Based on the concept that "the urge to contribute is a human instinct", to seek human ways of living and how they can be put into practice.

Thoughts on “Homo contribuens”

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For beginners, you can read essential thoughts on “Homo contribuens” interpreted by the author himself. The volume is about 5 pages of a paperback, and it will not take much time to read it.

By Hisao Taki
Illustrated by Eibin Otsu
(May 2009)


  • The Instinct to Contribute
  • Two Philosophical Experiences
  • Contribution as Self-assertion
  • People Are Collaborators in the Urge to Contribute


The Instinct to Contribute


   The inherent nature of human beings is a subject constantly on my mind. Human beings, I was well aware, are endowed with all sorts of inborn abilities and impulses that enable them to survive and flourish, and my musings ultimately led me to the conviction that one of them is the urge to contribute. I presented my conclusions on the philosophical truth of the contribution instinct in my book Homo Contribuens: The Need to Give and the Search for Fulfilment (Renaissance Books, 2008; original Japanese, Koken suru Kimochi, Kinokuniya Company Ltd., 2001)


–   What I propose here, however, is to consider the urge to serve others as something instilled in us by nature, deriving not from the intellect but from instinct and expressed naturally. I see it, in other words, as an innate (a priori) drive rather than a learned (a posteriori) response. (p.xx, lines23-27)



   Most readers will think of instinct in terms of things like hunger or the sexual urge, but the “urge to contribute” as I see it is different. I suggest that we take a fresh look at human instinct;


–   Instincts are innate capacities vested in us by nature to facilitate our lives. They are not something we intentionally acquire by learning. They are present in us, not because of human deliberation, but by the working of natural laws in human beings.


   I regard the urge to contribute as an instinct and characterize it as arising from the psyche to differentiate it from mainly physiological instincts, such as hunger and sexual appetite. So, even though the concept of instinct is usually associated with physiology, I want to distinguish the two, physiological instincts and psychological instincts, and identify the urge to contribute as among the latter. But both types of instinct exist naturally, in accordance with the laws that govern human life.

   When acting altruistically, most of us make certain assumptions about the situation and the recipient. After doing something for someone, I tend, half-subconsciously, to presume that he or she will thank me, or at least feel grateful. I have tried to examine my feelings whenever I embark on an altruistic act and am quite certain that the sense of well-being experienced from wanting to help, or from helping, is not a learned response or a contrived consciousness. It is a state of mind wherein the sense of fulfilment seems to be instinctive. Conventional explanations concerning the motives for altruism seem artificial by comparison.


   Since people tend so often to view instincts warily, as somehow base, we advise caution against complete surrender to such urges. We also realize, however, that in many respects our instincts are necessary for survival. Moreover, even the urge to contribute, to serve the interests of others, clearly embraces, like other instincts, a desire to satisfy oneself. Taking this to be the natural state of things I propose that the urge to contribute is an instinct peculiar to human beings. This is my basic position regarding the urge to contribute as an instinct: altruistic behavior, which at one level serves others’ interests, also serves my own interests. This opens up a whole new perspective…(p.41,line23-p.42,line24)



   The concept of “the urge to contribute” (kokenshin), which I have defined as an instinctual urge unique to human beings, was soon recognized in the field of philosophy, and it is introduced, with a quotation from my original Japanese book, in the “Koseki” (achievement) entry of Gendai Rinrigaku Jiten [Dictionary of Modern Ethics; Kobundo, 2006].

   I have also been able to introduce internationally my ideas about the urge to contribute through the publication of Homo Contribuens, the English edition of my 2001 book.


Two Philosophical Experiences


   My study of the inner workings of human beings that led me to realize that “the urge to contribute is a human instinct” began when I witnessed the death of the older brother of a friend of mine when I was a second-year junior high school student. My friend’s brother Takeshi, a high school student at the time, learned that he had cancer and did not have long to live. At first he abandoned himself to play, living a carefree and irresponsible life, but about three months before he died, he suddenly changed and set to studying harder than he ever had in his life.

   I did not really know how it was that he faced his death or what it was that made him absorb himself in studying in the final months of his life, but I felt that what he had done was somehow sublime. When he later died, I was filled with a sense not only of the transience of life but with the question: What had made him begin studying even when he knew that he was about to die?


   From that time on, I tried to answer to that question. After I went to bed at night, the memory of Takashi entered my mind and I would ponder the question for a few minutes before I went to sleep. Almost every night for a long time I went on wondering why he did what he did. Then one night I had an idea: Could it be that what had made him start studying as he had was some sort of inborn human impulse? If so, it made perfect sense to me.


–   In fact, it was not through Plato’s bequest that I came to view the urge to contribute as an instinct. Rather, I arrived at this understanding – that this feeling is a natural instinct that tends to be manifested in crises such as impending death – through a complex process of reflection and speculation. And it was on the basis of certain personal convictions that I postulated, as lying behind the sense of purpose gained through reason, an instinctive urge to contribute, the essential quality of human beings that qualifies them as Homo contribuens. Indeed, at various pivotal junctures in my life I have sensed that an instinctive urge to contribute ultimately gives rise to a sense of purpose, or a sense of mission. … these ideas were not derived directly from the philosophy of Plato … (p.33,lines13-26)



   The idea of the urge to contribute as a human instinct that I began to identify at that time was not something I was led to only by my study of the teachings of the philosophers of old. It was a conclusion I reached, after the philosophical experience I had encountered through the death of my friend’s brother, only through the daily contemplation I sustained as I sought to understand the inner nature of the human mind.


   Much later, my own personal experience was to confirm my conviction. I was in my mid-thirties when I received a dreadful diagnosis. “You have a tumor in the bone of your knee.” I had a sharp pain in my leg and had simply thought that is must be a torn muscle. It turned out I had what is called a “giant cell tumor.” I learned that the condition advances in four stages, the most advanced of which is stage-four bone cancer. If the tumor had advanced to the third or fourth stages, even surgical removal of the affected part of the bone might not prevent the cancer from spreading, sometimes to the lungs and brain, in some cases resulting in death.


   Naturally, the diagnosis came as a great shock; I was filled with foreboding, as if death was already rapidly approaching. My confidence that I could live positively until I died, just as the brother of my boyhood friend had done, was shaken. But then one day, as if the haze in my head had suddenly dissipated, I knew clearly that “In the time I have left, I want to do something for posterity.”

   The tumor in my knee was in the second phase, but the surgery to remove it was successful, and I have fortunately been spared a relapse. The impulse I had felt while under treatment to “do something, contribute something to posterity,” did not change after my recovery. I held fast to that resolve, and that experience confirm for me the philosophical truth that the urge to contribute is indeed a human instinct.



–   In any case it can be argued that if people in those days [before the time of Socrates] were not aware of an essential, purely human nature, the reason was not because it did not exist, but because its existence had not yet been discovered. While both are forms of ‘not knowing’, they have radically different meanings. (p.12,lines24-28)


   I thus confirmed the existence of the urge to contribute, an unconscious instinct. I recorded that experience in my book as follows:



–   Human beings by nature cherish their instincts. At the moment when, through a direct instinctive sense, we are released from feelings of life’s emptiness and futility, our instinctive urge to contribute transforms from a latent into an apparent reality. This urge to contribute often triggers, with a compelling instinct-like force, a sudden awakening of dormant reason; in some cases, like that of Takeshi, it activates a sense of purpose in a crisis situation. Particularly in the crisis of imminent death, this instinct liberates people from their fear of death. It can inspire with a strong sense of purpose that allows people to take on challenges normally too daunting. In society as a whole it can even generate a force potent enough to shape the character of the age. (p.35,lines22-34)


   In psychology, we are told that people who achieve high status in business, academia, or other spheres of society are often moved to serve others through contributing to various social causes. Did my impulse to contribute to society at that time derive from such a source? By no means. I was still young and had achieved no particular social status or success in my career. On the contrary, I had more than my share of the competitive impulse and was filled with ambitions of all sorts. And even after I realized that my life was no longer in danger, I still wanted to be useful to others and to do what I could to contribute to the happiness of others. The urge to contribute is clearly instinctual.



–   Perhaps, I thought, there is a natural instinct which arises in the human heart when it is disencumbered of a nihilistic attitude towards death and which inspires us to be of service to other people. Moreover, if it is possible to feel a sense of mission firm enough to stake one’s life on, then it seems natural to conclude that the urge to contribute is an instinct in human beings. (p.69,lines1-7)


Contribution as Self-assertion


   Few young people have any encounter with the imminence of death, so the notion of the urge to contribute may not have much meaning to them. Still, we see and hear about the human impulse to contribute to the betterment of society all the time in reports of volunteer work and similar activities. I am told that some 10,000 volunteers are involved with the problem of the spread of HIV in Thailand. Many others are also part of the effort to remove land mines in Cambodia. I had an opportunity to talk to some of these volunteers, and I could see their expressions light up when they spoke of the important missions they were engaged in.



–   Furthermore, when the urge to contribute is manifested in an overt desire to serve others, the true motive for action is not based on any particular sense of what others need. Although that may be one factor, a specific awareness of others’ needs is preceded by one’s own initial impulse, one’s personal need, simply to do something for other people. That means that the altruist seeks to act upon the urge to contribute essentially for his or her own sake. The urge to contribute is thus not a selfless intention as much as it is a kind of self-assertion rooted in instinct. (p.70,lines4-12)


   This is how it is; volunteer work for the sake of others is motivated also by the desire to assert and affirm the self. The idea of the instinctual urge to contribute makes this motivation easy to explain. From another perspective, this can by explained as follows:



–   The human heart is naturally a complex of feelings, never at rest with a single sentiment, be it affection, pity, pride or vanity. Essentially, our inner being is a composite of subtly interwoven emotions. But when the self is concerned only with itself, as in pride or vanity, it cannot manifest the ineffable ability we all have, through the urge to contribute, to make concern for others also serve the interests of the self. (p.76,lines9-15)


   The urge to contribute to be useful to others is inborn. People can attain happiness if they are able to freely exercise their urge to contribute, whether it is to the work of their employer or in some other realm.


People Are Collaborators in the Urge to Contribute


   What is the meaning of human life? In the attempt to answer this question, we can break down the functions of daily life into several modes:


–   An individual life can be thought of as the aggregate of a range of different modes or phases, like the oscillation phases that make up the spectra of light and sound. In my view this totality can be divided into the four general ‘life modes’ of play, learning, work, and daily life. Ultimately these four combine to characterize the individual’s life as a whole, but at the same time each can be separately distinguished from the others as a discrete mode unto itself. The modes have certain aspects in common, but in other respects they conflict. (p.43,lines29-p.44,line5)



   To these four modes, I would add a fifth, the “contribution” mode, for people distinguish themselves from others by the way they express their impulse to contribute. I have expressed this dimension by coining the term “Homo contribuens.”


–   This is the perspective that leads me to characterize humanity as Homo contribuens, (man the contributor) by which I mean humanity as an inclusive fellowship of mutual service. The term Homo contribuens thus evokes an aspect of being human that the other four modes – play, learning, work, and daily life – do not explain. Finally, the term incorporates the sense of the self both living and ‘being enabled to live.’


   The addition of this fifth life mode, the mode of contribution, affords a much brighter view of human life. It evokes the bonds that link people to each other, lends breadth to our lives and gives us a more vivid sense of who we are.

   By adding to those four modes the fifth mode of contribution we have the capacity to formulate the overall shape of human life, including its unpredictability. As long as this fifth mode is kept active in some corner of the psyche it serves to increase our sense of fulfilment and satisfaction and, like an auxiliary line in geometry, helps us to identify which path to take in pivotal moments of hesitation or confusion. (p.45,lines3-31)



   One prominent scholar of engineering responded to my book, saying that the urge to contribute is peculiar to the human brain. It can be hypothesized, he said, that this instinct is the reason that Homo sapiens managed to create human civilization 10,000 years ago. He praised the book, saying that the “urge to contribute” is likely to become an important topic in the study of brain science in the years to come.

   Already, specialists from science and engineering, medicine, philosophy, religion, and so on formed an organization to study “Homo contribuens” – man the contributor – and “Homo contribuens” is coming under discussion from various points of view.

   Sense of mission is the supreme product of the instinct to contribute. Through awareness of our inherent urge to contribute, we can learn to live more proactively and to use that impulse to improve the quality of our work as well.

The End.

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