Thursday, December 9, 2010

Neuroscience as ideology: bourgeois wisdom at work

In re:

Hall, Stephen S. Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

"A compelling investigation into one of the most coveted and cherished ideals, 'Wisdom' also chronicles the efforts of modern science to penetrate the mysterious nature of this timeless virtue."

PART ONE: Wisdom defined (sort of)
What is wisdom?;
The wisest man in the world: the philosophical roots of wisdom;
Heart and mind: the psychological roots of wisdom
PART TWO: Eight neural pillars of wisdom.
Emotional regulation: the art of coping;
Knowing what’s important: the neural mechanism of establishing value and making a judgment;
Moral reasoning: the biology of judging right from wrong;
Compassion: the biology of loving-kindness and empathy;
Humility: the gift of perspective;
Altruism: social justice, fairness, and the wisdom of punishment;
Patience: temptation, delayed gratification, and the biology of learning to wait for larger rewards;
Dealing with uncertainty : change, "meta-wisdom," and the vulcanization of the human brain
PART THREE: Becoming wise.
Youth, adversity, and resilience: the seeds of wisdom;
Older and wiser: the wisdom of aging;
Classroom, board room, bedroom, back room: everyday wisdom in our everyday world;
Dare to be wise: does wisdom have a future?

See also the web site of Stephen C. Hall.

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"Wrong life cannot be lived rightly."
          — Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, section 18

This aphorism does not appear in Stephen Hall's book, and Adorno does not appear to be part of the mental universe of Hall's attempt to scientize "timeless virtue". As bourgeois reason totters on its last legs, the latest fad of popular science purporting to explain social and in many cases political behavior is neurobiology. Like all bourgeois scientism, this line of inquiry is predicated on ideological amnesia, an erasure of real history, society, and politics. Granted that both neurobiology and evolutionary theory are essential to comprehension of the material basis of the organism, of everything it is capable of thinking and doing, the conceit here is that the biology of individual cognition in abstraction is proffered as an explanation of how we function in society, and this is why the spate of popular books on the subject is reactionary to the core.

Hall only questions his endeavor in the final chapter, pondering whether a focus on wise individuals only fosters a personality cult and hero worship, distracting from the thing itself. He also contemplates the future of wisdom given the state of consumer culture.

Otherwise, Hall trots out various culture heroes as possible examples of wisdom: Confucius, Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Oprah. Again, qualities of wisdom are abstracted out of total social situations, oblivious to the dimension of ideology critique that could be applied to any and all of his examples. 

Anyone who could quote David Brooks even in passing as a person to take seriously betrays a political cluelessness the contemptibility of which defies description.

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