Essay Eight


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I am publishing here several of Guy Robinson's Essays. One or two of them had until recently been posted at Guy's site, which no longer exists. In my opinion, Guy is one of the few Marxist Philosophers whose work is genuinely worth reading. Indeed, I'd go much further: I cannot praise his book, Philosophy and Mystification (Fordham University Press, 2003), too highly; it seems to me that this is how Marxist Philosophy should be done.


I only encountered Guy's work in 2005, but I soon saw that he had anticipated several of my own ideas -- except he manages to express in two paragraphs what it takes me several pages to say! Unlike the vast bulk of material that claims to be Marxist (particularly that which has been produced by academics), Guy's work is a model of clarity. It is no accident, therefore, to see Guy writing in the Wittgensteinian tradition.


[Many on the left think Wittgenstein was a conservative mystic. I have comprehensively refuted that idea here. Moreover, Guy's work alone is testimony to the fact that Wittgenstein's work is in fact conducive to Historical Materialism.]


Sadly, Guy passed away in October 2011.


This material has been posted here with the permission of his son, but no one should assume that Guy would have agreed with any of the views expressed at this site -- other than those already contained in his essays. Nor should anyone assume that I agree with everything Guy says. For example, in relation to human beings, I would not place such an emphasis on 'sexual selection', or any at all.


I have re-formatted these essays to agree with the conventions adopted at this site; spelling has been altered to conform to UK English. In addition, I have corrected a handful of minor typos and added several links. I have also highlighted any changes made to the original text by the use of curly brackets. [These are modifications that any editor or proof-reader would have recommended.]


This essay comprises Chapter Five of Guy's second book, Philosophy and Demystification, which has yet to find a publisher. Other chapters from this book can be accessed here.



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          Chapter 5: Creating Creativity                 


Guy Robinson


We have been trying to put history and human creativity at the centre of our understanding of the world and in this way have been setting ourselves in direct and total opposition to the framework of thought and programs of explanation that have dominated the 'developed' world in modern times. The domination of that framework and programs has been so complete that many who regard themselves as Marxists have been unable to see Historical Materialism as a framework of thought having both the aim and the potential to dismantle that ahistorical framework with its associated programs of explanation solely in causal terms, and replace it with a genuine understanding of things that can sweep aside the thicket of ahistorical entities generated by those programs adopted by the philosophers of the bourgeois revolution. The real aim and potential of the historical perspective offered by Historical Materialism is to do for that framework exactly what the bourgeois framework had itself done in its own time to the theologically based framework that had served the feudal era.


We have to address these issues here because that system of thought put in place by the philosophers of the bourgeois revolution was in effect (though not in intention) an ideology -- in the sense that it effectively hides our human creativity by (ironically) creating all sorts of ahistorical entities before which we are supposed to stand passive -- but which we can come to see are actually misrepresentations of things that are the product of human practices. However, to fortify ourselves against those mistakes it is important to see how the historical situation the philosophers faced and the state of knowledge of the time conspired to push them to adopt that framework and those programs of explanation which had the effect of hiding or denying our human creativity. The actual historical situation also made it impossible for them to see the role of history in our understanding of the world. It was only the founding and development of the sciences of geology and archaeology that allowed us to see the vast sweep of the history of the world and of humanity, and put {finally to} to rest the conception that the world was created 'as is' only thousands of years ago and had as a result, no real history of development. (Unfortunately, and rather frighteningly, that idea has not been put entirely to rest, and something like 50 millions of the citizens of the US -- including President Bush -- do not believe in evolution and presumably imagine that the age of the earth is to be measured in a few millennia rather than billions of years.)


All this has to be set out and dealt with in order to see how many layers of confusion and obfuscation have to be dug through before we can {gain} a proper grasp of that defining creativity that sets humanity apart from the rest of animate nature. The hiding and denial of that creativity meant that we could more easily accept a system of production that itself denies creativity to those in its grip and treats the majority as beasts of burden whose work is to be used in creating wealth for the minority.


What I am maintaining, and will look at more closely in the final chapter, is that it was reasons that were historical rather than philosophical that pushed the philosophers of the {S}eventeenth {C}entury to adopt an agenda and a program of explanation and understanding that required them to turn things on their head and to see them upside down. This inverted view had many strands that still affect us {within both} philosophy (and the} wider cultural climate. Even those philosophers who have wanted to follow Nietzsche in rejecting the legacy of those {S}eventeenth {C}entury projects (which they call 'metaphysics') have failed to identify fully {these} inversions and have as a result created an incoherent picture in which some of the {them} remain.


Two Major Sources of Obscurity: Mechanism and Philosophic Individualism


There are two particular inversions that we have looked at above -- one is the product of the adoption of what is labelled the 'mechanical world-view' -- a project of explanation requiring everything to be explained causally and mechanically. This project required that humanity be seen as passive, as merely one cog among many in a vast machine. Ancillary to this was the requirement to represent human knowledge and understanding as a kind of passive 'mirroring' of something which was described as an 'external reality'. This in its turn required that human language be understood in terms of the representation of elements of that 'external reality' and it required that truth be defined as some sort of 'correspondence' with that external reality -- even though no one has succeeded in giving an intelligible account of that purported relation of 'correspondence'.


The intractable difficulties of the problems generated by this point of view have been discussed in the last chapter. In the end they all stem from trying to articulate what amounts to a denial of the blindingly obvious, namely, the creativity of humanity. We need to start from the fact that homo sapiens is the one species which has turned its back on evolution and instead of being modified by environmental pressures has set about modifying its environment. Humans do this by making clothes, building houses, clearing land, domesticating animals and plants to serve its needs. In this way humans have set off on a trajectory of development which has to be described as 'historical' -- that is, each generation starts off from a set of skills, institutions and practices developed by previous generations, which it in turn develops and leaves to the succeeding generation a new or modified set of skills and understanding as well as a modified environment.




The second inversion dictated by the {S}eventeenth {C}entury agenda does not involve the denial of what is so blindingly obvious and so it has passed without comment into the views of some of those who think of themselves as having made a root and branch rejection of that form of secular theology which they have labelled 'metaphysics'. That second inversion consisted in seeing the individual as prior to and independent of the social and the social as no more than an aggregation of individuals. We were recently treated to a rare philosophic pronouncement from Margaret Thatcher putting what could be seen as an extreme version of this view: "There is no such thing as society."


Sense could be got out of this pronouncement -- or put into it -- if we take it as denying a wrongheaded conception of society as something standing over and above and outside of humanity -- like a Platonic {F}orm, perhaps. Society exists outside you and me, all right -- that is, in childhood we were inducted into a particular society and culture by our elders and mentors who trained us in its skills and practices, taught us its language and showed us the rules we would have to obey if we weren't to get into trouble. At that stage of our lives we stood in a passive relation to those rules, institutions and practices and could have no hand in their development. At a later stage, however, individuals and groups can have a profound effect on the development of the society of which they are a part. Magellan, Mandela, Moses, Mussolini, Maxwell, and Mohammed will do as examples of individuals who have helped re-shape the societies that formed them, in very different ways -- through work in the sciences, religion, politics, medicine, exploration, technology or whatever.


The extent to which this innovation is possible will be a function of the kind of society which has formed us. In an isolated, static society that initial formation may be strict and complete, and as a result the society stable and relatively changeless. This is because those institutions and rituals of the community define what it is to be a member of the tribe -- and for those isolated tribes (where they still exist) belonging is all important. To live outside the tribe would be to be an outcast, something fearful, a kind of death. The painful initiations which the men of some tribes submit to are a measure of the value of belonging. (The mutilations of women, particularly circumcision, are different, and most frequently a matter of gender power relations.)


The instability and changeability of our own society is the result of the fact that amongst the values that are impressed on the young during their formation is that of differentiating oneself as much as possible from one's parents and from the older generation generally, rejecting their values (though not {the} instilled value of rejecting and differentiating) and being, so far as possible, 'self-made'. In parts of the US and other 'developed' countries, many of the younger generation hardly listen to the older and do not regard their elders as having anything to say that is worth listening to. The older generation is regarded as an impediment to progress, something to be surpassed as having only 'out-dated' ideas. The notions of experience and wisdom do not find much place there.


Individualism and the Class War


The individualism that was both appealed to and pushed forward by the vision of humanity implicit in the Social Contract theory actually reflected, in its own distorted way, social changes that were occurring in Europe with the breaking down of the hereditary bonds of feudal society. Hobbes' image of 'man in the state of Nature' as 'the war of all against all' reflected, not 'human nature' itself, as he was suggesting, but the new class antagonisms that were brought into prominence with the bourgeois revolution that was transforming Europe. Those antagonisms were the result of private property having been made the centre and chief determinant of social relations. The very idea of private property is founded on the exclusion of others and in that way {it} has antagonism built into its essence. The hereditary bonds of the feudal system of exploitation obviously generated their own class antagonisms. However, the class antagonisms generated by the bourgeois revolution were much fiercer and more widespread.


People tend to think of the class war as something that is waged from below by the exploited, but if we look at the period of the bourgeois revolution we can see the war being carried out from above with utter viciousness by governments working for the upper classes. In Britain, for example, the Tudor kings enacted laws aimed at supplying the upper classes with a work force that had no alternative to selling their labour-power in order to survive. First the government enclosed the common lands that had for generations supplied the peasantry with their needs. Then they enacted utterly vicious 'vagabondage' laws that threatened the peasants thus displaced with imprisonment, branding with an "S" and being sold into slavery, or finally, hanging -- if they did not then sell their labour for the profit of another. And of course those common lands ended up in the hands of the rich.


Anyone who thinks that these things are just an example of the bad old times that we have left behind now that we have democracy, that person had better look at the "War of Blair Mountain" which took place in the 1920s in West Virginia. That was another war waged 'from above' with the help of the US government. When the coal miners of West Virginia attempted to unionize, the owners hired armed gangs to attack and terrorize them and their families. Then, when this proved {rather} expensive and not too effective, the owners appealed to the US government, which had greater resources and could do it all at the expense of the US taxpayers. This 'democratic' government ranged the army and the army Air Corps against those miners and used machine guns, bombs and gas against them. This was the government 'of the people, by the people and for the people'!


And in our own time the IMF has been carrying on the enclosures by forcing third world governments to privatize things that belonged to the people of those countries and sell them off to capitalists so that a profit can be made from them.


The Myth of 'Human Nature'  


Now, back to the philosophic problems generated by the attempt to elevate the 'war of all against all' into a timeless truth about humanity which was only saved from the chaos by a supposedly overt and conscious agreement to submit to a higher authority by means of something called 'the social contract'.


Only impossible creations of the philosophic imagination could be offered up as the starting point, and not the product, of social living. The Social Contract theory that attempted to answer {the} incoherent question of 'the origins of society' required individuals that sprang like 'Venus from the head of Zeus' [I think Guy means Athena here -- RL], individuals arrived at maturity and rationality with no history, and no social contacts. This required us to imagine that these individuals had no parents, no upbringing, no learning from others. Despite this, the creatures were supposed to be endowed with both reason and language. That the philosophers thought they could produce understanding of anything whatever from these incoherent materials, shows how desperate and out of touch with ordinary reality {they} were.


Perhaps it would be better to say that the real project of the Social Contract theory was not that of producing understanding at all but rather that of undermining the feudal account as well as assisting social changes, and the changes in attitude necessary for them. In that latter project it succeeded; in the former project it failed and produced confusions that are still with us -- because accepting the individualistic model has set wrongheaded and impossible conditions for our understanding of human knowledge, human language and the origins humanity itself, as well as subsequent human history.


Those confusions will come out as we try to unravel the notion of creativity and set it in opposition to the passivity that is assigned to humanity by the 'mechanical world-view' and the scientism that is its offspring. That scientism aims to explain everything human in mechanical or evolutionary terms. Its ultimate gesture in that direction has been to claim (with no proof) that human intelligence can be explained mechanically because a machine could be made to be intelligent. (This claim falls at the first hurdle because machines are given their purposes by humans whereas intelligent action is action that serves one's own purposes, not action that unwillingly serves the purposes of another -- as does the action of any artefact.)


That aim and that program of explaining everything causally and mechanically is still very much with us and some still believe that the only alternative to scientism is a mystical or a theological view of the world. We have tried to demonstrate that the scientistic program was in its way every bit as theological with its deified conception of nature, as any overtly theological perspective. It in fact generates far deeper mystery in its pretence of explanation of the order of the world when in fact it was offering none. At least the theologians were up front in describing God's ways and powers as 'mysterious'. Seen as something separate from the material world, and therefore immaterial, their concept of Nature is nevertheless supposed to explain the order and regularities of the material world. The concept of nature and nature's 'laws' offer us mysteries which are only deepened by not being acknowledged as mysterious. This has been discussed more thoroughly in Ch. 2, "The Demystification of Nature" [I think Guy means "The Concept Of Nature, Its Mystification And Demystification" -- RL]


We need to understand the force and the sources of that commitment to a program of explanation that seeks to represent the behaviour of everything, including humanity, as the essentially passive result of external forces and causes, and everything that an ordinary person would call 'creative' as the resultant of combinations of mechanical inputs. From the point of view of that mechanistic program, the chief enemy is the notion of purpose, whether this is thought of emanating from God and assigned to the world as a whole, or as exhibited in ordinary human actions, institutions and artefacts.


It is certainly true that the notion of purpose does not have a place in those explanations we would call scientific. But what we need to identify is the source of the assumption and the belief that there is no other legitimate form of explanation and understanding that can stand beside the mechanical/causal explanations of the sciences. Once we have seen that there are reasons that may explain, but do not justify, the belief that there is one and only one genuine form of explanation and understanding, we can see that there is no need to try to 'reduce' or to explain away either purposiveness or creativity. Then we can move on to try to understand the nature of human creativity and its requirement of a social context.


There is no compelling argument to the conclusion that there is and can be only one legitimate form of understanding and explanation of everything in the world, and since carrying out this program of reducing all explanations to mechanical/causal ones requires us to set aside things that are obvious to ordinary intelligence. And we can hardly take seriously a program of explanation whose aim and purpose is to deny the existence of aims and purposes. We need to get a clear idea how that view and that program came to dominate philosophy in the {S}eventeenth {C}entury and spread its influence well beyond, leading to serious misuses and misunderstandings of the sciences by turning them into a kind of theology of a nature which had been deified and set apart from the world to govern all within -- including humans.


Science as the Secret of All


For reasons that are understandable though not adequate, the 'new' philosophers of {S}eventeenth {C}entury Europe seized on that scientific paradigm of causal explanation and adopted the program of the 'mechanical world-view', which they saw as offering a complete framework of thought that could rival and displace the theological world-view developed over the centuries by the scholastics and used by some to defend the institutions of the feudal system.


Trying to get clear about human creativity involves us in a careful examination of the complex interlocking set of mistakes that led to its obscuring and even denial by the conception and program of explanation that the 17th {C}entury philosophers set for themselves and their successors.


The unexamined and total commitment to this project of causal explanation of everything was unfortunate for a number of reasons -- of which the most far reaching is that the 'reforming' philosophers (as Leibniz called them) did not seriously question that underlying project of forging something which might be described as a single or unified 'world-view'. What I have called 'the theological world-view', the unitary understanding of the world from which the later scholastics attempted to construct an explanation of everything including the motion of the Sun and the planets, was something that needed to be dismantled rather than copied. It had introduced inevitable confusions and distortions in trying to get theology to do something for which it was not fitted, namely, to explain secular features of the material world such as the motions of the planets and the apparent motion of the Sun which was said by the theologians, supposedly on the authority of the Bible, to revolve around the earth. The corresponding but opposed confusions and distortions of scientism resulted from the same belief that there could be only one legitimate form of explanation -- a causal one.


The new mechanistic canons of explanation required that everything be explained 'causally' where the notion of cause was in the process of being given a new and instrumental sense utterly at variance with the function of the Aristotelian sense, which the scholastics had inherited. For the scholastics to call God 'First Cause' was not to situate Him in a special position in what we would now call a 'causal' account. To do that would be to invite the child's common question: 'What caused God?'


The misguided moves we have been trying to deal with were the result of the unexamined and misguided project of trying to {construct} a unitary world-picture based on only one ahistorical framework of explanation and understanding. In this framework{,} copied from the theological one, an ahistorical 'Nature' replaced an ahistorical God as foundation and starting point. Unfortunately the 'new' philosophers didn't examine and question that project carefully and so thought they had to provide unitary alternative to the unitary theological world-view they thought was wrong. However, the wrongness of that world-view lay in the wrong-headedness of the project of producing a monolithic and ahistorical framework of thought itself, rather than the falseness of its particular assumptions or its conclusions. The result was that the project of producing a secular world-view simply reproduced the confusions generated by the attempt to create a unitary form of understanding on a theological basis. This left them trying to give answers to theological questions (the 'origin of the Universe'{,} for example) just as the scholastics had tried to answer secular questions by appeal to theological notions -- giving angels secular work to do moving the planets and so forth. The question of the 'origin of the universe' is a theological one because no secular account can tell us how something can be generated out of nothing. If the universe is the collection of all existing things, before it, there can have been nothing. The 'Big Bang' may blind and deafen our understanding for a while, but it can't ultimately prevent the question: "What went Bang?" having sense.


What we call the 'scientific revolution' is perhaps best seen as a revolution in aims and aspirations that brought with it a new conception of knowledge and explanation, one that is captured nicely in Bacon's slogan, 'Knowledge is power.' The aim and test of knowledge and understanding became that of manipulative power, and no place was left for the earlier aim of simply setting things in a perspicuous order that characterized the Aristotelian philosophy. It was at this point that it became no longer possible to understand the Aristotelian conception of cause, which has only the aim of characterizing the thing through its relation to his two pairs of dialectically linked factors: agent/aim and matter/form all of which he called 'causes'. In the new intellectual atmosphere which constituted the scientific revolution, the notion of cause came to designate simply 'that which can be used to bring the thing about' (at least in those cases where it is within our power to bring about that thing which has been identified as 'cause'.)


The point of this excursion is to move toward making the larger point that the project of trying to construct a unified or single world-view is a misguided one that ends in confusion by, for example, trying to get theology to answer scientific questions or else trying to get the sciences to answer questions that belong to theology. I have in mind here, questions, such as that of 'the origin of the universe', which if they have any 'answer' at all, {it} can {be only an} answer {that lies} within a theological framework, because even to pose it requires us to imagine and give sense to a time when the universe did not exist. To do this is to take up and give sense to a point of view outside the universe.  Such a point of view is necessarily a theological one.


The concrete scientific project in relation to the question of 'the origin of the universe' can only be to explain the features one state of the universe in terms of some antecedent state. And then, when enough is discovered about that anterior state of the universe it will offer itself up to be explained in its turn and will generate a new set of problems for the cosmologists and astrophysicists. The sciences don't offer us an ultimate answer, but rather a continuing project with no theoretical end point. The search for final and ultimate answers that will bring inquiry to a halt is a theological one that is alien to the scientific enterprise. The fact that some scientists and others have not seen this is the result of misunderstandings of the nature of the scientific enterprise which are themselves the result of that co-opting of the sciences (rolled up collectively under the term 'science') to do the theological work of providing foundations and starting points for a world-view that pretends to completeness and finality. The sciences were in this way turned into a kind of 'theology of the real'.


The sciences do not reach ultimates and absolutes despite their use of terms such as 'fundamental particles' and 'absolute zero'. Anything that is offered up as 'fundamental' or as 'absolute' in the sciences will be given that title in either of two ways. One use would signal that in the present state of the development of the subject there is no prospect of asking questions that are not merely idle speculative ones with no practical content that could direct further research. It was in this sense that, when proposed, Dalton's atoms were unsplittable and at that time, and for two generations after, 'fundamental'. But in the sciences this is only a temporary assignment which will be withdrawn later when further research and theoretical development has converted idle and speculative questions about structure into practical research-guiding ones, questions with practical content.


The assignment of "absolute" to absolute zero is quite different; it is a signal that the role of that term has to be understood in a mathematical framework and that it has the mathematical function of an asymptote, a limit which can be approached "as close as you please" (with, in the case of absolute zero, exponentially increasing energy and monetary costs){,} though not even in theory can it be reached.


A great deal of grief could have been saved if it had been seen that Newton intended his "absolute time" and "absolute space" in just that way -- as mathematical limits and not as actual things, and made that intention clear enough by using the phrase "mathematical time" as equivalent to "absolute time". But Newton's contemporaries and followers sought to use Newton's work in their project of constructing a 'world-view' that would be seamless and complete. For this they required Newton's "absolute time" and "absolute space" to be real entities not merely analytical tools. In this, they were making the opposite mistake from the one Mach made when he regarded the atoms as analytical tools and not real entities. Mach's mistake is discussed in Ch. 3, 'Forms of Life and the Construction of Reality'. Newton's own subversion of the project of using his work in a mechanistic picture of the world is discussed in Ch. 7, 'Newton, Marx and Wittgenstein'. [A link will be provided when that Chapter has been published -- RL]


If we take a historical perspective, we can understand the responses of the European philosophers of the Seventeenth Century to the historical tasks that they were set in their attempt to understand as well as to assist fundamental changes that were at that time taking place in the organization of society, in human self-image, and the canons of rationality and decision making. But most importantly, they were trying to show that those changes brought in with the bourgeois revolution were both natural and necessary. It was this project that generated a set of intractable problems that have stood in the way of our understanding of ourselves and our relations to one another and to the material world in which we live and operate.


It was this that set them off on the project of trying to produce a complete world-view based on the sciences as an alternative to the would-be complete world-view based on theology that had been cobbled together by the later scholastics. This project was just as disastrous for our understanding of the nature of scientific understanding as the attempt to manufacture a complete world-view out of theology was for Christian theology and the Bible. The Bible cannot be used to understand and explain the motion of the planets and the attempt can in the end only damage it. In the same way the latter-day 'creationists' demean the Bible in trying to turn it into a scientific account of the origin of species. The Bible can enter the scientific arena only by holding itself open to scientific canons of evidence and refutability.


I have used these two rivals to illustrate the misguidedness of trying to construct unitary world views with a single form of explanation and understanding, and perhaps I need to go on to emphasize that there are many other forms of understanding that have their separate roles in the variety of non-competing enterprises that make up human life. The irreducibility of these enterprises and their forms of understanding to some single one needs to be recognized if we are not to end with a lop-sided view which requires us to overlook, eliminate or 'reduce' everything that does not fit the Procrustean beds of one canonical set of explanatory forms. As a result of insisting on such a single mode of understanding we ourselves end up as either philistines or mystics. All these things need to be cleared out of the way if we are to get any grasp of human creativity and the fact that it had to be created by humanity itself in producing itself as producers.


Purposiveness, Creativity and Socialization


The particular form of understanding that I need to add here is that which appeals to purpose and purposiveness, a form of understanding which we will have to invoke in unravelling the notion of creativity and in trying to bring out the necessary social base of creativity and its incompatibility with the rootless individual posed by philosophic individualism.


If we are going to get any sort of grip on the notion of human creativity we will have to start by looking at something which has been invisible to those dedicated to causal/mechanical explanations. It is that which sets humanity apart from the rest of nature, namely, the fact that homo sapiens is the one species (and so far the only one) which has turned the tables on evolution and, instead of being the passive subject of modification by environmental pressures, has set about actively modifying its environment. Instead of growing fur in response to cold, ancient humans created a micro-climate of their own by means of clothing, by building shelters and by means of fire (which also allowed early humans to turn into food things that might be inedible or unpalatable raw.)


From those first human transformations of their immediate environment human creativity in all its fullness flowed. Humanity began its human trajectory by creating itself into a new species, a species of creators. For in creating or producing anything, humanity created itself as creators and produced itself as producers and separated itself from the rest of animate nature, which continued to be shaped by environmental forces alone. To say this is certainly not to deny that homo sapiens is still a natural species with pressures from the natural environment contributing to its physical development and evolution, (though sexual selection now vastly more important than natural selection). It is, however, to say that with those creative and deliberate modifications of the its environment, humanity embarked on that new trajectory of development which we can call 'historical', a new order of development which overwhelmed the purely evolutionary and made it nearly invisible and of less interest. In any case, humans began to intervene in the selection process both in relation to its own species and those of plants and animals in which it had an interest so that it was no longer 'natural selection' but selection which had a social or a purposive dimension.


Purposive Versus Instinctive or Conditioned Behaviour


But to get a full understanding of that creativity we are going to have to contrast it with both instinctive behaviours, such as nest building, spinning webs, mating dances or digging burrows as well as with those behaviours that are the result of conditioning. It will not be helpful to say simply that creative and purposive actions involve consciousness whereas the instinctive and the conditioned do not, and then to leave it at that.


None of those contrasted behaviours are to be seen as evidence of agency or purposiveness in the individual member of the species or race. Instinctive behaviours attach to whole species and for that reason we would look to explanations of an evolutionary type, since that sort of explanation is aimed precisely at accounting for peculiarities of form and behaviour in terms of their contribution to the survival and flourishing of that species. Those behaviours are beneficial all right, but the benefit and purposiveness attach to the whole species and are not evidence of individual agency and purpose-driven action. Instinctive behaviours belong to the whole species as part of its nature as determined by those environmental pressures over great stretches of time. Agency on the other hand, belongs to individuals either singly or acting in concert.


One of our problems will be to understand the source and nature of individual agency and purpose-driven action and to relate it to that framework provided by the larger picture of humanity extracting itself from the stream of purely evolutionary development and reversing the passive relation to its environment that had governed the development of the genus homo over some millions of years.


First, we need to have a brief look at the notion of conditioning, since conditioned behaviour does, after all, operate at the individual rather than species level though it is not evidence of purpose in that individual. If any purpose is involved it will be that of the person who has arranged for the conditioning of the individual. Conditioning is the result of deliberately arranged or fortuitously occurring repetitive patterns in the history of an individual, repetitions that operate to forge an artificial connection between some environmental factor and a behaviour or reaction that is not naturally connected with it. The connection would not have occurred in the absence of that arranged or fortuitous historical pattern but is the result of it. The individual has no choice in the matter and is purely passive in relation to the conditioning process and this differentiates that process from learning and the acquiring of skills which involves some application on the individual's part.


The passivity of the process of conditioning has led some people to try to assimilate learning to conditioning as a contribution to the project of representing humanity as just a passive part of an encompassing mechanism. People engaged in that enterprise manage to avoid seeing the internal contradiction of the project of showing that there can be no such thing as projects because there is no place for the essential notion of purpose in the picture they propose to paint.


Despite the fact that one is tempted to suggest that such people, who seem unable to see the contradiction involved, might be better occupied in some other line of business than theorizing, it is nevertheless useful to look carefully at just what distinguishes learning from conditioning, because this can reveal to us the factors that distinguish practices from other forms of regular behaviour, factors which are the source of the ability to reflect on, and therefore develop and possibly surpass, or even reject, the practices we have learned from others. That reflective ability is the core not only of consciousness but of human creativity. To understand how the capacity for reflection arises both on the level of the individual and, historically on the level of the species{,} we need to be clear about what distinguishes practices from reflexes or mere habits and what distinguishes training or learning from conditioning.


The essential fact about practices is that they are shared, they are taught and learned, and the learning involves 'catching on', seeing what is going on in a way that enables someone to participate in the practice. For this to happen, those practices must be set out in front of us. But enacting some ritual or pattern in front of someone is not sufficient. That person must also have or get the idea of 'catching on', the idea of looking for a pattern, the ability to see that enactment as a practice, as a deliberate pattern of behaviour. This ability is not something that is given with birth but itself has to be inculcated and developed in infants. Generally this is done through the little 'imitation games' that one plays with the youngest infants -- 'peep-bo', 'two little dicky-birds' and the rest which delight the infant with repeated patterns which they can join in. In this way they learn to look for patterns and at the same time get the transforming idea of 'joining in'.


One could describe this as the point of primary socialization, the point at which the infant begins to transcend the merely biologically given characteristics of the species and begins actively to participate in their particular culture or branch of the human race, rather than just belonging to a certain biological species as a result of its genetic makeup. It is that transcending of its biological makeup by participating in practices that are not imposed on the infant by its biological nature but come about through the social relation of 'joining in' which transform the infant into a human being and not just a member of a biological species. The human race is a race of social beings and one has to join it by becoming a social being. This is not something that could possibly be given with birth or genetically but can only come about through those earliest social relations with parents and others. What is given at birth and by genetic makeup is the potentiality, the material conditions for those social relations. This potentiality would be vested in definite and describable physical characteristics. Having a face and a voice and control over them, for example would be part of those material conditions for entering into social relations, for 'joining in'. But the conditions of something don't themselves bring it about; they are not causes in the modern, post-Aristotelian sense of the word. They are compatible with is failure to occur. It would in any case be impossible for purely logical reasons for genetic endowments on their own to bring about that socialization and that entry into social relations with others.


That socializing of infants is overwhelmingly the trajectory of development of the offspring of humans because the conditions for the survival of a human infant involve the love and care of parents or other humans, who will almost inevitably be concerned that the child grow up to be a member of their group, whether it is a family, a tribe or a social class. They will be concerned to teach the child the ways of that group, so that the child will identify itself as a member of that tribe or other group and that in its turn will at the same {time} involve it as identifying itself as a human being, as a social being.


When Aristotle described humanity as a 'political animal' (zoon politikon) he was saying something deep about humanity, not merely remarking on universal human habits. One could even say, as I hope to make out, that the political/social characterizing of humans is even deeper than characterizing them through their rationality. Though it would probably {be} better to say (in order to defeat those with a penchant for seeing everything in causal or logical relations of priority) that the social and the rational are inextricably bound up together. This is because the ability to reflect, which is the basis of rationality, comes with that {of} learning to see the pattern in those games or in the general behaviour of parents or others that the infant is being invited to participate in. The learning is at the same time a social interaction with a parent or other in the sense that it involves an identification and a 'joining in'.


Reflection is precisely a looking for patterns in our own behaviour, in that of others, in a society, or in human life. Humans are introduced to that reflective activity in those earliest moments of socialization in which they learn to catch on, to spot and even to look for a pattern, and in that sense they learn to learn. Reflection is an activity precisely because it involves standing back from the immediate, a kind of disengagement, in order to grasp it and then return to it in a wholly new relation, one of positive engagement (or rejection). It is here that causality looses its grip and passivity is left behind. Language and the ability to describe the perceived pattern increases enormously the range of perception and the distance of the disengagement.


However, nothing that we do can {guarantee} that the infant will 'catch on' or will catch on to the idea of 'catching on', or catch on to the idea that there is something there to be grasped and to be imitated, a game or a practice to be entered into. We can only invite, we can't force the infant to enter into those games or practices or even to see that there is something there to be entered into, a game or a practice. On the other hand, a vicious sociopath could perhaps do things that would go some way toward disabling an infant from realizing that potential to transcend its merely biological nature to become a social and rational being -- to identify itself as a member of the human race. There may also be physiological factors that work to disable a tiny fraction of infants from being able to engage with others by seeing a pattern of behaviour in which they can join. This is perhaps what is at work in autism. Fortunately this condition is rare and it is only the tiniest minority of infants that are thus inhibited from entering fully into their humanity.


The individual is born into a social community, even if it is no larger one than a family, and so it is possible to trace the momentous passage of individual infants from being merely potential humans still captives of their biology, to being social and rational beings with that entirely different trajectory of development which is set in motion by their becoming social and rational beings. We have those transitions in front of us to study and can point out some of the factors which contribute to that transition from a merely biological to a social and rational being with a creative capacity to seek out the patterns in things and to engage in practices rather than merely exhibit regularities of behaviour. If I can seek out and reflect on patterns in my own actions and the practices of my community, I stand in an entirely different relation to them. I am in a position to accept, reject or to modify them. In this way the possibility of creative innovation is brought into being through that induction into imitation, pattern seeking and joining in.


Though we have those transitions of individual infants before us to study, that is certainly not true of the transition of the genus homo from the creature of evolutionary forces to the creator and producer of environmental changes -- (tiny ones at first, but now overwhelming and even threatening, as changes made for one purpose bring with them unforeseen or ignored ancillary changes.) For the genus homo there is no process of transition before us to study and all we have is the fossil record of early creatures without tools and later anthropological records which indicate social groups among whom tool making was an established and developing practice -- even though the pace of development was so slow that whole peoples are identified by the particular style of points or the style pottery they developed, styles that were transmitted unchanged from generation to generation over great stretches of time. Since we have not much to study of that momentous development and primary transformation of the genus, attempts to describe that transition from purely evolutionary creatures to its self-creation as a race whose development is historical, are bound to be pretty speculative and perhaps not very illuminating. What we can say, however, is that just as the infant only makes the transition to full human by 'entering into' the games, so humanity only became human by 'entering into' relations with others and that this transition could not have been imposed from outside by evolutionary forces or any others. This is the force of my provocative opening remark that "Humanity had to create itself before turning to create the world". It turned itself from a species into a race.


Still, from the above analysis of the transition of individual infants from mere members of a biological species to actual human beings, we can at least say that, whatever the details, creativity, reflective rationality and social connectedness came into being together, because the ability to develop and change a practice comes out of the social process of teaching, learning and, above all, inculcating the idea of learning, of looking for a pattern in the practice being set before us where it can be the subject of reflection. Together that social connectedness is involved in teaching and learning and the consequent ability to reflect and the ability to adopt reject or modify is the basis of both rational action and agency. Together they lifted humanity out of the evolutionary path of species development and set it on a path that has to be described as 'historical'.


At the same time, purposive behaviour takes its start from that very process of reflection which sets before us the direction and end of an action or practice so that a direction which may originally have been one that had been posed or imposed by evolution can now be embraced, altered or rejected. When I, the individual{,} do this, the purpose or direction belongs to me in my own right and not just to me in virtue of being a member of the species. It becomes my purpose and my end precisely because of that ability to set it aside which reflection gives me.


The development of humanity is now historical because, and in the sense that, the materials of life, the skills, tools, aims, guiding myths, institutions, language and physical surroundings are bequeathed to each new generation by all the generations proceeding, who have contributed to their development.


Though it is ultimately wrongheaded and misguided, one can have a certain sympathy for the view of some philosophers influenced by Nietzsche who see the cumulative history of humanity as a burden and a distortion of some putative 'natural' being. This is a misunderstood and badly theorized reflection of the fact that though for millennia that historical development was a creative and liberating one, increasing human skills and broadening language and understanding, the great irony has been that just at the moment when the Enlightenment philosophers were proclaiming the 'liberation of humanity', the dominant trajectory of development shaped by 'the rationality of the market' began to demean human life in ways that the earlier oppressive social institutions of slavery and serfdom had left untouched. In that very era of the 'Enlightenment' industrial work swallowed up whole families, robbing and stunting childhood. And now, in our own time, the process known as 'de-skilling' has been robbing the skilled workers of their skills by management who translate those skills into mechanical routines which can be performed by unskilled workers. Those unskilled workers are then forced to operate at a level barely distinguishable from machines. But it is not only in the context of employment that skills are disappearing. Even personal and domestic skills disappear as people are now made dependent on buying things they used to know how to make for themselves. Consumerism has joined Taylorism (the 'work study' aimed at de-skilling) to demean human life.


In addition, that 'rationality of the market' has not been able to put a market value on the environment, the quality of life, or even the continued existence of the species. As a result, all are threatened. But these threats do not come from human history in itself or 'language' or 'society' or any large abstractions such as these, which have been offered up by those post-Nietzscheans. And it is a disastrous and irresponsible deflection of our attention and our understanding to try to make them the villains. It is that self-styled 'rationality' of the market itself that has generated these threats to, and {the} demeaning mechanization of{,} human work, as well as the threats to the environment and perhaps the species itself.  This has to be seen as the result of an economic system that turns everything into commodities, including human productive labour.


That which separates humans from the brutes has now become a commodity. It is impossible to imagine a greater catastrophe for humanity -- one that we must work to overcome.


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Guy Robinson 2012


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