Friday, January 14, 2011

What is Man?

To know about Gramsci’s understanding of “man” is very important and can be very useful in understanding how the whole phenomenon of the socio-political change happens because it provides the necessary background about how change begins in one single man, and how it becomes a broad, popular, national or even an international phenomenon. Furthermore man, the individual, is important since single men, when come together through certain bonds, form the basis of a social class. That helps us to understand the transition from an individual to a class in Gramsci’s thought. Finally, understanding the man in terms of his individual will makes it possible for us to understand and analyze the transition from the individual will to collective will.

To begin with, I can say that Gramsci is not interested in what man is in each individual because in this way, he argues that, one can only find out what man is only in each individual, but not what man is in general. The idea of “man in general” can remind the reader the idea of “human nature”; however, for Gramsci, the idea of human nature, which envisages a fixed concept of human, cannot be the real answer of the question of what man is in general because the question, what is man, is not an abstract or an objective question. In that regard, Gramsci criticizes both the philosophical points of views which try to create an idea of fixed understanding of “human nature” which can be generalized to each and every individual in any time and space, like the “human nature” perceptions of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, etc., and also the views of religions, such as that of Catholicism, which conceives of man as a defined and limited individual, because he believes that there does not exist, historically, a way of seeing things and of acting which is equal for all men, no more no less.[1]

In contrast to these understandings, Gramsci believes that man in general should be understood as a series of active relationships, as a process. In that respect, he thinks that when one asks whether what man is, this actually means whether what man can become; that is to say, whether man can dominate his own destiny, can he make himself, and can he create his own life. Therefore, he says, man is a process, and, more exactly, man is the process of his actions. He argues that “the humanity which is reflected in each individuality is composed of various elements, and these are: 1) the individual, 2) other men, and 3) the natural world.”[2] Following that, Gramsci argues that the individual enters into relations with other men and the natural world around him, both passively, by just being a part of the natural world and the society, and also actively, through working both in the nature and with other men. In light of these set of relations, change takes place in the individual, to the extent that he changes and modifies the complex relations of which he is the hub. That explains how change can happen in one individual.[3]

However, for Gramsci, collective change is deeply related with one individual’s change, and in that regard, he argues that “if one’s own individuality is the ensemble of these relations, to create one’s personality means to acquire consciousness of them, and to modify one’s own personality means to modify the ensemble of these relations.”[4] That is to say, change in one individual means change in the whole. As Gramsci puts it, “when the individual can associate himself with all the other individuals who want the same changes, and if the changes wanted are rational, the individual can be multiplied an impressive number of times and can obtain a change which is far more radical than at first sight ever seemed possible.”[5] Finally, it can be said that it is at this point, the single man, the individual, becomes the collective man or the “man in general”, and through which both an individual and collective change can be realized. As Gramsci puts it;

“An historical act can only be performed by ‘collective man’, and this presupposes the attainment of a ‘cultural-social’ unity through which a multiplicity of dispersed wills, with heterogeneous are welded together with a single aim, on the basis of an equal and common conception of the world, both general and particular, operating in transitory bursts (in emotional ways) or permanently where the intellectual base is so well rooted, assimilated and experienced that it becomes passion.”[6]

[1] Gramsci, Antonio, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (ed.), Lawrence and Wishart Pub., London – 1971, pp. 351-352.
[2] Ibid., p. 352.
[3] Ibid., pp. 351-352.
[4] Ibid., p. 352.
[5] Ibid., p. 353.
[6] Ibid., p. 349.

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