Post Author: Bill Pratt
What is the essence of being human? What makes a human a human? What is the human species?
Philosopher David Oderberg argues that the true essence of being human is captured in two words: rational animal. This is, of course, the classical definition of the human species given to us by Aristotle, but Oderberg thinks it is still the best definition.
There is little disagreement on what an animal is, but what about rationality? Oderberg offers a succinct analysis of what it means to be rational, and therefore what it means to be human:
Being rational, the rational animal has the capacity for such things as: abstract thought, that is, the ability to abstract from particulars to reach general judgments involving concepts; language; knowledge of why it does many of the things it does, what Aristotelians call knowledge of finality; the conscious ordering of ends or objectives; development of and adherence to a life plan; reflection, meditation, puzzlement over, attempts to understand and resolve, matters concerning its own life, the lives of others (be they rational or not), the state of the world, the connections between things and events; and a moral life, with all that is entailed by a grasp of morality as a system of norms for living. We can easily add to the list, of course: humor, irony, aesthetic sensibility, the creation and maintenance of families and political societies . . . we all know the sorts of things we rational animals are capable of.
Oderberg zooms in further to be clear about what rationality entails:
All I claim here is that rationality as the capacity for abstract conceptual thought is explanatorily basic relative to a large number of the sorts of characteristic listed here. Language is the most important case in point.
Abstraction from particulars and ascent to the level of conceptual thought necessarily involves some kind of representational system because it essentially involves the composition and division of concepts: mental elements are put together or divided in order to make judgments, and judgments are put together to make inferences. The elements have to have some kind of meaningful structure, by which I mean a structure involving at least the basic operations of reference, predication, logical operation, and the like, put together in a certain way, such that other ways of combination are excluded. A creature that can do all of this must have language; in fact, language is what I have just described.
And this is what has fascinated every thinking person since the dawn of mankind. Of all the millions of animal species, why is there only one that is rational? Why did human beings win the rationality lottery, going away? Why was there only one winner instead of dozens or even hundreds or thousands? Of course, this question is answered in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. Check it out if you haven’t read it recently.