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Aristotle through a Jaynesian Lens

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Review of Modernizing Aristotle’s Ethics: Toward a New Art and Science of Self-Actualization

Modernizing the thinking of a philosopher who lived 23 centuries ago is fraught with peril. But in this accessible, well-argued, and insightful work, Bissell and Kolhatkar are up to the challenge. To make their arguments, their analysis and application of Aristotle engages with a range of developments in present-day social sciences and philosophy.

The first chapter sets the tone by asking age-old questions: What makes us happy? What is the good life? What is virtue? Is there a human essence? Can political economy help this essence unfold in a positive way? What is admirable about Bissell and Kolhatkar’s endeavor is that they do not accept Aristotle, a giant of the Western tradition, hook-line-and-sinker and actually do update his thinking, offering a fresh perspective. For example, they reject an Aristotelian activist state, and contend that government does not guarantee human success. Instead, the state makes fulfillment possible by protecting everyone’s self-directed actions from interference by others. Chapter 2 provides a brief history of Aristotelian thought, connecting it to pre-eminent Neo-Aristotelians, Aquinas, and Ayn Rand, the founder of Objectivism (who plays a key role in the book’s arguments). Chapter 3 explores the question of the essence of human nature. The meaning of the “fullest life” is examined in chapter 4. Here Bissell and Kolhatkar highlight Rand’s “metaphysical optimism” and a “heroic sense of life.” The ethics of what a humane, meaningful life might look like is the subject of chapter 5. Here the authors also clarify key terms: Flourishing, need, virtue, values, value equilibrium, and self-actualization. In order to enable the flourishing of individuals, a humane society is required. What such a social arrangement would look like is the topic of chapter 6.

Three themes of this book become salient if seen through a Jaynesian lens. The first has to do with how the authors base their approach on ontological realism (things do in fact exist) and epistemological realism (knowledge of things is gained from sensory perception and conceptual reasoning). Realism may seem like common sense to us moderns, but in historical perspective the Aristotelian approach was intellectually groundbreaking. I submit that such realism was a reaction to the emergence of Jaynesian consciousness about three millennia ago; thinkers like Aristotle, though they did not realize it, were working out intellectual responses to massive shifts in human mentality. By the mid-first millennium BCE, a completely new psychology suited to introspective human beings, established a dualism between what is “real” and what is in some sense “not real.” In other words, the emergence of Jaynesian consciousness introduced a new spatiality—the individual’s introcosm. But this metaphoric place established a dualism of objective–versus–subjective, with the latter regarded as somehow less “real” (behaviorism, which dominated American psychology until the 1960s or so, was an extreme and unfortunate example of denying the reality of this new dimension of interiorized experience). Unlike physical entities, subjective introspectable self-awareness is difficult to measure and defies quantification. In a positive sense Jaynesian consciousness set up an inner universe within each individual, pregnant with possibilities and potentialities. On the negative side, Jaynesian
consciousness, since it can be untethered from the limitations imposed by external reality, can encourage a hypotheticality that feeds dangerously idealistic and naïve ideologies (“ideology,” as a programmatic set of plans for action, came into existence only about two centuries ago).

The second Jaynes-related theme concerns the “essence” of human nature. For this reviewer this discussion was an especially interesting part of the book, as he was trained in interpretive cultural anthropology to view claims about an essential human nature with suspicion. He was advised that since the palette of cultures is so varied, diverse, and rich any notion of a delineable human condition is illusory (moreover, from a transhumanistic perspective, humans are ever-changing, so it seems untenable to posit some permanent, stable, and distillable principle that defines humanity). This malleable perspective of the human nature resonates deeply with the leftist impulse that downplays universals and conceptualizes humans as infinitely plastic. In contrast, Bissell and Kolhatkar’s arguments about a human essence are persuasive since they address actual biological, physiological, and sociopsychological facets of our existence. From these we can we extract some fundamental principles about being a social animal. By postulating parameters of human essence, the authors usefully balance the view of excessive, naive liberalism that assumes the human condition to be radically malleable. This is a welcome maneuver, and it resonates with the Jaynesian proposition that despite our impressive neurocultural plasticity, we come with a default mode: Bicameral mentality. While this two-tier neurocultural operating system can be overridden by learning consciousness, as a neuropsychological inheritance it nevertheless still configures much of human behavior (hallucinations, hypnosis, spirit possession, and other anomalous psychological behavior).

A third theme related to Jaynes involves positive psychology. While Jaynes never developed how his understanding of subjective introspection could have useful applications, he did hint at the possibility of what might be termed self-actualization. This topic links up with Bissell and Kolhatkar’s treatment of the teleological ethic in which the end goala purposeful, meaningful lifebuilds a bridge between the “is” and the “ought.” If there is any validity to the arguments of this book, we are forced to ask if people possess a predisposition to pursue “built-in teleological ends” (p. 8). Jaynesian consciousness, allowing us to overrule questionable
behaviors, offers a route to overcoming our unhealthy habits of thought, building more adaptive life narratives, and thereby self-actualizing our potential.

The authors skillfully demonstrate how Aristotle and debates from the ancient world should not be relegated to assigned readings on a syllabus for a required general education philosophy course. By integrating a host of topics into their agenda, the authors present a fascinating discussion and inject a much-needed real-world empiricism into an analysis that can easily become vague and overly-philosophical. This book’s bold and ambitious treatment of how to cultivate a purposeful life is a useful antidote to the alienation, disaffection, and cynicism haunting modern humankind.

Brian J. McVeigh

Brian J. McVeigh has a MS in counseling and a PhD in Anthropology, Princeton University. He researches how humans adapt, both through history and therapeutically. The author of 17 books, his latest publication, "The Self-healing Mind: Harnessing the Active Ingredients of Psychotherapy" (2022), adopts a Jaynesian framework to explain how therapy works. He works as a licensed mental health counselor.

Brian McVeigh

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