Thoughts on la Rouchefoucauld’s use of the Scientific Method for Philosophy

Philosophy is by definition any theory that can’t be proven scientifically. In La Rouchefoucauld’s case this is especially obvious as he attempted to explain in terms of philosophy the behavior of humans because there was at his time no way to prove them scientifically. He used a version of the scientific method to arrive at his final maxims and although he couldn’t prove it in doing so he stumbled on to some very scientific principles.
In La Rouchefoucauld’s day humans where still popularly considered distant and distinct from animals however four centuries after La Rouchefoucauld the idea that humans are bound to nature just as animals is now becoming prevalent. Thus even though originally the maxims were written to be a sort of scientific understanding of humans they instead are a defendable philosophy. Although it does not make La Rouchefoucauld “laws” of human nature any less real, understanding the scientific basis of the laws allows one to understand not just the effect but also the cause of human nature.

Law 72 states “If you judge love by most of its results, it seems more akin to hate than to friendship.” Taken in the basic terms it is true, but beyond the purely philosophical basis it points to the mental and physical changes one can experience during love and hate. Love can invoke powerful chemical changes in the brain akin to those caused by the use of drugs. Hate also causes chemical changes, increasing the amount of adrenaline and decreasing seratonin in the body. Both can cause behaviors under other circumstances would be unthinkable or undesirable. Friendship is less emotional and more mental. While friends are chosen for what they can do for oneself1, lovers and enemies are created through surge of emotions and are very rarely mental on the surface2. Yes La Rouchefoucauld is correct that love is similar to hate in its effects, but it is not a far off barley attainable philosophical truth, but just a scientific fact. Law 102 and 259 continues this idea again alluding to the chemical changes that occur in the brain.

Law 78 says, “For most of mankind, love of justice is nothing more than the fear of suffering injustice.” This is also true from a scientific point; the love of justice or fear of injustice is a survival trait. This trait is an offshoot of altruism which is required in any complex social setting for any creature human or animal3. Altruism is easily seen in all primate species, there have been many observed scenarios where a member of a group who did not reciprocate the altruistic behavior was “punished” by being denied further altruistic gestures by the remainder of the group. The member of the group who was punished now is less able to collect food, care for young and be alert to danger if the need arises. Because of this most members of the group feared losing the altruism of their neighbors they reciprocate the gestures in an attempt to insure further altruism. This can easily be seen as a form of societal justice.

These are both good examples of how La Rouchefoucauld’s philosophy of human nature mirrors the scientific version of the same. La Rouchefoucauld achieved his goal of finding the laws of human nature through philosophy yet in doing so also made a road map to the scientific laws of human nature. Maybe the question should not be is human nature based on philosophy or science, but rather is there anything in human nature that cannot be explained by both philosophy and science. Both interpretations of human nature, philosophical and scientific, appear on the surface to be correct. However not all people prefer to believe in the philosophical explanations preferring the concrete and proven scientific facts, like-wise many people do not believe that science can explain away all the mysteries of the human conundrum and only by looking beyond the proven can one truly find the answer to the puzzle.