Computers Vs. Humanity: Do We Compete?

By Liah Greenfeld and Mark Simes

From our point of view, the “us all” object of the question—”Will computers outcompete us all?”—refers to human beings, and presumes that the individual and collective human capacities—particularly, the capacities of the mind, or intelligence—are essentially comparable to the capacities of computers. Only on the condition of the essential comparability of human intelligence and the cognitive capacities of computers does the question of this symposium make sense. The answer, therefore, entirely depends on whether these capacities are indeed so comparable, consequently bringing into question the nature of human intelligence and thus of humanity.

Admittedly, the biological, or neuroscientific, response to this question is unclear. The prevailing approach in the field of human neuroscience emphasizes the size and complexity of the human brain vis-à-vis other nervous systems in an attempt to explain the unique qualities of human intelligence. The logic that supports this approach is based on the assumption that an increase in neuronal density and network complexity necessarily results in the appearance of qualitatively new cognitive capacities. The perceived task of neuroscience, therefore, is to unpack the complexity of the human brain to find the “missing-link”—or links, for the sake of complexity —that result in something akin to the cogito of Descartes.

The concept of technological singularity is based on a similar logic and imagines a process that travels from the original point of human intelligence in the opposite direction of biological reductionism, though its principles are fundamentally the same. Futurists predict, whatever the technological medium may be, engineering a sufficient increase in computational complexity will result in machine intelligence that replicates and perhaps surpasses the cognitive capacities of the human brain. The futurist-technological position, therefore, seeks to re-pack the processing complexity of the human brain to arrive at virtual human minds.

Gerard Edelman cites the incredible complexity of the human brain in his book, Bright Air. Brilliant Fire. In the cortex alone, he writes, there are about 10 billion (1010) neurons. The actual connections between these neurons may number one million billion (1015). As for possible connections in this matrix, Edelman writes this number is “hyper-astronomical”; he must mean this in a very literal sense because he then goes on to indicate it exceeds the number of positively charged particles in the known universe. Edelman’s preliminary conclusion from these incredible facts is that the size and complexity of the human brain make it “so special that we could reasonably expect it to give rise to mental properties” [1].

What is overlooked in such paeans to quantity and complexity, however, is the astounding regularity with which these connections/networks/brains seem to form in the billions of individual humans who span distances and generations. The essential question may not be how does this complexity give rise to human intelligence or consciousness, but instead how does this complexity become systematically ordered so that any process that an individual brain supports (that is, any individual mental process) becomes an organized, patterned process—which is to say nothing of its self-intelligibility or its intra-species communicability.

The theory of evolution provides us with an explanation of how complex nervous systems evolved in multicellular organisms, allowing animal bodies to interact with a dynamic and unpredictable external environment. This dynamism and indeterminism of stimuli in the environment are correlated with the nervous system’s unique physiological characteristics: The capacity for neurons and networks to organize learning and memory. Interactions with external stimuli effect changes in the nervous system, which organize and solidify networks of neurons to respond and combine in ways that reflect the influence and challenges of the species’ environment. In every case therefore, it is a combination of the genetic information of a species and its interactions with the environment that organize the networks of its nervous system.

In the biological world, stimuli occur as signs to an organism directly conveying information derived from a physical-chemical aspect of its referent in the environment. Empirical investigation (that is, investigation of actually existing characteristics) of human cognitive processes, however, shows humanity is essentially unlike any other animal species in this one crucial respect, from which numerous characteristic features derive. Unlike the rigid, determined relationship that animal nervous systems and societies have with signs in their environment, the defining feature of human mental stimuli is laden with meaning that cannot be traced to the physical-chemical constituents of the medium in which it is delivered. Instead, the primary stimuli in human mental life are symbolic. While all other animal species process signs in their environment and transmit their ways of life (including their social organization) genetically, humans are constantly interacting with, and transmit their ways of life by means of, symbols.

Symbols are intentionally articulated signs and, in sharp contrast to signs, they represent phenomena of which they are not a part. In this sense they are arbitrary, dependent on choice. The meaning (the significance) of a symbol is given to it by the context in which it is used and this context is constituted by associative relationships to other symbols. Language is the clearest example of this feature; words are not definite and linguistic communication is both a creative act on the part of the producer and an interpretative act on the part of the receiver. As a result of the dynamic, ever-changing meaning of symbols and their contextual dependence upon an equally dynamic matrix of other symbols, the significance of any instance or set of symbols is both constantly changing and endlessly proliferating. It is this dynamic change and self-proliferation of symbols that creates the innumerable variability among human minds and human societies. We call this symbolic process of transmission of human ways of life culture and assert that it is the symbolic nature of culture that constitutes the causal force in human history [2].

In the words of a great historian and philosopher of history Marc Bloch, historical science, which focuses on human history whose subject matter and data all social sciences and humanities share, is the science of the mind. It is focused on the qualities and permutations of human consciousness. Indeed it is one such permutation—claimed to be singular and unprecedented in its dimensions and importance—that the concept of technological singularity predicts. The verdict regarding technological singularity depends on whether history allows for such a singular and absolutely unprecedented change, or whether all great historical transformations, of which there have been many, are fundamentally the same. This leads us to consider the nature of human consciousness itself—the mind.

For those who, while perhaps experts in other areas, consider humanity only from the perspective of laymen, the mind is just another name for the brain. Thus Dan Dennett without much ado equates the human person with “the program that runs on your brain’s computer.” This lay perspective, which reduces humanity to a biological species, qualitatively, that is essentially, equating it with all other biological species, from which it may then be distinguished only quantitatively, is a necessary background for the concept of technological singularity. Only in its framework the question “Will computers outcompete us all?” makes any sense, and only in its framework it can be raised and answered.

In contrast, we argue culture makes humanity, and therefore human intelligence, a reality sui generis—a reality of its own kind. It is this process of transmission, which is unique in the animal kingdom, that explains only humans have history and in distinction to even the most remarkably sophisticated, minutely stratified, and rigidly structured, animal societies—such as those of bees, of wolves and lions, or of our closest primate cousins—human societies are almost infinitely variable across distances and generations. Culture constitutes a world of its own: an autonomous, self-creative world that functions according to historical laws of causation that do not apply anywhere in non-symbolic reality.

Of course, the symbolic, historical world of culture is supported by the mechanisms of the human brain, without which it is certain; it could not have emerged in the first place. The use of every symbol, the perception of its significance, its maintenance and transformation, is supported by the mechanisms of the individual brain and reflected in some, not necessarily specific, physical-chemical neuronal activity. Therefore, the symbolic and historical cultural process is also a mental process. But it is not from originating repetitively in newborn individual brains that culture endures, it is instead a ready-made, cultural environment, rich with symbolic stimuli, into which all new human brains are born. Culture is the symbolic process by which humans transmit their ways of life on the collective level, but on the individual level—the level of the individual human being with his or her brain in which this process is active—this process is called the mind. This symbolic process on both the collective and individual level is at every moment the same process, separated only by the focus of analysis (i.e. whether it is psychological or sociological). Thus, we can accurately call the mind “culture in the brain.”

In certain respects the brain can be compared to a computer. However complex the former is in comparison to the latter, the difference between them is quantitative, pertaining to how much information from the outside each can process and how fast and accurately. But the mind is an altogether different matter: It is not a more powerful brain than any other we know, because it is not a brain at all, and for this reason it cannot be compared to even the most powerful computer imaginable. The mind, as suggested by its definition as “culture in the brain,” instead, is a symbolic process representing an individualization of the collective symbolic environment. While the mind is by no means equivalent to the brain, it is certainly supported by the brain at every moment in the process and it may be, in fact, the symbolic processes of the mind/culture that organize the connective complexity of the individual brain.

Thus, in distinction to both the current neuroscientific paradigm and the approach of futurists who equate complex structure with emerging, intelligent capacities—remember, the foundation of these two schools are fundamentally identical—we hypothesize the symbolic, cultural environment is causally responsible for reining in the hyper-astronomical complexity of connective possibilities in the human brain. Furthermore, we argue mapping and explaining the organization and biological processes in the human brain will only be complete when such symbolic, and therefore non-material, environment is taken into account.

This approach, although most directly relevant to human neuroscience, has important implications for any project in artificial intelligence. First, it places primary emphasis on the significance of symbolic processes rather than on configuration/capacities of hardware, assuming no transformation of quantity into quality (which is assumed by the concept of technological singularity). Second, it implies the symbolic nature of human mental processes must be the central focus of any effort to replicate human intelligence artificially. In distinction to previous analogies in the philosophy of mind, it also does not liken the mind/brain relationship to systems of software/hardware. This is because the mind, the symbolic cultural process, is a self-generating and endlessly creative process—a feature that no dynamic code structure begins to approximate.

In neuroscience it is illogical to dig into the minutiae of the structure and function of the brain, with the expectation of explaining how our biological nature may have, at one original point, given rise to symbols. This activity is retro-speculative in an unscientific sense—even Darwin fervently highlighted the inability of science to explain origins.1 What we do have empirical access to is evidence of the human symbolic process all around us; the mind, though symbolic and therefore non-material, constantly creates material by-products and leaves material side effects (such as buildings, roads, domesticated animals, pollution, and computers) outside of us. As scientists we do have the possibility of taking this unique type of data into account while analyzing the incredible organ that is constantly involved in interpreting and generating the symbolic stimuli and perhaps apply our understanding to virtual models that more accurately represent the unique nature of human intelligence.

In the present paradigm, however, computers no more compete with minds than speed-trains or fast-running cheetahs compete with Shakespeare (a comparison which, however lame, is possible). A core quality of the symbolic and historical process of human life, which distinguishes humanity from all other forms of life, making it a reality sui generis on both the collective level (as culture) and on the level of the individual (as the mind), is its endless, unpredictable creativity. It does not process information: It creates. It creates information, misinformation, forms of knowledge that cannot be called information at all, and myriads of other phenomena that do not belong to the category of knowledge. Minds do not do computer-like things, ergo computers cannot outcompete us all.


1] Edelman, G. Bright Air. Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind. Basic Books, 1992.

2] Greenfeld, L. Mind. Modernity. Madness, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2013.

[Originally published on ACM Ubiquity]

The Making of a Lone Wolf Terrorist

By Liah Greenfeld

A beheading in a workplace, a hatchet attack on a busy street, a shooting in a public high school – events following so closely one upon another and amid others, in a way very much like them, just across the border, in Canada – seemingly irrational, shocking, and yet already quite expected, they make one’s head spin. What’s going on around us – in the best, most prosperous, most open, liberal, societies on earth, most dedicated to the values of freedom and equality, most vigilant about safeguarding human rights? It cannot escape one’s attention that these hair-raising events, which happen with oppressive regularity, happen precisely in such societies – our own United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain.

Is it a coincidence that the frequency of random shootings, without a clear ideological motivation (such as yesterday’s tragedy near Seattle, the Newton massacre, or the one in a Colorado movie theater) increases together with that of targeted ideologically motivated attacks? No, it is not. These tendencies are related. To begin with, both kinds of violence are irrational in the sense of not being able to benefit the individual committing it in any objective way and often implying a great cost to this individual. At the same time, random violence without a clear ideological motivation is a phenomenon different from ideologically motivated violence.

These phenomena are related but different. They are related through a common social cause which leads to different psychological effects. These effects then, under certain conditions, may result in these two different kinds of violent behavior. Such enabling conditions, in the case of ideologically motivated violence, obviously include the specific motivating ideology. But it is important to understand that the elimination of the specific ideology, won’t eliminate the primary cause of such violence (the social cause), or its secondary cause (the psychological effects of the social cause), and that any other ideology can take the place of the one that is eliminated.

The primary – social – cause responsible for the frequency of irrational violence in the United States and other open, prosperous and liberal, societies is the systemic inability of such societies to offer individuals within them consistent guidance in the construction of their own individual identities. (In social science such systemic inability is called anomie). The very values of our societies – equality and liberty in the sense of freedom of choice for how to define oneself and live one’s life – forces our societies to leave the construction of their own identities to the individuals themselves. In less open societies (for example, in religious societies, in societies with strong secular norms, or rigid systems of stratification) one learns who one is from the environment, depending on the social position to which one is born. In our societies, given the fundamental equality, and interchangeability, of all their members, one is left free to choose who to be. A personal identity is our cognitive map, everyone must have it to know what one’s rights and duties, expectations, relationships with other, and behavior in general are and should be. An identity, this cognitive map, tells us how to live our lives. In our open societies, we have no help from the outside in construction such a map. For many of us this is a great boon: we love the freedom and the control of our destinies this gives us. But for many others this is a heavy psychological burden, a task they cannot accomplish.

Our sense of self and, therefore, our mental comfort (sense of ease or dis-ease) depend on having a clear and stable identity. People with malformed identities go through life confused and insecure, they are uncomfortable with themselves and maladjusted socially, because they never know who they are and where they belong. They lack an inner compass. A minority of them develops a functional mental disease as a result, which can be diagnosed as schizophrenia, manic depression, or major unipolar depression. Such disease is called “functional,” because, while the organic bases of it are uncertain and in many cases no organic irregularity may exist at all, the people who suffer from it lose the ability to function in society. They may be unable to distinguish between what happens in their mind and outside, taking one for the other, their maladjustment becomes an acute distress, and they cannot control themselves. This impairment of will – the immediate cause of their inability to function – most commonly expresses itself in a complete lack of motivation, but can also be expressed in uncontrollable actions which the individual feels are either willed by some force beyond him/herself, which must be obeyed, or are actually committed by someone else populating his/her body. The phrases “I was not myself,” “I was out of my mind” in retrospective accounts of such actions reflect these feelings. Given this impairment of will in clinically mentally ill individuals, it is extremely unlikely for such individuals to be acting under the influence of any shared ideology, though they may develop an elaborate delusion (an ideology entirely their own), which would include some common cultural elements.

In common parlance such truly sick individuals are called “crazy,” “insane.” These terms may convey certain insensitivity, but the understanding behind them, in case of violent crime that comes to trial, justifies insanity defense, because such people cannot be held responsible for their actions. This is not so in regard to ideologically motivated acts of irrational violence. The very fact that the individuals committing such acts shape their behavior (i.e., control their actions) in accordance with an ideology testifies to their fundamental sanity.

The great majority of people who are unable to develop a clear, stable identity in the conditions of anomic, open society, and, as a result, lacking an inner compass, are not mentally ill in this clinical sense. They are confused, insecure, and maladjusted, to be sure, but they can very well distinguish between what is happening in their mind and outside, and, though they can often be unmotivated and moody, their will is not impaired to the point of making them unable to function in society. Their discomfort, the general mental malaise from which they suffer takes many forms: some turn to drugs and alcohol, some become extremely conformist to whatever social circles they frequent (that is, give up their individuality and unreflectively imitate what the others around them are doing and saying), some become envious, and some become very angry. Such disturbed but not insane individuals, in general, become attracted to all kinds of ideologies which justify their feeling uncomfortable in their society, and thus politically available. Those whose psychological discomfort takes mainly the form of envy and anger are likely to be particularly attracted to ideologies which specifically encourage the expression of these feelings, legitimating violence against those the maladjusted individual resents. At this point in the causal chain leading to violence, ideology becomes the enabling condition, and the specific character of the ideology chosen can explain the nature of violence and its targets.

[Originally published on]

Review of Mind, Modernity, Madness in Contemporary Sociology

By Richard Lloyd, Vanderbilt University

Early in Mind, Modernity, Madness, Liah Greenfeld describes struggling to convey to undergraduate students at Boston University a sense of the near-constant physical pain endured by the medieval peasantry. In those dark ages, rotting teeth became abscessed, wounds festered, and amputations were routine, absent the salve of modern pain- killers. The students cannot comprehend this; from their privileged perch, it is unfathomably remote. Seizing on a different tack, Greenfeld asks if they or someone close to them had ever been treated for major depression. ‘‘Their bright faces darkened, eyes turned thoughtful and sad, and each one of them raised a hand. After that they found it easy to imagine having a toothache for days’’ (p. 10).

Greenfeld’s biography is unusually cosmopolitan. Her first eighteen years were spent in the USSR, the next ten in Israel, and her impressive academic resume´ includes numerous visiting stints abroad, but nowhere else has she witnessed such widespread psychological malaise, an impression borne out by an exhaustive catalogue of available statistical research. Her students are young and physically healthy, hailing from financially comfortable families, and now in the early stages of lives filled with promise. Freed of once ubiquitous physical pain, what so tortures their minds? Greenfeld easily pokes holes in the geneticist explanations that today dominate this conversation, despite their glaring inadequacies. Taking the contemporary big three of the DSM—schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression—to stand for modern madness, she argues that they appeared only recently, first documented by other names in sixteenth century England. The young United States, that most modern of nations, today has by far the highest rates—‘‘madder than them all’’ she argues in the penultimate chapter. Not only are cross-national rates highly variable, but affliction is also unevenly distributed within stratified national societies. Moreover, despite the insistence by psychiatric professionals that evidence of a genetic foundation for these severe mental illnesses is just around the corner, to date no such evidence has been persuasively presented. Greenfeld counters that culture, not genetics or chemical imbalance, is the source of modern madness.

Her case is made through an exhaustive and erudite historical examination of madness, and through her logical exegesis on the nature of the mind, mining venerable philosophical and sociological traditions from Descartes to Durkheim. The brain— which can be dissected, scanned, imaged, and chemically influenced—is appealing to scientists, who fuse the categories of material and empirical reality and dismiss culture as ineffable. But the brain, Greenfeld argues, is not the mind. It is a necessary condition for the mind, and the primary site where culture registers its effects on the individual body. Still, other animals also have brains, some quite well-developed. It is the mind that makes us human, and this is only an incipient capacity of our organism, wholly unrealized at birth and imprinted through socialization. Indeed, Greenfeld suggests that the larynx is the unique biological foundation of the mind, allowing at some primordial point for the elaboration of language as the primary conduit of abstract, symbolic communication. This capacity then creates the context for elaborate cooperative action. This, one must concede, is what accounts for the remarkable capacity of humans to adapt to environments all over the earth, given our comparatively unimpressive strength, speed, and bodily resilience.

Language and other human symbols, moreover, are not just the way that we talk to one another; they are, for the socialized brain (that is, the mind) the means through which we apprehend the world. Greenfeld notes wryly that in neglecting the mind, science brackets the condition of its own existence. Moreover, the symbol-systems that complete the mind ‘‘have not been created by the particular mind that happens to experience them at a given moment’’ (p. 64). The mind is thus the product of the uneven encounter between individual brains and the vast storehouse of human symbolic knowledge, also known as culture. This is an empirical fact, one which Greenfeld argues any human may readily ascertain via rudimentary self-examination. Echoing Durkheim, she identifies the collective mind as the condition of possibility for the creation of the individual mind. She further takes from Durkheim her central explanatory principle in tackling the modern problem of madness: anomie, or the breakdown of social regulation fixing one’s place in the world and guiding individual conduct.

Consider a Twilight Zone episode in which a petty criminal dies and imagines that against all odds he has been admitted to heaven. In this seemingly happy place he launches familiar pursuits, only now with unfailing success. He cannot lose at cards or strike out with women. Money is abundant, and he takes what he wants without repercussion. But the criminal is not happy after all; his victories, once assured, become empty. Where everything is possible, nothing is meaningful! He grows increasingly hysterical with each straight flush and willing dame, visibly cracking up. At last he rejects ‘‘heaven,’’ pleading to be delivered to ‘‘the other place.’’ At which point he is informed… well, you know.

No one, of course, gets it quite as good, which is to say as bad, as this. Nonetheless, at some point, in some places (for as Greenfeld notes, historical comparisons are also geographic comparisons) the feeling of possibility in human life becomes dramatically enhanced. Humans long lived in a world ordered irrevocably by invisible forces, but some now encounter a world of choices perceived to be governed by will. Certainly my students believe themselves inhabitants of such a world. This historically original capacity to imagine the self as self-made is a central feature of modernity. Attendant to it is the novel concept of freedom, a modern principle that the Enlightenment thinkers retroactively posited as universal and primordial, originating in fanciful states of nature. Greenfeld, like Durkheim, has none of this. The modern individual, so distinct from what humans were or could be in the past, is a cultural artifact, and an effect of structural change.

Freedom is the great gift of modernity, cherished by Greenfeld with a special ferocity given her childhood in a totalitarian regime. But it is driving us crazy. This is not a new idea. Kant viewed freedom as the release from the paralyzing grip of dogmatic thought, particularly of the religious variety. Simmel argues that it is nowhere more realized than in the relatively unbounded space of the modern metropolis, the natural habitat of liberal individualism. But as Durkheim shows, the failure of dogma and the advance of reason are accompanied by higher rates of suicide, most robust in the metropolis and in secular societies. Simmel adds that ‘‘it is obviously only the obverse of this freedom that one never feels as lonely and as deserted [emphasis added] as in this metropolitan crush of persons’’ (Simmel 1903).

Now consider our poor, depressed students. An artifact of modernity, the university is, one cannot doubt, secular, with the certainty of religious dogma nowhere more thoroughly undermined than in the religious studies programs. It is a liberal space, governed by the principle of self-(re)invention; common cores are on the run, and self- designed or double and triple majors are on the rise. Choices proliferate and students are loathe to commit. They no longer ‘‘go steady’’ but instead ‘‘hook-up,’’ in a peripatetic sampling of the extravagant mating menu; after graduating they will marry later and have fewer children, changing jobs and even careers many times—an unfathomable condition for those medieval souls who were born peasants and would of a certainty die that way, too.

The students have been assured repeatedly that they are persons of promise, on the doorstep of great, exhilarating possibility. But what outcome can possibly be adequate in the face of the promise they know to be theirs? ‘‘Leader of the free world’’ was not enough to ease Nixon’s neurosis, or sate Clinton’s appetites, and most of us promising sorts have to make due with much less validation. Greenfeld believes that in fact a great many of our political and thought leaders are certifiably mad, a premise not entirely lacking in plausibility. She further notes that John Nash, he of a beautiful mind, was finally cured of his schizophrenia only by admission to a suitably exclusive club, the Nobel Prize in Economics, when in his sixties.

Anomie signals a breakdown of culture’s regulatory capacity. This should not be confused with a diminishment in culture’s social centrality. The mental afflictions that Greenfeld charts result not from too little culture, but from too much, as pluralism replaces once rigid forms of mechanical solidarity. Schizophrenia, or ‘‘pure madness,’’ emerges when the endless possibilities of symbol systems dissolve into incoherence, unanchored by conventional rules and referents. The schizophrenic is highly verbal, the rush of words constructing an arbitrary reality. Bipolar disorder alternates between a fevered mania barely distinguishable from schizophrenia and that most common of modern maladies, major depression, in which the surplus of modern meaning becomes akin to the drab pallet of utter meaninglessness.

Still, Greenfeld does not align with Michel Foucault, who similarly observes that madness appears in discourse only with the onset of modernity. In contrast to Foucault, Greenfeld claims that the discourse of madness follows rather than leads its actual experience. Thus madness is not a mere dis- cursive construct but a real and tortuous malady, and if there was no name for it before the sixteenth century, this is because it did not before exist.

Still, as an affliction of the mind, madness originates in culture, though borne by individual persons. The question is, what change so disrupted the culture? Here she asks the question that drove the canonical triumvirate of classical sociology: What is it that makes modernity so modern, driving

all of its other diverse effects? For Durkheim it is the division of labor; for Marx, capitalism; and for Weber, instrumental rationality. Anyone familiar with Greenfeld’s previous works will not be surprised to hear of her own nominee. She positions Mind, Modernity, Madness as the last book in a trilogy on nationalism, joining Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (1992) and The Spirit of Capitalism: Nationalism and Economic Growth (2001). The nation is of course widely recognized as belonging in any thorough catalogue of modern phenomena; Greenfeld’s originality is in making it the lead horse. In her usage, nationalism is not centrally defined by belligerent xenophobia or bellicose imperialism, as one might ordinarily expect. Nationalism is rather the comprehensive world-view implied by a thoroughly novel mode of social organization. The nation is comprised of citizens instead of subjects, and orders a new world of role differentiation, social mobility, and imagined community to which older, religiously-based understandings are no longer adequate. It transforms the experience of the world from one ordered by an omnipotent deity to one shaped by ambition and will. With this comes the modern ideal of liberty, premised on the twin constructs of freedom and individuality.

How did this come about? Greenfeld asserts that England emerged from the ashes of the War of the Roses as the first nation in the world. In this epic exercise in brutality, the hereditary aristocracy self-immolated before the Lancasters at last won their pyrrhic victory. The obscure Henry Tudor ascended to the throne, but absent an effective court to enforce his jurisdiction had no choice but to ‘‘turn to the commoners for support’’ (p. 48). Thus an unprecedented degree of upward mobility took shape on the Isles, one that profoundly contradicted ‘‘prevailing beliefs and the image of reality associated with them’’ (ibid.). The self-esteem of the commoners enhanced, the seeds of democracy were planted. Moreover, the divine provenance that had previously underpinned system legitimacy was irrevocably diminished by this social reordering, setting the stage for secularism and the first organized scientific establishment. Increasingly, the nation and not God became the means of grasping one’s place in the world.

From the national arrangement came Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, ambition, progress, romantic love, natural (as opposed to divine) selection—and madness. Shakespeare, the best mind of the world’s first nation, brought madness into literature, and Greenfeld affords his insights as much or more status than those of any clinician. Lear was a paranoid schizophrenic; Hamlet a depressive one, guided by an apparition. From England the nationalist world-view diffused, ferrying its signature mental pathologies. Greenfeld duly chronicles new outbreaks in France, Germany and Russia, timed and shaped distinctly by these countries’ unique paths to nationalism. The United States, uniquely unburdened by the remnants of aristocratic hierarchies, was nationalist even before becoming a nation, madness infecting the colonies and multiplying through the national host. It exemplifies the ideology of the modern individual most thoroughly to this day, and America’s individual minds pay the steepest price as a result.

C. Wright Mills famously defined sociology as the intersection of history and biography, and one would be hard-pressed to find a sociologist working today who exemplifies this principle as rigorously as Greenfeld. Indeed, much of Mind, Modernity, Madness (something of a doorstop at 628 pages) is filled out by biographical sketches of the afflicted, both famous and obscure, creatively read against the backdrop of the structural and cultural currents within which those lives unfolded. Greenfeld’s own biography clearly informs her original and imaginative reading of the monumental archive she samples, a fact that she does not attempt to submerge as she builds her case. She inhabits the book, a lively companion to the reader during the long but only occasionally tedious journey through reams of documentary evidence. Greenfeld has a dog who she loves and who loves her; she worries for her students; she writes poetry and adores literature; she feels acutely the still viral strains of anti-Semitism; and she bears a personal grudge against Karl Marx. She counts among her ancestors original Bolsheviks, but her family suffered greatly in the Soviet regime before finally escaping to Israel. Greenfeld duly sees utopian revolutionary impulses, like cult religions, as variants of schizophrenia, motivated not by one’s real position in the world but by delusions of grandeur. Indeed, she suggestively posits that The Communist Manifesto was penned by a madman.

Greenfeld’s work demands attention, issuing a pointed challenge to the psychiatric profession and to our own discipline. She argues that both psychiatry and sociology are today restricted by an impoverished view of science, unjustifiably neglecting the empirical reality of the mind. Exemplifying Weber’s verstehen, Greenfeld traffics in bold interpretations, and addresses without apology literary and philosophical texts now ordinarily ceded to the humanities. She brings to the task considerable rhetorical gifts, her immersion in modern literary traditions undoubtedly contributing to the rare vigor and grace of her writing.

Mind, Modernity, Madness is not without problems. For all her eloquence, she leaves the reader feeling bludgeoned rather than edified in the late going, piling on with yet another excessively detailed case history or literary exegesis. Abruptly she announces that her case is airtight and, perhaps by now also exhausted, barely bothers with a summary conclusion. But I am not so sure. Give a boy a hammer and everything looks like a nail; nationalism is Greenfeld’s hammer. In this she is no less a determinist than the despised Marx; nationalism explains everything, in the last instance, from capitalist competition to morose college students. Nonetheless, whether one finally concedes the central premise, this is a provocative and important work of humanist sociology, infused with a passion for ideas and grand argument.

Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews, 2014, 43: 633

Review of Mind, Modernity, Madness in American Journal of Sociology

By Karen A. Cerulo, Rutgers University

Mind, Modernity, and Madness is the final installment in a trilogy of books penned by sociologist Liah Greenfeld. The projects were conceived as vehicles to help us better understand the political, economic, and psychological aspects of modern culture. Like her earlier books, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (Harvard University Press, 1992) and The Spirit of Capitalism: Nationalism and Economic Growth (Harvard University Press, 2001), this is a substantial piece of writing, impeccably researched, ambitious in its execution, provocative and fresh in its approach.

Nearly all of Greenfeld’s works emanate from an interest in the culture of nationalism. In Mind, Modernity, and Madness, she links those concerns to the emergence of psychiatric disorders, particularly schizophrenia, manic depression, and bipolar disease. Unlike other recent books that suggest we must choose between biological and cultural etiologies of mental illness, Greenfeld argues that the two are intricately entwined and situated in the creation of nations. “It is obvious that the dramatic transformation in the image of reality,” she writes, stems from a consciousness imposed by nationalism,s three core characteristics: popular sovereignty, equality, and secularism; these elements “significantly affect the nature of the existential experience—the very way life is felt” (p. 3). And here lies the crux of Greenfeld’s thesis. From the days of its origins, nationalism has remade the notion of individual identity, putting the individual in the proverbial driver,s seat. In the world of nationalism, individuals are the ultimate decision makers, the architects of their destiny. This way of “feeling life” is, at once, empowering and overwhelming. Thus as biological predispositions to mental disease meet the pressure of self-authorship, the perfect storm ensues. In a very real and documentable way, the culture of nationalism drives some to the throes of madness.

Greenfeld builds her argument on a theoretical foundation that challenges long-standing conceptions of mind. She suggests that we replace dominant dualistic approaches in this realm—those that partition the material and the spiritual—and instead treat reality as a tripartite structure “consisting of three autonomous but related layers, with the two upper ones being emergent phenomena—the layer of matter, the layer of life, and the layer of the mind” (p. 58). As her argument unfolds, she focuses more specifically on the qualities of mind, identifying the biological elements from which mind grows and by which its development is constrained. She also explores the ways in which symbolic culture transforms and expands the biological mind, making it a far more complex and dynamic entity that reforms and reconfigures itself, ever emerging in relation to changing environmental events.

The most impressive contribution of the book comes in its historical chapters. Here, Greenfeld uses an extensive array of data to convincingly illustrate the nationalistically based roots of madness. With Greenfeld, we approach the historical starting line of 16th-century England; we sprint across nations and through time, over a terrain of literature and history, and into the minds of philosophers and psychiatrists. All roads lead to one empirically based conclusion. Greenfeld’s examples and explanations illustrate the ways in which both an opened social structure and the anomie born of multiple, often contradictory, cultural messages, make the formation of self-identity—the very thing that nationalism expects its inhabitants to produce—difficult for many and debilitating for some. Identity issues, argues Greenfeld, lead to collective malaise (at best), and for those who fail the challenges of identity formation, mental impairment, dysfunction, and derangement. In some ways, the book is not simply about madness, but about the costs and sufferings of the modern world. Moreover, it is a book about the future of nations. For in her provocative conclusion, Greenfeld asks us to reflect on the ways in which a madness born of nationalism becomes a mobilizing force, creating a politics of sheer ideology and shaping a destructive form of political action that is more therapeutic than productive.

If I were to identify any weakness in the book, it might be the author’s base for a cultural study of the mind. Greenfeld seems to ignore a strong sociological tradition in this arena, including both classic and contemporary works done by symbolic interactionists, social constructionists, sociologists of knowledge, ethnomethodologists, and sociolinguists. Weaving such works together with those of biologists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers would only have strengthened the foundation of the authors, arguments.

Still this fault is small in a book that is otherwise a tour de force. Indeed, this book will make a new and interesting contribution to the study of mental illness, the sociology of science and knowledge, and political and cultural sociology. It also presents a host of testable propositions that should be enthusiastically pursued by sociologists of culture and politics. Finally, the book provides stimulating material for graduate classes that address cultural or historical analysis. Indeed, Mind, Modernity, and Madness is the kind of book that remaps intellectual terrain, prodding us to rethink our conclusions and refocus our sights.

American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 119, No. 5 (March 2014), pp. 1527-1528


Review of Mind, Modernity, Madness in Barron’s

Stormy Minds
Why madness is rampant

Reviewed by Michael Strong

Is mental illness caused by the freedom bestowed on us by modernity? Liah Greenfeld, a social-science professor at Boston University, argues in this scholarly study that in the modern world, the expectation that each of us be the author of our own destiny has indeed resulted in a historically unprecedented epidemic of mental illness.

Traditional cultures, by contrast, defined our personal roles in life by the family and socioeconomic group into which we were born. In religious cultures, there was a socially sanctioned transcendent realm beyond our ken, and our lives were largely subject to the rules of that realm as defined by its earthly interpreters. But modernity brought a new kind of culture in which individual effort based on one’s personal identity became the cultural norm. According to Greenfeld, modern “mental illness” arose for the first time, as well.

The author is careful to differentiate some kinds of madness that have always been with us, such as the dementia of the elderly, from the “big three”: major depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. It is these forms of madness that she regards as the collateral damage of our new-found opportunity to be autonomous beings.
Greenfeld takes issue with the current view that mental illness will be treatable as soon as we find the biological cause that will then be corrected by the right drugs. While she acknowledges that there are biological and genetic factors that predispose us to madness, she rejects them as causal factors. Medications currently used to “treat” emotional disorders may ameliorate the symptoms, but they do not address the causes, as Sigmund Freud famously insisted.

She then makes a compelling case that how we construct meaning and identity in our lives is a significant causal factor in madness. Insofar as mental diseases like schizophrenia are caused by the struggle with self-definition in open modern societies, drugs will never be a wholly adequate approach.

Three cases of mental illness are analyzed in fascinating detail: James Matthews, subject of the first clinical record of schizophrenic delusion, published in 1810; Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash, subject of the book and film A Beautiful Mind; and Kay Jamison, an eminent psychiatrist and author of the autobiographical memoir An Unquiet Mind. Greenfeld applies her analysis of identify formation to each of their clinical histories, showing how specific life events would naturally result in mental disorders that each of them experienced.

There is no returning to an unfree world, even if that were desirable. But if the thesis of Mind, Modernity, Madness is valid, we ought to focus on the impact of identity-formation on mental illness as much as we focus on pharmaceutical remedies.


Review of Mind, Modernity, Madness in The American Journal of Psychiatry

Is our culture, with one-fourth of adults mentally ill, devastating itself ? Greenfeld contends that it is.

The suicidal course of our species began when the emerging human larynx and brain facilitated speech 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. This transformation enabled a radical progression from articulating signs (an animal capacity) to articulating symbols. Unlike signs, symbols represented phenomena of which they were not part. Symbolic thinking begat the mind, com-posed of the brain plus ideas gleaned from culturally created environments. Minds became “individualized culture.”

Symbolic thought has yielded both boon and burden for the human species and its emerging mind. Logic and observation, the origins of science, comprise thought forms permitting contradiction. Much symbolic thinking consists of abstractions not liable to contradiction (e.g., shared religious and political beliefs, cultural norms and values) or liable to contradiction only if reduced to stark numbers. Symbolic thoughts, coalesced into systems, show varying consistency and thus are not wholly logical, coherent, or liable to contradiction. For better and worse, symbolic thinking can change suddenly, produce indecision arising from its own incongruities, and even veer from reality. Within the mind’s capacity for symbolism exist the seeds for disabling “madness” or “insanity.”

Next, Greenfeld cogently deconstructs notions of schizophrenia (“pure madness”) and manic depression (“muddled madness”). These key sections elucidate core material for the ensuing sections. They encompass psychiatric history, theory, epidemiology, descriptive psychopathology, and ethnopsychiatry, as well as germane aspects of history, economics, politics, and even theater.

For the remaining half of the book, Greenfeld expounds her thesis. Prior to the Renaissance, religious beliefs were widely shared, and sociopolitical organization was hierarchical. Status was ascribed rather than achieved. And insanity prevalence was low, albeit with special vulnerability among learned, politically elite, and artistic people. Beginning during the 17th and 18th centuries in England, insanity proliferated geometrically from prevalence rates of one in thousands to one in hundreds. In parallel, a modern statehood model (termed “nationalism”) appeared, marked by secularism, growing egalitarianism, social mobility from parent to offspring, rising literacy, novel occupations, university learning, passion, and romance. The first western mental institution appeared (Bedlam in London), followed by the steady evolution of psychiatry within medicine and insanity law within jurisprudence. From England, the insanity epidemic (along with its companion, suicide) spread across Europe and North America within a few centuries.

Numerous studies have shown insanity prevalence rates still growing steadily in the United States. For example, in 1987 one person in 184 received Social Security Disability for a psychiatric disorder; this number increased by 2.5 times to 1 person in 76 by 2007. National Institute of Mental Health-supported national surveys have shown current and life-time prevalence increases in recent decades, with increasing comorbid conditions. These figures proffer prime evidence for cultural causes of insanity and against narrow biogenetic causation generating steady rates over time. Biological processes fabricate insanity, but mind-borne culture precipitates these biological processes. Although hereditary factors affect vulnerability to insanity, extreme culture-bred pathogens can overcome hereditary hardiness and produce insanity. Like-wise, cultural compensations can counteract high hereditary vulnerability and prevent insanity.

Finally, psychiatrist-like, Greenfeld makes a diagnosis and prescribes an intervention for often-addled modern minds. She ascribes our insanity pandemic to “unstable identities” (Durkheim’s “anomie”) ensuing from minds weakened, immobilized, disabled, and ultimately deranged by the complexities of modern “nationalism.” For this malady, she prescribes educational interventions aimed at aiding students to cope with pathogens inherent within their challenging cultures and reflected in their emerging minds.

Greenfeld’s magnificent sweep of several fields leaves her discourse open to quibbles. Her education-based intervention would require clinical trials. Cultural interventions already known and practiced among community psychiatrists might reduce insanity, but they would also warrant research, greater efficiency, and wider implementation (e.g., employ-ment initiatives for all [1], producing self-aware citizens with greater stress resilience [2]). Cultural psychiatrists could elab-orate her “anomie,” which arises from depleted “intimate social networks” (3), pathogenic migrations (4), and discrep-ancies in actual versus ideal norms that wrench minds loose from their problem-solving proclivities (5). Further, substance disorders—which Greenfeld notes, but briefly—have accom-panied and increased insanity. Alcohol and opium epidemics also appeared in the 1600s and 1700s (6) and endure endlessly anew, as exemplified in our raging iatrogenic opioid epidemic. Regardless, these points support rather than dislodge Green-feld’s case. Most telling, her strong contentions overwhelm the brittle claims of biological determinism and alert culture brokers to their urgent tasks.

Those apt to gain most from Greenfeld’s remarkable tome are biological psychiatrists, legislators, and community leaders. Physicians, behavioral scientists, futurists, parents, and academicians will find the read exhilarating and useful. Cultural psychiatrists, ethnopsychiatric investigators, and psychiatric epidemiologists—those least apt to realize totally new understandings—will still find their comprehensions expanded in unanticipated ways.


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2. Galambos NL, Barker ET, Almeida DM: Parents do matter: tra-jectories of change in externalizing and internalizing problems in early adolescence. Child Dev 2003; 74:578–594

3. Westermeyer J, Pattison EM: Social networks and mental illness in a peasant society. Schizophr Bull 1981; 7:125–134

4. Takeuchi DT, Zane N, Hong S, Chae DH, Gong F, Gee GC, Walton E, Sue S, Alegría M: Immigration-related factors and mental disor-ders among Asian Americans. Am J Public Health 2007; 97:84–90

5. Slonim-Nevo V, Sharaga Y, Mirsky J, Petrovsky V, Borodenko M: Ethnicity versus migration: two hypotheses about the psychoso-cial adjustment of immigrant adolescents. Int J Soc Psychiatry 2006; 52:41–53

6. Westermeyer J: The pursuit of intoxication: our 100 century-old romance with psychoactive substances. Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse 1988; 14:175–187


Dr. Westermeyer is Staff Psychiatrist at the Minneapolis VA Health Care Center and Professor of Psychiatry and Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Review on the American Journal of Psychiatry Website