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The Second Aporia: What is Man? (The Abyss) II

When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and stars that you set in place —
What is man that you are mindful of them,
mere mortals that you care for them?

Psalm 8: 4-5

Factus eram ipse mihi magna quaestio

I had become to myself a huge question


Kant: A Question to Himself

It was Immanuel Kant who first with earnest seriousness systematically framed the question of man. In the introduction to philosophy he wrote for his students called Logic, Kant lays the foundation of what he saw was the new field and horizon of philosophy and philosophizing during his time. He presents us with a guide or a map so as to navigate what used to be a very confusing landscape and a rocky terrain against which and in which philosophers had to ask their fundamental questions.

He says:

The field of philosophy in this cosmopolitan meaning may be summed up in the following questions:

1) What can I know?—
2) What ought I to do?
3) What may I hope?
What is man?

The system-builder that he is, Kant lays before us the crucial questions and essential fields wherein answers to those questions may be investigated. The first question—“What can I know?”—sets the epistemological method in play: all four questions are questions which seek clear and distinct ideas or concepts that are accessible to man. Man is the knower and the one who seeks for knowledge; and what Kant does here is to reduce all possible knowledge into the certitude of the knower or the transcendental ego. Outside of this certitude, or better, beyond the limits of reason, nothing can be or at least be certain. It has always been said that it was Descartes who was too much of a skeptic. Yet Kant not only continues what Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, inaugurated with his famous doubt; Kant tries to answer Descartes by asking the right questions and by the use of his transcendental method. Kant's philosophy itself, as seen in the three Critiques, was nothing other than the investigation of the very conditions of the possibility of all knowledge: “How can I know, act and hope?”

In line with this, Kant continues that the task of the philosopher is “to be able to determine 1) the sources of human knowledge, 2) the extent of the possible and advantageous use of all knowledge, and finally, 3) the limits of reason.”

He then points out the sources of human knowledge:

The first question is answered by metaphysics, the second by morality, the third by religion, and the fourth by anthropology.

Metaphysics, which is the study of the structures of reality or all that is—beings and Being—answers the first question; ethics, which asks how one should live in a world where there are others who also take the initiative to live, answers the second; religion, which provides the content of faith or of the “I believe,” answers the third. The first three questions and the three fields which answer them form the structure and core of the three Critiques: the Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason and Critique of Judgment. By critique (kritik), Kant investigates the limits of reason, moral action and belief so as to not only show man’s own limits but also to reveal man’s possibilities. The critique of limits can be likened to what a sculptor does to a statue: the bounds of the sculpture give the very form and shape of what the sculpture will become.

But Kant gives special mention to the fourth question, the question which he says is answered by anthropology. He says:

At bottom all this could be reckoned to be anthropology, because the first three questions are related to the last.

In that curious statement, Kant further reduces all possible knowledge to anthropology. This means that all possible knowledge is reducible to anthropology because of the obvious fact that all knowledge, whether about this or that, will always be knowledge for man. What is interesting is not how the different fields of knowledge are ipso facto human knowledge but more so how the first three questions themselves are “related” to the last. For what Kant seems to imply here is that the first three questions are either subsumed or parts of the question “What is man?” In other words, by answering “what I can know?”, “what ought I to do? and “what may I hope?” I can see a glimpse of what man is. And what do I see?

That I am a knower, that I am an actor and that I am a believer. It is true that my ability to know, act and hope is related, if not, they form a substantial part of what I am. However, it is also true that I am more than these; I am not merely what I in fact know, do or believe in. My knowledge, actions and faith do in fact reveal me as this or that man; but they do not de-limit me nor do they show my true possibilities. But as questions (still seeking answers), the ability to know, act and believe in principle show infinite possibilities for me that will always remain unfathomable and unknown. Man is never the answers he has come up with. He is his questions.

Yet this is precisely the ambiguity and difficulty, that as a question to himself and to the world, man does not know himself. Absurd thing man is: he asks and knows but he seldom asks and never knows what he is.

The fourth question: what is this being who knows and acts and believes?

Kant obviously knew this difficulty. That is the reason why after he mentions explicitly for the first time the question of man, unlike what he did in the first three questions where he tried to look into the conditions of the possibility of knowledge, moral action and belief in his three Critiques, Kant was dead silent about the fourth. It was as if he opens the question of man and leaves it. As Buber says:

But it is remarkable that Kant’s own anthropology, both what he himself published and his copious letters on man, which only appeared long after his death, absolutely fails to achieve what he demands of a philosophical anthropology. In its express purpose as well as in its entire content it offers something different—an abundance of valuable observations for the knowledge of man, for example, on egoism, on honesty and lies, on fancy, on fortune-telling, on dreams, on mental diseases, on wit, and so on. But the question, what man is, is simply not raised….

The fourth question which was to be the crown of the first three was not even raised anymore or all the more answered by Kant. What could have prevented him from asking what that being is who knows, acts and hopes? Is it simply the difficulty of the task or the impossibility of thoroughly formulating the question?

What is man?: the ground-question (arche) on which all the other questions are grounded. At the same time, it is also the end-question (telos) to which all the other questions lead. As a ground-question, man has first to answer what he is so as to know what he can know. As an end-question, man has first to know what he can know to know what he is.

Man: the groundless ground upon which all knowledge hinges and the endless end he aspires to reach.


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