Attempts to understand Our Human Existence

We live in age of rapid and substantial change. Some believe that the changes have been, for the most part beneficial to the human community. Others believe that they have been harmful, even destructive. Each side takes its stand on the basis of some understanding of what it means to be human. One cannot, after all, have an opinion about what contributes to human progress unless one first has an opinion about what human beings need, and then identifies those needs in the light of one’s perception of the fundamental structure and purpose of the human person and of the larger human community in which the person lives. Similarly, one cannot have an opinion about what impedes human progress unless one also has some antecedent opinion about what makes us ‘human’ in the first place, and about what might threaten the ‘human’ in all of us.

Anthropology is the umbrella term we use to embrace all of the scientific and disciplinary ways in which we raise and try to answer the question, “Who we are?” Anthropology is our explanation of ourselves. It means etymologically, ‘the study of man’ (logos and anthropos). More specifically, it is the scientific study of the origin and of the physical, social, and cultural development and behaviour of human beings. What makes the anthropological question unique is that we are at once the questioner and the questioned. Consequently answers are always inadequate. They can only lead to further questions and further attempts at answers.

The history of humanity reveals the many ways human beings have sought to understand themselves. Our history is far from finished, and our understanding of ourselves is always tentative, subject to revision. Since our history is multifaceted, our understanding of ourselves is possible only if we use a variety of approaches: biology, sociology, economics, politics, psychology, literature, philosophy and theology.

We look now at some of the answers to the question of ‘who are we as human beings?’

Natural Science

For centuries our self-understanding as human beings had been expressed in terms of the Ptolemaic world view: The earth is the centre of the whole universe, and we are the centre of the earth by the design and will of God. With the Copernican revolution the sun displaced the earth as the centre, and so we, too, were pushed closer to the margin of the cosmic order. But there endured a tenacious confidence in the powers of reason and in the intellectual faculty as the great line of demarcation between human beings and the rest of life.

A man who takes up the question in a unique and even disturbing way in his time was Charles Darwin (d. CE 1882). He was a biologist who, in his early years, was at the same time a believing Christian. He accepted the fixity of species and their special creation as depicted in the book of Genesis. But doubts began to emerge in CE 1835 when he visited the Galapagos Archipelago, where he noticed that very small differences were present in the so-called species inhabiting separate islands. His original doubts were only reinforced by additional observation of flora, fauna, and geological formations at widely separated points of the globe. All living things, he tentatively concluded, have developed from a few extremely simple forms, through a gradual process of descent with modification. He developed a theory of natural selection to account for the process, and especially for the adaptations of living things to their often hostile environments. His findings were published in the work Origin of Species (CE 1859) and further clarified in The Descent of Man (CE 1871). Natural scientists with him concluded that we are creatures linked biologically with the rest of creation. Human existence is not simply given. It is something to be worked out through the process of evolution and adaptation to the environment.

Social Science

Whereas natural scientists have been interested in the interaction of human behaviour and the world outside the person, psychologists and one of the social sciences, namely, psychology, have been concerned with the interaction of human behaviour and the world inside the person.

For Sigmund Freud (d. CE 1939) there are unconscious drives, forces, and motives that influence, probably even determine, our choices and our behaviour.

Carl Jung (d. CE 1961), a colleague of Freud, tempered Freud’s severe attitude to religion and introduced the distinction between the individual and the collective consciousness. The latter originates in those patterns of behaviour (archetypes) which are determined by the human race itself and which show themselves in dreams, visions, and fantasies, and expressed in myths, religious stories, fairy tales, and works of art. Consequently, the many images which abound in human history are more than primitive expressions. They are a necessary and profound expression of a communal experience. And this is especially true of Christianity and ts rich symbol system.

Erich Fromm (d. CE 1980), a German psychoanalyst, is in the tradition of Freud. Unlike Freud, he insists that much human behaviour is culturally rather that biologically conditioned. We are what we have to be, in accordance with the requirements of society in which we find ourselves. Depending on our response to these social exigencies, we can be either productive persons or automatons. Productive persons have a sense of his or her own authority, and the courage of his or her convictions. They are authentic. Automatons conform, they yield to the dictates of others, faithfully obeying every signal designed to control human behaviour.

Other social sciences, that is, sociology and economics, focus on the social, economic, and political context in which human persons find themselves.

Karl Marx (d. CE 1833) best known for his Communist Manifesto (CE 1847) and his Capital (CE 1867) argued that human beings are definable only in relation to other realities. If for Darwin, human beings are part of the natural order, for Marx, they are part of the larger social order. The essence of man for Marx is the ensemble of social realities. He insisted that human problems are traceable to conflict produced by alienation. For Freud, the alienation is from one’s true self; for Marx, the alienation is from the fruits of one’s labours and thus from the industrialised world and from other people. We are distinguished from the rest of the animal kingdom by the way we express our lives:- by our work, by our various activities, by our changing of the environment, and especially by producing our own means of subsistence. However, it is only in and through society that persons can live as human beings. It is the collective that defines who and what we are.

Feminist Thought

Beginning from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (CE 1963) feminism has mounted a wide ranging inter-disciplinary critique of the ethos and practice of sexism and gender discrimination, as expressed in patriarchal social, political, cultural and religious structures and in androcentric thought and language. Feminism holds that women and men are equal in human dignity. It challenges the androcentric assumption that male experience is normative for all human experience, and androcentrism’s accompanying stereotypes – namely, that men are characterised by rationally, autonomy, strength, and initiative, while women are characterised by intuition, nurturing, receptiveness, and compassion. Feminism insists that men and women alike are to embody the full range of human characteristics.


As the attempt to grasp the ultimate meaning of existence, or the attempt to provide a systematic understanding of the world and the person’s place in it, philosophy has come up with answers to the question of ‘who are we?’

Much of the 20th century philosophy has been essentially a reaction against the classical philosophy of Aristotle, Plato, and Aquinas on the one hand and to the idealism of Hegel on the other. In modern and especially post-modern philosophy there is an emphasis on the subject, on the changeable, on the particular, and on the practical, as opposed to the objective, the unchanging, the universal, and the theoretical.

Thus we have Phenomenology (Edmond Husserl) which is concerned with the person as knower, sees humans as beings in time. Our past experiences enter our present consciousness and personal reality. Yet we are never imprisoned by the past. We never entirely lose the possibility of changing or redeeming the past, because the present is also open to the future.

Existentialism on the other hand is primarily concerned with the human person as a source of freedom and spontaneous activity.

The Danish Lutheran Soren Kierkegaard is regarded as the founder of modern existentialist thought. Kierkegaard was the first to emphasise the subject as a responsible person who must always be ready to stand alone before God without benefit of some social, ever ecclesiastical, shield. He stressed individuality and authenticity and so challenged the Hegelian emphasis on the abstract and the universal.

Martin Heidegger in his Being and Time exercised the most significant contribution to existentialism. He provides a bridge between existentialist thought and phenomenology. If we are to come to an understanding of what it is to be human, he argues, then we must reflect on what it is that we are and do. He notes the human existence discloses certain tensions:- the tension between freedom and finitude, between rationality and irrationality, between responsibility and impotence, between anxiety and hope, and finally between individual and society. It is however, death that sets the framework of human existence. When one become aware of the boundary or limit of human existence, then one also has recognised that this is one’s own existence. Authentic existence requires that we come to terms with our own death and recognize it for what it is; the boundary and the limit of our personal existence. We are thus compelled to think of the possibilities that are open to us this side of death and to try and bring these possibilities into some kind of overarching unity.

The French philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre saw “nausea” as the experience through which we come to see the human situation as it is: a mass of solid brute facts. It seems to be a world in which it is impossible to move or to breathe. But if one courageously faces its contingency, one will find that there is room in the world, after all, for oneself. Since we are not called upon to be anything in particular, we need no space. We are free. If we were anything, we would not be free. Our everyday self is derived from our experience of others as subjects. They gaze at us and, in virtue of their gaze, we become persons and acquire a nature. We bear that nature as a burden, but it is always possible to cast it off.

Martin Buber, the Jewish theologian and philosopher, shifted after the First World War from an individualistic philosophy to one rooted in social experience. He wrote of the paradox inherent in every human dialogue, where each party remains himself or herself even as he or she draws very close to the other. The principal expression of his view is contained in his I and Thou (1923 German original). Our relationships, he said, are of two kinds:- I-thou and I-it. There is nothing wrong in the latter unless they dominate and eventually suppress the former. The opposite of I-thou dialogue is monologue, which implies selfishness and manipulation. In genuine dialogue we accept and affirm with others in their personhood. By doing so we nurture the divine spark in them, and thereby actualise God in the world.

The Process Philosophy of Whitehead, (d. 1974) insisted on the inter-relatedness of all reality and on human knowledge’s exclusive concern with relatedness. Henri Bergson (d. 1941) the French philosopher, was concerned with time and evolution. He further spoke of static mortality which is that of obligation and then of dynamic morality which is of attraction, issuing from a mystical experience.

Other schools of thought like Pragmatism (the American, William James, d. 1910 and John Dewey, d. 1952), Logical Positivism (the German American, Rudolf Carnap, d. 1970) stress the individual’s obligation to attend to reality and to history as they are, not as we would with them to be or as we would abstractly conceive them to be. Neither reality nor the history within which human reality is framed is static and unchanging; they are in process, from a past that is fixed, because complete, to a future that is as yet open, undetermined. We are called to shape that future by reconstructing our experience and reforming our environment to the extent that consciousness and practicality allow. Human existence, therefore, is not a given to be examined, but a potential in the process of realization.

Hermeneutics, which is a branch of Philosophy that deals with understanding and interpretation, seeks to interpret language, texts, and works of art. Hans-Georg Gadamer, a student of Heidegger, felt that Heidegger lacked the appropriate language to speak about God. He felt that language is not just a human instrument but is constitutive of our world. Interpretation, symbolism, and the use of imagination, are as necessary for the exploration of reality as are observation and judgement.

Paul Ricoeur, a French philosopher, was aroused by the question of evil. He held that a ‘hermeneutic of belief’ can only be achieved when one has passed through a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’. Suspicions rest on one-sided interpretations that fail to take into account the rich diversity and complexity of language. In religious discourse there are five types:- prophetic, narrative, descriptive, wisdom, and hymn. All five are intertwined in the biblical text. To disregard that fact is to render impossible any reliable interpretation.


One thought on “Attempts to understand Our Human Existence

  1. Fr. Bennit:

    I sincerely appreciate your first two articles on anthropology. You do an outstanding job of summarizing the current situation in its historical context.

    W. Ockham

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