The separation of subject from object brought to us so powerfully by René Descartes in the 17th century (and which I have written about here) gave us new ways of understanding and manipulating the material world which in turn gave birth to modernity. His work ushered in an age in which at last science, technology and medicine could seriously take root. You don’t have to look far to see how much this has made possible.
But you have to look more closely to see how it has also led us into a deep misunderstanding of ourselves.
In the 19th century August Comte built on Descartes’ position to create logical positivism, which argued that nothing in the human world could be considered to have authority unless it could be objectively measured. For positivism what was real about people included behaviour, action taken, money earned, measurements made. Feeling, meaning and stories were distinctly second class as far as truth was concerned. In a stroke, positivism declared much of the experience of being alive, the unique subjectivity that makes us most human, to be irrelevant, a marginal footnote to the real stuff of existence.
We’ve enthusiastically taken positivism into the heart of our institutions and as we’ve done so we’ve understood ourselves and others primarily as objects and as consumers – a surface, materialist understanding that leaves a huge part of ourselves behind. We relate to people primarily through how they can be ‘of use’ to us, what they can get done. And consequently we are often at war with ourselves, suppressing and denying our longing for something real, something that has depth, something that’s more than surface.
It should be no surprise that positivism was seized upon enthusiastically by the architects of that most modern of human institutions, the organisation. By reducing people to surface and to measurable activity, and by discounting the rest, the early factory owners could have people become extensions of the machinery of production. It is at work in so much of what’s considered ‘best practice’ in contemporary management – in behaviour frameworks, performance grading, the banishment of the inner world from the workplace, the label ‘human resources’, and our insistence that people fit in rather than bring themselves forward fully.
Positivism is so prevalent and so often unquestioned because, in many ways, it works – just as long as you are happy that people stop being people so they can become part of the machine.
But it fails to take account of so much of what we are – symbol-making, metaphor-creating, meaning-seeking beings who navigate our lives wondering, dreaming, fearing, hoping and longing – and that our measurable doing is just the tiniest part of it.