This book was published in 1954, amid what the author, Dr. Joseph Wood Krutch, calls ‘The Age of Anxiety’. The world had just suffered through two wars that heavily eroded the optimism that had existed at the beginning of the 20th century. The tremendous destruction had seriously shaken the ideals of the world. This led people to question whether humanity was destined to destroy itself altogether.
In the book, Krutch argues that though humanity seems to be on a rough course, there are still possibilities for us. He eloquently deconstructs the wholesale mechanistic evaluation of humankind by pointing out a myriad of gaps in the reasoning of this ideology. The crux of the discussion is exemplified in the following snippet:
“Obviously, then, we have to begin by telling the mechanist that, however inconvenient he may find our insistence, we simply will not permit him to disregard any of the facts; not any of the facts and, especially, not so tremendous a fact as the fact of consciousness. Descartes, we shall say, was right. That we think–or rather that we are aware–is, of all things the one which we know most directly and incontrovertibly. It may be a difficult fact to deal with but it is primary. Consciousness is the one thing which incontrovertibly is, and if there is one thing which we cannot afford to leave out of consideration it is that. To refuse to concern ourselves with it is to make the most monstrous error that could possibly be made.”
To the response that consciousness is merely mechanistic, Krutch devotes a significant portion of the book. One argument in particular is very interesting. He argues that by using the word ‘mechanism’ to try to explain a concept like consciousness means that we are operating under a very different definition of ‘mechanism’ than what it normally implies. Having broadened the definition of ‘mechanism’ to include the phenomena of consciousness, we no longer know what ‘mechanism’ is. I find this very interesting in light of my background in psychology and physics. Understanding even normal physical phenomena mechanistically can be incredibly difficult. To continue to use the term with a system as complex as the human brain is to use the term in a different sense than we would use to describe something like a Rube Goldberg Machine.
Drawing upon a diverse array of areas of human knowledge, Krutch demonstrates that the human being seems to be capable of some extent of conscious will. This most minimal conception of a human being necessarily must include some measure of freedom in the form of conscious will. From this basis, Krutch argues that perhaps humanity has a chance at surviving because of our ability to change our lives and our circumstances through conscious action.
In one section of the book, the author discusses the fact that sociology necessarily depends on the statistical mean average for many of its findings. A consequence of this is that many facets of society are planned, not for the possible heights that humanity might reach with their will and intellect, but for the average. A quote which I found very poignant went as follows: “If some are more likely than others to exercise their freedoms then is not sociology unwise to plan society in terms which minimize the importance of those who are most capable of free choices?”
This struck me powerfully when I read it. I was immediately reminded of a quote from Abraham Maslow that I ran across several years ago:
“If we want to know how fast a human being can run, then it is no use to average out the speed of a ‘good sample’ of the population; it is far better to collect Olympic gold medal winners and see how well they can do. If we want to know the possibilities for spiritual growth, value growth, or moral development in human beings, then I maintain that we can learn most by studying our moral, ethical, or saintly people…Even when ‘good specimens,’ the saints and sages and great leaders of history, have been available for study, the temptation too often has been to consider them not human but supernaturally endowed.”
Our conception of what people are is dominated by the statistical average. We must be careful that this does not extend into the area of determining what people might be capable of. If we are to plan our society, let us plan it in light of what we understand our potential as human beings to be as well as the facts of the current world and our place in it.
The messages of this book are very relevant today. We live in an age in which people, even in the most affluent places in the world, are increasingly stressed by their lives and unhappy with the direction the world is going. We live in an Age of Anxiety perhaps more strenuous than that following the second world war. Fifty-six years have passed since this book was written, and yet we still live with the fear that humanity will destroy itself. Five and a half decades of development have given us wars as well as technological marvels.
We today are wrestling with new dangers such as climate change, pollution, rogue nuclear powers, and an ever-growing world population. We are each personally aware of more than ever before in the history of humankind. Every time we turn on the news, or read on the Internet, the world’s issues become our questions to ponder. I hope that in our daily lives each and every one of us, drawing upon a literal world of experience, can hopefully find some answers.