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P.M.S. Hacker, Human Nature: The Categorial Framework.

Hoboken:
Wiley-Blackwell, 2007 (hardback), 2010 (paperback), 326 pp. ISBN
1405147288
Reviewed by Jesús Mosterín (Instituto de Filosofía, Consejo Superior
de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid)

1. Introduction

Peter Hacker is a leading authority on the philosophy of Wittgenstein and a good


expert on Aristotle. This allows him to present in Human Nature: The Categorial
Framework a careful, attractive, and reasonable analysis of several key Aristotelian
ontological notions freed of the dead ballast accumulated in two millennia of tra-
dition and of the conceptual muddles of much of modern European thought. This
book is the contrary of an improvisation; it is the mature result of a whole life of re-
flection. In the preface the author writes: At “the end of my academic career, I felt a
powerful urge to paint a last large fresco that would depict, sometimes with broad
brush, sometimes in fine detail, themes which I had studied and reflected on for
the last forty years” (xi). He adds that this book is only the first volume of a trilogy,
to be followed by a second on “the cognitive and cogitative powers” and a third
on “the affective and moral powers” of human beings. Taken together, these three
books will indeed offer a large fresco of human nature as understood by Hacker.

2. Philosophical anthropology

The author describes his endeavor as an exercise in philosophical anthropology.


One would expect any type of anthropology (whether philosophical or otherwise)
to deal with human beings or eventually human nature. Of course, any philosophi-
cal enterprise should pay special attention to the clarity and coherence of the words
and notions used, but that does not preclude paying attention to the facts them-
selves. Hacker points out that “the study of the nature of things, in one sense, be-
longs to the empirical sciences” (7). But then, he excludes scientific facts and results
from the purview of his inquiry. Perhaps that should not surprise us, given the long-
standing feud of the author against the influence of neuroscience on philosophy.

Pragmatics & Cognition 19:1 (2011), 125–132.  doi 10.1075/pc.19.1.06mos


issn 0929–0907 / e-issn 1569–9943 © John Benjamins Publishing Company
126 Book reviews

Hacker defines philosophical anthropology as “the investigation of the con-


cepts and forms of explanation characteristic of the study of man” (4). Our interest
should not be directed at man or human nature, but at the grammar (in the Witt-
gensteinian sense of rules of use) of certain terms like ‘substance’, ‘agency’, or
‘mind’: “The investigations are purely conceptual. They explore the concepts and
conceptual forms we employ in our thought and talk about ourselves, and exam-
ine the logico-grammatical relationship between these concepts and conceptual
forms” (7). One could easily think that this book does not deal with anthropology
(however philosophical) but with something like meta-anthropology.
The flight from science does not lead to metaphysics, as Hacker rejects the
quest for a supposed essential nature of things. “There is no such thing as meta-
physics thus conceived and no such subject matter for philosophy to investigate”
(7). The alleged essential connections are merely grammatical byproducts, rules
for using words. “What appear here to be descriptions of de re necessities are actu-
ally norms of representation. That is, they are not descriptions of how things are,
but implicit prescriptions (rules) for describing how things are” (8).
Hacker repeats several times that philosophy does not have to compete with
empirical science. But not competing does not imply ignoring or not taking into
account. When I go to Paris, I make use of a map of the city for my convenience,
not because I intend to compete with French cartography. The insistence in not
competing with empirical science leads to the reduction of the scope and depth of
our philosophical anthropology. Aristotle was always attentive to the very limited
science of his time as well as to his own empirical observations. Sometimes he ar-
rived to outright wrong opinions, like that the brain is a blood refrigerator or that
men have more teeth than women. In a book so deeply inspired by Aristotle and
having human nature as its subject, one would expect some however cursory treat-
ment of these issues, but we get none.
Hacker’s conception of philosophical anthropology can be taken as some sort
of intellectual sport, like walking or running with only one leg: let us see how far
we can come with only one leg. Let us see how far we can come in the study of
human nature with only the grammar of certain expression like substance, agency,
or person. Not far.

3. Whose conceptual scheme?

Hacker tries to locate “the forms of description of human nature in the general
conceptual scheme in terms of which we describe all else” (4) and to offer “a per-
spicuous representation of the most fundamental concepts and conceptual forms
in terms of which we think about ourselves” (xi). And he repeatedly refers to “our”
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conceptual scheme, without making explicit who “we” are or whose conceptu-
al scheme is “ours”. As he points out, he is not engaging in mere lexicography.
Anyway, his pet categories do not play a large role in the ordinary language of
ordinary people. The people I know do not talk of themselves or their friends as
substances. They say: There comes a guy, a man, a woman, a fellow, even a person
(in the sense of man or woman), but not: there comes a substance. Hacker writes
that the two alleged senses of ‘substance’ (thing and stuff) “are systematically re-
lated” (42). But there seems to be no reason to use the same term for both senses
other than the historical equivocation of Aristotle with ousia (both prote and deu-
tera). Something similar happens with tiempo (weather / time) in Spanish or Farbe
(paint / color) in German. “With respect to any substance, we can typically distin-
guish between properties that are essential for the thing to be the kind of thing it is
and properties that are inessential…” (33). But a particular thing is many kinds of
thing, not only one. I am a man, a human being, a primate and many other things.
To suppose that I am only one kind of thing is an Aristotelian-scholastic prejudice
that need not be blamed on “our” conceptual scheme.
The choice of categories is somehow arbitrary. People are talking all the time
about men and women, about male or female features and behaviors, but these
notions do not appear a single time in this book of anthropology. By contrast,
more than 100 pages are devoted to the categories of ‘causation’, ‘power’, and ‘agen-
cy’, terms of art barely used outside academic circles. I have never seen a normal
speaker pronouncing the word ‘agency’; I have read it several times (especially
since reading Hacker’s book), but I have never actually heard it. Still, Hacker con-
siders ‘agency’ one of the main components of “our” conceptual framework. He
does not mention the human genome or the male/female dichotomy, but can spare
30 pages for a thoroughgoing treatment of agency.
There is a group of academics talking to each other about minds, persons,
moral communities and other unusual notions heavily loaded with technical but
unclear residues of past ideologies. Few authors use these notions in such a careful,
well informed, and intelligent way as Hacker; few display such a high dose of com-
mon sense as he does; and few are so successful in avoiding the pitfalls involved.
Still, there is a danger that “our” conceptual scheme is just a private conceptual
scheme, something akin to a private language.

4. Human beings as animals

Hacker’s account of human beings is basically Aristotelian. Human beings are


characterized as animals with a distinctive range of abilities. “Animals, like inani-
mate objects, are spatio-temporal continuants” (1). They are substances or things,
128 Book reviews

and in particular living things, i.e., they perform the vital functions character-
istic of life, the so-called vegetative functions of metabolism (or nutrition) and
reproduction. Living things have been characterized in our century as the only
entities in the universe carrying in their interior a description of what they are,
written in DNA. Of course, we could not expect Aristotle to be aware of something
that would only be discovered two thousand years after his death. But Hacker,
writing a book on human nature in the 21st century, could have added some new
common features of life, from cellularity to DNA codification, to the ones high-
lighted by Aristotle so long ago.
Besides the vegetative features, animals are also endowed with peculiarly ani-
mal powers, like perception, wish, and self-movement. The human animal shares
capabilities of other animals like consciousness, but carries them to new heights,
as self-consciousness, by the intermediation of language. Many animals are con-
scious, but only man is self-conscious, because only man is a linguistic animal and
language is needed for self-consciousness. “The human organism — the individual
animal of the species Homo sapiens — is the human being” (277).
What distinguishes the human animal from other animal species is the typi-
cally human repertoire of language-mediated abilities of intellect and will. The
former category includes thought, imagination, memory, reasoning and self-con-
sciousness; the latter includes the ability to act on the basis of reasons, and to
reflect on the desires, emotions and attitudes which generate our goals and pur-
poses. As a result, we are also subject to a variety of emotions of self-assessment
(guilt, shame, pride) which are foreclosed to animals lacking self-consciousness
and language.

5. Dualism and the mind

The word ‘mind’ is used in ordinary English as a verb for paying attention: mind
the step; mind your own business, mindful of the danger, etc. In many other lan-
guages, there is no even that modest function for the word. Hacker correctly points
to the absence of an equivalent of ‘mind’ in German. As a matter of fact, in most
languages there is no equivalent of ‘mind’, for example not in Chinese or in French,
or in Spanish. The Spanish substantive mente is mainly used as a technical term
in the translation of philosophy books originally written in English. ‘Mind’ seems
to be a rather idiosyncratic and confusing term of the English language. “But our
idioms are the flowers that the genius of English has naturally grown, and they
cover the terrain that we are trying to survey” (248).
The academic use of the word ‘mind’, like in “philosophy of mind”, comes from
a rather inglorious tradition of conceptual confusion going back to Descartes.
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Chapter 8, The Mind, of Hacker’s book is largely devoted to a brilliant, convincing


and devastating criticism of Descartes’s dualism and other untenable positions of
his philosophy. “Descartes treated living organisms as machines” (241). He did
never achieve any understanding of life in general or of animals in particular.
Descartes, unlike Aristotle, thought about the body as a physicist, rather than as
a biologist. […] Real self-movement, he thought, is to be found only in man and
is, as it were, a form of telekinesis — being the causation of the movements of the
body by the mind (269).
The Cartesian mind is an aberration. It was offered as a more correct represen-
tation of human nature and the principles that guide explanations of human
thought, feeling and action than the Aristotelian conceptions that it displaced.
In fact, it is not. And it has foisted on us a wholly inadequate framework for the
representation of human nature (247).

Hacker not only exposes the aberration of Descartes’ anti-biological philosophy of


mind, but also shows the inconsistencies of the Cartesian position and the infelic-
ity of its metaphors. Talk of a privileged access to my mind is nonsense.
Consciousness … is not more of a mystery than attention. […] It is at root a bio-
logical phenomenon, and corollary, of sentient life (243).
There is no such thing as my seeing that I see something […] I can no more look
into my own mind than I can look into another’s, and we often have more insight
into the mind of another than into our own. […] Introspection is not a form of
inner perception. […] [The authority of our own testimony] is not derived from
its describing observations of a private peepshow. One may register one’s feelings
in one’s diary — but one does not perceive one’s pain or passion (246–247).

6. Persons

According to Hacker, to be a person means being a subject of moral rights and


duties, a member of a moral community, standing in reciprocal relations to other
moral agents, and with a capacity to know and to do good and evil. “While ‘human
being’ is a biological category, ‘person’ is a moral, legal and social one” (4).
Does the notion of person play any useful role? It would be indispensable if
we accepted a variety of persons, both human and not human, like gods, demons,
and angels, but Hacker does not seem to believe in them: “So we are uniquely God-
creating, myth-generating creatures — making the gods in our image…” (238).
Perhaps ‘person’ could find a role in the future, if we ever establish contact with
alien civilizations somewhere else in the galaxy. For the time being, the only per-
sons we talk about are human beings.
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Human beings are the only persons we know or are ever likely to know. Our con-
cept of a person evolved above all as a concept applicable to human beings –social
beings who are also members of a moral community (310).
Although we know of no persons other than human beings, usage does not re-
strict the application of this categorical term to human beings alone. […] To be a
person is not to be a certain kind of animal, but rather to be an animal of one kind
or another with certain kinds of abilities (313).
Those thus afflicted [by deviations from the normal] are defective, perhaps ir-
reparably damaged, human beings (they may be in a permanent vegetative state,
but are not vegetables). They lack the normal abilities that human persons possess
… (316).

So, either we have to identify (at least extensionally) the notion of a person with
that of a human being or we have to restrict the persons to a subset of the humans:
the humans with full use of their “highest” functions, like thinking and speak-
ing. The last alternative would exclude from personhood at least people in veg-
etative or comatose state and old people with advanced dementia or Alzheimer’s
disease, what would have relevant applications in the discussion of euthanasia. The
same question in relation to embryos, fetuses, babies and not-yet speaking infants
would also have obvious bioethical implications in discussions of abortion or even
infanticide, but none of these are raised by Hacker.
Human nature is the nature of the species Homo sapiens. The nature of a spe-
cies encompasses not only what is peculiar and exclusive to the members of the
species, but also what is shared (even if not-exclusive) and in any case what is
anchored in its genome. In many species (like cryptic species, which look identical
but are genetically distinct), the peculiar features of the species are mere trivi-
alities, like a supplementary color spot on a wing or a delay of some days in the
estrous cycle. Hacker chooses to concentrate on the peculiar, “higher” features of
human nature that allegedly endow us with the dignity of personhood.
“With the triumph of Darwinism, the idea that biological species are deter-
mined by a common essence, as was supposed by Aristotelian scientific concep-
tions, was rejected. For the theory of evolution showed the untenability of the idea
of the fixity of species” (48). Since then, the main thrust of biological classification
is phylogenetic (for example, cladistic). Hacker seems to dislike this state of affairs,
and asserts that “morphological classifications are often called for […] There is
no uniquely correct […] classificatory scheme, and Plato’s distasteful metaphor
of carving nature at her joints is more apt at the butcher’s than on the agenda of
science” (48–49). In a way, Hacker is right. There are many ways of classifying
things, depending of the task at hand. It is useful to classify flowers by color if you
are preparing a decorative flower arrangement. You can even classify plants by the
first letter of their English names, if you are writing a dictionary. Even in biology,
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the methods of phenetics, taximetrics, or numerical taxonomy take only external


looks or morphological similarity into consideration, but their results are usually
considered to be merely tentative and heuristic, even if useful in cases where a
more desirable cladistic or phylogenetic classification is too difficult to achieve.
Pace Hacker, most taxonomists continue to aim at carving nature at her joints.

7. Anti-scientism

There is nothing in this book that outright contradicts well-established scientific


results; sometimes the author even alludes to them, like the fact that atoms can be
transformed into energy. Nevertheless, distrust and suspicion of science pops up
too often, and so does a bias against taking scientific results (about human nature)
into account. Hacker lamely claims that “philosophy is not the handmaiden of
science” (75), but neither is medicine or commerce, what does not prevent them
from making use of available information.
The author chooses just to ignore the knowledge about the human genome
that we have been acquiring in the last twenty years. There is no discussion of
the relation of human nature to human genome, which would be unthinkable in
a more open and ambitious (even if less pure) philosophical anthropology. The
terms ‘gene’, ‘genome’, and ‘human genome’ do not appear in the index or the text
of the book. He also chooses not to mention anything related to the origin and de-
velopment of human nature, not even its last episodes (bipedalism, precision grip
of the hand, growth of the brain, language) that seem to have separated us humans
from the other apes.
Against both science and reversionary metaphysics, Hacker defends the meta-
philosophical thesis that “the task of philosophy is not to generate novel concepts
and conceptual connections for use in the empirical sciences or for use in everyday
discourse. Rather, it is to clarify existing concepts and conceptual connections and
to discern the very general patterns they exhibit” (12).
Hacker, a sharp critic of neuroscience in philosophy, has an ax to grind. He
points out that the emotion of fear has to do with conscious evaluation of dangers
by a thinking subject, not with cerebral structures. But observations in 2010 have
made clear that fear is generated by (or in) the brain amygdalae; a woman without
amygdalae is unable to experience fear, whatever the information available about
dangers. Hacker criticizes the expression that the brain thinks. I also prefer to say
that I think, or that I digest, or that I grasp the fork, but there is no big deal in this
criticism. The difference between saying that I grasp the fork with my hand or
that my hand grasps the fork is mainly stylistic. One is astonished to read about
“powers that do not involve the use of any organ, such as the powers of thought
132 Book reviews

and understanding. One does not think or understand with or in one’s brain. […]
The brain neither thinks nor understands anything. It is the animal as a whole, the
human being as an organism that thinks and understands” (117). Of course, the
animal does everything it does, but it does different things with different organs.
And the brain is not less of an organ than the liver. According to Aristotle, the
self-moving elements (like water and air) are not alive, precisely because they lack
organs.
Whatever our admiration for Aristotle, we now know a lot more about hu-
man beings than he could possibly imagine. Why not put this newfound richness
to good use in the development of philosophy? Wittgenstein is a good guide for
avoiding the pitfalls that lurk in the path to self-knowledge, but attention to the
uses of words is compatible with interest in facts. Why wear grammatical blinkers
in philosophical anthropology?
This book is as good in its genre and under its self-imposed restrictions as it
could possibly be. And Hacker is right in most things that he says. The trouble is
with the things that he chooses not to say. If at the end we are not satisfied, the fault
lies with the underlying project, not with its execution. What we get is analytical
philosophy at its best, but even that much is not good enough to deal with human
nature in the age of the human genome project. Don’t worry about competing
with science and shed the shackles of mere grammar. Open the window to reality
and let the sun shine in!

Reviewer’s address
Jesús Mosterín
Instituto de Filosofía
Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas
c/ Albasanz, 26
28037 Madrid
Spain
jesus@mosterin.com

About the reviewer


Jesús Mosterín is Research Professor at the Philosophy Institute of the CSIC (The Spanish Re-
search Council), Professor at the University of Barcelona, Fellow of the Center for Philosophy
of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, Member of the Institut International de Philosophie,
etc. Author, among other books, of La Naturaleza Humana (Human Nature, 2006, 2008); Lo Me-
jor Posible: Racionalidad y Acción Humana (The Best Possible: Rationality and Human Action,
2008); and La cultura Humana (Human Culture, 2009).