O.P.A.R. – Commentary: Man Qua Man

“The lower conscious species may be said to survive by “instinct,” if the term means an unchosen and unerring form of action (unerring within the limits of its range). Sensations and percepts are unchosen and unerring. An instinct, however—whether of self-preservation or anything else—is precisely what a conceptual being does not have. Man cannot function or survive by the guidance of mere sensations or percepts. A conceptual being cannot initiate action unless he knows the nature and purpose of his action. He cannot pursue a goal unless he identifies what his goal is and how to achieve it. No species can survive by regressing to the methods of more primitive organisms.”
Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, pages 193-194.
(Sanichar, the “wolf-boy”, forces us to think what really makes us men. If reason is our basic means of survival, and we have no instincts, how did he survive?”)

As I said in my crazy post about “Dune“, reason is the word of Objectivism. Chapter 5 of O.P.A.R. established that it is only through reason (not emotions) that we acquire knowledge about the world; and Chapter 6 has established that it is only through reason that man survives. I will no longer delve into (i) for now, but I think (ii) needs a little more attention.

When Aristotle says that man is the rational animal, Ayn Rand understands that man qua man is defined by the use of reason. The term “qua” is most notoriously used by Aristotle in his “Metaphysics” when he defines the discipline itself at the beginning of Book Gamma:

“There is a science that investigates being qua being (ὂν ἢ ὀν) and the attributes which belong to this in virtue of its own nature.”

In my own words, I take qua to mean something like “as considered based on what makes it an entity of this type rather than an entity of any other type”.  You could consider man as a bipedal animal, but bipedalism is not what makes him stand out as a man — his rationality, according to Aristotle, Ayn Rand and my humble self, is.

So when Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff talk about man qua man, they are saying that man proper is he who uses his mind to the fullest. But does the fact that “reason is what differentiates man from all other beings” necessarily make it the tool he needs to survive?

Feral children have been reported in many places around the world, but especially in India, where their stories have been told for centuries. Among them, probably the most emblematic case is that of Dina Sanichar, the “wolf-boy”. Sanichar lived his first six years of life among wolves until being found by hunters, while following the pack to its cave, running on all fours. The question is: how did he survive?

He made no weapon to hunt or any tools to make fire or shelter. In fact, he would always shun cooked food and he never learned to speak. Well, to be perfectly honest, he ended up learning to smoke; perhaps man, the addicted animal, is a better definition of man, after all.

If we then assume that he has used a low level of reasoning to imitate the wolves and thus learn the least to seek food and water, then we must assume that the wolves also have that same level of reasoning. In this case, it is not any level of reasoning that separates men from animals. But then, how to establish such a threshold?

If, instead, we assume that he survived by instinct, then Ayn Rand is wrong, and the proposition that man’s basic means of survival is reason is also wrong. The survival of Sanichar would mean that man also survives without reasoning.

The solution to the problem is that he would not be surviving qua man. And I think that’s what really matters.

Returning to Aristotle, there is no doubt that he would NOT consider Sanichar a man. For Aristotle, slaves, women, and children were not men as such but inferior beings. Man, the rational animal he speaks of is the citizen of city-states. And that’s it.

Of course, we will not be so extreme, but then let’s be practical: Ayn Rand is not talking about Sanichar either.

When she talks about survival, it is not survival at any cost; it is not survival as a “wolf-boy”, and neither it is survival as Diogenes, the cynic, also known as “the dog,” living in a tub and performing the “natural functions of the body” in public. A man can survive as a dog, or as a coward criminal who rapes, kills, and intoxicates himself with drugs on a daily basis. But he would not be a man, neither based on Aristotle’s standards, nor on Ayn Rand’s, nor on mine. He would not be surviving qua man. To do so, he must use his reason and act accordingly.

Those more scientifically inclined may want to focus on what Ayn Rand says about man having no instincts, and bring in a bunch of scientific articles showing that he does possess them, but that would not make any difference to the argument here put forth. If he had instincts, he could perhaps survive like a dog, sniffing for food. But that would be, at most, man qua dog. Any instinct that man might have would never lead him to build skyscrapers, find the cure for tuberculosis, or philosophize. Man does all this by living qua man — by using his reason as his basic tool of survival.

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