The human being is the problem of the human being

20.04.2021 - Rome, Italia - Vito Correddu

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The human being is the problem of the human being
(Image by Stock File)

Speech at the 8th Symposium of the World Center for Humanist Studies “A new humanism for a new world – plural exchanges from a world in crisis” held from April 16 to 18 in virtual form with speeches from various parts of the world. The intervention of Vito Correddu is on Friday 16.

Throughout history, humanism has been considered a cultural movement that has placed the human being as a central focus.

Although the human being is the central element of humanism, it is not always clear how much and to what extent it is at the foundation of the values ​​it proposes. In other words, what foundation supports the values ​​such as freedom, equality, the development of knowledge or the rejection of violence, that characterize humanism throughout history? What is the dignity of the Renaissance man memory based on? Yet the human being seems to be a topic that does not deserve further comments and insights, as if philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology and neuroscience had already said everything there was to say. Is the ancient definition of human being zoon logon echon then translated into rational animal exhaustive to define the human being? Are we animals? Are we thermodynamic machines? What is or what should the human being be for humanism? These, which apparently seem to be philosophical dissertations without application, attempt to answer a question that concerns us very closely: “who are we?”

This presentation aims to make a brief contribution to these questions through the vision of universalist humanism promoted by Mario Rodriguez Cobos.

Report

We are humanists. And we are so because the human being is important to us. We take care of and care for the human being. In our taking care of the human being we formulate an ethic, a morality. We define values ​​and on the basis of these, we read reality and formulate our analyses, make our proposals and denounce the inhuman and the antihuman.

When I say that we are humanists, I am not referring to a particular humanism. Every current of humanism and every humanist moment in history had, as a common aspect, the human being as a central concern/focus.

In this sense, we consider all those moments in human history, when in different civilizations there was the emergence of a certain interest in the human being, as humanism. Today, with the help of historians and anthropologists, we can therefore ascertain the presence of humanist moments that even preceded the Renaissance humanism, not only in Europe but also in ancient Egypt, in pre-Columbian America, in Islam from the 8th to the 10th century AD and in Confucian China.

It is certain, however, that the humanists of the European Renaissance did not define themselves as such. Only in 1538, in order to designate a certain type of scholar, did the word “humanist” begin to be used and, only in 1808, the word “humanism” was coined for the first time.

In the course of the twentieth century many different humanisms flourished, mostly in a purely philosophical field. At the beginning, there are still no movements of opinion that recognize and define themselves humanists. Only in the 1980s, inspired by the thought of Mario Rodriguez Cobos, better known under the literary pseudonym of Silo, the Humanist Movement was born and almost simultaneously we find the first Humanist Parties and the birth of the first Humanist International in 1989.

Today the word humanism finds declinations of the most varied shapes. There is talk of humanism not only in the philosophical, political, economic or educational fields, but also in agriculture, and even in gastronomy, all of which is often accompanied by the adjective new. Humanism, or at least the word “humanism”, seems today to obtain a certain consensus that it never had in the past. We also hear it from time to time in the speeches of various political and religious leaders about the need for a new humanism.

Far be it from us to judge the validity of those statements, because this would reduce us to censors and illegitimate bearers of an alleged true humanism. Instead, what we want to highlight is that every humanism tries to put the theme of the human being at the center of attention.

But if the human being is the center of our concerns and our values, we should ask ourselves if what we know of the human being, if the representation, if the experience and the definition we have of the human being, is not only sufficient but is furthermore exhaustive and complete, having therefore exhausted and put the word ‘end’ to our need for research. In other words, we should ask ourselves, as the Adib, the scholars of Muslim Spain used to say, is the human being still the problem of the human being?

The history of Western thought, as Heidegger teaches, seems to have been sucked into the entity, the object. In his critique, Heidegger highlights how all humanism is ultimately a metaphysics, which has failed to subtract the human being from the narrow dimension of the “animal rationale”, or from that zoon logon echon of Aristotelian memory.

In a Letter on “Humanism” he writes:

“Although these forms of humanism may be different in the objective and in the foundation they have, in the manner and in the means provided for their respective realization, or in the form of the doctrine; nevertheless they all agree on the fact that the humanitas of the homo humanus is determined by reference to an already established interpretation of nature, history, the world and the foundation of the world, in other words, on the entity as a whole.”

The humanitas of the human is still thought, as Heidegger would say, from beyond and not from this side. In the sense that it is still conceived starting from the world, from the world of entities, of things.

From that beyond, when one thinks of the human being, one does not say falsehood, rather one does not tell the whole truth or at least one thinks of the human being from a particular perspective. Remaining in metaphysics one reduces the human being to an entity like the others, observing it as any natural phenomenon. The problem arises when that particular perspective becomes universalized or claims to stand as the foundation of the essence of the human being.

Supposing we thought the human being has disappeared from planet Earth, not as an eventuality or as an impending danger, but as if it had already happened, we would find ourselves imagining the Earth, the solar system, and the entire universe continuing to exist. We could still imagine everything without the presence of the human being.

In this imaginative exercise, the disappearance of the human being, presumably from data provided by science, would not produce any relevant change on a cosmic level. Obviously, on planet Earth, nature would begin to take back those spaces left empty by man, but nothing more than this. The laws that support and govern the universe would still be valid and would continue to act without any upheaval.

If the human being is an entity like the others, its disappearance would therefore not be significant at all; the reality of things would not change one iota.

Ultimately, we would speak of the human being as an epiphenomenon, whose extinction, within the history of life on the planet, would be added to those of other species.

At the end of this imaginative game, we get an external look at the human being – a look from beyond. A look that presents extinction as if we were not part of it, as if the extinction of the human being did not also imply our disappearance. In this exercise we would be external observers; we would be in the perspective of the beholder.

This experiment of the imagination is possible thanks to the abstractive capacity of the human thought; a thought that allows us to distance ourselves, to stop the passage of time and to abstract (or perhaps in this case it would be better to say “extract”) elements from a context and draw the necessary consequences.

What would happen, though, if you tried to imagine the same thing from inside, from this side? At this point, how can I imagine the same scene if the observer is no longer there? Or more precisely, how can I imagine that same situation without being in the world?

In the previous exercise the human race had disappeared but the plants, the animals, the Earth, the planets, the stars and so on, the whole universe remained. There still was someone observing that landscape, indifferent to the fact that all this concerned him closely. Since the observer is our thought and it is assumed that he does not belong to the category of the inhuman, the non-human or the antihuman but that he is still human, what we now ask the imagination to do is to subtract what still remains of the human. We therefore also subtract ourselves from the scene.

But suddenly the lights turn off. The power cuts off, there’s a black-out. The imagination stops, unable to say anything about what it is not.

The world no longer has our presence. So, what is the world without our existence? It’s the nothing. Now, the experiment of imagination is impossible for us, not because we are unable to imagine the nothing but because nothing would not be an observable object without an observer either. It’s therefore impossible for us because I continue to exist, or rather, we have to deal with what Heidegger calls being-there.

What do I understand, what consequences do I draw from this experience?

  1. I begin to doubt that the world exists beyond the human being.
  2. That existence precedes the thought of existing.
  3. That consciousness and world, from the existential point of view, belong to a single structure: consciousness-world.
  4. That the human being is an historical being, bearer and creator of sense and meanings. The human being is a project.
  5. That values ​​and an ethics must arise from the particularity of human existence.

Now, let me go deeper into these reflections.

The first: I begin to doubt that the world exists beyond the human being.

Here, there is no doubt about the world in metaphysical logic. Here, it is not a question of denying scientific thought and therefore reality, but doubting that it is independent of the human gaze. In other words, we are not saying, for example, that gravity does not exist and that it operates as science is showing us. We are saying that the force of gravity exists, as there is a human being who experiences it, and that if it were not the human who experienced it, the effect would be different (Silo 1981). In this regard, one can advance the hypothesis, all to be verified, that metaphysical thinking hides more than what it reveals.

Second consideration: That existence precedes the thought of existing.

Here we are saying that a reflection on one’s own existence is an abstract thought. Cogito ergo sum is a deduction within metaphysical thinking. It’s a thought that follows the rules of logic but, as sometimes happens in logic, albeit coherent, hides the arbitrariness of the choice of terms on which it develops.

Nietzsche highlighted how the Cartesian cogito was at least superficial in its definition because it was the result of concepts defined a priori. For this reason he overturns Descartes’s statement by formulating a sort of circularity: “sum ergo cogito: cogito ergo sum“.

Existence is not a deduction of thinking but the register that consciousness has of itself, of its being-in-the-world and precedes thinking and doing in the world.

Here is how Heidegger describes existence:

“Existence can only be spoken of in relation to the essence of man, that is, only in relation to the human way of “being”; because only man, as far as we have experience, is involved in the destiny of existence. Therefore, existence can never be thought of as a particular species among other species of beings living, given that man is destined to think about the essence of its being, and not just to tell natural and historical stories about its constitution and its activity.”

Third consideration: That consciousness and the world, from an existential point of view, belong to a single structure: the consciousness-world.

In the imaginative experiment that was proposed, when the human was removed and the imagination no longer managed to conceive existence, we may have sensed something interesting. We may have felt the pure act of consciousness seeking the object, in other words, the intentionality of consciousness. And this is how we observe that consciousness is in continuous activity, in search of objects that compensate for its condition of finitude.

Consciousness, therefore, is not a copy of reality, but a continuous transformation that operates in both directions: from outside to inside, through the representation made by the image in the internal landscape, and from inside to outside, through the action on the external landscape. Conceived in this way, in the action of coordinating the data of the senses, memory and response centers, consciousness becomes the intertwining of these two landscapes that we define internal and external, according to the elements we take into consideration, but which in reality go to configure a single structure, the world-consciousness. The functioning of the world-consciousness structure is expressed in the body.[1]

The world is therefore the destiny of human consciousness. A consciousness that is constituted and shaped in the world, and the world vice versa is constituted and realized in the human conscience.

This way of understanding the conscience-world relationship allows us to overcome the subject-object or personal-social dichotomies and restores the possibility of getting out of solipsism and discovering intersubjectivity. Only by making contact with existence and therefore with this dimension of intentionality I can recognize the intentionality of the other and qualify the other as human.

Fourth consideration: That the human being is a historical being, bearer and creator of meaning and meanings. The human being is a project.

This being-in-the-world, this world-consciousness, this existence that is not static, but rather in the making. That idea of ​​death, proposed by the imaginative exercise, could not annihilate the intentionality of the consciousness that now appears as constitutive of the human being. Existence is either for the future or it is not. In this way, the human being is immersed in an historical process, or rather it is itself the historical process; it is itself the Sense that it so longs for. From this point of view, both the natural landscape (the body included) and the social one become the target of a humanization project. Hence, the discriminating factor between human, inhuman and non-human. From here we draw the line between freedom and bad faith.

In this regard, what is the homeland of the human being? Can it still be said that the Earth is home? Rather, shouldn’t we say that by being and living it has already crossed this border?

Fifth and final consideration: That values ​​and an ethics must arise from the particularity of human existence.

Considering that the human being is not just any entity, that it is the bearer of a project, what we call positive ​​and negative values ​​and what we call ethics can therefore only start from existence. Why do we stand up for human freedom and dignity if humans were just an epiphenomenon in the physics of the universe? Why do we promote equality between humans and defend personal and cultural diversity if human beings were nothing more than an animal rationale, a reflection of objective conditions, a thermodynamic machine, a living being whose essence is determined by a series of elements like the genetic code or the neural circuits? Why should we stand against war and aspire to nonviolent relationships if everything ultimately ended in nonsense?

Any theory that puts the human being below abstract entities such as God, the State or money, as well as any theory that tries to interpret the human being in a natural sense – exchanging the possible analogies with the natural world with data of reality – not only describes baseless theories, but once again gives us a human seen from beyond, from outside. These theories, which could belong more to the mythological narrative, are paradoxically the most distant from the experience of the Myth.

A New Humanism for a new world requires that we explicit how we do think of the human being. Which human being are we referring to? Who are we, then?

To such questions, the expository language, if closed in the rules of logic and grammar, will never be able to give exhaustive answers. Therefore not even I, I believe, has so far succeeded, because we are talking about a phenomenological, internal experience and every description almost always ends up being a metaphysical thinking. In order not to reduce my speech at the Symposium to a mere waste of time, I would like to offer a passage of a work by Silo who, in my opinion, offers us through the poetic language, an image of the human being that summarizes what we have tried to say so far.

He writes: “Creator of a thousand names, builder of meanings, transformer of the world … your fathers and the fathers of your fathers continue in you. You are not a falling meteor but a bright arrow flying to the skies. You are the sense of the world; when you clarify your meaning, you light up the earth. When you lose your sense, the earth darkens and the abyss opens. ”

Thank you.

[1] Roberta Consilvio – Psicologia e sviluppo della coscienza: l’evoluzione possibile dell’essere umano


Vito Correddu is the president of the Salvatore Puledda Humanist Studies Center. He worked from 1998 to 2010 for the creation of development projects in Togo and Ghana. From 2009 to 2012 he helped creating the Italian anti-racist coordination Stop Razzismo. With the Salvatore Puledda Humanist Studies Center he organized the last six editions of the International Symposium of the World Center for Humanist Studies. He fostered the research group on religiosity in social phenomena and another one on the roots of revenge in modern society. In 2018 he participated in the XXIV World Congress of Philosophy in Beijing with a conference entitled “Revolution as a way of being fully human”. In his professional life he is an educator. He likes to call himself a humanist, anarchist, nonviolent, choosy, lazy and who tends towards happiness.

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