Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Back to Basics: Understanding Man in his Natural State

Is it possible for the modern man to ever truly know the human being as it was in its primitive state? This is precisely the question that Jean-Jacques Rousseau explores in his "Discourse on the Origin of Inequality".

In order to learn of the "specifics" of a subject, one must first have a thorough understanding of the "subject" in its most basic concepts. Here, we can see that this "specific" is the question of inequality, as it relates to the subject of the human being. And thus, it is the human being that we must fully understand before delving into anything relating directly to mankind's inequalities.

Much like Rene Descartes had begun from the "ground" and worked his way up in order to make his points, Rousseau also philosophizes in a similar way, as be wants to start at the very beginning of mankind. He sought to understand man, not in his current state, but instead, in his most primitive state - before reason, knowledge, science, and civilization fueled man's decline, as he believed it to have done.

Rousseau believes that the most we apply our knowledge and reason to understand the primitive, natural man, the further we travel from the truths we are seeking to find. We cannot use the modern, civilized tools (reason) that has been instilled in us over the ages to explore primitive man; to try and use modern ways of thinking to understand concepts from man's natural, uncivilized days of existence would be like trying to fix a metal nail into a wall by using a hammer made of soft clay - utterly useless, and the mere notion of it concludes a great falsity.

At this point, Descartes had come to mind once more, as he distinguished between objects and perceptions, realizing that we cannot use one (perception), to understand the other (object) because of their complete lack of relativity. Similar to this, Rousseau claims that we cannot thoroughly examine and understand man in his natural state through the use of our modern reasoning and science. We must instead examine solely the natural laws; those laws that "speak directly by the voice of nature" (13). Abiding only to the natural laws by which primal man existed, Rousseau identified what we thought to be the two most simple operations of the human soul" (14): primarily, well-being and our self-preservation, and secondly, our natural repugnance toward seeing other being, especially humans, suffer. With only these two aspects of the natural, primal human soul, Rousseau believes we had little to no inner conflict. Reason was the element, that once introduced, smothered the true, harmonious, natural laws of man.

A great irony in regards to Rousseau's claim that the use of reason is that which hinders us from understanding mankind's natural state, is that he uses exactly this kind of modern and civilized reasoning throughout his entire essay. It makes me wonder if the use of reason was, indeed, a primal, natural aspect of the human being; if it was never learned, but ingrained in us from the very beginning. Maybe Rousseau is using his reasoning in such an overt way that he does not even realize the naturalness of himself using it, even when trying to focus on subjects he claims that reason can't understand. How can one philosophize about subjects that they claim cannot be understood by reason, when philosophizing is, in itself, using reason to make conclusions - it is a complete paradox.


Alana Biagioli said...

You raise a lot of good questions at the end of the blog, especially about reason. It is a good question whether or not we actually use and have reasoning and don't realize it; since it is something we've learned, not something we possess. Knowing on the other hand, is something known through perception and experience. I completely agree with your argument about reason, that we must have it since we use it to reach conclusions. However, we know human beings are not social beings therefore they do not have reason, society, or language. They are even separated from their mothers as soon as they’re capable of living on their own. So no matter how much you argue that we may have reason, Rousseau supports the fact that we don’t have it numerous times in his writings even though it may not seem logical to you.

Mike Rossi said...

I remain undecided (or may just need more convincing) on the question brought up...is reason a primial aspect of human beings? I am leaning more toward the side of Rousseau's theory. If you have an understanding of natural man, you may feel that reason was aquired over time. Because natural man, in his paradise of ignorant bliss, did not need reason. Natural man was equipped with every set of tools he needed to survise as a part of his body. In order to survise, natral man needed only certain things such ad food and rest. He spent all of his available time doing these things, thus, he had no time for reasoning. If natural man only needed tools of survival, and reasoning was not necessary in survival, then reasoning is an aqured trait.

TD said...

Reason allows man to argue with himself, and beat his instincts into submission. how else would you explain why slavery was allowed to develop. Man convinced himself he was above the others, justified this with reason to his fellow man, and perpetuated it through arguments of reason.