The Mind-Body Politic: Born On The Fourth Of July.

By Michelle Maiese and Robert Hanna

“The Mind-Body Politic,” by Michelle Maiese and Robert Hanna, is now available from Palgrave Macmillan, HERE.

And a preview is also available, HERE.


A few months ago, Michelle asked her students, on the first day of their Fall Semester class on “Theories of Human Nature,” to consider their level of agreement with respect to a series of claims about human nature and motivation. The four corners of her classroom were labeled “Strongly Agree,” “Agree,” “Disagree,” and “Strongly Disagree.” As she read out each claim, students moved to different parts of the classroom. Some topics were more controversial than others. When it came to God and gender, for example, views were highly mixed. Some students indicated their strong belief that in order to gain a better understanding of human nature, we need to talk about God, whereas others said that they thought God was irrelevant. Some students expressed their belief that human nature did not vary according to biological sex, whereas others said they believed that there were inborn differences between men and women.

One topic, however, attracted widespread agreement: “In their natural state, humans are fundamentally competitive and self-interested.” At this point in the class, almost all of the students were huddled together under the “strongly agree” or “agree” labels. When asked to explain why they agreed, several students cited our human drive to survive, and also added that their primary reasons for attending college were to compete in the workforce and advance their own interests.

A few of them lingered in the center of the classroom, which Michelle had designated as a space for those who were uncertain. One of the students said she thought that parents sometimes exhibited genuine self-sacrifice, but then a student who “strongly agreed” with the statement expressed a classical Hobbesian view nowadays called “psychological egoism”: she asserted that all human choice and action are inherently self-interested and that even behavior that appeared altruistic was in fact motivated, at bottom, by self-interest.

Why are so many of us convinced that this Hobbesian view is true? And why is it that whenever contemporary college or university professors query students about their reasons for pursuing post-secondary education, they begin to describe their future career plans without missing a beat? Why do other concerns — such as becoming a more informed voter or a more engaged citizen; gaining knowledge about social injustice; being able to think more critically about politics and current events; pursuing a morally good life; or crafting a meaningful philosophy of life — so rarely even get mentioned?

To be sure, these concerns have not completely disappeared from the lives of people under the age of 40. Look, for example, at the sharp rise in interest in democratic socialism and social anarchism (aka anarcho-socialism) displayed by millennials since the Occupy movement in the late 00s, and especially since The Age of Trump-POTUS began in 2016. However, it’s clear that the main focus of these current students lies elsewhere, namely on their future career prospects. As a result, their natural curiosity and love of learning for its own sake, or for the sake of other higher intrinsic values like “living a good life” or “living a meaningful life,” has greatly diminished, and many even view their university education as nothing but a burden that they must endure. It’s something that they have to do, and that they dread, as part of the obligatory pathway to “gainful employment.” They resent being told that it’s a privilege or that they are lucky to be in college or university. Even those few who retain their love of learning for its own sake, or who still think about living a morally good life or crafting a meaningful life-philosophy, come to view their stint in higher education in largely instrumental terms, as nothing but a means to an end.

For many or even most of them, the very idea of making carefully thought-out choices about which academic programs to pursue, in light of their unique interests and passions, is largely irrelevant; above all, they think they need to follow a path that will lead them to a comfortable middleclass or upper-middleclass lifestyle. Subjects like philosophy, which offer no such clear path to this goal — or even worse, which may seem to offer only a long and winding road away from this goal — take on an air of futility, or at best, of mystery. “What can you do with a degree in philosophy?” students and administrators alike frequently ask. And if a professor replies that someone can do anything after majoring in philosophy, people are likely to be deeply dissatisfied with this response. Whereas philosophy once was thought to play a crucial role in critical, reflective self-knowledge and in educating people for their role as citizens, today’s all-encompassing emphasis on economic “innovation” and competitiveness, as an inevitable feature of human life, can make studying or pursuing philosophy seem like an utter waste of time and effort. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, many colleges and universities are responding to this “crisis in the humanities” by cutting back, or even eliminating, their philosophy programs.

According to this way of thinking, going to college or university is just for professional advancement and landing a “good” job, and even more distressingly, it’s not only the students who think so. During professional academic faculty and administrative meetings, there is all-too-frequent talk about “competitor schools,” “value for the money,” “sustainability,” and the need for “a return on investment.” Educational “outcomes” increasingly are defined and assessed in relation to what sort of job undergraduate students have obtained one to five years after graduation. At tuition-driven liberal arts colleges, in particular, professors and administrators need to be very skillful at gauging the level of student interest in various subjects, and tailoring their curriculum to whatever the students say they want. There is a demand to “market” their courses, their departments, and their colleges and universities, so that students will show up in sufficient numbers and they won’t have to close their doors. The sad and even tragic fact is that at most contemporary institutions of higher education, a department’s “performance” is measured solely by the number of undergraduate majors and graduates, the total number of students enrolled in courses, the number of graduate students who get professional academic jobs, the number of publications produced by faculty members, and discipline-wide rankings.

Perhaps most sadly or tragically of all, many contemporary professional academic faculty members actually embrace this way of thinking with enthusiasm, unabashedly speaking not about the intrinsic value of their subject, but instead about how their programs will “increase enrollments,” tap into new “markets,” or provide significant career preparation, thereby satisfying all-important “learning outcomes.” These trends are so pervasive and prominent, in fact, that even those professional academic philosophers who deeply resent and want to resist this market-driven orientation, also feel a strong need, when pushed into a corner, to defend themselves in terms of the very thing they most despise, in their heart of hearts; that is, they are driven to assert that studying or pursuing philosophy is, in fact, great preparation for getting a good job. Recently, one of Michelle’s friends and colleagues told her that, given economic pressures surrounding student loans, high rates of unemployment, and stagnating wages in many fields, we have no choice but to adopt a capitalist, market-driven orientation.

No doubt the economic pressures are real; but it appears that many of us have adopted this view of higher education rather unthinkingly or wholeheartedly, not as a regrettable response to economic realities, but rather as the “natural” way to view the world. Such observations indicate that a new and pervasive kind of social reality has emerged, one in which every aspect of human life is managed and evaluated in relation to market demands. Market logic now prevails in higher education, and many professors now understand the university’s role in society primarily in relation to capitalist economic imperatives. Other sorts of values that might be associated with a higher education, such as developing a capacity for critical inquiry, civic engagement, and the interrogation of the fundamental assumptions and values of one’s society, have begun to fade from sight. Aristotle’s claim that knowledge of the world around us is good for its own sake, regardless of its instrumental usefulness, and Kant’s even bolder claim that we should dare to think and know for ourselves — Sapere aude! — not only for its own sake, but also for the sake of “the highest good” of rational, moral, and political enlightenment, have come to seem virtually incomprehensible to many. Even those of us who agree with Aristotle or Kant are likely to find, upon honest self-critical reflection, that we all-too-frequently view our teaching and scholarship primarily as a means to an end — to get promoted, publish our work in high-status journals, gain professional prestige and higher salaries, and perhaps even become a professional academic philosophy superstar.

But why has this market orientation become so dominant and widespread? Why do we think that the economic dimension of life is both fundamental and inevitable? And is it true that we have no choice but to adjust our thoughts, affects, and actions accordingly? Not surprisingly, the causes and deeper explanation lie in the larger “real world” outside the professional academy. More precisely, we strongly believe that these attitudes are largely the result of a larger, worldwide moral, political, and economic ideology known as “neoliberalism” (also known as “neoconservativism” or “centrism”). In the USA, in particular, this insidious set of ideas, values, and assumptions began to take hold in the late 1970s, became widespread in the 1980s, and increasingly has been guiding our thought and action ever since.

On this neoliberal view of things, economic efficiency is the highest value, capitalist market considerations always take priority, and market-interference or regulations should be avoided wherever possible — except, of course, whenever protectionist policies are deemed necessary for cornering a market and making a profit. Needs formerly met by public agencies, or via government provision, or through personal relationships in communities and families, are now supposed to be met by private companies selling services. Neoliberalism in its specifically democratic guise emphasizes the values of individualism, self-reliance, consumerism, and personal gain; and these market values significantly determine what we regard as rational and responsible forms of human agency. It is considered “rational and responsible,” for example, to focus on increasing one’s own “human capital,” and downright irrational and irresponsible to engage in either short-term activities or life-pursuits that are not valued in the marketplace. “Success” consists essentially in having a nice home, a fancy car, stylish clothing, lots of extra money to spend on brief, furtive holidays and trendy leisure, and a large and ever-increasing number of followers on social media. And then personal and collective happiness are assumed to flow directly from such “success.”

This way of thinking has become so customary and widespread that one can rightly say it is now part of our cultural everyday common sense. It is deeply embedded in the workings of various social institutions, including the health care system, the educational system, and the political system. It fundamentally guides political discourse and action, heavily influences pop culture, and shapes our various modes of social interaction. It is so all-pervasive and ingrained, in fact, that, like white noise, it all-too-often escapes detection. What is more, even though it continues significantly to determine how we think, feel, and behave, we rarely stop to ask whether its influence is beneficial or harmful.

In The Mind-Body Politic, we use fundamental ideas in the philosophy of mind in order to formulate and defend the thesis that the influence of neoliberal ideology is largely destructive and deforming, and that it prevents us from fulfilling our true human needs. Instead of motivating us to seek work that we love and find inherently meaningful and self-sustaining — call it lifework — it prompts us to seek out careers with the highest pay check and/or highest social status, even if they are what David Graeber has aptly dubbed “bullshit jobs” — namely, jobs that are basically meaningless and unproductive, even though they may pay very well and/or look impressive on our Curriculum Vitae and resumes. Rather than promoting intimate human relationships, empathy, solidarity, and collective action as inherently good and meaningful, neoliberalism primes and encourages mutual antagonism, egoism, “winner-takes-all” competition, “networking,” and endless, robotic efforts to increase our “social capital.”

Part the reason why this ideology has become so dominant and pernicious is that it is so all-pervasive. Like white noise, or the air we breathe, it generally escapes our self-conscious notice and therefore also hides from our critical scrutiny: it has become so commonplace that many of us simply cannot even imagine things otherwise. And like racism, sexism, ableism, xenophobia, and other rationally unjustified and immoral ideologies and practices that violate human dignity and oppress people, it all-too-frequently remains hidden from critical consciousness and popular consciousness alike. But how can a set of ideas, attitudes, and practices become so dominant that it turns into white noise, even as it continues to harm us in fundamental ways?

The short-and-snappy version of the answer we are offering in this book is: because these ideas, attitudes, and practices are realized in social institutions, and because social institutions literally shape our minds, very often without any self-conscious awareness whatsoever of their influence on the part of the people affected. Furthermore, we believe that this process of mind-shaping is as much emotional and bodily as it is cognitive and intellectual, and that social institutions exert their formative influence by cultivating a specific affective orientation. We begin with the commonsense observation that social relationships and norms have a powerful molding effect on the human mind. From our earliest days, we look to other people for approval and recognition. Our caregivers direct our attention to various objects, we mimic their facial expressions and gestures, and we learn how to use tools by watching others use them. Over the course of learning and socialization, we acquire various bodily skills and habits that allow us to engage effectively with our surroundings. Through our embodied interactions with others, we also develop characteristic attitudes and affective stances and particular ways of interpreting objects and events. Over time, we gain a feel for the “rules of the game” associated with various social contexts and deepen our understanding of how we are expected to behave. Once we have internalized various social norms and rules, we can function more effectively in various social settings without having to pause and think about what to do next. These ingrained patterns of feeling, thought, and behavior shape our sense of what is possible and appropriate and comprise our habitual ways of understanding ourselves and our world. But at the same time, the habits of mind that have been cultivated via the rules, laws, and basic structures of social institutions take on a socially-created existence and life of their own and make it difficult for us to feel, think, and act otherwise. Ultimately, then, the many social institutions that we belong to literally shape our minds, and thereby fundamentally affect our lives, for worse or better.

In order to escape from the social institutions that shape people’s minds for the worse, and in order to build new social institutions that shape people’s minds for the better, we need to gain a deeper understanding of the complex, multifaceted, psychological and social dynamics at play. How do social norms and cultural values mold our feeling, thought, and behavior? How does inhabiting a particular social institution shape the way that we selectively attend to and interpret our surroundings, focusing on some considerations while ignoring others? What is it about social interaction and the influence of other people’s emotions, desires, and expectations that exerts such a strong influence over us?

After an Introduction that’s intended to provide the reader with a general theoretical and practical orientation for understanding our philosophical project, we move onto an examination of the mind-shaping influence of contemporary neoliberal social institutions that overtly or covertly coerce and mentally enslave us. Here we hope to shed philosophical light on how this big-capitalist market orientation has become so influential, how it has modified people’s outlooks and actions, and how it impedes and undermines human flourishing, self-realization, and solidarity. In particular, we will discuss how this way of viewing the world has infiltrated higher education and mental health practice, so much so that those who belong to these institutions frequently adopt this perspective as if it’s just a matter of common sense.

Then we proceed to describe what we take to be the central features of constructive, enabling social institutions that cultivate our capacities for autonomy and empathy, and radically liberate us. And finally, we offer substantive suggestions about how we can begin to create and sustain these emancipatory social institutions. Transformative education, we believe, not only can be but also should be life-changing and world-changing, and thereby can serve as a model for emancipatory social institutions more generally. This in turn expresses our radical “philosophy of philosophy,” which unabashedly asserts it to be a critical and reflective enterprise that is at once intellectual, practical, essentially embodied, and fully affective.



Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Thursday 4 July 2019

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.