Two Orientations Toward Human Nature
Guldmann does an impressive job of pulling together a considerable range of historical and contemporary reflection into a well-crafted, synthetically-rich, and engaging tour of human nature.
—Ronald Weed, The Review of Metaphysics
“Continental” tradition in philosophy after Kant is so often felt to compare favorably with its “analytical” counterpart. There is much to be said for the orientation [Guldmann] associates with the Continental tradition, and elaborates in ways that helpfully bring out many of its important contributions to our self-understanding.
—Richard Schacht, professor of philosophy, University of Illinois
Our culture entertains a conflicted understanding of human nature. Egoism is commonly held out as our most powerful drive. It plays a crucial cultural role in legitimating capitalism as just sober realism. Those uncomfortable with this tough-minded starting point may challenge the ubiquity or ineluctability of egoism, pleading that it can sometimes yield to altruism or is the outcome of unfortunate social conditions. But few challenge the egoism-altruism dichotomy itself as the rubric through which to think about human nature. However, there exists another psychological paradigm, more at home in Continental thought, that makes curiously little use of egoism as a concept. Instead of dichotomizing egoism and altruism, this second, more countercultural, orientation toward human nature invokes wholeness and alienation, authenticity and inauthenticity, self-transparency and self-deception. Our default setting isn’t self-interest but an “escape from freedom,” to borrow from Eric Fromm. People act as they do not because of self-interested calculation but because, having mistaken the socially constructed for the natural, they are blind to the contingency of their beliefs and values.
These incommensurable orientations toward human nature yield wildly divergent accounts of the contemporary world. The first orientation may rely on Darwinian metaphors to elucidate the free market, but the second casts our modern acquisitiveness as an alienated quest for bourgeois respectability or the mark of a hapless cog in a machine. Where the first orientation observes self-centeredness, the second discerns depersonalization by the distractions of mass culture. Whereas individualism is axiomatic to the first orientation, it is, for the second, only a distant ideal that has yet to be realized on a widespread basis. Despite the magnitude of this intellectual chasm, most of us selectively alternate between these competing paradigms without being disturbed by their ostensible incongruity.
Two Orientations Toward Human Nature argues that our conversations about human nature fail to grapple with this foundational conflict. The philosophically interesting questions lie not within the egoism-altruism dichotomy but rather between it and the second orientation. Debates within the first orientation often revolve around the respective influences of biology and socialization. But asking why we are as we are elides the more basic question of what we are, not our behaviors’ origin but their meaning. Contraposing the two orientations brings this problem into relief, revealing that thinkers of the second orientation give short shrift to the egoism-altruism dichotomy because they operate with an embodied conception of the self and its intercourse with the world, which is precisely what the discourse of self-interest obscures from view. The conflict between the two orientations is ultimately a conflict between different understandings of the self, one shallower and one deeper.