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What does it mean to be human? 7 famous philosophers answer

What does it mean to be human? Such a fundamental question to our existence.

This question tends to arise in the face of a moral dilemma or existential crisis, or when trying to find yourself.

What’s more, it’s usually followed by more questions:

What separates us from other species? What is it that drives us to do what we do? What makes us unique?

The answers are never straightforward. Even at this age of modernity and intellectual freedom, we may not be close to any concrete answers. For centuries, the world’s philosophers have made it their work to find them.

Yet the answers remain as diverse and inconclusive as ever.

What does it truly mean to be human?

Read ahead to find out how 7 of the world’s most famous philosophers answer this question.

Karl Marx

“If a human being is a social creature, then he can develop only in the society.”

Karl Marx is known for writing the Communist Manifesto alongside philosopher and social scientist Friedrich Engels. He was among the foremost advocates of communism in 19th century Europe.

Although he is famous for his socialism, he remains one of the most prominent modern philosophical thinkers. Aside from sparking a vast set of social movements during his time, he has managed to shape the world’s views on capitalism, politics, economics, sociology – and yes, even philosophy.

What are his views on human nature?

“All history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature.”

Marx believed that human nature is hugely shaped by our history. He believed that the way we view things – morality, social construct, need fulfillment – is historically contingent in much the same ways our society is.

Of course, his theory on human nature also suggests that humanity’s progress is hindered by capitalism, particularly about labor. As long as we objectify our ideas and satisfy our needs, labor will express our human nature and changes it as well.

David Hume

“All that belongs to human understanding, in this deep ignorance and obscurity, is to be skeptical, or at least cautious; and not to admit of any hypothesis, whatsoever; much less, of any which is supported by no appearance of probability.”

David Hume was an empiricist. He believed that all human ideas have roots from sense impressions. Meaning, even if we imagine a creature that does not exist, your imagination of it still consists of things you’ve sensed in the real world. 

Why is this relevant to being human?

According to Hume, in order to arrange these impressions, we use different mental processes that are fundamentally part of being human. These are Resemblance, Contiguity in time or place, and Cause and Effect.

“‘Tis evident, that all the sciences have a relation, more or less, to human nature … Even Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and Natural Religion, are in some measure dependent on the science of Man.”

Hume further believes that our own perception of truth, each of us, no matter how different, exists. When humans seek truth, they come into moments of realization. Small moments of realization lead to a sense of happiness of fulfillment. Big moments of realization, one the other hand, are truly what makes us human. 

To Hume, It is when we experience these crucial consciousness-altering experiences, that we can finally say, with certainty, what it means to be human.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
The world is everything that is the case.”

There is, perhaps, no other modern philosopher as deeply enigmatic as Ludwig Wittgenstein. His philosophy can be turned sideways, and you’ll still find it both authoritative and obscure.

His philosophy about humanity can be interpreted in many ways. But the gist is still compelling. Let’s digest what he thinks from his one and only book Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus (1921.)

What it means to be human, for Wittgenstein, is our ability to think consciously. We are active, embodied speakers. Before we communicate, we first need to have something to communicate with. We have to create and distinguish true and false thoughts about the world around us, to be able to think about things – combinations of things.

These conscious combinations of thoughts is what Wittgenstein calls “states of affairs.”

Hence:

“The world is the totality of facts, not of things”


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To be human is to think – true, false – it does not truly matter.

Friedrich Nietzsche

“The hour-hand of life. Life consists of rare, isolated moments of the greatest significance, and of innumerably many intervals, during which at best the silhouettes of those moments hover about us. Love, springtime, every beautiful melody, mountains, the moon, the sea-all these speak completely to the heart but once, if in fact they ever do get a chance to speak completely. For many men do not have those moments at all, and are themselves intervals and intermissions in the symphony of real life.”

Friedrich Nietzsche – yet another revolutionary philosopher. He is best known for his book, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits. 

Amongst other philosophers who write unpalatable and obscure ideologies, Nietzche is witty, eloquent, and brutally honest. And even poetic. He is a philosopher who scrutinizes human nature, while offering concrete advice on how to deal with it.

What does he think about humanity and what it means?

“The advantages of psychological observation. That meditating on things human, all too human (or, as the learned phrase goes, “psychological observation”) is one of the means by which man can ease life’s burden; that by exercising this art, one can secure presence of mind in difficult situations and entertainment amid boring surroundings; indeed, that from the thorniest and unhappiest phases of one’s own life one can pluck maxims and feel a bit better thereby.”

For Nietzsche, our awareness gives meaning to humanity. We are capable of what he calls psychological observations, the ability to see things from an analytical perspective. With this, we, as humans, can control the narrative of our existence.

Plato

“For all good and evil, whether in the body or in human nature, originates … in the soul, and overflows from thence, as from the head into the eyes.”

You really didn’t think we’d skip Plato in this list, did you? After all, there’s his Theory of Human Nature.

Plato believed in souls.

He believed that humans have both immaterial mind (soul) and material body. That our souls exist before birth and after death. And it is composed of 1. reason; 2. appetite (physical urges); and will (emotion, passion, spirit.)

For Plato, the soul is the source for everything we feel – love, anguish, anger, ambition, fear. And most of our mental conflict as humans are caused by these aspects not being in harmony.

“Man – a being in search of meaning.”

Plato also believed that human nature is social. At our core, we are not self-sufficient. We need others. We derive satisfaction from our social interactions. That in truth, we derive meaning from our relationships.

Immanuel Kant

“Intuition and concepts constitute… the elements of all our knowledge, so that neither concepts without an intuition in some way corresponding to them, nor intuition without concepts, can yield knowledge.”

Immanuel Kant is widely regarded as one of the most influential western philosophers of all time. His ideologies were about religion, politics, and eternal peace. But most importantly, he was a philosopher of human autonomy.

Kant believed that as humans, we are determined and capable of knowledge, and the ability to act on it, without depending on anyone else, even religion or some divine intervention.

Humans’ perception of knowledge, according to him, are “sensory states caused by physical objects and events outside the mind, and the mind’s activity in organizing these data under concepts …”

Hence, Kant believes that we interact with the world based on our perception of it. We are human because of our reason. Like other species, we do things, we act. But unlike them, we give reasons for our actions. And that, for Kant, is essentially what it means to be human.

“All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.”

Thomas Aquinas

“We can’t have full knowledge all at once. We must start by believing; then afterwards we may be led on to master the evidence for ourselves.”

Like Plato, Thomas Aquinas was a dualist, who believed that human beings have both a body and a soul.

But unlike Kant who believed it is our intellect that gives us meaning, Aquinas believed the reverse. For him, we absorb knowledge through our sense, and the intellect processes it later, and more gradually, through our human experiences.

Aquinas believed that we are the only beings in existence, that can perceive both matter and spirit. We don’t just exist in this world – we can interpret it, scrutinize it, derive meaning from it, and make decisions about it. It is our intellect that transcends us from simply existing, to actually doing with freedom, with limitless imagination.

What do you think?

You don’t need to be a philosopher to come to your own conclusions. For you, what does it mean to be human? Is it compassion, empathy, logic, our consciousness?

In this world of technology, social media, and advanced scientific discoveries, it’s important to keep asking this crucial question. Don’t let all the noise distracting you from reflection – why do we exist? What does it all even mean? What can we bring into this marvelous existence? Let us know by joining in on the discussion below.


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Notable replies

  1. Humans are only one species of many, many that are greater and many that are lesser. In a universe of more than a trillion galaxies each containing more than 100 billion stars, we are fortunate to be able to count such things. We are very young in the scheme of things, just babes in our galaxies steller nursery. For the more advanced species, we cannot conceive of what it means to be them, so it is likely any thoughts of what it means to be us are meaningless. If you want proof, ask your cat, “What is a cat?”

  2. I think , in being human, we are born knowing nothing at the conscious level. Therefore in hubris we must label things and navigate our way. Labeling can be sticky , for example deciding to be an atheist or a priest are label decisions made in equal hubris. Hubris is a fundamental necessity and fault. However hubris, when acknowledged in the force moment isn’t really hubris anymore at a fundamental level.
    Potential is always out in front of us , like a golden snitch. Not knowing leads to navigation, not knowing is a fundamental necessity. It is a vowel required by consonants it is a compelling agent.an endless void to fill.

  3. I have always had an attitude: some think that is a bad thing and others laugh at me.
    What I have to say on all this is that, if you do not inject some humor into your limited understanding of life, you could be as overly-serious (and therefore likely not humble enough) as the chosen pictures and wording of these philosophers.

    “If you aren’t laughing at life, you don’t understand it well enough - Yet!”

    The ‘Yet’ is in there to allow for hope since even old farts can finally wisen up and start to laugh at our overly-concise viewpoints about a complex universe and ourselves. All but one of the many ‘experts’ that I met were humble and had a very wry sense of humor!

    Love and Above to all who laugh in recognition of how little they know!

  4. You say, “as truly powerful and Love-focused humans we can even refuse to ‘hate’ the sin.”

    There are so many sins and it is not desirable to accept them in any way would be a poor choice.

  5. BillAmes
    There is NO connection between refusing to ‘hate’ the sin and accepting it other than a debt to the universe. Actually, Christianity, as Jesus intended it, was supposed to go beyond infinity lists of laws and sins; and go to the jugular, as it were, In the Jesus Commandment He stated it simply and powerfully, but that should be another post! LoL

    In the original version of The Lord’s Prayer, the wording was ‘forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors’ but that apparently did not allow for enough control over the congregation (or even the priests/ministers I suppose).

    So it was changed to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”
    but few really understood what a trespass was; so it was again changed to
    “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

    The original was, and is, and will be, the most powerful!

    When you do something against Love and the universe, and therefore against the Divine essence, you owe a dept to the universe and its Divine Creator.

    I do not use the word God, except with great care, since God has been so badly defamed by those who use that name, but refer only to a god defined by mankind. I write a lot about that, although some of it is too angry to please God, I Fear!

    Again, perhaps the subject of another post.

  6. Thanks for the discussion. I see that socialism works quite well with capitalism . Either left unchecked leads to a handful in power and everyone else in a soup line or worse. There seems to be a menu of chemical payoffs in pointing out the evils of one over the other,
    Because they are both poisons that cure each other. Definitely worth knowing the tragedies of socialism forced en Fiat. We need to know that we are capable of horrific acts in order to not do them.

  7. Capitalism would be a great system if it was practised anywhere in the world. But are there every truly “free markets” without manipulation by powerful actors?

    For example, many pro-capitalists today point to the failures of Venezuela as an example, suggesting they should have embraced capitalism long ago. But they fail to point out that for more than a decade America has been imposing sanctions on Venezuela and doing much more to prevent their system from working out economically.

    Yesterday I was walking along with @brendanbrown in Manila. He’s a cigarette smoker. I asked him why he doesn’t try vapers (electronic cigarettes), which are meant to be healthier, as I’d seen them available in the Philippines. He spends most of his time in Thailand, and told me that the Thai government has banned them, likely because of lobbying from big tobacco companies.

    I would love to see the kind of energy dedicated towards arguing for capitalism or socialism towards a more practical focus on reducing cronyism in all societies, whether that’s the United States, Thailand, or wherever.

    To bring this back to the original topic of “what it means to be human”, I believe it’s natural for humans to experience spontaneous expressions of creative. How we channel this is up to us, and we usually do so in the context of our belief system which is shaped by prevailing ideologies. I would love for Ideapod to evolve into a platform which helps people to question their prevailing ideologies and shift their belief systems so that they may build a stronger connection with their natural creativity.

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Written by Genefe Navilon

Genefe Navilon is a writer, poet, and blogger. She graduated with a degree in Mass Communications at the University of San Jose Recoletos. Her poetry blog, Letters To The Sea, currently has 18,000 followers. Her work has been published in different websites and poetry book anthologies. She divides her time between traveling, writing, and working on her debut poetry book.

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