Kant partitioned human experience into ‘phenomena’, every occurrence within the range of our senses, ‘noumena’ which lie beyond as “things in themselves”, and the organs of reason, abolishing the chimeras of metaphysics with their age-old failure to specify a locus for the cosmos’ order. He firmed up once and for all that rationale is in essence a product of the mind’s activity of conceptually interpreting what he described as perceptual foundations, imbuing experience with many characteristic forms, but it was then incumbent upon scientists and philosophers alike to analyze reason and eventually an expanding array of arational psychical properties as embodied substance, aspects of nature to be pried into mechanistically like matter instead of a sacred, inviolable miracle pedestalled by articles of faith. This was a risky task because outlooks on human mentality and behavior along with many cultural conventions might be at stake, including class stratification and the mandate of authorities. What little social stability humans had been able to muster was suddenly no longer spiritually or precedentially binding but rather theoretical, pending a modern account of our nature and intentionality. Incentives for acceptance of social inequality had become disreputed relics of more naive eras; even the upper class had to justify its belief in itself to populations empowered with literature and hungry for a say in their own futures. Concepts of power were on the chopping block.
The Western analysis of intentionality developed somewhat independent of its political dimensions, for the idea of the individual as a microcosm of the state did not apply to an international, ethnically diverse European civilization populated by hundreds of millions. Theorizing of human behavior eventually split into two main fields, a psychology of personal motive and a pursuit of techniques for instituting efficient social order on the national and imperial scale, but before this future could be realized, the deepest thinkers had to come to terms with history.
The “historical period” is something of a misnomer unless referring to that which is encompassed by relatively recent scholarship, as humans tended to know very little about the past. Written records for anything except legal and political purposes were limited, with these documents of provincial significance, telling something of the day-to-day lives in local areas or administrative happenings during a particular regime, with minimal integration or concern for dynamics over large swaths of time that might inform a modeling of cultural change. There is some evidence of concern in antiquity for the origins of their way of thinking: Aristotle wrote a lost biography of Pythagoras, one of the founders of ancient Greece’s investigations into mathematical form, and he and the historian Herodotus made speculations about events which in all probability led to their era, so at least some had an inkling of historical causality as transformative chronology. Greek philosophers also started to produce a metaorganization of facts into domains and departments, revealing their sense that they were going somewhere, crafting past into future with methodology in the present. Politicians also had a hand in history-making through the genre of memoir, leaving a repository of information about daily decisions of government officials; some such as the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius even waxed philosophical. Unfortunately, before invention of printing, books were a luxury, laborious to produce, and usually too rarefied to support any but the most indispensable writings, so a niche for substantive metaanalyzing of records or literature itself was prohibitive in time and expense. Academia was generating almost no factual knowledge let alone theory of anything more than a hundred years prior until the 19th century.
Even with influential Enlightenment thinkers on the cusp of historicity, who saw humankind’s future would be additive stages in the building of globalized collectivity, and who genuinely cared about instituting ongoing discovery and articulation of principles that would optimize civilization as well as raise the standard of living, glaring errors were made simply from a lack of sufficient information.
18th century English philosopher Adam Smith sought to explain economies and elaborate upon means by which the affluence of humanity can be maximized, but he showed what seems in the present day to be ignorance of human motivation, for instance asserting that wages of the poorest workers should not be raised because they will then have more children, incurring greater demands on their income until again reaching mere subsistence, which checks further reproduction. Smith had intellectual integrity, at the time an uncommon respect for even quantitative data, laying the groundwork for theorizing world economy as a capitalist system to be understood in terms of currency distribution, profits, cycles, financial incentives, but there were moments at which he was armchair philosophizing, making superficial conjectures.
Based on more than two hundred additional years of analysis, we know for a fact that as the poor’s standard of living and education improve, they as a rule seamlessly transition into a lifestyle of smaller families with higher quality parental care. If facts available to Smith indicated otherwise, they were either too meager at that stage for accurate generalizations, obscurant of factors besides potential for competence that fortunately have become less prevalent, or simply misconstrued. Most likely his closer proximity to the upper class than the lower gave him some less than magnanimous intuitions; considering status of the poor at all was probably a radical departure for his station. Modern sociological techniques of total immersion in the lives of research subjects lay far in the future.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an influential Enlightenment philosopher from France who also displayed some incredible presumptuousness. To develop a theory of prehistory, humankind’s “state of nature”, he performed a thought experiment, imagining with almost no factual basis an existence he surmised must have been idyllic, then corrupted by cultural clash and the civilization that institutionalizes it. He made the important point that complex society causes many of our problems, but his apparent belief in the innocence of an uncivilized human being has been contradicted by almost every archaeological find and observation of indigenous society produced by science. All the evidence suggests that violence and war are nearly instinctual to the human psyche under conditions thus far inhering for at least a hundred thousand years.
This error actually undermines his intentions: impressionable thinkers learn the contrary truth, and in the absence of further input from additional sources conclude that because the argument is flagrantly flawed, his conclusion that institutions should be blamed might be confused. This strain of his philosophy is a flop, a mistake in assessing human psychology that reverse psychologizes the reader into doubting his claims, which are actually valid for different reasons as well as crucial. Upper class French culture went through a phase of sympathy for “common folk” in the 18th century, and this is probably one of many instances, but in isolation and within any other context it might tempt his audience to think that philosophers were no more than daydreaming. There are perhaps alternate readings; he could be erecting an ideal more than dealing in facts, pondering what life could be if we with our world-wisened backgrounds started from scratch, creating a state of nature for ourselves. Whatever the meaning, it is fantasy and gives no indication of concrete steps to get us from present discontents to more stable ground.
Despite occasional credulity, European social theorists had undoubtedly become concerned with foreign subcultures and their ways of life. Philosophers realized that technological advances were equalizing the power of aristocrats, bourgeoisie, and members of the newly mobilizing proletariat, with the course of culture to be determined by popular majority, and they were concerned with building institutions accommodating broadened sources of social force. However, it was halting, hesitant procession towards egalitarianism, often contradicting itself because of a basic confusion. The educated elite tended to see close correlation between social conditions and human behavior, which offered some encouragement to reform, but only the most forward thinking viewed behavior as capable of substantially transcending predispositions molded by previous conditions. There was a sense for the expediency of universal legal rights to maintain law and order in societies where popular agitation and wholesale revolt had become possible, in especially oppressive circumstances even inevitable, but the majority were still clinging to traditional prejudices. Thus, the ideal of equality was no more than a veneer for pervasive and deep-seated myopia; there was not yet much species consciousness, a concept of the “human race”. Few really believed in human nature; there was only ethnic, class, cultural nature, linked in human minds to heredity, with much muddled thinking about the degree to which apparent traits and conditions are reversible and how changes might be effectuated.
These earliest initiates into modernity’s transition towards a globalizing culture can hardly be blamed for their tendency to fall back on traditional belief, even if assumptions involved were often ridiculous, for they did not really have a clear sense yet for what they were even talking about when entertaining psychological considerations. Kant had begun to delineate the realm of concepts, their categories and bounds, but what about motivation, what made the conceptual apparatus choose, select, move? His static model did not account for dynamism of the psyche; he gave a good indication of human thought’s construction in Critique of Pure Reason, and the most specific framework for ethical ideals he believed possible at the time in Critique of Practical Reason, but he did not explain how the mind works, and as humans increasingly adopted a mechanistic understanding of existence, inquiry into how the human mind came to be also grew pertinent. At the beginning of the 19th century, the psyche was in theoretical terms like robotics of a manufacturing plant frozen solid and spontaneously generated in toto out of nothing.
The perceived present had been extricated from metaphysics, a gradual reconceptualization in theory of reality’s structure as physical mechanism, reaching its apotheosis in recognition of apparent order as the product of reasoning intuitions applied via the technical modeling of causality, but the perceived past as well as the motive force driving existence were still steeped in ontological vagary.
The first major grappling with an ontology of history can probably be attributed to the German Georg Hegel, who at the start of the 19th century postulated an abstract concept of spirit as a general mechanism of temporal change; the essence of this view was expounded in Phenomenology of Spirit. His theorizing’s central tenet was that history is dialectical: a novel manifestation of ‘spirit’ – spontaneous impetus – comes into being, a ‘thesis’, which then prompts responsive impetus, an ‘antithesis’, finally resulting in ‘synthesis’, the combinatorial form of a new thesis out of which the process continually reasserts itself. In this schema, our history is like parallel movement steadily expanding in width, drawing more and more of existence under its influence, into the scope of its relatively systemlike, interweaving, temporal strands of substantiality. Propagating threads of spirit bind into an enlarging whole as internal conditioning occurs until they achieve an organized equilibrium, which draws growing swaths of the environment into its mutating form, just as dialectical communication in pursuit of truth increases the breadth and alters the configuration of knowledge. His philosophy was abstruse and speculative, but he made the significant move of trying to support this ontology with as much historical fact as he could assimilate.
The main inheritors of Hegel’s paradigm were Karl Marx and Charles Darwin, who adapted his concepts to the understanding of environmental influence over time. Marx analyzed volumes of economic data to discover historical trends, the result being his book Das Kapital, which set forth a theory of bourgeois/proletariat relations predicting transition to a communist society in which the formerly oppressed proletariat would abolish class distinctions. His basic idea was ‘dialectical materialism’, that the ‘value form’, humanity’s locus of economic leverage, develops in consort with material conditions of economies such as ownership, wealth and product distribution, the logistics of business, bureaucracy, employment, and as these parallel influences unfold, social structure goes through enormous changes. He affirmed that in 19th century civilization the value form was ‘labor’, franchising the proletariat who supply this labor and granting power to bring about a global revolution. Darwin applied a similar notion of history to biology, describing in The Origin of Species, based on observations of organic form and function around the world, how changing environmental conditions over large timespans transfigure life by differentials in the reproductive success of mutating species, which he proposed as chief source of the entire planet’s biodiversification.
What evolved into scientific psychology was partly inspired by the German Arthur Schopenhauer, especially his book The World as Will and Representation. He explained the cosmos as a manifestation of fundamental ‘will’, a form-giving force that bends and morphs reality irrespective of human need, sentiment, rationality. His view that the impetus giving shape to the world along with whatever apparent causality we experience is essentially not an accomplice to our values, to the extent of declaring human existence a state of perpetual suffering, was perhaps excessively pessimistic, but these kinds of contrarities to mainstream belief, in his case with some influence from Buddhist philosophy, disrupted the delusional and disillusioning film of propriety on the surface of an ethnocentric Western culture enough for progressive intuitions regarding human will to germinate.
Schopenhauer made his mark primarily by way of impact on countryman Friedrich Nietzsche, who used a technical knowledge of the history of human language, thought, culture and literature to expatiate this notion of will into an aggregate of intuition-bursting insights about psychology, meant to vanquish what he called ‘nihilism’ – the absence of impulsion to participate in determining human fate and future symptomatic of a culture he saw as an abyss of insipid, outdated and abandoned orthodoxies. He was a literary loose cannon, occasionally contradicting himself, plainly displaying confused understanding of evolution, and at times outrageously violating religion as well as public decency, but his ability to engage critically with the most recondite philosophical ideas and systems while sidestepping the usual stultifying reductionism, which always creates yet another sham epoch to be arduously dismantled, was unmatched as well as hugely influential to future analytical and literary method. Ironically, the profundity of his philosophy was probably given a boost from latitude afforded by a lack of notoriety in his own lifetime.
His training as a philologist gave him deep knowledge of the way historical changes in connotations of words as indicated by written contexts reveal cultural evolution, corresponding changes in how humans live, what they believe, and even how they think. But where his colleagues were superficially parsing and categorizing, shuffling around minutia of a new discipline, seeking the petty distinction of owning credit for being the first to state a fact only so-called experts would find meaningful, Nietzsche was filled with the vision of cultural history as more than a tinkertoy for grownups, as a torrential deluge of will, overflowing with spirit, the essence of what it is to be human. He was perhaps the earliest to examine in connection with philosophical discourse the way culture, knowledge, meaning mutate over time in discernible ways. It was this spontaneous, evolutionary impetus of the human psyche encoded in written history that he was driven to investigate.
Nietzsche’s epistemological insight, the spin he put on theory of knowledge, is that defining concepts like Kant’s noumena as supraphenomenal is an error; there are no things in themselves within experience to round out an exhaustive explanation of perception’s allegedly foundational essence. Lightning is not a thing in itself, an unconditional essence that flashes, rather lightning and its flash are one and the same thing, a happening in a reality that is perspectivally conditional to the core. He realized from his close acquaintance with history that culture influences what it is possible for a human being to think and do, beyond perception, and actually colors our interpretations of the world. Perception may have features that seem universal to some, but our apparent universalities are trivial in many ways compared with cultural valuations affecting what it is possible for us to think about ethnicities, classes, conventions, worldviews, ways of life, even seemingly basic phenomenal recurrences; truth, the meaning of our experience, evolves rapidly, diverging and converging in dramatic ways.
In On the Genealogy of Morals, Beyond Good and Evil and elsewhere, he makes a preliminary attempt to trace the evolution of human values and touches upon implications of this cultural process for his own era and the future. He controversially explains morality as an outcome of convergent evolution coerced by punishment and additional forms of pain-infliction in the context of ancient societies and then class warfare. According to his analysis, an often cruel battle for dominance in which cultures attempted to impose their behavioral standards gradually settled down by intermingling and synthesis into more homogenized perceptions of probity, making the transition to large-scale civilization with its law and order possible, though he believed Europe’s morality was losing stature in his day due to obsolescing truth-value as the psyche becomes more intellectualized.
He proposed that modern knowledge has its roots in spiritual ascetism, essentially a mode of experience resulting from inchoate psychical mutations perhaps originating as far back as prehistory, which found various cultural niches in different times and places, occasionally becoming relatively isolated in a stable enough environment that substantial divergent evolution took place. In Europe, conducive embryonic conditions had most recently been provided by the Medieval religious establishment, providing shelter from a tumultuous mainstream, and some votaries became leaders in progressive thinking in addition to their devotional practices. He claimed that in asceticism, the psyche turns inward, in a sense doing violence to itself by denying itself pleasure and forcing itself to struggle with its own weaknesses, but this way of experiencing with its various cognitive incarnations gave birth to a new value – protracted, soul-searching reflection – whose forms ultimately converged in the niche provided by institutions erected to stimulate high-level problem-solving, an academic culture making human life more reasoned, from which science emerged.
He prognosticated that an inevitable loss of traditional morality accompanying overthrow of both an archaic episteme and outmoded religious observances would lead to an era of unchained thirst for power, a disintegration of standards for civilized justice unleashing undercurrents of revenge and cruelty. Chaos of this naked struggle for cultural supremacy would only be mitigated by a strong-armed regime of elites with a rare combination of high intelligence, deep knowledge, ascetic self-control, and the strength of will to relentlessly manipulate power relations for purposes of social planning, endowing them with a mastery of the application of science to which the masses would be subjugated.
This is not even close to portraying the entire spirit, significance or content of Nietzsche’s philosophy, but he had an uncommon combination of intellectual integrity and free-thinking honesty, to the point of risking self-effacement, so even from this much we can draw some solid conclusions. First of all, it seems clear that the seeds of 20th century upheaval and two world wars must have already been present in the mid-19th, for he was able to predict this with little difficulty from an introductory analysis of what minimal historical knowledge humans had at the time. He was also clearly wrong on certain points: the ability to do science is not at all rare with a competent system of education; violence, punishment, pain-infliction are not the sole or even primary means by which all human cultures and subcultures manage to resolve or prevent conflicts; and as for ascetic self-control, drugs and alcohol are popular irrespective of demographic for a reason.
Like most individuals of his time, Nietzsche’s concept of evolution was rather vague. Darwin had successfully proclaimed natural selection, but no one had any idea in what way or to what extent mutation happens. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck theorized that organisms inherit acquired characteristics, so for instance a giraffe’s long neck was the result of constant stretching for tree leaves barely within its reach over the course of many generations. Nietzsche’s notion of cultural evolution was a hybrid: social conditions select for values, beliefs, thinking and instincts that produce behaviors, and these behaviors can change the cultural environment in some cases, converting a novel trait into the selection pressure, cumulatively iterating itself and the nature of its conditions. But the difference between a value, a belief, a thought process, an instinct was undetermined; Nietzsche was applying conventional concepts to distinctions not yet factualized, standardized, prior to scientific psychology, its synthesis with natural science, and technical theories of the psyche.
It is astounding to see how far he got without genetics, neuroscience, psychoanalysis or sociology, lacking any proven mechanism of evolution or cognition; his analytical intuitions about historicity and human psychology were unprecedented. If he had only acquired comprehensive knowledge of physical theory and experimental practice along with credentials to be widely read in his lifetime, he and his philosophical relatives may have immediately given science and its history the cogency and momentum to harmonize a concept of power with a realistic, futurist concept of humanist objectivity, staving off the ideological and violent conflicts over egalitarian ideals that plagued subsequent generations, in contexts of oppression, revolution, socioeconomic warfare. Unfortunately, he did not exorcise the fallacy of social superiority, nor diffuse compulsion to believe truth is reputation, nor tame the beast of badly informed human passion, though he was flirting with these breakthroughs. The quest for a universally inclusive ethic will come down to the deadline.
A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below. Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.