On the possibility of a non-essentialist, pluralistic, comparative, philosophical and political anthropology, part 1

On Gyorgy Markus’ Language and Production and other competing models of human (inter)activity

Page numbers refer to: Márkus. G. Language and Production: A Critique of the Paradigms. Dordrecht-Boston, Reidel  (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science Vol. 96,1986.

Please see my earlier post on Markus if you have no idea who I am talking about: My favourite philosopher from Budapest.

I. Language and Production, a work lost in between

If a study was born under a bad sign, it’s Gyorgy Markus’ Language and Production (L&P from now on). Let’s highlight 6 different, although interconnected aspects of this sizeable, non-random unluck. The way to show this is to express the in-betweenness, the middle-ness, the seemingly intermediate characteristics of this philosophical study. The in-betweenness aspects are grouped into 3 domains: inner in-betweenness, disciplinary in-betweenness, contingent circumstances.

Inner in-betweenness 

It is lost in between language and production, inherently, by structure. The 2 main parts of L&P, the essay on language (39 pages), and the at least double sized essay on production (84 pages), were written 4 years apart, in 1975 and in 1979, respectively. The big innovative step of Markus was to put the 2 together into one volume under a new type of comparative questioning and investigation into human (inter)activities and this is discussed in the section II. The innovative freshness of L&P. This however is only explicitly stated in the 1985 Preface to the English edition and otherwise the readers see two very different investigations into two very different models of human (inter)activity at first. By using a comparative method, that is the strength of the approach, but by just comparing 2 competing paradigms in two separate essays, produced at separate times, readers might get lost in between the two. If one adds to it, there’s no balance at all between the depth of the treatment between the 2, and also that the language part consists of reflections on at least three different schools of thinking on language (Popper, Wittgensteins, Levi Strauss, Gadamer), while the production part has only a nested section, section 4., comparing Production and language-driven Communication to reflect mainly on Habermas, also on Baudrillard and, so thinkers within the Marxist tradition, in the broader sense,  and Apel for a counterbalance, then it’s even easier to be polarised by the handling of the two competing paradigms. The 2 Marxian appendices (on Critical Theory in Marx, and on The concept of Technology in Marx) (p127-163), and additional 36 pages, amounting to again the size on Part I on Language, then the initial disproportionality gets bigger, so execution of the work overshadows the originality of the approach. It’s easier to get lost in the forest of production, than in the savannah of language. The method of comparison is not well implemented.  

It is lost in between two intra-individual stages of the development of a significant philosopher. The author behind L&P is the early middle-aged Markus, one can argue as I try below to be at his prime, not the young Marxist and analytical philosopher talent anymore but not the old dialectical sage of the antimonies of culture. Within the literature it is now a well researched question to provide a developmental trajectory of Markus as a thinker, and L&P is the work that is stuck and being overshadowed by the earlier author of Marxism and Anthropology and the later author of the essay collected together in Culture, Science, Society [1]

Disciplinary in-betweenness

It is lost in between competing philosophical traditions. Markus majored in Marx and continental philosophy, but he was also almost solely responsible in kickstarting analytical philosophy in Hungary due to his translation of the Tractatus and writing on the problem of perception and other articles and building a school focusing on the philosophy of science amongst others. The comparative focus on two competing paradigms can also be thought of in part of Markus not just as directing his polemics against the linguistic turn in philosophy but also as a bridging attempt between these 2 professional philosophical schools ignoring each other. 

It is lost in between disciplines. The work was published in Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science and back in the seventies/early eighties there were big debates on the methodological foundations of the social sciences, cultural anthropology, sociology, political theory. But framed only as a methodological contribution to the social sciences and humanities, the philosophical originality of this work might be much harder to find. This is the characteristics of good philosophy that it can contribute to other disciplines with its deep methodological questions. And in our case, anthropological questions, the main point emphasised here, are discussed across many disciplines already [2].

Contingent Circumstances

It is lost in between in between different languages. This work was originally written in English (I don’t know about Hungarian drafts), translated to French by Jim Cohen & Christiane Legrand and published that way first in 1982. The English version followed in 1986. No Hungarian version has been published to this day. This is one condition that makes converging, cross-referencing reception hard.

It is lost in between different cultures and even in continents. European History did not treat Markus well and his political commitments deeply interconnected with his philosophical baggage forced him to leave the Hungary of the existing socialismus in the 70s. He landed in Sydney, Australia and worked at the rest of his life at the General Philosophy Department there. This re-planting worked out well for him in an intellectual respect, but it was not the best for the reception of L&P, in between. This was a big jump and accommodation takes time. 

As a result of these considerations above, L&P has been pretty much lost the overwhelming fraction of its potential receptive readers. Also there’s a simple purchasing issue as well, due to the exotic printing circumstances of the book (this unfortunately applies to other Markus books as well) there’s a significant entry free, over 100 GBP to be able to start study L&P.

The Cambridge University Library copy I’ve read arrived there in 1986 and listed only 2 names in the register, both of them spent some time with the book only in the 21st century.

This is not to say that L&P did not have careful readers but it seems it had only a handful commentators, see Appendix listing ~6 pieces from ~5 authors, but only 3 are separate writings dedicated exclusively to L&P, 2 in French, one in Hungarian.

With the following work I’d like to pull the book out from the in-between and show its significance and freshness. I’d like to retrace it. However with some reservations.

Two kinds of non-fiction book recommendations can be made: The dominant one sound usually like: ‘I read it and you must read it too’, but there’s a minority version that says: ‘I read it through, so you might not have to read it (again)’. This writing represents the second type of rarer recommendation. I am operating here under the perspective of hermeneutical benevolence but this text is hard and it has been born under a completely different cultural, political, every-cal climate. I find it difficult to imagine that studying it through will come handy for many contemporary philosophers. To me, it comes very handy for my own research project and provokes a lot of comment that will be published in another work.

But I believe if my reading below on the research program reconstruction/re-imagination behind L&P is worth something, than some readers will actually make the effort to get their hands on and a bit dirty with an existing rare copy of this 100% philosophical study.  

II A persistent problem within philosophical anthropology

1. The problem: How to catch essentialist anthropology?

In the modern European philosophical tradition, it was Kant who started philosophical anthropology explicitly and his famous 4th and final question was ‘What is a Human Being?’. Also he was the first who taught anthropology courses at a University [3][4].

The most foundational essentialist question to ask about humans is Kant’s question:

i., What is a human being?

A question like this provokes an essentialist answer, that provides essential characteristics, features of human beings, probably in the form of an essentialist definition providing the necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. So if one hears a question like this, one is lead to assume that there is such an essence hiding in the corner, waiting to be discovered or extracted out.

Here are some variants of this essentialist anthropological question within philosophy, some of them might look something else in disguise. 

ii., What’s the essence of human beings?

iii., What is human nature?

iv.,. What is humanity?

v.,. What is rationality?

vi., What is a species-being? (Marx)

vii., Some older texts also just ask: What is Man? (Arendt note)

These questions start an enquiry aiming to explicate a particular conception of human persons, but nevertheless a conception that can be articulated by unfolding the assumed essential properties of human persons.

Our conception, our image of ourselves as it is used in other disciplines might also be based on an essentialist approach [5].

2. Why essentialist anthropology might be problematic in a philosophical context?

If one worked out an essentialist definition of human beings for themselves as the starting point of their philosophical investigation, one might be tempted to put this definition to use when approaching other questions about eg. human action, human agency, human activities, human interactivity. However this use then might turn out to be more restricting and block open, relatively assumption-free questions related to those other concepts. If the essentialist definition was too broad, too general so only poorly essentialist and weak, then this problem might be minimised.

3. Why essentialist anthropology might be even more problematic in a political context?

Essentialist definitions might have the side effect of over-identification with the essential features listed within them on part of the people who hold them.

If one is using an essentialist definition of human beings in a political context, one might be tempted to use it in a restrictive way in a political conflict, threatening their opponents of not representing these essential characteristics well, excluding them in the extreme case.

Rationalists might have issues in providing human status for mentally challenged people for instance.

ToDo:Note on negative anthropology and anti-essentialist anthropology later.

III. The innovative freshness of L&P

1. The main innovation behind L&P: a roadmap to a new kind of politico-philosophical anthropology

In what follows 5 different but interconnected aspects are discussed showing the originality behind Markus’ approach in L&P. When writing L&P Markus already thought a lot about the question of a philosophical anthropology in the form of reconstructing Marx’s anthropological journey. There’s a lot of essence and species-being in that journey giving Marx’s anthropology an unmistakably essentialist overtone. (note on listening to Darwin but not understanding the non-essentialist, evolutionary characteristics of the biological species concept). So by the time of the 2 main L&P essays behind Markus was a deep understanding of the pitfalls and shortcomings of such an essentialist anthropological enquiry. These can give him impetus to start to ask a different question within the same domain of human activities, within the same domain of technical, technological and social. Markus was completely ready to ask the questions of a non-essentialist anthropology.

non-essentialist: One of the biggest innovations a philosopher can do is to change the type of questions asked when dealing with a particular and traditional domain of philosophical investigation. This is just what Markus managed to do in terms of philosophical anthropology, changing the type of question asked, sceptical about the explanatory power or relevance of a human essence, but not denying it or hiddenly assuming it, just leave the question wide open, but also retire it for a while. Instead Markus started to ask about models or paradigms of human (inter)activities. The Preface frames the question by saying:

‘They (the 2 essays) examine those fundamental and competing ways through which contemporary philosophical and social thought attempts to account for the situation of human individuals, for the possibilities and limits of human activity in the actual world of social life and intercourse’

The term ‘fundamental’ looks like it might come from an ‘essentialist’ vocabulary, but here it only refers to the fundamental (obvious) difference of the 2 main paradigms introduced in the next sentence, see next point.

Accounting for the situation of human individuals’: this phrasing is sort of leaving behind the essentialist questioning already to make space for the non-essentialist one, albeit a bit unambiguous as one could imagine an essentialist coloured question that is phrased like: What is the fundamental situation of human individuals? But the next part of the sentence makes it clear that the question is not the human essence, but ‘the possibilities and limits of human activity in the actual world of social life and intercourse’ and this is indeed a non-essentialist approach that contains the 2 main components, human activity and human intercourse that I pull together in the term ‘human (inter)activity’.

I’ve been briefly tempted to call this feature ‘nominalistic’, as in ‘nominalistic anthropology’, as I fancy affirmative features over ones starting with a negation, but that would have been misleading in some respects and confusing in others.

comparative: Markus’s approach draws its strength from being clearly a comparative one, putting next to each other the human (inter)activity paradigms of language and production. The next sentence of the Preface is delineates the method and scope of the enquiry:

‘Two such alternative schemas of comprehension dominate contemporary philosophical culture: the paradigm of language and the paradigm of production. To clarify their respective meaning, those basic premises which are shared in all the varieties of their formulation, to examine some of their consequences and – perhaps first of all – to indicate some of the difficulties they encounter, this is the main aim of the present volume.’

The method is going to be deeply comparative, comparing the range, descriptive and explanatory power of different competing models/paradigms of human (inter)activity and in a critical manner.

pluralistic: It is not suggested that these 2 exhaust the options for a top level model/paradigm human (inter)activity but only that they are the dominating ones. In fact there are at least 2 other paradigm candidates mentioned in the text ‘problem solving’ a la Popper es ‘social interaction’ a la Habermas, p85-100. So the space here is plural and this is the least dogmatic scenario that can be assumed. Perhaps a list of criteria can be extracted from the text that would restrict the scope of possible models. ‘Paradigm’ became an overloaded term already in the late 70s, but perhaps here it signifies model that meet those criteria. We shall get back to this question later.

philosophical: Human (inter)activity as the subject of a philosophical investigation can easily link back to more purely philosophical (metaphysical?)problems and conceptions of human agency, and intention and human action in general, also the problem of human intersubjectivity and rationality. When Markus discusses ‘unintended consequences of human actions’ (p7) and ‘unintendedness’ (p8) in the comparative context of objectivation of Popper’s objective and linguistically formulated knowledge and Marx’s related analysis there’s a conceptual opening linking to the analysis of intentional actions of human agents even if from a reverse mirror, but not by incidentally. 

This connection point to wider, philosophical problems is important for philosophical anthropology. Without the connection to more purely philosophical questions and concepts this type of non-essentialist anthropological questioning would have a harder way to claim itself as a genuine philosophical investigation.

All the 4 aspects mentioned so far can offer an opportunity for both the analytic and continental tradition, and the comparative methodology of investigation provides a common ground to frame questions and then come up with solutions. 

political: In Markus’s handling, the investigation turns partly but unambiguously political once it touches the paradigm of production. This comes from the reconstruction of the production paradigm in Marx’s works. The components of production there are not just abstract-analytic distinctions but critical, normative practical conceptualisations, leading to political commitments and suggestions, inherently. And there’s the relation to the questions of history too, which will not be discussed here, but at another point. Even when the linguistic theories are discussed, practicality (though not direct politicalness) is there in case of the late Wittgenstein, where acquiring language is a practical process. Markus talks about the ‘romantic anti-capitalism’ of Gadamer (the real target behind might have been Heidegger, mentioned directly, but Wittgenstein is referred to) but there it does not seem clear whether the language paradigm itself is the necessary source of the surfacing of the political.

The connection to Marx’s critical theory (theories as Appendix one introduce 4 such attempts) and to Critical Theory (and its representatives) gives L&P a political edge and this baggage will be discussed further later.

It is a separate and valid question, whether the so far discussed non-essentialist, pluralistic, comparative and philosophical aspects will also bring out the political load of the human (inter)activities researched trying to cover human social spheres? How can the political aspect be maintained if the chosen model of (inter)activity and tradition is not really political, or directly apolitical? Can the political be dissolved once more neutral paradigms are investigated? Depends on the philosophers too.

I believe maintaining the political questions in non-essentialist anthropology is an important point, without such an aspect this kind of anthropological questioning would cease to be as interesting and as comprehensive in terms of human (inter)activities and it would be hard to differentiate it from a more general question about the models of human action in general. Yet, for this kind of enquiry, non-essentialism seems essential and distinctive and political seems less essential as a component. 🙂

I have been tempted several times to just call this kind of anthropology politico-philosophical but then decided to keep them separate, and now we see the reason why.

2. Starter kit of questions for flexible and stimulative research program

Markus’ investigation concentrated on the 2 ‘dominating’ paradigms and left other models/paradigms unexposed but due to it’s pluralistic tuning it pre-made the space for them. Here is a starter kit of such questions that can be asked within this approach.

i., What is the model/paradigm (inter)activity proposed?

ii., What domain of human (inter)activity is it from?

iii., What is the reaction between ‘inter’ and ‘activity’ within the paradigm’

iv., Can the particular model activity cover other competing paradigms or intersect with them? What is its expressive range?

v., What other model activities are needed as complementers to answer a particular question? 

vi., How is objectification handled with(in) the proposed model?

vii., How can innovation be described with the proposed model activity?

viii., What can the proposed model (inter)activity say about the political?

ix., What can the proposed model (inter)activity say about the historical?


[1]. Janos Kis, in his two writings on the Markus trajectory characterises L&P as an intermediary product between the distinct, and significant early and late stages. ToDO

[2] I thank Jonathan Floyd for a useful exchange on the point of anthropology being a non-exclusive subject matter.

[3] ‘Kant taught on anthropology every winter semester from 1772/73 up until 1795/96’ please see here.

[4] Writing on Human Nature for Hume was an all-encompassing enterprise and his way to introduce empirical investigation into the ‘moral sciences’. We don’t deal with Hume here. ToDo

[5] Note on biological Species essentialism and arguments against it: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/species/#DeatEsse ToDo