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Philosophical Review

Social Action and Human Nature by Axel Honneth; Hans Joas; Raymond Meyer
Review by: Kenneth Baynes
The Philosophical Review, Vol. 101, No. 2 (Apr., 1992), pp. 436-438
Published by: Duke University Press on behalf of Philosophical Review
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Furthermore, Jardine's account of truth may not be needed for a de-

fense of SA. A natural description preserving the spirit though not the
letter of his SA is this: predecessor theories which by our lights had sound
methodological practices are approximately true in the sense that they give
nearly correct answers by our lights for the limited range of questions we
know to have been answerable by them given their overall epistemic situa-
tion. Much of Jardine's better argumentation shows how a careful histor-
ical case can be made for successive approximation in this sense. Much of
his argumentation is also a complicated induction from history of science
aimed at showing that a substantial part of our theories would be pre-
served in an absolute inquiry series. But do we need this extra embellish-
ment? After all, our best current estimates are the best guide we have to
what is true, however truth is understood. We can no more compare our
beliefs with, or inductively extrapolate to, superior, historically subsequent
human theories, never mind an absolute inquiry series, than we can com-
pare them with, or extrapolate to, pristine reality.

Universityof Wisconsin,Milwaukee

The PhilosophicalReview, Vol. 101, No. 2 (April 1992)


JOAS. Translated by RAYMOND MEYER. New York, Cambridge University
Press, 1988. Pp. ix, 191.

In this brief but demanding study the authors assess the significance of
recent (predominantly German) work in social theory for attempts to for-
mulate a theory of human nature, as well as the relevance of a theory of
human nature for the development of a critical social theory. As Charles
Taylor notes in his foreword, the essay thus constitutes a contribution to
the field of "philosophical anthropology," which the authors conceive of
not as a dogmatic or purely speculative discipline, but as a critical and
interdisciplinary reflection on the "unchangeable preconditions of human
changeableness" (7). Although the text is intended to be an introductory
survey, the authors clearly wish to defend a general thesis (concerning the
intersubjective constitution of human subjectivity), and their presentation
of different positions is to a large extent tailored to this more systematic
concern. The book is divided into three separate parts.
Part 1 takes up the relationship between anthropology and historical
materialism (or Marxism, more generally). After tracing its origins in
Feuerbach's critique of German idealism (or the philosophy of conscious-


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ness), the authors point out some of the deficiencies in Marx's own an-
thropological reflections. In particular, they suggest that although Marx's
concept of labor retains a link to Feuerbach's notion of free, sensuous
productivity and expressivity, in his later writings the anthropological basis
of historical materialism recedes behind his critique of capitalism. In a
brief review of more recent discussions of the place of anthropology in
Marxist theory (including Louis Althusser, Lucien Seve, and Gyorgy
Markus), the authors suggest that Markus's interpretation, which argues
for an historicized concept of human essence without however denying its
biological roots, offers the most promising basis for a theory of social
Part 2, which makes up the core of the book, deals with the German
tradition of philosophical anthropology that begins with Max Scheler. The
most space is (appropriately) devoted to the work of Arnold Gehlen and
Helmuth Plessner, clearly the most important figures in this tradition. In
his major study Der Mensch (1940) Gehlen argued that the uniqueness of
the human individual consists in his "capacity for action," a capacity which
humans acquire in response to their status as a "defective life form" (51).
The human is distinguished from other animals by virtue of its "organic
nonspecialization," perhaps the result of premature birth induced by up-
right posture. As a result, human needs are highly plastic and dependent
upon processes of socialization. According to Gehlen, these deficiencies
are compensated for by social institutions which protect individuals from
their dangerous openness to the world.
Plessner, by contrast, developed his hermeneutic anthropology in closer
connection with the tradition of Dilthey's Lebensphilosophieand phenome-
nology. Central to his conception of the human being is the distinction
between the human's "organismal body" [Lieb] and "objectual-
instrumental body" [Kirper], the awareness of which accounts for the
unique "excentric positionality" of humans in the world. The human not
only lives in and through his body, but is peculiarly aware of himself as a
living body. In one of his most popular essays, Laughing and Weeping
(1941), Plessner attributed these two general forms of human expression
to the individual's experience of the (ever threatening) disequilibrium be-
tween his organismal and objectual-instrumental body. For Plessner too,
however, the awareness of their natural deficiencies compels human be-
ings to secure psychic distance and to preserve their subjectivity through
the establishment of ceremonially defined interactions and highly stylized
Despite the contributions of these authors (and others, such as Agnes
Heller and Klaus Holzkamp), especially to the critique of an excessively
rationalistic anthropology, Honneth and Joas suggest that the tradition of
philosophical anthropology has generally suffered from an unjustified


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commitment to individualistic premises, often deriving from the very phi-

losophy of consciousness which it otherwise criticizes. In a brief but central
comparison between Gehlen and George Herbert Mead (whose ideas
Gehlen introduced into Germany), the authors propose Mead's model of
practical intersubjectivity as an alternative. According to this model, the
individual conscious self is not treated as a premise but as the product of
a social process in which actors internalize the behavioral expectations of
others. It is this intersubjective structure of social action that, according to
the authors, serves as "the common point of reference" to their various
investigations (70).
Part 3 reviews the contributions of Norbert Elias, Michel Foucault, and
Jurgen Habermas to the development of a more historical and inter-
subjectively grounded anthropology. Although only Elias's analysis of the
civilizing process, which shapes the interior life of individuals, can be con-
sidered a direct contribution to anthropology, the authors show that
Foucault's analysis of the constitution of subjectivity through disciplinary
practices and Habermas's theory of sociocultural evolution, which stresses
the importance of communicative or interactive practices, offer important,
if frequently competing, insights for any contemporary attempt to articu-
late the unchanging preconditions of human changeableness.
As this brief overview no doubt reveals, the authors have undertaken an
extremely ambitious project. Although they have provided a useful survey
of some recent trends in this now largely neglected area of philosophical
research and underscored its continuing relevance for practical philoso-
phy in general, there are a number of difficult questions that need to be
addressed more directly and in greater detail than was possible in this
short work. Not the least of these, it seems to me, is still the claim and status
of an intersubjectively grounded philosophical anthropology or theory of
human nature.

State Universityof New Yorkat Stony Brook

The PhilosophicalReview, Vol. 101, No. 2 (April 1992)

EVOLUTIONARY PROGRESS. Edited by Matthew H. Nitecki. Chicago,

University of Chicago Press, 1988. Pp. viii, 354.

The thirteen papers in this volume were originally presented at the 1987
Spring Systematics Symposium of the Field Museum. They are organized
into three groups: "Philosophy of Progress" (D. Hull, W. Provine, F. Ayala,
and M. Ruse), "Historical and Comparative Studies" (R. Richards, R.


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