‘Homo Faber’

Human beings have often been presented as entities uniquely capable of shaping their own conditions for living, across a variety of dimensions including the material, intellectual, and in terms of anticipation of their future. Classical philosophy’s rational animal; the souls of religions, animated by something divine; Kant’s good wills, with stakes in both causality and a world of normativity. Even among those who would naturalise humans’ place in the world, emphasis is on continuities  with nature as with Rousseau’s conflicted self-chained beings, or discontinuities as in Nietzsche’s ‘unfinished animals’. In the present, one way in which this view can be seen to persist is in terms of technology, and in particular a view of the human as maker — homo faber.

This view appears in Max Frisch’s novel ‘Homo Faber’. The idea is that human life, undetermined in various very general ways, is determinable through acts of will and instances of creation. Technology is emancipatory and expressive of control. Human beings as makers can be seen as an empowering self-image, but from Frisch’s novel, a crucial omission is noted. The sense of control behind the self-image requires a self-conscious engagement with all things, all matters of fact, on a model of apprehension that denies involvement beyond some kind of bare experience; some kind of calculating intake of data. As Frisch puts it, this sort of parsimonious phenomenology is…

“…especially the case with Homo Faber. That was the point, that a man is giving an interpretation that is flat, flatter than life is. Walter [the main protagonist] denies he has experiences because he’s very helpless in expressing his emotions. So he describes himself as flatly as possible. He has the arrogance to say nothing. He realizes too late that he was engaged emotionally in many, many things.”[1]

The assumption of control, and of the emancipatory expressivism made available by technology requires a feigning of anaesthesia about dimensions of experience that are not readily modelled as calculable. This is a central plank in what the human-as-maker paradigm demands.

What is Homo Faber?

The symbolic content of Frisch’s novel is rich and varied [2]. It expresses neat distinctions, made by its protagonist, between humans and nature; self-control and fate; self-knowledge and perception. These are each presented in a context of a general worldview that takes the ‘human being as maker’ seriously.

In this worldview, atomic human beings, whose minds are transparent to themselves, observe a world of nature and, in light of their desires, create technologies to adapt that very world to their own ends. In so doing, the very nature of Homo Faber is extended beyond the natural basis from which it begins, hence nature is twice overcome; once from the limits of the individual’s corporeality and vulnerability; once from its resistance to empirical change. The first overcoming is based in will, the second in technology.

Nietzsche’s characterisation, in Beyond Good and Evil, of the human being as an “unfinished animal” resonates with this conception of the world, as have various philosophical anthropologies that see the instincts of animal nature replaced in the human by plans, instrumentalised reason, in a plastic and future-centric perception of reality [3]. In summary, animals typically have well adapted responses to their environment, honed through generations of adaptation. Human beings appear in general to have instead a general and adaptable skill that can emancipate them from material, external circumstances.

The protections this skill offers are inherently future-facing: foreknowledge is not available to the human but, unlike the general animal, seeks not to react to but to control its environment. So expressed, there is a sense of utopianism built-in to this worldview. Control of the environment, rather than reaction to it, along with a strong duality between human and nature implies that it is in Homo Faber’s interests to produce an enduring conditioning of nature such that future shocks can be minimised or eliminated.

That this is to be pursued via technology suggests that material reality is to be set against its own contingency by a reasoned deployment of human ingenuity; knowledge of science, for instance, permits the inner workings of nature to be exploited to protect the scientist from the flow of happenstance, be it via the production of materials, or through weather forecasting, or disruptive interventions that alter the way nature behaves.

For such a protected future state, predicated on technological invention, it is evident that some sort of consistency is required. It is part of the animating core of Homo Faber as it is understood here. What sense would endless cycles of intervention in nature have for Homo Faber? This would be a reproduction through technical means of the situation any animal experiences. This would not be a transcendence of nature, but a complicated participation in it. Instead, an end point, or at least a lasting hiatus, must form part of the ambitions of Homo Faber for Homo Faber to make sense as such. This is why Ferrarin [3] points out the ‘Promethean’ character of the human-as-maker paradigm.

Homo Faber is a future-oriented, adaptable, rational animal, whose efforts are aligned with her interests when she creates technology that enables a stable counteraction of natural circumstance. Does this portray well the state of human being?

Fiction prompting reflection

The main character in Frisch’s novel, Walter Faber, doesn’t know the colour of his own eyes. He has always said they were brown, based on the description he has seen written on his passport. But the passport is wrong. They are not brown, but greyish green. What can we say about this literary symbol, nestled in the core of Homo Faber?

In terms of identity, in homo faber there is an absence of acknowledgement that identity is not settled via an inert description, but can draw upon distributed discourse. Simply taking something as read, literally, is insufficient to determine a fact. A passport ought to be correct, but it can be wrong. Failing to realise this represents a naiveté in Walter Faber’s character, and an oversimplification of the external world. This spells trouble for the homo faber paradigm, which requires that the world is readable like a book — an inert source of information for use in practical contexts of exploitation through technology.

This further translates into issues about coordination – knowing the significance of one’s actions in a context; oneself as part of the context of others. Walter Faber expects an objective, simple, inert world outside. But he fails to recognise that, from another point of view, he is part of that external world. He is as objective to another as another is to him. The mistake with the passport suggests that others, moreover, aren’t that objective all the time.

Where others can be mistaken, so too can Walter. Indeed, his trust in the passport was a mistake. His realisation of the mistake, late as it comes in his life, suggests an uncuriousness that appears quite problematic. An entire life has been lived under an unchecked illusion that was literally looking him in the eye every time he used a mirror. If facts, relied on in the homo faber paradigm, can be so clearly wrong and unchecked, what does this say about the human-as-maker idea? It’s materials and its rationality seem very tested. This is perhaps another side to the ‘arrogance’ Frisch picks out.

Metaphorically, in terms of the novel’s symbolism, it is quite telling that eye colour is used in this way. Walter is unaware of how his vision is coloured. The epistemological assumption of neutrality and clarity of perception, once more essential to the homo faber paradigm, is directly contradicted. And again, the colours used: Brown – definite, simple – to ‘greyish green’ – uncertain, complex. Grey: not black or white. Green: fertile, generative; also naïve. The idea that simplicity is not present, instead suggestive vagueness has looked Walter in the face every day, and he has missed it.

Error and what’s aimed for

In terms of human mistakes, we can make a distinction between competence and performance error. Competence errors are caused by an inability to do something — a lack of capacity. Performance errors are just mistakes — misapplication of a skill nonetheless held. What is the nature of Walter’s error? Even without coming to an answer, this question alone is enough to further derail the homo faber paradigm. The question requires more resources than the paradigm can house.

In terms of the familiar ‘homo sapiens’ idea, we can understand well what is meant. Knowing is the special characteristic – represent the world to ourselves as a world of symbolic meaning. We can spot error because things don’t add up: we think there are zero sabre-tooth tigers approaching, but really, there is one and it’s hungry. That’s a potentially costly performance error with respect to sight, and/or counting.

With homo faber, making is the special characteristic –  animals have a context in which they operate, with close adaptations to environment. Humans are poor animals, but have a huge plasticity provided by ability to adapt the environment. How to spot error? How can we judge this adaptation of the world to our preference as against another, it being unrealised? How can we be sure we are using all the requisite dimensions of judgement in assessing it — how can we know we aren’t relying on the passport and calling our eyes brown.

The opportunities represented by accounting for one another as makers, re-makers, and boundless sources of future change ought to be tempered by the realisation that every vision is an interpretation. Interpretations can vary not just in content, but also in the description of what they take as raw material. These can introduce path-dependencies that serve to close off as many directions of travel as they advance. The atomism tacitly present in homo faber leads to unanswerable questions like those of the last paragraph. Ironically (perhaps) the sort of objectivity required to temper the ‘objectivity’ in homo faber is that provided by other subjects — intersubjectivity and Homo Politicus.

Where organised interaction is taken as the special characteristic for human beings – not ties to any political position per se, but the scope to negotiate different confrontations of realities among groups — there is a means to combine and account for a plurality of points of view. This is in fact a necessary precondition for the explication of the previous two types of reduction. In terms of knowledge, the construction of the known (of facts, of ‘nature’, of the scope of enquiry) is a political act. This can be demonstrated through the histories of philosophy and of science, where all but a narrow band of voices have been routinely ignored for political reasons. Similarly, homo faber must decide upon a future that is worth pursuing in order to then enact it – the value-ladenness of decision here could not be overstated. Carving a new path includes deciding what is rubble to be thrown away, as well as setting a direction of travel. Moreover, once a path is set, all other roads are de facto closed.

[1] Daynard, J., 1989, “Max Frisch, The Art of Fiction No. 113”, The Paris Review, Winter II, No. 113 http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2367/the-art-of-fiction-no-113-max-frisch (accessed November 2016)

[2] Latta, A. D., 1989, The Nature and Variety of Signifying Elements in Max Frisch’s Novel Homo faber: An Approach, The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory Vol. 64 , Iss. 4

[3] Ferrarin, A., 2000, Homo Faber, Homo Sapiens, or Homo Politicus? Protagoras and the Myth of Prometheus, The Review of Metaphysics, 54, 2, 289-319

Image: By Josef Kates (U.S. Patent 2,784,312) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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