Man and Philosophy

Karel Kosík

KAREL Kosík, head of the Department of Dialectical Materialism at the Institute of Philosophy in Prague, has contributed to the literature of Marxism with his books The Czech Radical Democracy and Dialectic of the Concrete. The latter book is being translated into Italian, Spanish, and Polish. Mr. Kosík received his education at the Universities of Prague, Leningrad, and Moscow. He was born in Prague in 1926.

Since there are many areas of specialization which are concerned with man, ranging from those founded upon common‑sense knowledge of human nature all the way to the arts and sciences, it is not at all clear at first glance whether man has any further need of philosophy in order to know himself. Offhand it would seem that philosophy could attain a truly scientific level only by the exclusion of man from its very foundations as a discipline, i.e., through the critique of anthropologism. Philosophy arrives at the problem of man on the one band too late, achieving a synthesis or a generalization merely on the basis of some other area of specialization, and on the other hand superfluously, since the particular task could have been performed by some other, more specialized discipline.

Common‑sense knowledge of human nature is the practical, prosaic refutation of anthropological romanticism, for it posits man as being at all times a configuration of interests and invidious attitudes. The lessons of a worldly utilitarianism are implied in this form of knowledge, whereby man perceives man as competitor or friend, neighbor or master, fellow sufferer or acquaintance, colleague or subordinate, and so on. Through everyday utilitarian intercourse, a familiarity with the human character, with its inclinations and habits, is built up, and this knowledge then becomes established as folk wisdom or as practical and general truths, such as: men are deceitful, human nature is fickle, homo homini lupus. Machiavelli's advice to rulers as to how they are to govern rests in part upon this kind of knowledge: “As for men, let the following be said of them in general: they are thankless, fickle, deceitful, cowardly, greedy; as long as you show yourself to be of worth to them they will be with you body and soul, and will offer you their blood, their property, their lives, and their sons, provided you have no need of any of these things; but as soon as you need them, they will rebel against you.” (The Prince, Chapter 17.) Hegel considered this kind of knowledge of human nature to be useful and desirable, particularly under poor political conditions, when the arbitrary will of an individual is governing and the relations among men are founded upon intrigues; but such knowledge is entirely without philosophical value, for it cannot rise up from shrewd observation of chance individual occurrences to a grasp of human character in general.

In this common‑sense approach to knowledge of human nature, man does not become known, but rather his various functions are established and evaluated within the framework of a fixed system. It is not the character (the essence) of man that is made the center of attention, but only his functionality. In his System of Governing and Ruling, Machiavelli deals with man as if with some manipulable entity, as modern science does when it views man in the modern industrial system from the standpoint of the technological process of production, and regularly depicts him as a component—the “human factor”—in this process.

Such a way of viewing human nature cannot see through its own conditionality and relativity. The so‑called worldly‑wise, who calculate on the vanity and naïveté, the ambition and corruptibility, the timidity and indolence of the individual, and who enter into extended transactions with the human material on the basis of these calculations, have no idea that these qualities or functions really exist only within the general system of manipulations and manipulability, a system within which they too are inseparable components. Outside of this system the qualities of men undergo a transformation, and this so‑called worldly wisdom loses its value and meaning.

Modern anthropological research posits the complexity of man as its basic assumption, thereby reflecting the spirit of scientific method and of the growing number of disciplines that are concerned with the study of man. Man is a complicated being, and cannot be explained by some simple metaphysical formula. Every one of his special interests is set up as the subject matter of an independent scientific discipline, so that it may be exactly analyzed. The various specialized anthropological sciences have assembled an enormous mass of material, pouring forth invaluable findings about man as a biological being, a cultural being, a social being, and so on. Yet, despite the force of these scientific achievements, man qua man has never been so great a problem as he is today.

This discrepancy is due to an improper conception of the role of scientific anthropology. The various human sciences are occupied with either one or the other special aspect of man. When they explain their observations systematically, these sciences proceed from their own special viewpoints to develop a conception of man as a whole. The problem to which they address themselves is summed up in the question, What is man? The answers they give add up to a depressing variety of definitions, since each one allows itself broader and broader range in positing man’s fundamental characteristics. It is true that man is a living being who produces tools, but it is equally true to say he is a living being who employs symbols, who knows of his own mortality, who is capable of saying No, who is a social being, and so on. One definition cannot dispute the assumptions of another, for every particular aspect of man is isolated, and none of them is capable, from its own particular standpoint, of providing a notion of the whole man, concretely and as a totality.

In the pursuit of the question, What is man?, the question, Who is man? is either left unanswered, or is set aside altogether.

As long as the relationship between these two questions—­What is man? and Who is man?—is left unaccounted for, all attempts at achieving a synthesis of the data assembled by the various specialized branches of anthropology will remain fruitless. It is only on the basis of a distinct and established conception of man that a synthetic discipline will be able to draw together the data of the various partial sciences into an integral knowledge of man. The concept of man as a whole must be the premise of such a synthesis. Otherwise the synthesis would be one-sided, whether we were aware of it or not, for it would be undertaken on the basis of some specialized scientific pursuit, and man would accordingly be biologized, physicalized, sociologized, economicized, irrationalized, or something of the sort.

If man, divided into races and nations, creating disparate cultures, governing with his understanding and yet governed by the unknown, is as such the subject‑matter of science, why then should such distinct human concerns as happiness, the responsibility of individuals, the relationship between the individual and the collective, the sense of life, and the like, all be neglected? The “philosophy of man” came into being with the realization that Marxism had neglected precisely these problems, which, in the critical interval, had been taken up by existentialism. In this sense, the “philosophy of man” is historically conditioned, and appears to be a protest against dehumanization, an endeavor to make man once again the center of attention. But, on the contrary, this philosophy does not in any way conceive of man as a starting point, but looks upon him rather as an addition. Now, since the Marxist‑existentialist critique of alienation is shallow at its very foundation, the “philosophy of man” turns out to be subject to this same weakness, even though it was intended as an answer to those preceding philosophies.

The “philosophy of man” does not really set out from the philosophical problem of the nature of man—if it did so, it would arrive at a new approach to reality in general, and hence form a new conception of it—but simply adds man to the uncritical rift that it sees in reality. Since its attitude is based upon the notion of man as a completion, its conception is necessarily one‑sided. The “philosophy of man” cannot rationally account for why only such questions as individual responsibility, morality, and happiness belong to the problem of the nature of man, and not such questions as truth, world, matter, being, time, and the like. It does not get to the heart of the matter; the most basic philosophical questions are excluded from its area of interest, and man is considered in isolation from fundamental philosophical problems. Thus man is at the same time split into innerness and outerness, into subjectivity and objectivity, with the result that the “philosophy of man” really turns out to be concerned with only fragments or abstractions of real man, such as his innerness, his subjectivity, his individuality, and so on.

Man can no more overlook the fact of his existence in the world than he can account for the world as a reality without including man. The gnosiological question as to whether and how the world can exist independently of man really presupposes man in the world, so that he can ask this question. Man is implicitly included in every conception of the world (reality); that this juxtaposition is not always clear is a source of frequent mystifications. To posit the existence of man is to make a statement not only about man, but also about the reality outside of him: nature, out of which man developed and in which he exists, is in principle different from nature without man. Not only is nature so marked by the existence of man that it becomes humanized through history, but it also indicates through man’s existence its dynamic character and productive capacity (particularly as seen in the philosophy of Schelling), a capacity to produce (necessarily or accidentally), under certain conditions and in definite stages, a “highly organized material, equipped with consciousness.” Without the existence of man as a component of nature, the conception of nature as natura naturans, i.e., as productivity and activity, is unthinkable.

The definition, employed by natural science, of man as a “highly organized material, equipped with consciousness,” is not really without presuppositions, and does not have the manifest character of a timeless truth. If those who employ this definition do not concern themselves with its presuppositions, but simply place it within a scientific framework for the uses of biologists, chemists, embryologists, geneticists, and so on, this fact does not in any way speak out against philosophy, but rather is in its favor. The above quoted definition is not false, but rather it becomes false the moment it reaches beyond its bounds. For it presupposes a totality or a system which explains man through something that is not man, that stands outside of him and is not by its nature bound up with him. Man is seen herein as a component of nature, subject to the laws of the natural world. But if be is solely a component of this totality that he has not created (though he knows its laws and uses them for his own purposes), if processes penetrate him and the laws of nature govern him, and yet these things do not have man as a precondition, but merely impose themselves upon him, how is this fact to be reconciled with human freedom? In such a case, freedom is merely a recognition of necessity. Sartre argues against this conception:

We must choose: man is first of all himself or first of all Other than himself . . . Heidegger starts out with Being in order to arrive at an interpretation of man. This method brings him close to that which we have called the materialist dialectic of the external: it, too, starts out with Being (Nature without the addition of anything alien to it) in order to arrive at man . . . (Sartre, Critique de la Raison Dialectique).

However right this argument might be in terms of Sartre's critique as a whole, in the positive sense it is problematical. In the choice whether to be first of all oneself or first of all something other than oneself, there is an implied abstraction or division of the original concreteness (totality) of man, who is first of all himself only because he is at the same time something else, and who is something else only because he is or can be himself.

In contrast with the question, What is man?, posed by specialized scientific research, the philosophical question, Who is man? always implies another question as well, i.e., What is the world (reality)? It is only in this relationship of man‑world that the problem of the nature of man can be grasped. Philosophy in the true meaning of the word is always concerned with the problem of the nature of man; in this sense, every philosophy is at the same time a philosophy of man. But, in order to shed light upon the problem of the nature of man and be a real philosophy of man, it must formulate itself unconditionally as a philosophy of not‑man, in other words as a philosophical inquiry into the reality that is outside of man.

To say then that the question, Who is man? is a complex one is not to refer to the notion that man has an ever‑changing, Proteus‑like nature. Rather, its complexity is due, in the first place, to the fact that it leads to other questions, and that the task of formulating it clearly, is a long process of demystification and getting rid of preconceived judgments.

And this question is complex, in the second place, because it is resolved by philosophy, unaided by any specialized fields of science, in terms of philosophy’s proper and original subject: the relationship between man and the world. It is only within the framework of this philosophical problem that the question, Who is man? can be dealt with. If philosophy excludes man from its subject‑matter, or reduces him, with respect to the reality outside of man, to either some aspect or product, then its efforts become misguided; following these lines, it sooner or later loses its genuinely philosophical character and transforms itself either into a logical‑technical discipline or into mythology. It is noteworthy that such contradictory tendencies as the later philosophy of Heidegger on the one hand and modern positivism on the other end up either with the mythology of language (language as "the house of Being" in Heidegger) or with the analysis of language (Carnap: “A philosophical, i.e., a logical, investigation must be an analysis of language”). Since the Being of man consists in its relationships to man, to things and to reality external to man, these relationships can be released from this particular configuration and raised up to Being, which is “itself,” as Heidegger says; the explanation of man then proceeds on the basis of this mystification.

The so‑called philosophy of man really passes man by, since it does not establish the connection between the problem of his nature (among other problems) and the question of truth. On the other hand, the various theories of truth arrive at absurd conclusions when they do not take into consideration the connection between truth and the problem of the nature of man. After all, did not Husserl, in his Logical Inquiries concerning the critique of psychologism and relativism, fall into an objective idealism because he did not clarify the relationship between objective truth and the existence of man? Husserl says rightly that truth loses its meaning when it is the content of a knowing subject, upon whose laws it is dependent. In such a case truth is transformed into a dependency of the knowing subject, so that the phrase, “Other species, other laws of thinking, other truths” becomes valid. For Husserl, the relationship between man and truth is one between the knowing subject, with its limitations, and the timeless realm of ideal value. This ideal realm of truth exists independently not only of the intelligent being—either as the particular person or as the human species in general—but also of the realm of real time‑space‑existences. Even if nothing existed, the existence of truth would not essentially be different. The Newtonian laws exist independently of the existence of matter, even though its character and relationships are what give expression to these laws: “Were all gravitating masses to be annihilated, the law of gravity would not thereby be done away with, but would only remain without the possibility of factual application.” [1] These idealistic consequences are not without relation to the problem of the nature of man, and they end up in a human world of arbitrariness and untruth, Since, according to Husserl, truth exists independently of man, who can realize the fixed and timeless truth only in his knowledge of it, then man in his own nature is not attuned to truth and is in practice excluded from it. According to this theory, truth can properly be pursued only in mathematics and in logic, whereas the realm of man and of history, excluded from this pursuit, becomes the prey of not‑truth.

In his work Husserl does not pose the fundamental question as to whether the fact that man has a capacity to know objective truth (i.e., that truth whose content is independent of a perceiving individual and of humanity) does not indicate that man’s very being has an essential relationship to truth. If man perceives objective truth (which Husserl does not doubt to be the case), then this very fact characterizes him as a being that has access to truth; thus he is not simply closed off within a subjectivity of race, of sex, of historical time, of contingency, and of particularity. Who is that essence within whose Being are rooted, in a unique fashion, the processes both of social-human and of extrahuman reality? Who is that essence whose Being is characterized through both the practical production of the social‑human reality and the spiritual reproduction of the human and extrahuman reality, of reality in general? [2]

It is in the uniqueness of man’s Being that we can perceive the essential inner relationship between truth and man. The human reality is that point at which truth is not only revealed (perceived), but is also realized. For its very existence, truth needs man, just as man needs truth. This mutually dependent relationship means that man, in his relationship to truth, is no mere perceiving subject, but is also an essence that realizes truth. Since to speak of the objectivity of truth is not to identify it with objective reality, but rather simply to characterize it as an entity that exists, and, in its own terms, truth is seen to be not only the content of perception, but also the spirit of reality. Since mankind's Being has a kind of structure through which the Being of extrahuman reality (nature) and that of human reality unfold themselves in a certain way, human history can be considered as a process in which truth differentiates itself from not‑truth.

Translated by Ronald Sanders

1  Husserl, Logical Inquiries, Vol. I (Halle, 3913), p. 149.

2  On this problem see the author’s treatise, Who is Man?, Memorias del XIII Congreso Internacional de Filosofía, Vol. II (Mexico, 1963), pp. 231‑38.


SOURCE: Kosík, Karel. "Man and Philosophy," in Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium, ed. by Erich Fromm (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965), pp. 162-171.


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