The reality of elusive man? –S.N.Balagangadhara

[Appeared in Nispen & Tiemersma (Eds.), The Quest of Man: The Topicality of Philosophical Anthropology. Assen: von Gorcum, pp. 112-116]

Speaking of ‘the greatest mystery of our humanness’, Sinari raises the following questions: “Why are we present in the world rather than not being there at all? Why are we present to ourselves as world-experiencers and world-explorers rather than being simply there as perhaps animals are” (p.1) In brief reply to his provocative paper, I would like to reflect on the nature of these queries and with the issue: what would count as an answer to these questions


Let me take a simple example to focus on the issue very quickly. Imagine a non-smoker objecting to others smoking in his presence. Let us say that we need an account of this objecting behavior: Why does he object if others smoke in his presence? Consider two kinds of accounts, an explanatory and an intelligible one, given in answer to the above question.

One could make the objecting response of the non-smoker intelligible by appealing to the (reasonable and justifiable) beliefs held by him: he believes that smoking is injurious to one’s health; that passive smoking is also a form of smoking; and that he does not desire to injure his health … etc[1]. We can understand his behavior as an intentional act. Why does this non-smoker object to others smoking in his presence? “Because”, so the intelligible account goes on, “he believes that …” The ellipsis would get filled-in by these above beliefs. It is important to note that his beliefs are connected to his actions by means of principle(s) of sound reasoning.

Because I merely want to illustrate the difference between the two kinds of accounts using the same example, let me introduce myself into this picture as a possessor of some piece of information. Let us suppose that I am his friend and that one day, in strict confidence (which I am, alas, breaking for the good of science), he informed me that he cannot stand the smell of smoke. He does not believe that the smell of the smoke is injurious to one’s health at all. Smirking smugly, I now tell you that the cause of his objecting behavior has nothing to do with his ‘beliefs’. “Because”, I say grinning from ear to ear, “he cannot stand the smell of smoke …” [2]

While more could be said about the issue than what I have said, it is neither central nor relevant for my concerns to do so. The only point is to see that we have two kinds of accounts, an explanatory account and an intelligible one, each of which appears to focus on different questions. Consider now one possible answer to Prof. Sinari’s questions. We are present in the world rather not being there at all because we have evolved from certain kind of animal; and that our self-consciousness is an emergent property of a sufficiently complex system; and the like. Would an evolutionary explanation which appeals to causes constitute a satisfactory answer? Even though one may be willing countenance it as a part of an answer, to construe it as the complete answer is to succumb to reductionist temptations—if I understand Prof. Sinari correctly. In other words, we need to give reasons as well in answering the query: why are we there the way we are instead of being there in another way? It is not just our humanness that must be made intelligible, but also the causal explanation that springs from it. That is, one must not only “be aware of the world as a train of meanings” (p.7), realize that the “thereness … of the world … springs … from the subjectivity of the perceiver” (ibid.), but also needs to account for the raison d’etre and ultimate validity of scientific explanations” (p.19). What would constitute a satisfactory answer to Prof. Sinari’s questions? An account which not only appeals to causes but also makes the latter intelligible. Causes alone are not enough, we need reasons as well. That is to say, we need an explanatory and intelligible account of why we are there in the world rather than not being there at all.

Having established this much, I shall now reverse my argument. I shall argue that the desiderata as an answer is not so much that it is explanatorily intelligible but that one can ask these questions only because of the presence of such an account in the background. It is only within the framework of an explanatorily intelligible account of the world that we can raise such questions, and not otherwise. Its implications will tell us both about the topicality and the future of philosophical anthropology.


What would an explanatory intelligible account look like? Consider an account, which suggests or hints that some sets of actions are intelligible because they instantiate some set of beliefs. And that the relationship between ‘intending’ and ‘acting’ is not only constant but that nothing else interferes between the former and the latter to such an extent that they virtually become identical. To those from the outside who only observe the actions, knowledge of these actions is sufficient to draw inferences about the reasons for these actions. There is only one proviso attached. Because the observer’s knowledge of these actions is always framed in some description or the other, one can only read-off the purposes of the actions exhaustively if the descriptions of these actions are themselves exhaustive. That is to say, a complete and totally accurate description of the actions is required before we can be said to have a complete knowledge of the reasons for the actions. Such an account, when it is forthcoming, of such set of actions, if they are possible, of such a being, if it exists, together will give us an explanatory intelligible account of that being and its actions. The reason for calling it thus must be obvious: the causes of actions are also its reasons. Further, because each type of action instantiates one and only purpose, prediction becomes possible as well. The causal law will be general, predictive power is not reduced, and the causes are intentions of such a being.

Suppose that we now have a doctrine which says the following: such a being exists, such actions exist as well, but we could never provide a complete description of the actions of such a being. At best, we could have a very partial and fragmented description of such actions, but we cannot possibly observe all the actions of that being either. Further it adds that this being has communicated its purposes to us the understandability of this message is again restricted by descriptive possibilities open to us. In such a case, we have two sources of knowledge: some set of actions that we try to understand; and the message, which we try to make sense of. Let us further suppose that this being is ‘The Elusive Man’ referred to in the title of the paper and that his actions are the universe. His message is precisely the above doctrine. His Will holds the universe together and constitutes its ‘cement’. His reasons are also the causes such that ‘causal’ relations express his intentions.

If and when you have such an account, it makes sense to ask “Why are we present in the world rather than not being there at all? Why are we present to ourselves as world-experiencers and world-explorers rather than being simply there as perhaps animals are?” (p.1) and seek answers to these questions. By now, of course, you will have realized that I have provided you with an admittedly crude outline of ‘religion’. Not any religion, but the Biblical one.


This, then, is what I want to argue. Western culture, an appellation that suggests neither monolithicity nor absence of diversity, has been dominated by religion for more than 1800 years. Religion is not only an explanatory intelligible account of the cosmos, but also the only we know of. It is important to realize that religion makes the cosmos an explanatory intelligible entity, not by providing an account of several set of phenomena, but by saying that it is so and structuring the experience accordingly [3]. Only because the world is asserted to exemplify the reasons and purposes of God, could one ask for the reasons and purposes for the way things are: Why this way and not another way? As time progressed, this framework faded into the background; but what have not faded are the questioned raised within it. They continue to haunt us to this day. I just said that questions raised within the framework of the Biblical religion continue to haunt us. Who is this ‘us’ anyhow?

Unless one assumes the truth of the Bible that God gave one religion to mankind, something I certainly cannot subscribe to, we are faced with the following empirical diversity: there exist other cultures and groups to whom the universe does not exemplify either a plan or a purpose (or even a set of them) of a divine, semi-divine or even a primeval being. No Will governs the universe; all that was, is, and shall be does not embody anyone’s Will. How, then, can the questions of the philosophical anthropology—the Quest for Man, nota bene—be those that can only be raised within the framework of the Bible? How can the secularized questions of a religion turn out to be the questions of humankind and in answering them ‘the Quest for Man’? They cannot; unless one presupposes the truth of the Bible and, as said already, I do not subscribe to it. These are merely the questions about human beings raised by a culture—they are neither universal nor do they tell us much about mankind.

I beg, therefore, to submit to you that the future of philosophical anthropology does not lie in giving an Asian, African or an American-Indian answer to the western (religious) questions about man. Rather, the quest for man involves, in the first place, raising Asian, African, and American-Indian questions about ‘man’. To do so, I suggest, is what makes philosophical anthropology ‘topical’. In my modest opinion, the future of philosophical anthropology does not lie in its past; the questions we have come across are those that belong to the past of a culture. Not merely are they questions from a past (human history does contain multiple pasts, of course) but they are also, by virtue of this, well and truly past. This is the challenge of the future. Whether intellectuals from other cultures and groups are up to this task, however, is a totally different issue.


  1. The ‘etcetera’ clause requires further filling out before we could consider it an account of the objecting behavior
  2. Of course, I need some kind of (contingent) causal law governing human behavior before I could be said to have a causal explanation.
  3. I cannot argue for it here in any detail but have done so in Comparative Science of Cultures and the Universality of Religion. Gent: Centrum voor Godsdienstwetenschappen RUG, Gent 1991 or check his “The Heathen in his blindness: Asia, the West and the dynamic of religion”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *