intended consequences. topography can be changed; human agency can devise and carry out changes to the landscape in which intentions are concretely realized with a high degree of accuracy. These two examples are not picked at random: history and geography together are the unavoidable concomitants of political science; history is merely amenable to change, while geography (at least in some instances) can be changed.

We can and do change topography every time we build a highway or blast a tunnel. This changes our relationship to the land, but it does not change the arrangement of the world’s land masses. However, the combined effect of our construction of a transportation infrastructure may have the practical consequence of annihilating distance and thus making geography nearly irrelevant to the further development of human affairs. In this sense, even geography changes. Certainly human geography changes as rapid transit and mass transit moves populations. Here we have effected social change as a result of our ability to nullify geography.

With history, we are much less free, much less in control. History is infinitely flexible and highly amenable to change, but we cannot change history and walk away, expecting everything to remain the same. Even when we remain continuously and constantly engaged in the process of history (i.e., even when we don’t walk away), unintended consequences may pile up to the point that we simply cannot sustain our effort and we must surrender before the forces of history, allowing ourselves to be changed by it, rather than effecting the intended change. Here we have failed to effect social change as a result of our inability to nullify history.

Implicit within the idea of social change in the interest of social justice (and this is usually how the idea of social change is framed) is the idea that effecting a change in the human condition will effect a change in human nature. The possibility that the human condition might be changed and human beings would persist in stubbornly acting out their human nature regardless of circumstances is incoherent from this point of view. In other words, the idea of social change is antithetical to that of original sin.

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Four conceptions of history - human nature and human condition

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Agricultural Apocalypse

29 January 2012


The four horsement of the apocalypse -- war, disease, famine, and death -- constituted a traditional litany of the disasters to which humanity was subject, i.e., the familiar terrors of history.

There is more than one list of exactly those evils represented by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Biblical passage from which the image is derived mentions the horses as being white, red, black, and pale. These have been interpreted as representing conquest, war, famine, and death, though in the Dürer etching above the four horsemen are commonly identified as war, famine, plague, and death.

If we take this latter litany of war, famine, plague, and death as the evils of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it immediately becomes clear that these are not four evils of apocalypse, but one evil intrinsic to the human condition (death) and three evils intrinsic to settled agricultural civilization.

It is settled agricultural civilization itself that is the apocalypse; the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution was at the same time the Agricultural Apocalypse. For in so far as anthropologists and archaeologists have been able to determine, prior to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, there was no war, no famine, and no plague. There was, of course, death, since death is the human condition, but it was the change in the human condition brought about by settled agricultural civilization that added war, famine, and plague to the human condition.

I have mentioned in several posts that the Paleolithic is sometimes called the Paleolithic Golden Age. It is well known that our hunter-gatherer ancestors, before they settled down into agricultural civilization, had a more diverse and therefore a healthier diet. From this healthier diet followed a healthier life. Individuals were taller and lived longer.

It also seems to be the case that settled agricultural civilization made possible war, famine, and death. I have argued many times that civilization and war are born twins. Only the social organization provided by civilization can make organized violence on the scale of war possible. I have even suggested that instead of seeing war and civilization as a facile dichotomy of human experience, we ought to think of large-scale human activity sometimes manifesting itself as civilization and sometimes manifesting itself as war. The two activities are convertible.

With settled civilization and control of the food supply, our ancestors allowed family sizes to grow — both because it was now possible to raise more children than the parents could physically carry, and because more children meant more farm labor. The entire family could be impressed as a labor gang to work on the farm, which produced surplus food when conditions were favorable. However, when conditions turned unfavorable, there were now many mouths to feed, and they could not be readily moved to another location, having surpassed the numbers that can be realistically transformed into a roving band. The obvious result was famine.

Also with settled civilization came the concentration of growing populations in urban centers and in extending trading networks. These concentrations of human population effectively created disease pools in which both viral agents and bacteriological infections could be easily transmitted through a community in close physical proximity. The obvious result was plague.

While the Industrial Revolution allowed us to transcend many of the institutions of agricultural civilization, the pattern of settled life remains, and with it remains the possibilities of war, famine, and death, which now are part of the human condition, and having lived with them for so long they are also become constitutive of human nature.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Some time ago in Human Nature I discussed concepts of human nature in Thucydides, Sartre, and John Stuart Mill. I find myself returning time and again to the theme of human nature, as, for example, a couple of months ago when I wrote in Philosophy Teaching by Examples, “even when an idea has been as rigorously disproved as it is possible for an idea to be disproved by history, even a disgraced and defeated idea is never put out of historical action entirely if it has some ongoing basis in human nature or in the perennial character of human affairs.”

Practical philosophers — those that Heilbronner famously called The Worldly Philosophers — philosophical historians like Thucydides, and thoughtful men of all times have struggled with the maddeningly elusive nature of human nature, which at times seems so simple and so obvious, while at other times it seems incapable of definition and the very idea an affront to human freedom. In purely philosophical contexts we can do without human nature (as, for example, Sartre’s rejection of the very idea of human nature in his thick ontological treatise Being and Nothingness), but when we turn to the ordinary business of life, and to individuals making history with their peers from the “bottom up” as it were, it is difficult to avoid invoking human nature. However, I have noticed that in my many posts on economics I have not made any systematic attempt to given an explication of human nature in an economic context. And this is exactly what Homo economicus is, or is supposed to be: human nature in an economic context. This is a necessarily abstract perspective, and no one ought to mistake an abstraction for the real thing, except we know that the very idea of Homo economicus gets people rather worked up.

Previously in On the Very Idea of a “Reason of Humanity” and Amending Self-Interest and Addendum to “Technical Ecstasy” I wrote about the economic abstraction of homo economicus. The very idea of of homo economicus seems to provoke those who have taken a set against economic reductionism, or, if you will, the economic interpretation of history. Like invoking the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith, one can expect a predictable reaction against invoking homo economicus.

A strong formulation of homo economicus would be the claim that human nature is simply identical with homo economicus. To say that human nature is nothing but those properties ascribed to homo economicus — a self-interested maximizer of surplus value — is clearly a form of economic reductionism. A weak formulation of homo economicus would be the claim that human nature is sometimes identical with homo economicus. It is difficult to imagine a rational way to reject this weak thesis.

The weak formulation of the thesis of Homo economicus is consistent with weak formulations of radically different conceptions of human nature, because if human nature can embody a given character at one moment while embodying a distinct character at another moment, there is no reason that episodes of self-interest can be interspersed with episodes of altruism. Thus the weak formulation of homo economicus is simply the claim that human beings are sometimes selfish, and this is obviously true. Therefore it would be more interesting to consider the luke-warm formulation of homo economicus, which would be that human nature is mostly identical to homo economicus, which is to say that homo economicus describes the rule, and, while acknowledging exceptions to the rule, also acknowledges that exceptions are sufficiently rare to be exceptions.

But this discussion already assumes too much, as though we already know what human nature is, what what homo economicus is. We do not know, and we must go much deeper into the structure of civilization as well as into the life of the individual in order to make sense of the forces that shape civilizations and individuals alike. In the spirit of integral ecology we can exapt the biological ideas of ontogeny and phylogeny for the explication of socio-economic categories. Ontogeny gives us the life of the individual, while phylogeny gives us the structure of the civilization in which the individual emerges, and, as is to be expected, the two do not exist in isolation, but each shapes the other.

In Human Nature and the Human Condition I attempted to demonstrate the interplay of the ontogeny and phylogeny of human nature in terms of the development of the individual within particular historical circumstances. The theses I formulated there can be summarized thus:

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

While integral history is the ultimate framework in which human experience (and therefore human nature) can be set, the paradigms of integral history — the pre-human, the nomadic, the agricultural, and the industrial, to date — are the most powerful and pervasive forces shaping human nature at any one moment of history, there are other powerful and pervasive forces that expressed differently and emerge differently in history.

From these two classes of structural forces that shape individuals and their histories — the three historical paradigms of social organization and the four conceptions of history — there follows a typology of twelve possibilities. For example, within the paradigms of integral history, there are conceptions of the nature of human-being-in-the-world based on our presumed agency (or lack therefore) which I called conceptions of history. Conceptions of history represent perennial expressions of human self-understanding, and they also represent the longue durée to an even greater degree than the paradigms of integral history, because the perennial possibilities of self-understanding of our place in nature transcend the paradigms of integral history. There are cataclysmic, naturalistic, political, and eschatological conceptions of human agency alike in nomadic, agricultural, and industrialized societies.

Both the economic institutions of civilizational paradigms — i.e., how the greater part of the people of any era of history make a life for themselves, whether by hunting and gathering, or by farming, or by industrial labor — and the self-understanding of one’s place in the world, which means one’s self-understanding of one’s place within the civilizational paradigm of one’s time, are forces of the longue durée that shape lives, and in shaping individual lives, also shape entire societies.

This much is obvious. What is less obvious and more interesting is how these classes of structural forces manifest themselves in history. Historical paradigms of social organization are primarily phylogenetic forces, whereas conceptions of history are primarily ontogenic forces. Individuals, whether by choice or by temperament, have an understanding of their place in the world, which is a conception of whatever agency they possess or fail to possess, and they bring this understanding to the life that they make for themselves within the paradigm of socio-economic organization, which is a function not of the individual and individual development but rather of community and social development.

Human nature as embodied in the individual person has all the instability of individual temperament: it varies from individual to individual, and so the individual may embody a conception of human nature at odds with his time. As And, moreover, as individual variation is the basis of natural selection — without which there would be no evolution, therefore no human beings, therefore no human nature — it is to be expected that embodied human nature varies across individuals. What aspects of variable human temperament are actualized by or stifled by the socio-economic context in which the individual emerges is another matter. While the individual varies, the social context in which the individual makes his life and livelihood, imposes a socio-economic unity even upon diverse temperaments.

These individual and social forces, ontogenic and phylogenetic forces, develop in parallel in a relationship of coevolution. A particular sense of human agency will foster the development of a particular socio-economic paradigm, while a particular paradigm of socio-economic organization will foster a particular sense of human agency among the members of a society so organized. There can be exceptions to each — societies that fail to respond to the sense of agency entertained by its members, and individuals who fail to conform in their sense of agency with the society of which they are a member — which are not counter-examples to the rule in the sense of denying the existence of the rule.

The fortunes of industrialized civilization rise of fall on the strength of the economy, in all its complexity, reaching from the daily transactions of the individual person to the highest dealings of the councils of state. The centrality of the economy to the mature institutions of industrialized civilization means that homo economicus is made central to the mature institutions of industrialized civilization, and this pervasive economic pressure shapes individuals who live within these circumstances. Under the industrial paradigm, then, homo economicus becomes human nature, because human nature is a function of the longue durée that reflects the paradigm of integral history within which it takes shape.

Ontogeny — the development of the individual’s sense of agency — and phylogeny — the development of socio-economic institutions by which individuals within a society live — are simply the individual and his circumstances, each of which embody a certain conception of human nature, and even of homo economicus (since economic man must differ from one economic system to another). The dialectic of the individual in society seeks a resolution between the individual’s development of a human nature, in the sense of his or her agency, and society’s development of human nature, in the sense of established ways of life. This resolution is often attended by conflict, as matters of such import are rarely settled peacefully. The individual may fight against an imposed way of life, and a society will fight to make the individual conform to its way of life. This conflict can be destructive, or it can be the source of creative tension.

In what Joseph Campbell called the Economic Interpretation of History, homo economicus is the central agent. An alternative formulation to this would be to say that all agents are ultimately reducible to homo economicus. This is a particularly telling formulation, since it puts us in mind of the passage from Thucydides that I have quoted in several posts (Relative Poverty, among them), such that:

War takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes.

It is not only war, but any hardship that takes away the easy supply of daily wants, that brings men’s characters to a level with their fortunes. War can be a rough master, to be sure, but the economy itself can prove a rough master, or a natural disaster, or any other interruption in the human condition. Hardship is also a source of conflict, and it too can be destructive or a source of creative tension.

As civilization matures and becomes more comprehensive, more pervasive, more all-encompassing, interruptions to the easy supply of daily wants become all the more noticeable, partly because daily wants have escalated in industrialized civilization many orders of magnitude beyond the minimal needs of life, and partly because the interruptions because less frequent and therefore more unusual. Such a mature civilization, to the degree that it regiments life, which increases over time as institutions mature, forecloses on possibilities for its members. This means not only conflict, but an increasing tension which can spur greater destructiveness or greater creative tension. Mature civilizations that survive the destructive forces created by regimentation in conflict with individual freedom and possibility, give rise to the great monuments of higher civilization. This comes about through escalating creative tension.

Our industrialized civilization today has clearly embodied profound conflicts between individuals in their societies as well as between societies. In the twentieth century it become a real possibility that civilization could commit suicide. While we have thus far avoided civilizational suicide, we have not avoided destructive conflict. It could be argued that, in the twentieth century, social tensions were primarily resolved through destructive release of tension, which would account for the world wars over the past hundred years, as well as the failure of industrialized civilization to yet attain to the achievements of higher civilization. However, it could also be argued that the unique place of homo economicus within the industrial paradigm militates against the emergence of higher civilization.

Can a civilizational paradigm that makes economic activity central, and therefore places homo economicus at the center of its conception of life, transcend these imperatives and achieve greatness in other areas of endeavor? I would argue that it is indeed possible, but not yet actual. The great civilizations of the agricultural paradigm placed the warrior at their center, and made warfare the central activity, and yet from this violent context the great achievements of classical civilization emerged. For this to occur within the industrial paradigm may require the axialization of the industrial paradigm, and this is still come centuries in the future.

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I realize, of course, that I have not done justice to my topic — the relation of human nature to homo economicus — but hopefully I have at least begun a sketch of how the two are interrelated. Improved formulations can only follow from further meditation on this difficult and large question.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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project astrolabe logo smaller

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I have written several posts on human nature, such as it is (or isn’t), and even have human nature as a category. In a post simply titled Human Nature I considered the various views of Thucydides, Sartre, and John Stuart Mill. There I quoted several passages of Thucydides that are classic statements on human nature, I considered Sartre’s explicit skepticism, such that “there is no human nature that we can take as foundational,” and lastly I discussed Mill’s organic metaphor in which he compared human nature to a tree, “which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides.” More recently in Agents and Sufferants I returned to Thucydides to consider human nature in terms of its agency.

Yet more recently I have learned that distinguished anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has written a short book on human nature, The Western Illusion of Human Nature, with the wonderful subtitle, with reflections on the long history of hierarchy, equality and the sublimation of anarchy in the West, and comparative notes on other conceptions of the human condition. I don’t have a copy of this yet, so I am at the mercy of the reviews. The title makes it sound as though Sahlins is a human nature skeptic as thorough as Sartre, but a review says that Sahlins rejects a Hobbesian account of human nature as savage and violent in favor of, “the one truly universal character of human sociality: namely, symbolically constructed kinship relations.” I hope to read the book for myself, but this encounter with another suggestion of human nature skepticism provoked me to further thought.

In addition to several posts about human nature I have also repeatedly quoted a line from Marx, that is one of my favorites:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, first paragraph

This Marxian reference to men making their own history ties in with my use of Ortega y Gasset’s line — Man has not an essence but a history — that I quoted in my Human Nature post. I think Marx would have agreed with this. Both Marx and Ortega y Gasset place man within history, and make human nature, if there is any, a function of history.

I realized a couple of days ago that one way to express this would be to say that human nature is a function of the human condition. And the human condition in turn is an historical reality. Thus we could paraphrase Marx as follows:

“Men make themselves, but they do not make themselves as they please; they do not make themselves under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Further, we can observe that the human condition is a function of the longue durée. The longue durée, in turn, is an historical reality, or, rather, a way of looking at history. More importantly, the longue durée endures, but it is not permanent. The apparent rigidity of human nature — which for some recommends the idea, while for others is a reason to reject it — is a function of the human perspective. Given the perspective of the longue durée, human nature is not fixed, but is a function of the changing human condition. However, the human condition changes so slowly that from the perspective of the individual human being, it appears fixed and stable.

The human condition does change, and sometimes it changes dramatically. In The Atomic Bazaar: Dispatches from the Underground World of Nuclear Trafficking, which I just discussed a couple of days ago in The Poor Man’s Bomb, author William Langewiesche wrote, “The nuclearization of the world has become the human condition, and it cannot be changed.” (p. 13) I agree with this. The human condition was changed with the advent of nuclearization (which Karl Jaspers called, “the new fact”), because it represents the practical possibility of the suicide at least of civilization, and perhaps also of our species. This is an important development, and it is a changed aspect of the human condition that will, over the longue durée, result in a changed human nature.

In several posts in which I have distinguished what I have called the divisions of integral history, I have divided history not according to the customary distinctions of Western historiography, but according to primarily demographic concerns, based upon how the bulk of the human species lives. Another way to phrase this would be to say that the human condition was initially that of hunter-gatherers under the nomadic paradigm, which was followed by a human condition of subsistence farming under the agricultural paradigm, and has now become a human condition of mass industrial employment under the industrial paradigm. There is a sense, then, in which each of these primary divisions in the human condition would correspond with a human nature that emerges from these conditions.

Human nature, of course, even when conceived as a function of the human condition, is not monolithic. Small, incremental changes — changes like nuclearization — will make their contribution to a human nature substantially shaped by the institutions of industrialized society. There is room for variation, and even for incommensurable individuals existing within the same paradigm. The world, for all that it has shrunk, is still a very big place, and admits of individual and regional variation as certainly as it admits of temporal variation.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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