Commentary Magazine

The Study of Man: Future-mindedness

The English philosopher R. G. Collingwood’s autobiographical account of his development provides a convincing demonstration of how good it would be if every professional thinker wrote his intellectual autobiography as a normal part of his life’s work: especially if he is English or American. And the stress must be at least as much on “autobiography” as on “intellectual.” For Collingwood above all makes one see that the way he came to hold his beliefs, ideas, alignments, and oppositions was an integral part of their structure.

One of the reasons why most English and American academic or professional philosophers ignore or would not take kindly to this proposal may be that they are committed to a kind of assimilation to science, and have, whether wittingly or not, been over-impressed by certain inseparable characteristics of scientific thinking—its objectivity and apparent certainty. Particularly in Anglo-Saxon philosophizing, anything subjective and personal seems to be something to be overcome. It is equated with the “emotive” or with “psychologism,” so that as a method, introspection is hardly respectable.

There have, of course, been other attempts beside Collingwood’s An Autobiography; the Schilpp series, The Library of Living Philosophers, each volume devoted to one philosophical oeuvre, aims to include an autobiography “when this can be secured.” Possibly the addition of this proviso is evidence of the very reluctance I have just spoken about. But in any case, genuine unity between the subjective and the purposive seems hard to achieve. The Cambridge philosopher C. D. Broad, for instance, produced an autobiography for the Schilpp series. This is an account of his opinions, general and more strictly philosophical, plus some autobiographical details that are indeed psychologically significant and ruthlessly self-revealing (“In September 1939 . . . my mother, to my unspeakable relief, died”). But nobody could say how, if at all, the philosophical development is connected with the life.

Now Ruth Nanda Anshen has edited a series called “Credo”1—thus far including five important American thinkers—in which she has set out to obtain just such explorations of the connection between the personal and the intellectual. Judging from the word “credo” and from the editor’s introduction, Miss Anshen had clearly intended to elicit from her contributors a far more personal and unified account of themselves and their work than she has in most cases actually obtained. She meant for each of them, in her words, to “show the relevance of his work to the feelings and aspirations of the man of flesh and bone”—“to define the new reality in which the estrangement of man and his work, resulting in the self-estrangement in man’s existence, is overcome. . . the reconciliation of what a man knows with what a man is.” What she is asking of these men, in other words, is: “What is the meaning and value of existence, in contemporary conditions of work, thought, and relationship, to you?

To be sure, Miss Anshen left the contributors to her series totally free—and was right to do so. None of them is a philosopher in the narrowest sense, and the nature of the studies to which they are bound may have made it in some cases especially difficult to respond. In two of the books, those of Professors Moses Hadas and F. S. C. Northrop, the tone is often, whether intentionally or not, that of the expert advocating his specialty. Professor Hadas specializes in the Greek and Latin classics; while Professor Northrop, although he teaches law and philosophy, is primarily and passionately preoccupied with mathematical physics. It is therefore not unreasonable to see the respective advocacy of these two in the context of the by now tiresome—but unresolved—controversy about the Two Cultures (tiresome, but also perennial, and perhaps tiresome because unresolved).

Professor Hadas does not plead for classical languages as such, but for the classics. Latinity is not the issue for him: he approves of translations, and even draws attention to the entertaining and often illuminating new look which has been given to classical themes in our century, particularly by the French—for example, Giraudoux and Anouilh. He thinks of the classics as perennially warming and at least indirectly nourishing by its influence on world literature, like a kind of Gulf Stream: a natural benevolent phenomenon which is vital to us and will be so in any foreseeable future, however clever we become at thinking up artificial substitutes for our real needs. He makes, in short, a good and honest case to which those not otherwise committed can hardly help responding.



The case is one that holds for a particular interpretation of Humanism—the traditional interpretation, in fact, of the “literary” side of the perennial dispute. The scientific interpretation of Humanism has also been going on for a long time. In the 17th century the dispute between “humanist” and “scientist” often appeared to be primarily epistemological, about the nature of knowledge. But behind this, as I shall suggest, there was always a moral dispute—at least implicitly—about the differential value of kinds of knowledge. This is still true in our own day, although, because of shifting moral norms, it may be less obvious than before.

Classical education, according to Professor Hadas, has been, and still is, of two kinds, which are represented by two types of character—the “scribal” and the “knightly,” the scholar on the one hand, and the man of active life on the other. Professor Hadas admits that there have always been scribes and scholars who have been able to turn Greek and Latin into finally dead languages and by their textual fixation even spread the blight into languages which otherwise might have been left alive. (In this connection he complains of the Teutonization of American studies and scholarly language, and thinks American universities would have done better to stick to their British antecedents: at least the British, he says, do not make a fetish of the Ph.D. degree, “the sign manifest of professionalism.” To which someone from Britain is impelled to reply that they do make a fetish of “sport”; Americans ought to be reminded that cricket is a respectable game for intellectuals because it is so “aesthetic”)

Professor Hadas’s “knightly” classicist, if we are being indulgent, is the all-round Renaissance humanist; or, if we are being slightly cynical, the “gentleman,” who sidelong if not incidentally, can still put his classical education to good use and sit, say, on a board, or boards, of directors. For Professor Hadas is at pains to show that in America, not so long ago, university teachers of the classics enjoyed a special prestige, and intellectual men of wealth would choose the profession, as in England they might have chosen a career in church, politics, or army: “As late as 1920, a teacher of Greek in a Brooklyn public high school regularly came to work in a chauffeur-driven Pierce-Arrow car.”

Nevertheless, Professor Hadas is not nostalgic for past material glories. His best hope is certainly a moral one—to provide a deep and broad tradition for the Humanities, and this is why he is willing to have the classics studied in translation, rather than not studied at all. To an objection made by a purist colleague that Aeschylus ought only to be read in the original, he replied that spreading the benefit by means of translation showed that he (and his colleagues) “loved people” better than this eminent fellow classicist.

It is good to be reminded that Humanism and the Humanities are about people. Professor Hadas commits himself to the faith that “education is mankind’s most important enterprise.” But here, surely, “mankind” means men and women, the present people whose potentialities have to be developed and whose lacks and uncertainties have to be helped.



Now the Two Cultures dispute—the Humanities (preferably literature and poetry) versus Science—reveals itself in our time more clearly than ever before as an educational dispute, in the moral and hence psychological sense. What is the right sort of people and, when we know, how can we encourage their development? Even in the 17th century, when the dispute was mainly about the relative “truthfulness” of science and poetry, there was a strong imputation of superior morality to the truthful scientist (anyway on the part of philosophers and some scientists) and an implication that therefore scientists were the right kind of people. This notion has no less power or sanction today.

But the grounds for supposing that either literary or scientific studies, or, indeed, any branch of knowledge, has any special bearing on the production of the right kind of people—people capable of self-fulfillment—seem to be vague and unanalyzed. Historically the literary classicists have got away with the title of the “Humanities,” and this certainly suggests a kind of moral victory: they are the side which loves and thinks about people. But the victory rather reminds one of those student “rags,” common anyway in Britain, where the fight is about an effigy or statue—in this case, an abstraction of Man.

It may be that the opposing sides can be significantly characterized as being past-minded or future-minded, both of which characteristics are weaknesses when what they point to is a getting away from psychological actuality. The “future-minded” men represented in this series are, as elsewhere, concerned and even troubled about our duty to posterity and about what “Man” is to become, but they give no evidence of having asked themselves whether the real problem is not one of helping him—by means of a psychologically realistic education—to become human.

Alone in the series, Erich Fromm, the psychologist and psychotherapist, finds this question his major concern, and applies himself seriously to what is clearly its major aspect: in the editor’s words, “the estrangement of man and his work resulting in the self-estrangement in man’s existence.” Not insignificantly, I should add, Mr. Fromm is also the only one who has achieved a genuine synthesis of both elements in the “intellectual autobiography.”

There is more to be said about Mr. Fromm and his existential approach, his concern with the real human individual’s relation to himself and to the real given world; these stand in sharp contrast to the “future-mindedness” of most natural-science humanists. The term “future-mindedness” derives from C. P. Snow’s description of scientists both in his Harvard lectures published as Science and Government and his The Two Cultures. For Snow, this term is regarded as representing the morality (and the moral superiority) of a scientist. His future-mindedness is not only thought to provide him with a moral “credo” but, in Snow’s opinion, with a formula for active moral life.

It is the “credo” which concerns me at the moment: and in this series it is strongly represented by Dr. René Dubos. In Dr. Dubos’s case we must distinguish this credo from the 19th-century doctrine of inevitable progress, but we cannot always do so as sharply as might have been imagined. The scientific humanist C. H. Waddington, for instance (in The Humanist Frame and in The Ethical Animal), and the religious humanist Teilhard de Chardin—priest and paleontologist (in The Phenomenon of Man) whom Waddington, and also Julian Huxley, greatly admire—operate by something approaching this assumption of inevitability: in Chardin’s case, because Christ is conceived as emergent, the end-term of the evolutionary process, and in Waddington’s, because he deems himself to have shown that human evolution has a built-in ethical mechanism. We transmit, he believes, ethical information from generation to generation. This seems to be based on the reasonable observation that the child has an innate capacity to respond to authority, to “hear and to obey.” One would have thought that the ethical signification was in the contents, not the structure, of the commands; and Waddington does himself recognize this problem, but without, so far as I can see, providing a solution.

“Future-mindedness” is in fact a very abstract idea, and one that finally contains no suggestion of its precise moral quality or content. C. P. Snow is prepared to assert that for scientists the content is far more naturally a social one than it is for literary men (of this there seems little hard evidence) . In his view scientists not only have the sense of “new knowledge to come,” a kind of prophetic instinct in the intellectual field, but they are more committed to trying to solve the problems of hunger and war. Their sense of individual tragedy is no less strong but, by training perhaps more fatalistic, they are better at seeing and doing what can be done.



Nevertheless, the idea of future-mindedness contains a strong suggestion of the postponing of moral immediacy, and it also comes encased in a moral tone like that of Reade’s Martyrdom of Man: there is no limit to our racial duty, the more remote the Other, the higher the altruism. But the future is always being born in every passing moment. Moreover, future-mindedness may be in part a way of avoiding the problems of the self and its personal relations. We don’t know for sure that we can’t improve them, because at present we hardly begin to try. Mr. Fromm, pointing out the intimate connection between intelligence and character, comments on the vast stupidity of the majority of human beings about their personal relations.

It is quite remarkable how the real moral problem of moral evolution, i.e., how can men become human, in its immediate and educational aspects, is ignored by the future-minded (who may however have very high intelligence quotients). It is rather surprising, too, to see how readily this moral lacuna can be filled in, even by the natural scientist or by those whose training has given them a predominating interest in natural science, with some near-mystical abstraction.

Future-mindedness, even too much talking about “Man”—a no doubt necessary linguistic habit, which, however, often involves one in prediction if not in prophecy—is after all merely a form of projecting from our immediate experience of ourselves and others. And a form of getting away from them. Life as we know it is lived by plants, animals, men (and women), and at the human end of the evolutionary scale, individuation becomes much more obvious and important. At the same time, the individual is rooted in the characteristics he has in common with his species; indeed, in his particular variants he always partially affirms what is common, and of course to try to separate him out too sharply can only be artificial. A philosophy of “life” (both as a planetary and as an individual phenomenon) which would express this awareness both of likeness and discrimination is badly needed. Existentialism tries, but it is always falling into some exaggeration either of idealism or materialism, and seems more convincing in its literary or psychological expression than in its strictly philosophical.

We could put it another way: that we need a philosophy of “life” that retains the sense of the unique human individual and at the same time takes account of biological and psychological science without falling into either mystical abstraction or behaviorism. This seems to be very difficult to come by, and we may have to continue to look for it (whether we find it or not) in poetry and imaginative literature.

As a biologist, Dr. Dubos probably comes as near to realizing this desirable balance as we are likely to get. He believes that there is so far no convincing evidence that the synthesis of nucleic acid molecules in the laboratory is going to lead to the creation of life, and also that human life amounts to more than can be found in the genes. He shares Chardin’s belief that the human species is unique among species, as well as the belief (which is also Julian Huxley’s) that we have moved into the conscious or psychosocial phase of evolution (what Chardin calls the noösphere)—in other words, that mind itself is an emergent evolutionary phenomenon. Dr. Dubos is unquestionably future-minded, inclined to see in our racial devotion and our willing acceptance of an infinitesimal part in biological continuity man’s main moral definition. Personally, I find his version of this majestic theme more imaginative than many other varieties of moral futurism—certainly much more than Snow’s, which as a morality is materialistic and perfunctory. Dubos for instance sees human uniqueness in the spontaneity of paleolithic art; he is also able to give a much more vivid and moving account of the “in-built moral mechanism” than Waddington does, by tracing it to forms of cooperation which can be found at very low levels of animal existence.

Moral evolutionists have, I believe, a strong impulse to make a split or an opposition between the past and the future which could be obviated if they were more willing to face the conflicts which are, at the very least, an essential feature of individual development. This split results in a certain psycho-spiritual topography—the past identified with hell, and the future with heaven. Their tone of optimism can often sound like whistling in the dark, and can even be disconcerting because the facts that counter optimism are so fresh and obvious that it seems they are not merely missed but studiously ignored. We have improved, says Dr. Dubos, taking as a sign of this the fact that “slavery is no longer acceptable to the collective conscience of Man.” Let us leave aside the Nazis, and the fact that the ultimate logic of many present-day economic and political systems (certainly not rejected out of hand by the “collective conscience” because we include them in our working world) is one that works toward slavery. Surely the wish to enslave has only gone underground; and not very far underground, for in our “democratic” communities, a genuine desire for equality in personal relations, sexual or social, “the love . . . that feeds on freedom” is one of the last things you will find.



In Erich Fromm’s book, as might be expected, this theme of human ambivalence is omnipresent. And in this, it seems to me, he has answered the editor’s questions more fully and exactly than anyone else. One of his life’s intentions has been to try to synthesize Marx and Freud, his two strongest influences. Without levity it can be said that however Freud may appear as a political and social thinker, Marx turns out to be a remarkably good psychologist. Mr. Fromm’s leading theme then is naturally alienation—a man’s alienation from himself, his communal relations, and the products of his work. On the last, every schoolboy knows that Marx had a great deal to say; but in Mr. Fromm’s citations it becomes clear that he was sharply aware of the psycho-pathological mechanism of projection, and saw economic “alienation” of work and goods in this symptomatic form.

Mr. Fromm’s account of the social “unconscious” is a fascinating reminder of this Marxian insight. It also reminds us of the sad cycle of human ideas, especially of pioneering ideas about human nature: the way the originator’s fresh perceptions get taken over by the Faithful and hardened into a Church and a Theology. Neurosis, individual and social, may well now be seen as an example of the inevitable human trick of hypostatizing generalizations (and turning them into immovable memorials to the truth). But Mr. Fromm is really much more concerned with consciousness than with the unconscious. In its Freudian form, the concept itself can be seen as a product of alienation: the unconscious being the receptacle for the split-off objects of knowledge. For Mr. Fromm, on the other hand, knowledge is essentially a relation between a knower and what is known.

In fact, the crucially interesting problem presented by the whole series is an epistemological one: of all the contributors it can be said that their respective attitudes toward their experience, intellectual and otherwise, considerably depend on what they believe to be the relation between universalizing concepts and the Real. Furthermore, I would suggest that this is true of the whole Humanist controversy: it is not, and never has been, just a fight about science versus poetry, or science versus religion, but much more about two opposing forms of human apperception (and indeed about whether they really are in opposition). Are we to split the knower from the known? Or to affirm their unity, as Fromm proposes?

Are we, moreover, to think of Man himself as an object to be known and analyzed? Or are we rather to think of him as the knower trying to relate what is given to him in experience and knowledge? Do we believe that logic exists always in relation to data, that the actual form of our thinking is always conditioned by the particular field of our purposes and interests? Or, on the contrary, do we believe that human thinking is always a more or less faint approximation to some set of perennially correct answers?

Professor Northrop is in the latter camp with Plato and with the numerical mysticism of Pythagoras. He describes himself as a logical realist. He thinks that mathematical physics and mathematical logic give us a true and correspondent account of the reality outside ourselves which we cannot reach through the “perishing particulars” of mortal experience. But he takes the tolerant anthropological attitude toward the diversity of human cultures; and certainly his descriptions and judgments of human cultural history—as for instance, the application of Sir Henry Maine’s formula “from status to contract” as a wide-ranging explanation of human political development—are often illuminating in a structural or philosophical sense. Even so, Northrup’s abstract-conceptual bias is visible, and goes much further than the idea made acceptable by anthropologists that the unity of a culture depends on its common concepts. Most of us, for example, who regard the free contractual relation in love and business as the basis of democracy would believe that what historically made this at least possible was our long, slow, and not too successful indoctrination in respect for other persons, an indoctrination vaguely acquired from Christian psychology. To Professor Northrop, this is putting the cart before the horse. He thinks we got it from the Greek mathematical physicists. Mathematical physics, “with its conception of any truly known individual thing as an instance of a formally universal law,” is what has made it illogical to identify any individual with his transitory or perishing qualities (like the color of his skin or the shape of his nose). He also gives an odd “proof” that altruism is a necessary or logically essential part of our nature, a proof depending on the high-minded notion that because our perception of our own existence and that of others is never totally distinct, we are in some way “one” as a species. The actual observed facts of human behavior here seem to be treated as irrelevant. In general, Professor Northrop makes an unduly sharp distinction between “natural history” and any “science”—between what actually happens and the theoretical account of it. In view of this it is not surprising that Professor Northrop ends with a mystical-intellectual exercise “proving” that God is both Love and Freedom.

His publishers are aware of the poetry-science opposition, and seem to think that Professor Northrop has helped to resolve it. I myself think that on the contrary, his understanding and taste for imaginative literature are assimilated to his taste for abstraction. Mathematical physics and poetry, he explicitly claims, must be brought together. But it appears that mathematical physics is the higher imaginative form and that poetry (which he confuses with starry high-mindedness) will have to take the initial step across the borderline. It appears too that Professor Northrop does not understand poets. The misconceived conceptualism appears again in an odd statement that Keats and other Romantics were escaping from their “Universe.” I should have thought that they were escaping from their social and personal relations.



It would not be fair to call Professor Northrop “future-minded,” but only because he thinks in terms of eternally present ideas: in terms of cosmic rather than subjective time. On that theme, Professor R. M. MacIver, who has written a modest personal essay on the experience of time, may be allowed the last word: he says that at no period of individual existence “should the claims of the future abrogate the claims of the present.” This seems to be an explicit rejection of “future-mindedness” as a moral formula. Instead, Professor Maclver finds both a morality and a therapy in the creative and imaginative work of mankind. This is the way that he has “lived his own time.” Certainly his description amounts to an intellectual autobiography. After my complaint that some of the other contributors are perhaps too impersonal, it seems ungrateful to ask whether the experience is transferable. How do you teach people to be imaginative and creative, and to live their time to capacity?




1 The Credo Series, edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen, published by Simon & Schuster: Moses Hadas, Old Wine, New Bottles: A Humanist Teacher at Work, 132 pp., $3.95; René Dubos, The Torch of Life: Continuity in Living Experience, 140 pp., $3.95; Erich Fromm, Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounter with Marx and Freud, 182 pp., $3.95; F. S. C. Northrop, Man, Nature and God: A Quest for Life's Meaning, 262 pp., $4.50; R. M. MacIver, The Challenge of Passing Years: My Encounter with Time, 133 pp., $3.95.

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