Monday, December 18, 2006

Who Owns "Human Nature"?

The question is posed by Marjorie Garber in the second lecture of her Manifesto for Literary Studies, an attractive booklet published a few years back, which I recently discovered. Her topic is the theft of "human nature" – which "was once the intellectual property of poets, philosophers and political theorists" – by natural science. According to Garber,
[This] shift in the disciplinary custody of "human nature" has serious consequences for the value of that amorphous enterprise called "the humanities." For if the place to investigate "human nature" is not "the humanities," what is the use of the humanistic disciplines? What else gives them cultural authority? And, equally to the point, what is the use of funding, supporting, studying and teaching them?
She spends the rest of the lecture in a rather scattered attempt to recover the stolen goods.

Garber's principal weapon is the claim that "[language] is not a secondary but a primary constituent of human nature". She might intend the view that human nature is linguistically constructed – whatever that means. But her remark could also be read more modestly, as the doctrine that man is a cultural animal: it belongs to our nature to participate in varied cultural and historical formations, to which human language is essential. "[What] I have been contending", Garber writes, "is that today's humanists are asking 'human nature' questions all the time, when they talk about psychic violence, or material culture, or epistemic breaks, or the history of the book, or the counterintuitive."

The problem is that studying these variations of culture is studying human nature the way a field guide to the insects of Western Pennsylvania is about the nature of life. If it is worth using the concept at all, human nature must refer to what is common and essential to human beings: in this case, the fact of culture, and its mutability, not the particular mutations.

What puzzles me in Garber's approach is why the prestige of the humanities should be thought to rest on a pervasive engagement with human nature in the first place. It is as though she concedes to the critics of the liberal arts that the study of a local tradition or form – lyric poetry, Greek tragedy, the Victorian novel – is pointless, in itself. The only questions worth asking – and more significantly, worth funding – are what she ends by calling "the Big Questions: the Who Am I questions, the What Am I Doing Here questions".

It would be tempting for a philosopher to accept the praise implicit in this idea. But the proper response is to doubt the assumption on which it rests. Why concede to science, and philosophy, that the relative generality of their questions makes them more important? A defence of the humanities should be a defence of history and anthropology and literary studies, even when they tell us nothing about who we are.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

No matter how extensive the ambition of the Natural Sciences, their actual delivery is unlikely to extend to explaining, for example, what Shakespeare was doing when he embedded the letters h, e, w (or u) and s in each line of Sonnet 20. And if they cannot explain that then they are not going to be able, in the final analysis, to explain who the Sonnets were written for, what Shakespeare's true relationship was to that person (eg, whether the two slept together), the precise understanding of love and affection between people of the same sex in Elizabethan England, nor how this understanding may have differed from that of our own time and society. But the nature of human sexuality and the extent of its mutability and social construction (if any) is surely a Big Question.

In other words, even the Big Questions are never going to be answered by the Natural Sciences, despite their oversized ambitions, without a great deal of irreplaceable support from the Humanities. Not all scientists believe this, of course, but that is merely their ignorance or their lack of humanity.

1:10 PM  
Anonymous Zed said...

I can't imagine that you really think that "history and anthropology and literary studies ... tell us nothing about who we are". Is that really what you think?

I'm not familiar with Marjorie Garber's book, but here's a way of getting at something similar to what it sounds like (from your description) she might be getting at:

I just finished reading Frans de Waal's Primates and Philosophers. In it, he appears to assume that evolutionary theory can tell us everything we could want to know about human nature. But I think this assumption embodies a sort of category mistake, since I don't think that 'human nature' is a biological concept. And, I take it, this is just the sort of thing that Garber's trying to critize. Of course, I think evolutionary theory can tell us a lot about who we are and where we have come from. But I also think that 'human nature' is a concept that's articulated not by identifying (just) what's common to all things that we call "humans". I think it's articulated by looking at what's humanly possible, and discovering that involves looking at the great *variety* of things that humans have done. In this sense, something that just one person has done can show us something about human nature. As such, history, anthropology, and literary studies are all good places to explore human nature.

I know what I've said is vague, but I think it's a starting point for resisting something else you say, namely:

"If it is worth using the concept at all, human nature must refer to what is common and essential to human beings: in this case, the fact of culture, and its mutability, not the particular mutations."

I guess I just don't think 'human nature' is that sort of concept. I mean, I want to say that in some substantial sense it's a normative concept, but you make it out to sound like a *merely* descriptive concept, as if what we're trying to do is line up all the people in the world and see what they all have in common. It seems to me that on your account, you are committed to saying that Plato has no right to talk about human nature, because he hasn't drawn his account of it from a truly random sample of all the people that are out there, or that Proust is guilty of hasty generalization. Do you really think that's the right way to approach their accounts of human nature?

9:02 PM  
Anonymous Zed said...

I can't help but draw attention to the following use of 'human nature' that I just came across. It's by John Jay, from the Federalist Papers. It was quoted by Bill Moyers in a recent speech.

"It is too true, however disgraceful it may be to human nature, that nations in general will make war whenever they have a prospect of getting anything by it; nay, absolute monarchs will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for the purposes and objects merely personal, such as thirst for military glory, revenge for personal affronts, ambition, or private compacts to aggrandize or support their particular families or partisans."

Here's Bill Moyer's speech.

9:03 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...


What I said is that history and anthropology and literary studies are worthwhile even when they tell us nothing about who we are, which is of course consistent with thinking that they often do.

Nor do I see much reason to attribute to Garber any interesting thoughts about the "normativity" of human nature, or to attribute to me a merely statistical interpretation of what is "common and essential" to human beings. So, I'm not sure how far we disagree.

It depends a lot on what is meant by the claim that human nature is normative. It is one thing to say that, in general, the nature of a species contains its standards of proper functioning. It is quite another to say that, in the special case of human nature, these standards must be explained through the concept of a reason, or in a way that excludes them, even in part, from the domain of natural science. I am sceptical of that exclusion, but what I mainly deny is that the value of the humanities depends on anything like it.

9:43 PM  
Anonymous Zed said...

I'm glad to see you don't hold the views that I couldn't imagine you holding. So I doubt there's much disagreement.

To be nitpicky, though (what else are blog comments for?), I myself wouldn't treat an inquiry into human nature as an inquiry into the nature of a species, because I do think there's something distinctive about the concept of *human* nature. Not that I want to exclude the natural sciences entirely from having anything to say about human nature, but I'm also not on board trying to enrich the normativity of biological concepts, like that of a species, enough to try and use them to elucidate the normativity of human nature. Of course, the hard thing is to try and say something general about what the natural sciences can, and cannot, illuminate about human nature. But blog comments probably aren't a very good forum for trying to do that. (Read that last sentence as an excuse for evading trying to say which part of the normativity of human nature the natural sciences can and can't explain.)

If you or anyone else reading this have any essays that you think are illuminating on this topic, I'd love to hear of them. I think McDowell's "Two Sorts of Naturalism" is rewarding, but would like to think more about what, exactly, sciences such as evolutionary psychology can and cannot shed light on with regard to human nature.

6:27 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Apart from McDowell's essay, I have learned a lot from Michael Thompson's "Representation of Life", which appears in the same volume, and from Philippa Foot's book, Natural Goodness. But I'm agnostic about their project, and they don't engage directly or at length with work in the philosophy of biology. That seems to be true, in general, of the treatment of human nature in recent "virtue ethics".

Like you, I am dubious about the ambitions of evolutionary psychology, which were subjected to a scathing and brilliant critique by Marshall Sahlins, thirty years ago. I've yet to see an adequate response.

11:25 AM  

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