AHP Handbook of Intellectual History
What is Humanity?
We often hear people speak of our ‘common humanity’ as being a reason for the extension of charity and compassion to others. But on closer examination the phrase seems redundant in that humanity is, by definition, that which is common to all animals of the homo sapiens species. However, the idea of belonging to a ‘common humanity’ only makes sense if it is de-materialised and historicised, this means that humanity must be distinguished from humanness.
Our humanness includes the physiology that differentiates us from other organisms and the mental and psychological capacities that establish homo sapiens as the dominant conscious species on the planet. In addition to including our inherent humanness, our humanity also incorporates the societal norms we as a species have developed over time that govern our ethical selves. Understanding humanity thus requires exploring past human activity to understand the processes that led to the formation of our current political, social, economic and intellectual settlements.
Residing at the level of conscience, humanity includes such capacities as a capacity to conscience itself and a capacity to consciousness, meaning the ability to observe and understand the world beyond its material structures, such as understanding societal and intellectual constructs and their effects on the human experience. Above all, it includes a capacity for empathy and a capacity for justice. Humanity is the capacity to appreciate the equality of the humanness of all people, that humans are not merely a function of their physiologies but of the historicised social constructs that govern their daily lives, and that one’s humanness guarantees one freedom from physical and societal exploitation.
Humanity can also be said to include a capacity to extend the standards of humanness to non-human animal species, the environment, the community as a single whole, and even one’s progeny. This would thus require the extension of one’s humanity, i.e. one’s capacity for empathy and justice, to apply to these things. In the African tradition, such extension of humanity is a defining attribute of consciousness. However, in other traditions such extrapolation is only now finding new revival in political thought in response to the unabating capitalism that has dominated global affairs for much of the last half a millennium. For example, the west is in the midst of a rediscovery of various ritual, societal and political practices in humanity such as sustainable consumption, and de-dichotomisation in the form of de-colonial de-racialisation campaigns in nation-building. Thus, humanity is distinct from humanness and, while possessing some core and, dare one say, universal concepts, in many respects, it is a culturally determined phenomenon that is constantly changing as societies change.
Cite this article:
Umolu, Apeike. “What is Humanity”. AHP Handbook of Intellectual History. 2022