Philosophy for limited beings

To speak of humans as “limited beings” is to criticize the current Modernist perspective that has grown up since the Enlightenment of humans as essentially masters of the universe – all knowing with free will to do as we please. It is also a nod to philosopher William Wimsatt and his book with the title Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings: Piecewise Approximations to Reality (2007). The perspective associated with Modern philosophy has been criticized since at least Nietzsche as a view that separated humans from the world by putting us as merely observers of objective reality (Nagel 1986). It has been lampooned under the notion of a split between body and mind or matter and spirit that have no relation to each other. Language is almost as ethereal as mind when it is considered to be just a reflection of objective reality (Harris 1981). Emotions are merely epiphenomena of no real consequence. The criticisms of these legacy views of Modernism and of the existential angst that they provoked have become so frequent as to form part of our tired disillusionment with philosophy generally.

With this background the question is how does the possibility that civilization is a major transition in evolution affect prospects for fresh views about ourselves. I will argue here and in later posts that a more clear picture of ourselves within evolution including all the aspects of civilization and not just our genetic component will dramatically improve and ground our picture of ourselves. But additionally, I must point out (again) how the Modernist picture of humans as in the paragraph above is tailor made for the current picture of human evolution that has us as the all-knowing, “successful” species. Philosophy of humans has fit up to now with human evolutionary views. And philosophy of humans will fit in a new way with a different and more large-scale transitionary view of human evolution. This view of the relationship of human evolution to philosophy is shown in the graph below as the blue circle to the right in relation to previous topics in these posts.

For this post I will only address one probable change stemming from a transitionary view of human evolution – consensual reality versus objective reality. We are all already familiar with this distinction with the usual demotion of consensual reality to some relativistic, popularity bin of irrelevance or annoying relevance. Consensual reality is akin to gossip. The trouble is that we all use it and then put it down which has the effect of cheapening all views including the much refined objective knowledge. But this is to leave the discussion tossed about under an impossible ideal while ignoring any attention to the evolutionary origins of our mental commons. In this view the long term growth of mental agreements by repeated efforts at behavioral coordinations is an exciting trans-individual new pattern.

There is already research on this behavioral background under the title of common ground (Clark 1996; Gibbs 2006; Enfield 2006; Tomasello 2008). These are all the beliefs, assumptions, memories, word-meanings, among other commonalities that people share to be able to coordinate and plan and count on each other. Into this common ground bucket must also go all the cultural learnings that are described in cultural evolution (Richerson & Boyd 2005). The common ground that each of us amasses in growing up in step with others with whom we interact is massive and is the product of years of growth continuing into adulthood. What is overlooked is that it is the product of millennia of human evolution. Our cognitive capabilities such as memory have been studied, but the niche construction of the environment to stabilize common ground (e.g. roads and buildings), the niche construction of memories (e.g. stories, rumors, and literature), the use of language to stabilize common ground, and the heavily interactive nature of human behaviors have not been clarified as evolutionary trends. Theoretically, this misses a collective characteristic of human evolution where people participate in a collectively built commons or many sub-commons of cultural groups. Practically, this leaves individuals today pretending to be isolated towers of individual omniscience bickering among ourselves rather than taking responsibility for the health of our mental commons.

To underline how different this evolutionary perspective of reality as common ground is from objectivity and cultural evolution, I will draw some distinctions. Reality as common ground describes the growth of a massive blanket of assumptions or behavioral probabilities among humans over the course of millennia which was subsequently built into the environment (e.g. tools, architectures, books, etc.). In the conventional view objectivity is the real deal into which our error-prone ways gradually got straightened out to yield a so-so consensual facsimile. In the view of common ground as evolutionary product, common ground came first and gradually became robust enough to allow the refined process of objectivity to make a special kernel of consensuality. Gaukroger (2012) reviews objectivity to show how it is a process, not an end result. Consensuality and common ground are the original processes of this striking collective phenomena with humans.

Cultural evolution speaks to the collective properties of groups to have “collective brains” (Henrich 2016) which are seen to be the collection of behavioral tricks that can be potentially learned by all in a group. This is the same conventional view of objectivity as described above where objectivity is the standard into which these numerous small steps (e.g., knowing how to make a bow and arrows, knowing how to weave fibers, etc.) add up towards that faraway goal of objective omniscience. These are steps by individuals that add up to a hodge podge of knowledge that is a far cry from the privileged, scientific view of objectivity. Humans remain both incomplete knowers and individuals in knowing. The all-knowingness of Moderns is reserved for later and knowingness remains as a property of individuals.

But from my perspective the alternative suggested here that reality or the known world is a collective property that has accompanied human societies in ever greater webs by the fundamentally interactive nature of human behaviors is an open question for human evolutionists. Which version better describes human evolution? The current view from evolution within Modernist philosophy is that individuals stumbled with cognitive representations of reality until science and advanced techniques allowed for the zenith of objectivity. The suggested alternative that should be studied in re-examining human civilization as a major transition is whether humans were accompanied by the growth of a collective commons that grew in extent and in consistency even while retaining pockets of cultural idiosyncracies.

The webs we weave – are us. If the evolutionary view of consensual reality as a significant characteristic of this evolutionary transition is correct, then we are all fundamentally embedded as nodes in this common ground. There is no pretending to be both outside and above reality. There is the chance to acknowledge our place in the webs and our responsibilities for how we weave. The epistemological web is global, and our lives are local within it.

This is the first post in a series on potential philosophical consequences to understanding the human major transition. Future topics will include evolutionary economics, agency through objects, and language.


Clark, Herbert. 1996. Using Language. Cambridge University Press.
Enfield, N.J. 2006. “Social Consequences of Common Ground.” pp. 399-430. From Enfield, N. & S. Levinson (eds). Roots of Human Sociality: Culture, Cognition and Interaction. Berg.
Gaukroger, Stephen. 2012. Objectivity: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.
Gibbs, Raymond. 2006. Embodiment and Cognitive Science. Cambridge University Press.
Harris, Roy. 1981. The Language Myth. St. Martin’s Press.
Henrich, Joseph. 2016. The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Princeton UP.
Nagel, Thomas. 1986. The View from Nowhere. Oxford University Press.
Richerson, Peter & Robert Boyd. 2005. Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed human Evolution. University of Chicago Press.
Tomasello, Michael. 2008. Origins of Human Communication. MIT Press.
Wimsatt, William. 2007. Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings: Piecewise Approximations to Reality. Harvard University Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *