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Reductionism and the ‘Uniqueness of Man’

ing-class Clbove one’s own as an individual.

only is it a form of moral philistinism to construct a theory in which they must be excluded,
but it can only devalue an important (though subsidiary) weapon in the working-class armoury for
use in the class struggle.

The Valu~ of Morality
Morals, or rather moral principles and actions,
only become possible or intelligible under certain

In our present discussion for instance they arise in and through a conflict between the interests of the worker as an individual and as a member of the proletariat.

We have
characterised his action as ‘moral’ on occasions
when he opts for the latter and against the former, and we have done so for the following reasons: (1) It is against his self-interest, (2) It
is in the interests of his class, (3) The interests ef his class are, ultimately, the interests
of mankind.

In situations where the proletariat
has a very real chance of defeating capitalism,
self-interest becomes (in general) the interest
of the working class too.

The arena of the specifically moral act diminishes accordingly on
these occasions.

Working class moral activity is of course less
important tharr the non-moral or self-interested
actions of the class, but its significance is for
all that a real one, certainly shows
Andrew Collier to be wrong or confusing when he
claims that ‘There is no moral basis for socialism, no such thing as “living as a socialist” in
capitalist society … How a socialist gets his
money or his kicks is politically irrelevant’.

For it is precisely proletarian moral considerations, embodied in the concepts of class solidarity, cooperation with one’s work mates and
struggle against the bosses, that makes the best
militants reject the seductive offers of cushy
managerial posts or other attempts to buy them

‘How a socialist gets his money’ can thus
be of the utmost importance.

So it is a believe that all correct actions can be validly derived from one’s needs and
interests, for sometimes these must be overridden by actions derived from considerations
which concern one’s very-authenticity as a socialist.

Interests don’t always have to be confronted
by other interests therefore. Correct actions
follow from what one is as much as from what one

So, in conclusion, we don’t need morality to demonstrate the necessity for revolutionary socialism. To understand the real and contradictory
nature of capitalism is to appreciate its incompatibility with both bourgeois and socialist moral
thecries. At this level it is therefore superfluous and idealistic t . opt for Freudian naturalism.

However the wo~}:’.ng class, as the only
agents capable of smas’,~;,ij capitalism, will need
moral principles to gu:..

an individual’s action
when such action comes into conflict with his
self interest.

But in that case too, what is
needed can hardly be summarised by Collier’s programme of combatting the superego in the name of
the ego. For in reality it is the ego itself
which stands in need of suppression to the
collective subject ‘we’, to solidarity, and to
fighting against the capitalist class.

In all
these areas Andrew Collier is going in the wrong
direction. ,…


Recluclionism and Ihe
‘Uniqueness of man’

I want to examine here some of the arguments used
by John Lewis in The Uniqueness of Man [Lawrence &
Wishart, 1974], an eminently readable polemic against the crude reductionism employed by such
notorious characters as Desmond Morris, Jacques
Monod, H. J. Eysenck and B. F. Skinner.

In Lewis’s
main thesis (that man is more than a collection of
molecules, mechanical interactions, or a ‘naked
ape’ that has acquired a few tricks) I find muchto
agree with. Moreover Lewis’s exposition of the
reactionary and anti-social nature of these views
is beyond dispute.

However, in putting forward
arguments to demonstrate the ‘uniqueness of man’

Lewis commits himself to certain dubious assumptions concerning the relationship between a philosophical standpoint and a moral or political

These invite the following questions:

does a particular political attitude inevitably
follcw from a philosophical standpoint? What is
the relationship between the metaphysical assumptions which underlie the theories of Morris,
Eysenck et aI, and the reactionary and manipulative political attitudes associated with them?

Does a manipulative attitude inevitably follow
from reductionism, as Lewis suggests?

According to Lewis reductionism, or to use his
expression, ‘the philosophy of nothing but’, has
expressed itself in three main forms: (i) in the
modern materialism of Francis Crick and Jacq~es
Monod, who reduce man to physical and chemical constituents; (ii) in the theories of scientists,
such as Minsky and Turing, who regard the computer
as a model of the human brain, and (iii) in the
‘ethological and genetic’ myths of Konrad Lorenz,
Robert Ardrey, and Desmond Morris, who reduce man
to the level of the predatory carnivore or the
laboratory rat, ‘ineradicably aggressive’ and
‘motivated by a territorial imperative’. [pIS]
Though held by the BBC and the press as great
works of science very few of these theories have
any genuine scientific merit, and what is more,
argues Lewis, they rest on very shaky metaphysical

By concentrating on their philosophical weaknesses it is therefore possible,
Lewis maintains, to refute them without postulating the existence of further metaphysical entities,
or ‘vital principles’, which have been held to
determine the difference between organic and inorganic matter. Vitalism, however, has been dead
for over half a century.

Little would be gained
by its resurrection.

Yet, if there is no ‘vital
principle’ which distinguishes man from computers,
apes, or a chance collection of molecules, what is
unique about the human species? In the absence of
any ‘vital force’ the following view, put forward
by Monad, must seem very plausible:

… everything can be reduced to simple, obvious,
mechanical interactions. The animal is a machine
and there is no difference at all between men and
animals. 1
It must be recognized that science can, in principle at least, explain everything about physical
phenomena, but explaining everything from the
standpoint of a particular science does not include an explanation of how things are seen from
another standpoint.

The company’s accounts explain
everything to the accountant about the running of
the company, but they tell us nothing about the
‘goings on’ in the canteen.

Physics and chemistry


tell us everything, from a physico-chemical standprocess in the yet unexplored medium. And now
point, about life, but not everything there is to
it looks as if we had denied mental processes.

know about life. We can explain the sound of the
And naturally we don’t want to deny them. 4
violin in terms of sound vibrations, horse-hair and But the assumption which both Ryle and Wittgencat-gut, but this says nothing about the quality
stein have seen as a ‘category mistake’ or ‘conof the music. Most scientists, it is true, do not
juring trick’, which has misled reductionists, is
attempt to reduce everything to the categories of
much deeper than a misunderstanding in the use of
their specific discipline, and therefore have no
language – a view which is held by many followers
desire to dismiss the whole of human culture as
of Ryle and Wittgenstein. To be sure this ‘catemere epiphenomena. Those who do are usually philo- gory mistake’ is the shaky foundation stone of the
sophers who don scientific caps or scientists
dubious metaphysical utterances of Crick and Monod
trying on the philosopher’s attire. And for this
and, moreover, it is the result of a linguistic
reason their ‘philosophical problems arise’, as
confusion. But like many followers of Ryle and
Wittgenstein says in a similar context, ‘when
Wittgenstein Lewis does not seem to be concerned
language goes on holiday,.2
with the need to offer an explanation as to why
Lewis argues that the popular reductionist mater- language misleads and why such category mistakes
ialism of Crick and Monod does not rest on any
are made. This is probably because he is more
substantial philosophic support. Reductionism,
concerned with the political and social consehe says, rests on what Ryle has termed a ‘category quences of the doctrines he is attacking than
mistake’, a mistake which it shares equally with
with their origins. Yet to come to grips with
vitalism. When it is said that. ‘life’ and ‘mind’

this question is to attempt to understand the
‘are realities both reductionists and vitalists
nature of philosophy, and its relationship towards
take it to mean that they possess the same reality the social base which has nurtured it.

as bodies. But in fact we are talking about totNow whilst Wittgenstein held that confusions in
ally different categories when we speak of ‘life’

language lie at the root of philosophical confuand ‘mind’, just as we are employing different
sion he did recognise that they were a product of
categories when we speak of the blade of a knife
a much deeper disquiet. Hence the solution wasnot
and its cutting function. No one denies that a
to be found simply in correcting the linguistic
knife has a cutting function, and no one, when
errors of deviant philosophers. If all that lay
shown a knife, asks where its cutting function is
at the root of the doctrines of Crick and Monod
situated. In the same way to ask where the ‘life
were linguistic errors one would only have to point
force’ can be observed in a living organism, and
this out to them so that they could recognise their
if it cannot be observed, to deny any essential
errors, recant them, and let us all get some peace.

difference between organic and inorganic matter,
Obviously the nature of their ‘error’ lies more
is to confuse the categories of ‘life’, ‘mind’,
deeply than this, since they are unlikely to be
etc, with physical entities. Life is not a subconvinced by Lewis’s handling of Ryle’s arguments,
stance, nor mind a mental force – observable or
however well presented.

hidden – but is more akin to a quality, function,
Though Wittgenstein’s ‘therapeutic method’ sounds,
or even an activity. Lewis points out, correctly, in many ways, as if one only has to assemble the
occasional reminders to refute a particular docThis could be made clear by substituting for the
trine S he did recognize that
nouns ‘life’, which suggests a ‘something’ boverThe sickness of a time is cured by the alteration
ing over the non-living and then attaching itself
in the mode of life of human beings, and the sickto the organism, and ‘mind’, with a very similar
ness of philosophical problems can be cured only
connotation, the present participles ‘living’ th.rough a changed mode of thought and of life, not
a complex series of activities, and ‘minding’ through a medicine invented by an individual. 6
something the brain and hand and eye-possessing
Wittgenstein, of course, envisaged no political
man is doing all the time he lives and acts. 3
programme for carrying out any of the necessary
It is not necessary to reduce man to atoms and
alterations to a mode of life which reflected varmolecules described in terms of mere behavioural
ious forms of philosophical sickness. Marx, howimpulses and reactions to stimuli, in order to
ever, did have a definite programme in mind when
eliminate the assumption of a ‘Ghost in the
he perceived that
machine’. Putting forward a similar rejection of
•.. all forms and products of consciousness cannot
the ‘mental force’ doctrine Wittgenstein, in the
be dissolved by mental criticism … but only by
Investigations, depicts his imaginary interlocutor
the practical overthrow of the actual social reasking him whether behaviourism was a neceseary
lations which give rise to this idealistic humoutcome of this position.

bug; that not criticism but revolution is the
Are you not really a behaviourist in disguise?

driving force of history, also of religion, of
Aren’t you at bottom really saying that everyphilosophy and all other types of theory.7
thing except human behaviour is a fiction?- If
The point is thisl philosophic confusion has its
I do speak of a fiction, then it is a grammatical origins in the social base, and therefore its
fiction. How does the philosophical problem
solution requires a change in the social base.

about mental processes and states and about
The crudities of the reductionists, Monod and
behaviourism arise? – the first step is the one
Crick, like the elitist theories of man held by
that altogether escapes notice. We talk of proLorenz, Ardrey, and Morris, are not merely processes and states and leave their nature unducts of ‘category mistakes’, as Lewis thinks,
decided. sometime perhaps we shall know more
but these ‘category mistakes’ themselves are the
about them – we think. But that is just what
products of the elitist and highly competitive
commits us to a particular way of looking at the
social base in which they flourish. It is prematter. For we have a definite concept of what
cisely this social base that finds itself reflected
it means to learn to know a process better. (The in the various theories which treat man as either
decisive movement in the conjuring trick has been a bundle of reflexes to be controlled by external
made, and it was the very one that we thought
forces or a naturally aggressive and competitive
quite innocent.) – And now the analogy which was
Such thinkers haye wholly adopted the ideoto make us understand our thoughts falls to
logy of a manipulative and elitist society and
pieces. So we have to deny the yetuncomprehendedlhave projected this into their theories about the


nature of man. Lewis, however, over-emphasises
them to meet them in their own way. It is in
the primacy of a reductionist philosophy rather
fact an ~litist theory for use by the ~lite in
than its social origins, when he says that
relation to the inferiors they rule. 10
If men ‘are only bundles of conditioned reflexes
At the root of Lewis’s account of the ‘uniqueness
and animal drives, and only their behaviour reac- of man’ is the assumption that to reduce the diftions matter, and not their minds and thOUghtsandlferences between man, artifacts, and other animals,
motives, then men are reduced to the status of
is to devalue human life. But is this necessarily
laboratory animals to be treated by the same con- so? Let’s begin by concentrating on the question
ditioning mechanisms … This is the inevitable
of artefacts. For a start, it seems that Lewis is
procedure for the reductionist who has already
operating with an all too crude account of an arterefused to see life as anything more than
fact. No machine at present is capable of doing
everything that men do, and Lewis is therefore
But is this procedure really an inevitable conse- correct in showing that reductionists who speak
quence of reductionist philosophy? Lewis himself this way are underestimating the human potential.

must accept that this is not entirely so, since he But then, there are many humans who cannot do what
notes, in an ad hominem argument against thereduc- other humans can do. very few English philosophers
tionists, that they themselves do not act in
‘could assemble transistors with the speed and
accordance with their own theories. But this in- accuracy of the Mitsubushi female operatives, but
consistency on the part of the reductionists them- none of these operatives would disqualify English
selves is sufficient to cast doubt upon the
philosophers from membership of the human race.

allegedly inevitable consequences of holding a
More fundamentally, though, I suggest that the
reductionist or materalist theory. Such a theory criterion of performance isn’t really the main
does not necessarily lead to a manipulative atti- issue at all; if one is of the attitude that there
tude towards men, or to a weakening of respect for is a fundamental difference between artefacts,
human life, any more than the adoption of a’spirit- animals, and men, no listing of achievements will
ual (or religious) world view must lead to a
influence opinion one way or the other. This, I
heightening of respect for human life. For example, b~lieve, is Wittgenstein’s point of view when he
Christians can, and do, treat life with contempt, says
and conversely a reductionist with respect for
My attitude towards him is an attitude towards a
soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a
human life need not be a contradiction at all.

The manipulative attitude towards life is bound to soul. ll
the social base, and this precedes any philosophic- Whether or not man is an automaton is a question
al theory regarding the nature of man. Philosophy that is beyond the range of rational argument,
does not determine any attitudes towards life, it according to Wittgenstein, since his attitude shows
only reflects them – though not always accurately. itself in his actions; the way he reacts to the
As Hegel put it:

other, and so on. But it also follows that ifsomeOne more word about g~v~ng instruction as to what how his attitude changed, then it is equally plausthe world ought to be: Philosophy in any case al- ible that the question whether artifacts could be
ways comes on to the scene too late to give it.

distinguished from humans could be also outside the
As the thought of the world, it appears only when range of rational discussion. Such a change of
actuality is already there cut and dried after
attitudes would obviously be preceded by a social
its process of formation has been completed. The transformation, possibly a complete social upteaching of the concept, which is also history’s heaval if what the writers of science fiction tell
inescapable lesson, is that it is only when ac- us is to have any credibility. The question is,
tuality is mature that the ideal first appears
is such a change of attitudes to be ruled out as an
over against the real and that the ideal appre- a priori impossibility?

hends this same real world in its substance and
Consider the following analogy: In many respects
builds it up for itsel£ into the shape of an
the language of those whose attitudes are set agintellectual realm. when philosophy paints it
ainst the possibility of eliminating distinctions
grey in grey, then has a shape of life grown old. between men, artifacts, and other animals, is akin
By philosophy’s grey in grey it cannot be rejuv- to the language of those who hold, or have held,
enated but only understood. The owl of Minerva
to doctrines concerning the superiority of one
spreads its wings only with the falling of the
race over another. To convince a defender of
dusk. 9
apartheid that there is no fundamental difference
Let us now consider whether, in a society which between Indians and white men would take more
was not characterized by a ‘low’ opinion of human than a listing of facts and arguroents, since they
life, it would be possible to eliminate the dis- would be operating with an entirely different continctions between men, artifacts, and other ani- cept of human life. The US Indian was not legally
mals without the inevitable decline in human
recognised as a person until 1879 12 and his South
values – as envisaged by Lewis. This would beout African counterpart is likewise denied access to
of the question on Lewis’s terms since he holds
the same status. In both cases there are no rethat to
cognizable criteria which they could appeal to in
treat man as compz’ehended by any lower level,
order to demonstrate their credibility as humans.

whether on the stimulus-response level, the bioFurther, it isn’t a question of what sort of
logical, or the mechanical, is to undermine res- arguments members of a ‘sub-human’ race, or an
pect for the individual and lay men open to con- artifact, could put forward to ~stablish their
ditioning and manipulation; it is to treat them
equality, but what sort of actions would convince
as things like colliding billiard balls, or inter- others that they were human enough to argue with.

acting molecules, entirely determined by forces
Before their arguments can be listened to they
outside themselves – which is how men are treated have to be recognized as the arguments of a human.

when they are swept hither and thither by econo- The analogy between artifacts and ‘other races’

mic forces. This is a view that lends itself to is very strong here. ‘One simply does not argue
those who want to exercise control over others
with machines’ is the sort of response one would
but who never apply it to themselves, or submit
expect if it was said that a machine was demanding
to be controlled themselves, never seeking to
the status of a human. And this is very similar to
awaken men to problematic situations, inviting
‘One doesn’t argue with Indians, Africans ..• etc



(throughout the whole history of colonialism) …

So if it is conceivable for attitudes towards
the only language they understand is this … ‘ machines and animals to change, would this necepointing to a gun, whip, and so on. In these cases ‘ssarily entail the ‘unfortunate consequences’, as
there are no common grounds for rationaldiscussion~ILewis maintains, of a diminished concept of human
In any case there are, even now, many people who, life? Could we not argue that if the US settlers
in at least some circumstances, treat machines and had recognized the Indians as human instead of
animals with the sort of respect that is normally
‘painted savages’, and if the South Africans ever
reserved for humans.

Indeed there is an abundance recognize their countrymen as human, they would
of examples where animals and artefacts are given
have, in fact, enriched their concept of human
preferential treatment over humans. One often
life? And if this were possible could we not
reads in the press of parents who starve their
imagine those who granted equal status to artechildren whilst the dog is well nourished, and
facts and other animals, subject to the approprithe divorce courts are full of husbands who have
ate circumstances, having enriched their concept
greater affection for their cars than their wives. of human life? To view the granting of equal
Machines are given recognition in other ways; the
status to alleged inferiors as a lowering of one’s
business of cheating the ticket machine – not
own standards is really another form of that very
necessarily the man who owns it – is flOW an estab- elitIsm that Lewis is attacking.

It is conceivlished practice, and such expressiohs are part of able, at least, that in a society that had a high
our normal discourse. Day-to-day ~onflict in
regard for every aspect of the environment the
industry takes on the form of a resistance to the words ‘don’t harm it – after all it does consist
machine, and not only as an indirect expression of of atoms and molecules’, might have the same meanthe workers’ hostility to the owner of the machine. ing as ‘don’t harm him – after all he is human’.

There are significant signs that resistance to
production on the part of many factory worke:-s is”
a direct resistance to the power of the mach~ne
itself. The machine may be the means by which the
workers are exploited by capitalists, but it is not NOTES
always a certainty that t;he worker who sabotages a
1 Quoted by J. Lewis, Uniqueness of Man p9, from
machine is hitting at his employer. The modern
a BBC interview with Jacques Monod, July 1971
factory worker has learned to resent the machine
as the agent of domination just as his predecessor 2 L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations,
Blackwell, Oxford, 1968, 38 p1ge
resented the factory owner.

(This of course does
3 Uniqueness of Man, p18
not let the management off the hook; they are
4 Philosophical Investigations, 307-8 pl02-3e
simply one stage removed, like the shareholders
5 Philosophical Investigations, 127 pSOe
etc, in the hierarchy of exploitation).

L. Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Foundations of
To be sure it may be a long way to the ‘war of
Mathematics, Blackwell, Oxford, 1967, pS7e
the robots’, or the ‘Day of the Triffids’, but the
7 K. Marx, The German Ideology
fact that such fictions have a degree of plausilishers, Moscow, 1964, pSO
bility is an indication that attitudes towards
artefacts and other species are not determined and 8 Uniqueness of Man, p40
9 G W F Hegel, Preface to the Philosophy of Right,
fixed for all time. The above remarks may serve
trans. T M Knox, Oxford, 1958, p13
as a hint that attitudes can change. Who is to
say that, given the right circumstances, theymight 10 uniqueness of Man, p59
change completely? There are many in South Afr~ca 11 L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations,
who are convinced that the ‘other races’ will always remain inferior ~ wiser men predict an holo- 12 As the result of a civil action, standing Bear
v Crook, April 1879.

caust if attitudes do not change.

IDaVl’d Lamb

the end of philosophy
‘For it strikes me that the “end of philosophy”
proclaimed by Marx has often been misunderstood,
either as the notion that philosophy is in its
very nature idealistic and must be replaced by
materialism or as the idea that philosophy, as
one specialized discipline and mode of research,
was to be replaced by another such specialized
discipline, in the form of economics or social
science in a more general sense. On the contrary,
it seems to me that in aiming to dissolve philosophy, Marx intended to strike at the very category of the specialized discipline as such and
to restore the unity of knowledge. In renouncing
philosophy, he aimed at replacing the abstract
in its vario~s forms by the concrete, by history
itself – and at this stage in nineteenth-century
thought the discovery of economics was the same
as the discovery of concrete history.’

time, ‘where economics has become itself an abstraction and a rnode of specialization, a return
to the concrete in history is bound to involve a
partial dissolution of the economic as well as
the other abstract disciplines’.

(Frederick Jameson, Marxism and Form: TwentiethCentury Dialectical Theories of LiteratUre,


Princeton, 1971; also paperback, p294)


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