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THE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION of whether one regards humans as being wolves, lambs or animals of a mixed kind influences one’s views on society and politics” writes Carl-Göran Heidegren in his introduction to Antropologi, samhällsteori och politik (Anthropology, Social Theory and Politics). “Anthropology, social theory and politics tend to be interrelated; when one of these issues are in focus the other two are – implicitly or explicitly – rarely far away” (p. 9). We know these connections from political debate. Debates on school politics, the health services, social politics, immigration, development aid, biotechnology and cultural politics often end up as discussions on human nature. Those who support or oppose certain politics can be accused of having an incorrect or even unacceptable view on human nature.

Anthropology is discussed in the academic world as well, particularly in cross-faculty discussions. Ask a sociologist and an economist to discuss the question of what distinguishes their approaches from one another, and you can be quite certain that one of them, most likely the sociologist, will start talking about views of human nature or “models of the actor”. Sociological foundational critique of competing disciplines is often bound up with reflections on the nature of human beings. Homo sociologicus, the human being ruled by norms, is often contrasted with the homo oeconomicus of economics, the supposition being that differing views on the nature of man results in different approaches to issues concerning society and politics. 


HEIDEGREN JUSTLY STATES: “The anthropology, theory of society and political orientation one prefers, as well as how and to which degree one is capable of harmonizing these components, is the result of a painful and detailed argumentative work” (p. 359) The book presents five such works of detail; the constellations between anthropology, social theory and politics in Arnhold Gehlen (1904–1976) and Helmut Schelsky (1912–1984), Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth and Hans Joas, where the two former represent German radical conservatism and the three latter critical theory. Thus constellations within two very different traditions are presented.

The remarkable connections can also be found. For instance, Gehlen’s philosophical anthropology has influenced the work of Habermas, Honneth and Joas. Hence the views on human nature of prominent intellectuals of the German Left are coloured by the works of a philosopher with a bright academic career during the National Socialist regime and who remained profoundly sceptical towards open, democratic societies after the war. Habermas himself has called Gehlen “the most disturbing intellect”, “the most consequent thinker when it comes to institutionalism in the spirit of counter-enlightenment” (p. 187). But Gehlen was also a thinker who admired John Dewey, George Herbert Mead and William James, and who was inspired by the American pragmatists’ theory of action – although not by their defence of the democratic form of life. Hence the connections between one’s views of human nature, of society and one’s political judgments can hardly be said to be simple.


HEIDEGREN, who is a sociologist at the University of Lund, has previously published Hegels fenomenologi. Analys och kommentar (Hegel’s Phenomenology. An Analysis and a Comment) (1995) and Preussiske anarkister. Ernst Jünger och hans krets under Weimar-republikens krisår (Preussian Anarchists. Ernst Jünger and His Circle during the Years of Crisis of the Weimar republic (1998) amongst other works.  The present book indirectly reflects his interest in Hegel, which is noticeable through his focus on Honneth, whose philosophical anthropology is a reconstruction of Hegel’s analysis of the struggle for recognition. The book also reflects the author’s interest in German intellectual history, primarily as a history of theory, although he also aims to “convey an insight into the intellectual circles of National Socialist Germany and the German republic” (p. 13). Heidegren gives short descriptions of the reception of the five thinkers, in their own times and afterwards, and he presents their changing judgments of one another. But apart from the presentation of the main characters’ intellectual biographies, their surrounding environment is not really described.

Gehlen’s life is a fascinating one. During the Hitler years, he was a professor at the prestigious universities of Leipzig, Köningsberg and Vienna. After 1945 he was expelled to the academy of bureaucracy in Speyer and later, the technical academy in Aachen. His National Socialist sympathies in the 1930’s came at a price. However, Gehlen continued writing, and his writings were more and more coloured by cultural pessimism, and aggression towards the Left intellectuals of the German republic. The more Schelsky on the other hand, who had been Gehlen’s assistant in Leipzig, became an influential sociologist in post-war Germany, holding professorships in Hamburg, Münster and in the end in Bielefeld. Heidegren’s portrayals of Habermas, Honneth (professor of philosophy and head of the Institut für Sozialforschung in Frankfurt) and Joas (professor of sociology in Chicago since 2000) are brief. In particular, contextual information about the less well known (than Habermas) thinkers Honneth and Joas is lacking. These two have, through a long range of publications since 1980, significantly contributed to the formulation of a philosophical-anthropological program of critical theory as an alternative to the Habermasian one.


REGARDED AS A HISTORY OF THEORY, however, Antropology, samhällsteori och politik is a splendid book. Heidegren provides a clear and nuanced – yet also exiting – account of the ambitious projects of the book’s protagonists. The author starts with a description of Carl Schmitt’s (1888–1985) and Helmuth Plessner’s (1892–1985) reflections on the relations between anthropology and politics, which serves as a background to the presentation of Gehlen and Schelsky. Both Schmitt and Plessner are concerned with the fact that theories of the state and political ideas take a more or less explicit anthropology as their starting point. They, for their part, regard man as an exposed, incalculable being with a great willingness to take risks, hence seeing the “opposition of friend to enemy” as characteristic of political struggle (p. 24). Inspired by Schmitt’s ideas, Schelsky delivered his dissertation on Thomas Hobbes in 1939, its focus being the Hobbesian anthropology.  Hobbes’ view on human nature, argued Schelsky, is not primarily a pessimistic, but an activistic one – man is regarded as an acting being; there is “nothing eternal in the human being, no preconceived aim, but only the concrete action, through which she carries her life into the future” (p. 31). Schelsky, who is obviously sympathetically inclined towards the idea, refers to James and Dewey in this context. He is particularly inspired by Dewey’s Human Nature and Conduct (1922).

Heidegren then takes a fascinating detour, in which he draws a line to Pierre Bourdieu, who has said that his concept of habitus bears a “striking” resemblance to Dewey’s pragmatism (p. 35).  Starting from Donald Broady’s interpretation of Bourdieu’s anthropological presupposition; that man is a being who exchanges and battles, and one whose freedom is limited (p. 35), Heidegren thinks he sees affinities between Schelsky’s German view of Hobbes, American pragmatism and Bourdieu’s praxiology. Since it falls outside of the main horizon of the book, this hypothesis is not thoroughly defended. One may hope that others should feel called to do so.


AS OPPOSED TO JAMES AND DEWEY, Schelsky did not connect the activist view of human nature to a defence of democracy. While he emphasises the importance of democratic consent to government in his Hobbes dissertation, the citizens’ consent is not to be under the rule of “private expression of will”; their consent to a government and a state is at the same time a consent to “rule of consciousness” (p. 41), writes Schelsky. Political agreement is not gained through free formation of opinion, but rather through state propaganda. Thus the foundational ideas of radical-conservatism are sketched: an activist view of man in combination with a rejection of liberalism and parliamentary democracy, and an emphasis on the state and the nation.

These ideas are more thoroughly outlined by Gehlen, above all in his pre-war major work, Der Mensch. Seine Natur und seine Stellung in der Welt (1940). Gehlen sets out to develop a philosophical anthropology, which is scientifically based; a philosophy of man integrating insights derived from sociology, psychology, biology, cultural history and linguistics. Anthropology of such a kind must have a foundational concept that is “psycho-physically neutral” – one that does not divide man into body and soul from the outset. Only the concept of action possesses such neutrality, thinks Gehlen. Man is basically an acting being, one, which needs to secure its own, continued existence by “interfering with its natural surroundings through action” (p. 52). This need to interfere is connected with the fact of man’s poor biological equipment – being a Mängelwesen with only a few instincts, open to the world, unspecialized and mouldable. These flaws, man’s biological lacks and its fundamental Weltoffenheit, must be compensated for, it is something forced upon us by our nature, writes Gehlen: We simply have to be creative beings. For this purpose, man has been endowed with language, thought and imagination. But communication, creativity and reflection are always the guides of action; consciousness is an action phase (p. 58) states Gehlen in passages where the influence of American pragmatists is apparent (his theory of socialization, for instance, strikingly resembles Mead’s theory of taking over roles).


GUIDANCE IS INSUFFICIENT, however, discipline is needed as well; self-discipline and institutional discipline: Institutions are needed to orient human beings, since nature fails to do so. And the fundamental human institutions, such as the family, division of labour, property, customs, laws, the state and religion, according to Gehlen, are based in a non-rational, ritualized form of action which assumes a character of obligation. This fact should not be taken to imply that institutions contain foundational aims of action. To the contrary: “The habitual form of action within these institutions has the effect of suspending the question of meaning. The one who poses the question of meaning is either confused or is consciously or unconsciously expressing a need for other institutions than the existing ones” (p. 68). Institutions are enriching and liberating; they instantiate a freedom of a higher kind – the collective one. Individual freedom can be a heavy burden, too heavy, thinks Gehlen: Individual freedom is exerts a pressure, which is inhumane. Hence human beings must let themselves “be consumed by the realities history has brought into being” (p. 68).

Thoughts like these contributed to Gehlen’s attraction towards National Socialism. He was obviously (like most National Socialists) deeply convinced that man was a norm-ruled being. He idealized homo sociologicus who allowed himself to be “consumed” by the institutions, and who only posed questions regarding his own norm-ruledness in confused moments. Gehlen hated the abstract man of philosophy, construed through “the uncommitted and inconsequential acrobacy of reason” (p. 81) as well as the homo oeconomicus of economy, who maximised self-interest rather than acting ritually without regard to his own needs. These passages give food for thought. While the example of Gehlen in no way demonstrates that the sociological presupposition of man as a social, normatively oriented being is in error, it shows this statement as being compatible with very different views as to which norms should be regulatory of sociality.


GEHLEN DID NOT REMAIN A NAZI after the war, although he kept his foundational beliefs. His main concern was the decay of the institutions; they became rational goal-implementing organizations, thus loosing their quality of “intra-mundane transcendence” (p. 79). Thus each individual is forced to take greater responsibility and into a state of reflectivity which is more or less permanent. According to Gehlen, two problems result from this development. Firstly, action is partially replaced by reflection of a kind, which is out of touch with reality, and secondly, this intensified reflection is not amenable to institutionalization.

Gehlen’s and Schelsky’s views on this issue, and many others, came apart (diverted) after the war. Schelsky described the state of permanent reflection as the form of consciousness par excellence of modern society – one that could and should be institutionalized, for instance as the publicity later described by Habermas. But the reflexive need was also about the need and demand for personal freedom; a private and protected space for the freedom of thought and of speech, stated Schelsky, as he became more liberal. Schelsky’s liberal turn gave birth to a sharp critique of the way in which sociology over-sociologized the issue of freedom. He prescribed a liberal “anti-sociology”, one which should “break the sociological circle in which the social is explained by means of the social” and insists “in the autonomy of the human being, on her ability and right to take up a position in the middle of society which simultaneously allows her a distance to society” (p. 130).

The right is question was one that had to be won through a fight, a fight for just laws amongst other things. The relation between law and justice; legal norms regarded as facts and their validity, is a theme which is later discussed by Habermas, first and foremost in Faktizität und Geltung (1992). A line can also be drawn from Schelsky to Habermas’ discussions on the technocratic state in the 1960’s, while he is also influenced by Gehlen, whose analysis of the rationalization of the institutions led him to raise the issue of how science, technique and the industries gives rise to a “dominion based on the force of things which is functional and impersonal” (p. 98).


THE WORKS OF HABERMAS can be subdivided into several distinct phases. Heidegren’s main concern is with the anthropological elements contained in his publications between the mid-1950’s and the end of the 70’s, that is, before the publication of Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns (1981). Gehlen’s sociology and philosophical-anthropological teachings are central to Habermas early anthropological reflections. Like Gehlen, Habermas worried about the spread of technocracy and instrumental reason. He agreed with Gehlen’s description of man as a language-being and reflective actor: Man is capable of participating in reflective action together with others and in communication. These qualities should be institutionalized and serve as a buffer against the force of the system, thought Habermas – herein lays the potential for human liberation. Thus he agreed with post-war Schelsky, and disagreed with Gehlen. Gehlen, for his part, prescribed a ritual form of action – freedom through entfremdung – a form of action, which although a part of the human repertoire, Habermas admitted, was particularly influential on an early stage in human development. Primitive, mimetic action of this kind cannot, or at least should not be part of a polemic directed towards modern forms of life. Furthermore, such an orientation in no way reflects human nature: We are not destined to remain in a state of alienation forever.

On the whole, Habermas was sceptical towards teachings on anthropological invariance that he thought resulted in a one-sided focus on what remains constant at the cost of disregarding that, which is subject to historical change. However, as Heidegren shows, Habermas’ first formulations of a critical theory also rest on a presupposition of constant anthropological features. In Erkenntniss und Interesse he claimed that man is a species with three knowledge guiding interests which were founded in the two fundamental preconditions for the reproduction and self-constitution of mankind; interaction as well as work, communicative rationality as well as aim-guided rationality. The claim is based on of Marx’ historical materialism and Weber’s concept of rationalization, reformulated as a theory of action. Hence the three knowledge-guiding interests were the technical interest (associated with the empirical and analytical sciences), the practical interest (associated with the historical and hermeneutical sciences) – but also the liberating interest; breaking down the “fences that hinders a possible satisfaction of needs” was in the interest of working and interacting man (p. 228). This part was given to the critical social sciences.

During Habermas’ linguistic turn in the 1970’s, the theory of quasi-transcendental knowledge-guiding interests, the anthropology of knowledge, was reformulated, becoming an anthropology of competence; a rational reconstruction of human abilities as quasi-transcendental rules – of our linguistic abilities, cognitive abilities, and role-competence. These anthropologically fundamental systems of rules, universal pragmatics, was combined with a theory of social evolution, being an “anthropological a priory attached to a socio-cultural form of existence” (p. 250), and hence to a theory of socialisation inspired primarily by Piaget’s theory of learning and Kohlberg’s stage-based model of moral development.


HEIDEGREN IS RIGHT in stating that the anthropological reflections become less explicit in Habermas’ works after his linguistic turn. After his turn, he focuses on the constitutive norms of linguistic communication: He claims that the structure of conversations contains measures for the formulation of a critical theory of society. Still, one may ask whether the anthropological concern is a constant element in Habermas’ works. Is not the view of man as “fragile” and “inter-subjective” a foundation upon which discourse-ethics rests?

Habermas’ most recent book, Die Zukunft der menschlichen Natur (2001), discusses the moral challenges posed by the developments in biotechnology. Its main thesis is that biotechnology enables one to interfere with human nature in ways which may change the self understanding which characterizes our species: Radical manipulation of our genetic material will make our self-conception as autonomous beings impossible to maintain. And this fact is a serious one, since this conception is intimately connected to our democratic form of life. Thus, a discussion of these reflections, containing conceptions of an ethics of species, on the basis of the topics of Antropologi, samhällsteori och politik could prove to be an interesting one.


HONNETH AND JOAS are thoroughly influenced by Habermas. The latter’s reformulation of historical materialism in terms of a theory of communication signifies “the beginning of a new era” in the history of critical theory (p. 290), as stated by Honneth in an adjoining passage. However, they take a critical stand as to Habermas’ reasons for a critical theory. In 1980, they published Soziale Handeln und menschliche Natur together, an attempt to formulate a philosophical anthropology, inspired by Gehlen and Mead among others. A certain distance to Habermas is already present in this work, but a more thorough critique is formulated later, for instance in Honneth’s Kritik der Macht (1985), where he attacks Habermas’ dualism of normatively regulated and non-normative fields of action, a “reified transmission of both types of action – communicative action and action as a rational mean to an end – to concrete spheres of societal reproduction” (p. 291).  Inspired by Gehlen and Schelsky, Habermas describes the economy and the state as being expanding and norm-less organizations of action. Habermas locates the counter-weight to this system-expansion in the life-sphere; in the rationalization of communicatively integrated spheres of action free from power. Thus, states Honneth, power is rendered in terms of system theory rather than action theory, which makes descriptions of social interaction as a “battle between societal groups as the form of organization of action as means to an end” impossible (p. 292).

Habermas’ distinction between system and life-world is also criticized by Joas during the 1980’s, because it does not allow one to describe social order by employing theories of collective action. Furthermore, he finds that Habermas’ concept of action is too narrow; the dichotomy of communicative action versus action as means to an end fails to render justice to the phenomenological diversity of actions. In his answer, Habermas emphasises the difference between a theory of action, which is formal-pragmatic, and a sociological or phenomenological one. Rather than denouncing Honneth’s and Joas’ theories of action, he thinks they fail to provide a fitting critique of his own works.


HONNETH AND JOAS belong to the tradition of social philosophy from Rousseau, Hegel and Marx. Taking this tradition and the works of Gehlen as their starting point, they attempt to formulate a weak, or formal, anthropology, one that “does not privilege a certain form of life as being the only normal form, but one that is still capable of singling out certain existing forms of life as being pathological, based on ideas of the good life derived from anthropology” (p. 298). The programme in question, critical theory conceived as a critique of social pathologies with a basis in anthropology, is presented as an alternative to “Left-Rawlsianism” as well as to deconstruction; “a negativist social critique” (p. 299). Honneth and Joas are also influenced by American pragmatism, in particular by Mead’s theory of socialization and Dewey’s concept of creative democracy. Furthermore, they refer to more recent French thinkers such as Merleau-Ponty, Castoriadis and their body-based anthropology, but also to Derrida, for instance in Honneth’s very interesting article written in 1994, “Das Andere der Gerechtigkeit. Habermas und die etische Herausforderung der Postmoderne”. 

 Honneth’s second major work (in addition to Kritik der Macht), Kampf um Anerkennung. Zur moralschen Grammatikk sozialer Konflikte, was published two years earlier, in 1992. In this book, Hegel’s account of the dialectics of customs and Mead’s theory of taking over roles are synthesized into a theory of morally motivated conflict and battle, driven by people’s experiences of “being denied the social recognition to which they have a rightful claim” (p. 305). It is a battle for individual self-realization – and different forms of recognition are required in order to reach this aim. Honneth is concerned with three kinds of recognition: We need love to secure our faith in ourselves, rights to secure our self-respect, and solidarity or social esteem. And our expectations of love, rights and solidarity are anchored in our anthropological equipment. Where these expectations are violated, we are motivated to fight for recognition, although social movements are required to channel this motivation into real fights. 


JOAS’ MAIN WORK, Die Kreativität des Handelns (1996) also focuses on collective action and aims to formulate a formal conception of the good life, a formal concept of custom, as a position in between a Kantian moral theory and a communitarian ethics. He starts from an anthropological concept of creative action containing a non-teleological intentionality. Our aims are not decided before we act, rather they are shaped and reshaped in the course of our action by our bodily habits and dispositions, which, however, can be made subject to reflection (p. 335). This action creates social order when social movements transform it into collective action. The normative kernel of this theory of societal constitution through creative action is the idea of deciding for oneself; the actor is enabled to see the social order as his or her own work. Joas sees it as containing a democratic impulse, so to say; it prescribes a rudimentary democracy “in a rudimentary form” (p. 343). The value of democracy in a wide sense as a “way of living together” – as “togetherness, solidarity, fraternity and love of one’s neighbour” is described as being anchored in universal anthropological structures of action and communication (p. 345).


HEIDEGREN TAKES A FEW DETOURS during the course of his tale of the five selected theorists. In addition to reflections on the relations between the five thinkers and American pragmatism, French thinking, classical philosophy and sociology, he presents “Exkurs: Apel om Gehlen” (“Excursion: Apel on Gehlen”) and “Mellanspel: Adorno och Gehlen i diskussion” (“Intermezzo: Adorno and Gehlen in a discussion”), the latter referring to debate between the two on the radio in 1965 on the question “Is sociology a science of man?” (p. 177). The long passage where the author analyses the affinities between Gehlen’s institutionalism and Luhmann’s system-theory is also very enlightening.

The problem with Antropologi, samhällsteori och politik is rarely what the book says, but frequently what it does not say. I have already mentioned the scarcity of information on the social environments of the five theorists. It poses a problem also because Heidegren himself in his closing chapter emphasises the importance of the “influence of experiences, basic orientations and attitudes towards life, in brief, stories of motivation, on theoretical work” (p. 359). He claims that such stories of motivation are particularly related to experiences that characterize specific generations. For instance, the focus of Habermas’ works can be seen in the light of his experiences with Nazism, and the theories of Honneth and Joas are rooted in the politization of the 1960’s (p. 358). His reflections on this point remain superficial, however – he does not really investigate his interesting generation-hypothesis further.

Contrary to the impression conveyed through Heidegren’s book, Honneth and Joas do not really represent the youngest generation of German critical theorists. The author describes their Hegelian turn – replacing the Kantian orientation of Habermas and his generation – as if it was the most recent development. (But their work is equally influenced by Habermas’ up to Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns.) However, the Kantian influence is more apparent in the works of the generation of German critical theorists who were born in the 1960’s. They are also to a larger degree influenced by Habermas’ later works, (above all by Faktizität und Geltung), something which can be seen in the influential Kontexte der Gerechtigkeit (1994) by Rainer Forst. One may also ask why Heidegren finishes by reflections on the generation-theme, where a comparison between the theories would have been more natural ending. The fact that Antropologi, samhällsteori och politik lacks such a finishing chapter must be regarded as a weakness with this book.


THE CENTRAL UNDERLYING THEME of Heidegren’s book; the relation between anthropology and normative theory, should have been discussed in such a closing chapter.  Can philosophical anthropology provide the evidence for the normative standards of social critique? How are our conceptions of man related to our normative judgments? Does normative theory really require an anthropological foundation? If it does, how extensive should this foundation be? These questions are worth posing because:

  1. Philosophical anthropological theories are built on fallible, and frequently controversial, empirical theories taken from various scientific disciplines. For instance, Honneth and Joas both draw on object relations theory, a controversial social psychological theory. Habermas’ rational reconstruction of people’s competences was partially based on Kohlberg’s theory of moral development – another controversial theory. Philosophical anthropology is no less changeable and no more certain than the empirical theories on which it builds. Should not the normative measures of critical theory be built on a more solid foundation?
  2. Drawing conclusions concerning normative measures on the basis of anthropological descriptions – going from is to ought – can be said to represent a naturalistic fallacy: The argument moves from the fact that man is an acting being to prescriptions to act in specific democratic ways (Joas), and from the fact that modern men expect to be recognized in certain ways to a statement to the effect that these expectations are legitimate (Honneth).
  3. One may also ask whether a purely formal ethical conception of the good can be derived from philosophical anthropology, as Honneth claims. It seems more reasonable to regard Honneth’s and Joas’ conception of democratic custom as being a substantive ethical idea: One which is a reflection of a controversial idea of human self-realization. Can such an idea be made the foundational normative standard of modern, pluralist societies? Given the fact of pluralism, are we not rather faced with the challenge of, as expressed by John Rawls in Political Liberalism (1993), establishing an overlapping political consensus which citizens having differing “thick” sets of ethical and anthropological world views, “comprehensive doctrines” will be able to assent to? 








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