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SSPT Profiles – Elliot Rose

October 24, 2014

Over the coming weeks we will be publishing a series of profiles of the fine graduate students whose hard work makes the journal possible. The idea is to give an insight into the research being conducted by all of us, in what is hopefully a more interesting and revealing format than those short university bios that everyone has and nobody reads. Sort of like an answer to that question, ‘so, what is your research on’, if you were asked in the pub and happened to have a laptop to hand.

My name is Elliot and as (outgoing) web editor and one of the people pushing to get people to add to this blog it seems only right I stick my head above the parapet and do so myself.


My research concerns the idea of human nature, and in particular the various ways in which people have articulated this idea in relation to the social context. Human nature, the notion of what human beings (“naturally”) are, continues to be a contentious concept, not least because it has so often been used to ground normative claims about society – “that’s just human nature” is a common rhetorical trope. Human nature is often seen as monolithic and inflexible, a hard determination of what we are, and on these grounds used as a oratorical court of appeal. Conversely many make the claim that not only are such notions inextricably influenced (almost “tainted” or “infected”) by socially inculcated norms and values, but that this social milieu, coupled with a supposed human plasticity, effectively overrides any innate dispositions, and “human nature” is thus whatever society makes it in a given time and context. There is consequently a widespread tendency to ignore the issue of human nature, or repudiate it as ideologically suspect, just as much as there is a tendency to blindly appeal to it in suspect ways.

This can be problematic because many philosophers, sociologists and political theorists do in fact make assumptions about what people are – they generally presume something about human capacities, proclivities and responsivity, and how these fit into their higher-order work on society. In short, they start with a broadly acceptable philosophical anthropology, in many cases tacitly and without acknowledgement. However coherent the resulting social or political theory may be in itself, these tacitly held conceptions of human nature may not reflect reality at lower strata. It might be that human beings are not sufficiently rational to be Homo economicus (and all the evidence suggests they are not); or that their need for a sense of themselves within a community comes not from their relations to their product, but from an animal desire for affection and friendship.

My work has therefore been directed at human nature theories: how human nature is construed by theorists, where they look for it, and how they integrate their view of it with their view of society. I am primarily interested in the stratification of approaches. Some look for deep roots, a metaphysical or biological rule that governs the formation of human nature – an algorithm of human existence. Others attempt to explain human life in terms of “holistic” analyses of politics (although here I’m using “politics” as a shorthand for an array of economic, social, cultural and political approaches, depending on the theorists’ interests), only dipping into the lower strata when they need to posit a response on behalf of individual agents. In between these is a panoply of strata, incorporating neural systems, individual psychology and desire, interpersonal behaviour, group psychology, and the movements of socio-cultural formations/entities.

Once we acknowledge this stratification of approaches to human nature we can begin to see that it is it not the monolithic, inflexible caricature, nor is it the infinitely flexible tabula rasa, but is in fact an active and contested field of enquiry in its own right. Furthermore I would argue that not only does the binary division not exist, but many who would deny the existence of human nature routinely employ their own conception of it in their work (indeed it could be argued that their work is one way to approach human nature, given the social and political nature of the human animal). These two positions – roughly analogous to the nature vs. nurture division – in fact represent divergent approaches to the strata that make up human existence, rather than an actually existing binary opposition between competing, mutually-exclusive causal influences.

Gary Larson - Far side

Gary Larson – Far side

Significantly, the denial or deferment of a discussion of human nature also leaves social and political theorists bereft, not only of empirical checks or verifications of the underpinning anthropology of their discipline/theory, but also of potentially useful materiel for their own efforts. This is the argument I want to put forward in the later stages of my thesis. Human nature can be viewed as raw material, which is tempered and shaped by politics, and a better understanding of it can inform decisions relating to our attainment of political ends. (Marx and Freud can both be seen as examples of this position, and their thinking, perhaps ironically, forms much of the theoretical background of positions that ignore or are hostile to the very notion of human nature.) As an example, if we understand the underlying cognitive processes behind in-group/out-group identification, then we might shed light on both the pervasiveness/persistence of ideological self-identification and the potential means to direct it away from harmful (exclusionary) political formations.

This is the position I’m currently in. I think the importance of the study of human nature is highlighted by political scientist Gary Olson, who argues is Empathy Imperiled that the empathetic capacity of human beings is being reduced to the bare minimum by our culture, and what is left is carefully managed to create corporate “brand awareness” and patriotic fervour, whilst being directed away from actual ethical issues. Reclaiming empathy is, on this view, a political project ultimately aimed at reclaiming something important about human nature itself. But empathy is in turn part of this process: it is a tool for recognising the plight of the other and, through this recognition, the realities of our political landscape. This is why I think talking about human nature is important, but first it looks like we need to rethink how we formulate our own theories and ideas about what it is, and what we are (and can or could be).

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 27, 2014 12:53

    Reblogged this on Unfortunate Conflict of Evidence and commented:

    I wrote this for my graduate-run journal’s blog series, about my academic research.

  2. November 14, 2014 11:54

    I have to say, I was a little skeptical of how these profiles would work out, but this was genuinely fascinating!

    Out of interest, this idea in Olson of empathy being reduced in modern society to a bare minimum, what exactly is this minimum supposed to be? And how is it, as a bare minimum, still able to be bent towards ‘brand awareness’ and ‘patriotic fervour’?

    Also, what precisely is the proper role of empathy in his opinion? I only ask in relation to my own interest in contemporary accounts of sociality (such as the simulation theory of mindreading) that want to argue that empathy is the key to understanding why we are able to act in such close concert with others.

    • November 21, 2014 11:19

      Hey Richard, thanks. I liked yours too.

      So, when I say ‘bare minimum’ that’s not really Olson’s term, but a very rough depiction I’m using to sum up a number of points. For example he spends some time on sociopathy and points out that our society encourages sociopathic viewpoints: sociopaths thrive and so proliferate, either by being more sucessful, being created by the society, or through “normal” people adopting sociopathic traits.
      He also considers empathy to be a faculty, which can thus be strengthened or weakened through use or inactivity. So someone who suspends their empathy at work (when dealing with employees, signing deals with sweatshop-owning contractors, short-selling their own clients’ shares etc.) can go home and be empathetic and love their family, but they’ve bracketed their empathic skills and are less adept at using them outside of contexts they’ve become acustomed to using them in. (This still happens “in the wild” as it were, where in-group/out-group distinctions are used to exclude certain parties from our empathetic concern).
      However in his view (and I find this compelling) it can’t be done away with entirely, and this is where his reliance on neuroscience comes in – it grounds his claim that empathy is intrinsic to us, since we all have the neural circuitry required for it to work.

      What he doesn’t say, but what seems to be nascent in the book, is that there’s a system of double consequence in the way that society works with empathy. One is unintended – a general dampening of empathic competency that comes about just as a result of the way the system works. The other is intended – that’s the attempt to direct it, an awareness that something is there and an effort to take advantage of it (even whilst in the background it is being constrained). In a number of cases that of course contributes to the dampening effect: not showing wounded Iraqi civilians on TV constrains empathy and makes it easier – when such images ARE encountered – to dismiss or ignore empathetic reactions to such images, but the primary aim was always to ensure empathy was triggered by images of (healthy) US soldiers hard at work, not by the collateral damage of US foreign policy.

      That leads to the last point. Part of Olson’s argument is the need to politically widen the scope of our empathy, and to use it as a trigger for conscious reflection on the causes of whatever event led to that empathic reaction.
      He regards it as something like a tool, one which is dangerous mostly to entrenched power blocs, but which has at least some degree of moral directionality in the sense that it encourages identification with other agents. Much like Frans de Waal’s opinion that it’s one of the “building blocks” of human morality and ethics. He doesn’t really deal with collective action/intentionality, but he’s definately building on the idea of deeply feeling (as opposed to thinking) a connection and similatiry between individuals. (That’s why advertisers try to use it – put a human face on a corporate entity and people think of it much more like a person, like them. Think Steve Jobs and Apple, or even Parkinson selling life insurance plans.)

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