World-Openness & Will to Power – O’Meara

World-Openness and Will to Power

By Michael O’Meara


“What, though, is culture?” There is, of course, no single definitive answer to this question. But in seeking however partial a response, Grécistes look to philosophical anthropology, a discipline associated with the post-phenomenological works of Max Scheler. [19] Dissatisfied with Edmund Husserl’s “idealist” examination of human consciousness, Scheler had sought to understand how the intellectual, institutional, and social facets of man’s existence relate to the underlying structure of his biological being. It was, however, Arnold Gehlen (1904-1976), a student of Scheler’s colleague, Helmuth Plessner, and the most famed recent proponent of philosophical anthropology, who has had the greatest impact on the GRECE’s understanding of culture. [20]

Following Scheler and Plessner, both of whom broke from a purely metaphysical concept of man in emphasizing the role of his animal nature, Gehlen singles out man’s culture-making capacity as his defining characteristic. [21] This capacity, he claims, developed as a consequence of man’s “instinctual deficiencies.” Although humans possess certain basic drives (such as self-preservation, aggression, territoriality, defense of the young, et cetera), these are few in number, limited in effect, and non-specific. If man had had only his few instincts on which to rely, he would not have long survived in nature 30,000 years ago when he lived under the open sky. To compensate for his instinctual deficiencies, he was compelled to draw on other faculties. For the evolutionary process that left him instinctually non-specific also imbued him with intelligence, self-consciousness, and an adaptable nature. By drawing on these faculties to cope with the natural exigencies of existence – exigencies resolved in animals by their “instinctual programming” – man “learned” to negotiate the environmental challenges of his world. Unlike animal instinct, though, this learning left him “world open” (Weltoffen), for his responses to external stimuli were not automatically programmed by earlier responses, but based on reflection and hence open to change and revision. Biological laws might therefore influence him, but only negatively, as a “framework and base.” [22] In choosing, then, how to respond to nature’s challenges, man had no alternative but to treat the world with care and foresight, to gain an overview of what had gone before and what was likely to happen in the future, to develop symbolic systems to communicate this knowledge, and, not least of all, to establish those institutions that would socially perpetuate the lessons of earlier responses.

The complex of habits, judgements, and techniques arising from man’s worldopen responses to his environment is, for Gehlen, the fundament of his culture, insofar as this complex informs, disciplines, and stylizes all his subsequent responses to the world. Then, as this cultural complex becomes the unconscious frame of his behavior, it acquires the character of a “second nature” (zweite Natur), serving him somewhat in the way instinct serves animals. This second nature, his culture, is, however, neither automatic nor immutable, for man retains the capacity to make new choices and hence to modify his behavior. [23] This “condemns” him to endless choice-making and an on-going process of becoming. Yet, even while subject to an endless process of development, his culture continues to be influenced by the legacy of earlier choices. [24] Like Heraclitus’ river, whose waters are never stepped into twice, man’s “cultural nature” remains the “same,” even as it constantly changes. That is, through various feedback processes based on an ever-widening accumulation of experience, it develops according to a “logic” – a vitality – distinctly its own, even though in developing it never mechanically replicates itself. On this basis, Gehlen characterizes culture as combining permanence and innovation, which makes man both its creature and its creator. [25]

Virtually every conscious realm of human activity, Gehlen holds, comes to be affected by culture. In his anthropology, it is virtually inseparable from man. For without it, and the role it plays in negotiating his encounters with the world, man would be only an undifferentiated and still unrealizable facet of nature – unable, in fact, to survive in nature. [26] Contrary to a long tradition of rationalist thought (the anthropological structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss being the foremost recent example), there are no “natural men.” Free of culture, man would be a cretin, unable even to speak. [27] Given the inescapable character of his culture, Gehlen argues that man is best described as a biocultural being: for although culture and nature are two distinct things, in him they form an indivisible unity. [28]

Since different families of men, in different times and environments, respond differently to the limitless choices posed by their world, their cultures grow in different ways. Evident in all that distinguishes a Californian from a man of Connemara, a Chinese from a Cameroon, such disparities account for the great diversity of human cultures, with their different valuations, different symbolic systems, different ways of making sense of and responding to the world. [29] As an organic unity with forms congruent with its distinct vitality, a culture, then, is understandable only in its own terms. For its essence lies neither in rationalist nor objectivist criteria, but in the conditioned behaviors and beliefs constituting the interrelated patterns and categories specific to it. As a consequence, there is no single Culture, only different cultures, specific to the different peoples who engender them. An appeal to the universal or generic – to that which is not specific to a specific culture – can thus only be an appeal to its own negation. There can, it follows, never be a world culture, a single planetary consciousness, a single mode or distillation of life common to all men. For the heritage of choices that goes into making a culture and giving it its defining forms is distinct to each organic formation, rooted in those cycles of growth and vitality distinct to it. [30]

Because man’s “membership in humanity is mediated by his particular cultural belonging,” the only universals he shares with those of another culture are those found in his animal nature (and even these are affected by different phylogenetic developments). [31] This diversity of human cultures cannot, then, but imply diverse, if not incommensurable cultural perspectives, as different peoples define their interests, order their perceptions, and regulate their behaviors differently. [32] Similarly, all that a specific culture accepts as “objective” derives, in the last instance, from its particularistic valuations and vitality. This is not quite the same as subjectivism – unless a culture is in decline and overly self-conscious of its conventions – but it is testament to culture’s relativist character. [33] Since all men are heirs to particular formations, without which they would not be men, even an individual seeking to individuate himself in a foreign culture is obliged to do so within a frame predetermined by his original heritage. As Gehlen argues, man can never be more than an individuated expression of his native culture. For it is through such an individualization that he realizes who he is and achieves his specific humanity. [34] All men may therefore possess the powers of cognition and the capacity to create culture, but because reason is informed by its specific concerns, it never – ultimately – transcends its specific subjectivity, even when drawing on objective and instrumentalist criteria to do so. A truly neutral reason without inherent cultural “bias” (as liberal modernity posits) would require a cultureless world – that is, a world without real human beings.

Just, then, as there is no single culture common to all men, there is no single definable reality in Gehlen’s anthropology. The only reality man knows is informed by the intrinsically subjective and evolving tropes his specific heritage provides for making sense of it. [35] “Man,” Protagoras said 2500 years ago, “is the measure of all things.” Given the world’s different cultures, there are necessarily a plethora of different measures in the world. Conversely, an individual is never distinguishable from his culture: never independent of the “measures” he applies. He may be free to express his culture in his own way and a culture may permit an infinite number of individual variations and even considerable rebellion against it, but no culture is ever the sum of its parts nor is any individual independent of its encompassing attachments. [36] Culture alone imbues the individual with his distinct consciousness . . . and the consciousness of his distinctiveness. It is likewise more than a spiritual or mental state, for its supraindividual unity inevitably takes social, institutional, and demographic form. It is always a people in its specificity, not a programmed abstraction labelled “humanity,” that situates a culture. [37] Man’s animal nature and his culture-making capacity may therefore be universal, but his second nature is not. Once culture is “pealed away,” the only “nature” remaining is animal or physiological. Ontologically, this implies not the primacy of objective abstractions, but of hermeneutical processes (culturally specific self-understandings) embedded in the history of a people’s particular growth.

Similarly, different cultures, like the peoples animating them, are never arbitrary, but anchored in organically evolved ways of life that the reasoning mind may render into rational terms, but is nevertheless powerless to justify or explain. It is always culture that establishes the ground – the “objective” basis – upon which the individuals making it up are able to communicate, judge the meaning of things, and reach consensus. Without it, they would be unable to agree on common standards of truth and value – and thus live together. But more than establishing the basis of a people’s existence, culture frames whatever a people will attempt in its future, for it endows its world with meaning – and hence direction. [38]

If healthy and self-confident, a culture takes into account man’s world-open capacity, allowing him to make himself according to those of its norms and categories that best sustain him. An authentic or a “natural” enculturation, however, has become increasingly problematical in the modern age. As Giorgio Locchi (who played the greatest role in making Gehlen’s anthropology central to the GRECE’s cultural politics) argues, the traditional organic model of culture is now threatened by a functional one that jeopardizes the vitalistic basis of the enculturating process. [39] Shaped by socioeconomic circumstances influencing both the micro and macro levels of existence, the functional model specific to modernity enculturates the individual according to systemic imperatives, which subordinate communal relations and individual subjectivities to large-scale social and institutional requirements. In the process, it orients to man’s sensuous and egoistical nature, leaving room only for the internalization of its generic ideals, which are experienced as either external imperatives or animal drives. Such a culture, moreover, addresses men solely in their functional specificity or generic egoism, isolating them from those particularistic ways of life and behavior that have grown out of earlier forms of meaning. Swept along, then, by the macro-structures conditioning everyday existence and powerless to experience life according to imperatives based on a lived “fusion of purpose,” the “other-directed” man of functional culture has no alternative, integrated as he is from the top down, but to rely on external stimuli for his direction. His life, therefore, is lived according to mechanical forms over which he has no control and which tie him to pre-determined patterns of behavior. Nietzsche (an important influence on Gehlen) calls this sort of enculturation “subjective culture for outward barbarians” – for it leaves man’s inner self dependent on outside forces for its direction, devoid of development and hence susceptible to the most extreme forms of subjectivism. [40]

By contrast, the second type of culture (organically emerging from historically formed and tradition-based communities) fosters an “inner-directed” individual possessing an internalized frame of reference congruent with his second nature and geared to a sociability that integrates individual and community in an interactive synthesis. Experienced as an inheritance bequeathed by “great ancestors,” organic culture is lived as a project whose rhythms respond to the individual’s distinct vitality, as that vitality is shaped by a stylization native to it. The individual, as such, does not consume culture, but applies it, for his behavior is not determined, but inspired by it. This gives the man of organic culture, who encounters his world as an on-going project, the freedom and confidence to realize his cultural ideal in face of the specific exigencies challenging him. Organic culture accordingly grows from the inside out, becoming a personalized expression of a collective way of life, not an anonymously “consumed” commodity marketed to generic individuals situated in anonymous, indifferent social systems. [41]

For the last two centuries liberal societies have endeavored to impose their functional model on the whole world. Europeans, however, have lived most of their history according to the organic model. The hero, the genius, and the great artist, all of whom have played exemplary roles in their civilizational epic, were emulated not because they rebelled against the prevailing culture, but because they succeeded in giving new form and vitality to it. Indeed, such a disposition for renewal was inherent in their culture, for it was lived as an on-going response to an evolving world. By contrast, late modern society, subject to liberalism’s market-driven functional culture, is virtually powerless to reformulate its cultural identity or alter its relationship to the larger world, for individual adaptation is now subsumed to a mass-manufactured model responsive to systemic, not communal, personal, or vitalist imperatives. Thus, whenever this model becomes dysfunctional, so too does the cultural orientation of those situated within it, for its failures cannot but plunge the individual into a state of indeterminacy, away from established patterns of conduct and toward greater subjectivity. Unlike the hero of organic culture, who confronts the decomposition of his age for the sake of revolution – a conservative revolution that returns to first principles and allows the cultural ideal to be reasserted at a higher level – the other-directed man of functional culture tends to slip further and further into a state of formlessness, aimlessness, and inaction, vulnerable as he is to those external influences that leave his inner self uncultivated and subject his social persona to criteria alien to his felt needs. [42] From the perspective of Gehlen’s philosophical anthropology, Locchi argues that the instrumentalist rationality of functional culture may have the power to undermine organic cultures, but its generic dictates fail to generate those behaviors and beliefs compatible with man’s second nature.

It is in this context that the postmodern critique needs to be situated. Against modernist claims to universality, which justify the worldwide imposition of a functional cultural model geared to faceless individuals situated in impersonal social structures, postmodernists highlight the pathologies that follow from its suppression of the lived and the particular. They thus array themselves against modernity’s homogenizing model of enculturation. Yet, while advocating a new cultural pluralism, they nevertheless dismiss, disparage, or ignore the significance of earlier organic cultures, often slipping into a pure relativism that mistakes man’s second nature for a construct susceptible to endless – and arbitrary – reconstructions. Relatedly, they treat cultural particularisms as if they were akin to exchangeable market options and favor the widest variety of cultural formations. This causes them to advocate a free-floating subjectivity attuned to global markets and microgroups, but resistant to specific organic formations, which are considered “totalizing” in the sense that the Great Narrative is. [43]

Although Grécistes ally with postmodernists in rejecting the instrumental dictates of modernity’s functional culture, they take their distance from them in affirming the necessity, not the option, of organic cultures. Without such cultures, they claim an individual is powerless to negotiate the anonymous forces of contemporary society, with dysfunction, decadence, and alienation the inevitable consequence. To be at home in the world and in accord with one’s own vitality, a people needs not only to be free of alienating functional restraints, as postmodernists insist, it also needs a sense of belonging that anchors it in a meaningful reality. Belonging, however, comes only with the particular and the enrooted – and the particular and the enrooted cannot be discarded, deconstructed, or selectively reappropriated, as postmodernists advocate, without risk of greater deculturation. [44]

This should not be taken to mean that New Rightists advocate a literal return to pre-modern cultural forms, whose naturalistic models are holistic and relatively simple. Complex societies cannot function in this way. Nevertheless, the traditional organic culture [45] out of which present-day societies have emerged need not, they argue, be rejected in toto, for even as a people evolves and assumes the need for certain functional forms, it retains a need for continuity, balance, and vitality, which can be meaningfully sustained only when rooted in the native soil of a primordial cultural identity. Tying vitality to one’s native culture, New Rightists endeavor, then, to replenish all that has given life and form to the European idea over the ages, seeking to adapt Europe’s organic culture to the complexities of contemporary social systems, fully conscious that its on-going adaptation gives new meaning, as well as providing new depths to the culture as a whole. [46]

19. H. O. Pappe, “On Philosophical Anthropology,” in Austrasian Journal of Philosophy 39 (May 1961); Otto F. Bollnow, “Die philosophische Anthropologie und ihre methodischen Prinzipen,” in R. Rocek and O. Schatz, eds., Philosophische Anthropologie Heute (Munich: Beck, 1972); Arnold Gehlen, “Philosophische Anthropologie” (1971), in Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt/M: Klostermann, 1983), vol. 4.

20. On Gehlen, see Christian Thies, Gehlen zur Einführung (Hamburg: Junius, 2000); Karlheinz Weissmann, Arnold Gehlen: Vordenker eines neuen Realismus (Bad Vilbel: Antois, 2000); Karlheinz Weissmann, “Arnold Gehlen: Von der Aktuatität eines zu Unrecht Vergessen,” in Criticón 153 (January-March 1997).

21. Giovanni Monartra, “L’anthropologie philosophique d’Arnold Gehlen,” in Nouvelle Ecole 45 (Winter 1988-89).

22. Alain de Benoist, “Racism and Totalitarianism,” in National Democrat 1 (Winter 1981-82).

23. Giorgio Locchi, “Ethologie et sciences sociales,” in Nouvelle Ecole 33 (Summer 1979); Alain de Benoist, Comment peut-on être païen (Paris: Albin Michel, 1981), p. 67.

24. Alain de Benoist, Vu de Droite: Anthologie critique des idées contemporaines, 5th ed. (Paris: Copernic, 1979), pp. 171-73; Alain de Benoist, Les idées à l’endroit (Paris: Hallier, 1979), pp. 95-97.

25. Arnold Gehlen, Man: His Nature and Place in the World, tr. by C. McMillan and K. Pillemer (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), pp. 24-31. After his exchange with Lorenz, Gehlen was forced to modify his depiction of man’s instinctual non-specificity (Mängelwesen). For a discussion of these later revisions to his theory of culture, see Thies, Gehlen zur Einführung, op. cit., pp. 35-104.

26. “Entretien avec Konrad Lorenz,” in Nouvelle Ecole 25-26 (Winter 1974-75); Thies, Gehlen zur Einführung, op. cit., p. 32.

27. Benoist, Les idées à l’endroit, op. cit., p. 41.

28. Benoist, Les idées à l’endroit, op. cit., p. 217. It is this emphasis on the culture-nature link that distinguishes Gehlen’s anthropology from the “cultural determinism” of the Boas’ school, which ignores man’s animal nature, posits an idealist concept of culture, and relies on a good deal of fraudulent research. Typically, Franz Boas is feted in the American academy, but his culturalism is no less vulgar than the biological determinism he sought to refute. Much of contemporary research has, in fact, weighed in against Boas. For example, see Stephen Horigan, Nature and Culture in Western Discourse (London: Routledge, 1988).

29. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Race et culture (Paris: Denoël, 1987), pp. 22-23; Benoist, Les idées à l’endroit, op. cit., p. 216.

30. Alain de Benoist and Charles Champetier, “The French New Right in the Year 2000,” in Telos 115 (Spring 1999); Alain de Benoist, Dernière année: Notes pour conclure le siècle (Lausanne: L’Age d’Homme, 2001), p. 88; Alain de Benoist, “Pour une déclaration du droit des peuples,” in La cause des peuples: Actes du XVe collogue national du GRECE (Paris: Le Labyrinthe, 1982).

31. See John R. Baker, Race (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 468-529.

32. Friedrich Nietzsche: “No people could live without evaluating; but if it wishes to maintain itself it must not evaluate as its neighbor evaluates. Much that seems good to one people seems shame and disgrace to another . . . much that is called evil in one place was in another decked with purple honors.” See Thus Spoke Zarathustra, tr. by R. J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 1968), “Of the Thousand and One Gods.”

33. Benoist, Les idées à l’endroit, op. cit., pp. 42 and 101; Alain de Benoist, “L’ordre,” in Etudes et recherches 4-5 (January 1977).

34. Henri Gobard, La guerre culturelle: Logique du désastre (Paris: Copernic, 1979), p. 13.

35. Alain de Benoist, “Minima moralia (2),” in Krisis 8 (April 1991).

36. Alain de Benoist, “Fondements nominalistes d’une attitude devant la vie,” in Nouvelle Ecole 33 (Summer 1979).

37. Cf. Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Der Mensch – das riskierte Wesen. Zur Naturgeschichte menschlicher Unvernunft (Munich: Piper, 1988).

38. Stefano Paltrinieri, “La théorie sociale d’Arnold Gehlen,” in Nouvelle Ecole 46 (Fall 1990); Arnold Gehlen, Man in the Age of Technology, tr. by P. Lipscomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980).

39. Locchi, “Ethologie et sciences sociales,” op. cit.; Alain de Benoist, “‘Communauté’ et “société’,” in Eléments 23 (September 1977).

40. Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, tr. by R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 79; Guillaume Faye, “Le culture-gadget,” in Eléments 46 (Summer 1983).

41. Cf. Ferg, “Identité européenne et multiculture,” in Devenir 13 (Summer 2000).

42. Locchi, “Ethologie et sciences sociales,” op. cit.

43. Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” (1991), in Thomas Docherty, ed., Postmodernism: A Reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

44. The GRECE’s defense of particularistic culture – a defense that makes no valuative differentiation between different cultures, but simply defends their specificity against the homogenizing impulses of liberal modernity – is seen by the Left as a sophisticated repackaging of traditional racism (insofar as culture is alleged to replace race as a criterion of exclusion). See Pierre-André Taguieff, “Le néo-racisme différentialiste. Sur l’ambiguité d’une evidence commune et ses effets pervers,” in Langage et société 34 (December 1985). For a critique of this conflation of culturalism and racism, see Raymond Ruyer, Les cents prochains siècles: Le destin historique de l’homme selon la Nouvelle Gnose américaine (Paris: Fayard, 1977), pp. 49-61. It is, in fact, the nature of authentic cultures to privilege their own imperatives. To the degree it remains authentic, every culture has no option but to “reject” other cultures (which may be “objectively” just as “good”) because they are irrelevant to its own concerns. It is precisely this aspiration towards a self-sufficient unity in its representational modes that makes culture inherently “exclusive” and its members part of a living whole, distinct from others. See Benoist, “Culture,” op. cit.; Richard M. Weaver, Vision of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (Bryn Mawr: Intercollegiate Studies, 1995), pp. 3-21; Claude Lévy-Strauss, Le regard eloigné (Paris: Plon, 1983), pp. 24-30. Finally, the New Right’s identitarianism ought not to be confused with the Left’s “identity politics,” which is a radical form of liberal pluralism that seeks to validate the postmodern fragmentation of identity (usually of sexual and racial minorities). On the Left’s identity politics, see Jonathan Rutherford, ed., Identity: Community, Culture, Difference (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990). “Identitarism” is here used to denote those tendencies defending traditionalist and anti-liberal – i.e. organic – concepts of identity.

45. This allusion to “traditional culture” – like all subsequent references to “traditional society,” “traditional community,” “traditional ideas,” etc. – refers not to those primitive, tribal formations studied by anthropologists, but to the pre-modern formations that characterized Europe up to the 17th century – that is, to the Greek, Roman, Celtic, Germanic, and Medieval forms of the European civilizational heritage.

46. Cf. Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, op. cit., p. 83.



O’Meara, Michael. “World-Openness and Will to Power.” Excerpt from: New Culture, New Right: Anti-Liberalism in Postmodern Europe (Bloomington, IN, USA: 1stBooks, 2004), pp. 46-51. Text retrieved from: < >.

Note: Concerning Arnold Gehlen’s works, see also his Man in the Age of Technology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980). See also the work of one of Gehlen’s most important teachers, Hans Freyer’s Theory of Objective Mind: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Culture (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999).



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