A Primer on the Essence of Humanity: Prolegomena to any Future Social Ontology

According to Hegel’s bird’s eye-view of the world, the Owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk. If this bird is supposed to be the personification of philosophical insight, then we start thinking deeply about the nature of something only once its existence is in jeopardy. And so it is with the nature of ‘being human’, which seems to bring out the best in thinkers under the shadow of war or some generalized sense of gloom and doom – of the sort that, say, capitalism routinely invites. Thus, we want to know the difference made by being human because we feel that we might be in the process of losing it.

The standard way to begin such investigations is to ponder the essence of humanity. But ‘essence’ can mean one of two things, depending on whether one comes from the Greco-Roman or Judaeo-Christian side of the issue. My use of these phrases is somewhat polemical, but I’m interested in normatively amplifying a distinction which already exists – typically in a bloodlessly understated fashion – within analytic philosophy of language.

The Greco-Roman style of essence is about essential properties, understood as functional or morphological characteristics that are normally on display. Aristotle put this conception on the table, and even after the formal abandonment of the Aristotelian world-view it acquired a scientific second life in Linnaeus’ ‘binomial nomenclature’ of species, the basis on which natural phenomena are classified (e.g. Homo sapiens for humans).

The Judaeo-Christian style of essence is more about the construction of essences – that is, the means by which something is said to have a distinct identity, which entails that it is not anything else: the ‘difference that makes the difference’. Thus, God – and Adam before the Fall – calls the world into being by giving things unique names. Even among the irreligious, this view has enjoyed a second life in science as the search for the ultimate set of fundamental entities (concepts, numbers, elements, etc.) by which the entire world could be generated by some combination of these logical forms.

A quick-and-dirty way of understanding the two sorts of essence is that the Greco-Romans see essence as a product, while the Judaeo-Christians see it as a process. For their part, analytic philosophers recognize the distinction in terms of, on the one hand, the theory of definite descriptions and, on the other, the causal theory of reference – the former associated with Bertrand Russell and the latter with Saul Kripke. For Russell, the essence of something is its normally distinguishing features, whereas for Kripke the essence is whatever happens to make the thing distinct from other things, even under liminal conditions (i.e. ‘in every possible world’), which typically requires further investigation. Thus, Russell’s ‘water’ is the life-sustaining fluid, whereas Kripke’s ‘water’ is H2O. The former focuses on what water normally does, the latter on water’s overall potential (much of which may be normally unrealized).

Now, let’s think about the ‘essence of humanity’ in light of this distinction. Most social theories today either simply deny the essentialist premise (e.g. postmodernists) or presume one or the other essentialist position without explicit argument (e.g. naturalists). The only contemporary movement that really takes the distinction seriously, albeit implicitly, is transhumanism, which is literally about projecting what is distinctive (and presumably good) about the human to the ‘next’, perhaps ultimate level. If the ‘human’ has an essence that is knowable, then it should be possible to project future cases of humanity based on past ones.

But what exactly are we supposed to be projecting? One thing is clear: The projection is more than simply an empirical prediction about certain future beings — though transhumanists often try to make life too easy for themselves by talking the language of prediction. It is also about how those beings would or should be regarded: Are they still ‘human’? Transhumanism projects two quite distinct futures for the ‘human’. They are not incompatible in principle, but they certainly pull the essence of humanity in quite different directions.

On the one hand, we might live in the bodies of our birth in a state of indefinite health. On the other, we might upload our minds into a more durable silicon platform that would enable us to thrive in perpetuity. Both views clearly dispense with the classical idea of mortality as essential to the human condition. This is where many humanists (and others!) argue that the ‘human’ has – in the spirit of Elvis – already left the building (i.e. no longer in a state of Heideggerian ‘indwelling’).

However, assuming the transhumanist premise, the former case is more Russellian in its fixation on our default Homo sapiens embodiment, whereas the latter case is more Kripkean in suggesting that such embodiment is only contingently related to our essence, which may be more clearly expressed in some other medium, especially one that also clarifies the distinctness of our place in the greater scheme of things.

If one wished to write a proper history of humanity, one would need to deal with the genealogies of these two strands of transhumanist thought. The Russellian history would be about locating and accommodating (or not, as has often happened) a sense of the ‘normal human’, whereas the Kripkean history would be about pushing the limits of the ‘human’ in ways that treat the ‘normal’ with suspicion. The former would invite a more ‘population’ based sense of social ontology fixated on the distribution of physical individuals, and the latter a more ‘corporate’ sense expressly looking to social formations that achieve more than what any presumptively normal individual might. This may be because, in the end, the Russellian view takes the ‘human’ to be a kind of self-sufficient animal, whereas on the Kripkean view the exact nature of the ‘human’ is much less clear, and may ultimately be an instantiation of some other, more cosmically inscribed essence altogether.


Categories: Alternative History of Sociology, Outflanking Platitudes, Rethinking The World, Social Theory

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