21 Februar 2013

Rational vs. Social Animals


Whereas the members of the French Enlightenment imagined a state of nature in which autonomous individuals formed social contracts for their mutual benefit, members of the British Enlightenment stressed that people are born with a social sense, which plays out beneath the level of awareness. People are born with a sense of 'fellow feeling', a natural sympathy for other people's pain and pleasure. They are guided by a desire to be admired and to be worthy of admiration. Morality, these writers argued, flows from these semiconscious sentiments, not from logical deductions derived from abstract laws. 
Whereas the children of the French Enlightenment tended to see a society and its institutions as machines, to be taken apart and reengineered, children of the British Enlightenment tended to see them as organisms, infinitely complex networks of living relationships. In their view, it's often a mistake to dissect a problem into discrete parts because the truth is found in the nature of the connections between the things you are studying. Context is crucial. Abstract universals are to be distrusted. Historical precedents are more useful guides than universal principles. 
...
And in truth, this debate between pure reason on one side and intuition and affection on the other is one of the oldest. Intellectual history has oscillated between rationalist and romantic periods (...). The cognitive revolution of the past thirty years has provided a new burst of insight into these old questions. The new findings strongly indicate that the British Enlightenment view of human nature is more accurate than the French Enlightenment view. Thinkers from the French Enlightenment imagined that we are Rational Animals, distinguished from other animals by our power of logic. Marxist and others in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries imagined that we are Material Animals, shaped by the physical conditions of our lives. But the thinkers from the British Enlightenment were right to depict us as Social Animals. 
David Brooks, The Social Animal 


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