Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Darwinian Larry, Hitler, and the Individual

Arnhart is perfectly right that we can’t hold Darwin responsible for Hitler. But we can’t forget manly Mansfield’s assertion that the alleged Darwinian discovery of the natural insignificance of particular members of our species may have
paved the way for the various totalitarian forms of "manliness run amok" of the 20th century. But don’t worry (scroll down to the second entry on Larry’s site), neo-Darwinian studies show a foundation for the individual in nature; even particular bacteria display individual--meaning unique--qualities. But still, the key point is that bacteria or even dolphins don’t really experience themselves as individuals. They aren’t concerned with their personal significance or importance, don’t engage in wholesale techno-rebellion against the nature indifferent to their particular beings, don’t believe in a personal or any other God, aren’t concerned with transcending their biological mortality, etc. Here’s the real Darwinian take on the modern individual: According to Locke, the individual is mysteriously free to invent his way out of nature. But all that exists is natural. So the Lockean individual doesn’t really exist.

Discussions - 5 Comments

So much of Locke's philosophy is muddled by this ambiguous anthropolgy: the 2nd Treatise is based on a certain conception of man as a natural category but the Essay reduces all natural categories to "mixed modes", entirely contructed. For Locke, man's dignity is won by his distance from nature, his capacity to transcend it, but also sacrifices that dignity since nature is reduced to "standing reserve", of which man is a part. This tension is what ultimately prompts Locke to distinguish human being and "personhood".

So an individual is and is not his body, is completely free and completely determined--an autonomous chimp somehow. Ivan probably needs to signed up as our resident philosopher-blogger.

That's the contradictory account you get in both Locke and Kant: the noumena/phenomena split really ends up with a schizophrenic account of man. To the extent that the account of nature is really sincere the account of man as free/autonomous turns out to be a kind of therepeutic illusion or hope. So, it would seem that a line runs from all this to the sort of self-deceptive nominalism Rorty ultimately espouses.

I was reading quickly before and I missed that last line--thanks Peter. I just re-read the first chapter on the Declaration in your American Views of Liberty---that's a great account of how the Lockean view of man is improved upon by the transpolitical account of man via Christianity. As Bercier argues, the latent Christianity in Locke's view, despite his real intentions, makes such a move possible.

Here's one more thought in service of avoiding the papers I have to grade. The requisite conditions for man's transcendence of nature in Locke is the non-teleological character of nature and his cognitive capacity for imaginative abstraction, which includes the construction of non-natural categories and the temporal unity of self-consciousness (we can look back into the past and forward into the future). A big problem here is that given that our categories have no natural "archetype" as he puts it, we can only gauge progress on his grounds hedonistically, we can see if we have more or less comfortable self-preservation. However, if the whole process is powered by a nagging unease, and labor itself is a pain like the scarcity that prompts labor, there is a sense in which our standards of progress are also mixed modes, lacking a stable point of reference, somewhat contrived and illusory. The individual, and that happiness he strives for are all constructions, and therefore not real but death and pain are very real. To make a long story short, Locke's account has a real kinship with Rorty's in that he tries to confront the reality of pain and death with what he takes to be a fabular account of happiness and individual dignity.

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