The Myth of the Archetypical Human

I have a very complex relationship with Plato.

As a theoretical physicist, a surprising amount of my methodology is, when you come right down to it, based upon his philosophy. Obviously, I’m not talking about the actual scientific method, with its ideas of falsification by controlled experimentation (of which Plato probably would not have approved, and which antedate him by a good long time), but the means in which we go about forming theories. This is done, generally, by looking at a physical system, abstracting it’s “ideal” case (which, in practice, consists mostly of just making a series of simplifying assumptions), and working out how it would work absent all of the messy problems that come with living in the real world. Of course, this is not always to the best; for example, it’s easy to abstract musical instruments as being nothing more than standing waves in open-ended tubes (which, of course, is what they essentially are), but this not only does away with all of the beauty and variety in music*, it also doesn’t even make accurate predictions**.

This is fine for physical science. In a field which is fundamentally utilitarian, this is what works, and I am tempted to say that there would be no progress in science whatsoever without it.

However (to repeat, once again, what has become my standard refrain), this does not work when applied to Humans. Not only are “simplifying assumptions” problematic politically, but frankly, you can’t even talk about what constitutes an “ideal Human.” There does not exist an archetype of what a Human Being is supposed to be.  And I have noticed that, when people start thinking that there is such an ideal, the ideal naturally ends up taking either the form of who they, personally, wish that they were, or the form of what is considered (by their own particular society of course) to be the ”default” Human. Thus, all differences from the norm are considered to be ‘defects,’ rather than natural variations in the spectrum of possible modes of Human existence. And when people set about analyzing Human nature with this as their starting assumption, their analysis naturally tends to be prescriptive rather than simply descriptive***.

Now, understand, I am perfectly willing to interrogate Human nature. I am, as an individual, perfectly willing (and indeed eager) to find answers to all sorts of questions about why I am the way that I am. Why am I autistic? Why am I transgendered? Why am I asexual? But what I am not at all interested in doing is asking “why am I the way that I am instead of how Humans are ‘supposed’ to be?”

It is a very important distinction.


*Which arises, interestingly enough, from all sorts of “messy, real-world” considerations,

**Seriously, even a trombone is so much more complicated than a mere ‘ideal case’ that you can pretty much only make predictions about its behaviour through numerical modelling with a computer

***Indeed, it is precisely for this reason that I am inherently suspicious of psychoanalysis, particularly in its earlier forms.


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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One Response to The Myth of the Archetypical Human

  1. Lindsay says:

    Oh, wow. I could have written this entry. This is seriously exactly the sort of thing that preoccupied me during the period in my life where I was obsessed with philosophy. (For me, this happened in high school.)

    I actually had quite the existential … “freakout” is not the word, that connotes an urgency and a negative emotional valence that weren’t there … thing where I really didn’t know if I was human. Obviously, in biological terms, there was nothing else I could be (short of a brand-new subspecies of Homo sapiens), but what I was and how my mind and emotions worked were so different from everything I read about “human nature” … somehow not being sure I was human never translated into any ambiguity about being a person, though. I might have an alien psychology, but I’m still just the same as you (“you” is not you, it’s the generic “you”) under the law.

    Now, if you asked me what I was, I’d probably say, “Human.” (In the past, it would’ve been “autistic.”) Because those two things — alien psychology vs. civic equality — have shifted in their relative importance to me.

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