I am currently reading a monster of a book. At 802 pages, Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature, leaves even a voracious reader like myself a little winded. Pinker’s argument is that the world has become less and less violent over time, so much so that we now live in what is the most peaceful period of human history ever.
It has been many years since I wrestled with Kant’s critique - of “pure reason”, and I only ever got half way through anyhow.
Yet I did not find this noumenon (thing in itself) vs phenomenon (appearance), much different from Platonic ideas of patterns and forms? Doesn’t he also argue for knowledge “a priori”, another very Platonic view for the substantiation and evidence of souls as real?
Also this determinism for purpose and direction of the Universe, (and intelligence), can also be found in the beliefs of the ancient Greek stoics.. such as “everything that happens, happens for a reason”.. for the purposeful direction of the Universe?
So how much of this was Kant’s original thinking from that of ancient Greeks?
The Categorical imperative would seem impossible to attain in any circumstance, and morality ought only be defined as purely subjective anyhow?
I will dig a little deeper with these proposals - thanks!
But that is particular to a certain people’s experience, not human kind as a whole.
Even with the Stoics I don’t think you find the idea of the progress of human kind merely the existence of an order to the Universe that is already there, a recognition of it, and an ordering of one’s individual life according to its precepts.
If Kant never (you mean never?) left Königsberg, how could he have known the welt? But good for him.
As for the original topic, a v. strong case can be made that violence has indeed diminished since 1945: all the evidence is available, nukes probably—obviously—put a stop to the escalation of war; the proxy wars of 1945- 1989 were, to the interest of the great powers, limited, contained.
Whether the diminishment of war will continue is unknown, yet it does appear to be a long-term trend. This month is the 70th anniversary of the end of the Stalingrad battle; since 1945 few or no battles have been as large as Stalingrad (would have to examine all the battles of the Chinese Civil War to know for sure, albeit it does appear WWII was the high mark of titanic warfare—and we’d better damn well hope it remains so). The first and last time nukes were used was in August of 1945.
Thus one can state with great confidence warfare has diminished to some degree since 1945.
The long and short is that the picture is not as bright as Pinker paints.
Posted by Intomorrow on 02/08 at 12:18 AM
Foucault, now there was a genius. Am going to read your link.
However one might say (and naturally it’s been gone into before) violence has been ‘randomised’—dis-organised to some degree. Rather than being concentrated in some locations, violence has been ‘spread out’; diffused. WWII Europe, for starters, saw war concentrated in E. Europe, Russia, certain areas of N. Africa and the Pacific.
Less so since 1945.
Violence in America (the only nation I’m familiar with) has ‘spread out’; in some ways worse.. in some ways the situation has improved.. but nonlinear change is the oldest platitude in sociology, futurism. True, crime, oppression—the deplorable court, jail, prison, situation mentioned in your link and elsewhere—is in fact worse in some ways. Think though how blacks were lynched by the thousands previous to a half-century ago. For brevity’s sake will write that is for starters and leave it there. The outright genocide of native Americans. Etc. The Civil War of 150 years ago was worse than any other US war since. Etc. And on and on. I do remember the ‘60s-‘70s as being ‘better’, yet I remember quite clearly when and why such began: an escape from the Vietnam War, the riots in cities, the Six Day Mideast war of June ‘67 right at the beginning of the Summer of Love. And more. WWII also changed a great deal of minds by shocking those minds. The Korean War of 1950- 1953 played a role in pacifist thinking. I never say better per se, however different, yes. To write I’m overly-optimistic would be a new twist! it does appear that by midcentury violence might diminish radically; perhaps war will finish altogether- but maybe not. In 1913, a century ago, some thought war might end yet by August of the next year they may well have changed their minds. And by the early ‘40s (i.e. midcentury) they were less sure war would finish soon. I get pessimistic every time I see the oppressed, uneducated, manipulated people around, the bad religion at soup kitchens, the revolving door court and recidivist penal systems. And they are systems, even the welfare system is somewhat predatory a system. All to squeeze the lower and middle classes out. I diss the Midwest at times but it out in the open, is clinically fascinating to watch how productively and vibrantly, often cheerfully, people here squeeze each other out. It is v. sophisticated and grossly materialistic at the same time-
people convince themselves they are only doing what Darwin, Adam Smith, or even God, want them to do. The umbrella term would be creative destruction, correct? Don’t know how anyone can stand it, albeit if they’ve known it all their lives, have benefitted from it then it is second nature to them, it is their psychic substrate and they cannot imagine different parameters. Mostly I think how foolish I was to think the world could idiosyncratically be as I wanted it to be, that in a world of differentiation, life could be simply understood. We have to go with the flow and hope the flow doesn’t wash us away…
Posted by Intomorrow on 02/08 at 04:10 AM
... the Pinker topic is too large to get a handle on, however though there’s no hard evidence violence has diminished since 1945, violence has leveled out. Nukes were used twice in August of ‘45 but not since—there’s been no escalation in using nukes, only constructing them.
Posted by CygnusX1 on 02/08 at 06:13 AM
Steven Pinker may be a little premature in light of the current world global socioeconomic problems and future ecological pressures, (climate change, food, water shortages etc). I remain rather sceptical of his viewpoint myself.. why?
Q: Has the Human “individual mindset” towards violence really changed at all since the times of the ancients? I would declare with emphasis NO! Not at all! Not in the slightest, and this is reflected in localised and domestic violence against innocents even now in the most civilized of societies?
Violence against women and children is no less psychologically deep seated than ever it was, and it is only social cooperation and adherence to deterrent laws and fear of punishment that keeps us all in tow?
Increase in legislation and nuanced laws against all types of abuse, including racism, and together with accountability leads to a more “peaceful and secure” society held under duress of justice and punishment. Yet remove these restrictions even slightly, and nothing will stop regression towards darker times?
Austerity measures across the world are leading to social unrest and increased violence. Shortage of food and water will lead to greater unrest and violence. Societies can only cater for punishment against the few, so lesser crimes including sexual harassment, molestation and rape, (still sexual violence), are dealt with using leniency, leading to statistical anomalies that support reduction of global violence?
The way I approached violence in my Foucault piece was, yes, that violence had far from disappeared but had become hidden, internalized, psychological. The best example of this is, yes, the prison system, but much else of violence has gone underground in this way including slavery which is still around and I don’t mean “wage slavery”, but the old-fashioned kind of forced work through coercion. Pinker is, however, not completely off when it comes to the decline of violence as I’ll discuss in my comments to CYNGUS below.
For how much I find Pinker’s argument flawed, I think he is onto something. It is certainly the case that our norms regarding physical violence have changed- at least in the West, although it seems to be spreading beyond that.
Cases in point: it isn’t just illegal to beat your spouse today, for most of us I think it has become unthinkable. Similarly, hitting ones children as a form of discipline was once near universal and now, at least among elites is almost unheard of. Pinker does not think human nature has changed- there hasn’t been enough time for evolution on that score it is more like society has put its weight behind the “better angels of our nature”. He does not think, nor do I, that any breakdown of society would result in the instant reappearance of human kind’s violent side. It took a long time for us to internalize these new norms regarding violence and it would likely take very extreme social breakdown over an extended period to undo them.
Posted by CygnusX1 on 02/08 at 10:12 AM
“He does not think, nor do I, that any breakdown of society would result in the instant reappearance of human kind’s violent side. It took a long time for us to internalize these new norms regarding violence and it would likely take very extreme social breakdown over an extended period to undo them.”
We shall see, (although I think we have already in Syria, Libya and elsewhere)?
Like I said, it is society and law/punishment that contains violence, not memes.
I do not think we should over generalize the cases in Syria, Libya,
Iraq etc. as proof of any sort for Hobbseian conclusions about human nature.
In Syria, for instance what you have is a civil war against an Alawite minority that has brutally ruled over a Sunni majority for decades. However deep the sociopolitical divisions in America they are no where near that deep and however weak our political institutions they are not one step away from collapse as they were in these other places. Violence in the case of disaster is not, in our case, a forgone conclusion.
Posted by CygnusX1 on 02/08 at 10:53 AM
I am not over generalising, but you and Pinker are.
I am not talking politics, I am saying that violence at the level of the individual mindset has not diminished at all. You may not like this opinion, but it is offered none-the-less.
I am not sure what the levels of violence are like in Pennsylvania, (although I remember a heinous shooting crime at an elementary school some couple of years back that turned my stomach and raised my emotion), But I live in London a city where there is violence occurring every single day.
Just two examples this week..
Two young girls of 16 murdered in different parts of the country, one in Blackpool where she was stabbed in the face and then set alight.
Man stabbed and killed in front of his pregnant wife and young son outside KFC for protesting they should not swear at the staff.
Are you aware of the child murders and raping perpetrated by rebels in Syria?
Yes I am aware of the horrendous level of violence in the Syrian conflict.
Any unnecessary murder or assault is a tragedy, but what I think you are missing is the per capita level of violence. The per capita level of crime in London is less than in the past even if we are more aware of individual crimes through modern media.
Posted by CygnusX1 on 02/08 at 04:05 PM
We must take care to differentiate between crime and violence, violent crimes statistics? Nothing would soothe more than to believe that violent instincts and memes are diminishing, I hope that Pinker is correct. However it is also dangerous to delude ourselves and become too complacent when heading for a future of socioeconomic instability and uncertainty?
People scoffed at Plato too, for proposing that only the ignorant and unwise commit violence and crime. We Humans are not so enlightened as yet, and although the buck stops with the individual and his conscience, justice and laws are the only thing protecting societies from pandemonium?
And although you don’t find the “Nightfall” social destruction dilemma convincing, (I was not convinced either), remember it takes but a few days and nights to raise a city to ashes, a scenario where only more violence can halt violence?
Posted by Intomorrow on 02/08 at 04:19 PM
“The way I approached violence in my Foucault piece was, yes, that violence had far from disappeared but had become hidden, internalized, psychological. The best example of this is, yes, the prison system, but much else of violence has gone underground in this way including slavery which is still around and I don’t mean “wage slavery”, but the old-fashioned kind of forced work through coercion. Pinker is, however, not completely off when it comes to the decline of violence as I’ll discuss in my comments to CYNGUS below.”
Above you have responded right on-target. Nothing to add save for writing the one bright spot in futurism for me has always been examining WWII and its aftermath to perceive how there was conscious decision to avoid the fiasco of the League of Nations—and perhaps the only success was the avoidance of utilising WMDS after ‘45 (a specific example: during the Korean War it was decided not to use tactical nukes on a N. Korean target, probably most of all because of fear of a large-scale reaction from China. Vietnam War was so gnarly in part because of the Western interest in being humane versus the gung-ho interest in winning the war; no wonder it was such an ultra-confused mess.. colonels telling generals what they wanted to hear; generals telling LBJ what he wanted to hear and so forth).
It was witnessing the early ‘70s which inspired my particular strain of optimism on this. How the worm has turned if I should be optimistic via something.
Oh, I don’t think Pinker’s theory tells us anything we can bank on in terms of the future. He had a pretty hard time explaining the spike in violence of the 1960s and 70s and only half jokingly blamed it on rock ‘n roll. Sufficient social breakdown could easily throw positive trends regarding norms and violence into reverse- but I don’t think this happens overnight as in Nightfall- but something I think we are seeing now in places under great stress such as Greece. Which ties into my response to Intomorrow.
@Intomorrow: I don’t think we have any clear idea what caused “peace” to break out since WWII. Although I am not sure we were
very “humane” in Vietnam- we dropped more bombs on that little country than we did in all of WWII, we at least walk the walk now. What worries me in terms of keeping this peace going is what will happen in East Asia- the disputes between China and its neighbors look surprisingly like 19th century Europe. Perhaps the sheer destructiveness of modern war will cause cooler heads to prevail. I think we would cross a new risk threshold if one of the major powers thinks it can “win” a conflict because of some technological break through- such as Israel’s “Iron Dome”. I’d rather Pinker be proved right and my fears shown to be unfounded or as the hippies always said “make love not war!”.
Posted by Intomorrow on 02/09 at 06:36 AM
“not sure we were very ‘humane’ in Vietnam- we dropped more bombs on that little country than we did in all of WWII”
There was an interest in being humane conflicting with the militarism. That’s where the political schizophrenia of the time could be seen in full view: make love not war versus the hardhats attacking war protesters with lengths of pipe.
Agreed, I think the first group moved us morally along. It’s up to us to preserve the gains.
Posted by Intomorrow on 02/15 at 11:55 PM
Thinking about for the last week, one might say Pinker had something. I remember the Vietnam War era clearly, and surveying the period it cannot be said humaneness has definitely improved since then. Yet as Kant might have written, people are more realistic (empirical). The Blake painting brought back memories of the naiveite’ of the times, when millions thought they could return to nature; predictably, it was a fad.
If memory serves, Kant wrote of science as being based on synthetic a priori: science is human-constructed but it exists apart from us, as an extension of us—it does possess ‘materiality’.
And all that jazz.
Even in light of its many flaws I’d still recommend you check out Better Angels at some point. It’s an 800 + page monster, but it does give one a lot to think about.
Posted by Intomorrow on 02/17 at 07:54 AM
Will skim through it sometimes- 800+ pgs. is too much of a good thing, Rick. But we can postulate in a nebulous, globalistic, futurist sense the world has become to some degree less violent—problem is, at the rate we are civilising we wont be truly civilised until after 2100.
This is a good piece, Rick.. incl. the illustrations; Blake’s painting was a good choice, Blake was perhaps the epitome of Romantic Age ‘culture’.. brings to mind why the ‘back-to-nature’ movement surfaced and why it predictably—inevitably—faded after a decade or so (‘68 to ‘78, just say). It was a continuation of romanticism a century later. The last gasp of the Romantic Age. ‘Back-to-nature’ was the one aspect of alternative ‘culture’ the straights appreciated. In America it fitted into Jefferson’s maverick ruralism—as distinguished from Hamiltonian urbanism. The Silent Majority might have thought Blake was a prissy European painting nude 18th century blonde cuties, yet Blake had an attraction to nature or at least the rustic, and Andy Griffith could have admired that. Aunt Bea mighta placed a copy of one of Blake’s painting on the living room wall- however not one of them nude ones.