What Does It Mean To Be Human?

If you were asked to describe "the human experience" to someone, how would you go about doing it?


You might ask, "as opposed to what?" Well, how about as opposed to the experience of being a plant, an animal, a god? Of course, you are none of these, but you might share aspects with any or all of them.


The problem with the question, though, is that it is too big. It encompasses all of our experience. There's no time when we step outside of it, and therefore there's no other time that we can use as a comparison. How do you describe "everything"?


There is another problem. As we describe the human experience, we describe ourselves. It's not like we're describing something that holds still - the describing changes the thing being described. For instance, if we are thinking about the nature of human love, we cannot help but draw on our own experiences. And, in thinking about what others have said about love, we might find ourselves re-interpreting our own experience. So, learning about the human experience means learning about ourselves, which essentially changes the one doing the learning. We aren't just collecting facts about humans, we are becoming something new.


There is an essential conflict between reflecting on our humanity and the world we find ourselves in, especially in this country. Here, people assume that they already know who they are, and that the goal of life is to collect things around them that allow them to attain their goals. So, people assume that the goals come first, and the only issue is to make them happen. That's the fundamental assumption behind individualism, and consumerism.


That's the assumption we'll be questioning all term long. To understand what it means to be human, we need to question our goals, and our understanding of ourselves. It's easy to see the humanities as just another employment skill, one in which you are gaining knowledge of human history and forms of expression, in order to teach it sometime, or perhaps be able to write or think better. But in fact, if you already think you know who you are, and are just collecting skills and facts, you've missed the first and most essential lesson of the humanities - that we don't really know. Or at least, that knowing is the process of a whole life.


So questioning is central to thinking about what it means to be human. But we're ahead of ourselves. How could we study humanity? How is it possible to think about the nature of being human? We can think about humans in various ways, as animals, as social beings, even as machines. But are any of those central to what it means to be human? How do we get at the things that are central?