Being Human is Like Being Here

26 May 2014

In my last blog posting, I explained that “human” is a folk-category that doesn’t map clearly and cleanly onto scientific categories like Homo sapiens, and that consequently, science can’t tell us what it means to be human. This time I’m going to consider some folk-conceptions of the human to see if they can offer us anything that’s more useful. 

One way to get a handle on folk-conceptions of the human is to focus on the phenomenon of dehumanization. When people dehumanize others they exclude them from the category of human, usually with horrifying results. We see this very clearly in the writings of 17th century Anglican clergyman and civil rights activist Morgan Godwyn, who reported that American colonists held a “disingenuous position” that “the Negros, though in their Figure they carry some resemblances of Manhood, yet are indeed no men,” and that they consequently advocated “Hellish Principles…that Negros are Creatures Destitute of Souls, to be ranked among Brute Beasts and treated accordingly.” Similarly, Heinrich Himmler, the second most powerful man in Nazi Germany, wrote in a 1942 pamphlet entitled The Subhuman, that the Jew is a subhuman creature that “has hands, legs, eyes and mouth, even the semblance of a brain” but “is only a partial human being.” “Not all of those, who appear human,” he warned, “are in fact so.”

What are we to make of these remarks? We’ve seen that scientific notions of the human are all over the map, and now it looks like folk-conceptions are every bit as incoherent, if not more so! To the Nazis, Aryans were human but Jews were not, and to the colonists of Virginia, whites were human but blacks were not. And examples of this sort of thing can easily be multiplied. It begins to look like people’s conceptions of the human are all over the map. But a closer examination reveals that there is method in the madness. All of these notions of what it is to be human conform to a hidden, underlying order. 

In explaining this, it’s useful to begin with a striking fact. Historically and cross-culturally, the epithet “human” has often been reserved for members of the speaker’s own ethnic group. For example, the Ancient Egyptians referred to themselves as the “Remtu” (human beings). Similarly, many Native American tribes referred to themselves as “the human beings.” Present-day Germans still call themselves “Deutsch,” which comes from an Indo-European word meaning human being. This linguistic practice reflects an extreme form of ethnocentrism. It implies that we are truly human beings whereas they—the outsiders—are something are something other than human.

To understand what’s going on in these cases, you’ve got to wrap your mind around the philosophical notion of a natural kind. Natural kinds are supposed to be kinds of things that exist “out there” in the world, independently of the human mind. They aren’t mere artifacts of our descriptive practices (in Plato’s memorable phrase, they “cut nature at its joints”) but have a more robust, objective existence. Weeds aren’t natural kinds, because there aren’t any biological characteristics that set them apart from other sorts of plants, but plants that belong to the genus Lillium are all members of the same natural kind, because genus Lillium is a genuine biological category. When one group of people (say, white slaveholders) categorically set themselves apart from others (say, people of African descent) by designating themselves as human and those others as subhuman, they see themselves as members a natural kind that is sharply differentiated from the natural kind that the others belong to. In these cases “human” means something like “my own (natural) kind.”

I believe that this way of thinking about the human applies very generally, and that claiming that a being is human amounts to claiming that that being is one of us. What exactly this amounts to, in any given case, depends on how the boundary separating “us” from "them” is configured. In the cases of colonial slaveholders and German National Socialists, it was defined by race. The colonists thought of “us” as white Europeans, and Nazi racists thought of “us” as the so-called Aryan race. This way of understanding what it means to be human also makes sense claims outside of ethnocentric contexts. If a paleoanthropologist thinks of herself primarily as a member of genus Homo, she will consider any member of that genus to be human, and if she thinks of herself primarily as a member of the species Homo sapiens, she will consider Homo sapiens to be human. And if, like many philosophers, one thinks of “us” as the community of rational beings, then being human is the same as being a rational creature. 

There is no single, objective, category of the human that is independent of any individual’s perspective. This suggests that the word “human” functions as what philosophers call an indexical term. Indexical terms are words whose meanings depend on the context in which they are used. Consider the word “here.” What, in any given case, does “here” name? It’s impossible to answer this question unless you know something about the speaker’s circumstances, because the word “here” designates wherever the speaker is located when she utters it. Similarly, the word “now” names the moment at which it is uttered, and the word “I’ names the person uttering “I.”  If I am right, the word “human” is similar to “here,” “now,” and “I,” in that it names whatever natural kind the speaker believes that she’s a member of.

There’s a tempting objection to this thesis. Consider the statement “I am human.” If “human” is an indexical expression, this statement boils down to something like “I am a member of the natural kind that I am a member of” – a trivial statement if there ever was one. But the statement that one is human is often anything but trivial. When Malcolm X stated, on behalf of the African American people, “We declare our right on this earth to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary” he wasn’t offering his audience a vacuous tautology, but he wasn’t merely claiming that African Americans are members of a certain taxonomic category either. Rather, the moral force of his words flow from the fact that he was asserting in that African Americans are the very same kind of being as European Americans, that they have the right to be regarded as such, and therefore that they can lay claim to the very same respect that whites routinely accord to one another. To misconstrue this point is to misconstrue what it means to be human.



This blog positing gives a shortened version of an argument presented a greater length in my paper “Indexically yours: why being human is more like being here than it is like being water.” Published in R. Corbey and A. Lanjouw, The Politics of Species: Reshaping Our Relationships with Other Animals (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).  Readers interested in a more detailed discussion can consult that paper, as well as my 2011 book Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others (St. Martin’s Press).