Friday, 31 August 2007

Huxley’s Human Potentialities, Part 3: The Way to Realise Our Potential (2).

Those of us who, following Huxley, wish establish an environment that favours the actualisation of in-born potentialities face an uphill struggle. This is because the societies we inhabit not oriented toward that end, and are instead preoccupied by the maintenance and extension of their wealth. So as things stand we can only do what we can with what there is.

One tool we do have is language, a resource for ‘automatically converting the bewildering profusion of first-order experiences into manageable symbols’. Although language can be misused to bolster the status quo’s misguided aspirations (for more consumption and national aggrandisement), it can also be used to encourage realistic thinking and appropriate thinking, so that we can formulate better science, literature, philosophy, and ethics. Language can enable appropriate education, which in turn can support the realisation of potentialities. Specifically education, mediated by language, has the power to promote two principles which are vital to the realisation of human potential: the ‘…understanding of the nature and limitations of language and the … fact of human variability.’

Language is made up of symbols that never truly represent ‘reality’, or at the least only represent ‘reality’ by degrees. If education is directed towards helping people to recognise this it shows them, at the same time, that truth is constantly in question. They become less vulnerable to the sort of persuasive power – of advertising, nationalism, ideology, and religion – which is based on a zealous and seemingly exciting misuse of language: “To what extent would it help boys and girls to actualise potentialities which, if they had not received this kind of training, would be been buried under unexamined preconceptions and traditional notions of smothered by uncritically accepted propaganda?”

As for variability, Huxley advocates a ‘genetic realism’; an admission that our freedom to choose what will make us happy or fulfilled is to some extent constrained or determined by unique genetic predispositions or potentialities. Education in human variability, Huxley says, can prevent forms of ignorance that foster prejudice; it can prevent the truly tragic suppression of rich diversity and innovation; it can also help us extend our perception beyond our culture’s ‘arbitrary chose norm of right-mindedness and good behaviour’, and it can benefit communities: “For the sake of the community (for no community can afford to waste its most precious asset, the gifts, the fully actualised potentialities, of all its members) ... the enormous spread of human diversity should be recognised, respected and systematically made the most of.”

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Huxley’s Human Potentialities, Part 2: The Way to Realise Our Potential (1).

To be meaningful, hope must be attainable. In ‘Human Potentialities’ Aldous Huxley says that we really can establish a future for humanity in which we ‘…actualise the many and great potentialities which in most individuals still remain latent’. We can do so, first of all, by establishing the right environmental conditions. As a Humanist Huxley believes that people have a natural desire, or even need, to strive towards the realisation of their potential. Nevertheless, we cannot trust that they will do so until their more basic requirements are met.

Describing Abraham Maslow’s concept of a ‘hierarchy of needs’, Huxley says that our physical needs (for food, and safety) and certain psychological needs (for belonging, and esteem) must be satisfied before we can realise the ‘most specifically human of our needs’; that is, before we can satisfy our need of knowledge, meaning, ‘self-expression through the manipulation of symbols’, and our need of ‘self-transcending development’.

It is necessary to concede that there are exceptions: some people realise potentialities in spite of, or even because of, isolation and a lack of love. In one song, I Found Out, John Lennon had this to say of his parents: “They didn’t want me, so they made me a star”. And yet in defence of Huxley’s argument, tortured geniuses like Lennon tend not to fulfil their potential in terms of being happy, or being happy with themselves.

So, the satisfaction of people's needs is a necessary first step, and a prerequite for their going on to fulfil their promise in multiple areas of their lives. But there are further ways and means to consider beyond that, as I will show in coming posts.