Being Human

Steve Fuller, Professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, showed the following slide;

To be human is to engage in an activity whose purpose goes beyond the promotion and maintenance of the animal natures of those qualified to be human.

1. Ancient Artifice = Paideia (Inhabiting the right mental space to deal with others and the world, e.g.. ‘the humanistic world-view’.)
2.2. Mediaeval Artifice = Universitas (Incorporating yourself in a social entity with a greater purpose: e.g. ‘the project of humanity’)
3.3. Modern Artifice = Engineering (Redesigning the environment, including one’s body, to enable a certain desirable form of existence with less effort: e.g. ‘transhumanism’)

This description made me think of people in comas, with autism, cerebral palsy or similar conditions. Think of someone with severe cerebral palsy. Unable to speak, walk, or go to the bathroom or eat independently. How about autism? The definition from the Autistic Society says;

“Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how they make sense of the world around them.
Asperger syndrome is a form of autism. People with Asperger syndrome are often of average or above average intelligence. They have fewer problems with speech but may still have difficulties with understanding and processing language.”

If you read the initial descriptions of being human does means that people with certain conditions aren’t human? (I don’t think this by the way before I get posts telling me what a cow I am).

It is an interesting point though because there are so many people out there who won’t fit these descriptions. There may even be specific times in a persons life where they don’t fit the criteria. For example if someone is clinically depressed are they inhabiting the right mental space to deal with others or incorporating themselves in a social entity. Are they not human? They are also people out there who are simply introverted who don’t fit the criteria. Are they not human?

Defining a human is difficult if you are using a set of criteria. You can list biological/physiological functions but they can equally be applied to animals, and that’s a whole new debate, as Professor Fuller mentioned in his lecture

1. There has always been some ambiguity about where to draw the line between humans and non-humans, starting with Linnaeus’ definition of Homo sapiens.
2. There has always been recognition of the diversity of physical and mental qualities of beings that might qualify as humans.

Not only is trying to define a human difficult it is also open to dangerous interpretation. Think Nazis and the Taliban. And you don’t need to look at history to see groups of people treated differently or mistreated based on who they are and other people’s perceptions, eg women in Afghanistan, disabled people in some parts of Romania, gay people in some african countries.

So what makes us human? Our intelligence? But does that mean apes aren’t clever? Our humanity? There are plenty of people out there who show a lack of that.

In his book, Discourse on the Method, Descartes suggests that reason is ‘the only thing that makes us men [sic] and distinguishes us from the beasts… .’11. So does this rule out people with certain mental illnesses where this reason or rational thought is not exhibited or temporarily lost?

I am certainly not going to be able to answer the question of what a human is. I can give a list of some of the things that make us human but they could equally apply to animals and wouldn’t be a definitive list. But maybe this is a good thing. It means that we can continue debating and discovering and, in the process, evolving. In the past these debates have driven through powerful changes to things like the suffragette and civil rights movements. Maybe one day these discussions and discoveries will lead to equality for all (probably not but its worth a shot!)

Next week we are looking at redefining the human which should be interesting as I haven’t even got as far as defining one yet!



  1. Thanks Natascha. I found Fuller’s argument to be persuasive on points and unpersuasive on others. For instance, if pushed too far, his thoughts on the tiered nature of humanity would raise (for me at least) questions about whether we should care for the poor, AIDS orphans, mentally disabled, the sick, etc. I suppose I have an intrinsic feeling that all humans are valuable so I couldn’t accept his point completely.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: