Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Enlightenment Was Wrong

In his op-ed column "The New Humanism", David Brooks points to new scientific research which suggests that the Enlightenment view of human nature that Western society has been operating on for the past two or three hundred years is fundamentally flawed. This would be the view of human beings as primarily rational, individual creatures, whose rationality must constantly guard against the unruly passions of the emotions lest all civilization collapse.

The Romantics reacted against the Enlightenment view of human nature, believing that it ignored the richness and depth of the emotional, spiritual, social, cultural, and biological aspects of our nature, but despite the best efforts of many a great poet (including William Blake, who painted the somewhat mocking portrait of Isaac Newton above), the rationalist view has come to dominate the workings of Western society.

This rationalistic view, which ascribes value to things (and people) in terms of numbers, facts, money, statistics, test scores, degrees, credentials, and other quantifiable criteria, now finds itself challenged, according to Brooks, by a wide array of research in the sciences and social sciences (themselves, ironically, the products of Enlightenment rationalism) which shows that the Enlightenment view of human beings--as rational individuals who must constantly guard against the misshaping forces of the irrational and the social--is just way too simplistic.

The new research shows a few interesting things:
"First, the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind, where many of the most impressive feats of thinking take place.

"Second, emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason.

"Finally, we are not individuals who form relationships. We are social animals, deeply interpenetrated with one another, who emerge out of relationships."

So, in at least a few ways, the Romantics now find themselves vindicated by, of all things, Enlightenment science. (The last point, about human beings as social animals, is a somewhat more complex matter since the Romantics were capable of glamorizing the individual in rebellion against society while at the same time romanticizing one's culture, people, homeland, or nation.)

The new research also brings to attention a number of human talents that are not normally valued or even thought about in our bureaucratic, mechanistic civilization, including such neglected classics as equipoise and sympathy, as well as more exotic-sounding things like attunement, metis, and limerence.

Maybe someday soon, as Brooks suggests, our culture will be transformed by these new findings, just as it was reshaped by Freud's theories of human nature a century ago. What will Western civilization look like when it begins to relearn the old, forgotten truths that human beings are concrete souls and not just abstract minds, souls who long to belong to something greater than ourselves, and not just producing, consuming machines?

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