Facts of Life

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • Ethology by Robert Hinde
    Oxford/Fontana, 320 pp, £9.50, February 1982, ISBN 0 19 520370 4
  • Social Anthropology by Edmund Leach
    Oxford/Fontana, 254 pp, £9.50, February 1982, ISBN 0 19 520371 2
  • Religion by Leszek Kolakowski
    Oxford/Fontana, 235 pp, £9.50, February 1982, ISBN 0 19 520372 0
  • Historical Sociology by Philip Abrams
    Open Books, 353 pp, £12.00, April 1982, ISBN 0 7291 0111 8

Textbook writers set examinations. The rationale is clear, the interest transparent. In what in the United States is called ‘behavioural science’, such people have a standard first chapter and a standard first question. What is behavioural science the science of? In BS101, the standard first course, some more or less elaborate padding with examples of the answer ‘just that, behaviour’ will do. In BS201, however, candidates might be expected to have picked up the now conventional view in the post-empiricist philosophy of science (PS101) that to construct such a science, we not only abstract and generalise but also observe with categories that we ourselves bring to the behaviour that interests us. Behaviour, in the strict sense, is mute. By BS301, though, candidates might also have picked up the complicating view in the post-empiricist philosophy of the more deliberately human sciences that behaving humans often themselves describe what they do, and that such descriptions are not merely important additional information, but decisive. Human actions, in this view, are their descriptions. Indeed, by the end of BS301 candidates might find themselves steering, or simply veering, to the uncomfortable conclusion that there are two sorts of human science, one more or less behavioural, the other, as fashionable language now has it, hermeneutic: and yet that we set these two sorts of science up to deal with what on any moderately commonsensical view appears to be the same subject-matter. BS401 (and PS401) will only compound the problem. There, candidates might and arguably should be encouraged to abandon the view that an agent’s description of what he is doing has any cognitive privilege after all. ‘The difference between his description and ours,’ in Richard Rorty’s words, ‘may mean that he should not be tried under our laws. It does not mean that he cannot be explained by our science.’ Realism, the doctrine that things are as they are independent of any description of them, can only be false for things which just are their descriptions. For these, there is no conceivable fact of the matter. (For Rorty, any realism, if not false, is idle, since because of the interference of language we can never know that we know even the properties of things which have properties. This breezy bleakness does have the striking if solitary virtue of dissolving all claimed differences between the two sorts of science.) Nevertheless, the agent does still have his descriptions. The suspicion remains that unless we can actually talk to him and persuade him to change his mind, our own descriptions, if different, are still in some sense misdescriptions. They are our descriptions of him, but they are not descriptions for him. Here the arguments finally break out and break down. BS501 (and PS501 too) await their textbook writers.

Frank Kermode’s masterguides are not such men. As Leach, for instance, explains, he is not offering stock answers to any stock questions. Indeed, he warns, anyone who read him for this would be put down by most examiners as ‘old-fashioned, egocentric, unscientific, escapist’ and altogether incoherent. (Reviewing himself, he adds, he might say the same.) Leach, Hinde and Kolakowski, and Abrams, too, in a sane and often elegant account of how history and sociology connect (divided, Abrams insists, not by logic, only by rhetoric), are all concerned not simply to survey but also to argue. Each, in doing so, provides a splendid account of his field. None, however, claims authority. And they disagree. Hinde gestures towards the possibility of an ‘integrated science of human inter-personal relationships’, to which the main obstacle is ‘an adequate descriptive base’. This, if we had it, would consist in extensive comparisons of behavioural traits. Leach regards ‘this whole ideology’, as he calls it, of itemised comparison as ‘quite incomprehensible’, rails intemperately against sociobiology, likewise derides those pragmatically-inclined American anthropologists who see man as a highish ape in clothes called ‘culture’, and concludes that anthropology is more like novel-writing (bad novel-writing) than science. Kolakowski, understandably in view of his subject, reflects most insistently on his premises and those of others, claims no exclusive validity for the believer’s, but suggests that the alternative, the anthropologist’s, delivers an account of religion which may miss its point. Abrams, inclined to Marxism, agrees that Marxism can probably not sustain the theory of real interests which informs it, and then deliberately drops the matter, remarking simply that it gives us the best perspective we can presently get. Yet not only he, because he takes a Marxist view, and Hinde, but Leach, and, most surprisingly and not a little paradoxically, Kolakowski too, take the same general stand. Agents’ accounts will not altogether do. Full understanding demands our own.

This is least surprising in Hinde. Ethology in the modern sense, and not John Stuart Mill’s, the study of animal behaviour, is self-evidently a biological science. And insofar as it concerns itself with non-human animals, it has no agents’ accounts to contend with. Least like a novelist, therefore, certainly least like a bad novelist, for he writes with a quite compelling clarity, Hinde distinguishes four questions. What are the immediate causes of behaviour? What is its development through a life? What is its function? And what is its evolution through time? In his answers, he makes a couple of things very clear. First, ethology depends upon close observation. It proceeds inductively, by comparison and abstraction. Second, it nevertheless presumes that the theory of natural selection is right, even if that theory has now to be modified by Hamilton’s revision, which suggests that individuals are selected ‘to act not to maximise their own fitness (measured in terms of their own survival and reproduction) but their inclusive fitness (measured in terms of their own survival and reproduction and that of their relatives, though devalued in the latter case by the degree of relatedness)’.

Ethology starts with the chaffinch and other beasts, proceeds through the four questions, continues with the subject’s relation to other biological sciences, and concludes with its relation to the human social sciences. But does one answer questions in the latter with biology? Having dispatched the wilder extravagances of Wilson’s sociobiology, and having most deliberately dispatched Wilson’s claim that behaviour is to be explained by reduction to the truths of neurophysiology and sensory physiology, Hinde does face the issue. His answer is clear. Different levels of activity, from neurophysiology through bits of behaviour and social relations to cultural forms, cannot, yet, be exhaustively explained by the next level down. One must only be sure that the accordingly sui generis explanations are not actually inconsistent with explanations on the lower level. Yet Hinde does believe that an integrated science is to be had, and so despite his sense of the riddliness of what Kolakowski refers to as the great riddles, such as how did it come to be the case, if Darwin is right, that culture, distinctive to man, acquired its own momentum and causal force, he cannot resist temptation. For example, he speculates, the disposition to polygyny or serial monogamy in most marriage systems could be the result of the fact that human sexual dimorphism in fighting ability, which is essentially difference in size, causes males to compete with each other for females. This, which in its outcome implies considerable variation in the males’ reproductive potential, might in turn explain their greater mortality in the womb and after, their much slower maturation, and the widespread tendency to favour male children. Indeed, because of the need to give long and constant nurture to this more fragile sex, the huge human penis may have evolved to keep parents together.

Leach will have none of this. He is, as he admits and as Hinde politely implies, a reactionary. He rejects speculation on an unknowable past; although he loves facts, he disdains empiricism, so that for him, unlike Hinde, social structure is ‘a conceptualised or idealised pattern of relationships’ rather than ‘something abstracted from data on behaviour’; he regards the unity of man, as against the idea of a series of quasi-human natural kinds, as a historically peculiar although analytically convenient convention; and he has no doubt that ‘anthropologists who imagine that, by the exercise of reason, they can reduce the observations of the ethnographers to a nomothetic natural science are wasting their time.’ Having thus taken care to offend almost everyone, he sets off with grumbling gusto to give his own view. Informed though this is by what he disarmingly describes as a dialectic involving the belief that man is one species but many societies (little wonder, he remarks in passing, that we’re in such a frightful muddle about equality and inequality), it turns out to be rather straightforward. Vulgar Marxism, he thinks, has something to be said for it. We start from the ground up. Kinship, in the social sense, and cosmology are the central facts of life in the kinds of society that anthropologists still find to study. These two realms are ‘transformations of each other’ and both are in turn ‘transformations of the real-life experience of those who invent them’. But this experience is not primarily economic. It is, in the cognitive sense, psychological. Social structures ‘represent alternative solutions to intellectual paradox’. One species and yet many societies, and dependence and independence in each. Our own surprise at the elaboration of kinship and cosmology elsewhere, Leach suggests, and Kolakowski agrees, is because our own relatively recent resort to money to make everything commensurable, including the incommensurable, has dulled us to a human truth. It is we who are odd.

Leach’s insistence, therefore, that the anthropologist’s claim to superior perception comes from his looking at societies from the inside cannot be right. Leach himself is looking at them neither from the inside nor from the outside. He is simply, looking at them from here. As Abrams insists, talking of societies made strange by time rather than space, no one can do anything else. But to look at cosmologies from anywhere, Kolakowski argues, in the belief that they can be put into propositional form, is a mistake. Even the simple grid of Leach’s psychologistic Hegelianism, a grid in which the ineffable mysteries of unity in diversity are put into opposing plus and minus signs with a mysteriously synthesising zero in between, implies, as does Leach throughout his argument, an austerely cognitive view of religious belief. The mistake in such intellectuality, Kolakowski insists, a mistake more glaringly made by all those theologians who have come out to argue with their opponents on their opponents’ ground, is that it misses the paradox at the heart of true belief, the paradox in mysticism: the attempt cognitively to grasp the Sacred in an emotionally necessary notion of Oneness.

Kolakowski is very good on this. By temperament, possibly, something of a mystic himself, by commitment first a Catholic, then a Marxist, and then perhaps a Catholic again, by training an analytic philosopher in a rich and distinctively Polish manner, someone who has written beautifully on 17th-century heresies, on Hegel’s theological roots and on positivism too, he briskly rehearses the actual arguments for and against God, and likes neither. Epistemology obviously has its place, he explains, in rationally reflecting on our experience, but not here. For the experience of God, of the Christian God and of others, is of a different kind. ‘People are initiated into the understanding of a religious language and into worship through participation in the life of a religious community.’ And that life, as the mystics have seen, is propositionally inexpressible. Thus, such expressible moral injunctions as it might deliver are propositionally unprovable. They ‘cannot ultimately be validated without an appeal to the repository of transcendent wisdom’. An innate moral wisdom is implausible, and the other much canvassed proof, Kant’s, fails at its crucial point. Why do I have to accept consistency in and between the rules by which I live and the rules by which I wish others to do so? One species, maybe, but many societies and many sorts of men.

Nevertheless, to advance the ethical claim for us all, as Kolakowski does, that ‘if there is no God, everything is permissible’ is not, he insists, ‘to suggest any theory about anthropological or psychological connections between morals and religious beliefs. The two sets of questions are logically independent.’ They are. Accordingly, one can cheerfully propose such a theory, bristling with propositions, and still inarticulately appeal to God for moral authority. Kolakowski is not inarticulate. Nor he is cheerful. ‘The capacity for guilt,’ he asserts, ‘has constituted the human race as we know it.’ This is not the guilt which might follow from violating some rule or other. It is the guilt that brings suffering, the guilt that relates to ‘a lived allegiance to an order of taboos’. We have recently been doing rather well in working towards a society with extensive law and no taboo – Hobbes is its supreme theorist: but we are not there yet, and it is difficult to imagine what it would feel like if we were. We would certainly not, even on the most generous theory of continuing identity, be us. It is true, Kolakowski concedes, that the connection between cosmology and morality may be rather loose in some archaic and otherwise remote societies, although not, one might add, in any described by a Leach-like anthropologist. But in the great monotheistic religions, it is close. The natural state of a Christian, as Pascal said to his sister, is sickness. Christianity and other such religions may therefore be seen, Kolakowski concludes, ‘as an expression of what in human misery is incurable by human efforts’. There is an ‘ontological reality in suffering’. ‘The real is what people crave for.’

One species, many societies, many sorts of men, many sufferings, many cravings, many realities? Hinde makes no claim to explain the cultural differences. Leach is careful to balance any generality with far-flung facts. Kolakowski, perhaps, is too preoccupied with our own culture, a culture of guilt and law, in which the only options can seem to be unquestioned authority or unbridled discretion: he is too inattentive to alternative cultures of social shame. But if one sets that aside and considers in the light of the philosophical argument about realism the progression from one species through many societies to a babel of cravings, a disconnection appears. There may well be a fact of the matter about our disposition to maximise our inclusive fitness. There may just be a fact of the matter about pain: understandably, for philosophers, a crucial case. But there is almost certainly no fact of the matter about suffering and the culture it may constitute. Even if we wanted an integrated science of human affairs, and we probably don’t, since it is very unclear what we would do with it if we had it, we couldn’t have it. So ‘if the clash between Heaven and Earth is real’, as Kolakowski believes it is, then the implication ‘that each of them taken separately is real, at least as a cultural entity, and neither is a phantom conceived in the other’s imagination,’ has to be taken with care. An account of ‘a cultural entity’ is our own more or less summary account of believers’ accounts, and neither refers to anything which is independent of any such account. A penis-property, not to put too fine a point on it, is a penis-property, whatever anyone says. A God-property and suffering are not. Leach may be right when he says that kinship, in the wide sense, is perhaps the place at which the two realms separate and connect. But that sense of kinship is indeed very wide. The place is still very dark. It would be a brave man who did write the textbook for BS501.