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by Robert M. Young

The entry on human nature in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas occupies a whole page and extends from Achilles, Aeschulus, Agamemnon and Alcmaeon, the last of whom founded anatomy, to Xenophanes, Xenophon and Zeus, the last of whom founded the world. The three founding figures of the empiricist tradition have it in the titles of major treatises: Humane Nature: Or the Fundamental Elements of Policie (1650) by Thomas Hobbes, An Essay Concerning Human Nature (1690) by John Locke, and A Treatise of Human Nature (1738) by David Hume. All were concerned to deny the existence of innate ideas in human nature. Hence, the problem of what is given and what is experienced lies at the foundations of our question.

It is a perennial question. Without making a special effort I recalled the following books I have read: Human Nature and Conduct by John Dewey; Human Nature and Human History by R. G. Collingwood; Human Nature and the Social Order by Charles Horton Cooley; Human Nature by D. W. Winnicott; The Evolution of Human Nature by C. Judson Herrick; On Human Nature by E. O. Wilson; From Genesis to Genocide: The Meaning of Human Nature and the Power of Behavior Control by Steven Chorover; Human Nature by Christopher Berry; Nature, Human Nature, and Society by Paul Heyer; Ideas of Human Nature: An Historical Introduction by Roger Trigg; Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature by Mary Midgley. I almost forgot The Limits of Human Nature, edited by Jonathan Benthall, to which I contributed a critique of the terms of reference of the collection. If we stretch our search criteria the tiniest bit, we soon come to The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and the question of human nature as an ensemble of social relations, a phrase to which I shall return.

The phrase ‘human nature’ is, once you reflect on it for a moment, more problematic than helpful. Does it imply that humanity if wholly natural? In some sense it must be, since we evolved as biological organisms by natural selection. But does the modifier mean that human nature is somehow not reducible to natural processes? And our troubles begin. That is, all versions of determinism and reductionism have wanted it both ways: to assert that humans (biologically: our species) are wholly natural but then to find it problematic, since our concept of nature is impoverished with respect to the matters which we most value about our humanity, beginning with value itself or the banishment of final causes or teleology from the official paradigm of explanation of modern science. That paradigm had, as one way out, Cartesian dualism, where mind was defined as that which does not pertain to matter and the essence of which was non-material — thought, free will. Passion lurked somewhere in between the poles of the ontological dualism.

Alexander Pope put it beautifully in his ‘Essay on Man’ (1733):

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;

The proper study of mankind is Man.

Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state,

A being darkly wise, and rudely great:

With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,

With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,

He hangs between; in doubt to act or rest;

In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;

In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer;

Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;

Alike in ignorance, his reason such,

Whether he thinks too little, or too much:

Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confused;

Still by himself abused, or disabused;

Created half to rise, and half to fall;

Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;

Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurled:

The glory, jest and riddle of the world!

We could dwell at length on this poem as an embodiment of pre-Darwinian thinking, a perfect evocation of the ‘middle state’ occupid by hmanity in ‘The Great Chain of Being’, so beautifully explored by Arthur O. Lovejoy (1936), the founder of the discipline of the history of ideas, which provided the most general abstraction about the cosmos before evolution took its place in the mid-nineteenth century

Another hoary way of posing the issue is ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’. We have the reductionism of sociobiology at one extreme, with E. O. Wilson writing about ethics as a branch of biology. At the other we find — whom? Sartre with ‘Existence precedes essence’? The moralistic voluntarism of extreme fundamentalist religions? I want to come at the debate in the tradition which has influenced cultural studies from my own background and then engage with the avant garde debate. I begin by saying that if you have a developmental psychology, you have a theory of human nature. Many, notably gays and lesbians, have sought to get off a set of deterministic developmental tramlines which led inevitably to the heterosexual hegemony dictated by Freud’s libido theory, a theory which lies at the foundations of orthodox psychoanalysis and is certainly, in every version I’ve seen, biologically reductionist. Indeed, as I have sketched in another paper, theoreticians of gay and lesbian sexuality want to say, following Laplanche, that the exceptions to normality in sexual orientation and behaviour overwhelm the rule and that there is no normal path in the test case area of gender identity, sexual orientation and sexual practices. In their critique of psychoanalytic theories of lesbianism, Noreen O’Connor and Joanna Ryan put forward the long-term goal of ‘eschewing all forms of naturalism in psychoanalytic thinking’, but right after saying that they draw back from the brink and add, ‘but to do so does not involve denying or ignoring the significance in any one individual’s life of their biological sex as they see and experience it’ (1993, p. 246).

I take the view that if you have a psychology, that’s equivalent to having a theory of human nature, however much latitude for the role of different experiences and different developmental pathways there may be within the particular theory you espouse. In fact, I cannot imagine that it could be otherwise. Going further, a whole class of disciplines, problematically referred to as ‘the human sciences’, and others more scientifically basic and so-called ‘natural’ than they, depend on some notion of human nature. Otherwise, the disciplines have no object of study. I’m thinking of human evolution, human genetics, human ethology, developmental psychology, psychology of personality, social psychology, social anthropology, sociology, political science and, of course, psychoanalysis and group relations. Those who would sweep aside the concept of human nature would, I submit, have to abrogate all these disciplines. Each, in its particular way, seeks to specify an ensemble of characteristics common to members of our species — to illuminate our species being using the methods and assumptions of natural science and/or hermeneutics.

If we expend this location in the study of humankind, we find philosophical notions which have been challenged as problematic but remain hardy perennials: self and person. Critics of the mind-body dichotomy such as P. F. Strawson argue that in the everyday metaphysics which he sets out to describe the concept of person is ontologically prior to those of mind and body and that keeping our eye on this philosophical point makes our agonies over Cartesian dualism much less painful.

On the other hand, we should also acknowledge that the concept of human nature is routinely used for reactionary, demoralising and hegemonic purposes. Indeed, I once made a film documentary about ideas of human nature which began with some clichéd stills and voice-overs uttered by the programme’s researchers to the effect that ’That’s human nature.’ ‘You can’t change human nature.’ ‘You just have to accept it and get used to it’. Yet those among us who are psychotherapists are in the business of trying to alter the natures of the people with whom we work, though we soon learn not to be too sanguine about how much we can accomplish.

I now have before me two strands of argument. The first grants nature its due. We are the product of evolution; our natures are not infinitely plastic, although we are on the threshold of making them pretty damned malleable by as-yet incalculable acts of genetic engineering. On the other hand, we know that political conservatism uses the putatively ‘given’ for its own reactionary purposes. That’s the point of Social Darwinism and the functionalist tradition in the human sciences and politics. Philosophers and cultural studies people can point this out until they are blue in the face, but pure choice is never going to emerge. There is a third strand, one which I find in Rorty’s essay on ‘The Contingency of Selfhood’ (1989), which stresses the uniqueness of the individual and points to narrative and biography as a containing medium for both the given and the contingent and idiosyncratic.

One arena in which these matters were fiercely debated was between the anti-instinctualism of Erich Fromm and the instinctual radicalism of Herbert Marcuse. I cite this example to loosen our assumptions about these issues, since in this vehement exchange Fromm, the romantic softie, was the one stressing the role of experience, while Marcuse, the libertarian, visionary revolutionary Marxist was arguing that only belief in instinct could guarantee the basis in human nature for negativity, for rebellion, for the ‘Great Refusal’ to be mashed into one-dimensionally by the ever more oppressive ideology and hegemony of Advanced Industrial Society which was undermining the Freudian ego, the authority of the father and spontaneous individuality. Leftists are not always the lefter than thou on the nature-nurture continuum. Indeed, there is a recent fascinating book by Paul Crook (1994) which draws our attention to the whole gamut of positions based on Darwinian evolution, with Prince Peter Kropotkin’s biologically-based anarchism in Mutual Aid (1902) at the extreme left of the continuum.

I have so far put the issues in terms which are familiar to me as an historian of biology and the human sciences. I now turn to the rhetoric of the Continental critique of humanism and the concept of human nature. As I understand it, what was going on was a critique of a concept which was so abstract and universal and so divorced from the contingencies of history and class and collectivity that it was thought to function in a reactionary way. It was part of a philosophical anthropology about ‘man’ in general. Much of the debate, focused on critiques of neo-Kantian enlightenment humanism, and this was interrelated with fierce discussions about orthodoxy and humanism in the French Communist Party. Humanism was code for Socialist Humanism, mounting a moral and political critique of the Stalinist purge trials and of the belief that the end justifies the means, while the alternative picture was allied with the party and presented itself as objective, scientific, on the side of what had to be done to bring about communism. It seems to me that this meant abrogating the basis for morality in the name of the future; I’d also say it implicitly appealed to a whoppoing great idealisation of humankind in the communist millennium.

Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (a roman a clef about the purge trial of Nikolai Bukharin) was one battlefield in France, just as Animal Farm was in England. The central character, Rubashov, finally confessed to whatever his interrogators required, but he also came, by a painful process of self-examination, to feel that, as he put is, not only did the end not justify the means, but, as he put it, on the contrary, ‘only purity of means can justify the ends’. This book was such an important focus in the debate that I want to quote the crucial passage, which occurs very near the end of the book:

;It was quiet in the cell. Rubashov heard only the creaking of his steps on the tiles. Six and a half steps to the door, whence they must come to fetch him, six and a half steps to the window, behind which night was falling. Soon it would be over. But when he asked himself, "For what actually are you dying?", he found no answer.

‘It was a mistake in the system; perhaps it lay in the precept which until now he had held to be uncontestable, in whose name he had sacrificed others and was himself being sacrificed: in the precept, that the end justifies the means. It was this sentence which had killed the great fraternity of the Revolution and made them all run amuk. What had he once written in his diary? ‘We have thrown overboard all conventions, our sole guiding principle is that of consequent logica: we are sailing without ethical ballast.’

‘Perhaps the heart of the evil lay there. Perhaps it did not suit mankind to sail without ballast. And perhaps reason alone was a defective compass, which led one on such a winding, twisted course that the goal finally disappeared in the mist.

‘Perhaps now would come a time of great darkness.

‘Perhaps later, much later, the new movement would arise — with new flag, a new spirit knowing of both: of economic fatality and the ‘oceanic sense’. Perhaps the members of the new party will wear monks’ cowls, and preach that only purity of means can justify the ends. Perhaps they will teach that the tenet is wrong which says that a man is the product of one million divided by one million, and will introduce a new kind of arithmetic based on multiplication: on the joining of a million of individuals to form a new entity which, no longer an amorphous mass, will develop a consciousness as an individuality of its own, with an ‘oceanic feeling’ increased a millionfold, in unlimited yet self-contained space.

‘Rubashov broke off his pacing and listened. The sound of a muffled drumming came down the corridor.’ Koestler, 1940, pp. 206-7)

(This, buy the way is the source of the motto of Process Press, while the name of the imprint is intended to evoke the political position that process determines result, another version of Rubashov’s slogan.) For Koestler, like Orwell and his Russian inspiration, Zamiatin (the author of We, a Taylorist dystopia set in post-revolutionary USSR), treating people like animals or automata, was bound to bring about disaster. People have to be treated with dignity, because they are fellow human beings to whom a sense of universal humanity was attributed, no matter how reduced their circumstances, no matter how noble the cause which might justify denigrating them. Another of the foci of the debate was the wake of Nazism and Vichy, which made it painfully apparent that individualism (even if wrapped up in the abstracted ethics of the Kantian categorical imperative) would not do in the face of organised evil.

Even though I have mentioned the events and political and philosophical debates around the Second World War, it is too easy to think of this controversy about human nature as abstruse. I have recently come upon the most current versions of it and have been told by a perceptive email correspondent how fellow graduate students at his American university bandy the latest contemptuous phrases which have been coined to look down upon the preoccupations of superannuated people who don’t know where cultural debate is ‘at’ at the moment. He was thinking ruefully that these poseurs haven’t the faintest idea why these issues matter. Culture is the domain where values are celebrated, tested, cultuivated (‘cultured’), husbanded. The context of this debate — or at least the early phase which I am considering here — was the gathering storm of the war and what became apparent in its aftermath: purge trials, Vichy, collaboration, genocide, the Russian Front. It is hard to keep this context vivid. The urgency of the purchase of morality could not have been greater or more immediate. Certain key books and films help me to keep a sense of perspective. Vichy brings to my mind ‘Lacombe Lucien’ and ‘Casablanca’. Genocide recalls ‘Julia’, ‘Sophie’s Choice,’ ‘The Power and the Glory’, ‘Shoah’, Schindler’s Ark’, The Diary of Anne Frank, The moral atmosphere of Naziam and its aftermarh evokes Leni Riefenstal’s ‘The Triumph of the Will’, Albert Speer’s Diaries, William Shirer’s history of Nazism. The Russian purges and war recall The 900 Days (siege of Leningrad), Cancer Ward, The First Circle, The Gulag Archipelago, ‘Reds’. The moral climate of post-war Europe brings up ‘The Third Man’, ‘The Prisoner’ (Alec Guiness) and the writings of John Le Carré .

These provide images to add flesh and bone and the face of agony and despair to the six million jews who perished and the the twenty-five million Russians who were lost in the war. Less is known about how many died in the Gulag, but I read an article on the historiography of this matter which considered estimates between eighteen and twenty-one and a half million, of whom a third are thought to have been executed. The lowest estimate I have seen is 799,455 Soviet citizens executed by the secret police between 1921 and 1953, of whom 681,692 were killed in 1937-38.

This period saw the greatest willed destruction of human life in recorded history. The values — ‘the centre’, as the poet has it — which did not hold during those years, was the domain which the culture dubbed ‘humanism’ and to which it imputed value because of a shared human nature. It is a grotesque understatement to say that these values did not ptotect and preserve human dignity and life. And this is what the (mainly French, with Heidegger as a fequent source) intellectuals did: Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Merleau-Ponty, Garaudy, followed by Levi Strauss, Althusser, Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Lacan, Deluze, Guattari, Lyotard, with foreign fellow-travellers Jameson, Jencks, Rorty Not to have brought these concepts which were basic to a sense of what the UN called a Universal Declaration of Human Rights would have been stupid, immoral and head-in-the-sand in the extreme.

Moving focus to a newer generation which did not centre its thought on debates about repression, genocide, orthodoxy and the justification of Stalinism, feminists, gays and lesbians have — as I‘ve mentioned — their own reasons for opposing essentialism, the shibboleth that anatomy is destiny or that patriarchy is so universal that it is nature’s way. Some of my correspondents on the internet deny all connection between debates about Marxism and communism and their anti-humanism and opposition to notions of human nature. They quote Foucault’s disclaimer: he was never a structuralist, never a Marxist.

Here are some of the terms in the debates in question. In my view they are all exemplars of the debate over Marx’s Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach, but I’ll mention them before turning to that text. Here are the terms which I have harvested: determination, inscription, construction (and, of course, its cynical heir, deconstruction), resolution of forces, socialisation. When we spell out some of the determinations which make the general terms more contingent, more inside history, they divide into things like class, nationality, race, caste, education, gender. Some of the dichotomies are humanism versus science, humanism versus orthodoxy, humanism versus structuralism, alienation versus surplus value, subjective versus objective, subjects versus structures, intentions versus structural causation, moral versus factual, and — again — socialist humanism versus structuralist Marxism, the claim that Marx was first a humanist and then, after an epistemological break, an analyst of structural causation. It is my view that the move from people and history to inscription and discourse — to rooting the debate in language and texts — has not yet been sufficiently lluminated or sufficiently subjected to critique.

I believe that the question of human nature per se versus an 'ensemble of social relations' is a foundational debate in these matters. What Norman Geras did in his rather rabbinical but admirable exegetical study, Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend (1983), was to analyse away the claim that Marx ever believed that saying that human nature is an ensemble of social relations meant that he rejected the idea of human nature. I believee that what he does is more than an exegesis: it is a convincing exemplar and settles the debate for me. I shall therefore rely heavily on his argument in what follows. Geras takes the view that Marx’s ‘well-known emphases on historical specificity and historical change did not detach him from every general conception of human nature’ (p. 19). He argues that there is much conceptual space between something fixed and unchanging, on the one hand, and utter changeability, on the other. There is a wide range, many degrees of mutability (p. 24).

Let us dwell on this key text. Marx wrote, ‘Feuerbach resolves the essence of religion into the essence of man. But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations’ (q. p. 29). Marx is, of course, attacking Feuerbach’s conception of religion as ahistorical and asocial, abstracted from any social formation. Religion is a social product, and the abstracted individual belongs to a particular form of society (pp. 29-30). The phrase usually translated as ‘the essence of man’ or ‘the human essence’ can equally correctly be rendered as ‘human nature’. Marx is objecting to Feuerbach’s viewing humanity exclusively in terms of general, species or natural characteristics. Marx says that Feuerbach ‘refers too much to nature and too little to politics’ (q. p. 31). Human nature is, says Marx, ‘no abstraction inherent in each single individual’ (q. p. 32). It is more than that, which is why he invokes social relations (p. 34). Human nature must include historicity and variability (p. 39). To stress social relations is not to deny general characteristics (p. 47). Marx is concerned to stress the relation of humanity to history and not to set up an antithesis between nature and history (p. 61).

Here is a collection of quotations from participants in the debate who opposed the concept of human nature: Q pp. 50-52, 53, 54.

Geras sums up his opposition to the anti-human nature position as follows: ‘...if the nature of man depends on the ensemble of social relations, it does not depend wholly on them, it is conditioned but not determined by them, because they themselves depend on, that is, are partly explained by human nature, which is a component of the nature of man’ (p. 68). Indeed, Marx frequently lists a set of universal human needs: food, clothing, shelter, fuel, rest, sleep, hygiene, maintenance of the body, fresh air and sunlight, intellectual requirements, social intercourse, sexual needs, support in infancy, old age, infirmity, a safe and healthy working environment. These determine the universal metabolism between humanity and nature (p. 83). As the Communist Manifesto puts it, in order to see that these needs get met, we need ‘an association in which the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all’ (which, by the way was the motto of Free Association Books until it went commercial).

We are touching here on the assumptions of historical materialism, Marx’s ’whole distinctive approach to society’. It is clear from the above, says Geras, that it ‘rests squarely upon the idea of a human nature. It highlights that specific nexus of universal needs and capacities which explains the human production process and man’s organised transformation of the material environment; which process and transformation it treats in turn as the basis of both the social order and of historical change. So, it is not even true, in other words, although frequently supposed, that being for its part general and unchanging, human nature cannot itself enter into the explanation of change. On the contrary, if human beings have a history which gives rise to the most fabulous variety of social shapes and forms, it is because of the kind of beings they, all of them, are; human nature... plays a part in explaining the historical specificities of the nature of man’ (pp. 107-8).

The components which are natural and those which are social make up the mixture of causal factors which the nature-nurture debate finds endlessly problematic. Social constructivists like Donna Haraway and me would make it more so by pointing to the social construction and ideological constitution of the parameters and terms of reference of the concepts of both nature and nurture. The sensible point is that human nature is never pure and ahistorical. As Geras insists, it is always socially mediated (p. 112). Nor are natural characteristics found in a pure state. They are also socially mediated: ‘they do not form a separate reality, ontologically distinct from qualities that are culturally induced’ (p. 114). Human nature ‘is an abstraction but a valid one, denoting some common, natural characteristics of humankind. These may not be a separate reality, ontologically distinct and what have you. but they are a reality’ (p. 115).

I am not yet a close enough student of some of the key texts in these debates to say whether or not I would want to mount the same arguments about humanism as I have about human nature, but I am inclined to think that I would. In my part of the academic world — history, philosophy and social studies of science — humanism is broadly seen as the alternative to scientism. The humanists are the progressive and enlightened ones, embattled by the positivists and Popperians. Humanism is also the term applied to a progressive movement in the Renaissance, returning to the Greeks and leading to the origins of modern thought, and I have no hesitation in choosing between those alternatives between humanism and its opponents, if I am forced to such a simplistic choice. In fact, it is of the essence of recent developments in this interrelated set of disciplines that science is inside culture, not an alternative to it. Here is a typical quotation from an essay by Yankelovitch on the concept of human nature: 'Nature does not exist apart from culture. Each is constitutive of the other. It is misleading even to conceive of human nature as something that can exist outside culture' (Yankelovich, 1973, p. 424). Indeed, there is good contact between these debates, with Rorty arguing that science is nothing more than one of the bibliographical niches in the library. That it not to say that there is no nature per se — only that we can only know it through cultural forms, of which science is one, not the foundational one, and certainly not the last court of appeal if science means reduction to physico-chemical explanations and an impoverished view of our humanity.

Having, I trust, smitten the ignorant opponents of the idea of human nature before your eyes, I now feel in a position to specify some candidates which psychoanalysis has to nominate for elements of a defensible idea of human nature. Each such element is open to challenge and some are more controversial than others. Any objection to the concept of the unconscious, to unconscious motivation, to the superego, to infantile sexuality, to the Oedipus complex, to adolescence? What about transference and countertransference? If we move on to concepts which hail from different sects, I would, as I have already said, nominate object relations theory as the heart of a psychoanalytic idea of the centre of the inner world and the locus of the sense of self. We should note in passing that in the Kleinian theory of object relations, certain imagoes are said to be innate. I would also propose Winnicott’s transitional objects and transitional phenomena and Klein’s concepts of unconscious phantasy and the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions. Nominations remain open. Also, ask yourself what these concepts are if not candidates for elements of a psychoanalytic model of human nature.

I turn now to some more detailed examples. If we accept this, we can begin to think of our psychoanalytic work inside the larger political and cultural project which postmodernism has either eschewed or attempted to abrogate. Here are passages which are dear to my heart (which some of you will know) about translating between Kleinian and Freudian concepts about the Oedipus complex and what Kleinians call ’the Oedipal situation’. 'The primitive Oedipal conflict described by Klein takes place in the paranoid-schizoid position when the infant's world is widely split and relations are mainly to part objects. This means that any object which threatens the exclusive possession of the idealised breast/mother is felt as a persecutor and has projected into it all the hostile feelings deriving from pregenital impulses' (Bell, 1992, p. 172)

If development proceeds satisfactorily, secure relations with good internal objects leads to integration, healing of splits and taking back projections. 'The mother is then, so to speak, free to be involved with a third object in a loving intercourse which, instead of being a threat, becomes the foundation of a secure relation to internal and external reality. The capacity to represent internally the loving intercourse between the parents as whole objects results, through the ensuing identifications, in the capacity for full genital maturity. For Klein, the resolution of the Oedipus complex and the achievement of the depressive position refer to the same phenomena viewed from different perspectives' (ibid.). Ron Britton puts it very elegantly: 'the two situations are inextricably intertwined in such a way that one cannot be resolved without the other: we resolve the Oedipus complex by working through the depressive position and the depressive position by working through the Oedipus complex' (Britton, 1992, p. 35).

In the recent work of Kleinians this way of thinking has been applied to broader issues, in particular, the ability to symbolise and learn from experience. Integration of the depressive position — which we can now see as resolution of the Oedipus complex — is the sine qua non of the development of 'a capacity for symbol formation and rational thought' (p. 37). Greater knowledge of the object 'includes awareness of its continuity of existence in time and space and also therefore of the other relationships of the object implied by that realization. The Oedipus situation exemplifies that knowledge. Hence the depressive position cannot be worked through without working through the Oedipus complex and vice versa' (p. 39). Britton also sees 'the depressive position and the Oedipus situation as never finished but as having top be re-worked in each new life situation, at each stage of development, and with each major addition to experience or knowledge' (p. 38).

This way of looking at the Oedipal situation also offers a way of thinking of self-knowledge or insight: 'The primal family triangle provides the child with two links connecting him separately with each parent and confronts him with the link between them which excludes him. Initially this parental link is conceived in primitive part-object terms and in the modes of his own oral, anal and genital desires, and in terms of his hatred expressed in oral, anal and genital terms. If the link between the parents perceived in love and hate can be tolerated in the child's mind, it provides him with a prototype for an object relationship of a third kind in which he is a witness and not a participant. A third position then comes into existence from which object relationships can be observed. Given this, we can also envisage being observed. This provides us with a capacity for seeing ourselves in interaction with others and for entertaining another point of view whilst retaining our own, for reflecting on ourselves whilst being ourselves' (Britton, 1989, p. 87). To recapitulate, I trust that it is clear that we have here a candidate for a component of human nature called ‘insight’ and ‘self-knowledge’.

I want now to quote in full the locus classicus for a concept which I believe to be central to our understanding of human aggression and destructiveness. The concept is Klein’s most influential one, projective identification. It is defined in her paper, ‘Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms’ (1946). Klein concludes seven pages on the fine texture of early paranoid and schizoid mechanisms as follows: 'So far, in dealing with persecutory fear, I have singled out the oral element. However, while the oral libido still has the lead, libidinal and aggressive impulses and phantasies from other sources come to the fore and lead to a confluence or oral, urethral and anal desires, both libidinal and aggressive. Also the attacks on the mother's breast develop into attacks of a similar nature on her body, which comes to be felt as it were as an extension of the breast, even before the mother is conceived of as a complete person. The phantasied onslaughts on the mother follow two main lines: one is the predominantly oral impulse to suck dry, bite up, scoop out and rob the mother's body of its good contents... The other line of attack derives from the anal and urethral impulses and implies expelling dangerous substances (excrements) out of the self and into the mother. Together with these harmful excrements, expelled in hatred, split-off parts of the ego are also projected onto the mother or, as I would rather call it, into the mother. [Klein adds a footnote at this crucial point, to the effect that she is describing primitive, pre-verbal processes and that projecting 'into another person' seems to her 'the only way of conveying the unconscious process I am trying to describe'. Much misunderstanding and lampooning of Kleinianism could have been avoided if this point was more widely understood.] These excrements and bad parts of the self are meant not only to injure but also to control and to take possession of the object. In so far as the mother comes to contain the bad parts of the self, she is not felt to be a separate individual but is felt to be the bad self.

'Much of the hatred against parts of the self is now directed towards the mother. This leads to a particular form of identification which establishes the prototype of an aggressive object-relation' (Klein, 1946, pp. 7-8). Note carefully that we have here the model — the template, the fundamental experience — of all of the aggressive features of human relations. Six years later Klein adds the following sentence: 'I suggest for these processes the term "projective identification"' (ibid.).

Whether or not you find this helpful or would willingly place projective identification on your list of accepted concepts, it is certainly a candidate for inclusion as a basic aspect of the destructive side of our species and can help to illuminate much of what we regret about the history of human inhumanity, what Freud meant when he said, in Civilization and Its Discontents, ‘Man is a wolf to other men.’ I’ll now try to bring it into contact with the Marxist debate which I was discussing earlier.

One way of capturing the good side of concepts of human nature while avoiding the reactionary aspects is to have a look at the concept of second nature. Second nature is not first nature or biology. It is deeply sedimented experience, so deeply embedded that we experience it as natural, intuitive, common sense. I have argued in Mental Space that to become a member of a society, tribe, sect, gang or other grouping, one has to take on its projective identifications. That is what it is to be a member. A way of thinking about this in Marxist terms is to consider the concept of second nature.

Second nature is what we are up against in ourselves, our families and groups, our institutions and in the dead labour of the conversion of relations between people into relations between things, which occurs in the real subordination of manufacturing and in routine at work. It is the enemy of spontaneity and of Eros. It is thanatic, i.e., derived from the death instinct or Thanatos. Thinking about treating relations between people as though they were relations between things lies at the heart of Marx's critique of the fetishism of commodities (Marx, 1976, pp. 163-77). It is part of a family of concepts about alienation in capitalist society, which includes the split between facts and values, the treatment of social relations as though they could be reduced to laws and the extension of the categories of science into other domains, which is characteristic of scientism, economism, so-called vulgar Marxism, and also characterised the Marxism of the latter part of the nineteenth century, during the Second International (Young, 1977). Those who have invoked the concept of second nature within the Marxist tradition see all of the above as forms of it. This analysis can be extended into more recent theoretical excursions of science into social relations which, as I’ve already said, characterise sociobiology and functionalism in the social sciences and systems theory in psychotherapy and psychiatry (Young, 1981; Kitcher, 1985).

The person who did most to develop the critique of second nature within the Marxist tradition was the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács. The locus classicus for his work in this area is his essay on 'Reification and the Consciousness and the Proletariat' (Lukács, 1923, pp. 83-222). In it he characterised the ways in which human praxis, that is, willed behaviour based on thought-out goals, is converted into process. Reification means, literally, 'thingification' — the conversion of social relations into thing-like regularities, devoid of conscious, meaningful deliberation. He did not, however, originate the concept. Some would say Democritus did when he opposed Aristotle's belief that the qualification to rule was determined at birth, by nature. Democritus argued that it was informed by education, which constituted a 'second nature' (Jacoby, 1981, p 118). In the eighteenth century Rousseau saw second nature as something to create in order to repair what nature lacked — to provide organic unity. It was also a concept in Hegel's philosophy and was developed in Lukács' Theory of the Novel, where he describes second nature in vivid terms as 'a charnel-house of long-dead interiorities' (Lukács, 1971, p. 64). The self-made environment was described as a prison rather than a parental home (Ibid.).

In his fine book on the concept of totality, Martin Jay describes Lukács view as follows, 'Extrapolating from Marx's discussion of the "fetishism of commodities" in Capital and applying insights from Bergson, Simmel and Weber, he introduced the notion of reification to characterise the fundamental experience of bourgeois life. This term, one not in fact found in Marx himself, meant the petrification of living processes into dead things, which appeared as an alien "second nature". Weber's "iron cage" of bureaucratic rationalisation, Simmel's "tragedy of culture" and Bergson's spatialisation of dure were thus all part of a more general process' (Jay, 1984, p. 109). Lukács' view of the result of revolutionary change was that 'The mysterious impenetrability of the thing-in-itself will be revealed as no more than the illusion of a reified consciousness incapable of recognising itself in its products', once the external world is 'no longer perceived as ruled by alien forces experienced as if they were "second nature" (Jay, 1984, p. 111). Society as second nature was thus an illusion to be shattered (Jay, 1984, p. 269). However, to do this in theory is far from achieving de-reification in practice. 'Focusing solely on the "second nature"' that was reified history, he neglected to probe the role of 'first nature' in human life, a mistake for which Western Marxists of very different persuasions were to take him to task' (Jay, 1984, p.116). This was particularly true of the critiques of his work by Antonio Gramsci and Karl Korsch.

Other Marxists who were, I suppose I should say, more pessimistic, have taken up the concept to good effect. Theodor Adorno wrote about the natural laws of history as ideology so far as they are hypostatized as unchangeable givens of nature (Adorno, 1973). Even so, they are real as the laws of movement of an unconscious society (quoted in Jacoby, 1981, p. 119). Second nature should be seen not as biology but as history that is congealed into nature. It became congealed because it is imprisoned in the dungeons of repetition both in social forms and in individual neurosis. It is frozen history in the social forms and frozen distress in the individual. (ibid.). (A group of psychoanalysts working to develop the mental health services in Nicaragua have drawn attention to a related phenomenon — the frozen grief of people suffering so much from social turmoil that they cannot mourn.) All forms of social and individual alienation can be thus characterised, including culture itself and especially capitalist institutions (Jay, 1984, pp. 43 & 78).

Jean-Paul Sartre also took up the concept and wrote about 'the inertia of infrastructures, the resistance of economic and even natural conditions, the binding of personal relations in things'. All of this is what Sartre called the 'practico-inert', the sedimentation of human actions into social structures that lost their human quality and resisted the freedom of individuals and groups (Poster, 1975, p.177-8). What in reality is the socially mediated sedimentation of second nature is therefore presented as nature as such, and in psychology is seen as primal, instinctual nature (Schneider, 1975, pp. 52, 59-60). So, reification becomes the capitalist form of second nature — 'the form of unconsciousness of an unliberated humanity' (Jacoby, 1981, p. 120). If we apply these concepts to psychoanalytic theory, the ego becomes reified and automated within these social forms. This can, of course, be as true of a nominally adjusted person as it can of a neurotic one. This issue was a central concern in Joel Kovel's book The Age of Desire (Kovel, 1982).

I won't be surprised if all this seems very new and esoteric to some and very old hat to others. What I am offering is a perspective which attempts to bring social critique and psychoanalytic theory into one shared mode of discourse about human nature. For example, psychosomatic disease can be seen as self-reification, the lodging of unresolved unconscious conflicts into organic structures and processes.

Now socialism and Marxism set out to cast all this aside, and Freud thought this a forlorn hope. De-reification is an attempt to recapture the human origins of the social world that have been mystified under capitalism as a kind of second nature. (Jay, 1984, p. 228) The revolutionary process — and especially the elimination of private property — is designed to overcome this alienation. Freud is often thought of as someone who did not hold overtly political views, although he is always considered a liberal. In fact, near the end of his life, he wrote a set of New Introductory Lectures (Freud, 1933) which were designed to help the publishing house with which he was associated to get out of a situation (which I know too well) of not quite being able to break even. In the last lecture he addressed himself to the whole question of psychoanalysis in relation to world views. He says that the political aim of the abolition of private property sprang from a misguided illusion about human nature. He did not himself take a view on the economic consequences of the Soviet attempt to build communism but said, 'I can recognise it's psychological presuppositions as an untenable illusion' (quoted in Gay, 1988, p. 549). He argued that aggression was not created by property but, rather, was a source of pleasure (ibid.). Freud's theory of civilisation 'views life in society as an imposed compromise and hence as an essentially insoluble predicament' (Gay, 1988, p. 547). He says that we can neither live without civilisation nor live happily within it, but at best we can achieve a truce between desire and control' (p. 548). Freud wrote, 'I recognise ever more clearly that the events of human history, the interactions between human nature, cultural development, and the precipitants of primeval experiences (as whose representative religion pushes to the fore) are only the reflection of the dynamic conflicts among the id, ego, and superego, which psychoanalysis studies in the individual the same events repeated on a wider stage. (quoted in Gay, 1988, p. 547)' Peter Gay comments: 'He could not have stated the essential unity of his thought any more forcefully' (ibid.).

In conclusion, I suggest that Freud’s simplistic and reductionist concepts have their equivalents in the gee whiz of Lukács idea of ceasing to see through a glass darkly under socialism. Both are in need of sophistication. I think what Klein and Bion said about the psychotic anxieties and the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions which underlie Freud’s bottom line help to illuminate why individuals, groups and institutions operate as they do, especially the regrettable aspects. I think the concept of second nature can serve as a bridge between the psychological and the political and ideological levels of discourse. I also think that if we jettison the concept of human nature — a concept which for me is inside history and inside culture and concerns the historicity of the unconscious — unless, as I say, we hold on to some notion of human nature, we are up Shit Creek without a paddle.

This is the text - still a draft — of a talk given to the staff seminar at the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Sheffield, March 1995.

(7529 words)

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Rd., London N7 9RQ.


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