“How Sausage is Made” and Inquiry into Human Nature

My philosophical investigations, research, and writing in recent years have increasingly reflected an interest in reconsidering “human nature.”

It occurred to me today that the attitude of most people to the subject reminds me of that old saying about “how sausage is made.” Bismarck supposedly compared this to politics, although it probably wasn’t really him who said that the less you know about how laws and sausages are made, the better.

Many people have a similar attitude about this infamous thing called human nature. They have very little interest in examining the considerable and fascinating anthropology and psychology available to them. The less they look into it, the better, they seem to feel. However, they do refer to it frequently, and rely on it constantly, inasmuch as we are all human.

When they refer to unexamined “human nature,” it’s almost always negative. They assume (as people once did about sausages) that what went into it was not very good. There’s a vague assumption that the naughty, nasty bits went in there, a suspicion of Original Sin.

But of course this is based on things like “anecdotal evidence” from personal experience, or picked historical events from the violent, cynical, populous and technological 20th century, which can’t be taken as representative of human nature. Aspects of human nature emerged over hundreds of thousands of years in the Paleolithic, during the evolution of species and subspecies in the genus Homo. (Not to mention millions of years of pre-Homo primates, and mammals.) They aren’t historical developments, and they aren’t something that will necessarily be obvious to someone whose mind they compose. From the inside, we’re a bit too close to this subject to trust our notions, in other words, and our perspectives are more than a bit skewed by the subjective and the recent.

And of course, it’s not true that you’re better off if you don’t know what goes on in politics, even though politicians would prefer it that way. You do want to know, because you will have to deal with it, regardless. The same is true of human nature. Even more so because whatever human nature really is, it’s actually impossible to escape, unlike the consequences of dirty, corrupt politics—which are only very difficult to escape.

We ought to want to know precisely what our nature is. We’re forced to adapt utopian visions of society to it, or fail. It both limits what we personally can do, and facilitates it. We suffer the consequences if we contradict it. We’re forced to work with it regardless of our ignorance, and it’s an impossible job if we’re plagued by misconceptions. And it’s also just possible that our true nature isn’t quite what we’ve been led to believe by so much of the culture on top of it. That would be a wonderful discovery for people to make.

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2 responses to ““How Sausage is Made” and Inquiry into Human Nature

  1. I agree with you that human nature needs to be thoroughly reexamined from a post-Darwinian perspective. Knowing that we humans are a species of animal, we should try to figure out just what can be said about the human species, and not characterize ourselves just on the basis of the past two millennia, which is really only a drop in the ocean of our own history. Also, in trying to examine and understand our own nature, we should endeavor to fully embrace that nature, and find a life that harmonizes with it.

    This is difficult, because the throughout the remembered history of philosophy and ethics, the “animal” within man has been separated from the “rational intellect,” and it has been despised and rejected. Our culture has been pervasively characterized by the belief that humanity is a composite of two parts: one good and “human,” one bad and “animal,” and the belief that this latter part must be suppressed, dominated, or purged. Now, that distinction has fallen apart, but it will be very difficult to free ourselves from it, and accept ourselves as a whole. Difficult, but so very important.

  2. I entirely agree, aleanation.

    There’s a great deal of difficult and delicate work involved in these goals, but the work couldn’t be more important, or the revelations any more amazing, in my experience with it.

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