John Protevi


On his book Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic

Cover Interview of February 16, 2010


I hope that Political Affect will benefit both political philosophy and cognitive science by placing affective cognition in a political context.  Cognitive science benefits by appreciating negative affects as well as the positive cognitive aspects of culture.  It is true, as Andy Clark in particular has shown, that cultural forms and technological products can be “props” and “scaffolds” for our thinking.  But not all cultural forms empower subjects.  Depending on your developmental path, cultural practices can disempower you emotionally, just as they deny you access to heuristic resources.  On the other hand, political philosophy benefits by stepping back from a focus on the rational subject and understanding how we sometimes respond to social triggers with decisions mediated by fear, anger, anxiety, and sadness; or even, at other times, with blind panic and rage.

Not all affects are negative, however, so we need to rethink human nature in terms of our capacity for love and empathy (what Aristotle would call philia).  Theories of human nature are a political battleground, and we cannot be intimidated by the cheap cynicism and blustering scientism of the Right.  For too long, the Left has adopted social constructivism to fight racist and sexist constructions of human nature.  But in the meantime the neoliberal Right has distanced itself from old-fashioned racism and sexism to put forth a version of human nature as the individualist, competitive, utility-maximizing rational agent, an agent they claim is the result of natural selection in ultra-Darwinian competition.

But the neoliberals’ monopoly on biological discourse is overthrown by new research.  We have to have the courage to claim that current evolutionary biology and developmental psychology show that human nature is prosocial in its default setting.

Similarly, in their overreaching claim to be the inheritors of the classical liberals, neoliberals open the door to rehabilitating the theory of moral sentiments proposed by Adam Smith and David Hume.  The political challenge of the new view of human nature is to extend the reach of prosocial impulses beyond the in-group, protect them from the negative emotions, and build on them to genuine altruism.

All this is not to deny the selfish nature of the basic emotions of rage and fear.  The key to a fruitful Left approach to human nature is the study of how such selfish, negative emotions are manipulated, or, more positively, how a social order can be constructed to minimize them and to maximize positive affects.  I hope Political Affect can contribute to that project.

© 2010 John Protevi