Even today, with the numerous advancements that humankind has made, a unanimous understanding of “humanity” eludes us. Drawing from the concepts of renowned philosophers from the last century, Professor Fred Dallmayr examines historical debates over what it means to be “human”—from Reformed Christian ideas, to the challenges that postmodernists posed to existentialist thought. He concludes by returning to an apophatic view of conceptualizing humanity and its transformative nature.
“Humanizing humanity”—a strange expression. It seems like a pleonasm, like saying the same thing twice. It appears like a doubling or heaping up of images without semantic gain—as when someone is said to “carry coals to Newcastle” or “owls to Athens.” Clearly, in these cases, the doubling of terms is pointless: since one knows quite well the meaning of one term, the second is redundant. However, in the expression “humanizing humanity,” the situation may be different. For, do we really know the meaning of the terms? Who has definitively settled or pinpointed this meaning? Is it traditional philosophy—say, by speaking of the “animal with reason”? Or it is modern empirical science—say, one of the social sciences like anthropology, or all of the sciences together? Actually, it appears that we are quite ignorant in this field—which is curious. While modern science has analyzed and provided knowledge of distant galaxies as well as the inner workings of atomic and sub-atomic particles, the meaning of humanity or the “human” seems to elude us. Some might say that the meaning has an “apophatic” quality, in the sense that the terms are not compact signifiers but pointers or cues.
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