If a man from a previous civilization - an ancient Greek let us say, or a Roman - suddenly appeared among present-day humanity, his first impressions would probably lead him to regard it as a race of magicians and demigods. But were he a Plato or a Marcus Aurelius and refused to be dazzled by the material wonders created by advanced technology, and were he to examine the human condition more carefully, his first impressions would give place to great dismay.
He would soon notice that, though man has acquired an impressive degree of power over nature, his knowledge of and control over his inner being is very limited. . . .
As several writers, Toynbee among them, have pointed out, this wide gulf between man's external and inner powers is one of the most important and profound causes of the individual and collective evils which afflict our civilization and gravely menace the future.
The Act of Will
All individuals, human or non-human, exist in an inherently perilous and unstable state. From the very beginning, they must maintain the order of their bodies in the face of the universal tendency to disorder known as entropy, or the second law of thermodynamics. This maintenance is accomplished by constantly importing energy and exporting wastes, both imperfect processes from the standpoint of self-maintenance: generating energy causes cumulative damage, and waste products accumulate over time.
Moreover, all organisms exist in an unstable environment which may or may not provide much in the way of resources for meeting their basic needs. They also exist in an ecosystem in which other organisms may be found which are competitive, and sometimes predatory or parasitic. For most of human history, the human solution to this difficult situation entailed, in part, banding together in families and small groups for the purpose of mutual support.
Unfortunately, some individuals are, themselves, predatory and/or parasitic, a situation which eventually made evident the need for social norms, or standards of acceptable conduct.
Not all individuals are conscious. It is highly likely that, lacking nervous systems, plants have no awareness of any kind. Many other organisms, such as bacteria and archaea, have no true nervous system either, and are probably also completely lacking in awareness. At some point, however, a point which is currently undefined, organisms with nervous systems cross the threshold from unconsciousness to sentience.
Determining what this difference amounts to is a difficult, and controversial, question, and one of crucial theortical and practical importance. For example, the abortion of a sentient being is a matter of moral abhorrence, but the abortion of a not-yet-sentient cluster of cells is not. Yet we don't know at precisely what point the boundary is crossed from non-sentience to sentience.
Philosophy of mind is the philosophical discipline that wrestles with issues of this nature. The most fundamental question is: what sort of a thing is consciousness, whether human or animal? And, closely related, are these questions: what are the necessary and sufficient conditions of consciousness? This latter question has both theoretical and empirical (scientific) aspects, and thus straddles the disciplines of psychology and philosophy.
The psychology of personality is the subdivision of psychology that is devoted to acquiring an understanding of the nature and development of the mind of the individual. (Behavior, per se, is of no interest to psychologists whatsoever.) There are two great subdivisions of this discipline, a fact unfortunately not generally recognized. The purely scientific/empirical side of personality psychology is concerned exclusively with matters of fact. The normative division of personality psychology, however, is concerned with norms of personality.
Norms are found whenever and wherever purpose, or at least structure and function, exist, and the human mind is highly purposive. (As Immanuel Kant pointed out, all living things possess self-referential structures that function, among other things, to the end of self-preservation — from predators as well as from the universal tendency to disorder).
Empirical personality psychology slowly made strides over the course of the 20th century. Normative psychology, however, was, and remains, in an almost wholly undeveloped state. One of our purposes here is to investigate how far this situation may be remedied.
Psychological norms are of two kinds. The first kind is the norm of typical or average functioning. Norms of this type define what is typical or characteristic of the functioning of the individual as currently encountered. The second sort of norm is the norm of optimal functioning, which is less concerned with individuals as we currently find them, and more with individuals as they might, ideally, be.
Norms of optimal functioning rely upon two further sorts of norms which have been developed by philosophers. The first sort of norm is the moral norm. Relevant psychological issues here include, for example, the question of how moral judgment develops, and which psychological traits promote moral conduct.
The second sort of norm has to do with life purpose, and is more technically referred to as a teleological norm. The more fundamental psychological issue here is the question of what sort of individual is best equipped to most successfully undertake the purposes of life.
Once the sort of individual best equipped to carry out the purposes of life within moral bounds is understood, interested individuals may then choose to cultivate their own character in light of such exemplars. The discipline concerned with developing a body of practical knowledge concerning the best means of self-cultivation of this kind is referred to at this site as "optimal self-management" or OSM. It may also be thought of as applied normative psychology.
Our resources for issues of this nature may be found here.
The Editor / Everything Progressive