Howard L. Parsons on the Role of the Philosopher

Now what can philosophers say or do that is useful in this time of great hope and hazard for the human race?

Philosophers can clarify the generic concepts that are relevant to man's problem—which is the problem of his fulfillment. By "generic" I mean those concepts which define man as man, i.e., his concrete, invariant nature from situation to situation and culture to culture during our present era on this planet. (Here I reject the view held by some—e.g., some behaviorists and existentialists—that man has no generic nature.) By "concept" I mean an abstracted pattern of relations expressible in language. By "relevant" I mean concepts whose employment will make a difference to the problem in question. Philosophers have ordinarily maintained the general thesis that the clarification and employment of generic concepts can and do make a difference to man's problem. The reason for this is that people successfully solve their problems by guiding conduct with concepts. Therefore problems of a generic kind—like, "What ought to be the goal of my life?" or, "How can human conflict be dealt with creatively?"—require generic concepts to be successfully solved.

I therefore propose here to clarify some generic concepts pertaining to man. These concepts, as well as my own attempted clarification of them, have been expressed by a variety of philosophers in the East and West. They are proposed in the conviction that for men to solve their present problem a necessary part of their knowledge is knowledge of themselves. This knowledge must be not only scientific. It must be philosophical, i.e., generic. It must pertain to the nature of man, his values, his methods of knowing these, his way of living.

Although the thinking out and the expressing of concepts concerning man are necessarily abstract (as is the thinking about chairs), the referents of such thinking are concrete. When we seek what is "generic" about man, we therefore seek what is most concrete in man's experience. Too often philosophers have occupied themselves with mere concepts. They have transmuted concepts into concrete realities. Thus they have implicitly urged that, since the real nature and value of men lies in concepts, then the right way of living for all men is to become philosophers. This error not only makes philosophy an idol, driving out all other human concerns. It confuses the abstract with the concrete. The proper function of the philosopher is, first, to use language to point to those generic, concrete elements of men's common experience. Such elements are definitive of men's reality as human beings, of the reality of their world, of the value and significance of these realities, and of men's ways of knowing and acting with respect to such realities and values. Second, the philosopher, through his concepts, should help to prepare men for action, action that realizes value. Only in such action can conceptual activity ultimately be justified. (For justification is a matter of the increase of value.) In its first function, then, philosophy is creative discovery; in its second, creative action. And these two functions are fused in the dialectic of thought and action. In this way philosophy becomes relevant to human life and values. For the one thing required of a philosophy is that it be viable. To be viable, it must facilitate the vital functioning of man.

Our ever‑present, obtrusive realities are hunger, thirst, sex, nurturance, curiosity, productive and destructive activity, cooperation, individuation, rest, sleep, play, fright, and the rhythms of man's life running from birth through various stages to death. [4] These propulsive need‑drives of the gunas—of gut, muscle, bone, nerve—have all too often been "overlooked" by the philosophers because they looked "up" and "over" instead of downward and inward and outward. Because philosophers have been led astray into the abstract, they have usually made only an esoteric appeal and have missed the common man, neither beginning with his realities nor communicating with him. They have usually come from the upper class or have served in its pay. Alienated from the daily struggles of men to live, they have indirectly and obscurely grasped the realities of human existence. And on the other side the masses of common men have ordinarily been so hungry, weak, sick, weary, or overworked in their efforts to survive that they have not had time to commit to writing their thoughts, save in folk songs and stories and other art. An implicit philosophy of, by, and for the people may be found in such art.

The realistic and effective philosopher is the thinker who works in living relations with common people. He endeavors to aid them in defining their identities as human beings and the realities around them. [5] He takes as his starting point the unrealized existential need-dispositions of individuals driving them toward fulfillment in the context of things and events yet hidden. To realize the self and the realities around it, it is necessary to act reflectively. The self of man and his world must be discovered through creative thought and action. Each self must perform this act of creative realization for himself. But while the philosopher cannot do this for any except for himself, he can through his special tools help others toward that fulfillment toward which they blindly strive.

Now he may serve me only gropingly,
Soon I shall lead him into the light. [6]


4. Writers concerned with generic human needs, drives, or "instincts" are Michael Graham, Abram Kardiner, Otto Klineberg, Clyde Kluckhohn, Ralph Linton, Ashley Montagu, George P. Murdock, Henry A. Murray, E. C. Tolman. A graphic illustration of the human creature, in his sameness and variety, is The Family of Man, ed. Edward Steichen. New York: Maco Magazine, 1955. Corresponding to the data on human needs, there is a growing literature about common human values.

5. Some prime examples in this century have been Lenin, Gandhi, and Mao Tse‑tung. Less influential but involved in political and social affairs have been S. Radhakrishnan, Bertrand Russell, Jean‑Paul Sartre, and Albert Schweitzer.

6. Goethe's Faust, trans. Louis MacNeice. New York: Oxford University, 1951. Part I, Prologue in Heaven.

SOURCE: Parsons, Howard L. Man East and West: Essays in East-West Philosophy. Amsterdam: B. R. Grüner, 1975. xi, 211 pp. (Philosophical Currents; v. 8) This excerpt, pp. 140-142. (Footnotes have been converted to endnotes.)

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Man East and West: Essays in East-West Philosophy
by Howard L Parsons

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