Human Nature in/and History

Lecture 3.  August 28 and September 3.

Afterthoughts.  Psychology is different from other sciences in a way that is often called reflexivity.  This idea is extremely important in this course, but can be hard to understand because the concept is difficult and the term is used in different ways in different contexts.  The idea of reflexivity appeared for the first time in this lecture, although I did not use the term.  I will introduce it here and continue to comment on it in future posts as the course unfolds.

Science studies nature; psychology studies human nature.  But when we study protons (for example), they do not study us back or study themselves, they do not read or hear or care about our theories concerning them, and they do not change over time.  But when psychology studies human nature, it’s studying itself (we study it and it studies us, as it were), people do learn and care about what we say about human nature, and humans have a history, opening up the possibility that human nature, unlike proton nature, has changed over time, in part because of what we have said about ourselves.  Note that I did not write “because of what we have learned about ourselves.”  “Learn about” is a success verb–it asserts that what we found out is true.  But science can make mistakes.  When we are wrong about protons, it does not change them.  But when psychology makes mistakes, the dissemination of its findings can change people, and thus what we find out later about them.  This is reflexivity: Psychology as a science holds up a mirror to human nature, as physics holds up a mirror to physical nature.  But, as I said before, the protons don’t look back, but people do; putting up a mirror on the sidewalk doesn’t change the behavior of the tree it reflects, but it certainly changes the behavior of people who see themselves in it.  Psychology as science seeks to describe human nature, but as a social institution cannot help but alter what people do and how they think about themselves.

Let me bring this back to the Lecture.  In slide 21 I wrote that the course of history is constrained by human nature.  In its first aspect, this looks like no more than a physicist saying that science and engineering are constrained by physical nature: We can’t do anything about the fact that F = M x A nor can we travel faster than light.  But in the case of human nature, things are more complicated.  In the first place, biological constraints are much less rigid than physical constraints.  A creature’s genes set a sort of leash on development past which development is impossible but within which much variation can occur.  Genetically identical twins, even when reared together, are similar but not absolutely identical.  Second, humans are, like all mammals, a learning species, capable of changing behavior in response to the challenges of the environment and, as a social species, are able to pass what we have learned as individuals on to others.

Finally, and uniquely, we reflect –there’s that word — on what we have learned, how we learned it, what it means, and how it fits into our lives.  This reflection is the key point.  It used to be thought that only humans made tools, but then chimps were found using and improving sticks to hunt ants.  It used to thought that that only humans had social traditions, but then monkeys were discovered who shared potato-washing skills and birds who shared how to pull tops off milk bottle skills.  But the chimps don’t ask “What’s a tool” or birds “What’s a skill?”

Much of our own use of technology is not too different from the chimp with the ant-hunting stick; we use our iPods and cell phones, but don’t think much about them.  The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once said (fans call it Clarke’s Law), that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  Thus my daughter reported that her grandmother looked at her (our daughter’s) cell phone as if it were space alien technology.  This does not mean she can’t learn to use one, only that it’s magic, albeit useful magic.  She does not reflect on it.

So, in a sense, without psychology, we use our brain/minds as powerful and useful magics.  As I remarked later in the lecture, modernity and modernism are not the same thing; postmodernity and postmodernism are not the same thing.  The latter are reflections of and on the former.  A magician watching a magic act sees something very different from the ordinary person.  Psychology is a reflection of and on the human nature.  And just as modernism in turn changed human life — a city of Bauhaus factories and offices is different from one of cathedrals and palaces — psychology has in turned changed human nature.  Or has it?  That’s a big question for us to answer in the coming weeks.

Forethoughts.  Western thought is the most reflective tradition of human thought — ultimately, nothing has been taken for granted or gone unquestioned.  There’s even a resulting paranoid tendency in Western thought that reached a dead end in psychoanalysis and some forms of postmodernism.  As we will presently see, the reflexive/self-reflexive fount of Western philosophy, science, and psychology is to be found in the proudly autonomous, free, democracies of Greece.  When they began to separate human physis, human nature, from human nomos, human law, radical reflexivity began.  F = M x A is a law of nature; “Thou shalt not covet” is not a law of human nature, because people covet (slide 22, “The envious have inherited the earth”) but it acknowledges human nature, reflects on it, and tries to control it, the explicit goal of modernism and postmodernism.

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