Human beings are responsive beings

Manifest for an existential anthropology

Getting Personal

As soon as we begin reflecting on the question “What is the human being?” certain peculiarities arise. It is first of all not only a question about the human being, because in asking this question the questioner is at the same time in question as a human being. This means that the questioner posing this question is immediately called upon to respond in his or her own name. In other words: to ask “What is the human being?”, is at the same time to ask “What am I?”. The question of the human being thereby leaves no room for an evasive move that would allow individual commitment and responsibility to be avoided, as I myself am what I take human beings to be. The most universal question concerning humanity proves to require an answer with a very special kind of existential dedication.

And secondly, when responding to the question, that the human being is this or that, we find that even before we addressed the question, we were in effect already responding to it by being this or that way; that is, we already had an understanding of the human being since we were capable of being human. This means that we as researchers can attempt to ask and answer the question reflectively, but that we prior to this are already by the mere fact of our existence tacitly both called upon to respond to it and in the process of such responding. Thus, being drawn into the question concerning the human condition is, at the most basic level of human existence, in itself part of and a response to the human condition.

To be human is to exist responsively

We therefore hold that any scientific endeavor with an anthropological scope must be based on an existential anthropology and that an existential anthropology must focus on the concept of responsiveness as a defining ontological character of the human way of being.

Challenging paradigms

The concept of responsiveness implies that the question regarding human nature cannot be dealt with in objective, observational discourse alone, but must recognize the authority of the questioning person too. It is therefore pertinent to have a perspective that supplements and critically reflects both naturalistic and structuralist attempts to explain human behavior by means of its physiological and biological setting or as instantiations of social structures.


Currently such attempts can be observed in predominant discourses heavily infused with neuroscience or evolutionary psychology. Existential anthropology objects to this naturalistic paradigm. Instead of reducing the phenomenon of the human being - e.g. to nothing but biological processes -, its approach tries to save the phenomenon by exploring the meaning of human existence from within and conceptualize how humans in fact respond to the project of being.

… Structuralism...

The phenomenological approach of existential anthropology also challenges the hegemony of (post-)structuralism and familiar theories in recent work on anthropology and social science. These theoretical approaches tend to transform human life into anonymous elements and relations, leaving aside the lived experience of actually being such elements or relations.

... Relativism...

Existential anthropology finally challenges relativist attitudes, notably found in recent empirical anthropology, which altogether dismisses the very possibility of referring to the human condition. By stressing the basic openness of existential responsiveness existential anthropology steers clear of unfruitful relativisms on the one hand and all unwarranted essentialisms on the other.

Existential Anthropology as a Theory of Human Responsiveness

The framework of an existential anthropology based on responsiveness preserves the open character of the human being, but does so by explicating this openness in a very distinct way. This provides the possibility of grasping the human being in all its profundity without putting preconceived constraints on the phenomenon. It will enable existential anthropology to develop concepts that are sensitive to a person’s individual and socially mediated way of understanding him- or herself as a human being, thus anticipating the global diversity of existential responses to the burden, the challenge and the prospect of leading one’s life as opposed to merely living it. Existential responses such as these call forth and ring out in larger patterns of self-understanding and world-orientation, which are mediated in techniques of the body, institutions of cultural learning, political and normative responsibilities etc. It is the ambition of an existential anthropology qua the concept responsiveness to navigate in this complex affair.

The main hypothesis of existential anthropology therefore is:

  • Human beings are responsive beings

Human responsiveness can, although always enacted in one, whole movement, be differentiated into a number of moments, each conceptualized in the following sub-theses:

Existential anthropology has as its primary advantage the ability of addressing and navigating in this manifold of intertwining interpretive, expressive and preservative layers of the human fabric, which is always already in the process of responding to and thereby modifying the design of being. This points to the potentially fruitful impact of the concept of responsiveness on the methodologies of empirical anthropology; an indication that is summed up in a final sub-thesis: