An ancient maxim tells us that the proper study of man is man. The problem of man is an eternal and at the same time the most urgent of all problems. It lies at the heart of the philosophical questions of man's place and destination in a world that is being discovered and transformed in the name of humanity, the highest of all values. The main goal of social development is the formation of human abilities and the creation of the most favourable conditions for human self-expression.
Physicists are perfectly right in stressing the difficulties of research into elementary particles. But they should not resent being told that such research is child's play in comparison with the scientific comprehension of games played by children! The rules of any game are only a conventionally marked path; children "run" along this path very capriciously, violating its borders at every turn, because they possess free will and their choice cannot be predicted. Nothing in the world is more complex or more perplexing than a human being.
Many sciences study people, but each of them does so from its own particular angle. Philosophy, which studies humanity in the round, relies on the achievements of other sciences and seeks the essential knowledge that unites humankind.
Idealism reduces the human essence to the spiritual principle. According to Hegel, the individual realises not subjective, but objective aims; he is a part of the unity not only of the human race but of the whole universe because the essence of both the universe and man is the spirit.
The essence of man comprises both the spiritual sphere, the sphere of the mind, and his bodily organisation, but it is not confined to this. Man becomes aware of himself as a part of the social whole. Not for nothing do we say that a person is alive as long as he is living for others. Human beings act in the forms determined by the whole preceding development of history. The forms of human activity are objectively embodied in all material culture, in the implements of labour, in language, concepts, in systems of social norms. A human being is a biosocial being and represents the highest level of development of all living organisms on earth, the subject of labour, of the social forms of life, communication and consciousness.
If we examine human existence at the organismic level, we discover the operation of laws based on the self-regulation of processes in the organism as a stable integral system. As we move "upwards", we encounter the world of the mind, of personality. At the organismic level, the human being is part of the natural interconnection of phenomena and obeys its necessity, but at the personal level his orientation is social. From the world of biology through psychology we enter the sphere of social history.
In ancient philosophy man was thought of as a "small world" in the general composition of the universe, as a reflection and symbol of the universe understood as a spiritualised organism. A human being, it was thought, possessed in himself all the basic elements of the universe. In the theory of the transmigration of souls evolved by Indian philosophers the borderline between living creatures (plants, animals, man and gods) is mobile. Man tries to break out of the fetters of empirical existence with its law of karma, or what we should call "fate". According to the Vedanta, the specific principle of the human being is the atman (soul, spirit, selfhood), which in essentials may be identified with the universal spiritual principle—the Brahman. The ancient Greeks, Aristotle, for example, understood man as a social being endowed with a "reasoning soul".
In Christianity the biblical notion of man as the "image and likeness of God", internally divided owing to the Fall, is combined with the theory of the unity of the divine and human natures in the personality of Christ and the consequent possibility of every individual's inner attainment of divine "grace".
The Age of the Renaissance is totally inspired by the idea of human autonomy, of man's boundless creative abilities. Descartes worked on the principle, cogito, ergo sum—"I think therefore I am". Reason was regarded as the specific feature of man. Soul and body were understood dualistically. The body being regarded as a machine, similar to that of the animals, while the soul was identified with consciousness.
Proceeding from this dualistic understanding of man as a being belonging to two different worlds, the world of natural necessity and that of moral freedom, Kant divided anthropology into "physiological" and "pragmatic" aspects. The first should study what nature makes of man, while the second is concerned with what he, as a freely acting being, does, can or should make of himself. Here there is a return to the conception of man as a living whole which characterised the Renaissance. Unlike that of the animals, man's bodily organisation and sense organs are less specialised, and this is an advantage. He has to form himself, by creating a culture. Thus we arrive at the idea of the historical nature of human existence. For classical German philosophy the determining factor is the notion of man as a spiritually active being creating a world of culture, as a vehicle of reason. In criticising these ideas Feuerbach achieved an anthropological reorientation of philosophy centering it on man, understood primarily as a spiritually corporeal being, as a vital interlock ing of the "I" and the "you
According to Nietzsche, man is determined by the play of vital forces and attractions and not by the reason. Kierkegaard gives priority to the act of will, in which the individual, by making a choice, "gives birth to himself", ceases to be merely a "child of nature" and becomes a conscious personality, that is to say, a spiritual being, a being that determines itself. In personalism and existentialism the problem of personality is central. A human being cannot be reduced to any essence (biological, psychological, social or spiritual). Existentialism and personalism contrast the concept of individuality (being a part of the natural and social whole) to that of personality, as unique spiritual self-determination, as "existence".
The point of departure of the Marxist understanding of man is the human being as the product and subject of labour activity. ". . .The essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations."
Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach in: K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 5, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, p. 4.