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Philosophy and Anthropology: Border Crossing and Transformations

Philosophy and Anthropology: Border Crossing and Transformations

by Ananta Kumar Giri

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Philosophy and anthropology have many, but largely unexplored, links and interrelationships. Historically, they have informed each other in subtle ways. This volume of original essays explores and enhances this relationship through anthropological engagement with philosophy and vice versa, the nature, sources and history of philosophical anthropology, phenomenology


Philosophy and anthropology have many, but largely unexplored, links and interrelationships. Historically, they have informed each other in subtle ways. This volume of original essays explores and enhances this relationship through anthropological engagement with philosophy and vice versa, the nature, sources and history of philosophical anthropology, phenomenology, and the practical, methodological and theoretical implications of a dialogue between the two subjects. ‘Philosophy and Anthropology: Border Crossings and Transformations’ seeks to enrich both the humanities and the social sciences through its informative and stimulating essays.

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Anthem Press
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Key Issues in Modern Sociology Series
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6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

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Philosophy and Anthropology

Border Crossing and Transformations

By Ananta Kumar Giri, John Clammer

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2013 Ananta Kumar Giri and John Clammer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85728-512-6



John Clammer

The notion of a philosophical anthropology has almost entirely dropped out of contemporary intellectual discourse, both in philosophy and in anthropology. Among the few places where it is alive as an active concept or form of intellectual inquiry is in Christian (mainly Roman Catholic) theology. There are reasons for this absence, which we will shortly elaborate on, but the virtual disappearance of the idea of a philosophical anthropology is an unfortunate one, as it is potentially a notion that can not only provide a bridge between anthropology and philosophy – linked as we shall see by many common concerns – but also an intellectual space in which many fundamental questions of human existence have been and can still be posed. This essay proposes to look at the history of the idea of a philosophical anthropology, its contemporary ramifications and usages, and both its shortcomings and potential as an organizational centre for the key existential questions marginalized in much mainstream Western philosophy and almost entirely absent from the discourse of contemporary anthropology.

In a rare survey article on the concept published in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, its authors, the Swiss philosopher Georges Paul Gusdorf and the American anthropologist Mary Elizabeth Tiles, suggest that the word 'anthropology' was first used in German universities in the sixteenth century to refer to the systematic study of man as both a physical and moral being:

Philosophical anthropology is thus, literally, the systematic study of man conducted within philosophy or by the reflective methods characteristic of philosophy; it might in particular be thought of as being concerned with questions of the status of man in the universe, or the purpose or meaning of human life, and indeed, with the issues of whether there is any such meaning and of whether man can be made the object of systematic study. (Encyclopaedia Britannica 1993, 550)

Such a broad definition inevitably suggests that what actually is seen as falling within the scope of philosophical anthropology varies in time and space and with current conceptions of the nature, concerns and methods of philosophy. It is no surprise to discover that recent philosophical anthropology has flourished mainly in continental Europe, with its strong traditions of existential and phenomenological approaches to philosophy leading to a preoccupation with philosophies of being (that of Heidegger for example) and its active Catholicism (and here we are referring principally to Germany, France and to a lesser extent Spain), and hence to an emphasis on ontology, rather than in the English-speaking world, with its emphasis on analytical philosophy and a corresponding preoccupation with epistemology.

Essentially, then, philosophical anthropology was and to some extent still is considered to be the 'philosophy of man', and as embodying Humanist concepts or indeed as being the philosophical expression of Humanism, especially during and after the European Renaissance. Correspondingly, the central concern has been the concept of human nature. This common thread has itself undergone numerous mutations as the intellectual and cultural environments surrounding this perennial debate have themselves evolved. The medieval concept of the 'great chain of being' and its implication of the potential perfectibility of human beings was by the Renaissance being challenged by growing knowledge in the natural sciences (especially in biology, which began to demonstrate the continuities between humans and the rest of nature), by philosophical debates about rationality or rationalities (fuelled by the discovery of other flourishing civilizations), and by the discovery of other religions in which the anthropocentrism of the monotheistic paradigms of the Near East and Europe was very directly challenged. With these contextual shifts came quite naturally corresponding shifts in notions of human nature, from medieval ones of a fixed and universal nature, to Renaissance and post-Renaissance ones of plasticity and autonomy, and indeed to the idea of humans as having no fixed nature at all, a trend that culminated in the West in existentialism and later in postmodernism. The idea of philosophical anthropology as humanism and of humans as the centre of things has consequently been challenged on many fronts – from comparative religion and the ethnographic data of anthropology, from the natural and especially the biological sciences, from relativistic thinking and the antifoundationalism and radical constructivism of much recent social and cultural theory. This has led a whole cohort of critics, from postmodernists to structuralists and from Althusser to Foucault, to an antihumanist position in which any talk of human nature can only describe either a pre- or nonscientific conception of anthropology, a form of religious mystification or an illegitimate form of essentialism.

From this reading Western philosophy can be seen as a reflective process throughout which, from late antiquity onwards, differing views of humankind were worked out, from the early investigations of Plato and Aristotle, through the essentially theological ruminations of the medieval philosophers, to the beginnings of a more critical investigation of humans as the focal point of philosophy (rather than, for example, of logic or proofs for the existence of God). This began with Michel de Montaigne and Giambattista Vico in the eighteenth century (Vico's Scienza Nuova was published in 1725) and proceeded via Descartes to the philosophers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment including David Hume in England, with his empiricist investigations of human knowledge and perception, and of course Kant, whose grappling with similar problems (but with very different solutions to the British empiricists and idealists) led him to devote a whole volume of his work to philosophical anthropology. By the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, pivotal figures became not so much philosophers – with the exception of Edmund Husserl, whose work has had a profound impact on the later philosophies of Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty – as linguists (Gottlob Frege and Ferdinand de Saussure), investigators of the psychic realm (Freud in particular and subsequently Foucault), political economists (of which Marx, with his notions in his early work of 'species being', is clearly the key figure) and even anthropologists themselves, with the 'antihumanism' of Lévi-Strauss playing a major role in the 'death of man' debates that occurred in Western discourse in the 1960s, paralleled by the 'death of God' debates going on in radical theology at around the same time.

Seen from this point of view, philosophical anthropology is actually the thread that ties together very disparate forms of Western philosophy, widely separated by time. The 'anthropological question', sometimes suppressed, sometimes denied, is actually what unifies philosophy. And anthropology, which has had an ambiguous relationship with philosophy, preferring on the whole to ally itself with the natural sciences, sociology or linguistics, actually by its very nature raises philosophical questions: these are in fact at its heart. The movement by anthropology into the social merely masks this inevitable conclusion. Studies of the early origins of anthropology (Slotkin 1965) show very clearly that until the nineteenth century it was actually very difficult to separate anthropology and philosophy, even physical anthropology, since both addressed essentially the same questions. A parallel discussion of the philosophies of Asia – of Japan (Piovesana 1997; Paul 1993), China (Hall and Ames 1998) or India (Hiriyanna 1964), for example – would throw up a structurally similar history, but with a very different content, the metaphysics of Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism being radically different from those prevailing in the mainstream West. While discussions of logic and other technical matters most certainly do occur, and where contact with the West and with Western philosophies and religions has greatly modified what might have been the natural course of indigenous philosophical development, the 'problem of man' prevails too, but in an interesting way. The nonanthropocentrism of much Asian philosophy (the main exception being the schools emerging from Confucianism) posits a very different relationship and set of causal processes between humans and their total environment (which inevitably contains the spiritual as well as the social and the natural or material environments) than that found in Western philosophy. The more recent challenges of deep ecology, with its profound links to Buddhistic forms of thought, in a sense unifies the current concerns of both forms of philosophy while provoking both to a fresh engagement with nature and with the human place within it.

The Trajectory of Philosophical Anthropology

The mostly Continental provenance of philosophical anthropology can best be understood by its origins in the German speaking world and its continued usage there by German philosophers, especially those influenced by phenomenology, and by its translation into various varieties of the 'philosophy of the person' among French Catholic and to a lesser extent Spanish philosophical theologians. Michael Landmann suggests that the term itself was first used in 1596 by the theologian Otto Cassmann with reference to the supposed double nature of mankind – as both bodily and spiritual beings – common to the theology of the time, and that another form of dualism has since crept into the human sciences. He argues that while physical anthropology and ethnology explore the 'external' characteristics – biological and cultural – of human beings, philosophy critiques this supposed knowledge and suggests that 'man' him or herself is a 'problem' that raises fundamental questions about being and what if anything distinguishes the human race from other forms of existence inhabiting the universe (Landmann 1955, 6). The supposition must therefore be that 'scientific' anthropology contains (usually unexplored) assumptions about what human beings really are. This debate gives rise on the one hand to forms of entirely non-naturalistic positions (suggesting that there is an inner core or essence of human beings, the depiction of which requires no recourse to cultural or biological factors) and on the other to naturalistic anthropologies (suggesting that humans are both the makers of and are shaped by culture, and that biological, genetic and environmental factors influence, even if they do not determine, human behaviour and social organization). The picture is complicated, as Landmann goes on to point out, by the self-interpretation of peoples: the classical Greek conception of human beings as essentially rational beings was both indeed a conception (and almost certainly a highly gendered one, as it is not clear if women were always included in this 'conception of man') and also, in Weberian terms, an ideal type, which as such acted to express in concrete terms that self-image in philosophy, sculpture, architecture, ritual, and social organization. This is true, but the question is: to what extent? While idealist philosophers would argue that self- conception is fundamental – a culture will 'express' itself in its art, poetry and religion – this can easily become a highly romanticized and abstract notion, one that would be vigorously contested by materialist philosophers who would see real cultural and social development as deriving from economic and technological factors, of which the 'expressions' would be epiphenomenal. In practice very few modern social scientists would draw the lines so clearly. Even Weber, so often charged with proposing an idealist model of the origins of capitalism (the famous 'Protestant ethic' theory), was in fact perfectly aware of the material factors and discussed them at length.

Marx and Engels, in their critique of Feuerbach's influential The Essence of Christianity (1841) contained in their The German Ideology (1846), attack him not for his position on religion, but for the fact that he essentially does not go far enough: by grounding his theology in anthropology rather than in a spiritualized notion of the self, he has made a big step in the right direction, but not enough to contain 'real, historical men' or to overcome the idealist tendency to see the 'sensuous' world around him, and nature in particular, as eternally given rather than as socially constructed. The main point of contention between many proponents of a philosophical anthropology and those who are satisfied with a purely naturalistic one is exactly this fault line: between the ability to satisfactorily confine the scientific study of humans to the empirically determinable on the one hand, and the desire to seek out the special and defining qualities of human beings on the other – a 'philosophy of life', exemplified perhaps in the work of Martin Heidegger, whose whole philosophy is primarily an ontology, an attempt to place being at the centre of the entire philosophical enterprise (Heidegger 1961). The result is that a great deal that appears under the sign of philosophical anthropology is closer to what might be called 'wisdom literature' than it is to either conventional naturalistic anthropology or to most forms of technical philosophy, with the exception of existentialism, with which it shares many links and common questions. This can be clearly seen in the philosophical anthropology of Max Scheler, seen by many as one of the principle promoters of the idea, whose conception of the subject as a basic science of the essence and essential constitution of man places him in a quasi-theological camp that sees humans in the context of the eternal, and leads to his rejection of naturalistic anthropology and evolution as unnecessary to a true understanding of human nature (Scheler 1927, 1960). The outright rejection of philosophical anthropology for its apparently irredeemable essentialism by thinkers such as Foucault stems from this ahistorical idealism, rarely rooted in the actual experience of peoples.

But need this dichotomy between naturalistic anthropology on the one hand, feeling little need to raise philosophical questions about its epistemological and ontological assumptions, and an idealist and largely essentialist philosophical anthropology on the other, be the only option? I think not, and in going on to review some of the possibilities still inherent in philosophical anthropology, I will suggest that it is more than possible to suggest a rapprochement between the two, and to actually make the stronger case that they require each other. Naturalistic anthropology, innocent of its philosophical underpinnings, is shallow and falls far short of its avowed intention to be a synthesizing science of humanity; philosophical anthropology, bereft of substantive empirical and ethnographic foundations, floats in an intellectual no man's land of pop theology, new ageism and marginality in relation to mainstream philosophy. To bring the two together, however, is to open up areas of creativity in anthropology and philosophy where the truly human in all its variety is not alien to philosophy and the fundamental existential issues to which philosophy points enrich and deepen anthropology, helping it beyond the purely sociological and the self-limitations this imposes on its path to becoming a genuinely human and humane science.


Excerpted from Philosophy and Anthropology by Ananta Kumar Giri, John Clammer. Copyright © 2013 Ananta Kumar Giri and John Clammer. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Meet the Author

Ananta Kumar Giri has taught in various universities in India, the USA, Denmark and Germany, and has written numerous books on social movements, cultural change, criticism, culture and society, and ethics in management and development. Giri is currently an associate professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, India.

John Clammer is currently a professor of sociology in the Institute of Sustainability and Peace at the United Nations University, Tokyo, Japan. His work ranges from economics, anthropology and ethnicity to identity and development, and focuses on the relationships between Western social theory, the realities of the Asian societies and the links between culture and development.

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