On Misunderstanding David Brooks

The review of David Brooks’ The Social Animal in the most recent issue of The New York Review of Books was a disappointment. Since there’s pretty much zero chance that the letter I sent will ever see the light of day, I reproduce it here as a small effort to counter this common sort of misreading (or under-reading) of Brooks’ argument.

To the Editors:

H. Allen Orr seems to have missed the central concern of David Brooks’ engagement with the new sciences of human nature. Orr reads the appeal to “science” as if Brooks were trying to reduce us to our hard-wiring–which is why Orr homes in on those passages that are concerned with pheromones and the genetic information absorbed when couples are swapping saliva.

But Brooks is not engaged in the sort of reductionism that Orr seems to think characterizes a “scientific” account. More specifically, Brooks doesn’t give us a biologized story of some kind of “hard-wired” human nature. Instead, Brooks sees the new sciences of human nature offering an account of how we absorb our second nature–what Aristotle called “character.” The core argument of The Social Animal–and the one that impinges on how we make policy and organize social institutions like schools–is that we are creatures of habit and we absorb fundmental, orienting habits through embodied but unconcious routines and rituals. Orr seems to have missed this argument entirely.

It is just this attention to formation, habituation and virtue which makes Brooks a classic conservative in the spirit of Burke–a voice much needed amidst the so-called “conservative” ideologies of liberatarian self-invention that will assail us over the next season of Republican presidential campaigning.


James K.A. Smith