Hominem Quaero

Quaero Homines. A man in search of a man. A man in daylight holding up a lamp in parody, in pantomime. Diogenes of Sinope searched and did not find.  He wandered about in full daylight with his lamp; when asked what he was doing, he answered, “I am looking for a man”.  His not finding a man has often been seen as a critique of society.  Rousseau famously said that Diogenes could not find a man because man in his simple and natural state no longer existed in the already sophisticated Athens of his day.

We can read the effort to find a man, and the absence of a man found, as a critique of society. We could hold that such an absence is true: there are no adults, no men in the room. But what if the absence of a man is the result of where and how we are looking? If we were to search for a man in much of contemporary social science, we might find him not in the object of science but instead in the basis for science. A competent practitioner is always assumed in any science. But social science must grant competency or consciousness to the object of science if it is to find a man.

Thomas Nagel recently wrote a book review titled The Taste for Being Moral.  In the review he gently chides an evolutionary psychologist for not fully accounting for the conditions of his own science: “We cannot ignore innate human instincts and cultural conditioning, but anyone who wants to think seriously about morality must be prepared to evaluate such motives from an independent point of view that is achieved by transcending them.” An independent point of view is a necessary condition of the practice of science; it is to my mind a necessary condition of coherence and meaning as well. Nagel further holds that we must grant the status of an “independent view” to the object of our study as well. We must find a man.

Conscience, consciousness is the “independent point of view”: consciousness determines; conscience values. A man transcends the objects of his study in order to make determinations, in order to value. Value is determined by quality, by qualitative judgement, by an interpreter.  Many people say that consciousness is a hard problem for the human sciences. From the perspective of a practitioner or observer, it is the fundamental problem or the very basis from which all other problems or questions are to be contemplated.

It may be easier to just waive away the problem, and I can understand the temptation. It is much easier to treat human beings as caricatures, or as sets of modules, as robots, or as the products of forces. But to do so is to miss the very human being that one would study. And the scientist or the philosopher who treats human beings as robots fails to account for the conditions of their own judgement, of their own science

Social practice—what people do, how and why they act—is more sophisticated than our social and moral science. The practice of social scientists, how they go about deciding what to study, is often much more sophisticated than their published science is.  One will more readily and more easily find a man or woman in the social scientist than in the science. To further make my point, I will even say that quite a few researchers may deliberately make their science dumb and they may deliberately reinforce existing social prejudices as the easy path to get their work funded and their grants attained. It is up to the reader or the consumer, the interpreter, of the science to discount the science. Philosophers such as Nagel are gently discounting their peers in the social sciences. How severely we must discount them will depend on our own needs.


About Ed Phillips

Rigor in whimsy
This entry was posted in Philosophy, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Hominem Quaero

  1. Pingback: Diogenes in the Marketplace > Babette Babich | Reason & Existenz

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