Saturday, November 5, 2011

Understanding history differently

This is based on a comment I made here.

The big divide between the Sceptical Enlightenment and the Radical Enlightenment is that the former believes in a constant human nature, so history provides lessons, and the latter believe in a malleable human nature (either in the sense of a "true" nature which is being horribly distorted or a "better" nature which can be created) so history has no lessons, it is merely a legacy of oppression and failure to be transcended. In the former, human reason discovers and (hopefully) acts upon those discoveries. In the latter, human reason (properly directed) can direct and transform human history. The Glorious and American Revolutions were Sceptical Enlightenment Revolutions, and succeeded. The Jacobin French Revolution (and its descendants) were Radical Enlightenment Revolutions, and so failed.

Mainstream economics is very, very Sceptical Enlightenment, since a constant human nature is taken as a fundamental premise. But something to keep in mind about radical critiques of economics is that such folk typically believe in malleable human nature--which is part of what offends them about mainstream economics: it "celebrates" things which (allegedly) block positive human transformation.

But one reads history very differently if one views human nature as constant than if you believe it to be malleable. ('Constant' meaning 'have enduring structures and patterns', even if beliefs, framings and expectations can vary widely--such as, between those who view human nature as constant and those who view it as malleable.)

Viewing human nature as malleable also leads naturally to demonisation of those who disagree (they are "blocking history") and massive discounting of existing human preferences (they are pre-transformation).

Which makes me wonder about the Euro project. Is it pushing the envelope of "transforming people"? Or are we in a form of Counter-Enlightenment, where faith, emotion & will trump reason? Maybe it is just a form of Machiavellian arrogance: create a structure which can only work with full political union so that people are driven to go all the way. Or possibly it is just the continuing consequences of a flawed conception of European history.

The profoundly differing implications of ideas about human nature is just a particularly powerful example of ideas having consequences.

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