What then does The History of Human Reason actually say? Perhaps the best way to explain it for now is to give a chapter-by-chapter summary. In general terms:

  • The first chapter presents an analysis of intelligence as such.
  • The next four chapters describe the main stages in the development of intelligence as a whole.
  • The next chapter sets out the detailed developmental process that takes place within each major stage.
  • The last chapter reviews the limits, real and apparent, of the human capacity for rationality.

In more detail:

Chapter 1: The Nature of Intelligence

The purpose of the opening chapter is to describe the conceptual framework within which this book operates. Intelligence is initially defined in terms of its internal structure, which consists of ‘subject’, ‘object’ and ‘world’. These terms are used to refer not to purely philosophical or intellectual constructions but to structures that are every bit as material as ‘organism’ or ‘planet’. They are certainly abstract structures, but in the present context describing a structure as ‘abstract’ will take on a rather unusual meaning.

Having established the basic structure of intelligence, the second section describes the basic forms of intelligent activity (including construction and production, which are contrasted with adaptation and other forms of biological activity), and the organisation of that activity (including social and symbolic relationships, the structure of culture and technology, and so on). The third section then reviews the radically new ways in which intelligence develops. Special attention is paid to how intelligence systematically produces its world, the role of rationality and reason’s unprecedented ability to lift itself up by its bootstraps, and so to scale equally unprecedented heights.

Unlike later chapters, this opening chapter is rather abstract, and the reader who is not already well acquainted with recent conceptions of intelligence (especially Piaget’s) may be better advised to read this chapter last.

Chapter 2: Intuitive Reason

The first major stage in the development of intelligence is that of intuitive reason. The essential feature of this stage is that intelligence grasps objects on the empirical plane, but has no sense of the relationships that control their actions and collective forms. As a result, intuitive reason is restricted to the aspects of things and events that can be perceived and acted upon directly, but lacks any sense of any more abstract relationships. As a result, its horizons are very limited. A typical problem this creates on the cognitive level is the young child’s inability to sustain a single abstract criterion of judgement across an empirically changing situation. In one of the classic formulations, a red triangle is like a blue triangle and a blue triangle is like a blue square – so a blue square, if not actually like a red triangle, is certainly a legitimate member of the same series.

The social analogue of this situation is the kind of simple society that lacks any explicit structure or relationships over and above those that arise between individuals. Even a sophisticated but still intuitively structured society relies entirely on organising itself in terms of empirically defined features of individuals such as gender or age group. Not only is such a society incapable of organising large-scale or sustained actions (again, apart from the rites and occasions that individual members are inclined to create and recreate) but it even lacks anything that could be considered a history. Of course, individuals may be well aware of their personal ancestry and they share memories in the form of myths and stories, but there is no explicit or objective lineage or heritage in terms of which individuals define and control their actions, beyond that which can be identified, organised and controlled in empirical terms.

Chapter 3: Concrete Reason

If intuitive reason is limited to the empirical surfaces of objects (tools, stories, people), the repetition of particular kinds of action on those objects will eventually turn these repetitions themselves into the objects of intelligence’s attention. As the objectified forms of these repeated actions are gradually comprehended, they are internalised as a grasp of relationships. On the psychic level this enables concrete reason to navigate much more effectively around its world, especially because it creates what Piaget called ‘operations’. That is, because concrete reason operates in terms of series, classes and other abstract structures, what can be done once can be done again, what was done can be undone, and so on. The result is not only greater flexibility but also greater rigour (due to this apprehension of enduring relationships) and, of course, a much increased range and scope of action. Perhaps most importantly of all, by organising action explicitly in terms of specific relationships, it becomes possible to identify independent criteria whereby action can be defined, organised and judged. Hence the most universal and enduring of concrete reason’s accomplishments: the transformation of intelligence into rationality.

Socially the stabilisation of explicit relationships leads to the formation of the first truly historical societies and so a stabilisation of society itself. To a very great extent this is accomplished through the organisation of individuals and groups into chains of dependence and respect. Of these the best known is probably the European feudal system, but a similar logic informs such a huge range of social systems that concrete reason can be said to be the basis of all the main forms of large-scale social system right up until the predominance of industrial capitalism. Their consequences are immense: permanent and semi-permanent political systems, organised wars of conquest, and generally the intentional organisation of collective activity into specialised functions. With the rise of concrete social organisations, the quasi-natural structuring of age sets and men’s houses is progressively replaced by – and, equally importantly, governed in terms of – groups such as craft guilds, soldiers (as distinct from warriors), merchants, and so on.

If concrete reason represents a considerable expansion of intelligence through rationality, the limits of a concrete reasoning are still very narrow. The relationships it can grasp stand in no clear relationship to one another, so, given that no real action can be carried out without a grasp of multiple connections, concrete reason is forced to continue relying on the ability of individuals to apply them. They in turn rely on their ability to interpret and manipulate empirical things and events, which remain the indispensable stepping-stones of real activity. Conversely, for lack of any structure integrating all relationships into a single whole, concrete reason frequently falls into contradictory or superficial actions and judgements, from astrology to pre-classical theories of money.

Chapter 4: Formal Reason

So the main shortcoming of concrete reason is its inability to extricate itself from the empirical conditions in which it operates. Being unable to extricate itself from the conditions in which it operates, for example by creating the kind of abstract principles that might support scientific method or bureaucratic administration or an engineering discipline, it can never make the transition from the pragmatic to the truly practical. The cure for this form of cognitive myopia is, in general terms, the same as that which intelligence applied to intuitive reason’s shortcomings: the forms of outward activity that characterised the previous stage become the internalised structures of the next.

In other words, where concrete reason was able to master discrete relationships, it cannot grasp the relationships betweenrelationships; that is why it cannot transcend the empirical. But by continually constructing and applying the whole gamut of relationships at its disposal, in different conditions and different combinations, they are variously joined, dismantled, differentiated and integrated. But that is only to say that the objects concrete reason constructs increasingly consist of the very relationships between relationships it originally found so hard to gasp. Hence the next stage in the development of intelligence, in which systems composed of just such relationships between relationships come into existence and are refined and elaborated. This is the stage of formal reason.

The strength of formalisation is obvious: not only would a comprehensive system of relationships between relationships become increasingly self-sufficient but its independence of local conditions would allow intelligence to pursue strategies of the most global and enduring nature. And we find ourselves surrounded by the results. Our logic and mathematics achieve unprecedented pinnacles not only of rigour but also of energy and creativity, matched only by the vigour and dynamism of our economies and political systems, the exponential growth of science and technology and the wealth and multiplicity of our cultures. Indeed, the rise of formalisation seems unstoppable.

Unfortunately, it may be unstoppable, but it is also inherently irrational, if not unintelligible. Not by the standards of intuitive or concrete reason, perhaps, but then their standards were always very meagre. From the point of view of formal reason’s own inhabitants, its inherent propensities to crisis, its evident inability to avoid reducing things to mere formalities mean that the power of formal reason is never quite matched by its fidelity. Hence its fundamental failings and the direction of its own, equally inexorable self-transcendence.

Chapter 5: Dialectical Reason

Both the normal development and the crises of formal reason tend to push it further and further in two directions. On the one hand, just as concrete reason gradually constructed the relationships that would allow it to make sense of the relationships at its disposal, and so arrived at formal reason, so formal reason systematises and re-systematises the multiplicity of systems it constructs until it arrives at a single unified totality of structures. This process of totalisation eventually encompasses every structure and every system, from the mental capacities of individuals to global social and economic systems and the culture and technology needed to integrate them into that last, final, complete totality.

On the other hand, this same process brings individuals closer and closer to the unspoken grail of all rational activity, namely a true grasp of that last, unsuspected hiding place of value, meaning and significance, the here and now. Indeed, these are not two different processes, but a single process whereby reality is totally manifested in the most superficial appearances of things, where the opposition between self and others is demolished and where the scope of the present is expanded to embrace all that was once absent. At which point, the development of intelligence comes to a conclusion (if not quite to an end), for there is nothing left for it to make sense of, or which it has not made to make sense.

Chapter 6: The Developmental Process

One of the more serious complications that arise for any stage theory is the difficulty of reconciling the gradual changes and enhancements that occur within any given stage with the qualitative advance that each stage is supposed to represent. To take an example that has already been mentioned, I have claimed that an intuitive society lacks an explicit structure. However, I made this claim only to immediately add that structures such as age sets might play a role in social activity. Clearly there is a contradiction here. As it happens, the contradiction is more apparent than real, as I also noted that any social structuring that occurred in an intuitive society is limited to features that can be identified empirically – which, I think, age groups can, given only a very limited contribution from the individual participants’ personal knowledge of when particular individuals were born. Conversely, it is striking that the societies that operate a more abstract age-set system, such as the gada system employed by certain East African peoples, also exhibit other social features that raise them above the purely intuitive level. That is, the age-based system is itself waning in the face of more concrete structures.

A more generalised version of this process whereby stages pass into one another is advanced in this chapter. Six sub-stages are proposed, showing how the core structures of intelligence, namely subject, object and world, develop themselves into the new forms appropriate to each new stage. By this means the qualitative differences between stages are shown to be consistent with their progressive construction, and various apparently contrary phenomena, such as the way in which early versions of allegedly ‘higher’ systems appear seemingly too early, are shown not only to be compatible with the present account but also seem to be predicated by it.

Having presented an abstract model of the way in which stages succeed one another, a number of practical examples are then rehearsed. These include the way young children improve their strategies for solving jigsaw puzzles, the way management systems mature, the way the history of software engineering has unfolded, and a general synopsis of the history of capitalism – all of which reveal the same abstract logic.

Chapter 7: The Bounds of Reason?

The final chapter is concerned with some of the residual problems that face any theory of human nature as essentially intelligent – or, a fortiori, rational. The present account does not assume that human beings are never stupid or ignorant or wicked or immature, any more than the theory that animals are all alive assumes that they are never sick or immature or that they cannot be poisoned. The two sides are not contradictory, and in many respects the features that most seem to contradict any account of human nature as rational are disposed of simply by showing the length, complexity and generally fraught nature of the process whereby a mature intelligence comes into existence.

There are however various aspects of human irrationality that are not so easily brushed aside. This chapter deals with some of them. The first is what I term the ‘infrastructure of intelligence’. This is the mass of structures a given intelligence has already constructed, and so can quite literally take for granted. These are significant because they explain how we can do so many things in a completely thoughtless, apparently non-rational manner, and yet do them superlatively well. Yet, as soon as their real status is recognised, they cease to be a mystery, and certainly do not lend any support to the idea that certain key talents and capabilities we all possess are either innate or (as some mathematicians persist in suggesting for their own field) exist as some kind of Platonic Form.

A second feature of human reality that causes problems for global theories is its unevenness. To take only a single example, Aristotle’s logic stood for two millennia as a paragon of formal reasoning, yet his physics can be refuted by a pre-formal school child. Social systems are equally mixed bags. How can this obvious (and undisputed) fact be reconciled with the idea that intelligence is a unitary structure? The answer proposed here is that intelligence is indeed unitary, but that when a new structure comes into existence, it has to pass through the main phases defined for intelligence as a whole. Shortcuts are possible, but in general the actual maturity of any given structure depends heavily on the opportunities for development the structure in question has available to it, its relationship to surrounding structures, the conditions in which that development takes place, and so on. Hence the unevenness of many an actual intelligence. Indeed, given that intelligent beings rely on many structures, social and psychic, of varying levels of maturity, unevenness is exactly what one would expect.

A third feature of intelligence dealt with in this chapter is the profound irrationality of many of the reasons we offer for our own actions, institutions and world. The explanation offered here for this entirely real phenomenon is that intelligent beings are never relieved of the obligation to make sense of their worlds and themselves, even when they lack the talent, experience, resources or maturity to do so. Hence our propensity to rationalisation. Of course, this is understandable enough in those we consider less mature than ourselves – in children, for example – and then we take for granted their limitations. But the same limitation is less straight­forward (or perhaps just less acceptable to us) when the same irrationality emerges in the actions of our fellow adults.

Finally, there is the (occasionally fashionable) problem of alienation – perhaps the most problematic of all aspects of intelligence. Through this most profoundly paradoxical expression of intelligence and rationality, it is the very processes and mechanisms we create to carry out our genuinely rational plans that rob us of the intelligibility and meaning to which all rational action aspires. Yet the final fruit of alienation is the finalisation of development itself.


The Conclusion derives two main points from this account of intelligence.

The first is that, in opposition to both biological and most humanistic accounts of what being human is all about, an account of human nature that is based on intelligence allows us to develop an account of human nature – of human nature as specifically human – without having to accept any limiting set of concrete features of that nature. Human nature, like the nature of any intelligent being, is totally open, even though it develops through determinate stages. To say that the process whereby the development of intelligence takes place is determined in key ways is not to say that there is something unintelligent or irrational to which that process can be reduced, that it is an illusion or that intelligent beings are fated to turn out one way rather than another. To return to the very first chapter, this is because of the very abstractness by which intelligence is defined in the first place.

The second point the Conclusion makes is that, despite this inherent abstractness, despite this denial that human nature can be defined in terms of any particular concrete properties and despite the fact that the author of this book is transparently far from reaching any such result, it is still possible to say something positive (if not very substantive) about the final outcome of human development. The topic of this section is truth and freedom.

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