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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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These conscious combinations of thoughts is what Wittgenstein calls “states of affairs.”
“The world is the totality of facts, not of things”
To be human is to think – true, false – it does not truly matter.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.