what is “what is man?” 2

I can sense the palpable disappointment of my readers who all waited for two days for a post on Heidegger, and will now be rewarded for their patience with a post on the philosophical anthropology of Arnold Gehlen. However, Gehlen’s concerns form an important bridge, connecting the Kantian subtext of Cassirer’s version of “What is Man?” with Heidegger’s version of the question. They are also unjustly neglected.

Gehlen begins Man with an introduction called “Man as a Special Biological Problem.” For Cassirer, there are philosophical and biological ways of asking “What is Man?”, and for Scheler there are religious, philosophical and biological ways of asking “What is Man?”. Gehlen admits of the philosophical and the biological. Unlike Cassirer, for whom the former will be the guiding “thread of Ariadne” for Gehlen, right up front, it’s going to be the latter. Still this is a book of philosophical anthropology. We need to ask, how does the relationship between philosophy and biology play itself out?

Gehlen answers with a clever recasting of a Kantian theme. The preface to the first critique begins

Human reason has a peculiar fate in one kind of its cognitions; it is troubled by questions it cannot dismiss, because they are posed to it by the nature of reason itself, but that it cannot answer, because they surpass human reason’s every ability.

Gehlen turns that into this:

Man would be, according to this explanation, not only a being who must, for a variety of peculiarly human reasons, seek explanations, but also, in a certain sense, would be unequipped to do so. In other words, man is a being whose very existence poses problems for which no ready solutions are provided.

In the first critique, it is not man who is flummoxed but reason. Reason and man are both confused by their own nature and this confusion takes them both beyond the limits of what they can do.

So rather than isolating reason as maybe the capacity of man to ask questions he cannot answer, for Gehlen, man tout court is going to be the issue. This works by discarding the impediments to an anthropology and getting to man qua man. “The external and the internal have not been brought together” Gehlen laments “morphology and psychology, body and soul have always been treated as separate worlds.” To address this issue, we need to overcome the disciplinary balkanization that pits “biology, psychology, cognitive theory, linguistics, physiology, sociology and so forth” against an understanding of the totality of man. “One must acknowledge the totality of man.” We need to bridge the inner and outer by posing the question “What is Man?” as “Why did it occur to nature to fashion a being who, by reason of his consciousness, so often falls prey to error and disturbance?”

This does not seem like a biological question. Gehlen knows this, and castigates the biology of his time for “inconsiderate neglect of the inner life of man or, at best, childlike representations of the nature of this inner life.” It merely “claims to be a biological approach.”

Biology’s failure doesn’t mean that we can return to good old philosophy. While philosophy and science are conceived as broadly the same inasmuch as they both “remain firmly within the bounds of experience” pure “metaphysical statements possess only a very limited persuasive power, and, above all, little true ability to motivate and influence the actions of real people” Science has taken the place of metaphysics inasmuch as “Lofty statements” of “abstract truth can hardly hold their own against the broad range of attainable, factual knowledge.” So Gehlen will stay out of metaphysics, even though he remains within the ambit of philosophy and science, broadly conceived.

Gehlen says he is doing a biological approach worthy of the name. It is an “anthro-biological approach” which “answers the question of what are the necessary conditions for man’s existence?”  (Again, sounding like Kant.)

What Gehlen means by biology is “impartial, purely descriptive concept formation.” To me this sounds like a description of phenomenology more than biology.

An objective analysis of a living being from a biological perspective is possible only if it treats the spiritual and intellectual aspects of life as facts in relation to other facts. Such an approach should not be restricted to an examination of the somatic…A biological approach can only succeed if it discovers specifically human laws which can be documented in all areas of human constitution. It thus makes send for now to turn away from all current theories, to “bracket” them, even the theory of man’s direct descent from the anthropoids…This bracketing is by no means an unreasonable suggestion since these theories have in any case not yet succeeded in coming up with a satisfactory overall theory of man, even within the boundaries of what can be achieved. A new approach is needed.

Gehlen presents a critique of biology that still sounds fresh to my ears. An insistence on man’s descent from the anthropoids, accurate as that might be, gives us no information on what makes us uniquely human. Humanity is not reducible to evolution, and this accounts, to my mind, for the continuing relevance of arguments against evolution.

Ultimately, philosophical arguments about “What is Man?” will be able to account for the specific humanity of man. But only by recourse to a metaphysics that appears limpid next to the vigorous triumphs of the sciences. A reorientation of the question around a descriptive approach, here called biology, but elsewhere appearing under other guises, promises a fertile, non foundationalist way to have man and humanity.

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