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In Search of a Philosophical Anthropology, A Compilation of Essays by Antoine Vergote.

Vergote, Antoine. In Search, of a Philosophical Anthropology, A Compilation of Essays by Antoine Vergote. Translated by M. S. Muldoon. Louvain Philosophical Studies, vol. 11. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1996. 287 pp. Paper, BEF 1,100--This book is a compilation of fourteen essays written over a period of twenty-five years and arranged along three major concerns: bodily existence, affective existence, and symbolic existence. Vergote's reflection takes place at a meeting point between the theoretical formulations of the human sciences and philosophical anthropology. "Philosophical anthropology" distinguishes itself from "rational psychology" (Christian von Wolff) by its attempt to "render an account and clarify the human existence as we objectively observe it and as we subjectively experience, it in our own life-world" (p. 25). While a philosophical anthropology confirms and expounds the domain of the human sciences, these sciences, in tam, are in need of philosophy to elucidate and maintain their identity. Human sciences call for another reconstruction of philosophical concepts. The possibility of such enterprise rests in the recognition of the specific dimension of culture. By creating culture, human beings create their own humanity. "Humanity institutes itself as such, by entering Into an auto-constitutive symbolic order" (p. 61). AD genetical attempts to explain this paradoxical self-creation fail; anthropology has therefore a specific and irreducible object

The lived body is at the core of the self. Vergote traces this, modern understanding to biblical sources, insisting on the idea that a human being is an animated body, not an incarnated soul. As the phenomenon of "somatic conversion" demonstrates, bodily existence irreducibly intertwines flesh and symbolic order. Psychoanalysis interprets somatic conversion as a "symbolic symptom" which has to be recognized as a "language of the organs" (Freud's Organsprache). The body is not uniquely regulated by biological structures and is susceptible to incarnating the order of language.

The section entitled "Affective Existence" deals essentially with the concepts of pleasure, desire, and happiness. Human beings experience desire as directing itself toward happiness. All activities appear as possible sources of pleasure; as such, pleasure contains a premonition of happiness. Gratuitous activities, inasmuch as they require an element of renunciation, are not accomplished "for pleasure's sake" but "out of pleasure" (p. 144). "While conferring on existence a fuller and higher existence, gratuitous activity keeps waiting for the pure act of which it is only a premonition" (p. 144). Such pleasure is, as Aristotle saw it, supervenient (it occurs in addition to the fruits of our activity), and makes an ethic of happiness possible.

In the last section, Vergote turns his attention to symbolic existence. The symbolic order designates that which makes culture, and therefore human beings, possible. The symbol gathers together symbolic order and subjective life. "Symbols have a priority over the subject" (p. 196). To talk of the primacy of the universe of signs is to exceed the subjective conception of the mind and its dualist stand. Symbols are signs in which individuals recognize that they belong to a community. They cannot have meaning independently from the specific "stem of other signs to which they refer and in which they are articulated. A symbolic act can be understood only by being placed in the context of the specific system which articulates it. In spite of appearances, a bath in the waters of the Ganges is not equivalent to Christian baptism by immersion. The universe of signs emerges with human beings but is not explained in terms of human beings. Language, for instance, obeys its own laws and is not reducible to psychic processes or social reality. Yet, although symbols belong to the universe of signs in general, their distinctive character lies in their excess. A symbol is a significance for multiple significations; it is impossible to enclose its meaning in a closed definition. Symbols remain a fundamental sign in human expression because they participate in a metaphorical language which oversignifies reality. We do not communicate by means of symbols as we communicate by means of words, rather symbols communicate to us. The sacred indicated by means of symbols is a divine equality that is perceived in the world. Symbols are made of "acts" and "things" (for example, baptism and the symbolic sense of water); as such, they exhibit a concrete and relatively stable character Because they are at once natural and cultural, they possess the particular function of making the symbolic order tangible.

One might wonder, however, whether Vergote's reference to the "lived body" fulfills its promise of resolving in any sense the so-called mind-body problem. In that respect, reformulating the substantialist concept of mind in terms of symbolic order might remain insufficient. The addition of the unconscious as a mediation between conscious experience and natural body seems to fall under the third man argument. Although Vergote recognizes the primacy of the lived body, he denies that psychoanalytical symptoms are equivalent to symbols and linguistic figures, and has consequently to maintain a logic of "interaction" (p. 98). Defining the symptom as a "desymbolized symbol," Vergote objects to Lacan: "if, in the symptom, the words are lacking, how can he identify the unconscious with signifiers?" (p. 101). Yet, can we conclude from this deficiency to the externality of the unconscious vis-a-vis discourse? Vergote's analysis could have found the Justification it needs, had the distinction between symptoms, symbols, and linguistic signs been considered more thoroughly.
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Author:Massie, Pascal
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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