We’re a mess, a mortal, biological, social mess.
Now. . . nothing. Or something, or everything—take yer pick.
I stated in the last post that any serious theory of human being has to take into account some basic facts about us, but having taking those basics into account does not lead in any particular moral or political direction. You can believe we’re m-b-s and believe in God (or not); hold to socialist, capitalist, fascist, monarchist, republican, and even many versions of libertarian beliefs; love, hate, or be indifferent to your fellow humans; love, hate, or be indifferent to the material and social conditions in which we live.
One could, for example, see our mortality as reason for despair, and seek release from life’s arbitrary limits, or see these limits as a reason to cram as much living in as one can while one can. (As an absurdist I both despair and seek to live—a change from my previous existence as a self-destructive depressive, in which I couldn’t even lift myself up to despair.) Mortality might lead him to a belief in the afterlife, and her to make sense of life on this earth as it is, and them to do both.
Some revel in our carnality, others are disgusted by it; some seek to augment our physicality, some to escape from it, some ignore it, some resign themselves to it; many, I’d guess, feel all of these urges over any given period in time. Sometimes our bodies are just bodies, other times sites of moral interrogation and feats of the will. We tend to and fret over our bodies, their shapes and sexualities and appetites and frailties; we boast what our bodies can do and bewail its insubordinations. We are and are not our bodies.
As for our sociality, well, that would seem to lead more directly to a particular politics, but outside of those who think we’re hatched as adults into our Randian lairs, every political ideology has some sense of the social and its own way of arranging our relationships to one another as humans. Anti-politics, too, as a view of the social, whether as something to be abandoned for a shack in the wilderness, or embraced in a particularistic way as a hedge against incursions of power—to which I can only say: good luck with that.
So what’s the point of laying out the ur-ontology if it doesn’t lead anywhere? Because it places us somewhere—and somewhere is a place to begin.
If you want to make sense of us you can’t skip over the elements of us. I’ve no beef with brain-in-a-jar philosophy, but if you want that to illuminate anything about us as people, you’ve got at some point to put the brain back in the skull, and then attach that skull to a body which requires food and water and other forms of care, which forms in turn depend to greater and lesser extents to the people and stuff around that body.
And if you want to develop a political theory of and for us, you have to understand how our limits and potentialities and requirements and desires under the basic conditions of our mortality, biology, and sociality create and constrain our possibilities. James Madison noted, famously, that “If men were angels, no government would be necessary”; since we’re not angels, but humans, we need a politics for us as humans.
You’d think this would be obvious, and in many ways it is, particularly when it comes to theories of our selfishness, but we also like to overlook the obvious when it’s convenient to do so, e.g., when it comes to global warming or the necessity of clean water to life. And in the US we have a weird relationship to the social: we tend toward friendliness and u-rah-rah and we have politicians who offer paeans to “communities coming together”, but talk about any kind of obligation we may have to one another or “taking a village” or “we’re in this together” is considered by many to be polarizing or pinko-talk and demeaning to the individual.
This attitude makes no sense: Capitalism requires social relationships, and forges those which work best in it, and scarcity is certainly a key component of basic capitalist theories. And social conservatives—well, duh, social—too often throw themselves to the floor wailing whenever someone points out that how we are social is matter of legitimate debate.
Anyway, I’m neither a capitalist nor a conservative (tho’ I do have a conservative temperament), so I’ll let them work out their own theories. The point is, is that nothing I’ve said so far about our basic conditions necessarily goes against any theories they may have.
Soon, however, very soon. . . .