Human cultures as self-creating systems

Some philosophers and others have imagined that human beings are largely fixed in their most fundamental capacities — their “human nature”. Along with this idea is the notion that there are fundamental ethical and moral principles that are unchanging and serve always as guides to human action — and, perhaps, that philosophical ethics or theology help to identify these principles.

We can begin by asking, what is involved in a conception of “human nature”?

  • A conception of what human beings want; what motivates them
  • A conception of how human beings think; rationality and reason? Emotion? Passion? Sympathy? Compassion? Hatred? Fear? Envy? Indifference?
  • A view of the ways that human beings think about and interact with individuals and groups around them. Egoism and altruism; self-interest and commitment
  • A view of the effectiveness of normative systems

Against these views of permanence, I want to argue for the idea that human nature and human values are malleable and are best understood as a “self-creation” — a positing by generations over time about what human beings ought to be and to care about. Human beings create “cultures”, and these cultures orient individuals’ self-understandings, motivations, and moral ideas.

On this view, human beings have generalizable capacities for thinking, acting, and creating that permit us to create cultural systems that orient and underlie our behavior (link). And we have the ability to change those systems over time.

There is an intriguing resonance of this view with Sartre’s view that individual human beings define themselves through their freedom and their actions. This is his view that “existence precedes essence” for human beings. Steven Crowell describes this view in his SEP article on existentialism (link):

Sartre’s slogan—“existence precedes essence”—may serve to introduce what is most distinctive of existentialism, namely, the idea that no general, non-formal account of what it means to be human can be given, since that meaning is decided in and through existing itself. Existence is “self-making-in-a-situation” (Fackenheim 1961: 37). Webber (2018: 14) puts the point this way: “Classical existentialism is … the theory that existence precedes essence,” that is, “there is no such thing as human nature” in an Aristotelian sense. A “person does not have an inbuilt set of values that they are inherently structured to pursue. Rather, the values that shape a person’s behavior result from the choices they have made” (2018: 4). In contrast to other entities, whose essential properties are fixed by the kind of entities they are, what is essential to a human being—what makes her who she is—is not fixed by her type but by what she makes of herself, who she becomes. The fundamental contribution of existential thought lies in the idea that one’s identity is constituted neither by nature nor by culture, since to “exist” is precisely to constitute such an identity. It is in light of this idea that key existential notions such as facticity, transcendence (project), alienation, and authenticity must be understood. (Crowell, “Existentialism”)

But there is a wrinkle: Sartre’s view concerns the idea of the “self definition” of an individual human being, whereas the view I am exploring here concerns the idea of the self-creation of human normative and symbolic cultures. Communities over time created their systems of values and social practices that define their social behavior and their subjective identities. Greek cultures were in the process of making themselves through the centuries that separated Homer from Socrates and across the cultural differences separating Sparta from Athens. Deep as Sartre’s thinking about existentialism was, this view seems even more fundamental about the moral situation of humanity.

This is not a new idea. Johannes Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) offered a historicist view of human nature, advocating the idea that human nature is itself a historical product and that human beings act differently in different periods of historical development. (Michael Forster’s essay in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides an excellent exposure to Herder’s philosophy; link.) Herder’s ideas are expressed in numerous works, including especially Ideen Zur Philosophie Der Geschichte Der Menschheit, Volume 1 (1791). Here is a representative passage from Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (Book XV, chapter 2) (included in German History in Documents and Images):

2. The progress of history shows, that, as true humanity has increased, the destructive demons of the human race have diminished in number; and this from the inherent natural laws of a self- enlightening reason and policy.

In proportion as reason increases among mankind, man must learn from their infancy to perceive, that there is a nobler greatness, than the inhuman greatness of tyrants; and that it is more laudable, as well as more difficult, to form, than to ravage a nation, to establish cities, than to destroy them. The industrious Egyptians, the ingenious Greeks, the mercantile Phoenicians, not only make a more pleasing figure in history, but enjoyed, during the period of their existence, a more useful and agreeable life, than the destroying Persians, the conquering Romans, the avaricious Carthaginians. The remembrance of the former still lives with fame, and their influence upon Earth will continue eternally with increasing power; while the ravagers, with their demoniacal might, reaped no farther benefit, than that of becoming a wretched, luxurious people, amid the ruins of their plunder, and at last quaffing off the poisoned draught of severe retaliation. Such was the fate of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Romans: even the Greeks received more injury from their internal dissensions, and from their luxury in many cities and provinces, than from the sword of the enemy. Now as these are fundamental principles of a natural order, which not only shows itself in particular cases of history, or in fortuitous instances; but is founded on its own intrinsic properties, that is, on the nature of oppression and an overstretched power, or on the consequences of victory, luxury and arrogance, as on the laws of a disturbed equiponderance, and holds on coeternally with the course of things: why must we be compelled to doubt, that this law of Nature is not as generally acknowledged as any other, and does not operate, from the forcibleness with which it is perceived, with the infallible efficacy of a natural truth? What may be brought to mathematical certainty, and political demonstration, must be acknowledged as truth, soon or late; for no one has yet questioned the accuracy of the multiplication table or the propositions of Euclid. (link)

Herder is “historicist” about human nature. The logical implication of historicism is that human individuals become specific culturally instantiated persons through their immersion in a culture at a time. This casts doubt on all forms of “essentialism” about human nature and about the characteristics of a people or a culture. Cultures and their value systems are contingent; and the human individuals to whom they give rise are contingently different from their predecessors and successors in other generations. Or, in other words, human beings create themselves through history by creating cultures, norms, and schemes of thinking. It also has a radical implication for the possibility of change in humanity: our histories change us, and we change the histories we make. It also implies a radical anti-essentialism about social identities: there is nothing essential about being an Armenian, a Spaniard, a Buddhist, or a Jew. National and cultural identities have a certain stability over time. But they also change over time. National and cultural identities are themselves historically located and historically malleable.

Sonia Sikka’s Herder on Humanity and Cultural Difference: Enlightened Relativism is an excellent and detailed discussion of this aspect of Herder’s philosophy: culture, nation, “a people”, and a historicist approach to the concept of human nature. She argues that Herder endorses the anti-essentialism about “peoples” and identities described here.

Herder is actually not as strong a cultural essentialist as is sometimes thought. He explicitly acknowledges that cultures are not internally uniform, that they fuse to form new combinations, and that their evolution is shaped by interaction with one another. On the latter point, far from holding the view that cultures should shun foreign influence, Herder largely sees cultural interaction as a good thing, as long as it is not the result either of violence or of imitation arising purely from a sense of cultural inferiority. Sikka, 7

This historicist view of human nature stands in opposition to —

  • Philosophical fundamentalism — human nature is fixed and unchanging
  • Moral foundationalism — there is one permanent and unchanging set of moral principles that are binding at all times
  • Biological fundamentalism — human behavior is governed by a “code” created by the evolutionary history of our species

Against these ideas, this view holds that human beings are “general-purpose culture machines” capable of creating cultural and moral innovations that permit them to live better and more harmoniously together.

So what about biology? Has evolution made us into a certain kind of social animal after all, with pre-coded moral motivations and norms? some sociobiologists have imagined so. but philosopher Allan Gibbard provides a more plausible view in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings.

Human cooperation, and coordination more broadly, has always rested on a refined network of kinds of human rapport, supported by emotion and thought. A person sustains and develops this network, draws advantages from it, and on occasion keeps his distance from it. He does these things only in virtue of a refined configuration of emotional and cognitive dispositions….. (27)

We evolved as culture emerged through our evolving. We evolved to have flexible genetic propensities — propensities to be affected profoundly in response to culture. We evolved to interact with others, in response to culture, in ways that themselves constitute having a culture. We acquired not a shapeless capacity for culture, but perhaps a whole configuration of adaptations to the kinds of cultures humans form and sustain. (28)

So Gibbard’s view is that the evolutionary history of hominids took place in a setting of social groups, where psychological capacities supporting cooperation were favored (possessed selection advantage). Gibbard’s view, then, is that the evolutionary history of hominids (including homo sapiens) resulted in a species that had a range of psychological “tools” or capacities that could be activated or deployed in a wide variety of ways. This prepared homo sapiens to become “cultural animals”, capable of creating and living within social groups and cultural systems. And this process of creation had a great deal of flexibility — as human technological and linguistic capabilities also demonstrated great flexibility.

These ideas provide an important naturalistic basis for interpreting human morality and meaning: we human beings have created the cultural and normative systems in which we live, sometimes with deeply admirable effect and sometimes with monstrous effect. And we have the collective capacity to change our cultures. 

Further, this historicist / existentialist understanding of the human being within human culture is encouraging when it comes to the topic of “confronting evil”. It provides a basis for the idea that we are capable of changing our values and expectations of each other. And equally importantly, learning of the capacity of “ordinary men” to do horrible things can lead us to attempt to create new values and new institutions that make atrocities like genocide, mass enslavement, and state oppression less likely. Confronting the evil of the twentieth century with unflinching honesty, then, can change humanity.

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