In this post, instead of showing an excerpt from The Constellation of Man, I write about some of the ideas behind a whole volume of the project.
It is not so much that I am obsessed with human nature, although as a general subject this has been of recurring preoccupation and serious interest to me. I have been obsessed with humans’ lack of understanding of their natures, and their dismissive attitudes toward “human nature”—indeed, their very poor appreciation of the problem—and the reasons for this strange state of affairs, as well as its consequences.
(Why “strange”? To quote a line from my notes: “Perhaps it is strangest [and most indicative] of all that the mere fact of acting out human nature does not make human nature more understandable to a human being.”)
This leads to writing a great deal of material that goes in two directions:
1) Exploration of human nature, and attempts to characterize it more accurately.
2) Description of human ignorance surrounding human nature, and examination of the many errors that have mischaracterized the creature called Man.
A brief elaboration on the first aim:
- Exploration of human nature, and attempts to characterize it more accurately.
For example: working on more useful philosophy of mind, suitable for living people who do not delight in rehashing artificial thought experiments. (I could almost say, a replacement for “philosophy of mind,” at this point.)
In the nitty-gritty end of applied scientific speculation, I’ve done considerable (unpublished) work over the years to devise psychological models to describe the human mind, which, among other avenues of improvement, address holistic deficiencies in cognitive, computational, or functionalist models of the brain, mind, and human evolution. My guidances in that kind of endeavor include the interrelationships (feedbacks), complex adaptive systems, attractors, etc. talked about in cybernetics, complexity, and systems theories. These are great sources of analogies and metaphors for leaping past folk intuitions, too, so they work as explanatory models on more than one level of precision.
Other guidance for reforming an impression of human nature comes from physical anthropology, ethnography, archaeology, ethology, personality theory, and the logic of evolutionary selection. Much more is known of human breadth than human origins, but a more accurate characterization must jibe with both. I take a syncretic approach, willing to find useful information or inspiration from virtually anywhere. I believe that the narrowness of most (academic-specialist) approaches has neglected to connect many dots between areas of evidence that have been described, and between new models for thought that have been available, in modern times.
The connective speculations of Darwin, of Gregory Bateson, and yes even of sometimes-reductive or mystical psychologists like Freud and Jung inspire me to think that a science—that is, “organized knowledge”—about mankind has not only room for synthesis, but great need for it; a holistic creature wants “big,” holistic, interconnective theory, like: the project of making new maps of Man (or more precisely, Man’s mental navigation) and for Man to make better sense of himself.
(At the risk of a great digression cut short: keep in mind that noteworthy attempts to draw maps of Man didn’t have to be “correct”—if we could even reasonably impose that expectation—in order to goad others to explore fertile directions. A map only had to describe new, or seldom-visited areas—or approaches to human nature—concretely, so that other map-makers could follow; construe unseen moralities, infer subjective preferences in economic activity, delimit types of personality, or graduations of consciousness, etc., etc.)
Such grand endeavors have passed out of fashion in a world of specialists, although I think it is telling that many academic specialists write books to claim an overarching significance for their version of what their own speciality has to say, without really doing the work to draw from other disciplines and points of view as though they deserve care and attention.
I close the subject of characterizing “human nature” with an appropriate caveat, taken straight from my notes:
Human nature expands too far into horizons for one perspective to take it in, or for one state of mind to hold it. Therefore human nature plays elephant for the blind man. Each observer claims that the beast is something else.
And with that, I move on to the second direction my writing has taken:
- Description of human ignorance surrounding human nature, and examination of the many errors that have mischaracterized the creature called Man.
I cannot summarize an explanation here for the shallowness with which most have approached the problem, and regarded themselves or others as far more transparent than would be intellectually responsible. I will just say that a proper accounting ought to cover far more than traditional theologians’ negativity, or the historical influences of casuistries, that closed minds on the subject instead of opening them. And a systematic accounting—of these and many other reasons for ignorance—is arguably of secondary importance; when I choose to go into them in the book, it is primarily an assistance to illustrating the fact that people do habitually underrate matters of depth and complexity about “who they are.” In this I include “people” whose business it is to know better.
Pointing out that people fundamentally do not understand themselves (personally and generically) seems to me to be of the greatest importance. The pretense of knowledge, amidst ignorance, affects everything—personal attitudes about self, imagination of society, and the deep pessimism felt about the human condition and human potential.
Laying this out is the best kind of problem-solving I know to address so many soul-wrenching “I am lost,” or “we are lost” lamentations about self, or society. Many adverse conditions tend to be seen as inherent or essential problems, or natural to living, that—to the contrary—issue from dysfunctional approaches to having a human body and undergoing the experience of a mind, without a user’s manual.
I don’t intend to be able to offer that “user’s manual,” or minimize the difficulty of encapsulation. Few of us have adequate respect for the mysteries that we still represent, and that we are part of. Many of us have had the arrogant expectations of understanding or closure, and that is part of the message I am intent to get across.
Sometimes, frequently perhaps, it is possible to problem-solve dysfunctional approaches to living with a graduation of knowledge that realistically admits human nature. More-realistic characterization of human nature obviously enables spelling out more of this kind of prescriptive humanism. But, even when ameliorative knowledge is lacking—or I don’t have it, in order to write about it—there is still the mystery to admit.
And the restoration of wonder at a mystery in itself serves as an emotional, spiritual remedy, for those who had demoted human life on Earth. The absence of understanding that human beings have need of feeling profound, and participating in “divine” mystery, is another kind of “dysfunction,” another kind of ignorance about the human race.
Thus far, the second volume of The Constellation of Man looks like it’s shaping up to unite both of those two projects and fascinations about human nature. Special focuses will include:
- the emotional reach of “nature,”
- the mentalities of “mind” which are not limited to abstract intellectual systems,
- the ambiguous power and mistrust of the unconscious,
- and the legacy of an evolutionary past we still fail to appreciate.
The second volume has received most of my writing and editing time since 2016. As I write this, I’m currently working on several parts of it, in a sequence that I’ve been calling “Apprehending the God.” This sequence fits into a larger chain of metaphors that hasn’t sorted itself out as neatly as expected, but has turned out a battery of charged material. The last time I posted a preview, it was an excerpt spun out from another one of those metaphors. If I can, I’d like to find a way to pick out a piece from this sequence worth showing without its context, and the buildup of meaning which only several parts in tandem seem to be able to convey.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading a bit more about the philosophy I work hard to articulate, through the years and despite various obstacles that arise in the creative path. I’ve supplied my thoughts in text form this time, instead of recording another video journal. (In the recent heat wave, my voice would once again have had to compete with the hum of an air conditioner!) As always, I look forward to your comments.