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


#1

Originally published at https://ideapod.com/what-does-it-mean-to-be-human-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”

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.


#2

I was just having an interesting conversation with @boonnhem on Facebook and wanted to raise it here.

@boonnhem questioned why we’re quoting Karl Marx’s views on human nature, considering all of the violence that has been committed in his name in the 20th century. I’m paraphrasing so Boonn please correct me where I’m wrong?

My response was that Karl Marx’s views on human nature should be considered in isolation from what people have done in his name. By the same logic, we would not be able to quote anything from the Bible considering the Crusades and other genocides committed in its name.

What do you think? And @boonnhem, I share this here to get the conversation started! I enjoyed the dialogue on Facebook. It’s fascinating to go a little deeper on it, and I think this is a good place for it :slight_smile:


#3

#4

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?”


#5

LOL! Why in the world do you want me to strike a conversation with my cat about humanity! :rofl:


#6

I always try to engage the most intelligent in the conversations I have. See, it worked! :wink:


#7

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.


#8

A mon avis, les philosophes sont plus anatomistes que médecins : ils dissèquent et ne guérissent pas. Le plus souvent, le discours s’étiole petit à petit, jusqu’à disparaitre…


#9

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!


#10

I grew up reading science fiction, so my role models were often members of nonhuman races. As I grew older, I began to see the possibilities for a few very old, very long-lived (essentially eternal) alien races. To think of how they would view humans I had to think of how they might perceive themselves. Here you are, all of the science explored for a few billion years in one pocket and the ability to go anywhere in the universe with no problems or worries.

Then they find us, what are they to make of us? Because of the resources in our solar system, we have good potential. They put a maker in our sun that all space fairing sentient races will recognize as “keep away,” it will remove itself in 500 million years. So, it has no more significance what it means to be human for us than any species anywhere in the universe to be themselves. We are all just along for the ride.


#11

BillAmes,
I don’t know much except that we humans tend to ‘know’ almost nothing.

Hidden, because our Traditional Press is paid to keep such things from us, so that we can remain in Fear and controllable by those who have done terrible things to get what they have, is an exponential explosion of the number of humans trying to live Love-focused lives. In a few years that number is predicted to approach half a billion humans.

One of the reasons for the present chaos in our lives is that all of us can sense (if we but open ourselves to it) that this movement exists and the time for self-centered, egotistical, Fear using, control is coming to an end. Can you but imagine what those who use only Fear-based ways are feeling, or having show up in their worst nightmares?

Pray for them; that makes them weaker in their ability to do Fear-bases things and us stronger to do do Love-focused things.

I wrote a book about how we humans should deal with those who do terrible things. It is entitled “Hate The Sin: But Not The Sinner” but concludes that, as truly powerful and Love-focused humans we can even refuse to ‘hate’ the sin. LoL

You can learn a lot, for free, by using the ‘Look inside’ feature on my author site at:

Have fun with all that! and continue to remember that:

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


#12

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.


#13

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.


#14

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.


#15

Fortunately we are not a prisoner of socialism or capitalism, there are probably millions of different social societies to live within. We will develop some for the AIs and our alien neighbors will introduce us to even more.


#16

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.


#17

Wait, that sort of implies everyone coming to Ideapod is wrong and needs to change their way of thinking. Now, I may agree with that because I have not yet met anyone quite like me here, so if it is necessary to change, make it so.

My exposure to literature has been since childhood just science fiction. All the stories had smart, resourceful, open minded heroes and that set my world view. I grew up with little tolerance for anything less. Now, in my senior years I realize there are too many that do not meet my standards so I retire to my universe, write my stories, and try to ride the wave of high tech on the AI bandwagons guided by QED.

Can I talk philosophy? Sure, how does the photon know that I am watching to see what slit it went through or if I forget what I saw it forgets I was looking?

If I had a hope for Ideapod it would be that people who come here will sharpen their thinking skills. When I have a conversation with some here it is like talking to a book, they do not question or change or can even see the world from any different perspective.

If I were to go out into the world I would become very depressed because there are so many that want my world to be their world. If I question their world they get upset because I can not see the obvious. The problem is, I can, and they cannot.

Thank you for providing such an interesting soap box to speak from.


#18

The discussion on socialism vs capitalism is a great example of what it means to be human. If you take the big 5 personality traits for example you’ll find agreeable people lean liberal or towards socialistic utopian ideals and conscientious people tend towards capitalism and free market utopian ideals so really we’re not discussing the closed systems were letting the personality tendencies communicate and usually on the individual level , whichever offers the most chemical payoffs determines the choice. As if one personality trait could run the world, neither can one utopian ideal.
That’s what it means to be human, to take personality tendencies and chemical payoffs into account in real time. A good exercise for humans is to steel man your opponents ideals for clarity and abstract mapping.


#19

I have no idea what this means.


#20

Steel man your debate opponent is the opposite of straw man your opponent, it forces you to find your own voice to clearly articulate his point. It helps in debate to see both sides.
The other alternative i suppose is to cowardly lion and not debate, which may be the highest level. :rofl: