Do you feel at times that the social sciences are letting us down? They all have ourselves for their shared subject, and yet, no shared idea of what we as human beings truly are like, or of the human situation as such, has so far come forward. Thanks to natural science we can reliably predict what happens when under specified conditions a body meets another body. But what about analyzing what happens between human beings, or inside us, or between each of us and the large-scale social forces and cultural influences that seem to determine us? As yet, no social science has come up with more than fragmentary answers at best. The time is ripe for a responsible, well-thought-through, integrated effort.
This book by the late Rob Wentholt claims to tell us what makes us tick, and how. He worked in the social and behavioral sciences for a lifetime, so he was well abreast of the many valuable insights that a century and a half of social science research have meanwhile yielded. Only, so he argues in this book, the efforts made so far are uncoordinated, competitive, contradictory, partial at best, and, above all, they do not add up. To the extent that they aspire to general explanations of human behavior they overgeneralize on simplistic grounds. A general accumulation of empirical data, such as has so successfully served the theoretical grip on reality attained by the natural sciences, is lacking; nor will it become possible in human science without a great deal of disciplining of theoretical, analytical and conceptual thinking.
Here is the solution Wentholt has sought in this book. He takes human complexity — the ineluctable consequence of our gift and curse of consciousness — not as a regrettable impediment to scientific insight but rather as his very starting-point. He does not seek to imitate the natural sciences by aiming for parsimony expressed in rigid laws. Rather, he is out to discover specific patterns in the complexities that human behavior inevitably displays. He offers a theory of human motivation that expands what may be encountered in the literature and is more comprehensive than what has been attempted so far, without becoming speculative. He approaches our biological make-up and the consequences of consciousness with analytical tools of a mostly novel kind, which he sets forth in many inspiring passages throughout his book.
This is a scholarly yet well-readable book, full of every-day examples, of a kind Wentholt was especially good at selecting from the endless richness and variety of human life. Albeit less than satisfied with current approaches taken in psychology, sociology, and cultural anthropology alike, his book exudes a quiet confidence in the kind of social science that becomes possible once his new approach has a chance to sink in. For every practitioner not committed forever to the usual ways of social science research nowadays, this is an eye-opening book. A mind open to what is truly new and unusual suffices for academics of any stripe to enjoy what it has to teach us.
Surely the effort undertaken in this book to arrive at a comprehensive vision of who we are, what motivates us, and how this works out in human collectivities may look ambitious enough in its own right. Still, there is more to it. Wentholt’s analysis of our human situation culminates in a reasoned estimation of our human destiny. The book ends with a realistic prospect of our chances for survival, arrived at through an effort to balance the variety of our more and our less pro-social behavioral motivations and of the individual and collective actions induced thereby.
Rob Wentholt (1924-2010) was a professor of social science at the Erasmus University (Rotterdam, Netherlands). A genius suffering from writer’s block throughout his career, he managed in the face of death to bring the insights of a lifetime together in this magnum opus. He wrote it in English, and it comprises 238,000 words altogether.