7/10/2015—In a really depressing demonstration of how trivial the concerns of our time have become, Mark Greif—a teacher at the New School, co-founder of n+1, and the author of Against Exercise, a supposedly important essay in 2005 (actually just a goof)—has written The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973. Grief’s thesis is that writers during this period—for example, Niebuhr, Mumsford, Sartre, Arendt, etc—asked, in light of the Holocaust and Hiroshima and the bomb, about the nature of man and that this discourse now appears “tedious” and “unhelpful.” “For a variety of reasons, we are more likely to identify (and, as we like to say, to celebrate) the differences among human beings than to corral them into some hortatory category like ‘universal man.’” (quotes selected by Christopher Bentley in the New York Review).
So, the theme of universal man is unmasked as colonialism and sexism and we now include people of color, women, gays etc. (I won’t ask who this “we” is if no conglomerations are possible. Or, is it now groups we are supposed to ask after?)
And what are we supposed to ask now? Not any attempt “to reopen a fundamental philosophical anthropology” but “Answer, rather, the practical matters, concrete questions of value not requiring ‘who we are’ distinct from what we say and do and find the immediate actions necessary to achieve an aim.”
So now we are utilitarian and it does not occur to Greif that he has asserted, unquestioningly, that man is the sort of being who lives to achieve an aim. But is man the kind of being who lives to achieve an aim? Or is man becoming the kind of being for whom all aims now seem pointless?
It turns out that it is not the question what is man? that is unhelpful, but prematurely arriving at an answer. For Grief’s warning is against “preprogrammed” answers to any such questioning. Grief just does not believe anyone can ask the question of man and keep the question open. I guess Grief does not know Heidegger.
I am willing to assert that the question of man, properly framed to move away from anthropology to ontology, is the only question worth asking, for it leads to all other questions. The question is not what is man but who is man and it certainly can open by asking Who am I? Without this fundamental questioning, all other investigations, such as how to stop global warming, are boring. I cannot ask about the world if I have never asked about the human being’s responsibility for the world. And that fundamental question of responsibility is not aided very much by dividing it up into the woman’s responsibility for the world, the gay person’s responsibility, the responsibility of people of color, that of rich white people and so forth. Looking at matters in this latter way is comical as a starting point, however important such political/economic questions can become as the discourse unfolds.