A Dialectical Anthropology of Concrete Totality: A Methodological Framework for Understanding the Unified Totality of the Human Person

A Dialectical Anthropology of Concrete Totality: A Methodological Framework for Understanding the Unified Totality of the Human Person

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The conception of the person cannot be understood in isolation from the philosophical system as a whole because it is the whole system that conditions this understanding. Therefore, disputes concerning the constitutive elements of the person are also disputes concerning philosophical systems. In addition, the choice of philosophical categories employed in framing anthropology mediates the outcome of the investigation. Is there a philosophical category that provides the fullest access and adequate description of the unified totality of the internally differentiated human person? It will be argued in this paper that an anthropology viewed from the horizon of a dialectical concrete totality provides such a comprehensive access and description. To appreciate the breadth and scope of this category, I will first enumerate its philosophical foundations and justification. Second, and more importantly, I draw out the strength and importance of such a dialectical anthropology. If philosophical anthropology asks how human existence as a totality is constituted, the category of a dialectical concrete totality presents an ontology of human existence constituted in the four moments of cosmic, socio-historical, physical and personal totalities, under the horizon of the religious dimension immanent in all of human existence and unified in the human subject through action.

A proposed dialectical anthropology of concrete totality not only intends to correct the one-sidedness of traditional anthropologies but also unifies the different constitutive moments and horizons as an internally differentiated unified totality. The important contribution of this category is especially spelled out by its very descriptors, “dialectical,” “concrete” and “totality.”

The category of concrete totality is a comprehensive ontological concept in Hegel’s thought. Marx appropriated it to make it a comprehensive historical category. He inverts Hegel’s concrete totality and considers it to be “a product of thinking and comprehending . . . as it appears in the head” and wants to externalize it to include the material conditions of reality. Marx writes that the “subject, society, must always be envisaged therefore as the precondition of comprehension, even when the theoretical method is employed.”1 Karel Kosik, the Czech philosopher, has critically re-appropriated this category of a dialectical anthropology of concrete totality as an ontological concept.2 This category has been appropriated in other numerous applications.3 An interpreted version of a dialectical anthropology of concrete totality will be used here. It would be helpful to first spell out each term, and then take them as an integrated horizon.

The Concrete

Concrete totality is a historical category. The qualifier of “concrete” is intended to emphasize the real historical conditions, conflicts and contradictions of the world. Tensions and struggles emerge as a result of our differences and interdependence on one another in a globalizing world. The human person does not exist as an atomistic individual abstracted from the social-historical conditions of the world. To act and externalize one’s aspirations is to engage and confront the objective world with all its oppressions, pressures, tensions, irreconcilable expectations, mediated through one’s own limited resources. The concrete person is a contingent being who finds himself or herself already constituted and dependent on families, social relationships and institutions, including the protections and provisions of the government to maintain a daily existence. The concrete person also finds himself or herself in a constellation of existing and changing cultural, religious, political and moral environment that shape personal history, whether or not he or she later chooses to reject or modify reality through self-determination. The concrete includes the unevenly distributed material conditions of the world that exist independently of persons who enter them. This includes shifting economic conditions, environmental erosions, and political instabilities. Reality, in its concreteness, consists of different individuals, personal histories, cultures, religions, politics that fight, compromise and agree with each other according to their different aims and interests.

The category of the concrete that comes in the dialectical pair of the abstract and the concrete pervades the whole of Hegelian thought. They are philosophical concepts necessary for the development of conceptual knowledge. The abstract and the concrete are not contrasts between two different ideals. The concrete is the “combination of many abstractions.” The more thoroughly they are reflected upon, concepts become more concrete by revealing more aspects, such as, the historical circumstances they arise from, their development, and their internal differentiations and interrelations. Abstract thinking, on the other hand, is to use concepts as fixed, unchangeable givens without any broader mediating socio-historical context. The concrete is the totality, itself, considered in its entirety, embodying its entire process, “of mutual negation, determination and enrichment between parts and the whole, immediacy and mediation, universal and particular, appearance and essence, genesis and structure.”4


Totality does not mean a sum of constitutive dimensions existing side by side but, rather, all the dimensions related to and struggling with each other. Totality is a conceptual means for apprehending phenomena as a unity that is internally differentiated in all its interrelations, tensions, conflicts, mutual movement and development.5 Totality includes the constitutive conditions, dimensions and relations of human existence not only in their sheer inwardness but exteriority, materiality and spirituality, transcendence and immanence. Totality is not an accumulation or assemblage of all facts existing side by side without demanding mutual mediation of existing contradictions. Totality does not mean all of the facts, but rather, “reality as a structured, dialectical whole, in which or from which any fact (class or facts or complex of facts) can be rationally understood.”6 Facts are the proper cognition of reality only when they are comprehended as parts of a dialectical whole.

Using Hegelian categories, to understand totality and to look abstractly with the verstand (understanding) or vorstellen (representation) would only split reality into fixed categories without seeing their interconnections. “Understanding” and “representation” merely pays attention to the appearances of things without going into the essence of things. “Reason” (Begreifen), on the other hand, penetrates into the internal structure and interconnections of the “thing itself” to reveal the interaction of its particularities. The Hegelian totality through “reason” is a fundamental way of thinking about internal organic relations as a whole that is mediated by dialectical movements. For Hegel, the truth is the whole. Every stage or moment is partial, and, therefore, needs to be overcome in a development process that at the same time preserves the moments as elements in the structure of totality.

The process of forming a totality provides a structure of meaning, as well as forms the objective content and meaning of its constituent parts.7 The genesis and development of the totality along with its constituent parts are the very components of its determination, for “totality concretizes itself in the process of forming its whole as well as its content.”8 This category will be used positively here in terms of a Kantian “regulative” function. Totality can function as a regulative idea “in a sense that it contains the ideal of harmony and reconciliation in the midst of the many fragmentations and alienations of historical existence toward which the human spirit necessarily strives in order to find peace between itself and the world.”9

The Dialectic

What is the nature and importance of the dialectic as it functions in comprehending our human existence? For Hegel, the analytic method of understanding leads to contradictions that verstand (understanding) cannot avoid or resolve. The dialectical method, on the other hand, exposes the one-sidedness and limitations of fixed opposites by the concept of the “negative” or “negation” that reveals both a contradiction and potentiality. The dynamic of negation is a self-determination that makes external, determinate and concrete what is in its immediacy. Negativity is the potentiality to produce new qualities and higher stages of development. The dynamic movement towards the whole is accomplished by the engine of aufhebung (sublation). Sublation is part of a larger dialectical movement of thought moving towards absolute knowledge while uniting opposites. Aufhebung contains three movements of negation, transcending and preserving, in a teleological movement. In the dialectical movement, opposites are united and are a higher level through sublation. Hegel writes, “Thus what is sublated is at the same time preserved; it has only lost its immediacy but is not on that account annihilated. It still is, therefore, in itself the determinate from which it originates.”10

The method of investigation into the dialectic involves three stages.11 The first is to appropriate the materials meticulously and, through reflection, master every accessible historical detail from it. The second is to analyze every form of development and, thirdly, trace all their internal connections that determine the unity of the different stages of development in the material.

The category of concrete totality is a dialectical concept. The dialectical process is the means of ascending from the abstract to the concrete. Dialectical thinking dispels the notion of the apparent autonomy of phenomena or human existence under consideration. While dialectical thinking does not deny the existence and objective character of phenomena, it demonstrates its mediated and derivative character. Hegel’s dialectics does not accept fixed objects, petrified historical conditions, and established categories in their ready-made or reified forms, but it strives to critically penetrate reality in its natural properties behind the phenomena. Dialectical thinking, through negation and sublation, is a movement from phenomena to the essence and from the essence to the phenomena, from the subject to the object and from the object to the subject, all the while transforming all the different dimensions under consideration into a higher unity. This comes from the observation that reality itself is dialectical in its very structure. If reality is dialectical, the dialectical process “is a process of concretization which proceeds from the whole to its parts and from the parts to the whole . . . from totality to contradictions and from contradictions to totality. It arrives at concreteness precisely in this spiral process of totalization in which all concepts move with respect to one another, and mutually illuminate one another.”12 The dialectic is driven by tension and conflicts between opposite ideas, and the constituting conditions of our concrete totality resisting our longing for transcendence.


One of the decisive theoretical requirements for constructing philosophy, theology or ethics is the elaboration of an adequate anthropology. After all, these are human comprehensions of reality, human reflections about God and faith, and the human study, development and prescription of what humans ought to do. These are subjective reflections that cannot bypass the historical conditioning of the personal and social location of the human observer. In addition to the subjective aspects of these reflections, the human pole is always necessarily assumed, implicitly or explicitly, as the basic horizon and reference point of philosophical, theological and ethical investigations. The human pole is always present in the relational and dialectical structure of the subject matter, for they all concern the human, both subjectively and objectively and as subjects and objects. Philosophy is always about what reality is, from the human perspective; ethics is about what humans ought to do from the human perspective. In one sense, Protagoras is right, in that man is the measure of all things. Even the study of nature, even though it is not a social category, is recognized by a cognition that is socially conditioned, and, therefore, ends up humanized. If the subjective element or the anthropological conception is compromised, this has direct consequences leading to an inadequate philosophy, theology or ethics.

Even theology is always about God and faith filtered through the human perspective. John Calvin in the first chapter of his 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion insisted that “without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God.” Also, “without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.”13 For Calvin, self-awareness and knowledge of self was a condition for doing theology.

An adequate anthropology, therefore, forms the basic horizon for all philosophical, theological and ethical construction. It is convincingly argued that all philosophy is anthropological. All philosophical problems are essentially problems having to do with anthropology, “because man anthropologizes everything with which he is in practical or theoretical contact. All questions and answers, all doubts and findings testify first and foremost of man.”14 Philosophical problems are only formulated by humans and only humans philosophize. This is also true of theology. If one of the goals of theology is for total persons to be effectively ordered to Christ and the values of his kingdom, then an account of the totality of the dimensions of human existence must be given to know what the dimensions of human existence are and how each dimension needs salvation and transformation. More specifically, the knowledge of God in Christian theology presupposes a primordial human capacity to know, hear and obey God. The knowledge of God, whether through revelation or reason, is still human knowledge for whatever is known is known according to “the mode of the knower.”15 In other words, something can only be known if it can be fitted within a particular way that a person conceives of reality.

Anthropology also forms the basic horizo for ethics. As an example, Karol Wojtyła’s magnum opus, The Acting Person is to provide an adequate anthropology necessary to construct an ethics that adequately meets the totality of the dimensions of human experience. In Wojtyła’s instance, anthropology as expressed in philosophical anthropology and ethics are accorded a privileged status among the philosophical disciplines because of its foundational influence upon them.16 A dialectical concrete totality is largely, but not solely, an anthropological category. It accounts for and holds together the dialectical tensions of human life that include subjectivity and objectivity, thought and reality, transcendence and history, materiality and spirituality, finite and infinite, and the personal and the social.

In elaborating a person in relation to his essential constitutive dimensions, man’s relationship with this concrete totality is dialectical, because this totality includes the subject of man himself, the influence of the essential dimensions on him, as well as his ability to modify this totality.17 The person and his constitutive dimensions are not static totalities. As concrete totalities, internal differentiations and interconnections are disclosed, and contradictions are overcome according to the dialectical process because they mutually influence and transform one another. Also, to comprehend the acting and ethical person in his concrete totality is to understand not only the dialectical development but also the very structure, nature and conditions of the origin of the person in his unified concrete totality.

Human Life Already Constituted

We find ourselves in our human life existing in a world already constituted in a certain way prior to any consciousness of its differentiated constitution. The basic structural features of human existence have been conceived of in different ways by various ontological, religious and ethical assumptions. But seen from the perspective of a lived concrete totality, the structural features of human existence cannot be abstracted from socio-historical, cosmic, personal and religious realities that are concretely constitutive of our human existence.18

As a moment of our cosmic totality, we find ourselves is an already existing cosmos, nature or universe that includes the environment that we depend on for our habitat, food, water, air and resources that are transformed for human needs. Earthquakes, hurricanes, global warming, floods and natural disasters remind us of our misinformed anthropocentrism in the cosmos. We are part of and in this cosmos and not beyond or outside it. This is a reminder that even as transcendent spiritual beings, we are material beings in the world constituted by this cosmic totality.

As a moment of our socio-historical totality, we find ourselves already situated in a particular socio-historical context characterized by difference and otherness. Conflicts, clashes and contradictions emerge out of our differences. And depending on our socio-historical contexts, there exists varying conditions of poverty, war, racism, sexism, genocide, depersonalizing inherited institutions, unequal access to education, medical care, justice and decent standards of living that are constitutive of our human existence. This immediate and familiar context is where we fight for survival and try to make a living. This social world is where we enter into numerous relationships with families, enemies, friends, economic and political institutions, each in their own particular stage of historical development. This socio-historical world manifests seven characteristics.19

The first characteristic of our socio-historical world is particularity and differentiation that points to a certain mutual irreducibility about our given reality as manifested in different persons, religions, cultures, each in their unique particularity. At the same time, as a second characteristic, we are made aware of our interdependence on one another to accomplish our personal and common good. Each particular is conditioned by its relation to other particulars. Persons depend on the government to provide sewage systems, infrastructure for business and the legitimizing of educational institutions to train future workers. The third characteristic is the reality of contradiction that we are made aware of through our differences, especially in an increasingly globalized world where we have to confront one another. Each person or group realizes its identity and aspirations in relation to other groups in their political relations, material conditions and cultural values. Contradictions occur when social and governmental institutions legitimize the preference of one class, group, and ethnicity over another in economic and political terms. A Jew living in a predominantly fundamentalist Islamic neighborhood finds contradiction in reaching his or her aspirations. The fourth characteristic of social existence is a self-transcending teleological movement towards a resolution or reconciliation of the internal contradictions. Any oppressed group, class or person will try to find a way to overcome social conflict, oppression or hindrances to their aspirations. Any success is not guaranteed, but will depend on the developmental stage of the economic, political and cultural as historical factors mediating the contradictions.

Fifth, the essential characteristic of social existence is historicity that understands all the previous characteristics as intrinsically historical categories. This dialectical category points to every event, institution or structure as conditioned by a specific historical context under particular conditions with all its inherited past decisions. Apart from this historical context, we understand social existence as an abstraction. Sixth, the characteristic of social existence is a concrete totality, which summarizes the first five characteristics. Society is concrete in the sense of being internally differentiated into spheres of activity that are intrinsically related to one another but each shapes itself through the dialectic of contradiction and reconciliation through its relation to one another and the whole. Society is a totality where the latter has a vision of the whole conditioning and mediating each constitutive sphere. This sense of the whole with its overall structure is both the a priori condition for each sphere in its process of becoming and the a posteriori result of the becoming. As a concrete totality, a person is always in process, in various modes of thriving or declining depending on the contradictions to be overcome, and whether the conflicts can be sustained. The seventh characteristic is the centrality of the economic and material conditions in the dialectic of concrete totality. This economic sphere is highlighted because our existence first depends on these material conditions for our very existence. Even Maslow’s hierarchy of needs points to material needs before higher needs. It is in this sphere where mutual dependence is needed to produce for the common good. This sphere has shaping influence over all the other spheres in terms of the economic conditioning of politics and culture.

Another moment of the concrete is our physical anthropology, which is another a priori constitutive condition of human nature. Advances in technology, such as PET-MRI scans, have emboldened cognitive psychologists, molecular biologists, neurobiologists and philosophers of mind to make inferences and predictions about human nature and behavior. There has been a temptation to either consider it as extrinsic to theological or philosophical considerations or to absolutize this dimension of human existence. Philosophical anthropology or any theological anthropology cannot avoid or ignore scientific investigation if they want to claim relation and relevance to everyday life. For any philosophical and theological anthropology to have universal significance, which is their assumed reason for being, they have to meet the rational human demand for accountability and justification. These disciplines have an obligation to explore broadly held paleo-anthropological, paleo-biological, neuroscientific, biochemical, molecular-biological, and socio-biological insights and inferences, and then to refine or update their anthropologies accordingly.

On the other hand, the dimension of physical anthropology cannot be absolutized. As an example, biological evolution cannot fully explain our existence, even if we were to adopt this framework. Conway Morris and Wentzel van Huyssteen argue that while biological evolution can explain how human minds arise and acquire talents and capacities, what we do with them can only be explained by cultural evolution, which includes the emergence of religious belief, art and speech.20 Similarly, the universal phenomenon of religious experience cannot be prematurely relegated to illusion simply because scientific explanations cannot account for some evolutionary advantage for its survival. The physical sciences, while providing an essential dimension that discloses our anthropology in often direct and spectacular ways, one must always avoid the temptation to elevate this dimension as the privileged locus for anthropology. Just like our socio-historical dimension, our physical anthropology is an internal and constitutive condition of human existence that mutually conditions the other existing personal, socio-historical and cosmic totalities.

As a moment of our personal totality, or human existence as personal existence, this dimension has historically received the most attention. Personal totalities have been explained in terms of body and soul, matter and spirit, and transcendence and history as what constitutes the universal structure of personal existence. This dimension includes analyzing particular characteristics of the human person, such as the intellect, emotions, senses, consciousness, will, imagination, ontological anxieties, instincts towards transcendence, sociality, participation as constitutive of the person and how each of these dimensions mutually condition and influence one another. What is common is to have particular characteristics and behavior singled out and elevated out of their socio-historical context and reified as the unchanging and universal expression of human nature.

A dialectical definition of personal existence recognizes that our human nature, however this term is conceived include potentialities and abstract possibilities that can only be actualized in history and society. This is not to assume that human nature is “infinitely malleable” and devoid of particular characteristics. Rather, “such potentialities and needs are actualized only in and through the mediation of objects given in a particular society and thus receive their particularity. They do not exist in themselves, are actually only as potentialities and needs of concrete humans who are always and already situated in a particular history and society.”21 This is especially true when we discuss the issue of human dignity. As embodied totalities, even dignity requires political, economic and cultural support in order to preserve, realize and be aware of itself.

The horizon of the religious dimension is immanent in all of human existence but not reducible to any of its moments. Whether it is the human response to solitariness (Whitehead), having a feeling of absolute dependence (Schleiermacher), our ultimate concern (Tillich), the fear of things invisible (Hobbes), our attitude towards a sacred order (Berger), our total reaction upon life (James), or considered as the opiate of the people (Marx), an illusion (Freud), something left over from the infancy of our intelligence (Russell), fairy tales of the conscience (Santayana), the religious dimension is nevertheless felt and expressed in our human existence experientially, mythically, ritually, doctrinally, ethically and socially in one form or another.22 The religious dimension is immanent in that we exist and stand before God as persons in the totality of our constitutive relations that are mediated by our cosmic, social and personal interrelations.

There is no part of our human existence that stands independently outside of religious mediation. Our experience of God is mediated by our concrete totalities, such as totalitarian structures that prohibit the freedom to worship, hyper-materialistic and consumerist conditions that diminish spiritual sensitivities, communities that practice oppressive and uncritical forms of enforced behaviors, proper religious education and personal spiritual maturity that can rise above oppressive conditions. Our concrete totalities affect our apprehension, comprehension and response to God. Even God’s demand for conversion from sin is a conversion of our concrete totality that includes the totality of the person, institutions, structures, relations that constituted human existence and not just the conversion of personal inwardness. Personal salvation must be extended to the “salvation” and “sanctification” of all the inherited structures and relations of our human existence. The religious dimension is a totalizing principle, “the transcendent ‘form’ and horizon of human existence as a concrete totality, which in turn provides the concrete historical human ‘content’ of religion.”23

Action as a Unifying Principle of Concrete Totality

The many dimensions and relations of human existence, however, demand a unifying of this totality or they end up juxtaposed to each other as a loose combination of different spheres.24 Human existence ends up reduced to a combined arrangement of necessary characteristics that are unrelated. A unity may be fragmented, partial, unconscious of itself, or in process, but it nevertheless presupposes a unity aware of its own incompleteness that demands unification. The unifying principle proposed by an anthropology of concrete totality is the category of action, although, the content of action is construed somewhat differently.

Action as a unifying principle unifies the multiplicity of dimensions and relations that constitute concrete human existence. Action constitutes the interconnection and unity of concrete totality. Action qualifies as a unifying principle by being at once totalizing, specifying, actualizing and teleological.25

Action is totalizing26 in the sense of holding together all the constitutive dimensions of human existence in their dialectical and mutually conditioning relationships within a concrete historical totality without being reduced to their particularities. All significant particularities in their relations must be understood and preserved in all their concrete tensions and particularities or else result in a fragmentation or a one-sided consideration of human existence. In addition, this totality demands integration in order that its disparate dimensions are held together in a different ated unity.