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by Grant Bartley
What is it like to be a human being? There’s one sense in which you already know the answer, of course: your life shows you what it’s like to be a human being. But how would you describe what that life is like? And what universal truths about human life does your experience reveal? What would we say about the human condition if we were to assiduously analyse it? I suggest we can’t answer these questions as well as we’d like to assume.
Science has spawned a whole line of sub-disciplines investigating the nature of human beings – sociology, anthropology, psychology, neurology etc – displaying a spectrum of success, and we may hope, all with bright futures. But even if science were to evolve a sound comprehensive theory of the laws governing human behaviour, this would tell only a quarter of the human story, at most. That is to say, science can describe and test the processes which make us who and what we are, but it does not tell us what is it like to live life. This is because it doesn’t ask the right questions – nor can it.
Aristotle distinguished between four kinds of causes, and scientific explanations describe what he called ‘efficient causes’. This means that they can tell us about how we came to be what we are now, and how the processes which produced us continue to act. But in asking what human life is like, we’re instead asking, ‘What is the nature of human experience? How can we describe the contents of experience?’
Novels and other types of art reflect our experience of life, for sure; but not in a systematic way. As usual, philosophers have led the effort to get truly systematic knowledge. The attempt to systematically describe what it is like to experience is called phenomenology. Phenomenology as a philosophical project was begun in the late 19th and early 20th century, most famously Continentally, by Brentano and Husserl. When phenomenology was combined with ethics and (bad) metaphysics it became known as existentialism. Heidegger and Sartre are the most infamous exponents of that souped-up way of describing what human being is like. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any consensus existentialist understanding of human experience, so we can say that, as yet, there is little sure knowledge in existentialism’s descriptions – only lots of highly-convoluted opinions. Existentialism is like philosophical spaghetti, so far.
In Aristotle’s scheme, to ask about the nature of something at any given point in time (‘what it’s made of’) is to ask for its ‘material cause’. This is an unfortunate label when we’re enquiring into the immediate nature of experience, I think. Aristotle had two other types of causes, one of which he called the ‘formal cause’. A formal explanation of x answers the question, ‘What does [word/concept] x really mean?’ It gives the sort of explanation of something which might be found in a perfectionist’s dictionary, I might say.
Formal explanations are what analytical philosophy does best. That is to say, it explores and critiques our understanding of concepts, and so is a formal type of explanation. Philosophy has performed this sort of enquiry ever since Socrates in the 5th century BC.
What use is philosophy? Conceptual analysis can make significant contributions to our understanding of being human. Consider the concept of addiction, for example – as Piers Benn does. He argues that the popular use of this concept deceptively implies a helplessness which distorts people’s understanding of the behaviour tagged by that word. So the meaning of this concept potentially has political implications for global society. Conceptual analysis also tells us how to be cool, how we might be happy too. Jeffrey Gordon and Mark Weeks show how the analytical method can be applied to understand even humour. Mark’s analysis also incorporates the phenomenology of laughter: what it means to experience the transformation effected by the sort of laughter where you forget yourself, just for a moment. Analytical philosophy’s examination of aspects of the human condition can evidently be very useful.
Piers’ consideration of addiction, I think, also shows us how easily our understanding might be bewitched by our abuse of words or misunderstanding of concepts. This implies we’d be enlightened by our words being brought into ‘good form’, as one could say – that is, if we gain the sort of sound formal understanding of our concepts which analytical philosophy seeks. We only very lightly paddle the surf at the shores of human truth in this issue. A more systematic formal understanding of the human condition would start by analysing the concept ‘human being’, and continue analysing through the uncovered subcategories. It would ask, for instance, what does it mean to be joyful, melancholy, angry, ecstatic – all the emotions that flesh is heir to? What indeed is an emotion; and how does it differ experientially from a ‘mere’ idea, for instance?
Aristotle’s fourth kind of way of explaining things is called the ‘final cause’. To give this kind of explanation is to explain a thing’s purpose, or you could say, the goal which is its function to achieve. The question of the purpose of human life is a whole other issue, then… This issue, meanwhile, is permeated with diverse reflections on the human condition. I trust you will find it a delightful and enlightening way of experiencing what it’s like to be a human being.