July 10, 2013
When I last posted on May 29, I had just returned from Denmark where I co-taught a three-day course, ”Educational Psychology, Late-modernity and Social Therapeutics,” for PhD students in psychology at the University of Aarhus (Denmark’s second largest city). Two days later, I left for Singapore where I presented on a plenary symposium, ”Learning through Play,” at the Re-designing Pedagogy conference of the Singapore National Institute of Education. When I returned home, I got to work, play and contribute to the social-emotional “growth spurt” of the members of my Institute’s International Class in the final two-week residency of their 10-month program. Then, I spent a week at the ocean.
My mentor and friend Fred Newman taught me many things—among them, what to ”do with” the contradictory-ness of life: Embrace it. Don’t ignore, deny, repress or try to resolve it.
Traveling—for me—highlights the contradictory-ness of the world/of history/ of being human—and also how ”un-embraced” it is by most people.
Joy and pain are humanly produced side by side every moment of each day. People love the people they care about and people hurt the people they care about. Very very smart people often do very very dumb things. Many people glorify a god and demean and destroy what they believe their god created. We live scripted and improviationally. We experience being alone when we are with others. We support the radical not-knowingness of babies, by which they become socialized to, among other things—knowing and its many conservatizing consequences. We want to change and we want to remain as we are. We are a collective mass and unique individuals.
Reading through the New York Times Book Review this past Sunday (at the ocean), I found some worth-quoting reflections on contradictory-ness. They were in a review of John Gray’s The Slience of Animals, which reviewer Thomas Nagel (a world famous philosopher who wrote the classic essay, ”What is it like to be a bat?” and the more recent controversial Mind and Cosmos) called ”an attack on humanism [in which Gray] condemns this widely accepted secular faith as a form of delusional self-flattery.” As I read, I felt both author and reviewer grappling with human history’s and human nature’s contradictory-ness. Both conclude it is unresolvable, but they do it in very different ways. And that’s interesting!
At one point, Nagel lays out the contradiction by quoting Gray and then commenting:
“Science and the idea of progress may seem joined together, but the end result of progress in science is to show the impossibility of progress in civilization,” he [Gray] writes. “Human knowledge increases, while human irrationality stays the same.” One has only to think about the history of the past hundred years to see how scientific progress can proceed alongside moral and political barbarism. How can we defend the humanistic belief in progress against this record?
Gray, according the Nagel, says we cannot. We must give up the myths of human superiority and unending progress. Human nature, from which irrationality and barbarism stem, is not transformable. The contradiction of knowledge and irrationality will always exist.
Nagel also contends that we cannot change human nature. But he says that’s not where progress lies anyway. It lies in cultural development.
Any victory over our species’ destructive tendencies will likewise have to come from institutional and cultural development. We know what humans are capable of: in the wrong circumstances and with the wrong formation, they can behave monstrously. The hope for progress can consist only in the belief that there is some form of collective human life in which the capacity for barbarism will rarely find expression, and in which humans’ creative and cooperative potential can be realized without hindrance. Gray regards such hope as utopian, but it can be supported both by experience and by reflection. Moral and political progress is inevitably more difficult than scientific progress, since it cannot occur in the minds of a few experts but must be realized in the collective lives of millions; but it does happen.
I agree. But I don’t agree with either Gray or Nagel that human nature is fixed. In fact, it’s cultural development that transforms human nature. I don’t know Nagel’s philosophy well at all, but perhaps this is too Marxist for him. Perhaps he embraces contradiction but not dialectics. I’m seriously considering reading his books to find out—probably next time I’m at the ocean.