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Kant & The Human Subject

Brian Morris compares the ways Kant’s question “What is the human being?” has been answered by philosophers and anthropologists.

According to many recent texts, anthropology is the study of ‘what it means to be human’. This was Immanuel Kant’s definition of anthropology, and Kant (1724-1804) was one of the founding ancestors of the discipline, along with Rousseau, Herder, and Ferguson.

Drawing on the insights of both the Enlightenment and romanticism, anthropology has since its birth had a ‘dual heritage’ (Maurice Bloch) combining humanism and naturalism. In terms of method, it combines scientific explanations of social and cultural phenomena with hermeneutics or biosemiotics. Yet although certain people write of some great divide or schism within anthropology, it has always had, in spite of its diversity, a certain unity of vision and purpose. It employs a universal perspective that places humans firmly within nature. Anthropology has therefore always placed itself at the interface between the humanities and the natural sciences, especially evolutionary biology. In many ways it is an inter-discipline, held together by placing an emphasis on ethnographic studies, which involve a close experiential encounter with a particular way of life or culture. Both Karl Popper and Mario Bunge described anthropology as the key social science, for it is unique among the human sciences in putting an emphasis on cultural differences (Herder). This means it can offer a cultural critique of much of Western culture and philosophy, while at the same time emphasizing our shared humanity (Kant), thus enlarging our sense of moral community.

Kant & Skull: Philosophy Now cover art by Ron Schepper 2017 (you can contact him at editor@textura.org)

Kant suggested that the most important question in philosophy was not that of truth (epistemology), goodness (ethics), or beauty (aesthetics) – the topics which so fascinate academic philosophers – but rather the anthropological question, ‘What is the human being?’ He also suggested that this question could only be answered empirically, and not by resorting to, say, metaphysics. This implies, of course, that we can learn more about the human subject by studying anthropology (ethnography), sociology, psychology, ethology, and now evolutionary biology, than by engaging in speculative academic philosophy about human beingness, in the style of Husserl, Heidegger, or Derrida.

Throughout history, and in all cultures, people have responded to Kant’s fundamental question ‘What is the human being?’ in very diverse ways; even denying that humans have any relation with the material world, as extreme gnostics do. Or Hare Krishna devotees exclaim, ‘You are not your body’. Indeed, there has been a long tradition in Western philosophy that identifies the subject/self with consciousness. Anthropologists have long emphasized and illustrated the diversity of cultural conceptions of the human subject (see my Anthropology of the Self, Pluto, 1994); but even within the Western intellectual tradition there exists an absolute welter of studies that have attempted to define or conceptualize the human subject in different ways. Western responses to Kant’s fundamental question have been extremely diverse and contrasting, and I want to briefly discuss three approaches: the essentialist, the dualist, and the Kantian triadic ontology of the subject.

The Human Essence

The first approach tends to define the human subject or self in terms of a single essential attribute. The following essentialist characterizations of humanity are well known: Homo economicus (‘economic man’), Homo faber (‘the tool-making primate’), Homo sapiens (‘wise man’), and Homo ludens (‘man the player’). Aristotle famously defined humanity as Zoon logon echon – ‘the animal endowed with reason’. (The tendency to group Aristotle together with the likes of Descartes, Kant and Heidegger as an advocate of a dualistic metaphysic is, however, somewhat misplaced, because Aristotle, as Ernst Mayr always insisted, was fundamentally a biological thinker. Aristotle certainly knew a lot more about the diversity of animal life than did the pretentious Jacques Derrida and his cat.) Robert Ardrey, in contrast, defined humanity as the ‘killer ape’; while Julien La Mettrie and Richard Dawkins seem to envisage the human person as simply a biological machine. A more recent controversial account of humans depicts them in rather Hobbesian fashion as a wholly predatory and destructive animal: Homo rapiens (John Gray). Such misanthropy is debatable, and is simply an update of Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion that humans are a ‘pox’ on a beautiful earth. Many twentieth century deep ecologists have expressed the same negative sentiments, that humans are ‘aliens’ or ‘parasites’ on the rest of the biosphere; and thus famines, the AIDS epidemic, and malaria, were extolled as a way of reducing the human population. Such anti-humanism was long ago critiqued by the social ecologist Murray Bookchin.

The list of what is deemed to be the essential characteristic of the human species seems virtually endless. But significantly, such interpretations based on a single essential characteristic tend to gravitate to two extremes. On the one hand, there are those scholars who firmly believe in the existence of a universal human nature or essence. Generally adopting a highly individual-centered approach, the human subject is thus defined either as a purely rational ego (as with rational choice theorists), or as having innate tendencies and dispositions – as having a universal nature that was forged through natural selection processes during the Palaeolithic, when humans were hunter-gatherers. Thus humans have a nature, and it is fundamentally tribal, as Robin Fox puts it.

On the other hand, many other scholars, particularly cultural anthropologists, existentialists and postmodernists, deny that humans have an essence or nature. Such scholars often suggest that in becoming human beings, through the development of language, symbolic thought, self-consciousness, and complex sociality, we have moved beyond nature to become free of the chains of our instincts. We have become, in Ernst Cassirer’s term, Homo symbolicum. Such a conception has often been critiqued (by, for instance, Steven Pinker), as it implies that the human mind is simply a ‘blank slate’ which has completely effaced human biological history and the inherited specific faculties of the human brain, and therefore, mind.

split brain
Allan Ajifo / Creative Commons (CC by 2.0)

Homo Duplex

It has also long been recognized that humans are fundamentally both natural and cultural beings, and that language, self-identity, and social existence are interconnected, and have been throughout human history. As Kenan Malik emphasized, human nature is as much a product of our historical development as it is of our biological heritage. Emile Durkheim famously expressed this dualistic conception of human subjectivity as Homo duplex when he wrote:

“Man is double. There are two beings in him; an individual being which has its foundation in the organism, and a social being which represents the highest reality in the intellectual and moral order”
(The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1915).

Like his mentor, Auguste Comte, Durkheim allowed little scope for a science of psychology, let alone any existentialist thought.

It has long been recognized, by thinkers as diverse as Edmund Husserl, Erich Fromm, and Lewis Mumford, that there is an essential ‘paradox’ or ‘contradiction’ at the heart of human life. For humans as organisms are an intrinsic part of nature, while at the same time, through our conscious experience, symbolic life, and above all, our culture, we are also in a sense separate from nature. In this light humans have been described by Raymond Tallis as an ‘explicit animal’. We have what Cicero described as a ‘second nature’. This duality or dialectic is well expressed in the famous painting in the Vatican by Raphael, The School of Athens, which depicts Plato pointing up to the heavens while Aristotle points down to the earth.

Human duality is also reflected in the fact that the human brain is composed of two distinct hemispheres, with distinct functions, and two very different ways of being in the world. The left hemisphere is associated with language, symbolic thought, analysis, facts or things in isolation, focussed attention, and the non-living aspects of the world; while the right hemisphere is associated with visual imagery, pre-linguistic thought, synthesis, patterns and relations, things in context, and organic life. Reason, science, creativity and selfhood all involve both sides of the brain, and there is no simple relationship between the hemispherical differences and ethnic, class or gender affiliations. It is significant however that if the right side of the brain is severely damaged, the left side becomes overactive, and an ultra-rationalist sensibility may develop. This sensibility is manifested in a predilection for abstraction and geometric patterns, a flight from the body, a feeling of fragmentation, a lack of empathy for others (egoism), and alienation from the natural world – the postmodern condition, or the schizophrenic personality lauded by Gilles Deleuze?

What tends to be downplayed or even ignored in dualistic conceptions of the human subject is human uniqueness and agency. It might therefore be helpful to return to Kant and his more complex triadic conception of the human subject.

A Triadic Ontology

Through his philosophical writings and with regard to his profound influence on subsequent scholarship, Immanuel Kant has rightly been acclaimed as one of the key figures in the history of Western thought. He had a deep interest in the natural sciences, particularly physical geography, but what is less well known is that he also gave lectures in anthropology for more than twenty years. We are told by his student Johann Herder that the lectures were in the nature of hugely entertaining talks. At the age of seventy-four Kant published Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1798). (By ‘pragmatic’, he meant the use of knowledge to widen the scope of human freedom and to advance the dignity of humankind.)

In this seminal text Kant suggested that there were three distinct, but interrelated, ways of understanding the human subject: firstly as a universal species-being (mensch) – the “earthly being endowed with reason” on which Kant’s anthropological work was mainly focussed; secondly as a unique self (selbst); and thirdly as part of a people – as a member of a particular social group (volk). (Notwithstanding the last element, Herder always insisted that Kant, with his emphasis on universal human faculties such as imagination, perception, memory, feelings, desires and understanding, tended to downplay the importance of language, poetry and cultural diversity in understanding human life. But as a pioneer anthropologist, Herder also emphasized that anthropology, not speculative metaphysics or logic, was the key to understanding humans and their life-world, that is, their culture.)

Long ago the anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn, following Kant, made a statement that is in some ways rather banal but which has always seemed to me to encompass an important truth. Critical of dualistic nature-culture conceptions of the human subject, Kluckhohn, along with the pioneer psychologist Henry Murray, suggested that every person is, as a species-being (a human) in some respects like every other person; but they are also all like no other human being in having a unique personality (or self); and, finally, that they have affinities with some other humans in being a social and cultural being (or person). These three categories relate to three levels or processes in which all humans are embedded; namely, the phylogenetic, pertaining to the evolution of humans as a species-being; the ontogenetic, which relates to the life history of the person within a specific familial and biological setting; and, finally, the socio-historical, which situates the person in a specific social-cultural context. So Kluckholm, not unlike Kant, thought human beings need to be conceptualized in terms of three interconnected aspects: as a species-being characterized by biopsychological dispositions and complex sociality; as a unique individual self; and finally, as a social being or person, enacting social identities or subjectivities – which in all human societies are multiple, shifting and relational. For an anthropologist like Kluckhohn the distinction between being a human individual and being a person was important, for many tribal people recognize non-human persons, while under chattel slavery, the law treated human slaves not as persons, but rather as things or commodities.


Anthropologists within different cultural configurations tend to highlight one of three aspects of human subjectivity. Neo-Darwinian scholars, for example – particularly evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists – invariably focus on the human subject as a species-being. Emphasizing genetic or biological factors, they tend to downplay or ignore existential and social factors in understanding the human subject. In contrast, existentialists, radical phenomenologists, and literary anthropologists, put a fundamental emphasis on the unique self and subjective experience – Derrida’s ‘autobiographical animal’ – and thus tend to completely ignore the important insights to be derived from evolutionary biology and historical sociology. Finally there is a group of scholars who emphasize to an extreme that the human person is fundamentally a socio-cultural being. This kind of approach is exemplified by Durkheimian sociology, American cultural anthropology – well reflected in the writings of Leslie White, who famously suggested that we should study culture as if human beings did not exist – as well as the structuralism of Claude Levi-Strauss and Louis Althusser. It’s a current of thought that interprets human cognition as largely determined by sociocultural factors; or, as with the postmodernists, as simply an effect of discourses. It thus downplays the relevance of biological and ecological factors in human life, with some scholars virtually denying human agency. They have what Dennis Wrong long ago described as an “oversocialized conception of man.” However, each of the three approaches to the human subject – the biological, the psychological, and the sociocultural – have a certain validity, and a fundamental part to play in answering the question ‘What is the human being?’ They are of limited effectiveness, however, if interpreted in an exclusive fashion. What is needed is an approach that integrates all three perspectives, since a host of causal mechanisms and generative processes – biological, ecological, psychological, social and cultural – go into making up a human being.

Throughout the twentieth century, many scholars, within diverse intellectual traditions, did develop a more integrated approach to the understanding of the human subject, recognizing, like Kant, the need to develop a more complex model of the subject. The sociologist Marcel Mauss, for example, in contrast to Durkheim’s concept of Homo duplex, conceptualized the human subject as l’homme total, conceived as a biological, psychological and social being; a living being with inherent capacities and powers and a unique self constituted through diverse social relationships. Likewise, within the pragmatist tradition, George Herbert Mead and C. Wright Mills emphasized that the human being was simultaneously a biological organism, a self with a fundamentally social psychic structure, and a person embedded within a specific historical context. The Marxist phenomenologists Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Herbert Marcuse, the Neo-Freudian scholars Erich Fromm and Erik Erikson (who attempted a synthesis between psychoanalysis and, respectively, Marxism or anthropology), and the cultural anthropologists Clyde Kluckhohn, Irving Hallowell and Melford Spiro, have all attempted, in various ways, to convey the complex triadic nature of human subjectivity. The postmodernist mantra that with the developments in biotechnology and computer science (the web) we are ‘humans no more’ – the title of a recent text – is pure reverie [dream], to use a term of that rather neglected French scholar Gaston Bachelard.

Rest assured, humans are still around, and anthropology is still a flourishing (inter-)discipline.

© Prof. Brian Morris 2017

Brian Morris is emeritus professor of Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London. His latest book is An Environmental History of Southern Malawi.

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