We've bashed NY Times columnist David Brooks before on this blog for his attempts at philosophy, and I absolutely feel for the guy from a logistical perspective: he's not an academic that can take a sabbatical and hole up to write and revise. He's more or less a blogger who has to fumble around every few days to figure out something that he's read about to spit back in an insightful way, and I don't think that's a recipe for great depth and profundity.
Well, now he's released a book on neuroscience
In this article in "The Nation," Gary Greenberg rips Brooks for his pretentious (Brooks: "I'm going to walk, stylistically, in the footsteps of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.") scientism. (Greenberg: "These science-minded utopians may disagree wildly with one another about the essence of human nature, and the kind of world best suited to its flourishing, but they all are equally certain that only scientific inquiry... can settle the matter. We can crack our own source code..., and... we can build a world in which we cannot help being, as Skinner once put it, 'automatically good.'")
As Newt Gingrich said a week or so back in a wholly different context, "I don't think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering."
I'm currently reading both Plato's Republic and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (both utopian visions) for future episodes, so this is all right on topic for me.
Ethan Gach says
I attempted Social Animal a month ago and got about halfway through before giving up. It’s a nice idea, but I’m surprised that all the time he’s put in preparing the book only amounted to a poorly written narrative littered with diverse and unconnected studies and surveys.
But it seems to me there is no problem with trying to explore and understand “human nature” (if something like it exists) through science, and in fact, I’m not sure what other method is available to do so.
It seems to me that the problem isn’t that Brooks relies too heavily on science, but that he uses it only in token ways, extracting some interesting little nugget from the literature only to expound over zealously on it toward platitudinous philosophical ends.
I’m not sure if the problem is with the science or pursuing an empirical understanding of human behavior, so much as the way Brooks (as well as others) draw unfounded, sweeping conclusions based on it.
Scientism is more a characteristic of people reasoning poorly than an inherent flaw of science itself.
Ethan Gach says
With regard to “social engineering,” it’s usually used whenever someone wants to refer to a policy they don’t like. But the whole point of society is to socially engineer. It starts with the families, then passes to the schools, and then to the free market, with the “state” interfering at each point.
I’m not sure if people are against social engineering so much as they are against it being done by certain entities. For example, American liberals will be more likely to prefer that schools and government fill the socializing voids left by broken families and an imperfect market, where as American conservatives feel that the family should be allowed as much autonomy and responsibility as possible, and that the market should not be interfered with.
Of course, the rule of thumb, at least in American politics, is that the larger the entity, the more imperfect it’s social engineering will be, and the more negative, unintended consequences that will result (e.g. family unit is best, community is second best, the state (PA, MD, etc.) is alright, and the federal government is worst.
David Buchanan says
“This is your brain on Brooks,” the article says, “an organ hard-wired to reduce moral decisions to consumer choices.” And for Brooks this means one thing above all: the French are wrong about politics, human nature and cheese. Huh?
As I read them, the findings suggest that the rational, conscious mind plays a much smaller role than is usually supposed. These findings seem to support Heidegger’s Ready-to-Hand and Pirsig’s “pre-intellectual experience”. Merleau-Ponty’s lifeworld and William James’s pure experience come to mind as well and I’m sure there are others.
In the context of the whole evolutionary history, the capacity to use words and concepts emerged just yesterday. Life operated without it for 3.5 billion years, give or take a few weeks. I mean, the idea that we “know” how to operate without being consciously aware of it seems way more than plausible. Apparently, every living thing on earth “knows” how to operate without the use of abstract symbols. In that sense, door knobs and light switches are not that different from jungle vines. They’re handy. We act upon them and it works. Inventing a door knob… well, that’s a whole different deal.
The fun part is figuring out the differences and connections between this life-world know-how and rational self-consciousness, between reality as it’s felt and lived and the way we carve it up verbally and conceptually. Maybe after we work on that for a while, then we can figure out a way to blame it on the French.
Now I’m off to the market to realize my soul. (Apologies to The Clash.) Maybe I’ll bump into David Brook there.
My knowledge of psychological history doesn’t go too far back, so I may be wrong, but it seems like a long list of fads and gimmicks. Every era has had its “theory.” Freud* gave us psychoanalysis; Skinner gave us behaviourism; now Brooks gives us his brand evolutionary psych. Why should I buy his arguments? Won’t they just be outdated in a decade or two and replaced with the newest fad from the academy?
These authors (David Brooks, Stephen Pinker etc) do little to change my opinion about anything. As far as I’m concerned nobody has cracked the “source code” and perhaps no one ever will; if someone does, it won’t be this guy.
I find it sad that the science with the most bullshit is also the science with the most power to change the way we view ourselves.
*I actually like some of what Freud has to say ( I really enjoyed the Freud podcast), but I also think he lacks scientific merit (no evidence for his theories, etc) But then again, what do I know?
Contra Brooks, Fukuyama is both a conservative (if quite moderate in the American context) and yet in his “Our Posthuman Future” (2002) he makes a strong case for state regulation of neuroscientific human enhancement technologies. Why? With plentiful quotes from Nietzsche’s darkest forebodings Fukuyama builds a Hegelian argument that the rationality expressed in the developed collective human state is not to be outstripped from liberal individualistic fantasies about a supposed self-sufficient asocial human nature. Thus Brooks appears a (classical?) liberal. F’s case is not to say there is no human nature – precisely the opposite – but that the fact of the organized human state is an expression of human nature.
To put this in more visceral terms I believe that for example we would not even get two weeks vacation time from our employers if the state did not enforce it. The state is not an alien force external to me on such issues buy expresses what I feel is a rationally good norm. If it were up to the libertarian conservatives and libertarian liberals (not sure where Brooks fits in here) the ‘natural goodness’ of nature would have us back as slaves.
Ethan Gach says
I agree with you Tom. Though I remember reading F’s “Posthuman Future,” and thinking he was equally confident in his grandiose claims about “human nature,” and what it consists of.
I don’t think those technologies will see much regulation; when about half of American children are on some sort of mind altering drug and insurance companies are trying to get access to our DNA and plastic surgery is more common than ever, do you really think the state is going to intervene when some entrepreneurial logic freak wants to sell someone a new pre-frontal cortex?
My last comment was kind of pessimistic. I do some have some faith in politicians, but being a Canadian, I sometimes look on the U.S.A as a sort of Orwellian nightmare. I think Europe might pass regulations on those technologies before the states does, just based on how they’ve dealt with genetically modified food. It just seems like a lot of conservative Americans, who have a large influence, think that people should be able to buy and sell whatever they want.
As an ex-conservative, I was somewhat taken aback by the assertion that conservatives believe in the essential goodness of people. I don’t think Brooks could possibly have a very in-depth knowledge of conservative political philosophy, most of which has been firmly on the side of explaining why the mass of people are rotten, mistaken, or stupid and therefore ought to be limited as far as possible from making sweeping societal and political changes when the existing system has worked well so far. In older conservatism, this was used as an argument against small-“r” republicanism and for monarchy, but nothing if not flexible it quickly became adapted among those American conservatives who had adopted certain classical liberal principles as a justification for limited government and laissez-faire. It is leftists and social liberals who are generally accused by conservatives of having too optimistic a belief in human goodness.
Of course this ends up having a political point: liberals assume that people are bad, and government has to save them, while conservatives think we can all guide ourselves.
Didn’t recent studies show conservatives and liberals have differently wired brains, and that for conservative brains the portion dealing with perceived threats is larger, and more well developed that liberals? Does Brooks deal with this in any way?
Court Jester says
I think the major shift in American society is that capitalism has emerged as the de facto national religion.
How else can “conservatives” can call themselves Christians, literally “follower/adherent of Christ”, even though they completely ignore the actual teaching of Christ. Their true god is wealth.
For generations the “American dream” was to do better than your parents through work and perseverance. Not any more. Now it means that we want to be rich, right now, and we’ll do anything to get there.
It seems that modern conservatives fall mainly into two sub-types: those who are already wealthy (usually through birth or nepotism) and think they somehow deserved it; and those who yearn for wealth and think that someone else is preventing them from achieving it. No-one from either of these groups should be allowed to make public policy.
In light of the Republicans that thought the Nazis were to be admired ( Charles Lindbergh ) or the Republicans that were happy to help Hitler move his spoils of war around ( Prescott Bush ), I don’t know how one can assume other than the Republican mindset is all about power – control – and wealth. The idea of some higher purpose by Brooks seems to me to be just so much wallpaper. Every single time a far righter puts forward a proposition you may rest assured it supports that exact agenda.
The Republican social contract: ” I’ve got mine – you sure as hell aren’t gonna get yours if I can help it. ” If you can demonstrate otherwise – please do.
Having decidedly established its status as a political forum, PEL faces boundless competition in the blogosphere.
To effectively compete w/ all the other sites, I think it wise to include religious rivalry. I suggest someone post a blog on Catholics v Proddies.
And, though it has only lightly been touched upon at PEL, perhaps making it common to discuss free love v chastity – along with politics and religion – will serve to set PEL apart as a truly unique website dedicated to intellectual considerations in philosophy.
Mark Linsenmayer says
This is not about Brooks qua political writer (there are many many of them out there that I feel no need to respond to) but as amateur philosopher. Here he is today talking about the purpose of life: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/31/opinion/31brooks.html?_r=1&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss. Apparently we shouldn’t hold out for a job we love but let situations we blunder into (his example: you have a bad boss and have to design a management strategy to compensate for this) determine our sense of self.
This is Op-Ed, where all posts are philosophizing about personal beliefs. And politics, religion, and sex are THE stuff of op-ed. It is water cooler conversation matter. Fun, endless banter that we all enjoy.
My admonition to PEL is to pay attention to the slippery slope that divides the above to serious philosophy.
*My admonition to PEL is to pay attention to the slippery slope that divides the above to serious philosophy.*
I meant to type a slippery slope…from serious philosophy (as in downward), but if one takes Richard Rorty’s advice, op-ed IS serious philosophy – there is no need or sense in pretense of philosophy rising above daily chatter.
I sure agree with Rorty here as regards metaphysics, where, IMO, physics is now the sole discipline for looking at the ultimate nature of things, having left philosophical laziness in such matters far behind.
Profundities of spirituality and theology should reunite with mythology, where they originated.
I think maybe I have come to an insight about philosophy over the past few years of some fairly dedicated studies leaveing me to agree w/ Rorty.
So, perhaps my admonition to keep to the philosophical high ground is misguided, and I should just say “Carry on as you like.”
From Mark’s blog of 5/31/11: “you don’t know if you’ve actually articulated something meaningful unless you can say or write it and have someone display understanding of it, and have it still sound meaningful coming back at you”
1) This is so Rorty
2) It is hard to get this referenced feedback and/or a conversation going when the rate of blog posts exceeds the number of combox posts…it is like physicists’ saying everything is moving at the speed of light