Author Archives: gililiah

The Nature of Nationalism and What’s New in it Today

Synopsis of Liah’s Greenfeld’s talk on April 26, 2018, at The Global Order in a New Age of Nationalism conference, Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania

The Nature of Nationalism and What’s New in it Today

Liah Greenfeld

Nationalism is the cultural framework of the modern world. The modern age is the Age of Nationalism. Nationalism was born in the 16th century in England, traveled to the other parts of the British Islands and to the British colonies in America (making the American nation the second historical nation) and then spread, in waves indeed, across the globe: in the 18th century penetrating the intellectual elite in Russia and the urban population in France, in the early 19th century the German intelligentsia and bureaucracy and by mid-century those in the rest of Continental Europe; by the 1860s establishing itself in Japan, by the very end of the 19th century, spreading to the narrow intellectual groups in the Middle East, while simultaneously reaching these narrow groups in China through Japan and in India through Britain; in the 20th century carried to the masses throughout the colossal Russian Empire by those who renamed it the Soviet Union and, very much under Soviet sponsorship, to the elites in Africa. The last significant wave in the spread of nationalism has been its penetration, in the last several decades, of the masses in China and India, with China’s spectacular “coming out” as a nation in 2008, specifically, sending shock waves throughout the West. This is the only development which justifies speaking of the new wave of nationalism today.

Wherever it was once established, nationalism never abated. As we live in it and perceive reality through it, it only occasionally becomes problematized for us, just as we only occasionally problematize life and death, and very rarely attracts our attention and demands explanation. Usually, we simply don’t notice it. That’s why, though nationalism is the most important, defining factor in our social and political life, it is so ill understood.

Nationalism is, above all, a form of consciousness which projects the image of social/political reality as consisting of sovereign communities of inclusive (that is cutting through lines of status and class) identity, whose members are fundamentally equal. The English in the 16th century were the first to envision reality this way and called such communities “nations,” appropriating for this the word “nation,” which at the time meant “an elite.” That is the derivation of “nationalism.” The word “nation” was made the synonym of the word “people,” which, before that, referred specifically to the lower classes, and thereby equated the entire population, irrespective of social position, with the elite, in principle wiping out class distinctions and creating a community of inclusive identity. Before the birth of nationalism, only “the people of Israel” – the Jewish community as conceived in the Bible – implied such fundamental equality of membership. However, this was not accompanied by the presupposition of the people’s sovereignty, since sovereignty belonged to God, nor by the assumption that other communities were also communities of fundamentally equal members and inclusive identity. Thus, ancient Israel and the Jewish community in the subsequent millennia before the 20th century cannot be said, as it sometimes is, to have a national consciousness and to constitute a nation.

The core nationalist principles of popular sovereignty and fundamental equality of membership made the personal identity of every member of a nation dignified. Before nationalism, the great majority of humanity had no experience of dignity, only narrow upper strata enjoyed it, but nationalism made this experience common. Dignity became a defining experience of human life. The connection between one’s personal dignity and membership in a nation made one invested in the dignity of the nation. Since, as a general rule, dignity is a relative good, measured in the coin of respect, prestige, or standing among others, nationalism is an inherently competitive consciousness (conducive to envy). The enjoyment of dignity is rarely secure, one is ever on the alert against slights to one’s (or one’s national) dignity, which can be slighted simply by the improvement in the standing of another. This is the psychological dynamics behind all the political conflicts within and between nations, making all modern politics identity politics.

Some nations, however, are more sensitive to such slights than others and may be expected to be more aggressive as a result. Before its recent globalization into China and India, whose nationalism has not been studied enough to allow characterization, three types of national consciousness (and related institutions) developed. These are, in the order of appearance, first: the individualistic/civic nationalism, combining the definition of the nation/people as a composite entity, an association of individuals (as in “We, the people…”) with in principle voluntary nationality or membership in the nation. This is the type of nationalism least sensitive to slights to the national dignity. Second: the collectivistic/civic type, combining the definition of the nation as a collective individual with its own will and interests, and in principle voluntary nationality. Third: the most common type of nationalism, collectivistic/ethnic type, combining the definition of the nation as a collective individual with the nationality determined by blood, i.e., genetically. Ethnic nationalism is, in effect, a form of racism; ethnic nations are extremely sensitive to perceived slights to their dignity, very easily mobilized in its defense, and, as a result very aggressive.

The unexpected “coming out” of China as a nation redrew the political map of the world and redefined the positions of the frontrunners in the competition for dignity, changing the established pecking order and undermining their sense of security in it. The reaction of these frontrunners to this unexpected development was the reassertion of their claims to the respect of the world, which, given what nationalism is, could be expected. Such challenges to the prestige of nations actively competing for international hegemony happened before, provoking, among others, the two world wars. Preventive measures must include, above all else, the understanding of the nature of nationalism as such. Nationalism understood, in the US, specifically, they must include dispelling the confusion about American national identity, reigning since the dissolution of the USSR, in order to know what in the nation’s way of life is worth fighting for and what can, if need be, given up for peace.

Left, Right, and Nationalism

By Liah Greenfeld

First published in H-Nationalism as Left and Right around (and within) Nationalism, November 2017

The familiar terms of “left” and “right” acquired their political meaning in 1789, at the start of the French Revolution. Let us further unpack this momentous connection.

This pivotal event, which, in many ways, inaugurated the Age of Nationalism, was the first collective expression of national consciousness in France, while France was the first society into which this new spirit was imported from Britain, where it was born. The Revolution was inspired by nationalism and represented an attack on the pre-national form of the social order – ancien régime – and the social consciousness on which it was based. This social consciousness was religious, monarchical, and hierarchical, presupposing the obedience of the secular world to divine authority, differences of fundamental nature between social strata, and corresponding differences in rights between them. In distinction, national consciousness is secular, democratic, and egalitarian, presupposing popular sovereignty and an egalitarian community of identity, inclusive of the entire population of the country. Because England, where this consciousness emerged, called such community “nation,” “nationalism” is the name for the related complex of phenomena. Continue reading

Approaching Human Nature Empirically

April 29, 2017, talk at the “Revisiting Maslow: Human Needs in the 21st Century” workshop at Princeton University.

Abstract: Human nature has been a subject of speculative thinking for ages. But it is an empirical phenomenon and, as with any empirical phenomenon, the only way to acquire objective, reliable knowledge about it is to begin with separating it from adjacent empirical phenomena. Today, developments in biology allow us to know exactly what separates humanity from the animal world, to which it also belongs — we, therefore, no longer need to speculate what makes us human. The talk will focus on what comparative zoology teaches us about human nature.

 

Humanity differs dramatically from non-human social animals in its behavior and the organization of its ways of life. No other social species, for instance, organizes its ways of life (i.e., its social order) so variably or allows such an enormous scope for individual creativity/deviance. Human societies are remarkably flexible in comparison to the rigid social orders of other intelligent social species, such as lions, wolves, and even primates. This vast difference makes humanity a reality of its own kind and, therefore, a separate subject of study, which justifies the existence of social sciences and humanities: for social sciences, too, despite their name, do not focus on the many complex and highly differentiated societies that exist, from those of ants and bees to those of baboons and chimpanzees, but exclusively on human societies. Yet, it proved impossible to account for this difference by the difference of the human animal from other animals, or genetically. Genetically, our species is different from other animal species to different degrees, clearly much more different from some than from others. But even species within our biological family – the primates – remain as drastically different from us behaviorally as are those on altogether different branches of biological evolution. Only 2% of the genome of our species, which we somewhat arrogantly and in ignorance of other animals’ cognitive capacities call homo sapiens, distinguish our animal nature from that of our closest genetic relative, the chimp. These two percent must account for the different shapes of our and chimps’ bodies and sculls, postures, distribution of bodily hair, the different organic diseases to which we and they are subject, our different life spans and procreation patterns – all the things that separate two closely related species from the same family, such as horses and donkeys, lions and tigers, or chimps and orangutans, etc., from each other. None is left in this small biological difference for the explanation of the vast differences on the behavioral level – the difference in the organization of our ways of life, which make humanity stand so completely out of the animal world.

But, if it is not our biology, then what? Comparative zoology provides an answer. While all other animals transmit their ways of life (primarily) genetically, we transmit our ways of life almost exclusively by means of symbols. This is a qualitative difference – a difference in kind, which puts us into a different category of being. This is what makes us human.

The process of genetic transmission is the process of life, the subject of biology. As animals, we are involved in this process and, as living beings, we share numerous biological needs with other animals. Like them, we must breathe and eat, like many of them, we must have shelter, like all the social animals, we must belong to a group, and so on – to survive as animals. But, in addition to being animals, we are also something else. In addition to being part of the process of life and subject to its laws, we also participate in a different, autonomous process (that is, a process ruled by other than biological laws) – the process of symbolic transmission of our ways of life, which we call culture. Culture adds a dimension on top of our animal nature, superimposing another nature on it, so to speak. It is this other superimposed nature that makes us human. Human nature is cultural, in other words. To understand it, we must analyze culture.

In the rest of the talk, if there is time, I can develop on this and actually analyze culture along the lines of the two first chapters of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience. What is clear even before such an analysis is that human needs (which are different from animal needs which can be deduced from the nature of the life – organic, biological – processes, which may be largely the same for a whole branch of the phylogenetic tree or, to revert to the Linnaean terminology, a whole class of animals, such as mammals) can only be deduced from the nature of the cultural process, in general, and, because of the extreme variability of cultures, from the nature of specific cultures. With human needs created by cultures, it would not stand to reason that needs of people in Tokugawa Japan, Imperial China, or tribal Arabia, for instance, would be the same as the needs of citizens of modern democracies.

To Combat Terrorism, Tackle Mental Illness

By Liah Greenfeld

First published in the New York Times, July 15, 2016

The comment of the French prime minister [“The times have changed, and France is going to have to live with terrorism”] can be interpreted as recognition that terrible events such as the mass killing in Nice Thursday night are a sign of a very long-term problem, which is unlikely to be speedily resolved. In this sense, France, like the United States, will indeed “have to learn to live with terrorism.”

Paradoxically, this is so precisely because “terrorism” is not an adequate diagnosis of such acts in the United States and Western Europe. Yes, they are acts of terror, and may even be inspired by Islamic militants. But they are also acts of mentally disturbed individuals.

The great majority of “homegrown” or “lone-wolf” terror acts are committed by people with a known history of mental illness, most often depression, which counts social maladjustment and problematic sense of self among its core symptoms. Severely depressed people are often suicidal, they find life unlivable. As a rule, they cannot explain their acute existential discomfort to themselves and may find ideologies hostile to their social environment – the society in which they experience their misery – appealing: such ideologies allow them to rationalize, make sense of the way they feel. Any available ideology justifying their maladjustment would do: Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel might have been inspired by radical Islam, but Micah Johnson, who killed five police officers in Dallas, had a different inspiration.

In a way, such ideologies serve for the mentally ill perpetrators as ready-made delusions, which, as we know also can inspire mass murders. Characteristically, the majority of mass murders, including lone-wolf terrorist acts, in Western countries are committed by people who are willing, in fact plan, to die while carrying them out. These acts offer them a spectacular, memorable, way out – a way of self-affirmation and suicide at once. An association with a great cause – and any ideology presents its cause as great – makes it all the more meaningful for them.

The rates of mental illness, especially depression, in the West are very high and, according to the most authoritative statistics, steadily rising. Unless we resolve this problem, we’ll have to learn to live with terrorism.

 

When animals and birds take on our own characteristics

By Liah Greenfeld

First published in South China Morning Post, June 28, 2015

Have you heard of Alex, the African Gray parrot, considered the smartest bird in the world? He lived in a cage of an animal behavior lab at Brandeis University, where his trainer, the scientist Irene Pepperberg worked. He spoke English with a sweet childish voice, could count and distinguish shapes. He was sensitive and creative. When Irene appeared flustered, he would tell her: “Take it easy. Calm down.” His beak made it difficult to pronounce the letter “p,” so, when asked to identify an apple, he invented the word “banerry” — half banana, half cherry, and, not knowing how to call a cake, suggested “yummy bread.” Irene trusted him to train younger chicks and, for some years, he actually taught at a university. At the end of their working day, Irene would return Alex to his cage, lock the lab, and go home. This is how it was the night of the heart attack that would kill him. Before she left, Alex told Irene: “I love you. Be good.” The next morning, she found him in the cage dead.

Alex’s brain was the size of a walnut. But his behavior was undeniably human. Which raises the question what is humanity. Clearly, to behave — to think, feel, act — like a human, it is not necessary to belong to the biological species of hairless monkeys with big brains, such as ours. But, if it is not our vaunted brain that makes us human, what does? Comparative zoology provides the answer. In the entire animal kingdom only humans transmit their ways of life symbolically, rather than genetically. Such symbolic transmission is what we call “culture.” The distinguishing characteristic of humanity, it is culture that makes us human.

In distinction to genetic transmission, culture is not an organic but an historical process, because the meaning of symbols changes with the context and always depends on time. Being of a different nature, culture cannot be explained biologically or reduced to biological phenomena, even though it requires the body with its physical needs to exist. Rather, and analogously to life, which also requires inanimate matter for its construction but cannot be reduced to or explained by it, culture represents an emergent reality, resulting from a most improbable accident in the organic reality within the conditions of which it emerges. Like life, it is a reality of its own kind, autonomous or operating according to specific to it causal laws, which affect the organic processes related to it and transform its physical environment.

We are all familiar with the dramatic effects of culture on the material world around us: our cities, means of transportation, the clothes on our backs, fields we till, land we reclaim from the oceans — all these are products of culture, material results of symbolic processes, of our thinking expressed in words, designs, plans. On the organic level, culture leaves its deepest imprint on the brain of the creatures it affects, transforming their very nature and life. For, as it forces the brain exposed to it to process symbolic stimuli, it creates within it an autonomous, symbolic and mental, phenomenon which is unknown in the natural world in which the brain processes only sensory stimuli — the mind. Otherwise called the soul, it, speaking empirically, is none other than culture in the brain. One becomes human when one acquires a mind.

The mind is acquired as a result of being exposed to culture and the necessity to adjust to a cultural environment; it is not a genetic characteristic. This has two significant implications. The first one is that nobody is born human. A baby of human parents is just an animal who is very likely to become human, not a human being, and given how prolonged infancy is among our animal species, only rarely do our babies develop a mind (and acquire humanity) before three years of age. The second implication is that animals of other species that procreate exclusively in the human, cultural, environment, such as, specifically, dogs and cats whom for thousands of years we have involved in most intimate aspects of our life, are, just like us, sharply distinguished from wild animals by culture, and, therefore, also human. What distinguishes these animals from us is not that we have a mind, while they don’t (because they certainly adjust to and thus have culture in the brain), but that the structure of their larynx — in distinction to that of African Gray parrots, for instance — is different from ours and does not allow them to articulate sound, depriving them of speech. They are humans who are physically disabled. This is in particular true of dogs, whose brain, inherited from arguably the most intelligent wild animal — the wolf — probably equals ours in its complexity and sophistication. (The claim of dogs’ humanity will resonate with anyone who has known a dog’s companionship, though the unquestioned identification of humanity with our species would have prevented most of us from admitting the truth of this claim even to oneself. Yet, very few would be able to explain until now what made homo sapiens species human.)

It would be hard to exaggerate the ethical significance of this logical inference from the empirically based definition of humanity. Our treatment of dogs and cats becomes subject to the same standards of judgment which we apply to our treatment of other defenseless and helpless members of our societies, such as little or disabled children. Like them, these acculturated animals are thrown on our mercy and entirely dependent on us for their survival and protection from suffering. When they suffer, their experience is not different from that of such children. Because these animals are part of humanity, because what makes us human must make them human as well, decent people and societies can no longer be indifferent to their suffering or tolerate intentional cruelty in their regard.

On June 22, the annual dog meat festival begins in Yulin. Dogs are human. Thus, this is a festival of cannibalism. But it is not what happens after death that is important. Before they are butchered and eaten, thousands of dogs are caught, shoved into dirty crates too small for the numbers they contain, and tracked, hungry, thirsty, suffocating, and terrified, to the place of their death. You can easily find photos of these transports on the Internet. Meet these dogs’ eyes. You won’t be able to sleep for weeks.

A Revolution in Philosophy (and Social Science) in 800 Words

By Liah Greenfeld

First published as “Modern social science deeply indebted to Darwin” in South China Morning Post, June 7, 2015

We are all aware of the power of science and treat it as supreme authority in matters pertaining to our understanding of our world. Of all intellectual endeavors, science alone proved progressive — building and constantly adding to previously accumulated understandings, expanding their reach. This is evident in physics and biology: our understanding of both material and organic realities becomes deeper, increasing our control over them. Not so in social sciences focusing on the reality most pertinent for us: humanity itself.

We hardly understand humanity better than in the end of the 19th century, when the social sciences were first ensconced as such in American research universities — the model for the entire world. Separated by arbitrary divisions which obscured the commonality and the very nature of their subject, social sciences were misconceived from the start. They assumed that society was humanity’s distinguishing characteristic, while it is a corollary of animal life.

What distinguishes humanity from the rest of the animal world is not society, but the way it is transmitted: while the other species rely on genetic transmission, humans rely on culture (or symbolic transmission). Much more flexible, cultural transmission explains the variability of human societies as compared to the near-uniformity of social orders within all other species. Culture and not society should be the focus of the social sciences.

But, if culture is, as is commonly assumed, a function of the human brain, social sciences must belong within biology. The only thing that would justify their existence as autonomous is the irreducibility of this distinguishing characteristic of humanity to the organic and material realities. If humanity is not a reality of its own kind, they represent biological or physical disciplines and social scientists, usually biologically and physically illiterate, are unqualified to be social scientists.

To prove such irreducibility — that is, to prove that the distinction between humanity and other animals is qualitative, not quantitative, one needs, first, to resolve the 2500-years-old central problem in Western philosophy. Western philosophy pictures reality — the entire world of experience — as a universe composed of two heterogeneous elements, matter and spirit, which, derived from one source and thus assumed to be fundamentally consistent, nevertheless appear to be contradictory.

Both elements may be accessible to reason, through observation or faith, but their assumed consistency escapes logical and empirical proof. This was acknowledged by the 19th century. From this acknowledgment resulted the division of intellectual labor: the realm of the spirit going to speculative philosophy and empirical science becoming the authority over (while limiting itself to) material reality. All empirically accessible reality was deemed material and it became impossible to imagine an empirical science that was not a part of physics.

Fortunately for students of humanity, the psycho-physical problem was resolved in 1859 by Charles Darwin. This was a colossal problem for biology as well: Life, too, could be approached scientifically only through physics, but it proved impossible to explain its regularities through physical laws. Thus, the science of biology did not develop: our understanding of living phenomena by 1859 had hardly advanced beyond Aristotle.

Western philosophy – our fundamental vision of reality – did not allow for the autonomous science of biology. A new ontology was needed, which Darwin provided in The Origins of the Species. By demonstrating a form of comprehensive causality operative in life that had nothing to do with the laws of physics but was logically consistent with them, Darwin established life as an autonomous, empirically accessible reality, dependent for its existence on material elements, but irreducible to them and, as concerns causal mechanisms, not material. Thus he transcended the dualist, spiritual material, ontological vision and liberated empirical science from the hold of materialist philosophy.

Now one could imagine empirical reality, accessible through observation, as consisting of heterogeneous, though logically consistent, layers, material and organic, and, within this new ontological framework, biology, unchained from physics, rapidly developed. Influential philosophers still think Darwin established a unified framework in which everything can be understood as a derivation from fundamental physical laws; in fact, he established precisely the opposite.

Though the concept was created later, he gave us the possibility to think of empirically accessible reality, open to scientific investigation, in terms of emergence, as of autonomous layers, each upper layer existing within the boundary conditions of the one below, to which it is causally irreducible.

There are three such layers, the two upper ones emergent — the material, the organic, and the cultural (or symbolic). This justifies seeing humanity as a reality of its own kind and the existence of an autonomous group of scientific disciplines focused on it and its distinguishing characteristic — culture.

This view may save lots of resources wasted in futile attempts to analyze social structures without knowing anything about biology and to reduce culture to the brain, while motivating a systematic exploration of the fascinating subject social sciences now mostly overlook. Perhaps, social sciences, too, will deepen our understanding of the world.

Liah Greenfeld is University Professor at Boston University and Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lingnan University. This article is based on her lecture delivered recently at the University of Hong Kong.