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.
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