The Evolution of the Human Spirit

Address to the Melbourne Unitarian Church, June 27, 2010

Development and Spirit

"Evolution" means change, an "unrolling", according to the Latin root evolvere. There is something naturalistic, remorseless and in some cases even tragic about it. Because of this, Alex Callinicos, Professor of Politics at the University of York, prefers the term "development" to indicate those changes where conscious human agency is involved, where human beings can direct change itself. "Development", of course, is a French-derived words "développement", or "from evolution". Callinicos is quite correct to make this distinction and it is particularly important in reference to the subject matter. There is no suggestion here that the human spirit is evolving in a naturalistic fashion. Thus I will cede to Callinicos that "development", in lieu of anything else, is a better description; consider the presentation to be better entitled "The Development of the Human Spirit".

The term "spirit" needs some clarification as well. Doubtless some will initially think that this is about spooky stories with ghosts and goblins and voices from the dead, perhaps even communicating with these incorpereal beings with the aid of a medium in a séance. Or perhaps what is thought is some other metaphysical version, like an animist entity, or a self-aware God, or even an evolved notion such with Hegel's Absolute Spirit. These examples are not entertained here; rather what is meant is by the ideas and concepts and mental structures which provides motivation. Both definitions come from the same linguistic origin, when the distinction between conscious life, could not be distinguished from metaphysical soul and can be seen in the French "l'esprit", the German "geist", the Latin spiritus, the Greek psykhe. Despite this double meaning, nobody should be confused when Marx and Engels, for examples, wrote "[a] spectre is haunting Europe"; what is meant is a cohrent set of ideas, not a supernatural incorpereal being (as an aside it should be mentioned in the original German, "Europe" was actually "Gesellschaft" or "society" - and differentiated from "Gemeinschaft", or community).

Ideas and Social Structures

What is being presented here therefore is an outline of the development of human ideas. This development occurs alongside the development of material concerns with a grand historical narrative of of graduated and punctuated equilibrium, to borrow the evolutionary terms from the paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould. In doing so I will be elaborating the structures of social formations expressed by Jürgen Habermas, who proposes Primitive, Traditional and Modern social formations, based initially on the forces of production, that is; gatherer-hunters, agricultural and industrial respectively. The structures that apply to each of these formations are (a) "principles of social organisation", a term which is more expansive than the old and narrow concept of "relations of production", (b) "system and social integration", an expansion of what some would recognise as the "political and legal superstructure", and (c) "types of crisis". The inclusion of the structural development of ideas therefore also include (d) "means of communication", and (e) "modes of consciousness".

The reason for these additions is to bring theories of structured social development (such as Karl Marx's historical materialism and its subsequents of Max Weber's and Talcott Parson's theory of increasing rationalisation and complexity), to include contemporary knowledge of human consciousness and particularly the influence of linguistic philosophy in this area. Human knowledge in this area has changed, and more importantly has changed qualitatively since said authors presented their works. It is not to suggest that these author's did not have a nascent understanding of these issues, it was after all Marx, who wrote: "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness". But the issue goes far beyond mere relations of production. Contemporary philosophy, from Ludwig Wittenstein, John Austin, Karl-Otto Apel and many others, a consciousness is mediated by language itself, and language is formed by the intersubjective and mutual understanding of symbolic values. From a sociological perspective, George Herbert Mead and Emile Durkheim recognised the society as the interaction and internalisation of meanings and that moral statements have validity claims of their own.

So theories that concentrate on the development of the forces of production and social institutions need to be supplemented and applied to the three social formations; primitive, traditional, and modern. It is no longer sufficient, for example, to just describe the primitive societies as having an organisation principle being based on kinship relations, and a division of labour based on sex and age, an absence of distinction between community and society, and crises occurring from external, natural challenges. It is also necessary to note that such societies have a mode of consciousness based on a mythic understanding of the world, and the use of natural speech as the most important means of communication. The characteristics of a mythic mode of consciousness are well known, especially due to the research by anthropologists such as Lewis Morgan, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, Bronislaw Malinowski and Claude Lévi-Strauss; an undifferentiated degree of rationality, and the use of metaphor and diachronic structures which reinforce knowledge among the community.

The same elaboration can also be conducted for traditional and modern societies. If we look at traditional societies, that long run of period from the neolithic revolution and the founding of civilisation 10,000 years ago to the industrial revolution the additional principle of social organisation of political rule by rank or caste, the establishment of the state distinguishing between society and community, and with new crisis arising from issues of state integrity. Adding to these, with contributions from archaeologists and historians such Gordon Childe (earliest civilisations), Joseph Needham (Chinese civilisation), Will Durant (Western civilisation), provide the evidence for an assessment of the means of communication; writing and printing and of the mode of consciousness based on a religious-metaphysical orientation which provides a degree of differentiated rationality based on the particular religious outlook (compare, for example, differences in soteriology between Hindu and Buddhist mysticism via contemplation and world-rejection and the mastery approach of Judeo-Christian traditions or and active adjustment in Confucian and Taoist approaches.

The Modern Spirit

The process can be of course conducted for the contemporary age as well; the additional principle of social organisation in the modern, industrial age, derives from political economy, and the division of the economic classes of landlord, capitalist and worker. With regards to the institutional expression we witness the rise of nation-state and the development of legalised sub-systems, such as corporations. Crises are systematically induced; whether through an industrial and economic growth telic running into natural limitations, the irresolvable contradictions of political economy, or through the systematic colonisation of the lifeworld of meaning production. With regards to the means of communication, the outstanding contribution of movable type printing onwards emphasises effectiveness through decentralisation. The modern mode of consciousness comes with a high degree of differentiation - but also fragmentation between statements of truth, norms and aesthetics and is primarily concerned with a secular approach.

This presentation does not discuss the natural (such as the environment) and systemtic crises (such as the economy), which there are already numerous sources. Of interest here to the state of the human spirit are the problems of the modern psyche, best described by the three founders of the discipline of sociology, Marx, Durkheim and Weber. From the former we can derive the notion of alienation, the rupture of the productive process from the "species-being" of work. From Durkheim, there is the loss of the internal moral and normative compass, anomie, due to homogeneous associations, 'mass society'. Finally, from Weber the notion of disenchantment, where the dominance of instrumental rationality, of scientism, can break the 'sense of wonder and unity' with nature and the universe and relegate the artistic endeavour to a parasitic counter-culture. Least this just suggests that modern society only consists of people who don't like their job, have limited moral reasoning and don't care about the fate of nature or the universe, there are progressive tendencies as well; increased democracy counters alienation, organic solidarity through free association reduces anomie, and, most recently, the ontological grounding of environmentalism acts against disenchantment.

A Summary and Beyond Modernity

In summary, this presentation argues that the structures of human ideas, the means of communication and mode of consciousness, does develop in accordance to social formations and simultaneous to that of more materialist elements, such as the factors and relations of production. It does not assert any particular priority to any of the structures over another, which accord very tightly with the Hegelian dialectic with the generation of Abstract ideas, the Negative experience of their application in the material world, a Concrete reformulation & etc. Whilst in part this could be used as a contribution to hermenutics, the understanding of others and their lifeworld, such as first expressed by William Dilthey, which would provide a working base for anthropologists and historians to 'get inside' the minds of others from different places and times, a more immediate practical purpose for those in contemporary society is to understand the structural causes and remedies of socio-pathologies. Thus to reiterate, increased democracy especially in economic relations, increased freedom of association and expression, and an enhanced concern for our natural world - these are the practical, immediate tasks that can improve the contemporary human spirit.

In conclusion however, attention should be drawn, speculatively, towards what sort of social structures and in particular mental states, are possible in the not-so-distant future. For if the predictions of artificial intelligence expert Ray Kurzweil, robotics professor Hans Moravec, and other futurists is reasonably accurate, the great challenge of future society will be the self-transformation of the species itself. Imagine for a moment that this technological is introduced with a pathological modern mental state; the alienation, the anomie, the disenchantment. Imagine if a reactionary, pre-modern, mode is dominant; theocratic political rule with medieval thinking in a period of technological species-tranformation. Such a society would be a nightmare, the worst sort of totalitarianism. That is why attention must be paid to the development of the human spirit.