Friday, September 25, 2015

On the human thing

I am about to propose a paper for the IPSA next year in Istanbul.  What follows are some reflections that I will distil into that proposal.  
Aristotle reflected that the various branches of philosophy often took their essential subject matter for granted.  A mathematician might never bother to ask what a number is and someone investigating physics (all motion and change, as the philosopher understood it) might never address the question whether motion and change are real.  Modern philosophy, having divorced itself from science, is almost exclusively devoted to topics which other fields take for granted. 
In the case of political science, someone studying voting behavior, for example, will probably feel little need to explain what government is and what politics is, let alone what human beings are.  Political philosophy, my racket, can and must address these questions. 
Politics in its full expression is an exclusively human activity and if the human being is the political animal, as Aristotle says, we cannot understand either the human or the political apart from one another. 
I have long thought the beginnings of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics offer a clue to this puzzle.  Here is how the former opens:
πσα τέχνη κα πσα μέθοδος, μοίως δ πρξίς τε κα προαίρεσις, γαθο τινς φίεσθαι δοκε: δι καλς πεφήναντο τγαθόν, ο πάντ φίεται.
Every technology and every methodical inquiry, and similarly both practice and deliberate action, are regarded as aiming at some good; wherefore the good beautifully presents as that at which everything aims. 
I often ask my students in ancient political philosophy to tell me what “the good” is.  They are always stumped.  Aristotle makes it clear.  The good is some goal that explains some deliberate human activity. 
It is important to note that these activities‑technique, method, practice, and action‑are activities of individual persons.  In the most primary sense, politicians politic and deliberate; regimes do so only in a secondary if not a metaphorical sense.  If we take the Nicomachean Ethics to be an account of the human being, and it is certainly at least that, then it would seem that the human being is the natural person, the individual. 
Here is how the Politics begins:
πειδ πσαν πόλιν ρμεν κοινωνίαν τιν οσαν κα πσαν κοινωνίαν γαθο τινος νεκεν συνεστηκυαν τοῦ γρ εναι δοκοντος γαθο χάριν πάντα πράττουσι πάντες, δλον ς πσαι μν γαθο τινος στοχάζονται, μάλιστα δ [5] κα το κυριωτάτου πάντων πασν κυριωτάτη κα πάσας περιέχουσα τς λλας.  ατη δ στν καλουμένη πόλις κα κοινωνία πολιτική.
Since we see every polis to be some community and every community is established for the sake of some good (for the good is regarded to be that for the sake of which everyone does everything) as it is clear that as all communities aim at some good, the one that aims especially at the most authoritative good is the most authoritative of all of them and embraces all the others.  This is called the polis, is the political community. 
If the Politics is an account of the human being, and it is surely at least that, then it would seem that the human being is the assembly of natural persons, self-organized in a political way. 
The two points of departure point to one idea.  The human being is not the individual nor is it the social group; it is instead the dynamic that involves both of them.  A person can live apart from other persons, as do hermits; however, to the extent that he lives off the culture baggage that he carries (does he take books with him into the woods?) he is not really alone and to the extent that he does not the life he lives is more animal than human.  If you don’t believe me, read Rousseau’s Second Discourse. 
Likewise, human beings can attempt to integrate themselves and others into a social whole so completely that their individuality disappears.  This latter trajectory is more limited than the former.  It is possible for one human being to become completely feral; it is not possible (at least not yet) for two or more human animals to become one human being.  Only the most awesome force can suppress human individuality and that only so long and so thoroughly as the force is applied.
Biopolitical theory, based on Darwinian evolution, can turn the two dimensional spectrum defined by the poles of human persons and human communities into a three dimensional and very real structure reaching backward into time.  Evolution is not goal-directed.  In so far as it has a direction, it teleomatic rather than teleonomic.  It is a mechanical force, pushing organic forms into new environmental niches.  It is not trying to do anything anymore than a balloon is trying to get high.  At any one point in time a biological lineage can branch toward simpler organisms or more complex ones or both.  That one or more branches moved into new niches by the emergence of more and more complex organisms is the reason that human beings (and bovine beings and canine beings, etc.) exist on this planet. 
Single celled organisms can combine into multicellular organisms and eventually their individuality can be entirely (or almost entirely) submerged into the whole.  Multicellular organisms can go the other way or parts of them can go their own way (viruses?).  Some, as the scarecrow says, do go both ways, as in the case of slime molds.  Multicellular individual organisms can also coalesce with other individuals into larger social wholes, though here complete assimilation is more challenging.  Eusocial insects combine into colonies and hives that act more or less like biological individuals.  A sterile cast of ant workers is a sign that individuality has been reproductively submerged in a social whole.  For the most part, social animals are more individual than social.  Sociobiology is all about the ways that individual interests are managed in a way that maintains social integration. 

Human beings are capable of a degree of social integration that is greater than anything other than the eusocial insects and is much deeper than that.  We are almost certainly the only animal that can try to submerge its individual self in a larger whole, only to fail.  I propose that this is the temporal dimension of Aristotle’s great dichotomy.  I also suspect that group selection is the key to understanding this existential dimension of the human being.  That is what I will present in Istanbul, if my paper is accepted.  


  1. Teleomatic vs teleonomic. That distinction as it applies to evolution could be its own paper. It might generate both discussion and some pitchfork carrying.

    Good luck with your plans. -- T. Seibel

  2. Thanks, Tim. I think that the distinction is largely accepted in evolutionary biology or at least in the philosophy of biology.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I don't think the Greek teτέχνη (techne) should be translated as "technology". Maybe art or craft An art in the Greek sense i.e. shoe-making or ship-building is quite different from technology in the modern sense; i.e. a power dam or an iPhone or software. See for Heidegger's essay on technology for the difference.