Sunday, September 22, 2019

conferatur: The Human Evasion

Edvard Munch, Angst (1896)

As a supplement to the last post, I'd like to submit some excerpts from Celia Green's The Human Evasion (1969). If you were paying attention, you might have found a hyperlink to an etext of that book.

I know I've posted links and quoted excerpts of The Human Evasion before. It's a very old favorite of mine—even if I take issue with a lot of its contents, and I can't say I've ever much jived with Green's radical libertarian politics. Green is in any case an exceptionally luculent writer, and she's on point (though perhaps unduly contemptuous) where she describes humanity's "pathological" interest in itself.

Green terms this so-called pathology "the human evasion," identifying it with the psychological syndrome called "sanity." Any discussion of anthropocentrism (or "humanism," as per Hartshorne) undertaken without consulting Green's diagnostic notes would be incomplete.

Observe that Green takes as a given that reality is "inconceivable," whereas Hartshorne insists that it is (or can be made) "intelligible." I suspect Green would give Hartshorne some credit for at least thinking about reality, while criticizing the lack of imagination (or abundance of sanity) he evinces by arranging it such that it looks something like a socially concerned anthropic entity.

She wouldn't hear any disagreement out of me.

Society begins to appear much less unreasonable when one realizes its true function. It is there to help everyone to keep their minds off reality. This follows automatically from the fact that it is an association of sane people, and it has already been shown that sanity arises from the continual insertion of 'other people' into any space into which a metaphysical problem might intrude.

It is therefore quite irrelevant to criticize society as though it were there for some other purpose——to keep everyone alive and well-fed in an efficient manner, say. Some degree of inefficiency is essential to create interesting opportunities for emotional reaction. (Of course, criticizing society, though irrelevant, is undeniably of value as an emotional distraction for sane people.)

Incidentally, it should be noticed that 'keeping everyone alive and well-fed' is the highest social aim which the sane mind can accept without reservation or discomfort. This is because everyone is capable of eating——and so are animals and plants——so this qualifies magnificently as a 'real' piece of 'real life'. There are other reasons in its favour as well, of course, such as the fact that well-fed people do not usually become more single-minded, purposeful, or interested in metaphysics.

It has been seen that the object of a sane upbringing is increasingly to direct all emotion towards objects which involve other people.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Beyond Humanism


Over the summer I read a book that aggravated and perplexed me like no book has since I graduated from school and left compulsory reading assignments behind. Today I would like to share some of that aggravation and perplexity with you. You're welcome.

I picked up Charles Hartshorne's Beyond Humanism: Essays in the New Philosophy of Nature (1937) on a whim at a used bookstore in a quaint little village ensconced behind Western Massachusetts' so-called Tofu Curtain. I'd never heard of the book before, and Charles Hartshorne wasn't a name I recognized. But if this isn't your first visit here, and if you've read at least one of my lolloping screeds against anthropocentrism, you might guess why a volume with BEYOND HUMANISM printed on its spine in bold gold letters might be an object of an impulse buy of mine.

"Humanism" may convey any number of context-dependent meanings. To someone studying the Renaissance, the word might conjure the image of an itinerant scholar-poet with a fetish for ancient Greek and Roman literature. An American history buff might think of the Thomases Paine and Jefferson. For most of us in the twenty-first century, I think the word most likely brings to mind somebody likely to mention their atheism in their Twitter bio, and who retweets Seth MacFarlane and Richard Dawkins. This is the humanist Hartshorne has in mind: a scientific/philosophical materialist who places his utmost faith in human reason and empiricism, and who rejects theistic dogma wholesale.

Humanism does not equate to anthropocentrism straightaway, though a strong correlation may be safely assumed. The humanist rejects the notion of a benevolent, intelligent, transcendent "higher power" as the outmoded vestige of primitive superstition, and contemns religious institutions as peddlers of a world- and cosmic history that have been discredited long ago. All well and good: we're probably better off not living in fear of an angry, invisible man in the clouds who intends to send us to burn forever in a dark, fiery pit should we fail to observe the rules of conduct devised by a Semitic tribe some three millennia ago. And if we're going to live here, we ought to  know with as much possible certainty where "here" is. We can do without an Earth science whose methods depend on the consultation of biblical and vedic chronologies, or doctrines that persist in placing the Earth at the center of the universe by virtue of the literature regarding divine covenants, humanity's creation in the likeness of the deity, and the presentation of a purportedly infallible and exhaustive cosmic narrative that disregards every location but the third planet from an unremarkable yellow dwarf star in a typical spiral galaxy.

Humanism, however, implicitly reinstates human beings at the center of all things. If there's no deity, no providential destiny that we and the cosmos are working together to enact, and no ghosts speaking to us from the interstices and depths of the universal mechanism, then our attention must invariably fall on those things which immediately sympathize with and interest us: human beings, their actions, their creations. The other entities sharing this spacefaring terrarium with us are regarded as significant only insofar as they are useful to us, dangerous to us, or objects of fleeting appeal that we can take pictures of in hopes of getting Instagram likes. Cosmic bodies arouse our fascination as possible sites of human activity in a spacefaring future, and as subjects of scientifically meticulous gore stories about how horribly they'd kill a person who came too close.

Hartshrone and I are pretty much in accordance here. That last paragraph is something I could have typed well before picking up Beyond Humanism, and I can't even be sure of where Hartshorne's influence might have seeped in. Let's look for a moment at Hartshorne's formulation of the issue in his own words, taken from Beyond Humanism's introduction and conclusion:
In the best sense, "humanism" is simply the expression of an interest in man; in the worst sense it is this interest become a monomania, excluding interest in anything else.
Humanist exclusiveness has two aspects: one, a narrowness of interest; the other, a doctrine which rationalizes, more or less unconsciously encourages, this narrowness. In effect, the doctrine is always a theory that the non-human portions of nature, and nature as a whole, need not interest us because they are not intrinsically interesting——however useful they may be as a means to our ends. They are interesting as a bank check is, for consequences which human behavior can cause to flow from them.