The Science of Man - Humanistic Ethics: The Applied Science of the Art of Living

Man for Himself: An Inquiry Into the Psychology of Ethics - Erich Fromm 2013

The Science of Man
Humanistic Ethics: The Applied Science of the Art of Living

The concept of a science of man rests upon the premise that its object, man, exists and that there is a human nature characteristic of the human species. On this issue the history of thought exhibits its special ironies and contradictions.

Authoritarian thinkers have conveniently assumed the existence of a human nature, which they believe was fixed and unchangeable. This assumption served to prove that their ethical systems and social institutions were necessary and unchangeable, being built upon the alleged nature of man. However, what they considered to be man’s nature was a reflection of their norms—and interests—and not the result of objective inquiry. It was therefore understandable that progressives should welcome the findings of anthropology and psychology which, in contrast, seemed to establish the infinite malleability of human nature. For malleability meant that norms and institutions—the assumed cause of man’s nature rather than the effect—could be malleable too. But in opposing the erroneous assumption that certain historical cultural patterns are the expression of a fixed and eternal human nature, the adherents of the theory of the infinite malleability of human nature arrived at an equally untenable position. First of all, the concept of the infinite malleability of human nature easily leads to conclusions which are as unsatisfactory as the concept of a fixed and unchangeable human nature. If man were infinitely malleable then, indeed, norms and institutions unfavorable to human welfare would have a chance to mold man forever into their patterns without the possibility that intrinsic forces in man’s nature would be mobilized and tend to change these patterns. Man would be only the puppet of social arrangements and not—as he has proved to be in history—an agent whose intrinsic properties react strenuously against the powerful pressure of unfavorable social and cultural patterns. In fact, if man were nothing but the reflex of culture patterns no social order could be criticized or judged from the standpoint of man’s welfare since there would be no concept of “man.”

As important as the political and moral repercussions of the malleability theory are its theoretical implications. If we assumed that there is no human nature (unless as defined in terms of basic physiological needs), the only possible psychology would be a radical behaviorism content with describing an infinite number of behavior patterns or one that measures quantitative aspects of human conduct. Psychology and anthropology could do nothing but describe the various ways in which social institutions and cultural patterns mold man and, since the special manifestations of man would be nothing but the stamp which social patterns have put on him, there could be only one science of man, comparative sociology. If, however, psychology and anthropology are to make valid propositions about the laws governing human behavior, they must start out with the premise that something, say X, is reacting to environmental influences in ascertainable ways that follow from its properties. Human nature is not fixed, and culture thus is not to be explained as the result of fixed human instincts; nor is culture a fixed factor to which human nature adapts itself passively and completely. It is true that man can adapt himself even to unsatisfactory conditions, but in this process of adaptation he develops definite mental and emotional reactions which follow from the specific properties of his own nature.

Man can adapt himself to slavery, but he reacts to it by lowering his intellectual and moral qualities; he can adapt himself to a culture permeated by mutual distrust and hostility, but he reacts to this adaptation by becoming weak and sterile. Man can adapt himself to cultural conditions which demand the repression of sexual strivings, but in achieving this adaptation he develops, as Freud has shown, neurotic symptoms. He can adapt himself to almost any culture pattern, but in so far as these are contradictory to his nature he develops mental and emotional disturbances which force him eventually to change these conditions since he cannot change his nature.

Man is not a blank sheet of paper on which culture can write its text; he is an entity charged with energy and structured in specific ways, which, while adapting itself, reacts in specific and ascertainable ways to external conditions. If man had adapted himself to external conditions autoplastically, by changing his own nature, like an animal, and were fit to live under only one set of conditions to which he developed a special adaptation, he would have reached the blind alley of specialization which is the fate of every animal species, thus precluding history. If, on the other hand, man could adapt himself to all conditions without fighting those which are against his nature, he would have had no history either. Human evolution is rooted in man’s adaptability and in certain indestructible qualities of his nature which compel him never to cease his search for conditions better adjusted to his intrinsic needs.

The subject of the science of man is human nature. But this science does not start out with a full and adequate picture of what human nature is; a satisfactory definition of its subject matter is its aim, not its premise. Its method is to observe the reactions of man to various individual and social conditions and from observation of these reactions to make inferences about man’s nature. History and anthropology study the reactions of man to cultural and social conditions different from our own; social psychology studies his reactions to various social settings within our own culture. Child psychology studies the reactions of the growing child to various situations; psychopathology tries to arrive at conclusions about human nature by studying its distortions under pathogenic conditions. Human nature can never be observed as such, but only in its specific manifestations in specific situations. It is a theoretical construction which can be inferred from empirical study of the behavior of man. In this respect, the science of man in constructing a “model of human nature” is no different from other sciences which operate with concepts of entities based on, or controlled by, inferences from observed data and not directly observable themselves.

Despite the wealth of data offered by anthropology and psychology, we have only a tentative picture of human nature. For an empirical and objective statement of what constitutes “human nature,” we can still learn from Shylock if we understand his words about Jews and Christians in the wider sense as representatives of all humanity.

“I am a Jew! Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”