The Political Anthropology of the Divine Beast (Part II)

Part Two of the Political Anthropology set down as a waypoint for The Devil's Review. (2 of 5)

4. THE PROBLEM OF ‘MAN’

Our problems do not stop with language. We have much the same problem referring to ourselves as human beings as such. So, the term ‘Man’ cannot be taken for granted, much less used by us as it stands — that is, as if we are affirming that it is something universal — lest we fall into the same trap.

‘Man’ is a terrible abstraction. It is to this fictional creature and only to him, for example, that the ‘Rights of Man’ refer. Not to men as they actually exist.

In his book The One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse evokes human nature somewhat en passant as he discusses universals: “the philosophic concept of “man” aims at the fully developed human capacities which are his distinguishing faculties, and which appear as possibilities of the actual conditions in which men actually live. The concept articulates the qualities which are considered “typically human.” The vague phrase may serve to elucidate the ambiguity in such philosophic definitions — namely, they assemble the qualities which pertain to all men as contrasted with other living beings, and, at the same time, are claimed as the most adequate or highest realization of man.” (Marcuse, H. [1991], The One-Dimensional Man, London: Routledge. p.218—9)

In a note he adds: “This interpretations, which stresses the normative character of universals, may be related to the conception of the universal in Greek philosophy — namely, the notion of the most general as highest, the first in “excellence”, and therefore the real reality”. What Marcuse does not say is this: one does not build from the sky down. Even in orders with an ascendant aspect, orders of rank, where what is highest is most treasured, one builds it as a pyramid is built, not as a castle in the sky or a basket of fire hanging on nought but a cloud. Later in his book, Marcuse makes the Hegelian argument (and explicates it very well) that Nature is subordinate to Reason. Historically, Nature is dependant on the subject ‘Man’.

Marcuse’s presentation of the Hegelian argument is remarkably insightful. Nature is not only to be overcome by Man’s self-realization (as the animal rationale), but moreover ‘liberated’ by this. (He also overlooks the point that the Marxist view of man as the animal laborans turns the animal rationale on its head or even obliterates it as such; this, a point made by Hannah Arendt in ‘Tradition and the Modern Age’, one of the essays in the Between Past and Future.) We see here that Hegel (and the Hegelian Left, well into the twentieth century) carried over the flawed logic of the Revolution, that the ‘liberation’ and realization of Man is liberation as such.

The danger for the Marxist unfolds thus: that it is all too easy to go from making use of what the natural world furnishes, to actually transforming the natural world and, finally, to the theoretical negation and the complete uprooting and destruction of the natural world. Nature has become ‘negative’ from the start, as Marcuse correctly points out. So, the natural is the negation, which must in turn be negated. Practically, this means destruction.

Since the human Subject of History, either as ‘Man’ or as class-conscious proletariat, must be seen as the motive force in a neo-Hegelian-Marxist narrative, everything — natural resources, class enemies, everyone and everything else, even Nature itself — is consumed or destroyed, yet in either case can be called ‘liberated’. So, the monstrous conclusion drawn by the Marxist Left, is that anyone who endeavours to protect their environment and their condition as it is, is in fact resisting ‘liberation’ and must be ‘liberated’ all the more zealously.

This shows us very clearly, of course, the ‘compassionate’ humanity inherent in humanitarian humanisms. In other words, none at all.

The aberrant nature of the abstract universal is also clear to see at this point.

We have thought man into the blue — and we will rue the day we did so. Beginning with the general as the origin — that is, with what had to be abstracted from similar particulars in the first place — is putting the cart before the horse. Reasoning from a general concept after the fact is a convenient way to more quickly and effectively form particular conceptions about different things which may resemble one another in certain respects. It even conforms to that inescapable and indispensable cognitive faculty, by which we form schemata, general ideas which allow us to more efficiently process information. (Ironically for the do-gooders, this is the self-same source of our hated tendency to ‘stereotype’.) The evidence of cognitive psychology shows that this is simply inherent and ineradicable, as well as eminently beneficial.

So, this is how we form general concepts about things which happen to be similar. However, this does not mean the particulars in reality derive from some actually existing hypostasized correspondent of the general concept so formed. Indeed, some particulars rigidly resist generalizations (e.g. the ‘state of exception’ in Schmitt’s writing; or the ‘black swan’ event, as conceived by Nassim Taleb).

To confuse the first thought in a chain of associative thought with It may even be called a ‘category-mistake’, to borrow Gilbert Ryle’s expression. (Today, one will more often find the expression ‘category error’ in Anglo-American academic philosophy.)

This is the dangerous error in Greek thought, which is carried over into the problem of universals and becomes a sort of crisis in Scholastic philosophy and theology. It is even carried over today (albeit harmlessly) by eccentric Catholic traditionalists today, , for whom nominalism is the thought-crime to end all thought-crimes (or, rather, to begin them!), the lèse majesté against Catholic Christendom, which causes the European social order to unravel. Suffice to say, to call this thesis implausible is kind; it is patently comical. However, the problem of universals is inherent in the humanitarian humanisms described above.

We cannot allow ourselves to even be deceived by this notion — not for a moment! — much less, allow ourselves to be destroyed by it.

Even when this dangerous notion of Man was new and had the impulse and credulity of loosed vices, unchecked passions and an unfettered rabble on its side, it was doubted and assailed from now this corner, now another and so on. Today, when this specious, insane, foolish notion is firmly established and ever ascendant, it is more in need of scorn and ridicule than ever, yet receives none of any note. So, we must turn to the words of those who inveighed against the abomination when it was young.

To identify the rough outline of what is at stake, we must turn to a very different thinker: Joseph de Maistre. It is he who flippantly says “there is no such thing in the world as Man.  In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; I am even aware, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be a Persian.  But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life.  If he exists, I certainly have no knowledge of him.” Constitutionally at least, ‘Man’ is meaningless; there are only nations.

Man is the last evil spirit or spook,” rails the beautiful egoist Stirner, “the most deceptive or intimate, the craftiest liar with honest mien, the father of lies.” (Max Stirner [2005], The Ego and His Own, Mineola, NY: Dover, p.184)

On this point, we must closely agree with ‘Saint Max’.

However, it is Schmitt who de-politicizes and re-historicizes this ‘spook’, making it contextual and therefore identifying a point of attack.

“Humanity is not a political concept,” he writes matter-of-factly, “and no political entity or society and no status corresponds to it.” This point is, as yet, theoretical — and it corresponds to Schmitt’s definition of ‘the political’. Nevertheless, he does not let up and, in fact, with the very next line, presses the overtly historical basis for his argument: “The eighteenth-century humanitarian concept of humanity was a polemical denial of the then existing aristocratic-feudal system and the privileges accompanying it.” (Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, p.55.)

So, it is like Nietzsche that Schmitt refutes this absolute God, this ‘Absolute Subject’ of humanitarian ideology, in historical terms; with a quick, ‘clean sweep’ — so avoiding the pointless posturing of postulate after postulate, in the cold and shallow realm of Reason, where all is proof and counter-proof and the last word is never the last. Nevertheless, Schmitt maintains his theoretical argument and proceeds, from this historical remark, back to his discussion of the political impossibility of humanity:“Humanity according to natural law and liberal-individualistic doctrines is a universal, i.e., all-embracing, social ideal, a system of relations between individuals. This materializes only when the real possibility of war is precluded and every friend and enemy grouping becomes impossible. In this universal society there would no longer be nations in the form of political entities, no class struggles, and no enemy groupings.” (Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, p.55.)

Paul Gottfried, in his invaluable volume Carl Schmitt: Politics and Theory, raises a very relevant point: “The Stoics, who rejected the older Greek distinction between Hellenes and barbarians, invented the concept of the genus humanum; equally significant, they coined the ominous term inhumanus, which gave rise to new insidious distinctions.” Specifically for the Marxist Left, he points out that the Internationale calls for consolidating “le genre humain,” but also demands violent struggle against counterrevolutionary classes.” In other words, under the auspex of ‘Man’ or humanity, the dehumanized outlaws of humanity can be destroyed utterly and unconditionally, at our leisure and without guilt. Man’s greatest inhumanity to man always takes place under the banner of good intentions — and most brutally under the banner of humanity itself!

In order to save the concept of humanity, Rorty tries to redefine how we approach it in his work Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, under the rubric of his liberal ‘ironism’. Ingeniously, he attempts to do so by means of a fallaciously persuasive sophistry which holds that trying to determine what is “distinctively human” leads to persecutions, so instead we must resign these questions in favour of the (essentially egalitarian) position which embraces all humans — and yet this position itself assumes a pre-determined concept what is human, specifically a universalist concept, with only surface nuance.

“What makes Freud more useful and plausible than Nietzsche”, avers* this strange postmodernist, “is that he does not relegate the vast majority of humanity to the status of dying animals.” (Rorty, R., Contingency, Irony and Solidarity [1989], Cambridge: CUP, p.35.) One must first ask: ‘Useful and plausible to whom?’ This late thinker’s intellectual descendants would be unable to answer this honestly. We can only imagine that he himself also would not.

*[This is precisely an inversion of the relation of both thinkers. Nietzsche is the genuinely far more valuable thinker. Freud is trite and derivative, when held up beside (or rather, below) Nietzsche. Without Nietzsche’s influence, one would have none of the strands of Freud’s thought which made him interesting.]

Digressions aside, we can see why Rorty makes this claim. It is a blatant statement of his implied presuppositions. What is the measure of more useful and plausible? Why, more universalist, of course!

His argument is, needless to say, a piece of rubbish — and one which we can only struggle to call an argumentum ad negationem or argumentum ad negatur; that is to say, an argument to the negated, a strange case of petitio principii, in which the presupposition appealed to (in this case, determinations on the content of the concept of the ‘human’) has already been refuted in the argument itself.

This self-contradictory argument ramifies to underline the instability and assailability of the universal humanity concept.

Gentlemen, you have had your chance — more chances than you deserve, to push this empty concept upon us. No, humanity as a universal must be banished from our discourse. In its theoretical expression, it is deficient; in practical expression, it is unrestricted warfare and the very pogroms the do-gooders constantly warn us about.

Accordingly, we cannot ignore this abstraction, humanity or ‘Man’, which is our most crucial target. It must be utterly obliterated. Man as we understand him is not a universal. The closest Idealism comes to us, is the universalization of men is as a ‘concrete universal’ — that is to say, a universal which consists only of its actual instantiations at any one time — but even this is defective.

The concrete is not at all as the Hegelian pictures it. Otherwise, it would be merely the metaphysicalization of Hume’s empiricist theory of impressions and ideas. Simple ideas coalesce into complex ones. (For example, the complex idea of a rose is merely the composition of the simple idea of red, along with several other simple ideas which together resemble the form of the rose as conceived mentally.) Abstraction of this sort appears to be the ‘first cause’ of that which concretely exists, but it is in fact a posteriori in nature. The abstraction of simple concepts from concrete (complex) concepts always takes place after the fact. The ancient Sceptics realized this. The abstraction cannot be viewed from nowhere, by nobody, as they correctly argued. It is only through the power of discernment and imagination that we separate it out from the bounds of its natural unity in a particular object of perception (which is itself separated arbitrarily by mere differentiation). So, we can see that the abstraction arises from the process of perception itself. The thing which exists is at first undifferentiated in its differentiation. Out of its difference, we delineate and sort particular differences. This means that what is concrete comes first.

So, the ‘concrete universal’ as such, must be revised or thrown out. Supposing it is revised, it must overcome the idealism in which it originates.

Naturally, the concrete universal called ‘Man’ must be completely overhauled so as not to resemble or even imply universalism. Men are not possessed of a single distinguishing quality as we perceive them, but many such qualities which are found together; and yet ‘Man’ is not even a complication of abstractions, made into one concrete (complex) universal, since all is originally one (or, dare one say, ‘undifferentiated difference’), along with the properties that humans share with other species and things, as well as the qualities which make a man who he is personally. The all-encompassing unity which branches out is not, then, a general concept, possessed of a greater ‘excellence’ than particular concepts. We must turn this on its head — or, more precisely, set it back on its feet, to borrow Marx’s phrase. Rather, the all-encompassing unity is in what is perceived, before its differential quality leads it to be separated out. Variation is seamless. The sharpness of separations in nature are merely the projections of the imagination.

Consequently, we must be nominalists on the question of Man — that is to say, the significance of the term is strictly nominal. The referent of the term is not a thing unto itself, but rather the categorization of several similar things (in this case, beings; men) together. In other words, we may accept that there are beings who may be comprehended under the appellation ‘Man’, beings we call men, but that ‘Man’ itself is not something which exists; and that these same beings exist with similar genomic features, inter alia, owing to common origin and composition. Nevertheless, men are not really united causally or teleologically, but rather by what Wittgenstein called Familienähnlichkeit — ‘family resemblances’ — or groups of phenomena found together in a particular.

Humans are whatever they are, regardless of ‘Man’-as-Idea.

Men in concreto have a living existence, vividly and clearly determined by material conditions. They are different in different situations, but something about them can be called ‘human’. This is not essentialism: one can only say that the human species changes little, but not that it is immutable; one can say that it varies widely over different places, times and situations, but always changes consistent with its nature. In politics, Montesquieu (borrowing a term from physics) calls this ‘constance’. The essentialism of Man — just as surely as the hypocritical non-essentialism of the multiculturalists — effectively imputes all important features to all men and peoples at all times. In both theory and practice, these metaphysical extremes are universalism.

Metaphysics is the Judas goat of the political.

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About S. J. Irving

S. J. Irving is a writer from Scotland. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Devil's Review.