Foucalt on the Human Sciences
Why I am a Cognitivist
(revised January 18, 1997)


Invoking biological processes to understand human cognition often elicits a negative response, and I would like to give a personal reply to the most common objection, namely that it implies we are not in charge of our destinies. Already Nietzsche argued, in Beyond Good and Evil, that it is preferable to explain human behavior in terms of cultural variables, since we are in control of culture, but not of biology. It is not clear to me, however, that the two domains can be so clearly divided, that we really are in control of culture, and that a biological explanation of cognition implies our own attempts at understanding ourselves will have no effect.

The Postmodern Condition

My initial interest in evolutionary psychology was due to what I perceived as a failure of postmodern thinking to provide a possibility for meaningful human change, on either the psychological or the social level. The postmodern critique of knowledge suggested that the procedures for generating reliable knowledge were irreparably tainted, and thinking itself marred by inextricable contradictions; it seemed little useful could be done with this starting point. The enthusiasm connected with it implied a moral righteousness I found wholly vacuous (quietistic, as a friend put it), and the intellectual impact of extremely complex theories amounted to an exhilarating endorphine rush of a sustained attempt of self-consciously undermining the self, of trying to think the unthinkable. I ultimately found the contradictions merely self-indulgent, promoting a class of academic superstars whose obscure sentiments were cited as authoritative truth. The lag with actual knowledge being produced in other disciplines struck me as increasingly glaring; while we could cite Freud and Marx as if they simply spoke the truth (I'm not even claiming people really believed this; it was just a convention), we could not, as I found, utilize current research in psychology and economics without scaling a glass mountain.

The Denial of Human Nature

Particularly counterproductive I found the dogmatic denial of anything approaching a common human nature: if we share nothing in our mental architecture, if there is no such thing as a human mind, there is no way we can even begin to address clearly universal and persistent human problems such as violence, prejudice, oppression, alienation, and meaningless suffering--what Arthur Koestler called man's "paranoid streak". Of course, problems need to be addressed at the local level, but a programmatic and dogmatic exclusion of a general understanding makes little sense. Thus, the grounding of psychology and behavior in actual neurological structures whose design and typical use (see the Glossary on proper function) can be understood through the study of evolution provides at least a theoretical possibility for understanding what we are dealing with in a systematic fashion. The question then becomes, will such an understanding actually helpful, psychologically and politically? Or, on the contrary, will they only convey the depressing message that we are biologically determined and have no hand in our own future?

Biological Necessities are not Absolute

Some early materialist thinkers (e.g. David Hartley) held that free will was an illusion, since it would have to interrupt a causal chain imbued with an absolute necessity. Certain versions of applications of genetic theory to animal and human behavior -- notably, the early work in sociobiology -- made similar assumptions. Human behavior, it was argued, is a result of an attempt to maximize reproductive fitness (for a critique, see the sociobiological fallacy). However, since evolution produces adaptations designed to solve specific tasks (rather than individuals that are domain-general fitness maximizers), there is a theoretical decoupling between the underlying logic of gene replication and human nature. Evolutionary changes take place slowly, resulting in relatively stable structures. These structures are not subject to a real-time genetic control; rather, they are constructed with the assistance of genes and function according to rules that are at least implicit and partially specified in the genes.

An understanding of these structures, moreover, puts us under no obligation to act in accordance with their logic. True, the structures often have an in-built motivational component; thus, an account of human mate preference would include an appreciation of the nature of desire. The question at this point would be, does the proposal that mate preference has a biological component make desire absolute?

This would surely be a ridiculous conclusion. Since the various desires human beings are capable of having cannot in any case all be satisfied, both because they frequently contradict each other and because such a project would require infinite resources, it is not a meaningful proposition to treat the logic of adaptations as normative for how to organize society. Even if we wanted to, we could not organize society to satisfy all natural desires. This holds true even in hunter-gatherer societies in which conditions approximate those of our ancestors. It is in the nature of reality that not all desires will be satisfied; thus, to claim biological determinism as a justification for treating desires as being subject to absolute necessity is pure delusion. In today's megasocieties, humans have modified their environment so dramatically that many of our natural tendencies are individually maladaptive or socially undesirable. The organization both of society and of the individual psyche thus becomes an open question, and an appeal to the natural as normative is inadequate.

The Quixotic Effect

Unlike most of my colleagues in the humanities and social sciences, I do not draw from this fact the conclusion that human nature is therefore irrelevant. This seems to me a highly irresponsible and incoherent position whose practical effects are likely produce results that are very different from those we aim for. I agree, however, that knowledge of human cognitive structures cannot be treated purely instrumentally, in the way scientific knowledge is traditionally treated. Science presupposes a distance between the subject and the object, and a novel and interesting situation arises when we investigate the mind of the investigator. What needs to be relinquished is the notion that science can produce a complete account of a phenomenon (see the discussion on knowledge as perspective).

Complicating the account of human nature and its social implications is the fact that accounts of human nature, if taken to be true, tend to be enacted (the Quixotic effect). Thus, the description modifies the described; the notion of human nature is to some extent a participatory concept, violating the principle of objectivity. This holds true of a scientifically grounded approach as much as any other.

While knowledge of these structures cannot simply be treated as instrumental, it would be folly to disregard or deny their existence. To eschew truth because its literal interpretation and enactment would be unfortunate would be to accord the quixotic effect an absolute strength, which is clearly unwarranted.

While an understanding of human cognitive structures has no normative power on behavior, they may help us create something that is genuinely coherent. Human psychological and social structures must be created out of our deepest understanding of the totality of the situation. This would as a matter of course involve designing social forms that do not aim to satisfy the logic of some specific human adaptation.

Francis Steen
January 1997

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© 1997 Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles