“Know Thyself”: Essence and Affordances

Here is your anthropos!

The notorious Cynic, Diogenes of Sinope, cried out these words as he cast a plucked chicken onto the floor of the Academy. Following Diogenes’ exclamation, a farcical account of this event presents Plato begrudgingly appending the differentia “…with flat nails” to his provisional definition of the human being as “the featherless biped.” In the millennia that have elapsed since the fifth century B.C., human self-knowledge has profoundly changed, though not in the manner one might imagine. A 2004 study that compared the genomes of Homo sapiens and Gallus gallus concluded, for example, that humans share 60% of their genes with chickens, which approximates the proportional distribution in the definition that Plato gave some twenty-five centuries ago. Thus, the modern scientifically-sanctioned definition of humanhood (i.e. the active condition of being human) is similar in an important sense to Plato’s definition in the parody above. In contrast to the latter, however, the consensual conceptions of Homo sapiens today that defines the human being according to its genetic makeup, is not intended as a parody. Despite obvious differences, such a definition is equivalent to the one that Plato offered in that it only manages to differentiate humans from chickens by a contingent differentia. A genomic definition may appear to present more than contingent differentiæ because of its infinitesimal and impressive complexity. To complete the comparative study of the respective genomes, for instance, it was necessary to analyse 2.8 billion DNA base pairs for the human being and another 1 billion for the chicken. Given the sheer immensity of this task, it is natural that we should find difficulty in standing back from it to consider whether its completion could offer anything more than contingent knowledge in the first place.

Contingent knowledge stands in contrast to essential knowledge. Essential knowledge is knowledge of what the thing is. Contingent (i.e. accidental) knowledge, despite its eventual accuracy and undeniable utility, contrasts with essential knowledge in that the former reveals only how the thing is, or what it is made of. Naturally, both forms of knowledge may be correct. To confuse them, however, or to ignore one at the expense of the other, is as incorrect as to extrapolate from an observation that “all cows are grey at night” that they must appear grey in all other conditions as well. If we are to discover what the human being is, we must ensure that our method of inquiry does not, by its very nature, neglect those very qualities that could enable us to identify it in a meaningful way. Plato’s tongue-in-cheek definition of the human being as “a featherless biped with flat nails” satirises the results of an inquiry that fails to take this fact into consideration. Any definition of the human being derived from a study like the one above, which compared human and chicken genomes, would likewise fail to apprehend the essential qualities of the human being. In this way, a study like the one above rather prevents us from knowledge of the human being (or the chicken) than provides for it. The unfathomable complexity is a distraction from our original subject: the human being has been lost amongst the supermyriad of base pairs.

Indeed, a thorough consideration of experimental methods of physical science must lead one to the conclusion that they preclude essential human self-knowledge in principle. Physical science, therefore, can only reveal what the human being is not. Indeed, scientific discoveries of the last centuries, in casting light on nature’s quantifiable aspects, have concomitantantly revealed human self-obliviousness with equal accuracy and ingenuity. The recognition of what an external understanding of the human being can never offer will impel us to complement our scientific knowledge. It will inspire a study of the aspects of humanhood which a study of exclusively external relations was forced to reject.

An essential understanding will differentiate itself from a contingent one in that it will provide a qualitative definition and not merely a quantitative one. For instance, a definition of the human being in terms of genetic makeup presents only a quantitative differentia from the definition of a chicken, or any other plant, animal, or microbe. A consideration of the human being that fails to distinguish a qualitative differentia fails, by the same token, to transcend a totalising mentality that strives to reduce all phenomena to uniform calculable bits. By contrast, a bonafide anthroposophical approach will not seek to describe the human being merely according to the aspects that it shares with the rest of nature. As accurate as such a description might be, it nevertheless still only considers the accidental relations between entities. A true comprehension of being human must consider more than this; it must consider the human being by its distinctly human nature. In this way, it will recognise the internal or inherent relations between beings. A definition wrought in this recognition will clearly differentiate the human from other beings according to what is essential in the former.

One essential quality of the human being is its ability to consider essence in the first place. Essence is being (from Latin esse, “to be”). Being is perceived through contemplation and not through speculation or spectating. Another way to say this is that we behold being through theoria and not by theorising or by merely looking. Contemplation of our own condition in contrast to that of another creature, like a chicken for instance, will reveal to us the essence of each. We can never directly or entirely express an essence for the same reason that it would be impossible to convey the experience of the colour yellow to someone who could not see. Nevertheless, we can intensify our experience a being, and allow our descriptions to emerge from thence. Then the reader may allow these descriptions to remind her of her own immediate experience of the given essence that these descriptions indicate. In this way, we can disclose and communicate ever new facets of the subject of our contemplation, as manifold petals that unfold from the flower of our understanding.

Evident to cursory observation (i.e. spectating) is that both humans and chickens embody themselves in characteristic physical forms. By theorising (i.e. speculation), we furthermore understand that these physical forms were wrought according to a blueprint of sorts that is encoded in commensurate base pairs of DNA. Through theoria (i.e. contemplation), we cross a threshold in our consideration and pass from external to essential inquiry. Theoria will reveal the being of both Homo sapiens and of Gallus gallus. Then a straightforward consideration will allow us to formulate the differences between humans and chickens in any number of ways. The fact of theoria on our part is one expression of human nature in contrast to animal nature. It is only in virtue of our humanhood that we can contemplate another being according to who it is in itself. Animals that are not human (i.e. beings that have life and also that breathe)* cannot relate to other beings according to who those beings are in themselves, but only what those beings are for them. Other animals can only relate to their fellow beings as affordances. The Psychologist James Gibson coined the term “affordance” in and explained it thus:

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment. (The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, 1979)

Basically, affordances present behaviour-potentials for an organism. It is our animal nature, and not our human one, that relates to our fellow beings in this manner. For instance, if I perceive the chicken as an affordance for dinner, I am perceiving it through my animal nature. If the chicken runs away from me, it is also perceiving me as an affordance, negatively, which is to say, a threat. The chicken is constitutionally incapable of perceiving me as who I am, but rather only as what I mean for it. Another instance of this kind of perception is a man who sees women as affordances. Unlike the chicken, he is not constitutionally incapable of perceiving his fellows as more than what they are for him. Most political interactions are similarly based on ignoring who people are and weighing them rather as affordances. Economic interactions are almost exclusively based on this form of relation. In fact, any time we relate to another human being as a member of a class, category, gender, etc…instead of as an individual, we are almost certainly relating to her through our animal nature. If something we can say about someone takes precedence over whom we are saying it about—any time the subject is superseded by its predicate(s)—the corresponding relation is a less-than-human one. In any instance that “what” overshadows “who,” this individual has become an affordance for us and we have lowered our own consciousness below the human level as a corollary.

The above consideration is not meant to suggest that animal-level consciousness has no place in human interactions. Instead, just as I am free to use a Stradivarius violin for firewood, for example, so I am free to capitulate my freedom to the authority of my own animal nature. Animals do not enslave themselves by living according to their nature because this would imply a capitulation of something that was not present in the first place. As an human being, I am failing to live according to my potential if I only relate to other beings according to what they are for me and not according to what or who they are in themselves. The question of freedom or freehood (i.e. the active condition of being free) is an uniquely human question, and to relate to another being on its terms rather then mine is an exercise of this freehood. With this conclusion, we have penetrated to the essence of humanhood and provided an alternative to the unsatisfactory definitions of the human being with which this consideration began.

*Plants have life, animal have life and also breath.


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