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Chapter 2: The Activistic Basis of Knowledge

1. Man and Action

The characteristic feature of man is action. Man aims at changing some of the conditions of his environment in order to substitute a state of affairs that suits him better for another state that suits him less. All manifestations of life and behavior with regard to which man differs from all other beings and things known to him are instances of action and can be dealt with only from what we may call an activistic point of view. The study of man, as far as it is not biology, begins and ends with the study of human action.

Action is purposive conduct. It is not simply behavior, but behavior begot by judgments of value, aiming at a definite end and guided by ideas concerning the suitability or unsuitability of definite means. It is impossible to deal with it without the categories of causality and finality. It is conscious behavior. It is choosing. It is volition; it is a display of the will.

Action is sometimes viewed as the human variety of the struggle for survival common to all living beings. However, the term "struggle for survival" as applied to animals and plants is a metaphor. It would be a mistake to infer anything from its use. In applying literally the term struggle to animals and plants one would ascribe to them the power to become aware of factors threatening their existence, the will to preserve their own integrity, and the mental faculty of finding means for its preservation.

Seen from an activist point of view, knowledge is a tool of action. Its function is to advise man how to proceed in his endeavors to remove uneasiness. At the higher stages of man's evolution from the conditions of the Stone Age to those of the age of modern capitalism, uneasiness is also felt by the mere prevalence of ignorance concerning the nature and the meaning of all things, no matter whether knowledge about these fundamental things would be of practical use for any technological planning. To live in a universe with whose final and real structure one is not familiar creates in itself a feeling of anxiety. To remove this anguish and to give men certainty about the last things has been from the earliest days the solicitude of religion and metaphysics. Later the philosophy of the Enlightenment and its affiliated schools promised that the natural sciences would solve all the problems involved. At any rate, it is a fact that to brood over the origin and essence of things, man's nature and his role in the universe, is one of the concerns of many people. Seen from this angle, the pure search for knowledge, not motivated by the desire to improve the external conditions of life, is also action, i.e., an effort to attain a more desirable state of affairs.

Another question is whether the human mind is fitted for the full solution of the problems involved. It may be argued that the biological function of reason is to aid man in his struggle for survival and the removal of uneasiness. Any step beyond the limits drawn by this function, it is said, leads to fantastic metaphysical speculations which are liable neither to demonstration nor to refutation. Omniscience is forever denied to man. Every search for truth must, sooner or later, but inevitably, lead to an ultimate given.1

The category of action is the fundamental category of human knowledge. It implies all the categories of logic and the category of regularity and causality. It implies the category of time and that of value. It encompasses all the specific manifestations of human life as distinguished from the manifestations of man's physiological structure which he has in common with all other animals. In acting, the mind of the individual sees itself as different from its environment, the external world, and tries to study this environment in order to influence the course of the events happening in it.

  • 1. See below, p. 53.