Friday, June 29, 2012

'Human nature' is back

Reader [hereafter R] : What do you mean, "human nature is back"? Has it been on vacation?

LFC: Yes and no. For a while, it was not cricket in parts of the social sciences to talk about human nature, and to some extent this is still true. Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, two evolutionary psychologists (who happen also to be married, to each other, I mean) got so perturbed about this some years ago that they began referring to the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM), by which they meant, among other things, a model that neglected 'human nature'. E.O. Wilson picked up the cudgel, taking much of social science to task in his book Consilience and predicting that eventually social science would disappear, would be absorbed into the natural sciences, and we'd be left with only the natural sciences and the humanities.

R: I shudder to think how that would go down with all the political scientists who are tearing their hair out at The Monkey Cage about the possible cutoff in National Science Foundation support for political science.

LFC: Quite. But that doesn't mean Wilson was right. I think he went somewhat overboard in Consilience myself.

R: Back to the main topic, please, whatever it is.

LFC: Ah yes. Well, Cosmides & Tooby should take a peek at what's happening in some corners of International Relations (IR) theory. It's not for the most part evo psych, to be sure, but in recent years there's been a lot of work on emotions and IR. And the latest issue of Int'l Studies Review has an article by Ty Solomon, "Human Nature and the Limits of the Self: Hans Morgenthau on Love and Power," which harks back to a piece Morgenthau wrote for Commentary in the early '60s in which he argued that love and power are both efforts to escape "existential loneliness." Morgenthau's "underexplored thoughts on these issues," according to Solomon, "are crucial for more fully comprehending his seminal critique of the modern liberal, rational subject." (p.215)

R: But how does all that fit in with the Morgenthau of the later 1960s, the opponent of the Vietnam War, advocate of civil rights, and speaker of truth to power? Don't M's political writings from later in the decade presuppose that "the modern liberal, rational subject," despite its/his/her limits, is capable at least of responding to appeals to reason and acting to improve the world, in however partial a way?

LFC: Good questions. But I want to stay with the human nature point. Solomon mentions Robert Schuett's 2010 book on Freud and realism (Political Realism, Freud, and Human Nature in International Relations), which is also reviewed later in the same issue of the journal. The subtitle of Schuett's book is "The Resurrection of the Realist Man."

R: Hmm. This sounds somewhat reactionary, doesn't it? Realist Man [sic]? Have we just tossed several decades of IR feminist theory out the window?

LFC: I had to read some Freud many years ago, and I tend to the view that Freud's work is weakest when it's most speculative and when he's most openly doing social theory. I remember a casual conversation in which, fresh from writing an intemperate undergraduate paper on Civilization and Its Discontents, I denounced it as a terrible book. My interlocutor, a grad student, said cuttingly "you wish you could have written it." Well, I would not make such a sophomoric (and I was in fact a sophomore at the time) remark today. Still, Civilization and Its Discontents is not high on my list of subtle, nuanced works.

R: I don't care what you said in a college dining hall in 1977. You haven't answered the question about Morgenthau. You haven't answered the question about feminist theory.

LFC: What am I, an answer machine? This is a blog, not a PhD seminar. Go figure out your own answers.

R: ***!***#!!

LFC: Well, at least I gave you the last word. Sort of.

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