What is Man: Understanding the Complex Enigma – I

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Ashoka delves into the question that intrigues us all. In the first part of the six-part series on what is a man, he attempts to understand the enigma. Here’s his in-depth, erudite research, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

What is a man? A more modest inquiry: what answer does a physician, more specifically a psychiatrist, give to the question what is a man? Some of you, perhaps unwittingly, are inclined to answer: man is a thing. Like all other things, he can be explained ultimately by the categories and methods of physical science. For you, consideration of the subjective experience of man is vaguely disreputable, or, more sternly, contrary to the canons of empirical science. What shall a physician, a scientist, have to do with subjective experience, which, after all, is a mere epiphenomenon of such objective observable matters as heredity and environment? You might add to your definition of man: man is reactive. He reacts to heredity and environment. His behaviour is caused by, is a reaction to, hereditary endowment, environmental stimuli, or a combination of these.

Another part of your answer is likely to be: man is rational. That is if you admit subjective elements for consideration at all, and then only most unwillingly, you will admit such elements in the form of reason. You will imagine that man’s behaviour is determined by valid empirical knowledge. If behaviour fails to be rational, it is because man is in error (his knowledge is mistaken) or because man is ignorant (he does not yet possess the knowledge he needs to behave rationally). You are certainly safe in introducing this subjective element. Why is man ignorant or in error? It all goes back to limitations imposed by his heredity or distortions imposed by his environment. These are part of the objective realm of things and can be safely studied. On the other hand, if a man behaves rationally, his behaviour is a perfect match of, an adaptation to, his objective situation—the body he is born with or the environment in which he lives. Of course, as you have realized already, that heredity and that environment can be studied without recourse to any subjective frame of reference. This man you have described, what makes him go? It is convenient to assume that he is motivated by a chaos of unrelated wants, preferably of the workings of the machinery of his body, which push him to behaviour that satisfies. Such behaviour is governed, if by anything subjective, by considerations of rational self-interest. In this connection, you would refuse to allow us to become interested in ends or goals of behaviour as inhabiting or making up the mind of man, lest we find ourselves succumbing to entelechial or vitalistic mythologies or even beginning to discourse about the soul. For how can a scientific man take such a notion as mind seriously? So, let us assume that the ends or goals of behaviour are random, without significant relation to each other; therefore, it is not necessary to consider them in themselves. Ends or goals are chosen because of—but you cannot use a word such as chosen, which is, in the framework of your answer, a meaningless word—rather, ends or goals are determined by empirical knowledge of the past and present, of the objective situation. Therefore, such ends or goals may be essentially reduced to the characteristics of that objective situation, a situation made up of things that may be investigated objectively. Again, we are saved from any need to become involved in a subjective frame of reference.

Naturally, such a view of man is, in a sense, optimistic, as well as deterministic. Man’s future is foretold. He may be judged according to his position on a fixed ladder of progress. His history consists of evolutionary progress in a linear process toward a foreseeable culmination. For, if a man is rational—if his behaviour is determined by a rational of his objective situation—then, since ignorance and error are progressively eliminated by the accumulation of scientific knowledge and , evolution must be linear and progressive. However, you will surely try to persuade me that we might just as well forget about rationality along with other objectionable subjective factors. For, after all, since hereditary variations are automatically selected in terms of adaptation to environmental , and since there is automatic environmental conditioning of events according to what is rewarded, then adaptation must improve; that is to say, evolution must be linear and progressive. There is another answer to the question, what is a man? We might say there is an anti-answer, as though the two answers exist primarily to oppose each other, one depending on the existence of the other for its meaning. These two answers are not only answers to the question, what is a man? They are answers to each other. Some of you will recognize the idealistic conception of man, which argues with the more respectable, scientifically speaking, positivistic conception of man we have just put forth. This answer begins, awkwardly enough, with the statement: man is lived by the idea. His actions are emanations, embodiments, or expressions of ideas, values, or ideals. Non-subjective elements, the objective of behaviour such as heredity or environment, are irrelevant. Rationality is irrelevant. Behaviour expresses meaning or is a manifestation of timeless ideas. A man is, in this view, irreducibly qualitatively . Since every man, and indeed every group and every society, is a unique manifestation and historical , the behaviour of any such entity cannot become the basis for analysis, generalization, and prediction. Its meaning can only be grasped intuitively and as a whole. Of course, then, man’s history is a succession of unrelated, unique events—manifestations or objectification (in different places, at different times) of different ideas or ideals. The concept of progress is inapplicable.

This conception of man claims our attention because it is an inseparable shadow or obverse side of the positivistic conception. However, those of us who are interested in the practice of scientific medicine and in scientific investigation—that is, in classification, hypotheses, generalisation, and empirical verification — have difficulty with this conception, feeling, on the one hand, uneasily that it is attractively allied to a concern with the individual as a unique phenomenon and not just an illustration of the general case, and, on the other, that such a view, if seriously adopted, might throw us out of business as physicians and scientists. Some of you are no doubt already ahead of me. Certainly, if we have an answer and an anti-answer to the question, what is man? Then we may expect a third possible answer that, in some sense, grows out of and yet transcends the opposition of the first two. This answer begins, in the words of Ernst Cassirer, with the proposition: man is the animal symbolicum.

Again, in the words of Kenneth Burke, man is “the animal that makes, uses and misuses symbols.” The symbolisation function is man’s unique characteristic, emerging at his level of biological . A symbol is a central term for this view of man. Yet I am not at all sure how to define the symbol. For present purposes, tentatively, shall we consider an entity to be a symbol to the extent that it is formulative, abstractive, and suasive? An entity is formulative if it gives distinctive form to experience. A symbol does not simply arise out of an experience, as an extract or summary of it. A symbol is rather an invention that is imposed upon or composes, experience. It is a conception of reality, not a sign of it. A symbol is a way of experiencing, a selection from among alternative ways of experiencing or alternative orientations to experience, each with distinctive characteristics, aims, or consequences. Symbolisation, the generation of symbols, is essential to human experience; it is the process by which knowledge of reality is mediated at the human level of biological organisation.

(To be continued)

(Excerpts from the volume, Understanding Mental Illness: A Philosophical Journey by Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad)

 ©Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.