NotaBene .

Once Again, On the Human Essence

51 (2021) Editor: Gergana Popova
Topic of the issue
Nonka Bogomilova, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences,
PDF format
Download article in PDF format


Once Again, On the Human Essence (1)

Nonka Bogomilova

1.The vicissitudes of the concept of human essence


Today's so-called postmodern philosophy, for various reasons, has no great love for this concept, or a number of related concepts. Some of the reasons for this disaffection are pointed out by a famous proponent of the postmodern current, Jacques Derrida, in his book Writing and Difference. In his view, metaphysics, ontology, philosophical rationalism, the subject-object relation, in other words, the philosophical forms of constructing unity, represent "an anonymous and inhuman universality" and assert certain figures as dominating over human life and creativity, such as God, power, authority, the leader. To this "outmoded" philosophy, Derrida opposes the modern philosophers (his teachers), who overcome these dry, arrogant, absolutist forms of philosophizing. Among them is Michel Foucault, who "closes reason"; Levinas, whose ethical relation between I and the Other replaces the anonimous "one"; Husserl's phenomenology, guided by comprehension and experience.

Derrida relates this new way of thinking and writing to the new social and political situation, to life grounded in spontaneity, self-sufficiency, naturalness. Reason is no-longer the all-knowing master, dominating and legislating over objects and processes; instead, it is going through a crisis that brings it close to the unreasonable, it is "madder than the madman" (Derrida 1998: 96). 

This approach in postmodern philosophy tends towards the gradual annihilation of the category of "human nature" and its basic modes: reason, morality, freedom; human nature appears as one of the totalizations subjected to criticism. In studying the vicissitudes of the category of "individual" in terms of the changes of its content within the history of philosophy, Maiya Georgieva, in her interesting study Phenomenology of the Individual, concludes that, "[f]or postmodernism, individuality is only a myth that has today been definitively surmounted" (Georgieva 1999: 129). Here, the free person is not the Kantian responsible subject, charged with the requirements of the moral imperative and the duty to his/her own person and dignity, but is "nothing", "a deconstructed subject", "deprived of responsibility..." (Georgieva 1999: 131). 

As we know, some of the causes of this disappointment in the Enlightenment project are related to the attempts to create within reality a perfect human being and a perfect society, proceeding from the idea of the human essence as an achievable ideal, as a secular theophany of man (Küenzlen  1997: 141; Centore 2000: 48-50; Greisch 2004: 64).

We believe the cause of this ambivalence and of these deplorable social outcomes attributed to humanist philosophy in its search for the New Man, lie not only, and not so much, in the abstract, illusory nature of the vision of this Man, but rather in the attempts made to realize the vision by social groups and communities that "privatize" and "nationalize" the abstract, universalist, normative philosophical vision of Man. The cultural function of this vision should be looked for in its role as a corrective of the theory and values of the socio-cultural processes and research ventures, and not in its role of a pragmatic imperative.  

But unfortunately, thinkers have no control over the reading and social application of their theories, although in modern times the blame and responsibility of failed application are usually placed on the thinkers. 

In fact, this ambition to achieve a perfect human being here and now, in the present and in the future, has not been humbled by the bitter lessons of history. The ambition in question today is typical of other trends of thought, such as certain forms of transhumanism, genetic engineering, and eugenics. Habermas's critique of these trends is based on the idea of human autonomy, morality and dignity, and is one of the possible ways of applying such concepts and values in social critical discourse (Habermas 2004).

Of course, some of the critical points presented here have their justifications. But if I am so bold as to nevertheless write and talk about a human essence, it is because I adopt as justified that other viewpoint, clearly formulated by Erich Fromm, according to which


2."The whole concept of humanness and humanism is based on the idea of a human nature proper to all people."(Fromm 2002: 37)


In his book Beyond the Chains of Illusion, which recapitulates the author's life work and the cultural situation within which he has worked, Fromm finds that this idea has a "bad reputation" due to the postmodern sceptical attitude towards all abstractions. But with its loss, a part of humanness is also lost, the experience of humanness as a universal phenomenon (Fromm 2002: 37)

I believe so not only because as authoritative investigator of the human essence as Erich Fromm has said so. There are other serious reasons to regret the loss of the universality of the human in its basic modes - reason, morality, and freedom. Along with the currents of globalization, the specific connection, mutual binding and even unification of mankind along certain lines, there are also ongoing strong trends of particularization, of disunity and conflictive opposition. The picture of human interconnections increasingly looks like an assembled "puzzle" within the framework of the global, but a puzzle that is internally disassembled based on differences in terms of property, power, ethnicity, religion, etc. Some countries, nations and religions are becoming increasingly poor and some increasingly rich; increasingly powerful and increasingly subordinated; increasingly "great" and increasingly "negligible". Science is increasingly rational and its users are increasingly irrational...

The newly fashioned concepts and political instruments for dealing with this disassembling of society - instruments like democracy, tolerance, multiculturalism - seem to be trying to mend and efface the growing dividing lines, at times successfully, and at times not. We agree with authors who point out that some of the dividing lines are fundamental and decisive, such as that between poverty and wealth (Bauman 2002), between different degrees of access to power and education (Smith 2000), while other lines are secondary and even artificially overstressed, such as ethnic and religious differences (Meyer 2002; Spickard 2010; Stobbe 2013).     

The common, universal scope of the concept of "tolerance", which unites different meanings and interpretations and posits its broad philosophical scope, is related to the revival of the term as an ethical concept (Denkova 2001). We agree with Bauman that the defining theoretical and humanistic horizon in which these issues can be solved is the "universality of the human" (Bauman 2003:169).    

The expectations of some intellectuals that the global risk of the Covid-19 challenge would unite and "humanize" humankind seem, regrettably, so far unfulfilled. What is more, it seems that the global divisions indicated above are deepening (Bole 2020; Katsarski 2020; Denkova 2020), while the states are ever more actively intervening in the rights and freedoms of the individual, enhancing people's financial and informational dependence on the government. As for relations between people, isolation and alienation seem to have become even stronger, seemingly drawing new deep divisions - between the young and the old, children and parents, the healthy and the sick, between groups of people working in industry, thus being more vulnerable to the virus, and the "home office" employees residing in a less dangerous, virtual domain. All this leads to "degeneration of social relations", to a paradoxical situation where "our neighbor has been cancelled (Agamben 2020a). We do not share the author's extreme pessimism and underestimation of the medical aspect of the situation. But we can agree with his reflections that, if fear and self-isolation, the substitution of real contacts with virtual ones, were to become a long-term strategy, this would be a threat to fundamental human values.

3.The Pandemic as a social metaphor?

But with relation to our topic, Agamben draws another conclusion, which is more interesting and of deeper importance: that these social-psychological consequences of the pandemic were prepared, had been maturing deep within the lifestyle of people long before the appearance of Covid-19: "Evidently, the condition of life of people had become such, that a sudden sign was enough for them to appear as what they were, that is, intolerant, just like the plague." (Agamben 2020b).

Risking to resemble the preacher Paneloux in my approach to the issue, I will attempt to state the problem in his words: "If the plague threatens you today, that means the time for reflection has come... For too long has this world come to terms with evil, too long has it relied on divine mercy. It permits itself everything, as long as it repents afterwards... (Camus 1966).


4.The Risk Society within anthropological perspective

"The Risk Society" is a modern concept that can serve as a possible key to the discussion on Agamben's idea. The concept, based on the ideas of Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens, Zygmunt Bauman, Umberto Eco and other contemporary researchers, is commented and built upon in the book by Lazar Koprinarov Mobilis in Mobili (2013). In this work, the modern society marked by acceleration and lost control is viewed as a generator of specific intellectual and psychological phenomena aimed at mastering or eliminating in an illusory way the deficits and discomfort generated in modern humans. Although it is generally inherent in human society, the new, contemporary status of risk has specific manifestations: the inability of people to foresee the effects of accelerated technological development, people's dependence on threats coming from nature, such as diseases, climate change, etc. The invisibility of the risks, their rootedness in abstract systems, the indeterminate character of the future, lead to man's loss of the status of subject, loss of freedom and responsibility (Koprinarov 2013).

The author views so-called "magical thinking" as a means for coping with the fear, anxiety and aggression that the situation generates. This kind of thinking originates from the division of the world into a visible sphere and the "kingdom of shadows" that create invisible threats; a life lived not in accordance with one's own experience but according to "hearsay" accepted on faith; the enormous importance of scientific knowledge combined with the  disconnectedness of knowledge from the everyday lives of people; the most frequently used technical facilities in daily life operating as a "black box", as a "magic wand". We can agree with the author that the obsession with the mediatic virtual is a way to compensate for the feeling, engendered in people today by these deficits, that the individual is a "spectator of his/her own life". Koprinarov interprets fear as a product of the situation described above: fear for one's own health, described by Gilles Lipovetsky as a "sanitary and hygienic dramatization"; a fear for the future that is mastered and overcome illusively through aggression, self-isolation, virtualization (Koprinarov 2013).

To comment on Koprinarov's reflections, we may say that seemingly the virus, or more precisely the human reaction to it, has made salient and enhanced to paradoxical dimensions these social-psychological configurations and instruments for coping, really or virtually, with the problems of contemporary man in so-called risk society.

Within this specific anthropology of modern man, we share the author's value choice in favor not of virtual reality, which "disembodies" and "desensualizes" (Koprinarov 2013: 132) the individual, but of free, real mobility in space - physical, social, spiritual mobility. And coming in strong support of the idea of the universally human, this idea is defined as an "essential mark of the human", as a "metaphysical" quality of the human (Koprinarov 2013: 7).

While these analyses refer to developments at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century, their proto-phenomena, as we know, can be discovered earlier in ideas on human alienation and inner dividedness, ideas that we find in existentialism, psychoanalysis, personalism and other currents that try to understand 


5.The situation of modern man

Among the numerous authors who have devoted, in total, thousands of pages to this topic, I will briefly recall Erich Fromm's "classical" interpretation. He describes this situation in the context of the general social spirit of Modern Times, the ethical problems of the age, and its "sins" consisting (as far as the 19th century is concerned) chiefly in exploitation, authoritarianism, inequality. From these sins, the 20th century added new ones like technocratism, alienation, loneliness, idolatry. The last mentioned of these refers to making idols of money, success, technology, the state - all of which are powers standing outside the forces of humans (Fromm 2005: 118). Even "God becomes a partner in business." (Fromm 2005: 120). This testifies to a loss of self-esteem in people, loss of personality, a strengthening of the intellect at the expense of reason in a way that may lead to a new war, as Fromm fears. The basic conflict of values is that "between the world of objects and their accumulation on the one hand, and the world of life and its productivity, on the other" (Fromm 2004: 107).  

In discussing the modern individual, Max Weber did not engage strongly in value judgments or moral-didactic assertions. Unlike him, Fromm proceeds from the Enlightenment ideal of the free, autonomous individual who builds through work and creativity and bases his evaluations and critique upon this ideal. His analysis takes this ideal view of the human essence as a guiding thread, as a value ground for the analysis of modern man. His conclusion about the future is that, even if man were to avoid a nuclear war, he would continue to be a victim of alienation both under capitalism and under Communism. "The process of discouraging alienation will continue" (Fromm 2004: 121), Fromm writes in an essay published in the 1960s.

We will go further in this, as it were,  


6. retrospective overview of some proto-phenomenon of the Risk Society and the vicissitudes of the concept of human essence

It will help us to better understand our topic and the growing disassembling of society in the time of the pandemic. 

Here, we could cite many other authors who are in accord with Fromm's critique of modern man and who would support his idea of a certain comparability between capitalism and Communism. I would briefly mention the analysis made, likewise in the 1960s, by Assen Ignatow, an authoritative Bulgarian philosopher and scholar of European-level importance. He worked in Bulgaria until 1972, and then, until his death in 2003, in Germany. For him, the category of the human, human essence, is also based on the values of the Enlightenment ideal, although in his early writings, in the 1960s, he saw that ideal as realized in the "socialist" society in which he was living. 


7."The Human has enslaved the human being"

he wrote at that time in his essay "Our Contemporary and Alienation".  

According to Ignatow, what unites people of different societies and political regimes into a global whole, making mutual "contemporaries" of them, is alienation. This category was quite fashionable in Western philosophy at the time he was reflecting on these matters. In discussing this concept, he was the first to present the philosophers Martin Heidegger, Erich Fromm, Jean-Paul Sartre, Karl Jaspers, Jacques Maritain, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and many other such, to the Bulgarian reader.

In following the views of some of these thinkers, Ignatow relates the phenomenon of alienation to a variety of phenomena such as poverty, legal and political oppression, ignorance, moral degradation, the fetishizing of money, selfishness, the dictatorship of possessed objects, Leviathan (the State), the crippling of the thinker, of the creative person, and his/her transformation into a transmitter of other people's ideas, into a narrow specialist and a bibliographical minute toiler. According to Ignatow's definition, in resonance with the ideas he shares with the above-mentioned thinkers, alienation "autonomizes every human force, turning it into an anti-human phantom." (Ignatow 1968: 74).

Although today the concept of alienation is not encountered so often in philosophy or literature, the phenomena it mirrors are still present, although referred to under other concepts and designations; they are even becoming more intensive and extensive. 

Summarizing the nature of the so-called consumer society, Ignatow concludes that "Man does not live, he possesses" (Ignatow 1968: 87), whereby he echoes Erich Fromm's alternatives "to have or to be". Loneliness, isolation is the real consequence of the breaking of people's ties to others, to the state, to the values in their world. 


Clearly present in all three viewpoints I have briefly presented is the status of the concept of "human essence" in the Enlightenment sense of the notion: it serves as a cognitive and value foundation, a reference point for analysis and social critique of the trends and phenomena in modern and postmodern society. Phenomena such as alienation, in all its various forms; consumerism; the breakdown of human ties in reality and their "reanimation" in the virtual sphere; magical thinking, fear, and aggression as dangerous "waste products" of these trends. The values affirmed in such an analysis and such a critique have been well known ever since Aristotle's (Aristotle 1993: 31, 48, 60, 62, 63, 64, 141), Kant's (Kant 1974: 83, 92, 98, 104, 196; Kant 1974: 180,183) views on the human essence, on human nature, which refer to a man engaged with moral reason, to the freedom and dignity of human beings. The transcendental level of that "pragmatic anthropology" is analyzed in the recent book of prof. Kanawrow The Transcendental Road To Man (2020).


8. I - Thou relation and the human essence

But we started this discussion on the risk society and alienation in order to comment on Agamben's thought that "the plague was already here". In Albert Camus' famous novel, the plague taken as a social metaphor not only by the preacher Paneloux, but also by another character - the Saint (Jean Tarrou), who tries to become a saint without God. And while the preacher arrogantly accuses people of the evil in them and sees the disease as a punishment meted by God, the Saint feels personally engaged in and responsible for the unjust world full of death and suffering. "Yes, I have continued to feel ashamed, and I learned that we are all in the plague, and I have lost my peace of mind. I am still looking for it today, trying to understand all of them and not to be the mortal enemy of anybody. All I know is that one must do one's best not to be a plague victim and this is the only thing that can give us hope of peace or, failing that, a good death." (Camus 1966). 

Between these strategies - accusation or salvation of all humankind, which carries the contagion as human essence eternally in the souls of individuals or in society - Camus' sympathy seem to be for the stance of the Healer (Doctor Rieux). The latter looks upon the disease not as a metaphor but in terms of pain suffered by people. He does not seek the causes, does not divide people into victims and executioners, does not rely on God, but understands the suffering of people, feels it deep in his heart, especially the intolerable suffering of children. His cause lies in sharing and possibly healing this suffering, and perhaps that is why he is one of the few highlighted characters among the suffering mass of people who is not struck down by the disease.   

Attempts have been made in our country to philosophize along this existentialist line. They may seem belated in view of the passing of this current of thought in the West, but today's situation is giving them a new occasion. Our young colleague Nikolay Turlakov makes an interesting attempt to construct a metaphysics of the universally human based on a literary classic. Thinking on the short stories of the Bulgarian writer Yordan Yovkov, Turlakov draws, so to speak, a metaphysics of human suffering and loneliness, of rejection within even mass human formations. This situation is interpreted philosophically as a fundamental dimension of human existence, as an existential destiny (or as a "basic law" of humankind, as Dostoyevsky calls it in The Idiot). The escape from this "absurd" philosophical and human situation offered by the author is what he calls "hope-without-God". It is in the hands of people, not of God, to offer to other people compassion, support and hope. This specific "anthropology from a Romantic perspective" flows into the philosophical traditions that refer to I-Thou relations such as love, care, compassion; these are ideas we find in authors like Buber and Levinas, and before them, in Ludwig Feuerbach.

A similar attempt was made in Bulgaria in the 1980s by the philosopher Professor Nedyalka Mihova in her science fiction novel Intra. Here she made the conclusion that the most basic link between I and Thou is not knowledge, but human closeness that overcomes the eternal human loneliness (Mihova 1989).

Even the danger of contagion cannot subdue this yearning for closeness, as Camus testifies: "Does one not observe how each person is afraid of touching others but hungers after human warmth and how this hunger drives people towards each other, so that they may embrace, merge their bodies together?" Because "a world without love is a dead world, and there always comes a time when man is sated with prisons, with work, with courage, and looks only for a beloved face and a heart enchanted by gentleness" (Camus 1966).

But these reflections and the concepts they are centered on - compassion, closeness - can also be placed in the broad framework of one of the dimensions of the human essence, that is, morality, defined by Kant as its main dimension.   




Situations like the present one make people particularly sensitive to the presence or absence of these universal human values in society, in life, in the human heart. Every injustice, every restricted freedom, every act of selfishness, every lonely pain, with which the world is full today, make of these values empty slogans, cold-hearted edifications. But in order that these values would not be what Camus calls "clumsy idols", "beasts without souls", "frozen in bronze", what is required is not only the efforts of the Teacher and the Healer but of every person. For the person is, according to Kant and Aristotle, the "substance" of these values.


1. A Plenary report, presented at the Jubilee International  Conference „Transformations and Challenges in the Global World", Southwestern University, Bulgaria, 15-17 October 2020.





Agamben, G.2020. Contagion. //  Notabene, 48

Agamben, G.2020. Reflections on the plague. //Notabene 48

Aristotle. 1993. Nicomachean Ethics. Sofia: GAL-IKO.

Bauman, Z.2002. Modernity and the Holocaust. Sofia: LIK

Bauman, Z.2003. Seeking Safety in an Insecure World. Sofia: LIK

Bole, J.2020. Be Kind, Stay Calm: The Impact of Coronavirus on Meaning of Life:
between Free Will and Nihilism. //Ethical Research  5(1)

Camus, A. 1966. The Plague. Sofia: Narodna Cultura

Centore, F. 2000.From Cosmos  to Theos.   -  In:  Roy Abraham Varghese (Ed). Theos, Anthropos, Christos. A Compendium of Modern Philosophical Theology. New York:  Peter Lang,  48-50.

Denkova, A. 2020. Coronavirus: the Ethic's Pandemic. //Ethical Research , 5(1)

Denkova, L. 2001. Genèse de la tolérance - de Platon à Benjamin Constant. Anthologie de textes. Choix et présentation par Lidia Denkova. Collection Les classiques de la tolérance. UNESCO, Paris.

Derrida, J.1998. Writing and Difference. Sofia: Nauka I izkustvo.

Fromm, E. 2002. Beyond the Chains of Illusion: my Encounter with Marx and Freud . Sofia: Zaharii Stoyanov.

Fromm, E.2005. The Dogma of Christ and Other Essays on Religion, Psychology and Culture. Sofia: Zaharii Stoyanov.

Fromm, E.2004. The Sane Society. Sofia: Zaharii Stoyanov

Georgieva, M.1999. Phenomenology of  the Individual. Institut za modernostta, Open Society.

Greisch, J.2004. Qu'appelle-t-on "s'orienter dans la pensée". Une meditation métaphilosophique.  In Philippe Capelle et Jean Greisch (éd). Raison philosophique et christianisme à l'aube de IIIe millénaire. Paris : CERF, 27-52.

Habermas, J.2004. The Future of Human Nature.Sofia: Ideya.

Ignatow, A.1968. Grief and Urge of Time. Sofia: Balgarski pisatel.

Kanawrow, W.2020. The Transcendental Road to Man. Sofia: Iztok-Zapad.

Kant, I.1974a.Critique of Practical Reason. Sofia:BAN

Kant, I.1974b. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.Sofia: Nauka I izkustvo.

Katsarski, Iv.2020. COVID-19: Life, Death, Power

Koprinarov, L.2013. Mobilis in Mobili.Sofia: Iztok-Zapad.

Küenzlen, G. 1997. Looking for the New Man within the Contemporary Culture. //Filosofski Alternativi, 4, 135-142.

Meyer, J. 2002. De la violence à la religion: aller-retour.  // Social compass 49 (2), 203-212.

Mihova, N.1989. Intra. Sofia: Narodna mladezh.

Smith, A.2000. National Identity. Sofia: Kralitza Mab.

Spickard, J.2010. Religion, Human Rights and the Global Culture. //Filosofski Alternativi, 5, 120-134.

Stobbe, H.-G. 2013.Religious Implications of Conflicts in Central and Eastern Europe. In D.Dordevic (Ed.) On Religion in the Balkans. Nis and Sofia, YSSSR, Ivan Hadjiyski Institute, 3-10.