Our Sociable Sociality: How To Go Beyond “The Mind-Body Politic.”


You can download a .pdf version of this essay, HERE.

And by a happy accident, here is some empirical confirmation of the theory proposed in the essay, ripped from last Thursday’s headlines: B. Resnick, “22 Percent of Millennials Say They Have ‘No Friends’,” Vox (1 August 2019).

The forms of loneliness described in the Vox piece count as pathological cases, primarily under types (iii3) and (iii4)–but sometimes also under types (iii1) and (iii5)–in the list of basic types of sociality.


I understand by “antagonism” the unsociable sociability of human beings, i.e., their propensity to enter into society, which, however, is combined with a thoroughgoing resistance that constantly threatens to break up society. The predisposition for this obviously lies in human nature. The human being has an inclination to become socialized, since in such a condition he feels himself as more a human being, i.e., feels the development of his natural predispositions. But he also has a great propensity to individualize (isolate) himself, because he simultaneously encounters in himself the unsociable property of being willing to direct everything so as to get his own way, and hence expects resistance everywhere because he knows of himself that he is inclined on his side towards resistance against others. Now it is this resistance that awakens all the powers of the human being, brings him to overcome his propensity to indolence, and, driven by ambition, tyranny, and greed, to obtain for himself a rank among his fellows, whom he cannot stand, but also cannot leave alone. Thus happens the first true steps from crudity toward culture, which really consists in the social worth of the human being; thus all talents come bit by bit to be developed, taste is formed, and even, through progress in enlightenment, a beginning is made towards the foundation of a mode of thought which can with time transform the rude natural predisposition to make moral distinctions into determinate practical principles and hence transform a pathologically compelled agreement to form a society into a moral whole.[i]

[P]hilosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of [humanity].[ii]

1. In his famous essay, “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim,” Kant asserts that human beings are essentially egoistic (i.e., self-interested) and mutually antagonistic, and he calls this mutual antagonism—a primary repulsive force at the anthropological level of nature—our “unsociability,” although, somewhat paradoxically, at the same time he also posits another contrary disposition in us—a primary attractive force at the anthropological level of nature—towards socialization.

Conjoining these, we get “the unsociable sociability of human beings.”

Culture or Bildung then flows from the dynamic and often violent interplay of these attractive and repulsive anthropological forces, including enlightenment or Aufklärung, and then somehow—altogether mysteriously—morality finally emerges.

In holding this view about human nature and culture, Kant is clearly a neo-Hobbesian; and I also think that he’s profoundly mistaken.

Or, at least, Kant is clearly a neo-Hobbesian and (I think) profoundly mistaken in his exoteric or “official” political philosophy, even if not in his ethics and the esoteric or “unofficial” political philosophy that flows from his philosophy of religion.[iii]

But I’m not going to wade into the thickets of Kant-interpretation in this essay, and am using Kant’s exoteric political philosophy here only as a critical foil.

2. In The Mind-Body Politic, Michelle Maiese and I say that

[f]or our purposes, a social institution is any group of people whose subjective experiences, feelings and emotions, thoughts, and intentional actions are collectively guided and organized by shared principles or rules that function as norms—that is, evaluative standards, ideals, codes of conduct, and/or imperatives—for that group.[iv]

To belong to a social institution, therefore, is to enter into an intentionally-structured social relationship with other rational human agents (aka “human beings,” aka “human persons,“ aka “people”) of any kind whatsoever.

Or in other words, the very idea of a social institution was designed by us to be a maximally broad notion covering all kinds of rational human social relationships.

3. For further stage-setting purposes, here are the first few paragraphs of The Mind-Body Politic:

In Meditation XVII of his “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions,” John Donne poetically and correctly described a fundamental aspect of the human condition:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. (Donne 1624, Meditation XVII).

In other words, human beings are, necessarily, social beings. They both influence, and are influenced by, other people as well as social institutions more generally. But as C. Wright Mills so aptly noted in his breakthrough 1956 study of institutional structures and power-relations in the USA, The Power Elite:

The kind of moral and psychological beings men become is in large part determined by the values they experience and the institutional roles they are allowed and expected to play…. Although men sometimes shape institutions, institutions always select and form men. (Mills 1956/2000, pp. 15 and 123, texts joined)

And as Jan Slaby and Shaun Gallagher have recently noted:

[T]he notion of a cognitive institution is itself a helpful tool for developing a critical stance that allows us to scrutinize current institutional practices. Critique here takes the form of assessments of an institution’s modes of operation and de facto impacts, analyzed against the background of its official and unofficial aims, purpose and directions. How does the operational reality of an institution and its specific effectiveness measure up to the ideas and principles that have led to its creation? On a more general level, critique also implies asking whether some given institutional procedures improve (or impede, or distort) our understanding, our communicative practices, our possibilities for action, our recognition of others, our shared and circumscribed freedoms, and so forth. (Slaby and Gallagher 2014, p. 6).

So, in a nutshell: human beings are, necessarily, social animals (Donne); but although people “sometimes shape institutions, institutions always select and form” people (Mills); and “the notion of a cognitive institution is itself a helpful tool for developing a critical stance that allows us to scrutinize current institutional practices” (Slaby and Gallagher 2014, p. 6).

Starting out with those basic ideas, and then adding some of our own, we do two things in The Mind-Body Politic. First, we work out a new critique of contemporary social institutions, by deploying the special standpoint of the philosophy of mind, and in particular, the special standpoint of the philosophy of what we call essentially embodied minds. And second, we make a set of concrete, positive proposals for radically changing both these social institutions and our essentially embodied lives, for the better.[iv]

In this essay I’m going to make the simplifying assumption, for the purposes of argument, that Maiese and I have already adequately done what we set out to do in that book.

4. What I want to do here is to go beyond –in the sense of elaborating and extending, but not in any way contradicting—the theory of social institutions that we worked out in The Mind-Body Politic, by postulating the possession of something I call sociality by all normal, sane rational human animals, simply by virtue of their being, necessarily, social animals.

And I’ll also call this, in diametric opposition to Kant’s notion of “unsociable sociability,” our sociable sociality.

Our sociable sociality, in turn, consists in a set of innate dispositions that naturally manifest themselves as needs for social relationships of a certain fixed number of distinct types.

Moreover, these needs naturally vary in level of intensity and broadness or narrowness of scope across individuals, over time, and in different contexts.

And in this way, the theory of sociality I’m proposing is finegrained: not only does it apply directly to individuals and to a fixed number of distinct types of social relationships, but it also allows us to distinguish in various systematic ways between different individuals and their corresponding personal lives, based on the levels of intensity and scopes of their needs for precisely these types of social relationships.

5. More specifically, then, what I’m claiming—leaving aside the immensely complicating factors of ideology, especially including mores, that is, moralistic normative expectations, and pathological cases, for the purposes of this essay—is

(i) that all normal, sane rational human animals are, necessarily, social animals (although that is not all that we are),

(ii) that all normal, sane rational human animals thereby possess sociality, and

(iii) that sociality naturally manifests itself as needs that naturally vary in level of intensity and broadness or narrowness of scope across individuals, over time, and in different contexts, for seven distinct types of social relationships, as follows:

(iii1) intimate relationships, that is,romantic (especially including erotic) relationships

(iii2) family relationships,

(iii3) relationships with close friends,

(iii4) relationships with a wider circle of friends and more-or-less-casual but still friendly acquaintances,

(iii5) relationships involving camaraderie and solidarity, or what the Brazilians call concordar or “shared heart,” that is, non-instrumental group projects of various kinds with like-minded comrades who are working or playing together towards shared goals—e.g., collective intellectual projects such as co-authorship, collective artistic endeavors, team-sports, clubs of all various kinds, and especially certain kinds of political movements,

(iii6) identitarian[vi] relationships, that is, relationships with other people defined solely by the sharing of some adventitious, more-or-less involuntary physical, mental, or social attributes, I’ll call identity-attributes: namely, human attributes that pick out various non-essential features of people (non-essential to their rational human agency or human personhood, that is), over whose original possession they had little or no freely-chosen control, e.g., race, biological sex, birth-order, height, weight, body shape, specific abilities/disabilities, living in the same region or neighborhood, common language, nationality, ethnicity, economic class, religious upbringing, etc., etc.., and finally

(iii7) relationships in the social marketplace, that is, instrumental relationships of all sorts.

Correspondingly, I’ll say that a social relationship is instrumental if and only if it is entered into for the purposes of furthering, as a means, either the self-interested (egoistic) ends of rational human animals or their publicly beneficial (utilitarian) ends.

6. It’s especially to be noted that when I say that each one of the seven types of social relationships is “distinct” from the others, I do not mean that they are mutually exclusive types.

Instead, what I mean is that they are non-equivalent, although sometimes or even often partially overlapping, classes of social relationships, each of which has its own characteristic phenomenology and guiding principle(s).

Thus it’s quite possible to enter into a social relationship with someone who is, at one and the same time (although not in the same respect): your lover, your life-partner and co-parent of your children, your closest friend, a comrade, a member of (many of) the same identity-group(s),  someone with whom you have an instrumental relationship involving, e.g., mutual aid, and someone with whom you have an instrumental economic relationship, e.g., a shared bank account.

And so-on and so forth, with many possible variations for partial overlap.

Nevertheless, even allowing for that multiplicity of possible variations, some of the types are mutually exclusive.

For example, someone could not be, at one and the same time, your lover and also someone who belonged to your wider circle of friends and more-or-less casual but still friendly acquaintances.

7. Another claim I’m making about the seven distinct types, is that they are all both ontologically and explanatorily irreducible to any single further factor or collection of further factors, hence that their existence and differences are basic.

If this claim is correct, then, e.g., social relations are not all or ultimately about human psychological or ethical egoism and mutual antagonism, as classical Hobbesians and neo-Hobbesians like Kant (at least in his exoteric political philosophy[vii]) claim.

And social relations are not all or ultimately about human gender and sexual orientation, or race and ethnicity, as various kinds of identitarians hold.

And social relations are not all or ultimately about subconscious or unconscious (mostly sexual) urges in human animals, as Freudians hold.

And social relations are not all or ultimately about human social and political power-relations backed up by coercion or threats of coercion, and overdetermined by hegemonic ideology, and their oppressive application to people who are defined by such identity-classifications as race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, as Foucauldians hold.

And social relations are not all or ultimately about deterministic human evolutionary biology, as various kinds of Darwinians hold.

And social relations are not all or ultimately about human psychological or ethical egoism and rational choice, as many contemporary economists (and, more generally, decision-theorists) hold.

And social relations are not all or ultimately about deterministic capitalist economic relations, class antagonism, and hegemonic ideology, as classical or orthodox Marxists think.

This in turn allows us not only to provide explanations that do not oversimplify or explain-away the manifestly real facts and phenomena that constitute our sociality and our social lives, but also resolutely to refuse all such reductive explanations, whether asserted by philosophers or non-philosophers, e.g., social media pundits or politicians.

8. And for the purposes of this essay, the final claim I’m making is that any kind of social relationship under any of the seven types is rationally justifiable, morally permissible,  or morally obligatory only if it is also guided by sufficient respect for the human dignity of others and oneself, and by never treating oneself or others merely as means or as mere things, and, more specifically, never coercing other people.

That’s of course a Kantian ethical thesis.[viii]

And this Kantian ethical thesis, in turn, entails that for social relationships under each of the types, there will be good and right instances, and also bad and wrong instances, to consider when looking at the total set of instances falling under that type, depending on whether they meet that ethical standard of sufficient respect for human dignity and more specifically non-coercion, or not.

Correspondingly, one of the most important sources of bad and wrong instances is to impose egoistic, identitarian, or purely instrumental principles, especially when they’re backed up by coercion or threats of coercion, on social relationships whose guiding principles are, other things being equal, inherently non-egoistic, non-identitarian, and non-instrumental, such as intimacy, family, close friendship, and relationships involving camaraderie and solidarity.

9. Does the finegrained theory of sociality I’m proposing have empirical and intuitive force?

As regards empirical force, of course we’d have to test it across a wide variety of cases, and also use well-documented evidence supplied by cultural and political anthropology, social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, history, and so-on.

So that’s a task we still have ahead of us.

But as regards intuitive force: yes, as I look around at the different healthy, sane people I know, they all manifestly have needs for:

(iii1) intimate relationships,

(iii2) family relationships,

(iii3) relationships with close friends,

(iii4) relationships with a wider circle of friends and more-or-less-casual but still friendly acquaintances,

(iii5) relationships involving camaraderie and solidarity,

(iii6) identitarian relationships, and

(iii7) relationships in the social marketplace.

Moreover, when we allow for natural variations in the levels of intensity and scope of individual people’s needs for different types of social relationships, then that very plausibly explains various interesting and existentially important obvious differences between the different healthy, sane people I know, and between their different individual lives.

Admittedly, because I’m a person with relatively weak and narrow needs under type-(iii4) relationships, I don’t actually know all that many people—indeed, the number of people I know is relatively small.

And because I’m also a person with normal needs under type-(iii2) relationships and also relatively strong needs under type-(iii5) relationships, most of the people I actually do know are either family or philosophers with whom I’m working on various collaborative projects, so they tend to share various identity-attributes with me, which of course narrows the range of my evidence somewhat.

But as a partial remedy for that relative smallness and relative narrowness, I hereby invite you to try out the same intuitive experiments on the people you know.

10. Nevertheless, in my opinion, the finegrained theory of sociality I’ve proposed, intuitively, explains

(i) all sorts of things about fundamental similarities and differences across individual people and their lives, including ourselves,

(ii) all sorts of things about good and right social relationships and social institutions versus bad and wrong social relationships and social institutions, and also

(iii) how social relationships and social institutions originally arise, namely as the result of our natural drive to satisfy the seven distinct types of needs that constitute our sociality.

Moreover, the theory has direct practical applications to

(i) the moral and existential projects of knowing others and ourselves,

(ii) creating and sustaining good and right social relationships and social institutions, and devolving and dismantling bad and wrong ones, and

(iii) our resolute refusal of all attempts by philosophers or non-philosophers to reduce or explain-away basic features of our “human, all-too-human” sociality and social lives.

And then when we explicitly re-introduce the complicating factors of ideology—especially including mores—and pathological cases, the explanatory and practical power of the theory is correspondingly supercharged.

11. So I conclude that this finegrained theory of our sociable sociality is generally correct; or at least that it’s prima facie generally correct; or at the very least, that it’s philosophically interesting and humanly highly relevant, in the sense that it certainly seems to provide what Dewey calls “a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of [humanity].”

And if I’m correct about all that, then our next philosophical task, beyond seeking empirical confirmation for the theory and re-introducing the complicating factors of ideology and pathology, would be to work out detailed accounts of the specific phenomenologies and repertoires of guiding principles for each of the seven distinct types of social relationships.[ix]

NOTES

[i] I. Kant, “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim,” trans. A. Wood, in I. Kant, Immanuel Kant: Anthropology, History, and Eduction. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007, pp. 107-120, at p. 111 (IUH 8: 20-21).

[ii] J. Dewey, “The Need for A Recovery of Philosophy,” in J. Dewey (ed.), Creative Intelligence: Essays in the Pragmatic Attitude (New York: Holt, 1917), pp. 3-69, at p. 65.

[iii] There’s a somewhat complicated (and controversial) story to be told here about how correctly to interpret Kant’s overall moral and political philosophy. See, e.g., R. Hanna, “Exiting the State and Debunking the State of Nature,” Con-Textos Kantianos 5 (2017), available online at URL = <https://www.con-textoskantianos.net/index.php/revista/article/view/228>.

[iv] M. Maiese and R. Hanna, The Mind-Body Politic (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), p. 3, also available online in PREVIEW.

[v] Maiese and Hanna, The Mind-Body Politic, pp. 1-2.

[vi] Identitarianism is a widely-held psychological, moral, and political theory—and especially in its liberal-progressive, nationalist, religious, and neo-fascist versions, a hegemonic ideology. For critical analyses of it, see, e.g., K.A. Appiah, The Lies That Bind. Rethinking Identity: Creed, Country, Color, Class, Culture (New York: Liveright, 2018); and R. Hanna, “Identity Ad Absurdum: A Critique of the Cultural Appropriation Argument,” Against Professional Philosophy (21 June 2019), available online at URL =  <https://againstprofphil.org/2019/06/21/identity-ad-absurdum-a-critique-of-the-cultural-appropriation-argument/>.

[vii] See note 3 above.

[viii] See note 3 above.

[ix] I’m grateful to Elisabeth Widmer for extremely helpful correspondence about the topics of this essay.


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