Human Nature, Human Survival by Brian Medlin

Lately I seem to be reading philosophers who live by their sword. Medlin spent the part of his life that most academics use to collect citations and increase their h-indices, living philosophy. He brought philosophy to his work in restoring bushland.  He was a primary leader in the anti-Vietnam war movement in Australia, going to gaol as a consequence.  He fought university administration. He insisted that philosophy courses should bear direct relevance to life: politics, art, feminism. He appalled his employers and no doubt some students, whilst inspiring many. He has been written out of the history books, but now sufficient time has passed that he will be written back into them. A nice little earner for an academic or two.

Presciently he said:

Even intellectual liberty has failed to be a totally liberating force. Confronting bourgeois ideology, in the face of bourgeois authority, it has failed to deliver a general objectivity, a determination to think and act well and effectively about the whole of life. It has tended towards a purchased and partial objectivity, a servile scientism. A remark made in this city illustrates the failure: “I’m an ecologist, not a breast-biting conservationist”. This tendency can be expected to worsen as the concept of private intellectual property gains ground, as universities get tied tighter and tighter to the tail of market forces and become increasingly enslaved by private funding.

A yet darker prospect opens before us: that the large capitalist enterprise should eventually find itself able to dispense entirely with academic research. From that time on the concept of objectivity will be a mere ideological bauble, beads for the natives. The bourgeois philosopher will have joined the Sioux Nation and the Nez Perces on the shrinking reservation.

Going on for three decades later, it is as Medlin predicts here. But he was most certainly not of this corporate slave academic elite.

Although he could write philosophy, he generally chose not to, preferring instead the intimacy of the letter and the poem. A man unmoved by the h-index, if ever there was one. Nonetheless, he did write this small work towards the end of his life and if nothing else, one can see in it the energy, arrogance, the devilish attractiveness and the passion that dictated his philosophical life – for philosophy was his life, not his career. He was a wonderful talker and speaker, and this shines through Human Nature, Human Survival.

It is engaging from the start.

The following essay, though not meant to be beneath the notice of
philosophers, is aimed first at a general audience rather than a specialist one.
It is offered as a serious piece of philosophy, yet I am sure that it can be
followed by any cultivated reader, even by one without philosophical
· training. This doesn’t mean that every such reader can expect to understand
perfectly every word from now on. Here and there I assume a bit more than
general culti'{ation. Mostly I have indicated these places and invited you to
press bravely on. And even where I have not, you may give yourselves the
same excellent advice. I hope that in the end you will be rewarded with a
pretty good understanding of the work as a whole and with something worth
either your acceptance or rejection.

After a brief set of examples of what philosophy is considered to be by others, he sets out his own thoughts. ‘Let me take a rough stab’, he says. ‘Take me seriously enough, but not too seriously.’ Like all good teachers he insists that he should be questioned and doubted. For him, however:

  • Philosophy is the commitment to thinking about the whole of life, the whole universe animate and inanimate, the whole of living nature, human and non-human, about fact and value, about what is and is not, about what might and might not be, about what may and must be, about what ought to be and ought not:
  • All this (and more) together with the commitment to uncompromising rationality:
  • This latter commitment being to rationality in action as well as in thought, the two being not rationally separable:
  • The commitment extending further to the rational ordering of desire and feeling: for
  • The philosophical life is not cold, unemotional, dehumanised; only a passionate, compassionate person could hope to achieve it:
  • Philosophy is not a trade, a craft, a skill, though it involves craft and skill, though people are paid to profess it:
  • Philosophy is a way of life, a passion, an obsession – for those in its grasp, a duty and a right.

In the course of discussing the relationship of science to society, he keeps in mind throughout his keen, but not necessarily philosophically ept audience. After bringing Social Contract theory into the discussion, his aside: ‘(If you haven’t heard of Social Contract theory, don’t worry about it. Allow me to be the first to congratulate you.)’ and on the Invisible Hand ‘(And if you haven’t heard of the Invisible Hand, again don’t worry. Just think of it as the doctrine that if dog eats dog, all dogs grow fat.) ‘

This small monograph must really be imagined as a living thing, being presented to an audience. The point is simply to get human beings to understand that it is necessary to act to save the world in the face of environmental catastrophe. In the end everything always comes down to the earth and what we are going to do about it. The only rational thing we can do is to act, to assume that we can be successful. Nothing has really changed since he wrote, if anything it gets worse. We must, nonetheless, like Medlin, be energetic optimistic activists. To be anything else is irrational.

I have also argued elsewhere (1991) that the Principle of Rational Action requires us to assume as well, what we don’t know for certain, not only that successful social revolution is possible, but also that we can indeed and will indeed find ways of resolving the ecological crisis and of preserving the human species.

First mooted by the bourgeois philosophers, transformed by the disappointment of great hopes, now promulgated as scientific truth and formidably opposed to this enterprise, stands the bourgeois view of human nature. This view would imply that, by our very being, we are too aggressive, say, or too selfish, too greedy, to save ourselves. Even too stupid or too irrational – for it has been the rationalist tradition that has disappointed us.

These claims are not known to be false. But neither are they known to be true. Nonetheless, our agnosticism ought not to paralyse the will. Assuming these claims to be true is the surest way of making them true, the surest path to extinction. Assuming them to be false is the best first step towards making them false. Hence, by the Principle of Rational Action, the rational practical assumption is that these claims are indeed false.

That none of these claims about human nature is known to be true is a large claim itself and not to be established here. I can render it plausible though not here as thoroughly as by S. A. Barnett (1988). I select a couple of positions and examine their support. I shall ask you to consider for yourselves, perhaps after reading Barnett, whether similar positions are not just as lamentably supported.

Apart from the utterances of John Keats, my cases are drawn from popularisations of science – at least in the sense that they come from documents addressed to general audiences. This is because I want to indicate how pervasive are the views I challenge.

We shall only evade extinction by setting about evading it. That we shall never do if we are not bright enough to see through rotten argument claiming to establish our invincible stupidity.

We are not going to evade our peril without careful thought. Not without setting our philosophy in order, without rethinking and refeeling our own nature and our relation to the rest of the world. Nor without strenuous and disinterested scientific enquiry yielding a sensitive technology.

I can’t offer you a philosophy of art. That would be too hard a job for a mere philosopher. I wouldn’t go all the way with R. K. Narayan (1985, vii) for whom all theories of writing are bogus: I do know that the usefulness of literature depends largely on the large fact that intuition is often the better road to truth.

We see now the urgent practical importance of philosophy. Unless enough of us get our philosophy right enough and quickly enough, we are all dead. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living (Plato, 38A). That’s false and you can ask any dog out for a walk. But for us, now, the unexamined life is no longer an option. (It never really was.) For us, henceforth, the examined life is the only life on offer. Finally, I hope that I haven’t given you the impression that we are likely to achieve a human life without aggression, selfishness, greed, stupidity, irrationality… That would not be human life. We live by standards, moral, aesthetic and intellectual. This is not a casual, incidental matter. Standards are needed because they are needed, because we frequently fall short of them. That is what it is to be moral, rational animals. Show me reason, I’ll show you unreason.  The saint and the sinner are shackled together by their common humanity. Wisdom and folly are Siamese twins. Imagine a human life without praise and commendation, without sense of achievement. That would be the cost of life without ugliness, wickedness, foolishness and stupidity. The Christian heaven is possible only to lobotomised automata, dehumanised social insects. Angels are merely souped-up flying ants. The enterprise before us is not to achieve heaven on earth. Yet it would be daft indeed to let the unattainability of heaven condemn us to our present hell. The question is not whether we can eliminate our vices. The question is whether our virtues will allow us to survive by carrying us into a better world. Not a question to be answered by speculation about human psychology. To be answered, not by canvassing the possibilities, but by setting about what is necessary. It is a question demanding action. If we want to know whether we are equipped to survive, the best way of finding out is to make sure that we do.

This is a manifesto and we could do worse than read it and take it to heart and mind.

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