Re: individuals, social systems, neoliberalism

Sun, 27 Apr 1997 14:22:53 -0400 (EDT)
Andrew Wayne Austin (


I agree with your position against Sanderson. It is a literal summary of
my argument, actually.

You take issue with my definition of "human nature." I am not sure you
understand my argument, but in any event, when I talk about the nature of
humans, as opposed to their social being, I am talking about the
hypothetical existence of a naturally arising behavior; a human behavior
rooted in nature (biological, physiological genesis) that is not exhibited
by non-human biological systems, thereby allowing it to be an instance of
*human* nature. If the term "human" is meant to distinguish people from
other biological systems, you see, then those things which are human must
be unique from other animals (and plants, viruses, etc.). I am only
seeking analytical clarity. I go on to distinguish between "human nature"
and "social being," preferring the term "social being," or even "human
being," because these terms capture the unique character of people. I
still allow for the possibility of "human nature" (see below), so I am not
creating an exclusionary argument. There is no semantic trick up my

I then go on to argue that there is no human nature because uniquely human
behavior is a social production, not a natural one. I give a very specific
criteria for what would constitute an example of human nature (see post to
Sanderson). The criteria is not an impossible one. The criteria is
specifically developed by making a yardstick that cannot be confused with
other criteria. Again, I seek analytical and conceptual clarity. The
criteria boils down to somebody demonstrating human instinct. The general
scientific conclusion is that humans have no instincts, that the behaviors
humans demonstrate that are uniquely human are *socially* bestowed. On
this, I believe, I have the agreement of just about the entire scientific
community (sociobiologists, racialists, and other hacks excluded). Thus,
it followed, strictly from the evidence we have accumulated, that human
being is a social being not a natural being. I very logically draw a
distinction between the biological system of Homo sapiens sapiens, and the
social/psychic system of human being. I don't understand why this
distinction or my argument troubles you so, Richard, since in your
arguments you use this distinction implicitly; you are forced to use my
conceptual system if you wish to make a logical argument in this regard.
Where your argument runs into trouble is where you depart from this logic.

> To begin with, "biological" vs "social" is NOT equivalent ot "individual"
> vs "social". Consider sex & reproduction. These biological functions
> involve a couple and a mother-child symbiotic unit, or family. So even
> strict biology already brings in more than the individual, as the propoer
> system of consideration.

I have never claimed that biological versus social is the equivalent of
individual versus social. That doesn't even make sense. I claimed that
"natural" is not equivalent to "social." The individual is both a natural
and social being. I only seek to make clear what is natural and what is
social at the analytical and conceptual level so that we may discuss these
matters scientifically, rather than ideologically. By doing this I can
focus on the relational ontology that determines the form and content of
both the natural and the social; here is the causal heart of the matter.
"Human nature" is most often used as an ideological construct, and as such
is either tautological or it is nonfalsifiable. I have operationalized it,
making it possible for scientists to demonstrate it empirically. If they
can, then I will agree that there is a human nature. But so far nobody has
scientifically demonstrated the existence of human nature. I don't see the
harm in actually operationalizing what has heretofore been a glittering
generality used to justify everything from the patriarchy, white
supremacy, to capitalism.

Richard, I have extensively discussed the biological requirements for
reproduction of the species. Some animals abandon their eggs to the
elements. Some animals parent. But if Chimpanzees parent, and Chimpanzees
are not human, then Homo sapiens parenting is not an example of human
nature. There is nothing unique about parenting to warrant elevating it to
a new metaphysical level. When you claim human nature, you must claim
something that other animals do not possess. It must be uniquely human,
and it must be naturally arising, *not* socially bestowed.

> Or consider man's language-learning cognitive apparatus. This is
> biological, but it only finds expression through society. Again,
> biological considerations lead to society as the minimal system that can be
> usefully studied. A person raised in isolation by wolves is a person
> deprived of experiencing his nature.

This is an illegitimately teleological argument, Richard. "A person raised
in isolation by wolves is a person deprived of experiencing his nature."
This is a logical fallacy. I won't address illogical statements. As for
the "language-learning" cognitive apparatus, language is about the closest
thing to an example of human nature that I have seen. But I am still not
convinced. First, we need to throw learning out as an example of human
nature. Biological systems learn. Nothing unique about that. That learning
permits socialization is not an example of human nature, but of nature
generally; in fact, it is so universal in biological systems as to almost
not be useful in debate (it only distinguishes between living and non-living
things). Furthermore, learning is a capacity, not an instinct. Learning is
not a behavior. We learn behaviors. Cognition is learned as well (and here
is where I disagree most strenuously with the rationalists). To think is to
behave. What is troubling is that models of learning cannot explain the
creativity children display during language acquisition, and so we have
some compelling theories of an innate system of cognition expressed
through language. Chomsky is, of course, the name that comes to mind here,
and his theory explains a tremendous lot. His argument is also, if
correct, the most compelling argument for human nature I have yet to hear.
However, it is still the case that if children are not socialized they
will not talk (or think). Thus, talking and thinking, despite our lack of
full understanding of the process of acquisition, is a learned behavior.
Chomsky's argument is only very indirectly demonstrable. So I remain
skeptical. One of the main hangups is that it is again teleological,
saying that something is a priori, but then saying that its lack of
manifestation in certain instances is because the necessary conditions were
not in place to permit its unfolding. Chomsky discuss the unfolding of
language and cognition as the predetermined unfolding of a genetic
program. This, in my view, is seriously flawed logically, along the same
lines as the Hegelian unfolding of history along a predetermined path
towards the end of history, at which point the truth will be manifest. For
the Cartesean rationalists, reason (and in this case language and
cognition) unfolds the same way. It is no coincidence, then, that the
assumptions in Chomsky's model are very similar to the assumptions in the
rational choice model. Kudos to Chomsky for actually working out the
problem scientifically. I am still rather unconvinced at this point.

> One can insist, perhaps, on creating an "individual" vs "social" dichotomy
> - but biology cannot be the basis.

Since I never made these claims, this statement is irrelevant to the

> >We have achieved much clarity in science. We have withstood the purposeful
> >confusion of nihilism and postmodernism. Now we have to battle it out with
> >the rising neoclassical liberal tide and their false science.
> Agreed. And this is why the "human nature" thread has relevance to WSN.

It is very relevant, for both scientific and political reasons. I am happy
to see you agree.

> But trying to separate the individual from society is hardly a good
> starting point for countering neoliberalism. That was the position Maggie
> Thatcher (champion of neoliberalism) expounded. Much better, I'd say, to
> recognize that 99% of man's evolution (as man) occured in tribes & villages
> - and to observe that man's nature is to be found in such societies - based
> on collaborative ethics - not individualist ethics (a modern invention).

I would never separate the individual from society--this is exactly my
argument! Go back and read my initial post to Sanderson. Read what I said
about how society is possible, how it is reproduced, about the role of
individuals, groups, and history and structure. Read the post where I
discussed the microperspective of Mead, where the individual is bound up
in society. The individual is a production of society! Read my discussion
of the dialectic of Marx, of the relational ontology of Lefebvre, or
Sartre. Please, and I am sincere about this, please understand what I am
arguing before you attack my position. And please, understand the
assumptions of your own argument. Your false attributions and the
antinomies in your thinking (often attributed to your opponents) reflect
uncritical self-understanding.

Andrew Austin