• Athena
    2.1k
    Last night I was listening to explanations of the philosophy of education and one began with a question about the qualities of being human. I do not agree that intelligence is an essential characteristic of being human. I work with people who can not read and can not do even the most basic math. They are adults living in a foster home because they can not safely care for themselves. I think we can agree they do NOT have the intelligence necessary for survival yet I think we also agree they are human.

    I am wondering what others have to say about the characteristics of a human being and also how are these characteristics gained? It is my understanding children who have not been touched and nurtured do not develop the ability to bond. They may not learn a language and may not adjust to social living. Can we have human form without the characteristics normally associated with being human?
  • Jackson
    1.6k
    I would say having a body qualifies as being human. Need not be more complicated than that.
  • DingoJones
    2.6k


    Cats have bodies.
  • Jackson
    1.6k
    Cats have bodies.DingoJones

    Are cats in the species homo sapiens? I do not think so.
  • Angelo Cannata
    195
    I think there is a trap when we try to answer this question. Actually it is the same trap that makes a lot of philosophical question endless, without any progress, or even oppressive.
    The trap consists of looking for a conclusive answer, something stable, reasoning with a mentality oriented towards static concepts. Since we are immersed in history, which means a lot of epochs and a lot of places, any answer is easily exposed to be demolished, criticized or, as I said, it becomes just a sterile endless discussion.
    We know that, over time and according to different places of our planet, a lot of different ideas, even opposite, conflicting and oppressive ideas have been kept as stable about what means to be human, or a person, but the question can be extended to everything: what is truth, what is freedom, and so on.
    So, I think the best answer to your question is a methodology of work, with some criteria like the following ones:
    1) as I said, try not to fall into traps of static thinking
    2) which means: let’s work on provisional answers, and then work again, and then again and again;
    3) in this work let’s use the best resources we have: dialogue, space for opposite perspectives, welcoming criticism, research, space for science and for criticism of science;
    4) let's make decisions, but they must be always considered provisional, temporary decisions.

    So, today I would say: what is essential to being human being is to be perceived as human by other humans. It seems circular, but I think it is not: I think that, as a starting point, everybody assumes they are humans, so, let’s consider humans those you think are humans, by using your sensitivity, history, culture, science.

    Your question involves the huge debates about abortion: by considering this you can realize, again, how sterile it is to look for definite conclusions.

    My answer is aimed at opening discussion by helping towards perspectives, not to be a conclusion.

    I would add that we need to make a good use of subjectivity and objectivity in order to work well on it.
  • Philosophim
    1.2k
    DNA. The reason you're a human and not an apple. Nothing else really matters.
  • Angelo Cannata
    195

    A human cell has human DNA, it is human, but it is not a human being.
  • DingoJones
    2.6k


    Exactly my point. How can having a body be definitive of being a human when all kinds of clearly non-human things have bodies?
    So apparently it does need to be more complicated than that.
  • Philosophim
    1.2k
    A human cell has human DNA, it is human, but it is not a human being.Angelo Cannata

    Am I supposed to list every cell combination within the human body? You know what I meant. I'm sure you want people to respect your intent when you post, give it to others as well please.
  • Angelo Cannata
    195

    It was not my intention to be rude: I just did some criticism, by applying some reflection. If criticism, disagreement, looking from another perspective, becomes lack of respect, what else can we do here?

    I think I see your point: if a certain number of cells with a human DNA are organized in a certain way to give as a result a whole, complete, living body, then that being can be definitely considered a human being.
    Well, let’s think of a terminal person: that person is unable to give signs of conscience, electronic devices are unable to tell us if that person has still any sensitivity. Hopes of survival are maximum a couple of hours. The body of that person is terribly suffering for a consuming cancer. Shall we kill that person to stop that suffering or not?
    I created this hypothesis to support what I said: I am sure that, for any static, definitive, conclusive answer, it is possible to find at least one hypothetical case that puts that answers in a crisis, in a difficulty, showing that that answer is not definitive at all.
  • 180 Proof
    8.7k
    A human being is, at minimum, 'a person with H. sapiens DNA'. As far as I understand the developmental biology, personhood begins in utero around the 24th-26th week of gestation when the thalamocortical circuitry in the foetal brain is fully intact and the foetus thereby becomes sentient (i.e. feels pain as an independent organism with the potential for learning (A) to anticipate her own pain as well as the pain of others – empathy – and (B) to recognize others as persons too). IME, ideally education ought to consist in learning to (self)cultivate, or optimize, one's sentience (i.e. caring for what makes a person 'a person').
  • Xtrix
    3.5k


    I take the view that the defining characteristic is language. At least that appears the most obvious, in that non-human primates and other animals don't have it.

    I think Heidegger et al. would disagree with this. In his view, human being is an openness, or a "clearing." I'm sympathetic to this view as well.
  • Tom Storm
    4.3k
    I think Heidegger et al. would disagree with this. In his view, human being is an openness, or a "clearing." I'm sympathetic to this view as well.Xtrix

    What is openness or a clearing? Potential?

    I am wondering what others have to say about the characteristics of a human being and also how are these characteristics gained?Athena

    I've never explored this question in depth as I suspect it is largely a product of perspective and I'm not sure it is of significant use to me. I generally hold that humans are clever animals who use language to manage their environment. Most humans seem to require social contact and some form of validation and emotional comfort and an experience of love (however that looks for them). How do we develop our characteristics? Not sure it matters to me. In talking to people who have suicidal ideation, the most common themes (apart form traumatic histories) are that they feel isolated, misunderstood and devalued by family/friends/society. Seems to me human desire to connect meaningfully with others and how successful we are in achieving this, tends to determine whether we are content or resentful.
  • Xtrix
    3.5k
    What is openness or a clearing? Potential?Tom Storm

    Personally I think both are words for awareness. Dasein gets translated as the "there," "being-there." I think the "there" is existence, being -- "there-being," in other words. The "there" -- existence -- is this awareness, this opening.
  • Tom Storm
    4.3k
    Ok. Not trying to be a dick. But what is ‘awareness’ in this schematic?
  • Jackson
    1.6k
    Dasein gets translated as the "there," "being-there." I think the "there" is existence, being -- "there-being," in other words. The "there" -- existence -- is this awareness, this opening.Xtrix

    I think Heidegger is referring to being in a particular situation. Being-here, Being-there. The situatedness of being.
  • Wayfarer
    16.1k
    . I work with people who can not read and can not do even the most basic math. They are adults living in a foster home because they can not safely care for themselves. I think we can agree they do NOT have the intelligence necessary for survival yet I think we also agree they are human.Athena

    I perfectly agree, it is obviously fundamental to human rights that such people are cared for. I lived for a long while beside a group home for intellectually disabled men, who had carers and social workers to look after them. I often reflected that in many poorer countries such people would be left in the care of relatives or abandoned to their fate. It was heart-warming to see the lengths that had been gone to to care for these people some of whom had the mental age of small children.

    However, that said, intellectually disabled persons are not representative of being human. I suppose to put it in classical terms of essence and accident, their disability is an accident whilst their humanity is essential. I also agree with the Aristotelian classification of the human as 'rational animal', in that we're clearly descended from and related to all other species from a biological perspective, but that the ability to reason, think and speak distinguishes humans from other animals in a fundamental way.
  • Outlander
    1.5k
    Do a Venn-Diagram between any intelligent animal and yourself, or just to be sure, a well-respected and intelligent person. Therein lies your answer.

    This is a non-answer but surely draws the point home. Understanding of the passage of time and its ability to utilize it to extend what is beyond yourself. Not mechanistic acknowledgement of impulse based on biological analysis vetted by either direct process or evolutionary "killing floor" (though that's a theory as well). Creation. Preservation. Beyond "I hunger", beyond "I am here, you are there", "this works, therefore it will work again". Imagination. Dreams. The squirrel stores nuts away for the winter because every squirrel that did not froze to death, rather it is probable the modern squirrel was singled out by said now-frozen-to-death squirrels at the squirrel luncheon.. whatever they have and so had to store them elsewhere. The squirrel who stored his food elsewhere lived, those who didn't, did not. Just as the beaver builds a dam. It knows not what it does, it simply does. A monkey can paint a cave painting if taught to, just as cats flick their tongue at you if you try to give them a kiss, or a dog "shakes hands" with you.

    Understanding of Passage of time meaning past, present, and future. A dog remembers the face of a person who abused them and so experiences fear or other emotion if the same person is around. The same dog will also know when they are being rewarded and showered with affection. Also (though I can't name the study) a dog in a cage with other dogs in slaughter who witness dogs before them being killed will sense dread and impending doom. This is something like elephants "mourning" their dead. They see their reflection in a pristine pool of water as they drink. They see one another as they grow up and such image becomes a visual cue of biological value, the herd moving together is strong, a still version of oneself is troublesome and biologically "off".

    There are stark differences between animals and people. Though I agree the definitions for both, rather distinctions between have somewhat lost meaning as of late.
  • Hanover
    8.3k
    Searching for the essence of anything, from what it is to be human to what it is to be a cup is a failed enterprise. The enterprise will also not at all be metaphysical, but will be linguistic, meaning we will be quibbling over best definitions regarding how we use words as opposed to what is intrinsic in the thing.

    To avoid the language game, I find it more important to ask the moral question, as in how ought we treat people and what are the aspects we most highly value in people.

    In the folks you work with, surely I would not claim myself more human than they because I'm smarter and more intellectually gifted, but I still find those traits specially (although not uniquely) human. That is, as much as we realize they'll never read and do math, we would provide them educational opportunities and instruction befitting their ability. To deny them intellectual development that they could achieve would be inhumane.

    So, no, I don't think intellectualism makes us human, but to deny it, denies our living up to the height of our creation, and so it is a human thing to link our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development to our humanity.
  • Joshs
    3.5k
    I take the view that the defining characteristic is language. At least that appears the most obvious, in that non-human primates and other animals don't have it.

    I think Heidegger et al. would disagree with this. In his view, human being is an openness, or a "clearing." I'm sympathetic to this view as well.
    Xtrix

    Heidegger’s questionable take on the difference between Dasein and animals:

    “The specific manner in which man is we shall call comportment and the specific manner in which the animal is we shall call behaviour.

    An animal can only behave but can never apprehend something as something-which is not to deny that the animal sees or even perceives. Yet in a fundamental sense the animal does not have perception.”

    “Now if something resembling a surrounding environment is open for the animal and its behaviour, we must now ask whether it is possible to clarify this any further. Instinctual and subservient capability for ... , the totality of its self-absorbed capability, is an interrelated drivenness of the instinctual drives which encircles the animal. It does so in such a way that it is precisely this encirclement which makes possible the behaviour in which the animal is related to other things.

    But these encircling rings belonging to the animals, within which their contextual behaviour and instinctual activity moves, are not simply laid down alongside or in between one another but rather intersect with one another. The wood worm, for example, which bores into the bark of the oak tree is encircled by its own specific ring. But the woodworm itself, and that means together with this encircling ring of its own, finds itself in turn within the ring encircling the woodpecker as it looks for the worm. And this woodpecker finds itself in all this within the ring encircling the squirrel which startles it as it works. Now this whole context of openness within the rings of captivation encircling the animal realm is not merely characterized by an enormous wealth of contents and relations which we can hardly imagine, but in all of this it is still fundamentally different from the manifestness of beings as encountered in the world -forming Dasein of man.”
  • Wayfarer
    16.1k
    'An animal can only behave but can never apprehend something as something-which is not to deny that the animal sees or even perceives. Yet in a fundamental sense the animal does not have perception' ~ HeideggerJoshs

    I agree with this, but I think it's an extremely unpopular opinion. I think the social dynamics are like this: in secular culture, 'nature' is the nearest remaining thing to the idea of the sacred. Hence the prominence of environmentalism, respect for first nations peoples, and so on - both of which are commendable in themselves. But the idea that humanity is something separate from nature is then attributed to the Judeo-Christian mythology of 'stewardship' and identified with colonialism and the rule of dead white males. So the assertion of the difference, let alone the superiority, of h. sapiens, is highly politically incorrect.

    But the problem is, this attitude doesn't allow us to take responsibility for the fact that we obviously are completely different to other animals (something which I've found hardly anyone will agree with). We build cities and machines....well, where do you stop. We have to own up to our differences, and to understand what it means to be human - which of course no other animal can do. And regarding ourselves as kinds of animals helps us evade that rather terrible responsibility.
  • L'éléphant
    735
    This is an amusing thread. Credits to Athena. In my opinion, someone here already identified the ultimate test of what it is to be human. It's a very clever answer, but one that truly narrows all other traits/characteristics to this one -- because it covers also the moral agency of a person.

    But in the spirit of sportsmanship, I won't identify who that is. For personal purposes, I'm scoring the answers. :cool:
  • Xtrix
    3.5k


    No, it’s a good question. At this point I wouldn’t speak for anyone but myself, so I won’t pretend to give any authoritative answer.

    But for me, I see awareness as synonymous with consciousness — and what is consciousness? Just “being” here. It’s this. The most basic thing in the world. I can’t give a much better description, unfortunately.

    I think Heidegger is referring to being in a particular situation.Jackson

    Hmm. I think there’s something to that, in the sense that we’re always “up to” something. Seeing a human being as a kind of situation is interesting.



    Appreciate the quotations. Interesting stuff.

    I don’t want to digress into Heidegger here, so I’ll just leave it at that.
  • 180 Proof
    8.7k
    Why would anyone care what a Nazi believes defines "human being"? :shade:
  • Xtrix
    3.5k


    The reason I care is because he’s original, challenging, and interesting.
  • Metaphysician Undercover
    10k
    I think there is confusion in this thread between what is "essential" to being human, and what distinguishes human beings from other beings. What is "essential" is what is necessary. So to be an animal is essential to being human. But of course, being an animal is not what distinguishes human beings from other beings. So the question of what is essential to being human is not the same question as what distinguishes human beings from other beings.
  • Jack Cummins
    4.1k

    You have asked an interesting question and it is fairly difficult because people vary so much. However, there may be some underlying aspects of human nature, or essential aspects of motivation. Maslow speaks of the hierarchy of needs which begin from physical to the social ones with the need for self-actualization as the highest ones. All these aspects may be linked to what a human being may become.

    Part of the issue of what is essential to being human is the way in which life circumstances can bring out so many different aspects and education may be about cultivating the best possibilities. There is the question of nature and nurture as a questionable area with genetic determinants but what happens in early life may be extremely influential, as stressed by the child psychologists, including John Bowlby. The role of trauma may have a critical effects on core development of personality.

    The process of becoming is a life long art, and what happens at any stage can either make or break a person. However, it may be that working on oneself, in spite of difficult life experiences, as the idea of 'the examined life's may be about reflection on the narrative of experience, as an important process of being human in a consciously aware way. This conscious awareness can be about becoming a person in a unique sense.
  • emancipate
    446
    Why is philosophy so preoccupied by delineation and classification? What is the use in carving up reality (via natural articulations or artificial)? Even if we could grasp absolutely what human-ness is, it would be a mere catalogue entry; nothing more. Searching for the essence of a thing is a futile endeavour anyway. I very much agree with @Hanover
  • Xtrix
    3.5k


    On the contrary, I think this is one of the most important questions we face. How we answer it, even tacitly, has significant social/political repercussions.

    We can throw our hands up and say it’s futile to discuss. That’s fine — but answers are held anyway. I’d rather be participating than sitting out simply because a permanent solution doesn’t exist. I don’t find it futile talking about God either, despite how amorphous a term it is— especially when such a term is used as justification for immoral behavior.

    I think creativity, especially in the use of language, is an essential aspect of human being/human nature. I believe this factually, and I like to emphasize it morally. I don’t see anything futile about that.

    We can hold tentative beliefs and operate on the basis of them. They do not have to be static, ultimate truths on which there is no disagreement.
  • Joshs
    3.5k
    Why would anyone care what a Nazi believes defines "human being"? :shade:180 Proof

    Heidegger got his model of animal functioning from Jakob von Uexküll, a pioneer in biosemiotics.
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