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Johann Gottlieb Fichte has often been quoted because of the following claim:
“…what philosophy a man chooses depends entirely upon what kind of man he is; for a philosophical system is not a piece of dead household furniture, which you may use or not use, but is animated by the soul of the man who has it.” (Erste Einleitung in die Wissenschaftslehre, 1797, translated by A. E. Kroeger as Introduction to Fichte’s Science of Knowledge)
Many philosophers have criticized this Fichtean maxim as suggesting that irrationalism lies at the base of all theory choice (not at all unlike the irrationalism attributed to paradigm shifts in Kuhn’s work on scientific revolutions), though it could be argued that a philosophy of life animated by the soul of a man who has it is distinct from advocating any one particular philosophical theory, as we have come to understand philosophical theories analogously to scientific theories. The industrialization and professionalization of philosophy has obscured the fact that even the unphilosophical have a philosophy of life, whether or not they are able to give voice to it.
I am not at all offended by this Fichtean idea, and I would suggest that among the kinds of persons that there are, we can distinguish those whose minds can be changed by rational argument (which would include philosophers who chose their philosophies for entirely rational reasons) and those whose minds cannot be changed by argumentation, and who therefore chose their philosophies on an essentially irrational basis.
Fichte’s maxim extended beyond individual choice of personal philosophy to the social choices made by societies to adopt some particular ideology or form of social organization (i.e., social philosophy) — which might be expressed such that what philosophy a society chooses depends entirely upon what kind of society it is — is an idea that is just as unwelcome as Fichte’s original maxim.
It was once commonplace to draw connections between the way of life that a particular people have and their temperament, but such connections are generally avoided now since they smack of racism. Montesquieu, who was in his day considered a very progressive thinker when he wrote The Spirit of the Laws, devoted all of Book XIV of that work to, “Of Laws in Relation to the Nature of the Climate.” Here is the opening sentence of Book XIV:
“General Idea. If it be true that the temper of the mind and the passions of the heart are extremely different in different climates, the laws ought to be in relation both to the variety of those passions and to the variety of those tempers.”
I will not at present attempt to argue that there are individual temperaments and personalities, and will not not attempt to argue that there are social temperaments that are collectively held, but I will assume both to be the case. Given, then, that there are individual temperaments and temperaments of societies taken on the whole, what is the relationship between these two? How do individual temperaments relate to social temperaments?
There is a distinction to be made between individuals whose temperament agrees with that of the society in which they find themselves, and those whose temperament is not in agreement with the society in which they live. More specifically, there is an important difference between people who happen, as a matter of historical accident, to live in individualistic societies, and those for whom individualism is instinctive and immediate. Similarly, there is an equally important difference between people who happen to live in a collectivist society and those for whom the collectivist life is personally appealing. This same observation can be extended to hierarchical societies, democratic societies, networked societies, and so forth.
Every human society consists of a variety of traditions that history has jumbled together, and that is one reason we frequently refer to hyphenated constructions like Greco-Roman or Judeo-Christian, though just as often we go without the hyphen and speak in terms of democratic capitalism or agrarian feudalism and the like. Each element in these traditions flows from a certain aspect of human life, and for every aspect of human life there is a person or persons who are especially adapted to and adept at this aspect of life, and just as assuredly there are other persons who are not adapted to this aspect of life, and may even find this aspect of life revolting, nauseating, or otherwise strongly antipathetic.
Because of individual temperamental variability (which is one expression of the individual variability that drives natural selection), most actually existing human societies, now and in the past, incorporate a wide variety of distinct roles that allow persons of differing temperaments and talents to bring their full efforts to bear upon the good of the society. Some social arrangements are better at this than others.
I am sure that anyone reading this knows someone — indeed, you may even be such a person yourself — who has a strong desire to be part of a supportive community, an interest in being socially involved in many different aspects of life, and possesses a wide social network of diverse kinds of individuals. This segment of society mostly consists of touchy-feely types who always seem to be hugging someone and who have an uncomfortably small personal bubble, making others uncomfortable even while they sincerely believe that everyone wants to be as social as they are, and, even if these others don’t want to be (and say so). Some psychologists who are incapable of distinguishing the descriptive from the prescriptive call such individuals “super normals” and their behavior is called “prosocial” (in contradistinction to those “antisocial” loners).
And then there are people like me, those who rigorously isolate themselves, even to the point of being autodidacts because we hate the social implications of being in school. For people like me, isolated individuals who want to be alone, being around other people is a torment, and no matter how much others say that is “natural,” “healthy,” and “normal” to to enjoy socializing, saying so is simply not going to change such a temperament. This segment of the population includes standoffish types who, when they greet you, shake your hand from a respectful distance and who take a step backward after knocking on a door so that, when someone answers, they will not be standing too closely.
the problem with societies is when a particular way of life that flows from a particular aspect and temperament is imposed upon everyone, including those for whom it is manifestly inappropriate. This is a central tension and conflict within society that is utterly distinct from class conflict (which some Marxists believe to be the central motor driving human history forward), and indeed it is usually played out on an individual level in conflicts between individuals and societies.
In most cases, conflicts between the individual and society end rapidly with the victory of the society over the individual, for obvious reasons. But when, purely out of historical accident, some marginal group comes to power and imposes its temperamental vision on society, this vision can exclude a large enough minority to pose an existential threat to that society, or, at very least, to its social coherence.
This sort of social conflict was a major driver of events during the religious wars in early modern Europe. Religious traditions are one of the fundamental ways in which a people expresses its temperamental inclinations. To exclude from political participation, and possibly also to intimidate and repress, a sizable minority, especially when that minority has co-religionists in neighboring political entities that may come to their aid, is to invite rebellion, civil war, and irredentist movements.
The reaction to the excesses of the religious wars in Europe, and the bloody cost of inter-communal violence, had much to do with the Enlightenment and the religious skepticism that is still much higher in Europe today than in many other parts of the world. The reaction to social intolerance gave us social tolerance on a level never before made the basis for human society. An unintended consequence of this reactionary tolerance was economic growth. We cannot say that the Enlightenment led to the Industrial Revolution, but at least to a certain limited extent the Enlightenment provided the conditions that made the Industrial Revolution possible.
The difficult truth to accept — difficult today, when the ideologies of the dominant societies militate against the recognition fundamental differences between civilizations — is that some societies and some social arrangements are are “better at” civilization than others. And it is to expected that different kinds of societies are “good at’ different kinds of civilization. It is entirely conceivable that certain types of societies are most successful as agricultural civilizations while other types of societies are most successful as industrialized civilizations. Some type of society that today is nearly dormant may prove to be the most successful society for a future iteration of civilization that has not yet dawned.
Obviously, given the present state of technology (and this was even more true for earlier, less advanced states of technology), hunter-gatherer societies are not good at civilization. In fact, the two forms of social organization — hunter-gatherer nomadism and settled civilization — have been understood to be mutually exclusive. I do not believe that this will always be the case, but this is not something that I will discuss in the present context.
Some general remarks can be made. As noted above, social tolerance seems to be much more successful that intolerance. Even before the industrial revolution, Dutch society, which was the most tolerant in Europe, was also the richest society in Europe. Also, since social arrangements are not fixed for all time (despite the strong claims made for fixity by many ideologies), a society that allows high degrees of social mobility allow societies to evolve more rapidly, and therefore able to quickly adapt to changing conditions, whether those conditions be natural or man-made.