what is “what is man?”

How is man a problem for himself in Philosophical Anthropology? While all philosophical anthropologists are committed to the notion that man is (goshdarn it!) a problem for himself, we can detect a few models of the problem we are for ourselves. This is another way of parsing Kant’s 4th question, “what is man?” What do we mean when we ask, “what is man?”

Anthropologies without Anthropology- Max Scheler

Scheler begins The Human Place in the Cosmos with the claim that there is a tripartite division of anthropology which divides our conceptions of humanity without any essential underpinning. The question of “what is man?” is posed in irreconcilable ways which ignore some underlying commonality.

Ask an educated European today what his thoughts are when one uses the term “human being” and he will just about always find three irreconcilable ideas about the term which are in continuous conflict with each other.

  1. There is the thought of the Jewish Christian Tradition about Adam and Eve, and of creation.
  2. There is the thought stemming from the ancient Greeks when the human being’s consciousness of himself raised him for the first time into a special place, realizing that the human being is what he is through his possession of what is variably called “reason,” logos, –phronesis, ratio, mens—“logos” meaning here the possession of speeeh as well as the ability to grasp the “what” of each and every entity. Closely connected with this view is the theory that there is also a reason above the human being that underlies the whole universe and with which the human being alone is in a state of participation.
  3. There is also the thought of natural science and genetic psychology, today already a tradition. According to this theory the human being represents a late stage in the evolution of our planet. He distinguishes himself only by degrees of complexity of the energies and abilities that he has inherited from his ancestors in the animal world…

These three ideas lack any underlying unity which could provide us with a common foundation. Thus we have a theological, philosophical and scientific anthropology before us, but which, as it were, have no concerns with each other: yet we do not have one uniform idea of the human being.

After Teleology—Chaos – Ernst Cassirer

In the first chapter of An Essay on Man Ernst Cassirer characterizes a decisive breakdown in teleology which occurs with Darwinism and throws anthropology into a crisis similar to that described in Scheler, but more anarchic. One difference between Scheler and Cassirer is that Scheler has three coequal models of anthropology, where Cassirer has a historical narrative of both epochal changes and crises.

Aristotle declares that all human knowledge originates from a basic tendency of human nature manifesting itself in man’s most elementary actions and reactions. The whole extent of the life of the senses is determined by and impregnated with this tendency…

…according to Aristotle we find the same unbroken continuity. In nature as well as in human knowledge, the higher forms develop from the lower forms. Sense perception, memory, experience, imagination and reason are all linked together by a common bond; they are merely different stages and different expressions of one and the same fundamental activity, which attains its highest perfection in man…

Aristotle was convinced that in order to understand the general plan of nature, the origins of life, the lower forms must be interpreted in light of the higher forms. In his metaphysics… organic life is conceived and interpreted in terms of human life.

So one decisive element to the question of “What is Man?” rests on teleology—man has something to do with everything else and provides the schema of interpretability for all the other stuff. This is the Aristotelian contribution. The Platonic contribution to the question, “What is Man?” is dialogical, according to Cassirer. Socrates “never ventures a definition of man.” Why not? Cassirer says that “here, more than anywhere else, we should suspect Socratic irony.”

We cannot discover the nature of man in the same way that we detect the nature of physical things…man may be defined and described only in terms of his consciousness. This fact poses an entirely new problem…It is only in our immediate intercourse with human beings that we have insight into the character of man. We must actually confront man… in order to understand him…Philosophy, which had hitherto been conceived as an intellectual monologue, is transformed into a dialogue.

Man is defined by him as the being who, when asked a rational question, can give a rational answer… it is by this fundamental faculty… that man becomes a responsible being, a moral subject.

The ancients freighted our anthropology with three ideas, teleology, dialogue, and that all this has a practical upshot. Teleology sort of kept everything in place, but Darwinism signaled an epochal shift which loosened the ropes of the teleology principle and led to a whole bunch of methodological anarchy.

After innumerable fruitless attempts, the philosophy of man stands at last on firm ground. We no longer need indulge in airy speculations, for we are not in search of a general definition of the nature or essence of man. Our problem is simply to collect the empirical evidence…

Of course, this heady feeling lead more to scientism or scientific analogical thinking, than to science.

The interpretation was not determined in an unambiguous sense by the empirical evidence itself but rather by certain fundamental principles which had a definite metaphysical character. Though rarely acknowledged, this metaphysical cast of evolutionary thinking was a latent motivating force. The theory of evolution in a general philosophical sense was by no means a recent achievement. It had achieved its classical expression in Aristotle’s psychology and his general view of organic life. The characteristic and fundamental distinction between the Aristotelian and the modern version of evolution consisted in the fact that Aristotle gave a formal interpretation whereas the moderns attempted a material interpretation….The teleological character of human life is projected upon the whole realm of natural phenomena. In modern theory this order is reversed…We must seek to understand the structure of organic nature by material causes alone…

So Aristotle is recast into a defiant materialism which reverses teleology almost 180 degrees. This is one part of the crisis of modern philosophical anthropology. A second question arises from the materialism and breakdown of teleology, which is whether such a “scientific method” broadly (mis)construed can than account for the problem and structures of human culture. “They had to prove that the cultural world… is reducible to a few general causes which are the same for the physical as for the so called spiritual phenomena.” We also need to find “the hidden driving force” which structures these spiritual impulses. But here we have decisively gone into crisis. While “All these philosophers are determined empiricists” they “[contain] from the very outset an arbitrary assumption—and this arbitrariness becomes more and more obvious as the theory proceeds.” For example, “Nietzsche proclaims the will to power, Freud signalizes the sexual instinct, Marx enthrones the economic instinct.” And they all “become a procrustean bed on which the empirical facts are stretched.”

Our modern theory of man lost its intellectual center. We acquired instead a complete anarchy of thought…Every author seems in the last count to be led by his own conception and evaluation of human life.

So for Cassirer, the question “What is Man?” has become fragmented into many individual questions which need to be intellectually recentered (like Scheler). There are, unlike Scheler, historical components to this breakdown. There is also a clue that while teleology and the Aristotelian legacy have been routed, the Platonic ideas of dialogue and that all this stuff has practical implications remain in play.

Tomorrow I will discuss Heidegger in Being and Time.


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