Monday, February 28, 2011

Social Animal 1: Reason Lightly Guides Emotion

I have been favored with an advance copy of David Brooks' forthcoming book, The Social Animal: A Story of Love, Character, and Achievement. It is a substantial and interesting book about having a fulfilling life. Brooks makes his theoretical argument engaging by framing his philosophical ideas and empirical theories around the story of the fictional couple Harold and Erica.

Brooks' overarching idea about how people work is this:

“The central evolutionary truth is that the unconscious matters most. The central humanistic truth is that the conscious mind can influence the unconscious.”

One of the scholars Brooks draws on is University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt expressed this idea metaphorically. Our emotions are an elephant, and our reason is the rider. That gives some idea of the relative power of the two forces in our psyche.

I like Brooks' way of putting it, because it does equal justice to science and philosophy. Our bodies have strong tendencies, which is why sociobiology is so helpful in understanding our basic instincts. But our culture has also found ways to train our habits to direct our bodies in helpful ways.

Brooks puts the reason vs. emotion argument in a way I had not thought of before. In the story he tells in The Social Animal,

“The French Enlightenment, which emphasized reason, loses. The British Enlightenment, which emphasized sentiment, wins.”

1 comment:

ceemac said...

That insight could describe religious trends in the US especially in the 19th century.

Think about how rational/logical Calvinism lost market share to those groups that made a big appeal to the sentiments.