Spring 2011

Reasoning Against Reason

– Jag Bhalla

Western culture has a lobotomized view of human nature inherited from the French Enlightenment.

The Social Animal is a book of grand and diverse ambitions, by one of the nation’s most intellectually creative journalists, New York Times columnist David Brooks. His aim is to revolutionize our culture’s operative beliefs about human nature, using scientific studies that reveal the “building blocks of human flourishing.” His book is part fiction, part nonfiction popularization (neuroscience, psychology, sociology), and part grand synthesis (intellectual history, social policy). The genre-blended result delivers some hybrid vitality, but at the expense of coherence and rigor.

Brooks believes Western culture has a lobotomized view of human nature inherited from the French Enlightenment. René Descartes and other philosophers described humans as autonomous individuals endowed with powers of reason that are separate from and pitted against the emotions. The ability to flourish depended on an individual’s suppression of his unruly passions. British Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume and Adam Smith argued that we are fundamentally social beings, that our reasoning faculty is weak, and that our emotions are strong and can be usefully educated. The French rationalist view fit better with the rise of the mechanistic sciences. But old dualisms must now duel with data: Science supports the British view.

In a fictional narrative, Brooks weaves vignettes from the lives of two characters, “Harold” and “Erica,” to illustrate the “hidden sources of love, character, and achievement” of his subtitle. He uses their upbringings, educations, courtship, and so on to model what research shows are key influences on a successful life. For instance, Erica pursues a career in business after a successful entrepreneur with whom she identifies visits her school. Brooks explains that studies show that ambitious people “often have met someone like themselves who achieved great success.”

The Social Animal is a marathon surface skim of a sea of scientific studies. Brooks claims this isn't a science book, since it doesn't get its feet wet in the details. But the trade-off of depth for a flood of factoids may satisfy neither fans of science writing nor lay readers. To give but one example: To illustrate the limits of the conscious mind, Brooks notes that at its peak it “has a processing capacity 200,000 times weaker than [that of] the unconscious.” It’s a tantalizing observation, but he doesn't indicate how this capacity was measured.

As readers of his Times column might expect, Brooks serves up a smorgasbord of seductive sound bites and contagious coinages (e.g., “Emotional Positioning System”). But some fall flat (as in the New Age-y “the swirls that make up our own minds are shared swirls” and his snarky “sanctimommies”). And he struggles with conceptual laxity, missing opportunities to clarify or revolutionize the terms of the debate. He mainly uses the word “unconscious” to describe information processing that is emotional, instinctive, or not explicitly reasoned, though one of his key goals is to de-Freud our worldview and show that the “unconscious” isn't just a collection of dark, nasty urges.

It’s in his efforts to “draw out the social, political, and moral implications” of the science that Brooks reveals his true colors: He’s a timid revolutionary. Though he makes some practical recommendations for education—such as providing “structure for disorganized families” through parenting classes or intensive mentoring—he chooses not to draw broader political conclusions. How should we deal with the fact that our economies and institutions are built on assumptions about human nature that are now demonstrably wrong?

The human flourishing that Brooks describes is precisely what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he quoted Aristotle’s phrase “pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson thought of the Declaration of Independence as a revolutionary document grounded in science. Brooks takes us toward a declaration of interdependence, based on scientific, if not yet self-evident, truths. For Jefferson and Aristotle, the individual pursuit of happiness meant a life well lived, which required strong relationships and the fulfillment of community obligations. They knew what science today is rediscovering—that the flourishing of the individual depends on the flourishing of others.

We aren't as far advanced in this revolution as Brooks would have us believe, but his book, despite its flaws, is a contribution to intellectual history in the making.

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Jag Bhalla is a writer and entrepreneur living in Washington, D.C. He is the author of I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears (2009), and is currently at work on a book about old ideas undergirding our discourse that are now demonstrably wrong. 

Reviewed: "The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement" by David Brooks, Random House, 2011.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/mendhak