The flaws of twentieth century thinking

One of the flaws of twentieth century thinking was that a lot of it was geared towards systematising the human universe around us.

Everything had to be reduced to mechanisms, often simplistic, often single-cause. This was certainly true academically, particularly in the humanities which were styling themselves as ‘scientific’ on the basis of that systematisation.

Thinking had moved on from the ‘iron laws’ that social thinkers such as Marx thought they had found in the human condition, but it hadn’t moved very far – witness the ‘psychology’ pioneered by Jung, Freud, Reich and others, in which humans were reduced to categories. If the person didn’t fit – well, it wasn’t the category that was wrong, it was the person, who had to be pulverised into conforming lest they be regarded ‘psychologically abnormal’. And so ‘psychology’ – which is absolutely not a science – became a device by which ‘psychologists’ could validate their own self-worth by bullying those who had come to them for help. Systematisation, in short, created illusions of truth – but did not penetrate to the underlying realities.

Human evolution as 'progress', public domain, via Wikipedia.
Human evolution as ‘progress’, an illusory structure that was a product of twentieth century thinking.Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Categorisation and systematisation also flowed into the wider humanities. As late as the 1990s and turn of the twentieth century, a New Zealand historian produced a general history of the country in which he systematised and structured everything, even down to the way the welfare system had developed. This, of course, followed overseas trends; but to me it came across as a contrived effort to display his academic and intellectual status.

Human reality, of course, seldom conforms to the ideals we like to attribute to it, still less to the demands the academy places to force the human condition into a shape that bestows intellectual status.

Human reality is all shades of grey – way more than 50 of them. When we look at societies there is often no single cause for a trend, no single expression of it. Frequently people will behave, individually, in ways very different from the ‘average’. And, more often than not, society doesn’t conform to the patterns we like to impose upon it.

The challenge for those trying to write about the human condition, to discover its secrets, is to understand how those interplays of light, shade and pattern work. They have to understand how the individual differs from the larger whole – yet contributes to that larger pattern. It’s tricky, it’s a balancing act, and it defies the iron-clad systematisation that, even now, frames a lot of academic thinking.

Put another way, despite fuzziness at the edges of the categories these days, things still have to be put into structures – still have to be systematised.

My take? This is the twenty-first century. We need to start thinking differently.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017


11 thoughts on “The flaws of twentieth century thinking

  1. Hi Matthew,

    I would like to inform you of a typo in your post here. From logic and observation, one can conclude that you meant 21st century rather than 20th century in your sentence “As late as the 1990s and turn of the twentieth century….”

    Happy March to you!

  2. I think this systematization of society arose out of the industrial era, and is very much an industrial mindset, even in the way children are taught in schools. I firmly believe we have moved fully into a post-industrial world, which will require much more dynamic and diverse modes of thought, teaching, “employment”, and development — society just hasn’t caught on yet.

    1. I agree. It was at its most intense in the nineteenth century. The twentieth gave an illusion of being sophisticated because it was a development of that framework, but it didnt break the mould. Definitely defined by the thinking that emerged from the process of industrialisation.

  3. I picked up a book recently called the Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition – a 14th century compendium of knowledge from a (now rather old) scholar. It certainly highlights how far humanity has progressed. About a year ago I also read Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, for some scientific enlightenment (not having the most academic mind – it helped). Yet, ideologically, the world seems to be at a key point right now where progressivism is facing a backlash from right wing values – harking back to t’olden days of fearing one another. It’ll be interesting to see how it all progresses. Probably not for the best, knowing humans, but at least there’s still Mozart to listen to.

    1. And Frank Zappa…. who seems to have predicted pretty much where the US has gone. I agree – we’re at a nexus point now. It seems to be where the neo-liberalism of the 1980s has ended up, and it’s generational – which is pretty much typical of the way historical trend seems to work. You know – neo-liberalism was a reaction to the generationally-framed trend of protectionism, which itself was a reaction to the generationally-framed trend of social militarism (this takes us back to the 1880s…) and so on. Social trends since industrialisation seem to be framed by 1-3 generation long spans. Each, curiously, has had their demons – the cherry-bomb wielding, bearded anarchists of the 1890s; the Evil Hun of the 1920s, then the red-flag wielding Communists of the mid-twentieth century, and so on. I don’t subscribe to cyclic history – the specifics of any period are defined by their own realities and past – but the high-end similarities and length of the trends probably says something about the nature of the human condition.

      1. Cyclic human behaviour I certainly subscribe to. We’ll always be bickering about this and that, but the intelligent approach is to respect differing opinions. This is something many have singularly failed to do. In modern times (rather than all out battles at any given moment), disputes have head online. I’m fascinated by the behaviour of people in comments sections – really atrocious, obnoxious behaviour in many instances. Deindividuation, I think it’s called – some subconscious personality traits emerging due to the anonymity of the internet. Anyway, I blame Communism. Bloody reds etc.!

        I’ve missed your posts of late, by the way, so I’ll pay a visit more frequently! I just started a new job. Been rather hectic. Have an excellent weekend!

  4. So true! We live and work and behave in ways that are still so often fundamentally unchanged, even 17 years into the 21st century. It’s amusing how much of our current language still references 19th or earlier century usages, like nautical terms or those from traveling on horseback or by carriage.

    I often wonder how often people also stop to realize how we live and move to accommodate technology and not vice versa. 1) elevators — why should we have to RUSH before the bloody doors close? 🙂 2) mammogram machines. Dear God, what torture, Ask any woman!

    1. I agree – we’re inevitably framed by the world around us. The way older usage persists is extraordinary – even down to calling our digital phone sounds ‘ringtones’, although I think I last saw a phone with an actual bell-and-clapper in it around 1970… In a general sense, I think the human condition underpins all of the ways we express and perceive the world, but it also interacts with that framework (as subtle as the ubiquity of world communications, or as annoying as those lift doors) causes different aspects of the human condition to emerge. I don’t doubt that a new form of thinking will arrive in due course – these things, as far as I can tell, are multi-generational but change tends to be pushed by crisis, and that’s unfolding now.

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