What is human?

Note: This essay was my contribution for an issue of the Turkish publication Sabah Ülkesi on the very broad topic “What is human?” Knowing the text would be translated, I aimed for a simple style, but readers of Turkish will have to judge how much I facilitated the translator’s work.

When philosophers and theologians attempt to define what is human, they almost always end up talking about what is not human. That is to say, most definitions of the human proceed via contrast or negation. So one might say that a human being is not simply an animal, nor is it a god, an angel, or a jinn. In this procedure, we learn that animals are lower than us, and gods, angels, and jinn are higher—but what we actually are remains a mystery.

Some thinkers have attempted to turn this negative definition of humanity into a positive one by claiming that humanity is a microcosm. In this view, what defines humanity is the way that it reflects all aspects of creation in an ideal balance. For instance, we include an animal element in our bodily existence, but we also contain a higher form of spirituality and intellect, so that the whole range of life is present in us. Here again, though, the attempt to define humanity directs our attention away from humanity and toward all the other things that we can see in humanity. Humanity is defined as including everything other than humanity, which leaves humanity strangely redundant—we already have a universe, so why do we need a smaller version?—and without any distinctive content of its own.

More formal definitions that draw on Aristotle’s methodology may initially seem more helpful. Here the procedure is to place humanity in a general category and then single out the distinctive trait that marks us off from other members of that category. One popular definition along these lines is that humanity is an animal (the general category) that possesses reason (the distinctive trait).

Finally, we seem to have something specific to hold onto. Yet when we ask what reason is, we most often find that it is defined negatively in terms of animal behaviors that seem to be similar. For instance, it is claimed that reason allows us to reflect and deliberate upon our actions, while animals are driven by instincts that cause them to operate in a more mechanical or automatic way. Or we may learn that humans have a special capacity for meaningful language, whereas animals that appear to communicate using some kind of symbols (such as bees, who communicate with each other using dance) are not properly using language, but utilizing a purely pragmatic form of code that is instinctively “hard-wired” into them.

When I hear arguments like that, I always want to ask these philosophers how they know so much about animals. How do we know that their actions are mechanical and “hardwired”? How do we know that symbols are purely utilitarian for them? Anyone who has lived with a cat or a dog will have a hard time believing these reductive accounts of animal life. Dogs and cats often appear to hesitate or deliberate between options, and dogs sometimes seem to try to hide their misdeeds (or at least hope their owner doesn’t notice). While cats do not generally respond to commands, dogs have a complex relationship to the symbols we teach them, including non-utilitarian ones that express approval or disapproval (“good dog!” “bad dog!”).

We could say that all of this is still “pure instinct” and that we are misinterpreting the dog’s behavior by making them seem too human. But these counterarguments are tautological. They start from the assumption that human behavior is unique and then attempt to explain away any animal behavior that seems to fit.

What is striking in these types of definitions is the way that animal behavior is often defined as a “downgraded” version of human behavior. This is most explicit in the work of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who defines humanity as “world-forming” and animals as “poor-in-world.” Drawing on the work of the biologist Jakob von Uexküll, Heidegger claims that animals experience the world as a limited number of stimuli, which fully absorb their attention whenever the animal encounters them. One of Heidegger’s most grotesque examples involves the bee’s desire to suck nectar. If a bee is placed in front of a supply of nectar, it is possible to remove the bee’s abdomen without the bee noticing—and then the bee will continue sucking on the nectar indefinitely, because it will never feel full. Only the immediate stimulus is real for the bee, and everything else, even its own bodily integrity, falls to the wayside.

By contrast, Heidegger claims that human beings are able to direct their attention to a whole range of stimuli, including the network of meaningful symbols and activities that make up our shared social “world.” Far from simply responding to natural phenomena, human beings are able to create their own new stimuli—hence the definition as “world-forming.” Interestingly, though, Heidegger argues that this seemingly positive capacity of human beings, our ability to create a rich and full world for ourselves in contrast to the impoverished world of an animal, is actually founded on a negative experience: profound boredom.

In an analysis that, appropriately enough, extends through hundreds of tedious pages, Heidegger describes boredom as a state where no stimulus can hold our attention, where nothing energizes us and sets us to work. This incapacity to act is what allows us to choose and even create the stimuli we will respond to. In other words, our open-ended relationship to the world depends on an experience where the world completely closes itself off to us.

We can say, then, that for Heidegger, the human being is the animal who gets bored. Heidegger’s analysis has been taken up and developed by the contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who repeatedly emphasizes the importance of our incapacities. Human beings only have abilities because we are able not to use our abilities. For instance, a piano player is only a piano player because he can choose not to play—a piano player who could do nothing but play piano all the time would not be a human, but some kind of bizarre piano-playing machine. More than that, he argues that what defines the human being is its inoperativity, meaning its lack of any set task or job. This inoperativity does not mean that human beings are lazy or idle, however. Instead, it is what prompts us to constantly burden ourselves with tasks.

From this perspective, we could say that the human being is the animal that makes work for itself. And on the question of language in specific, Agamben takes a similar approach when he points out that human beings appear to be the only animals that have to learn our language through explicit instruction. In fact, if children are not taught language by a certain age, they will never be able to learn it—the capacity can be lost if it is not used. Hence even if we concede that other animals have something like language, humanity’s relationship to its language is distinctive.

I find this kind of definition interesting because it doesn’t define humanity by any supposedly unique behavior or trait, but by its unique relationship to its behaviors or traits. Even if we could find examples of animals doing all the same kinds of things that we do—and I think that we can, from language usage to building structures to playing games—that would not take away from humanity’s distinctiveness.

At the same time, this is a very strange type of distinctiveness. Whereas traditional definitions emphasize humanity’s superiority to the animals and its participation in the sphere of the divine, these definitions seem to present humanity as an animal that became somehow broken or deranged. All of our behaviors and traits are nothing but animal behaviors and traits. What makes us human is the specific way in which we are alienated from our animal behaviors and traits—and hence have to regain them again and again. What comes naturally to animals—figuring out what to do with our lives, communicating with others—is a laborious achievement for us.

It may seem that this approach still defines humanity negatively in relation to animals, but I think it is more accurate to say that they define us in relation to ourselves. And this brings me to another classic definition of the human from Aristotle, namely that the human being is a political animal. This definition, like the ones drawn from Agamben, has nothing to do with the “content” of our lives, which does not necessarily differ from that of animals, but instead concerns its “form”—our relationship to our own activities, capacities, and fellow human beings. We are human because we form human communities, in which we give ourselves a variety of tasks and responsibilities, by means of human languages that we pass on and teach to other human beings. The human being is the animal that engages with humans, as a human.

This definition is admittedly tautological, but it is tautological in a way that fits with the human form of existence. Humanity is not a property we possess or a substance that we are made out of, but an ongoing project undertaken in collaboration with other human beings. Humanity’s distinctive task is to define its own tasks, just as its distinctive type of language is one that it develops in dialogue with fellow human beings and passes along to fellow human beings.

From one perspective, this definition seems open-ended and hopeful—humanity has no set boundary or limit! But from another perspective, it may seem dangerous, because one thing that we can always rely on human beings to do is to make mistakes. Thus if human beings are in charge of defining humanity, there is always the danger that they will unjustly exclude their fellow human beings from the human community by treating them as something less than or even other than human. And this does in fact happen all the time, from the outright hatred of war and slavery to the everyday realities of social and racial hierarchy.

Humanity does define humanity wrongly, and the only solution is for more human beings to become involved in the fight for the full recognition of their fellow human beings’ humanity. What basis do we have to dispute the reigning definition of humanity? Our own ability to recognize ourselves and others as human. This allows us to say, for instance, that the master should recognize the humanity of his slave or that the torturer should recognize the humanity of his victim—or even that he is lying to himself if he claims not to. It allows us to fight for our dignity and that of our fellow human beings against those who aim to deprive us of it. It may even allow us to justify excluding from the human community those who consistently refuse to recognize the humanity of others.

In short, humanity is not only a project but a struggle—at once a project among human beings and a struggle against human beings. Attempts to define humanity by some trait or capacity, from reason and language to a certain sequence of DNA, are all-too-human attempts to deny and avoid the profound responsibility and conflict that structures our very existence. We can never define once and for all what humanity is. We can only fight for what we believe that humanity can and must be.

2 thoughts on “What is human?

  1. Over fifty years ago I decided to rail against the song that clalimed “love make the world go ’round.” No, trust is what makes the world go ’round; love is what makes us human. I stand by that to-day.

  2. This conclusion is not dissimilar to Laurelle’s notion on the human “as such” as always, already enfleshed in the place of radical resistance to those hegemonic powers that pretend to universality in the profound ontological struggle of the human against everything that attempts to capture, dominate, control, regulate, subjugate, normalize, subordinate or rule the human… (The Future Christ: A Lesson in Heresy)

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