Cartesian meditations on the social sciences

I’ve already shared my complaints about the humanities and the natural sciences; now I’d like to turn to the social sciences.  As with these other disciplines, my “problem” with the social sciences has more to do with a general attitude I sense pervading the whole enterprise than with any particular result.  That attitude can be summed up in the following statement:  the correct way to understand a human being or a social system is to look at it from the point of view of a hostile outsider.  The hostile outsider has a privileged perspective.  The ways human beings and social organisms understand themselves are illusions; they are unscientific; they are masks behind which hide the reality of structures of oppression, unconscious desires, blind economic or sexual striving.  Thus, the skill college students are to learn above all else is critical thinking, which basically means learning to assume the perspective of the hostile outsider.  They are to critically question the assumptions of their upbringing (unless, of course, they are from urban Leftist homes).  And if the student decides his inherited religion and ethnic loyalties are defensible?  Well, then, he obviously hasn’t thought critically enough!  The “questioning” of gender roles and inherited tradition has a predetermined outcome.

Needless to say, social scientists–psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists–are, by and large, my political enemies.  However, my ultimate objection is philosophical.  I don’t disagree that one can study human beings in terms of their psychic desires, or that one can study societies in terms of economic forces and structures of coercion.  Nor do I deny that some insights can be drawn from this.  What I do deny is that this gives us the ultimate truth about men or communities.  It is an exercise in abstraction, of systematically ignoring aspects of the subject in order to more clearly focus on some particular structure of interest.  The most important thing about a social practice is how it is experienced and understood by its participants.  Even when the things critics claim to find “beneath the surface” are really there, it’s the “surface”–the lived conscious reality–that is most fundamental and most real.

This is even more true when it comes to the study of the individual human being.  I myself have had two types of encounters with psychology.  (My experiences with the psychiatric profession I’ll save for another post.)  First, as a teacher I’ve been exposed to some of the results of research on how people learn.  Overall, this work is empirically grounded and consistent with common sense and my own experience.  The studies of memory, cognition, visual perception–basically of any type of mental activity that we humans are conscious of performing–also seem relatively healthy by soft science standards (although I am here speaking without much knowledge).  On the other hand, as a reactionary I am also exposed to psychological claims purporting to explain my authoritarian, homophobic pathologies.  That I might actually have reasons for my beliefs is dismissed out of hand.  This type of psychology demands that human behavior have explanations rather than reasons.  The explanations involve my unconscious fear of new experiences, my unconscious fear of my father, my unconscious homosexual urges, or some other such unconscious prompting.  None of these claims has any credible evidence behind them, and they all clash with the evidence of direct introspection–hence the recurring need for “unconscious” qualifiers.

“The unconscious mind” is one of those things that people are afraid to question for fear of being thought “unscientific”; I’m sure I’ll shock some readers with even the basic observation that “unconscious mind” is a contradiction in terms.  

Let us take one of the most celebrated claims of psychoanalysis, that I can have “unconscious” sexual desires.  What does it even mean to say that I have a sexual desire if I don’t experience it?  To me, “sexual desire” refers to a particular qualia, meaning it is conscious by definition.  How about other definitions?  A desire might refer to a tendency, so that one could say I sexually desire another person if, regardless of my experienced desires, I keep finding myself sleeping with her or him.  Of course, nobody claims that, e.g. boys with Oedipus complexes ever actually have sex with their mothers, so that can’t be it.  One might say that “desire” refers to a physiological response.  That’s no good either:  for male sexual desire, the physiological response is quite easy to recognize.  Alternatively, one can distinguish between desires of which we are reflectively aware and those that we aren’t.  Just because I experience X doesn’t mean I always take the time to tell myself “I am experiencing X.”  I suspect this is what gives the idea of “unconscious desire” what plausibility it has.  What, then, are the impediments to reflective consciousness of desires?  1) Distraction.  Example:  My bladder is full, but I don’t think to myself “I have to pee” because something important is happening.  That’s obviously not what we’re talking about here.  2) Lack of conceptual tools.  Example:  Someone who didn’t know what sexual desire is could experience it without being able to explain his own mental state to himself.  (Remember The Blue Lagoon?)  Also irrelevant here.  3) Self-deception/rationalization.  Example:  I don’t enjoy gossiping; it’s just that people have a right to know.  Here the qualia is acknowledged but explained in a way that protects one’s self-image.  This seems to be the claim being made against defenders of natural law sexual morality, that we are reacting to sexual desires that we not only do not act on, but somehow conceal from our own consciousness.  This would be something quite unlike ordinary rationalization, in which one must have some awareness of the urge or emotional state in question before one gives it a respectable rationalization.  This claim, that all my reasoning on sexual matters is an epiphenomenon of my mad hatred of homosexuals (of which I am unaware) which in turn is an epiphenomenon of my own homosexual lust (of which I am also unaware), is fantastic on its face.  It is so different from the way we ordinarily interpret beliefs.  (I notice that no one ever claims that atheist utilitarianism or Marxism has psychological causes of this sort.  Let me ask what hard evidence there is that reactionaries form their opinions in a less rational way than other people.  Why should we not regard this belief as itself a manifestation of the “introspection illusion” on the part of Leftist psychologists?)  In any case, it just shifts the issue of the reason for my beliefs back.  Why am I supposedly ashamed of my supposed homosexuality?  If it is because I have reasons to think that such desires are wicked, then my beliefs are reasoned ones after all.  If it is because of social pressure, then society’s choice to exert pressure must be explained.  Somewhere, sometime–perhaps thousands of years ago–somebody must have had an actual reason for thinking sodomy should be discouraged.  And if they could think that then, why can’t I think it now?  What was wrong, anyway, with the simplest explanation:  that I hold my beliefs for the reasons I’ve given?

Let’s take another egregious example:  childhood sexuality.  As I’ve said before

I actually do believe that children are “sexual beings”, although not in the way that the sickos Laura Wood quotes mean it.  There’s a strand of progressive thought that likes to insinuate that children have sexual desires.  Freud is their big hero.  I’m always baffled that this opinion is given so much respect, given that EVERY ONE OF US remembers being a child and not having sexual urges until puberty.  Scientism is the enemy of science.  The prestige of science comes from its grounding in experiment and observation.  The mark of scientism is that one will believe a claim that directly contradicts all experience if only it’s made by someone claiming to be a scientist.

So here we have a claim that every one of us knows by simple direct observation is false but that no one dares to contradict.  Trust your own memory and they’ll call you an antiscientific ignoramus who’s hung-up on “Victorian” illusions of childhood innocence.  Bull shit.  Being a scientist means I get to trust my observations over their supposed authority, and I encourage everyone else to be a scientist on this matter too.

How did we get to this point?  Let me propose a story, which like any story will be an over-simplification.  By the nineteenth century, the educated public had a clear idea of what scientific explanations were supposed to look like.  They were supposed to look like mechanics:  stationary states are seen as equilibria formed by the balance of opposing blind forces.  Now a science of the mind was called for, and what could it be but a mechanistic modeling of the mind, filled with barely concealed hydraulic metaphors (not recognized as metaphors) of pressure, outlets, redirection, and repression?  Thus, when Freud presented his plumber’s model of the mind, he quickly became an intellectual hero of the age.  However, because the hydraulic model of the mind is so completely contradicted by all introspective experience, it was necessary to split the mind in two.  On the one hand, there is the conscious mind of intellect, will, and recognized desires.  In addition to this mind (the only one we previously knew we had), each of us was given an invisible alter ego, the “unconscious mind”, the hydraulic mind which is not empirically observed (hence “unconscious”) but which is required by nineteenth-century mechanistic prejudice to exist and, furthermore, to be our real selves.  In the hydraulic metaphor it is meaningful to talk about unconscious sexual desires.  Eros is a sort of ethereal water flow, and a flow can be pointed in one direction at its base but be redirected downstream along different channels.  Hence, psychology splits in two.  Study of the empirical mind–meaning ultimately the conscious mind, although some aspects of conscious perception (e.g. how the mind constructs three dimensional pictures from two-dimensional input or how it extracts interesting data from a complex picture) may themselves be mostly automatic rather than reflectively conscious–can proceed in a genuinely scientific fashion.  On the other hand is the study of disreputable unconscious desires, generally of political opponents or other people the researcher doesn’t like.  I’m not saying that all of this is pseudoscientific garbage, but–well, actually, yes, I guess that is what I’m saying.


P.S. Here’s my previous defense of Descartes from the neuroscientists.

16 thoughts on “Cartesian meditations on the social sciences

  1. Academics easily lose their critical thinking caps when they readily accept ideas from their fields as unassailable dogma. Even in philosophy, I was disheartened to learn that the “publish or perish” directive refers to writing about what others have said, rather than proffering original ideas. Critique what Kant said about X, do not take a fresh approach to X.

  2. I’m reminded of the passage in Lewis’s Hideous Strength where Studdock, the young sociologist, is put down by an elderly physical chemist.

    “You mean, I suppose, that the element of social planning doesn’t appeal to you? I can quite understand that it doesn’t fit in with your work as it does with sciences like Sociology, but -”

    “There are no sciences like Sociology. And if I found chemistry beginning to fit in with a secret police run by a middle-aged virago who doesn’t wear corsets and a scheme for taking away his farm and his shop and his children from every Englishman, I’d let chemistry go to the devil and take up gardening again.”

    “I think I do understand the sentiment that still attaches to the small man, but when you come to study the reality as I have to do -”

    “I should want to pull it to bits and put something else in its place. Of course. That’s what happens when you study men: you find mare’s nests. I happen to believe that you can’t study men: you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing. Because you study them, you want to make the lower orders govern the country and listen to classical music, which is balderdash. You also want to take away from them everything which makes life worth living and not only from them but from everyone except a parcel of prigs and professors.”

  3. As you know, the “hostile outsider” treatment is reserved for subjects towards which the social scientist is actually hostile. His enemy’s words and actions he will “reinterpret” and make disreputable, whereas the words and actions of his allies and clients he will take entirely at face value. He regards the “lived reality” of his clients as important because it is an affidavit of pain and indignity suffered at the hands of his client’s oppressors. The phenomenological approach is, in other words, reserved for designated victims. But it’s the psychoanalytic approach for victimizers and oppressors. This is because victimizers and oppressors seldom confess to victimization and oppression, and this means their “lived reality” must be a tissue of lies, rationalizations, and self-deceptions. Imagine that you are watching one man beat another man with a stick, and that you are certain the beating is unjustified. You would, I suppose, take the phenomenological approach to the man on the bottom (i.e. empathize) and the psychoanalytic approach to the man on the top (i.e. “hostile outsider”). That’s social science in a nutshell. The only question that remains for the social scientist is this: Who in this world deserves a beating?

    • I would say even in this case that if I really wanted to understand the man doing the beating–as opposed to just insulting him–I would have to try to see things from his perspective and figure out what reason he thinks he has for what he’s doing.

      Incidentally, there was recently an argument in the comments at Oz Conservative ( about whether we should try to understand liberalism on its own terms or just dismiss liberals and liars and bigots. Even here, I would say the hostile outsider perspective (and I am a hostile outsider) is not useful if understanding, rather than energizing hostility, is the goal. To understand even something as monstrous and perverse as liberalism, one must try to understand the liberal point of view.

      • I agree. I’m actually more interested in the lived reality of the “bad guys” of history, since this is, almost by definition, a reality that the modern world has posted round with No Trespassing signs. As you know, in Whig history the reactionaries are just bigots, never men who fought to defend a principle. And this is why so much social science, which is Whig history with numbers, represents them automata driven by forces they don’t understand.

        Of course many of the “bad guys” of history were actually the good guys in my book, so I’m not advocating imaginative entry into the minds of evil men. I think there can be grave spiritual dangers in this. At my stage of life, I’m inclined to hold on to whatever preserves of innocence I have left.

  4. Bonald, some type of an Unconscious, although certainly not the Freudian type, is forthrightly implied in the words of Jesus: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Incidentally, both Voegelin and Girard undertake critiques of the modern, and not merely the Freudian, notion of the Unconscious, rooting their critiques in the Bible and in the Patristic commentary thereon. Voegelin’s Second Reality is a type of unconsciousness, since in it and through it the subject relinquishes his consciousness of the actual reality, in favor of his wants, whimsies, and libidinous delusions. For Girard, mimesis is unconsciousness and so is scapegoating (which brings us back to the words of Jesus on the Cross). Again, for both Voegelin and Girard, Christianity is, among many other things, an intensification of consciousness.

    • “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

      I don’t see how this implies an “unconscious mind” as opposed to just acting on false information or less than full information.

      • Josh, your posting is a statement, not a question, but I decided to reply to it anyway. By way of reply, I transcribe below two paragraphs from the essay on Flaubert’s Herodias, which I have linked elsewhere on The Orthosphere.

        In The Scapegoat (1982; English translation, 1986), Girard has commented, not directly on Flaubert’s Herodias, which oddly he dismisses as mere “orientalia,” but rather on the John-the-Baptist narrative in the Gospels, particularly in Mark. Noting that “rite is the reenactment of mimetic crisis in a spirit of voluntary religious and social collaboration,” Girard goes on to remind his readers that, “even the most weakened ritual institutions are inclined toward sacrifice.” Thus, “a crowd stuffed with food and drink wants something extraordinary, a spectacle of eroticism or violence, preferably both at the same time.” This will be especially the case in so a tense a situation as prevails at the birthday affair for Herod in the place-fortress at Machaerus. In his theological commentary, Girard has made much of Jesus’ utterance from the Cross that the Father should forgive the Son’s persecutors because they, the persecutors, “know not what they do.” The perpetrators of sacrifice “know not what they do.” They act, rather, as though under compulsion, which, in a way, is the case. It is this essential observation about the unconsciousness of ritual activity that enables Girard to equate revelation with consciousness and to see Hebrew prophecy and the Gospel narrative as increases of consciousness or rungs on the ladder of human self-knowledge.

        A passage toward the end of Herodias suggests how close Flaubert’s view of the story is to Girard’s view. The apparition of the angel (another case perhaps of abortive conscience) having thwarted Mannaeï’s first attempt in beheading the prisoner, the ensemble of guests and hosts including Herod but excluding Phanuel suddenly becomes a single monster with one voice: “Herodias let loose her fury in a coarse and biting stream of insults… [T]he two carved lions seemed to be gnawing her shoulders and roaring like her.” Next despite himself, Flaubert writes, “Antipas followed her lead, as did the priests, Pharisees, and soldiers, one and all demanding their revenge, while the [others] of the company were indignant at having their pleasure postponed.” Earlier in the story, readers will recall, Flaubert likened Herodias to a Maenad, a term with a collective rather than an individual connotation, linked in myth to the murder and decapitation of Orpheus and Pentheus. The detail about the two stone lions is especially telling. The metaphor suggests reversion to lower level of consciousness – what Flaubert calls bêtise. In the moment when Mannaeï returned with the trophy, as Flaubert writes, Herod instinctively “drew back to avoid seeing the head.”

        To J. M. Smith: The crowd that crucifies Jesus is only forgivable because it “knows not what it does.” After the Crucifixion, however, crowds know what they are doing, and they are not forgivable.

      • I at first had the same thought that Josh did. But the more I think about it, the more puzzling I find the familiar passage from scripture. If they did not, in fact, know what they were doing, what is there to forgive? Is it that they did not know but should have? That they were guilty of culpable ignorance? Or is it that the crucifixion of Christ was intentional despite being unconscious? The later is what I infer from the quotes Thomas gives us. I’d agree that an unconscious act can be intentional if it springs from a disposition cultivated in the knowledge that it could engender such an act. So, in the case at hand, the Jews were not conscious that they were killing the Son of God, but they were nonetheless guilty of an intentional act because they had made themselves into a people disposed to do such a thing.

  5. Dear Bonald,

    What do you think about evolutionary psychology? Or generally, that subset of it that is used by the Game / Red Pill community and basically says

    1) Men are hardwired to like competition, social dominance, and status-seeking (Augustine: libido dominandi)

    2) Women are hardwired to get aroused by and sexually reward such behaviors

    Deductions drawn from this explain a lot of things that modern “progressive” worldviews cannot explain. And makes some very good predictions.

    For example it makes the prediction that it is not really possible to create a wholly egalitarian and autonomy-focused society, and even when it is temporarily possible, the only reward the good egalitarian man gets for supressing his instincts is that women get bored of him. Thus, this is always unstable.

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  7. Just saw this. I think this merits a revisit, Bonald — it’s an interesting start but somewhat disjointed and meanders too much into anecdotal example. I’m also not entirely sure where you got the idea that psychoanalysis is a social science; this part detracts, I think, from your overall point.

    Your hostile observer observation is spot on, but this is not the meaning of the term “critical thinking”. Critical thinking, properly employed, is the critical analysis of the observer’s own prior expectations and suppositions. Of course this is an essential Christian ethos, the idea that our animalist hedonistic desires the fulfillment of which we think will make us feel good may not in fact make use feel as good as the spiritually-inspired human adherence to divine will. Attempting to see ourselves, and thus to observe our own observation of reality, from the standpoint of the realization of how an all-loving and divine observer sees us, is critical thinking. The corruption of this in academia into a “hostile observer” phenomenon is a good point but this is not true critical thinking but a corruption of it. The origin of true critical thinking, the true foundation of academic study, is of course divinely-inspired and catholic (see for example Alasdair MacIntyre’s writings on this topic.)

    • Psychoanalysis isn’t a social science, but it is a cornerstone to much of what is taught and written in social science departments.

  8. Pingback: My problem with the social sciences strikes again | Throne and Altar

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