Getting Realistic about Romanticism

Blake Titania

Again teeing off of a column by David Brooks. Today Brooks argues that, in the face of competition by ever-growing cognitive-like capabilities of computers, humans need to hone their “romantic” skills. For him, “The romantic tries as much as possible to ground his or her life in purer love that transforms — making him or her more inspired, creative and dedicated, and therefore better able to live as a modern instantiation of some ideal.” Strange use of this word, but, in any case, here is his main thesis.

Ironically, technological forces may be driving some of the romantic rebirth. As Geoff Colvin points out in his book “Humans Are Underrated,” computers will soon be able to do many of the cognitive tasks taught in places like law schools and finance departments.…Computers can already go through millions of legal documents and sort them for relevance to an individual case, someday allowing one lawyer to do the work of 500. Computers may soon be able to cruise through troves of data and offer superior financial advice. Computers are not only getting smarter at systems analysis, they are improving at rates no human can match.…Colvin argues that improving your cognitive skills is no longer good enough. Simply developing more generic human capital will not help people prosper in the coming economy. You shouldn’t even ask, What jobs can I do that computers can’t do? That’s because they are getting good at so many disparate things. You should instead ask, What are the activities that we humans, driven by our deepest nature or by the realities of daily life, will simply insist be performed by other humans?

I do agree with the “romantic” thrust of the column, but not with its grounding in reality. I write often about the importance of care and other “romantic” traits because I call for the emergence of a new way of thinking about human being, but do not see it happening until the institution of business and related economic structures value it meaningfully. Examples like Amazon send a polar opposite message. As I wrote in a recent blog, their corporate mantra sends the message that the highest ideal at Amazon is to become an Amabot. Yesterday’s related post was based on data that 90 percent of workers worldwide are dissatisfied with their jobs. It is not enough by a long shot for business to hold out the possibility of empathy and cooperation to a handful of employees while behaving in the same old way.

Noting that empathy counts in a few places today, Brooks waxes philosophical, but wanders far from the reality of today’s world.

But the new romanticism won’t only be built on workplace incentives. It will be driven, too, by the inherent human craving for the transcendent. Through history there have always been moments when eras of pragmatism give way to eras of high idealism.

Pointing, later, to Buddha and Jesus as proof of such inner striving is, to say the least, a bit over the top. I would agree that care, including a capability for empathy, is the more fundamental human attribute, certainly compared to rational economic behavior, but that very trait has become hidden by the hegemonic story of modernity and the triumph of homo economicus. (see yesterday’s blog) I am afraid that all the awakening of romantic impulses in young people (we adults are beyond recovery) Brooks either observes or hopes for cannot resist the forces of a marketplace for their services that wants them to be just the opposite. Efficiency is still the God that the work sector worships.

As a last note, Brooks is using pragmatism very badly in the above quote. The world today is about as far from pragmatism as I can imagine. This fact is one of my own major arguments why we are struggling with growing failures in both the social and natural systems of the world. Modernity, where we are in the sweep of history, is an era built on positivism and ideologies that claim some absolute truth about the way the world works. Most of recorded human history has been characterized by some form of absolutism. The church ruled for many centuries, followed by monarchs claiming a divine right, and now by the absolutism of positive science and its avatar, objective materialism. To this last item, I quote from Humberto Maturana.

There are two fundamental kinds or manners of listening for explanations that an observer may adopt according to whether he or she asks or does not ask for a biological explanation of his or her cognitive abilities. These two manners of listening define two primary, mutually exclusive explanatory paths that I shall call the path of objectivity without parentheses (or the path of transcendental ontologies), and the path of (objectivity) in parentheses (or the path of constitutive ontologies)…..In this (transcendental) path, an explanation operationally entails the implicit claim by the explaining observer that he or she has a privileged access to an objective independent reality, and that it is this objective reality that gives validity to his or her explanations. Due to this circumstance, any disagreement between two or more observers always takes the form of a dispute in mutual negation… In this [transcendental] explanatory path, a claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience.

Apologies for his arcane language. “[T]he path of transcendental ontologies” are his words for positive science and objective materialism. Here he is pointing to the dualism and transcendentalism of Descartes. “[T]he path of constitutive ontologies” refers to what is often referred to as the social construction of reality. As I wrote yesterday, the latter path is the way many modern cognitive scientists, equipped with tools Descartes lacked, now believe we create reality. Above all, pay particular attention to the stunning last sentence in the quote. Such a claim could not arise under pragmatism. Take that, David Brooks!

(Image: William Blake, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, ca. 1786)

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