Jerome Kagan


On his book The Three Cultures: Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and the Humanities in the 21st Century

Cover Interview of September 17, 2009


I do not harbor the illusion that this book will have any effect on the current historical narrative and will be very happy if it clarifies for some readers issues that had been cloudy.  I suspect this is the aim of most who write about an unfamiliar culture, historical era, or intellectual effort.

Americans, even more than Europeans, are too friendly to a pragmatism that demands that every effort have some constructive purpose that might produce a benevolent change.  I was never attracted to the pragmatic philosophy of Peirce, Dewey, or James because of my skeptical view, resembling that of Stephen Gould, that all forms of life are accidents with no hidden purpose, as much a product of chance as the distances from the sun of Mars or Jupiter.

The most significant assignment each of us must meet, which other animals can ignore, is to make up a purpose and commit to it as if we were certain it was the reason for our existence.  I am frustrated by the morally arrogant who assert that the premise they selected is wiser, purer, or more reasonable than the one chosen by others.  I am in agreement with the poet Wallace Stevens who wrote, “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else.  The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.”

A posture of loyalty to some unquestioned premises has the advantage of requiring   rituals that must be performed during the waking hours.  Humans require rituals, whether going to work, shopping, caring for children, weekend recreations, prayers, writing books, checking the stock prices, or conversations with the family at dinner.  None can claim a rational foundation that is more secure than the others, but each dilutes the threat of uncertainty and imposes a form on what would otherwise be a shapeless, endlessly flat expanse of time.

I am troubled by the fact that, even though we live longer and enjoy more leisure, many species and cultures are not better off today than they were two centuries ago.  Many animals have been harmed or extinguished; cultures have vanished; densely crowded urban neighborhoods of strangers have replaced the villages of the countryside; the earth’s air and water are seriously polluted; and the number of Africans living in abject poverty today is close to the total population of the United States.  Humans are happy when their lives are improving, when they sense they can cope with whatever uncertainties arise, and when they are able to gratify strong desires if they make the effort.  If deprived of these conditions, they are unhappy.  Thus, it is appropriate to ask whether more contemporary adults are in the former or the latter category, compared with those who were alive in 1800.

A New Yorker cartoon reflects the inability of many to understand why, despite adequate material comforts, a sustained state of joy seems unattainable.  The scene is a living room with a woman, a cat, and a man saying, “It’s odd that you’re so dull, I’m so boring and our cat is, for all we know, plaster of Paris.”  I confess with sadness to a nod of agreement with Garrett Hardin’s critique of the hubris of experts who are confident that human ingenuity can defeat the combined forces of nature and history.

Imagine a hypothetical new species that is sentient, long-lived, omnipotent, and resting comfortably a hundred miles above the earth reflecting on the events of the past 200 years.  As they brood over the fact that modern humans, who have been around for only 100,000 years, have killed more living things, consumed more biomass, destroyed more forests, polluted more water supplies, and added more toxins to the atmosphere than all their primate relatives who have been roaming the planet for millions of years, this new species might wonder about the dangers modern humans pose to the integrity of the earth.  They might even decide that Homo sapiens had become such a serious threat to all forms of life, it might be time to have this species restrained, culled, or, perhaps, eliminated.

Although the current script cannot be rewritten, each of us should try to improve the current unhappy arrangements as much as we can.  The book ends by asking scholars in and out of the Academy to adopt a posture of greater humility.  It is time for the members of all three cultures to recognize that, like tigers, sharks, and hawks, each is potent in its own territory but impotent in the territory of the other.

© 2009 Jerome Kagan