Phillip Honenberger (Ed.): Naturalism and Philosophical Anthropology

Andrew Cooper

Naturalism and Philosophical Anthropology: Nature, Life, and the Human between Transcendental and Empirical Perspectives Book Cover Naturalism and Philosophical Anthropology: Nature, Life, and the Human between Transcendental and Empirical Perspectives
Phillip Honenberger (ed.)
Palgrave Macmillan
Hardcover $100.00

Reviewed by: Andrew Cooper (University of Bonn)

This book will surprise both natural scientists and philosophers. Not only does it argue that naturalism – the thesis that natural science is best equipped to tell us what there is in the world – requires philosophy to account for human life, it also claims that philosophy must be coupled with natural science if it is to ground human beings in nature.

The aim of Naturalism and Philosophical Anthropology is to draw the fragmented heritage of philosophical anthropology into a single tradition that provides a fresh approach to contemporary epistemic quagmires in scientific inquiry. The “puzzling subject-object doublet” (p. 14) at the core of philosophical anthropology – the combination of the scientist and specimen – means that to account for human life is simultaneously to open our understanding of “nature” to question. If nature arises through human speech, action, and investigate practices, then a research program adequate to human life requires both the naturalist, evolutionary-biological tradition and the idealist, phenomenological tradition. The thesis of the book is as provocative as it is compelling: that a truly naturalist research program is possible only when these opposing methodologies are drawn together, opening a field of inquiry “between transcendental and empirical perspectives,” as the title states.

The guiding motif weaved throughout the essays is Arnold Gehlen’s the notion of the human as a “deficient being” (Mängelwesen). As editor Phillip Honenberger explains, the deficiency of the biological function distinguishes human beings “from non-human forms of life by their capacity to take a position regarding this dynamic relationship [of interiority] itself” (p. 12). Biological deficiency necessities the development of an integrated “habit-set” or “character” to extend the natural – what Aristotle called the “second nature” – meaning that a unique combination of natural science and social and cultural approaches are required to capture the dynamism of humans being. Given the aim of the book to outline a research program adequate to this task, my approach here will not be exhaustive but rather to identify how each essay conceives philosophical anthropology as a project that opens a properly naturalist field of inquiry.

In the opening essay, Beth Cykowski draws philosophical anthropology into continuity with phenomenology by examining Martin Heidegger as an anthropological thinker. By turning our attention from the regional suppositions of institutional anthropology to the fundamental question of human being there, Heidegger elucidates the human as both “part of” and “irreducible to” nature (p. 29), for the human is that through which nature is given expression. This move is fundamental to philosophical anthropology, Cykowski argues, for it alerts us to the human being as the incomplete creature, a being in “limbo” between the organic and the spiritual, a being for whom entities are “hyper-available” rather that available insofar as they are “relevant” (p. 44). Cykowski contends that, like phenomenology, philosophical anthropology provides an alternative to reductionist sciences that limit research to the physical.

Richard Schlacht also expands the tradition of philosophical anthropology by identifying Friedrich Nietzsche as an important predecessor of Gehlen. He argues that Gehlen’s work is “naturalizing” in Nietzsche’s sense of the term to the extent that it considers the human constitution as a “structural response to practical necessities arrived at in purely mundane ways” (p. 58). The entanglement of Nietzsche and Gehlen opens the core thesis of philosophical anthropology: that “something more than mere Darwinian ‘natural selection’ was involved in the transformation of ‘deficiency’ of fixed structures into man’s biological constitution into a kind of advantage in the struggle for survival, by the flexibility it made possible” (p. 63). Schlacht claims that for both Nietzsche and Gehlen this something is human action.

Vida Pavesich examines Hans Blumenberg’s contribution to philosophical anthropology to identify the vital role of consolation in anthropogenesis. Consolation constitutes a key site of ethical reflection by presupposing “a complex intersubjective and cognitive reflexivity as well as an empathic perspective-taking capacity,” embracing and soothing “the existential vulnerability for which there is ultimately no solace” (p. 66). At the center of Blumenberg’s work is the claim that the preservation of the human world “involves compensating for the provisional nature of our existence” (p. 66). This lack entails “a biologically deficient being burdened with cares and anxious about lacking guarantees for its continuing being-in-the-world” (p. 69). The deficiency of biological specialization drives human beings to action within “the context of a lifeworld that supports, shapes, informs, and stabilizes biological plasticity” (p. 71).

In his essay “Naturalism, Pluralism, and the Human Place in the Worlds,” Honenberger traces the role of locality that ties the disparate threads of philosophical anthropology into a single discipline. From Thomas Huxley’s Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863) to contemporary work, philosophical anthropology raises the question “what is man’s place in nature?” as its central analytic. For Honenberger, the question of placement concerns the relation between higher-order organization of human systems and the lower natural strata. By examining this relation philosophical anthropology resists the monist tendencies of contemporary naturalism, identifying the “‘emergence’ of plurality from monistic (or monistcally articulated) conditions” (p. 96). Honenberger’s emergentist thesis entails a “pluricartographic” approach to human locality, connecting philosophical anthropology with the recent pluralist turn in epistemology of philosophers such as Helen Longino and Huw Price. Like contemporary pluralism philosophical anthropology does not separate metaphysics from epistemology but rather entwines the philosophical in the anthropological, holding that “knowing subjects are part of the world they seek to know” (p. 114). Contemporary pluralists are returning to what philosophical anthropology has known all along: that “we humans (our thought and talk included) are surely part of the natural world” (Price 2012, 5).

Scott Davis examines Helmuth Plessner’s conceptual investigation of the concept of “life” in terms of “structural narratology” (p. 121). While biology in the tradition of Ernst Mayr is characterized as the study of individuals, philosophical anthropology as practiced by Plessner is concerned with “characters introduced as modalities of being” (p. 123). In this way the “position and role of the observer could be built reflexively into the scientific activity along with the observations and results.” Plessner calls this irreversible double-aspectivity of object perception as “positionality” (p. 125). Positionality serves as an alternative to the Cartesian view from nowhere, capturing “living configurations of the biological world as living things.” Even human life and culture must be included within the spectrum of positionalities, for we ourselves are “agents of this reflective, classificatory effort at outlining positionalities in the first place” (p. 128). Davis proposes the idea of “mediated immediacy” as the central analytic of philosophical anthropology, identifying the uniqueness of the human in their capacity to “lead a life,” to undertake the task of making “themselves into what they already are” (p. 140).

Sally Wasmuth demonstrates how a philosophical anthropology attentive to Gehlen’s notion of the excessive vulnerability of human life can contribute toward contemporary understanding of addiction in clinical settings. Guidelines rooted in philosophical anthropology can “help recognize and distinguish addictions from ‘healthy’ occupations” by “contextualizing these criteria in a broader theory of human nature” (p. 152). Wasmuth highlights the foreignness of philosophical anthropology to contemporary biological or reductionist approaches to the human, which lack Gehlen’s attunement to the humans as “deficient life forms” (p. 153). She links Gehlen’s thesis of world-openness to biological work on detachment and neuroscience, which emphasizes the lack of instinctual organization in human behavior in conceptions of human wellness. Addiction can be seen as a form of “replacement for the biological instincts lost in detachment” (p. 160) by persons who are “overwhelmed by their biological precariousness” (p. 162).

While the emphasis on human deficiency throughout the book provides a guiding thread for philosophical anthropology, it sometimes feels a little overblown. Is the focus on compensating for the lack of being is warranted given the remarkable human capacity for fullness? A naturalist reading of the lack of specialization characteristic of human life must also account for how this detachment from biological function features as a selected function that contributes to human flourishing. Lenny Moss raises this question in his chapter “The Hybrid Hominin: A Renewed Point of Departure for Philosophical Anthropology.” Moss’s aim is to challenge the “overemphasis on human deficiency” in philosophical anthropology that examines humans “problems to themselves” (p. 172). His notion of the “Hybrid Hominin” draws attention to the group as the unit of normative transition, bringing human development under the broader biological principle that “life moves in the direction of increasingly being able to constitute its own norms.” While detachment entails some kind of loss, it equally entails “an increase in relative independence vis-à-vis its surround.” Increasing detachment leads to the development of a system which “acts in such a way as to determine its own outcome,” actively “biasing its own future states” through the “presence of a norm” (p. 174). This is precisely what life is; the “threshold of natural development in which nature increasingly moves in the direction of being able to constitute its own norms.” Thus the point of departure for philosophical anthropology is not the emergence of a physiologically challenged being but rather “the partial and perhaps progressive detachment of hominin individuals from the primordial Group” (p. 180). Moss argues that this development opens “new dimensions of normative autonomy,” casting philosophical anthropology along more Hegelian lines than those provided by Gehlen.

Hans-Peter Krüger continues this normative approach by examining the work of Michael Tomasello, which combines the horizontal analysis of human culture with the vertical analysis of humans as animals. Tomosello’s work demonstrates how philosophical anthropology uniquely enables a research program that spans the accepted methodological dualism between the natural and human sciences, or between nature and mind. Krüger contends that a methodology that is attentive to both biological and cultural inheritance leads to an understanding of human dependence that “does not determine but rather enables” (p. 188). The biological development of human understanding serves as an enabling structure that conditions the development of human culture. This is a kind of “transcendental naturalism” (p. 189) in which the enabling structures serve as the a priori conditions of experience which result in the a posteriori generation of normative directedness. The questions of inheritance that are often restricted to the brain are thus extended to include “the recursive symbolism of a historical process of interaction” (p. 192).

Joseph Margolis’ provocative essay examines the “neglected” relationship between biological and culture (p. 219). His central claim is that neither the development of language nor the emergence of persons “can be satisfactorily accounted for solely or primarily in biological terms,” which is to say that “Darwinian evolution must itself be transformed when it addresses the evolution of Homo Sapiens” (p. 220). We require a theory that does not simply explain the mastery of language and the emergence of associated symbolic forms of expression as accidental features but as a “sui generis form of emergence unique (as far as we know) to societies of human persons” (p. 221). Margolis argues that the “‘second-naturing’, essentially cultural (or enculturing) transformative process” expresses the continuity of biology and culture (p. 221) while maintaining that “[i]ntentioned things and properties … are fundamentally different from the material things and properties of the natural world (p. 222). To balance the continuity of emergence with the distinctness of intentionality Margolis avows a pragmatist framework for philosophical anthropology made up of “an open-ended succession of a continually revised array of patchwork models” (p. 227).

In the final essay of the volume Sami Pihlström reflects on the unique methodological standing of philosophical anthropology that investigates both the “factual” and the “normative” dimensions of human beings (p. 229). He argues that philosophical anthropology gives a uniquely “transcendental perspective on human finitude as something that must be reflexively explored ‘from within’ that conditions itself” (p. 230). Pihlström’s aim is to link the pragmatic tradition with transcendental inquiry in order to raise the metaphilosophical question of whether there is a dimension of human being that can be elucidated philosophically. This is essentially a question about naturalism: naturalism claims that there is no first-philosophy, no philosophical perspective more fundamental to natural science. Against the monist tendency of naturalism Pihlström argues that the “first-personal” character of human experiences such as death require a pluralism of methodological approaches that culminate in a “non-reductively naturalized version of the transcendental method” (p. 243).

While the proposed methodologies proposed in this volume vary significantly, they share the conviction that a pluralism of methodological approaches is required to account for human life. At times the collected nature of the volume leaves the reader in want of a sustained account of this pluralism, in particular, how pluralism constitutes a form of naturalism at all. Naturalism, in its harder varieties, is characterized by a monist conception of nature that reduces scientific explanation to the single physical-energetic stratum of entailed causality. This account of naturalism – what Price (2012) refers to as “object naturalism” – turns on a concept of nature as a totality of subject-independent facts. Alternatively, Price proposes a “subject naturalism” that acknowledges human as a part of nature. Yet like the essays in this volume, it remains unclear how such a proposal retains the features characteristic of “naturalism.” If nature is not a single set of facts discoverable by natural science but rather a conceptually mediated horizon of experience irreducible to a single explanatory paradigm, then no research program can account for what there “really is” in the world. What then is the task of science? While the essays of Krüger, Margolis, and Pihlström provide some direction by proposing to combine transcendental analysis with pragmatism, one would think that this proposal, fully cashed out, entails a conception of nature irreducible to the physical-energetic stratum. Is such a proposal a form of naturalism, or an alternative framework? What does it mean for a research program to be properly “naturalist” at all, and why is naturalism worth aspiring to? While philosophical anthropology is well placed to combine philosophical and natural scientific research, it requires a philosophically robust account of the pluralism of causative paradigms – dare I say a metaphysical framework, albeit of a deflationary variety – to explain how nature is amenable to our explanatory aims.

Naturalism and Philosophical Anthropology puts forward a methodological challenge to both contemporary philosophy and natural science. As contemporary epistemologists are again discovering, the fact that human beings are both part of nature and that through which nature arises as an object of inquiry entails that the subject-object dualism of traditional science requires radical revision. The essays in this volume provide an exciting contribution to the search for an alternative to reductionist forms of naturalism that ignore the intentional-normative stratum, assisting philosophers and natural scientists to make use of and orient themselves to the dynamic tradition of philosophical anthropology.

Price, Hugh, Naturalism Without Mirrors, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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