A Critical Exploration of the Concept of ‘Human’


To cite this article: Sturt-Schmidt, James (2017). A Critical Exploration of the Concept of ‘Human’, The Millennial [Online], Available at: (this page URL).

In the social sciences, we strive to investigate, to understand and to explain the (social) world we inhabit. Increasingly, sociologists are encouraged to engage in reflexivity when researching and theorising, taking into account the processes, power and interactions that constitute our own identities, and how these affect our ontological and epistemological positions. However, we seldom engage reflexively with the concept of ‘human’. This essay aims to engage in a interdisciplinary exploration of the concept of the ‘human’ (and necessarily also with the ‘animal’), its history and construction, to deconstruct it, and to conclude that the social sciences need to reflexively engage with this concept in order to move beyond the anthropocentric paradigm, and the discipline’s species narcissism (Hinterberger, 2017). This essay will explore the ‘human’ from three perspectives; the philosophical, the biological, and the sociological.


As with many concepts that inform sociological inquiry and ground social theory, it is often philosophers who ponder – and ultimately construct, deconstruct, or reconstruct – the meaning or significance of such concepts. Regarding the philosophical foundations of the concept of human, Freeman (2010) explains Western Metaphysics has defined the ‘human’ as in opposition to the ‘animal’, or more specifically, humanity in opposition to animality. Descartes famously reduced non-human animals to ‘automata’, arguing they react ‘mechanically’ to stimuli, drawing the distinction between the human and non-human based on the possession of language, and subsequently the possession of a mind and the capacity for conscious thought (Linda and Fitzgerald, 2007). In a letter written in 1646, he stated, “the use of words, so defined, is something particular to human beings” (Descartes, cited in Cottingham et al, 1991), a reasoning often used to attempt to legitimise the global ideology of human privilege that pervades society, science, and indeed the social sciences.

Despite language long being “considered a hallmark of humanity” (Freeman, 2010, p. 15), Derrida (in Derrida and Roudinesco, 2004) acknowledges that even language does not allow us to draw a line between humans and other animals where we perhaps would like to, since human language is related to animal languages through the same trace, iterability, and différence (defined by Freeman (2010, p. 15) as “the fluidity and interconnectivity of meaning that relates to and relies upon a myriad of other meaningful concepts”). Freeman (2010) poses the question of whether philosophers should continue to attempt to draw a boundary around the ‘human’, or attempt to identify what makes humans different from other animals. To this question, Midgley (2004) argues that humans and other animals are all complex beings that share many qualities, and so the search for one truly differentiating factor is futile and reductionist. To this end, philosopher Gary Steiner (2008) suggests that – rather than searching for such a definition – humans come to view themselves as members of a planetary community where they have moral obligations to all sentient beings.

The philosophical conceptualisations of the ‘human’ – and, thus, the ‘animal’ – are easily critiqued by those from other disciplines whose study and focus does go beyond the boundaries of the ‘human’. For example, British archaeologist Peter John Ucko (cited in Freeman, 2010, p.14) echoes Derrida’s sentiment (in Derrida and Roudinesco, 2004) that there is no single opposition between the human and non-human, arguing that contrary to popular belief, “the borderline between humans and animals, or more specifically between humans, and birds, fish or invertebrates, is anything but obvious, clear and immutable”. Moreover, anthropologist Elizabeth Lawrence (cited in Freeman, 2010, p.15) highlights that traits such as “making tools, teaching cultural practices, practicing rituals, having unique personalities, being aware of death, building and transforming nature, creating art, practicing altruism, possessing language, and experiencing wonder” have all been proven to not be exclusive to humans. Reinforcing these claims, animal ethologist Marc Bekoff and philosopher Jessica Pierce (cited in Freeman, 2010, p. 19) argue, “Humans are not the only animal to develop morality and justice, as other social animals practice fairness, empathy, altruism, and trust in their own ways with varying levels of complexity.” These points lead one to consider if the species narcissism (Hinterberger, 2017) within philosophy – a fundamentally human-orientated discipline – has in many ways lead to the reproduction and perpetuation of such humanist thinking, since philosophers seldom engage with knowledge from other disciplines about other animals.

Furthering our exploration of the concept of the ‘human’ in philosophy, Daniel Elstein (2003) posits that the concept of ‘species’ is in itself a contested and arbitrary social construction. He cites Charles Darwin’s assertion that species is an indefinable category, and that the differences existing between the human species and other species are better understood as degrees of difference, rather than complete differences. Elstein (2003) highlights that, although people often claim that their distinction between humans and other animals is based on physical or biological traits, in reality it is mental traits that are usually prioritised (such as language use, intelligence, or sentience) to attempt to legitimise the different moral consideration given to humans and other animals. We see that, within philosophy, there exists no concrete and coherent definition of the human, but that perhaps there is a general tendency to define the ‘human’ subject in terms of their mental capacities for language use, or self-awareness. This, however, would pose questions for the inclusion of individuals with intellectual disabilities that impede such mental functions, within the ‘human’, and the legal rights and superior moral consideration such species membership entails. Evidently, such individuals are – at least legally, and at least in most countries – seen as human, suggesting the existence of a certain physical or biological conceptualisation of the ‘human’ that does not require such mental capacities in its criteria for inclusion.

Returning to the maestro of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida (in Derrida and Wills, 2002) reflects on the philosophical thought on the division of the ‘human’ and the ‘animal’ from Aristotle, Heidegger, Descartes, Kant, Bentham, Lévinas and Lacan, and argues that we are “living through a historical turning point” (p.393), a reconsideration of the auto-definition of the ‘human’ in its relation to “what is living and with respect to animal life” (ibid.). Regarding the limits, or boundaries, of the ‘human’ – les fins de l’homme, “the limit between Man with a capital M and Animal with a capital A” (ibid.) – Derrida states that he has never believed in some “homogeneous continuity between what calls itself man and what he calls animal” (ibid., italics in original). He instead aims to “complicate, thicken, delinearize, fold, and divide the line”, without pretending to attack the “thesis of philosophical or common sense” that has constructed the ‘human’ self, and upon which rests “the autobiography of the human species, the whole history of the self that man recounts to himself” (ibid.).

He argues there is no utility in discussing the supposed discontinuity, rupture or abyss between the ‘human’ and the ‘animal’, but rather ponders what such a limit would become if it were not a “single indivisible line but more than one internally divided line” (Derrida and Wills, 2002, p.399). This leads us to contemplate if the construction of the ‘human’, whilst creating a necessary division between itself and the ‘animal’ – whose construction in turn brings the human into existence through its opposition, or differance – is itself an inevitably fragmented and paradoxical concept, since the limits and boundaries it creates around the ‘human’ are inherently fragile and unstable (as we shall see in the next section). Derrida concludes that the “abyssal rupture” – the ‘gap’, so it were, between ‘human’ and ‘animal’ – has a “multiple and heterogeneous border” (ibid.) with its own history, which is both macroscopic and microscopic, and which, he argues, is now passing through its most unusual phase, of which this essay is perhaps a product.

Reflecting on Derrida and Wills’ (2012) article, Bruns (2008) asks himself, “Can I give a philosophical account—develop a “pure, rigorous, indivisible concept”—of any of the capabilities, strengths, virtues, or distinctively human features (or identity) that I confer upon myself? (Can I say what man is?)” (p. 419). This is indeed the question one is left with after contemplating what Western philosophy offers us to understand the ‘human’. Derrida makes one thing clear; which is that, “Beyond the edge of the so-called human, beyond it but by no means on a single opposing side, rather than “the Animal” or “Animal Life,” there is already a heterogeneous multiplicity of the living” that leaves no room “for any simple exteriority of one term [human] with respect to another [animal]” (Derrida and Wills, 2012, p.399). Indeed, Derrida (ibid.) criticises the historical tendency of philosophers to view the limit (of the human) to be single and indivisible, to believe they have the theoretical or philosophical right to distinguish and mark other animals as opposite, and he states that the philosophical sense that “allows one to speak blithely of the Animal in the general singular is perhaps one of he greatest, and most symptomatic idiocies” (Derrida and Wills, 2012, p.409), which is why ‘animal’ is used most cautiously within inverted commas in this essay.


Biologically speaking, what constitutes the human subject, and especially what constitutes the ‘humanness’ of what constitutes the human subject, becomes more difficult to define under the microscope. In her investigation into the making of interspecies mammalian chimeras in biomedical research laboratories, Hinterberger (2017) argues that the ‘human’ is enacted at the levels of cells, tissues, and organisms, and that “meanings of the human become elusive and unknown when intertwined with chimeric life” (p. 1). Very importantly to the premise of this exploration of the ‘human’ and my assertion that the social sciences must engage with, and move beyond the ‘human’, Hinterberger (2017) argues that critical and social theorists must ‘dislodge’ themselves from what she calls species narcissism, by accepting “the premise (to some degree or another) that the human can no longer serve as the basic and inspiration for social inquiry” (p.1). She suggests that to reach an understanding of many contemporary issues, we need to “get away from the human” (ibid.). Arguably, to ‘get away’ from the ‘human’, we must first move closer, reaching a much more profound understanding of own our understanding of the human that can hopefully highlight to us the fragility of such a concept, and our individual and collective species narcissism.

The particular case of the biomedical creation of interspecies mammalian chimeras highlights the fragility of scientific and political concepts of ‘human’, which become significantly unstable once our analysis reaches the molecular level. Hinterberger (2017) states, “the category of human becomes elusive and unknown when entangled in chimeric life” (pp. 2-3), where cells of human origin – and the non-human animals they are combined with – are often treated as ‘humanised forms of life’ (p.19) and are feared to somehow pass on supposedly human properties like cognition. However, in terms of the legal and political regulation on such biomedical research, Hinterberger explains there are “no established metrics of humanization at molecular and cellular levels” (2017, p.18). She further argues that many of the ethical guidelines for such work are similar in how they contrast the human research subject to non-human animal research subjects; a dichotomic, polarised relationship between the ‘human’ and the ‘animal’ that seems to have pervaded philosophy, biology, and – as we shall see – sociology.

Within the biological understanding of the human, we can identify the (relatively recent) Anglo-American shift towards taking “the genome as a synonym for the [human] self” (Hinterberger, 2017, p.6), which arguably fits with the individualistic, neoliberal political shift that has happened in the West in the same period. However, as dominant as this idea and this individualistic conception of the ‘human’ may be, Margulis, Gilbert and Taubur (2012, cited in Hinterberger, 2017) explain that, biologically speaking, the ‘human’ subject has never been an individual per se, but rather is part of a symbiotic composite of many species (such as microorganisms) that live and develop together. Once more, we see that it is seemingly impossible to coherently define a limit to the ‘human’ or a boundary between the ‘human’ and the animal, or the non-human, when even our biological ‘self’ can be argued to be chimeric and polygenomic.

Drawing her research findings into her reflection on the politics of the ‘human’, Hinterberger (2017) echoes Derrida’s assertion that the ‘human’ is going through some sort of transition, stating, “In contemporary politics, it’s perhaps not that the boundaries between human and non-human are blurring – rather the forms of value and recognition given to these opposing peripheries are undergoing transformation” (p. 23), in part to be understood as a redefinition of the ‘human’ in terms of its functions and processes at the molecular and cellular level. Zooming back out from the molecular, Hinterberger (2017) also highlights that the political question of the ‘human’ in biomedicine also focuses attention on how some human lives come to be valued more than others, in terms of racial hierarchy or sexual difference. This brings us onto our final exploration of the concept of ‘human’: the sociological.


In sociology, the posthumously proclaimed ‘father’ of Symbolic Interactionism, George Herbert Mead, (1964) replaced the “Aristotelian and Cartesian markers of human difference – “soul” or “mind” – with […] language behaviour” (Myers, 2007, 0.42). He argued that all animals engage in a ‘conversation of gestures’ to communicate, but that only humans have use of ‘significant symbols’ (language) and thus communicate more consciously. Mead (1964) said, “The conversation of gestures is not significant below the human level, because it is not conscious, that is not self-conscious […] for the animal has no mind, no thought, and hence there is no meaning here in the significant or self-conscious sense” (p.168, italics in original). Peggs (2012) argues that “Mead’s interpretation of humans as profoundly distinct from other animals seems to be accepted as the origin of the fundamental division between humans and other animals in sociology” (p.6). We see here a similar foundation to the human exceptionalism within sociology as in philosophy, that the ‘human’ is constructed in opposition to the ‘animal’ with language (and more broadly, mental capabilities) as the main boundary between the two concepts.

To draw on one of the more critical conceptualisations of the ‘human’ in social theory, Judith Butler (1993) posits that the ‘human’ is not a species nor substance, but rather simply the aggregate affect of regulatory power. Positioning his paper as “somewhere between critique and dutiful response” to Butler, Iveson (2012, p.23) argues suggests ““humanness” is itself a regulatory norm constituted through species difference, just as “whiteness”, for example, is a regulatory norm constituted through racial difference” (p. 23). He further agues, ““Humanness”, moreover, is a norm through which all other norms – of race, gender, class, sexuality, and so on – must pass in order to reproduce themselves as “natural”” (p.23). Similarly to how naming a new-born human child ‘he’ or ‘she’ begins the social and rhetorical construction of gender, it could be argued that our naming ourselves ‘human’ “is at once the setting of a boundary, and also the repeated inculcation of a norm (Butler, 1993, p. 7-8). Iveson (2012) posits that this norm is “a reiterated practice of human-ing which similarly requires and deploys every other norm for the purpose of its own articulation” (p.24). In essence, if Butler (1993) talks about ‘doing gender’, we can likewise walk about ‘doing species’, or, as Iveson (2012) calls it, ‘human-ing’. Iveson (2012) further argues that not only does species difference ground all other norms; it is also equally and reciprocally grounded by them. He later states that it is necessary to extend Butler’s (1993) convergent ‘sets’ of historical frameworks past notions of gender, sexuality, and race, to avoid the unwitting reproduction of these very “hegemonies of oppression” (Butler, 1993), his reason being that moving beyond the human boundaries allows us to account for other ‘sets’ of historical formations, such as the “animalization of racialized gender, the racialization of human norms, the normative sexualization of animality, and so on” (Iveson, 2012, p.25).

This brings us to an exploration of how the concept of the ‘human’ relates to those individuals that according to species classifications are ‘human’, but may not be politically or morally recognised as such. Butler (2006) claims that there exist “racial and ethnic frames by which the recognisably human is currently constituted” (p.90), recognising that often individuals pertaining the human species are ‘reduced’ to the status of (non-human) animals. A contemporary example of this would perhaps be when Katy Hopkins, in a (since deleted) article in The Sun newspaper, referred to migrants and asylum seekers attempting to reach Europe as “cockroaches” (Martin, 2015). This can similarly be seen in the various ways animal names are used to degrade or offend human beings, often with gendered connotations, as in the case of the word ‘bitch’ when used against women. Butler (2016) argues that once a body is produced as less than human, it ceases to be viewed as a ‘life’ and therefore such a body can never be ‘murdered’ (p.147), but perhaps – as in the case of non-human animals and humans reduced to less-than-human – it can be ‘slaughtered’, ‘sacrificed’, or simply die without any importance whatsoever.

Hopkins’ comparison of migrant to ‘cockroaches’ was pointed out by many – including the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein – to be worryingly reminiscent of the Nazi media’s description of their supposed enemies as ‘rats’ or ‘cockroaches’, and language used by those responsible for the genocide in Rwanda (Jones, 2015). In these examples, we can see how the human-animal dichotomy at once creates the concept of human and defines its boundaries, and at the same time positions the ‘human’ both in contrast, and as superior to, the ‘animal’. This allows for ‘human’ (in the sense of species categorisation) subjects to be ‘de-humanised’ and thusly stripped of the rights and privileges of pertaining to the dominant species, whilst at the same time reinforcing not only the dominance and superiority of the ‘human’ animal, but the supremacy of certain sub-categories of the human animal (for example white, male, heterosexual, neurotypical, able-bodied, cis-gender, and so on).

The construction of the ‘human’ can be seen as part of a wider process of categorisation of individual beings based on the constructions of species, race, gender, sexuality, and so on. Thus, species – and subsequently the ‘human’ – can be deconstructed to highlight its socially constructed nature, as with ‘race’ and ‘gender’. In the case of gender, for example, one can trace the roots of its legitimisation and reproduction in scientific (particularly biological) discourse (See Moorland, 2001). Gender also arguably intersects with species in a very relevant way, when “the very humanness” of “those abjected beings who do not appear properly gendered [i.e. intersex babies]” (Butler, 1993, p.8) comes into question. So not only is the ‘human’ constructed in opposition to the ‘animal’ and positioned as superior, but within the ‘human’ there can be said to exist a hierarchy of ‘humanness’ that considers some individuals more ‘human’ based on racialisation and genderisation, and some are cast out – not necessarily into the ‘animal’, but into the ‘inhuman’ (Iveson, 2012) – for not meeting the criteria necessary to be considered properly ‘human’.

As Iveson (2012) explains, “an improperly gendered being […] can never in fact result in the effect of humanness, meaning therefore that humanness can neither be questioned nor withdrawn, neither allocated not retracted, degraded nor elevated, in that such a body can never have appeared human in the first place” (p.27, italics in original). Similarly to how species (the ‘human’) and gender are socially constructed and biologically legitimised (see Morland, 2001), Smedley (1998) argues that ‘race’ is constructed on the same premise: “Identity is biology, […] and it is permanent and immutable” (p. 696). These processes of categorisation into the ‘human’ and the ‘animal’, and within the human the various categorisations of ‘race’, ‘gender’, and so on, have serious consequences for individuals of all species, and therefore should be focus of sociological analysis. Torres (2007) explains, “Humans participated in the othering, not only of other humans, but also of animals, and much of the rest of the natural world. Our ideological blinders […] let us treat animals like mere things based on their species membership, much the same way that the blinders of a racist allowed her to dehumanize non-whites based on their membership in what we socially perceived as a “race”” (p.114).

For the above reasons, we can see that the ‘human’ does not have concrete boundaries, and also cannot be so simply explained sociologically in terms of a dichotomic relationship between the ‘human’ and the ‘animal’, but rather as a hierarchical spectrum in which “The animal […] is always the least of the less, the negative pole to be transcended […] alongside a humanist teleology which reaches its apotheosis in the phantasmatic ideal of the white human male” (Iveson, 2012, p.28). Iveson (ibid.) further argues that once one recognises this, it become possible to understand “how the machinations of power legitimize the slaughter of human animals by way of the prior “animalization” of a specifically targeted human or human grouping, a reconfiguration that strips its target of a fully human status and, in doing so, constitutes a non-subject that can thereafter be killed with impunity”, which he relates to the example of Nazi demonization of Jews as Saujuden, “Jewish swine”. To broaden the application of the understanding of the ‘more or less human’, Iveson (ibid.) states, “The complex differential articulation of regulatory norms necessarily constitutes women, people of colour, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals, the poor, and so forth, as “more” and “less” human, and thus at once as “more” and “less” animal.”

Moving forward

It seems to have proven difficult for thinkers and theorists from all disciplines to define the concept of human through supposedly innate differences with other species, and especially so when positive traits like intelligence are highlighted. Some of the ways the ‘human’ has been defined in opposition to other animals with greater coherence focus on negative differences. For example, Aristotle claimed, “humans can be the most wicked, cruel, lustful, and gluttonous beings imaginable” (cited in Freeman, 2010), and Michel de Montaigne (2004) argues that humans fail to exercise the same moderation as other animals to stay within the limits of nature. Rhetorician Kenneth Burke (cited in Freeman, 2010, p.20) describes the ‘human’ as “one who is corrupted by his/her pursuit of perfection to ascend in hierarchies and is given to excess in this pursuit” and Callicott (1993), an environmental philosopher, refers to humans as devolutionizers due to the mass extinction they/we cause. Regarding how this supposed human tendency to excess has ramifications within human society, Rosalind Coward (2004) suggests human excess is responsible for the creation of hierarchies which have subsequently produced (and reproduce) social inequalities at a scale not present in other animal species, where such complex accumulation and disparity of access to resources do not seem to exist. It seems excess could be the only truly, uniquely ‘human’ attribute to differentiate the human animal from others; although I do not doubt that there exists knowledge of other species to debunk this claim, or indeed cases of human individuals who respect the limits of nature.

So, having considered the ‘human’ in its complexity, one may ask oneself, “where do we go from here?” Steiner (2008) proposes that humans learn to identify with animals, to see the humanness in the animal and the animality in the human, and to recognise both the plight and the prospects of other species. Freeman (2010) similarly argues for a deconstruction of the binary of human/animal, and for use of the notion of humanimality, as a way humans might rhetorically construct themselves as animals. As substitution for the concept of ‘human’, Freeman (2010) cites Reagan’s idea of a “subject of life”, since “subjective consciousness is broad enough to include many animal species yet still allow for diversity within and among species” (cited in Freeman, 2010, p.28), just as ‘human’ can be said to allow diversity within and amongst ‘races’. Whatever changes and challenges lie ahead for sociology regarding its anthropocentrism and conceptualisation of the ‘human’, it seems clear across the disciplines explored in this essay that the ‘human’ is in a state of crisis amid “today’s assertively post-human mood”, (Gilroy, 2014, cited in Hinterberger, 2017, p.20) and so some change is inevitable.

To conclude, the concept of ‘human’ is of great significance to our understanding of the social world, since it is arguably the (often unquestioned) identity from which we, as social scientists, perceive the social world. Furthermore, as Iveson (2012) argues, “‘humanness’ is itself a regulatory norm […] through which all other norms must pass in order to reproduce themselves as ‘natural’” (p. 20); an assertion which makes reflexive engagement with the construction of the normative concept(s) of ‘human’ not only useful, but somewhat necessary for the social sciences to study the human subject intersectionally through the lenses of gender, race, class, sexuality, disability, and so on. It is necessary to move beyond the anthropocentric paradigm that sociology (alongside other disciplines, and indeed society as a whole) finds itself in, and to address the species narcissism (Hinterberger, 2017) rife within the social sciences. Failure to engage reflexively with the concept of the ‘human’ – not just broadly as a discipline, but individually, asking ourselves how our own constructed ‘human’ identity affects our perception of other animals and the natural world we have so alienated ourselves from – poses serious limitations for conducting sociological research. It likewise places serious limitations on our ability to formulate social theory/ies about a (social) world that – as much as we would have ourselves believe otherwise – contains so much more than the ‘human’.



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