Monday, March 21, 2005

Human Nature Makes the News

The chief obstacle encountered by the conservative cultural critic in modern times is the fact that many of his listeners are not entirely certain that they exist, or, if they have found the intellectual fortitude required to believe that they do, they are not completely convinced that this fact is very important.

People are still discussing Harvard President Larry Summers remarks several months ago at an academic conference that one of the reasons there are not more women scientists at the best universities was because of innate differences between the intellectual orientations of men and women. Most recently, he was the target of a no confidence vote of the Harvard faculty—the first in school history.

The responses to Summers remarks have generally taken two forms. The first was from outraged postmodernist liberals who asked how someone could even say such a thing. The second was from curious modernist conservatives who wanted to ponder whether Summers was, in fact, correct in his assertion.

The postmodern response is exactly what you would expect from people who have long since ceased believing in human nature. If you don’t believe in a permanent and enduring human nature, then making any statement about innate differences between men and women is simply preposterous, since nothing is innate (except homosexuality, which, if it were innate, would mean that homosexuality has moral implications, which is unacceptable to postmodernists).

The response of the modernists is also entirely consonant with their lack of interest in the topic. George Will, for example, mentions the relevance of human nature only briefly and in passing (, while the otherwise level-headed people at the New Criterion just blew by it altogether (

That all things have a nature or essence is a belief that goes back. Way back: before the postmodernists, before the modernists, and back to the premodernists, starting with Plato. Whether humans have a real nature unique to them that is shared by all men was a belief that was simply axiomatic—which is just another way of saying that it went without question. The only debate was where the essence of a thing resided: in each thing itself (Aristotle) or in some heavenly realm (Plato). The modern rejection of essences derives from William of Ockham, who questioned the reality of essences themselves. His view is called “nominalism”: the idea that words do not refer to natures, but are only convenient labels referring to groups of things with similar characteristics.

Larry Summers is not in trouble for what he said; he is in trouble for what he assumed. His remark that women may be inferior in one respect to men is not what got him in trouble. What got him into hot water was taking it for granted that men and women are different in any way at all.

Modernist thinking is almost unanimous in accepting (implicitly or explicitly) the nominalist view. Richard Weaver was right when he wrote in Ideas Have Consequences that the decline of the West began when William of Ockham questioned the existence of universals (natures or essences).