Saturday, August 16, 2008

Objectivism & History, Part 6

Heterogeneity of human nature. Rand, as this blog has pointed out on countless occasions, rejected the traditional view of human nature. In his lecture “Philosophy and Psychology in History,” Peikoff encapsulates Objectivism’s two main arguments against human nature in two sentences:

1. “A given individual might have any kind of psychology in any era, because men have free will.”

2. “You cannot say that any specific psychology emanates from human nature as such, because not everyone has the same psychology.”

I’ve discussed the first argument, the argument from free will, before. Rand believed free will extended all the way to a person’s character, so that, ultimately, the individual could choose his own personality. Therefore, the traditional view of human nature, which insists on the reality of innate tendencies of character which manifest themselves throughout human history, is rejected on the grounds that such a view violates the “axiomatic” principle of free will. (Other rationalizations are also brought forth against it, such as the view that innate tendencies cannot exist because that would be tantamount to asserting the existence of “innate ideas.”)

The second argument assumes that human nature is homogeneous: that is to say, any trait that can properly be ascribed to the concept of human nature must be applicable to all human beings. If trait is applicable to only some human beings, it cannot be considered a part of human nature.

This argument, when applied to the interpretation of history, leads to yet another argument that could easily be used to rationalize the Objectivist philosophy of history. It goes as follows: History cannot be explained by human nature, because human nature is uniform; and so if human nature were the primary cause of history, historical change would become inexplicable.

What is wrong with these arguments? The main error stems from the assumption that human nature is homogeneous. On this issue, the Objectivist epistemology and its classical theory of concepts has led Rand and her disciples astray. As I argued in an earlier post, human nature is a family resemblance concept:

Among the many lessons that can be drawn from the Cognitive Revolution, perhaps the most important has to do with the inevitable conflict between Objectivist methodology on the one hand and the understanding of human nature on the other. Human nature is a family resemblance concept which is partially based on tacit, intuitive knowledge. Consequently, no detailed ... understanding of human nature can be achieved through the sort of "reason" based essentialism advocated by Rand. The Objectivist definition of man as a "rational animal" provides no real insight into human nature and could [never] be used as a reliable guide in predicting how people are likely to behave in a given situation.


Once the heterogeneity of human nature is established, we can proceed to easily demonstrate the degree to which history may in fact be explained on the basis of innate tendencies. To say that human nature is heterogeneous is tantamount to suggesting that human beings can be classified into various types. From common experience, we know that traits of character are not evenly distributed. Some people are more aggressive, more courageous, more intelligent, more sensitive than others. At least some (if not all) of these differences are influenced by genetic factors. It is fairly well established, for instance, that introversion-extroversion are strongly influenced by genetics. There is no evidence that people “choose” their personalities? How could they? That very choice would itself be an expression of personality—which is a roundabout way of saying that choice presupposes character.

It is from this very heterogeneity of human character that we can explain social change. All change in society is primarily brought about by various elites—by leaders in the various fields of human activities. Carlyle was right on this issue. “Universal history, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the history of the Great Men who have worked here,” the dyspeptic historian wrote. “They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrive to do or attain.” But an important emendation must be added to Carlyle’s theory. Whether a “great man” exercises an influence on history depends on institutional factors: it depends, more specifically, on what is called the “circulation of elites.” The primary determining cause in social change is a corresponding change in the character traits of those who make up the ruling elite. If individuals of one character type replace, within the elites, individuals of a different type, this have an immense influence on the society at large. For example, some character types are drawn to militaristic values. If such individuals dominate within the ruling elite of a society, that society will inevitably become militaristic.

What determines which individuals dominate within the ruling elite? All sorts of factors—although philosophy rarely plays a part. If a society is attacked by its neighbors, for example, this alone will draw militaristic types into the elite. Institutions play an important role in the selection of elites. Democratic institutions tend to favor so-called “politicians”—i.e., individuals with supple spines who will not scruple to say whatever is needed to get elected. For this reason, democratic political institutions often deselect from the ruling elites just those individuals with strong back bones who refuse to bend the knee to his majesty demos.

The course of history itself is largely determined by the competition between various nations, some of which may have ruling elites of differing compositions. If, by way of example, China were to become the world’s leading power in the 21st century, the course of history could be very different than if America remains the leading power. China’s ruling elite has, for many centuries, been opposed to freedom and obsessed with saving face—a lethal combination. Philosophy has little to do with this. On the contary, the philosophy of China’s ruling elites, whether drawn from Confucius or Karl Marx, is merely an expression of the type of people that have ruled that nation throughout its history.

5 comments:

Damien said...

Greg,

In other words they tend to choose the philosophy by which to rule rather than the philosophy choosing them. I have to agree with you there.

But what effect if any does upbringing and life experiences have one's character? I do agree with you in that there are innate tendencies in human nature and human nature is not completely uniform. But what effect do those other factors have in shaping one's character, including the character of the elites? Sometimes a person's character can radically change.

gregnyquist said...

Damien: "But what effect if any does upbringing and life experiences have one's character? I do agree with you in that there are innate tendencies in human nature and human nature is not completely uniform. But what effect do those other factors have in shaping one's character, including the character of the elites?"

One's upbringing and life experiences play a significant role in shaping a person's character. But innate factors influence (sometimes strongly influence) how a person is affected by their life experiences. Genetic influences often require a distinct experience to "trigger" their effect. For example, snake phobias are largely genetic, but if someone has had no experience with snakes, they are not likely to have developed the phobia.

As far as factors affecting elites, that is not hugely important. By the time the individual enters a ruling elite, his character is pretty much formed. And since people tend to be "selected" by institutional factors, how they became as they are is less important than what in fact they are. In the Soviet Union, for example, they had selection processes for the KGB that weeded out people that had scruples about committing horrendous acts. Since Russia is now ruled largely by former KGB, we can see in Putin and the Russian elite the kind of rulers that were selected for that nation. We also see quite clearly that they are not going to change from what they are now. Elite selection in Russia strongly favors gangster types, and so for this reason we ought not to be surprised when Putin & Co. behave like gangsters—because that's what they are (as we see in the Georgian invasion). No philosophy is going to change them.

Damien said...

Greg,

Thanks for that clarification.

Andrew A said...

2. “You cannot say that any specific psychology emanates from human nature as such, because not everyone has the same psychology.”

As Greg pointed out Peikoff assumes the homogeneity of human nature. My understanding of the assumption Peikoff makes ,is that: we are genetically uniform in regards to factors that create psychological tendencies, so therefore no psychology could emanate from innate nature or that we would all start with the same "psychological clean slate" upon which we exert our "free will".

To implement Peikoffs assumption of psychology onto an analogy with genetics, it would be like saying: "You cannot assert that hair color emanates from genetics because we don't all have the same hair color."

Human behavior and personality is a complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors as anyone with a modicum of psychological education would know. The ambitious view of the Objectivists seems have aimed for all encompassing and ended up as conflating.

The illustrative framework Greg uses to demonstrate how personality types exert influence on society and as a correlative what environmental factors illicit behavioral responses from individuals. Both come together to demonstrate a clearly identifiable force which moves societies. This force is genetic and environmental, which substantiates the claim that philosophy is NOT the driving force in history.

I believe Nietzsche's comment further supports this view: (on philosophy) "It always creates the world in its own image, it cannot do otherwise."

That we create philosophy in our own view of the world, which strongly suggests that another more primary force exists beneath philosophy. Also consider that culture is an adaptive response to our environment, architecture, cuisine, etc, all rely on materials present in a geographical area.

Andrew A said...

I need to further qualify my original statement of Peikoffs assumption, it should read:

we are genetically uniform in regards to factors that create psychological tendencies, so therefore no individualistic psychology could emanate from innate nature or that we would all start with the same "psychological clean slate" upon which we exert our "free will".