A critical philosophical anthropology comprises a biological-sociological account of human needs that provides the foundation for a progressive moral and political philosophy. It begins with the recognition that ethics and politics independent of biology prove impossible and, concomitantly, that every biology presumes some ethics and politics. A theory of human needs constitutes the foundation of a critical theory of society (i. e., an ethics and a politics) the end of which is the greatest expansion of the human person possible in a given concrete historical situation. A critical philosophical anthropology, on the one hand, must resist attempts to reify either a set of needs (which is what both the current capabilities approach or Rawls’ thin theory of the good does) or human nature (which is what essentialism and evolutionary psychology does). On the other hand, it must insist, against social constructivists, that human beings share a universal human nature. A critical philosophical anthropology defines a position between these different accounts by providing an explanation of how human practices emerge from human biology. It affirms biological realism while holding that concrete cultures express human biology in a variety of ways. Thus, it takes for granted the Marxist insight that human nature and human needs cannot be divorced from concrete historical circumstance. Human beings exercise agency, in fact, in concrete historical circumstances: that is, human beings – constituted by and constitutive of traditions – realize their agency through (cultural) practices whose origins lie in the pursuit or satisfaction of human needs.
Developing an understanding of human needs is the raison d’etre for a critical philosophical anthropology. This anthropology must provide a philosophical account for, as well as a critical approach to, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Social constructivism might be able to explain Maslow’s hierarchy but cannot approach it critically or provide a critical reconstruction of his hierarchy. Evolutionary psychology might be able to account for the first level of needs – those dealing with sustenance – but could not explain the higher needs, nor could it approach the hierarchy of needs critically.
A biologically based philosophical anthropology, that recognizes that culture expresses biology, can both explain the lower and upper levels of the hierarchy while further providing a foundation for critically engaging this account. That critical engagement would begin in the concrete historical circumstances in which particular beings live. The concrete historical circumstance can analyze what specific human needs are in the here and now, while pointing out how those needs are not, but could be, met in the here and now. Further, recognizing that culture and practices vary with concrete historical circumstances, a critical philosophical anthropology can explain what form those needs take at the higher levels.
Culture, as an expression of biology, proves responsive to the particular concrete socio-historico-environmental circumstances of human beings. That is, different environments will spur different practices as responses to satisfying the needs of human beings in those particular environments. For example, Jared Diamond shows how human beings adopt the practice of hunting and gathering in one environment and agriculture in another. The critical philosophical anthropology I develop takes for granted that practices grow out of attempts to satisfy human needs in concrete circumstances. In addition, those practices change as they are lived in socio-history, which includes the material changes that emerge with history and which might come from other practices. The practice of agriculture changed over the millennia from ancient Mesopotamia to the fall of the Roman Empire, and then, the invention of the metal plough changed the practice even more. Thus, as human beings live in concrete environments, societies, and histories, their nature changes. Indeed, through their practices they change, themselves, their environments, and societies. Agency changes as circumstances vary. Yet, human agency arises out of a particular biology that all human beings share, even if that biology – that human nature – remains fluid over environment, societies, and history. A critical philosophical anthropology, then, rejects approaches that reify human nature – such as essentialism and evolutionary psychology – or that deny human nature altogether – existentialism and social constructivism
Competing Approaches to A Critical Philosophical Anthropology
Essentialist approaches to human nature are de rigueur for most philosophers. The idea of an essence of human beings, or of essences in general, goes back to Socrates who proposed that an immaterial reality determined the quality of material things. For Socrates and Plato, “essence” provided a theoretical tool to explain how human beings could know things: what they knew was some immutable essence, or kind-ness, which did not change with the change in material things. Thus, “human-ness” was the essence of all human beings and did not change, even though individual human beings grew fat or old or died. Aristotle rejected the idea that essence existed separately from concrete material things without changing the notion that essence was immutable and immaterial.
The trouble that the theory of essence, whether in its Platonic form (inherited by Augustine and later Christians) or Aristotelian form (inherited by Muslims and St. Thomas), poses for any philosophical anthropology lies in the idea that essence remains unchanging, stable, static. That is, human nature comprised one thing that did not change, and if one did not exhibit the particular mark of human nature, one simply did not count as a human being. Further one quality usually defined a particular essence. For Plato, the human essence consisted in immaterial rational spirit; for Aristotle, the human essence was a rational animal. On either of these accounts, people who did not exhibit the proper kind of rationality could not be considered human beings. Aristotle, for instance, believed that women were deformed human beings because they were not fully rational, and he justified slavery because some “men” were born to be ruled (that is, were not rational) while others were born to rule (that is, were fully rational).
Philosophers after Plato and Aristotle faired no better. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas insisted that human beings were fallen but redeemable. The modern period, embracing modern science that rejected final cause, still maintained a conception of human essence. For Hobbes, that essence consisted in a desire-driven machine; for Descartes, human beings were thinking-things. Yet, as the modern period evolved, some began to question essentialism, especially feminists and existentialists.
Feminists rightly rejected the misogynism and racism implicit in their theories. Some of them, like Mary Wolstonecraft, dealt with essentialism by expanding the conception of “human nature” to include historically excluded groups – women and non-Europeans. Others, however, began to reject the notion of a human essence altogether or to argue that women and men had different natures. At the basis of this rejection lied the belief that denying one human nature could not account for all human life and cultures.
Existentialists attacked essentialism from a different perspective. They rejected the idea that human beings were born with an essence or a template they had to base their lives on. In the imagery of Jean-Paul Sartre, human beings were not knives manufactured from some ideal conception. Human beings create themselves. Each human being is a unique individual, a claim that defies the claim that something important defines all human beings. Further, human beings create their own values through a freedom that defies the trappings of essentialism.
The attacks of feminists and existentialists on the notion of human nature proved to comprise just the beginnings of a movement to reject human nature altogether. Both showed the problems that attend essentialist notions of human nature, and both provided good reasons – both political and philosophical – for rejecting a philosophy of human nature. In the wake of this dual attack, two prominent approaches filled the intellectual vacuum that a philosophy of human nature once filled: social constructivism and evolutionary psychology. Whereas social constructivism ignores biology, evolutionary psychology explains human behavior solely through biological imperatives. Neither leaves room for human agency or human free choice in their explanations of human behavior or for the philosophical development of an account of human needs.
For a social constructivist, like Michel Foucault or Judith Butler, human behavior reduces to social imperatives. A social constructivist is one who believes that things do not exist independently of human knowledge. Things are created as particular things through human interactions, through human discourse, and through human practices of knowledge. The social constructivist believes, in fact, that “human nature” results from the interactions of irrational forces and power struggles that occur in social discourse, the production of knowledge, and social practices.
Foucault’s genealogy, for instance, reveals how power shapes human reality in the constant interplay, struggle, or war of discourses. The “sexual subject” for Foucault and “the woman” for Butler comprise constructs that have no objective basis in reality. In fact, the idea of an “objective basis in reality” represents one more move in an evolving chess game of power in which forces construct us to be some thing. We each participate in the discourse in tiny ways, first, by engaging in the discourse – which we cannot avoid – and second, in shaping, naming, or classifying behavior as such and such. A society constructs persons to act in certain ways. Socially constructed ways of acting come with rewards and punishments for acting or not acting in prescribed ways.
Both Foucault and Butler try to open up their analyses so that these subjects can divulge paths of resistance to the dominant paradigms of behaving in society. Yet, neither position can fully explain how subjects take up these acts of resistance without collapsing into an irrational will to power. That is, the ability to rationally criticize social roles and categories proves impossible on a social constructivist account.
If social constructivists attempt to explain behavior solely through social analysis, evolutionary psychologists follow in the footsteps of socio-biologists by attempting to explain all human behavior through biological imperatives. Richard Dawkins (1976, 2009) holds that biological imperatives operate at the level of the human genome. That is, not the individual genes, but the human genome itself (that is, the set of all human genes) explains human behavior. If one wants to understand why a human being rapes someone, then one only need examine how rape statistically perpetuates, not the genes of this or that particular individual, but the human genome itself. Other evolutionary psychologists find the biological imperative in specific genes that code for action. Thus, recent books have touted that certain genes encoded in the human genome tens of thousands of years ago both cause men to rape and cause women to avoid being raped. Here, an individual raping another benefit’s the rapist’s genes, not the genome of the whole human species. Evolutionary psychology, whether described at the level of the human genome or at the level of individual genetic codes, leaves no room for human agency or motivation. Motives or agency prove extraneous to human behavior.
Existentialism, social constructivism, and evolutionary psychology constitute the dominant approaches to human nature in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. None of these approaches can provide an account of human needs. The existentialist and the social constructivist must reject the concept of human needs as essentialism in disguise for such needs would entail that human beings share something in common and disguise the exercise of power. Evolutionary psychologists, on the other hand, can only provide an account of the needs of the human genome or of genes in general, but not of human individuals. Further, though existentialists defend a conception of human freedom, neither they nor social constructivists (who seem more sanguine about freedom) can provide an account of human agency or freedom that makes sense of how human beings exercise freedom or agency in society. Evolutionary psychologists, on the other hand, might be able to account for the biological needs of human bodies as carriers of genes. Their bio-mechanical approach, however, amounts to a philosophical determinism that denies human agency and freedom as mere appearance or psychological illusion.
No wonder, then, that the idea of a “human nature” proves disturbing to many lay persons. If they reject traditional religious approaches to human nature, they find they can only embrace the determinism of a social constructivist or an evolutionary psychologist.
Centrality of Needs and Agency
This account of the discourse on human nature in the contemporary period leaves us with several options none of which seem satisfactory. On the one hand, we can embrace an essentialism that leads to social oppression, or we can reject essentialism and fall into two different camps. One camp denies the notion of human nature altogether. This camp includes existentialists who defend the idea that human beings create themselves ex nihilo and social constructivists who contend that human beings and human nature are constructs of irrational forces. Another camp accepts a universal human nature and finds it in human genetics or the human genome. None of these approaches, however, can either explain human agency or provide an account of human needs.
A critical philosophical anthropology that recognizes the shared biological basis of practices and culture provides an approach that can address the concerns of existentialists, social constructivists, and evolutionary psychologists exactly by providing an account of human needs and human agency. Cognizant of the concrete socio-historical circumstances that particular human beings find themselves in a critical philosophical anthropology defends a universal human nature that does not reify human nature, or, more importantly, reify human needs and agency.
Culture and practices are expressions of biology. They manifest human attempts to satisfy concrete needs in real historical situations. In other words, needs comprise something that changes in real socio-historical circumstances. If we recognize culture as an expression of biology – the way that human agency takes concrete form in history – then we can recognize the universal biological basis of human needs.
Because human nature varies with culture, with history, with environment, a critical philosophical anthropology understands that the existentialist and social constructivist, on the one hand, and the evolutionary psychologist, on the other, distort by exaggerating certain aspects of human reality. The deniers of human nature exaggerate the way that human beings, through culture and concrete practice, define human nature. As adaptable, human beings can express their nature in a myriad of life-forms. These life-forms, though, must be ones that allow human beings to survive if not thrive. Traditions or cultures are always already tested by reality. Those traditions or cultures that allow for the real expansion of human potentiality – encoded in our genes but not limited to our genes – will be the ones that produce thriving individuals.
In contrast, the evolutionary psychologist exaggerates the extent to which human behavior depends on genes. Clearly, biology defines the limits of human existence, but within those limits, human beings exercise agency, agency that cannot be reduced to the imperatives of biology. Human nature is biological-cultural. Concrete historical circumstances testify to the truth or falsity of any theory of human needs. Through the socio-historical development of tradition and practice, human beings shape and are shaped by their reality – i.e. their needs and capacities.
If neither social constructivism nor evolutionary psychology make room for individual human agency, then a critical philosophical anthropology can turn to the work of Mary Midgley and Alasdair MacIntyre. In short, the ethologically informed philosophical anthropologies of Midgley and MacIntyre provide a foundation for a critical philosophical anthropology that provides an account of human needs and human agency. The key concepts of “open instincts,” “motivation,” “pre-linguistic,” “vulnerable,” and “representational” will form the backbone for developing a philosophy of human agency that can stand between the Scylla of the denial of human nature and the Charybdis of the reification of human nature. Human agency proves pivotal in developing a critical philosophical anthropology of human needs.
Like Dawkins, Midgley uses ethology to understand better human aggression, altruism, speech, and culture. Her method proves anti-reductionist, and her continuing work since the publication of Beast and Man (1978) has consisted in arguing against the reductionist methodology of evolutionary psychology. Midgley insists that theorists must focus on human motivation, which is part of biology, but cannot be reduced to genes, instincts, or biological drives. The concept of open instincts proves central to her rejection of reductionism.
A closed instinct is one which determines to the minute details a particular behavior. Midgley illustrates closed instincts with the example of the dance of the bee. This dance does not admit divergences from its specific patterns, and, from the perspective of the bee, none are necessary. The bee’s dance indicates exactly where the honey can be located. In contrast, wolves have an open instinct for hunting. Pact hunting is too complicated and variable to be determined in detail by instinct or genetics. Rather, wolves respond fluidly to the concrete circumstances of particular hunts: the animal hunted, the lighting, the details of the forest floor, etc. We must understand human motivation in this light. Human behavior cannot be reduced to instincts that prescribe detailed behaviors. Rather, human beings act on motives, motives that relate to but cannot be reduced to genetics or instinct. When a father throws himself in front of a run-away car to save his daughter, he does so, not from some biological imperative, but because he wants/intends to save his daughter. A father does not give a damn about his genetic code. How could he, when, at most, his daughter preserves only 50% of that code?
MacIntyre also begins with ethology to explain human life in Dependent Rational Animals (1990). Specifically, MacIntyre looks at the life of dolphins in comparison to human beings to shine light on human bodily life, intellect, and language. MacIntyre rejects the various philosophical arguments that non-human animals lack reason. Rather, he proposes that certain animals – dolphins and chimps at least – have pre-linguistic beliefs and pre-linguistic reasons for their actions. Thus, MacIntyre insists that, instead of drawing a strict demarcation between language-using and non-language-using animals, we should recognize a continuum that includes pre-linguistic animals. The overall arch of MacIntyre’s argument consists in showing that, because reason and language arise in social contexts, human beings are, like their chimpanzee cousins, vulnerable. Vulnerability entails certain needs that human beings have, especially the need for community. Virtues, like misericordia, support our living in community. Yet, human beings flourish as individuals within communities. Thus, we also require virtues, like phronesis, to live fully human lives.
Where Midgley turns her discussion to culture, MacIntyre turns to a discussion of practices and local communities. Practices are coherent and complex social activities defined by internal goals and that expand human capacities and powers. MacIntyre discusses many practices, including family, chess, and fly-fishing. All practices have their own standards of reason and support the development of virtues, which help human beings live complete lives.
Midgley’s and MacIntyre’s ethological approaches suggest that human agency arises out of human biology. Other animals act aggressively or altruistically depending on the circumstances. Other animals, like dolphins, play and learn in community and yet develop distinct identities as individual beings. Our genetics code for social living. Yet, individuals develop motivations by which they act aggressively or altruistically in particular concrete circumstances.
A critical philosophical anthropology will build on the Aristotelian approach of Midgley and MacIntyre by drawing out how human needs and human agency appear in social practices and culture. That is, homo sapiens exercise their agency through culture and in social practices. A critical philosophical anthropology must provide an account of the biological reality of human beings – including what it means to be a certain kind of animal – on the back of which it can explain practices and culture.
The central move will consist in linking MacIntyre’s discussion of human bodies as representational with anthropological accounts of symbolic representation in human evolution. If human beings are symbolic animals, then that symbolism has evolved to such complexity that it takes the form of culture and expresses itself in concrete material practices. Human beings exercise their agency within a symbolic field, and human beings can think about and discuss their actions through language. Through dialogue and interaction, homo sapiens develop practices initially to satisfy their needs, primary among which is the exercise of agency. Over time, through an autocatalytic process, human culture and practice evolve in complexity and become more invested with symbolic representations. Use of symbolic representations leads to greater use of symbolic representation, all the while within socio-historical concrete environments in which homo sapiens sapiens must satisfy their evolving basic and higher needs.
For example, human beings have needs of reproduction, education, care, communication, and emotional expression. These needs are satisfied in the practice of family. Homo sapiens’ need to engage in symbolic representation bestows symbolic meaning on the activities of the practice. Those symbolic meanings change with environment – changes which can be effected both by nature and by the agency of homo sapiens – and, thus, the practice of family changes. The actions that define a practice, further, just constitute the exercise of human agency. Symbolic meaning permeates agency. A human beings needs to explain its actions to itself and to others. Thus, agency defines and is defined by praxis – its/it’s practical exercise. Without social practices, homo sapiens cannot satisfy needs or exercise agency in key areas of human life. Yet, social practices evolve as human beings develop
Tasks of a Critical Philosophical Anthropology
A philosophical anthropology constitutes a fundamental exercise of human agency through (rarefied) symbolic representation that satisfies different human needs. First, philosophical anthropology satisfies the human longing for understanding themselves, to understand the meaning of human life. Homo sapiens long to understand what they represent in reality. Second, a philosophical anthropology that is critical provides a necessary account of human needs and human agency that can underwrite an ethics and politics of human fulfillment.
To provide this account of human needs and human agency, a critical philosophical anthropology must accomplish the following tasks.
Both the conception of human nature presented and the terms and approach used in this paper testify that any philosophical anthropology is tradition-constituted. The critical philosophical anthropology continues the tradition of Revolutionary Aristotelianism first developed by Alasdair MacIntyre and expounded and defended by Kelvin Knight, among others. Revolutionary Aristotelianism integrates the Thomistic and the Marxist developments of the more general Aristotelian tradition.
One of the central advantages of the Aristotelian tradition lies in its ability to incorporate insights and methodologies from other traditions that support its overall framework. A critical philosophical anthropology in the Revolutionary Aristotelian tradition incorporates phenomenological, personalist and genealogical approaches to the study of human beings to capture better all of human reality. Pride of place, however, belongs to the Thomistic and Marxist developments of Aristotelianism.
The specifically Thomistic-Aristotelian approach accepts Aristotle’s empiricism and retains a belief in metaphysics and teleology. The specifically Marxist-Aristotelian approach focuses on the historicity of human life and takes praxis as foundational to human life. The critical philosophical anthropology I develop takes the Thomistic understanding of free choice as essential to developing a notion of agency. It also takes the Marxists approach to human fulfillment as grounded in human needs as the prima facie starting point of any philosophical anthropology.
In the end, a critical philosophical anthropology, in the tradition of Revolutionary Aristotelianism, uses biology and sociology to develop an account of human needs. The animal homo sapiens satisfies its needs through activities that take the form of practices and through culture. Human being exercise their agency in culture and through practices that define their needs. A philosophical account of a mutable universal human nature explains the reality of human agency while showing its openness to variability in the cornucopia of human cultures that exist throughout history. It also gives an account of the meaning of human needs that grounds an ethics and politics of liberation, i.e. of human fulfillment.