The Importance of Work to Human Nature

I would not be the first, nor the last, to think of using Marx to tackle the matter of manual labor in today’s society. I would not, then, be the first to use the Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto to condemn the machination of the contemporary worker alienated from the fruits of his or her labor, the withdrawal of profit by the bourgeoisie, and so on. Yet what would I achieve by condemning the current notion of manual work as dehumanizing? Greater minds than I have already and repeatedly called for the end of capitalist abuses, and many of these calls could have well fallen on numbed ears. Hence I shall try instead to affirm that manual labor, as equally as desk work, can establish the humanity and dignity of a person even in spite of the machination brought about by the drive for efficiency. And, while not abandoning Marx altogether, I shall instead dwell on the philosophies of Marcel, Dondeyne, and, to an extent, Heidegger.

But first I must state the question and take into account its parts, or I shall be battling a hundred-headed hydra with only a single branch. And so I propose to break the question into three parts, namely: 1) the nature of humanity; 2) the significance of work; 3) manual labor as humanizing agent. It is in such a manner that I hope to show that human beings, in their quest to fulfill their being, must necessarily work, and that manual labor, being equal to any other kind of work, is a means to the pursuit of humanity’s being.

The nature of humanity

To ask, “What does it mean to be human?” seems at first to anticipate the end of the Ph101 course. For is it not the goal of the course to understand what being human means, and any attempt to answer this question is like taking the cake out of the oven before it is fully baked? However, this question must already be asked if I am to argue that manual labor is a humanizing act. It would be peculiar to discuss the matter at all if I did not know what is this being that manual work ought to create! And yet where will I search for the answer? Have I so completed the course that I can, like a researcher combing through the library, say, “Aha! Here it is!” and pull the final answer out? Certainly not! The answer, as I infer from Heidegger, is and has always been right under my nose. I am, after all, a human being, and even dimly I can give my personal answer to the question, “What does it mean to be human?” And without further ado, I shall say that the human being is a transcendental being.

This conceit comes not only from my personal experience, but also from the thoughts of Heidegger and Marcel. Heidegger, who, in the midst of his ontological query on being, states that Dasein (that is to say, humans as the there-being) is caught up in everydayness at first and for the most part. This is to say that we as human beings always take it upon ourselves to care (to have a disposition towards something else). This is strikingly similar to Marcel’s first two philosophical tenets: that a man is a being-in-a-situation and a being-by-participation. Man is a contextual, situational being moving in a community of people with their own contexts and situations. But the two philosophers did not stop here. Heidegger goes on to say that Dasein’s everydayness is inauthentic; Marcel brings up the problem of metaphysical unease. (The latter’s idea of a broken world I shall deal with later.) After all, humans have aspirations, and Marcel points out that, aspirations being contexts and situations not yet present for the aspirant, these cause the agitating feeling of “not yet reaching the goal”. Authenticity and aspirations, then, tells me that the human being cannot accept himself or herself as being merely a what-you-see-is-what-you-get creature. Marcel, taking note of this human characteristic to go beyond what “is there”, thus says that humans are beings-beyond-a-situation. Hence, humans are transcendental beings.

The significance of work

I am manifest. I have a body, and I am my body. All these point to Marcel’s idea that existence necessarily means embodiment. Dondeyne takes this point further and asserts that a human being is an embodied spirit. The human person is thus not a pure cogito or a floating spirit, and bodies and everything else can be merely reduced to “extension” and “motion”, merely X- and Y- axes. Dondeyne goes on to say that the material body is the means for the human spirit to express itself and transforms its “potency to act”. And how does the material body communicate the human spirit, if not through work?

Work is, mathematically, force multiplied by distance. Force and distance are properties belonging properly to bodies, and only as embodied spirits can the human person work. And so, Dondeyne concludes, it is only through work — through putting one’s stamp on matter and thus revealing oneself to the self and the other — that one can complete his or her being human.

Work, then, is the means to the end of transcendence. It might sound silly at first. More often than not I have always interpreted transcendence, that act and goal of going beyond oneself, as a “mind thing” achieved through meditation and prayer, preferably under a bo tree or with dancing halos over my head. But humans are embodied spirits, and the spirit communicates and completes itself through work. Hence, to say that work and materiality is a deterrent to transcendence (for humans are transcendental beings, and transcendence completes their being human) is to go back to Descartes all over again.

Even Marx acknowledges that work is good for humanity. Influenced by Hegel, Marx asserts that there is a direct relationship between a human person and work. As Sophie’s World puts it, as one interacts with nature through work (how else?), nature interacts with the person himself or herself. Work, then, is the vehicle for the human person to interact with the world — and is by itself good.

Manual labor as humanizing agent

I must admit that there are a few more obstacles left before I can truly say that work, especially manual labor, indeed makes a person more human. This section, in fact, shall begin with a deliberation on whether manual labor is actually a de-humanizing agent. And I shall begin the attack with the assertion that manual labor is inferior to office work. Is manual labor not more tiring than a desk job? And even if it were not, the sweaty and dirty men digging with shovels and sweeping streets seem “filthier” and “lesser” than the cleaner architect and engineer, who, by the way, earn much more than the former.

But earlier in this paper I have mentioned Descartes; perhaps it is high time to criticize his philosophy once again. By postulating the cogito and setting it above the “machinery” of material objects, Descartes had in effect birthed an unfortunate notion that the mind is greater than the material: mind over matter. It is no wonder, then, that the modern world found it very easy to be prejudiced, preferring great minds to skilled workers. It has been easy for mothers everywhere to prefer their children to become lawyers than carpenters. And it has been easy for the capitalists to abuse the “lowly” factory workers.

This is where Marx and his ideas of alienation come in. But to enter this argument (and deliberate in the end whether indeed capitalist abuse stemmed from class struggles and economic bases as much as from the terrible duality Descartes’ philosophy had implied) is to walk across the path I earlier shunned, not out of distaste but of realization that this path had been crossed far too often, and mostly, in vain.

And yet I am not out of the woods. Earlier I promised to take up Marcel’s notion of a broken world, and I shall do so now. Marcel notes that the problem today is that people have allowed their roles to define them. That is to say that a person A had allowed his status as a student “take over his life” and in effect, limit himself as “just a student”. Therefore, whatever happens to his “student role” is, for him, a happening to his very self. The factory worker becomes just a factory worker, and not Mang Berto, named Roberto so-and-so, and definitely not a complete human being. This, according to Marcel, is the problem of our present society: people, especially those who do not and cannot have a say on the matter, are limited to roles.

That is one sad experience, one I have almost come to grapple with in my JEEP experience. Four hours in the photocopying area and eight hours in the computer shop had brought me almost face-to-face with being merely an automaton required to file papers and assign seats to computer users. I had almost been defined by my role…

But I have been spared — and I shall say that everyone else can be spared of this broken world in spite of all automation and alienation. For work, again, is a means to the end of transcendence. There on the field, doing (more or less) the same things my co-workers do, I have been able, if only temporarily and a little superficially, connected with them through language: the verbal one not more than the language of work itself. I was able to transcend my being me and become, in a sense, more than me: I have become I-who-can-connect-with-others, I-who-can-do-manual-labor, I-who-am-more-than-a-student. This, then, is the humanizing power of work, whether manual or not: The-human-as-an-embodied-spirit-works-toward-transcendence-through-interaction-with-others. And as long as work of any sort continues to be a vehicle of positive, transcendental interaction with nature and towards the other, work cannot help but make an individual more completely human.

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