tue 11/08/2020

Great Thinkers: In Their Own Words, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Great Thinkers: In Their Own Words, BBC Four

Great Thinkers: In Their Own Words, BBC Four

From Freud's unconscious to Dawkins's Selfish Gene: a brief but fascinating journey

Freud was a revolutionary, and like all revolutionaries he was, clearly, a dogmatist. Twenty years later, on the BBC’s Face to Face programme, that civilised forum for probing discourse, Carl Jung recalled their first meeting. “I liked him very much,” he said, his grey head framed in a close-up. “But I soon discovered that when he thought something, then it was settled, while I was doubting all along the line.” BBC footage of a previous interview with Jung, filmed four years earlier and unseen for decades until now – for “unknown reasons” but probably because the reel had simply been left under a pile of boxes in a broom cupboard somewhere in the bowels of Television Centre – revealed more about the break-up.


margaret-meadIt’s not surprising that the BBC has an unsurpassed archive featuring interviews with some of the most important figures of the 20th century. Its earliest mission, to “educate, inform and entertain”, has been emulated throughout the world but rarely bettered. Adam Curtis, the clever kid in the BBC’s archive candy shop, has made a living out of weaving a beguiling web of connections, whilst hinting at a few dark forces, in his riveting television essays. But BBC Four’s Great Thinkers: In Their Own Words, was plain, sturdy and straightforward: no clever or slippery thesis, and no fancy footwork. But that didn’t make it any less fascinating –  the archives, after all, can speak for themselves.

The first episode, Human, All Too Human, took us on a brief journey through 20th-century Western thought in human psychology and motivation, from Freud’s unconscious to Dawkins’s Selfish Gene. In between we called on the scary hardcore behaviourist BF Skinner, who extrapolated from the psychology of pigeons to humans, and that matronly Gauguin of anthropology Margaret Mead (pictured above right), whose Samoan free-love paradise turned out not to be quite the romantic “noble savage” hang-out she’d been fed by the wily natives. (They knew what she wanted to hear – hence the problem for early anthropology being that subjects often seek to please their “dispassionate” observers.)

MilgramBut the Great Thinker who was given centre stage was Stanley Milgram (pictured left with his pretend high-voltage torture machine), mainly because the footage was so good. A few years after his groundbreaking experiments proved how obedience gives rise to more evil than transgression, Milgram was given his own Horizon programme. He explained how he’d wanted to understand how Nazi atrocities such as the 1944 massacre of Oradour in France could have ever taken place. Were the Nazis, he’d wanted to know, uniquely wicked?

In pursuit of the answer, he’d planned an experiment that recruited a group of unsuspecting Americans and paired them up with a group of actors. If the “learners”, the actors, answered questions incorrectly, then the “teachers”, our unsuspecting Americans, would administer an electric shock. The results caused a storm, shockwaves, if you like: 65 per cent of those taking part were prepared to administer a fatal 450-volt shock. Ordinary people, we learned, are "integrated into malevolent systems" because they hand over responsibility for their actions to someone else. They follow orders.

'The whole of the 20th century has really been some massive, accelerated project devoted to the perfectability of humankind'


Throughout, clips were interspersed with contemporary talking heads giving us potted summaries of each groundbreaking idea: Jung’s idea of Individuation et al made simple. It was all introductory-level stuff, but, still, it was great, really quite riveting. But even so, some of the narration bugged me. Milgram, for instance, had originally planned to carry out his experiment in Germany, but because the initial experiment had proved so conclusive he'd apparently never “bothered” to take it abroad. Wow, I thought, was that really the reason? Because if he had, wouldn’t that have been really quite fascinating? Would every nation have a 65 per cent ratio of guilt? Or had some portion of the world somehow learned that obeying orders wasn't always such a great idea? Not being “bothered” just really didn’t cut it for me.

The programme was kind of sobering, too. The whole of the 20th century has really been some massive, accelerated project devoted to the perfectability of humankind. In psychology as much as in politics history drowns in a sea of utopian thinking. So what often starts off with “this is how we make things better” becomes “this is how we cure all ills". And this is where the narration bugged me again, because, after a cute little summary about how we’re all made up of our environments as well as our “selfish genes”, it ended on a note of “it’s OK now, though – those were just some silly, pretty naive theories from the past. We’re a bit more clued-up now”. Ugh. But as I said, deeply fascinating.

Share this article

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters