Philosophical anthropology is the philosophical discipline that inquires into the essence of human nature and the human condition. In making this inquiry it seeks to unify or critique philosophically the diverse scientific methods and humanistic approaches to answering the question of human nature. Although the majority of thinkers throughout the history of philosophy have had a distinctive anthropology (or understanding of human nature), “philosophical anthropology” as a specific discipline has emerged rather recently within the context of the late modern period. Primarily, it emerged as an outgrowth of the development of new methods and approaches in philosophy that have interacted with the ongoing progress of the natural and human sciences. Two of the more influential contemporary developments in philosophical anthropology have occurred within the schools of phenomenology and existentialism.
One way to understand the crossroads by which philosophical anthropology seeks to understand the nature of the human being through its consideration of different methodological approaches is to consider the two questions: “What is a human being?” and “Who am I?” The former question is the one raised by traditional philosophy, and though various answers have been given the most famous philosophical definition remains the classical one provided by Aristotle. The essence of a human being is “a rational animal.”
The development of the natural sciences throughout the modern period, however, led to similar scientific methodologies being applied to the humanities. As a result, in the nineteenth century the question of the nature of the human being was approached in a variety of new ways and within distinct disciplines. For example, the rise of Darwinian evolution explains the nature of human beings solely through biological forces. The philosophy of Karl Marx explains the “essence of humanity” primarily through economic, social, and political forces, while the theories of Sigmund Freud explain human nature primarily through psychological forces. Other human sciences, such as history and sociology, likewise seek to explain, if not the “nature” of human beings, then the cultural and environmental conditions which shape and mold individuals into a determinate kind of being. Some of these theories limit themselves to offering an explanation that applies only within a specific cultural context or period in human history. In any case, how the different disciplines and scientific methods relate or accommodate one another within a unified philosophical vision of the nature of human being became highly problematic.
In the twentieth century the development of contemporary phenomenology and existentialism further problematized the question of human nature by approaching it through lived or concrete experience. In phenomenology the philosopher offers a concrete descriptive account of various kinds of human experience in order to attain essential features of that experience and in turn essential characteristics or possibilities of the human being. Existential phenomenology opens the question further by inquiring into human nature from the more concrete angle of “Who am I?” Here deeper dimensions of the human being are opened up by exploring the question from the position of subjectivity. That is, rather than approach the human from the scientific standpoint of pure “objectivity,” in which the person is considered as an “object” of rational thought, the person is approached subjectively, or from the inside of particular experiences. In this way possible modes of being human in terms of the interior life are disclosed, one which modern science through its purely objective approach is unable to grasp.
Max Scheler, the German phenomenologist, for example, developed a philosophical anthropology or “personalism” which defined the human being not so much as a "rational animal" but as a “loving being.” In this way he tried to break down the traditional hylomorphic conception of the human person by describing the person as a tripartite structure consisting of body, soul, and spirit. Love, then, is not a psychological emotion, but a spiritual, or intentional act of the person in relation to other persons. Scheler called these acts "intentional feelings."
Paul Ricoeur is another contemporary philosopher who developed a philosophical anthropology. He did so through a dialectical hermeneutics whereby he combined the phenomenological approach with different empirical or scientific methods. Ricoeur was skeptical that any one philosophy, science, or method could be used as an umbrella to cover all the different essential characteristics or conditions of the person. Different disciplines could be brought into conversation so as to allow new and unexplored aspects to emerge and so be brought into greater conceptual clarity through some preferred methodology (which for Riceour was usually phenomenology). But these methods could not be reduced to one universal or “supra-method” which surpasses all the others. For this reason, although he thought our understanding of the human being was progressing, this understanding would always remain limited or finite. Moreover, Ricoeur like some other philosophers thought that literature and the arts offered significant insights into human nature and its capacities. Narrative, in particular, held an important place in understanding the human being as essentially historical.
Other important philosophical anthropologists are Rene Girard, Helmuth Plessner, Arnold Gehlen, Paul Häberlin, Karol Wojtyla, and Hans-Eduard Hengstenberg.
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