On Being Human

If modern histories of racism and colonialism exposed the contradictions at the core of Enlightenment affirmations of a shared human nature, late modern identity politics – associated with violent, sometimes genocidal, assertions of irreducible difference – have also blighted efforts to establish peaceful and mutually respectful modes of living. 


This theme aims to contribute to resurgent scholarly interest in questions of what we humans share, even if in recognition of profound differences – as the basis for grappling with the contours of ‘a good life’. 


To this end, the theme is structured around three key concepts and their obverses:  ‘human’, ‘humane’ and ‘humanist; and obversely ‘non-human’, ‘inhumane’ and ‘anti-humanist’. 


·      ‘Human/non-human’:

The human/non-human frontier is a critical, even foundational, question for most disciplines, in constituting their object of knowledge and appropriate modes of inquiry. This means too, that debates about interdisciplinarity should include efforts to revisit disicplinary genealogies of the human and their points of convergence. Of particular interest here are the prospects for reformulating and revisiting the old ‘nature-nurture’ debate in the light of the new genetics and its challenge to socially constructivist epistemologies that have dominated the humanities in recent years. 


Particular modes of defining and distinguishing the human have been equally formative of varying regimes of law, culture and power, across space and time.  This research theme will aim to explore the epistemological, as well as historically contextual and comparative, dimensions and implications of the ways the human has been defined and distinguished from what it is not – be it animal, material or spectral.


Such questions have global resonance, both in respect of varying national and transnational histories as well as in the emergence of regimes of international law and regulation. 


In the South African case, the concept of a shared humanity is at the very core of South Africa’s democratic constitutionalism: written into the constitution, the cornerstone of the doctrine of human rights, and the ethical driver of the project of ‘national reconciliation’.  It is, however, a surprisingly ill-defined concept – as was the idea of the ‘reconciliation’ to which the country aspired.   This research theme will bring legal, philosophical and socio-historical scholars into conversation, about different versions of our humanity, ‘reconciliation’, the much vaunted notion of ‘ubuntu’, and the juridico-legal, ethical and political consequences thereof.  Such questions are of local and global interest, and engaging them allows for a comparative reflection on South Africa’s experience of democratisation and its imprint in more global experiments in humanistic ‘reconciliation’. 


·      ‘Humane/inhumane’

This conceptual couplet draws attention to historically and geographically varying patterns of violence, cruelty, exploitation etc., and their limits – with a particular interest in South Africa, Africa more widely, India, Latin America and post-soviet Russia.  We will be as interested in the different experiences of the inhumane as in the conditions which produce and sustain the humane, such as care, empathy, love, as well as the pursuit of dignity and virtue.  This includes empirical studies of the relationships, institutions and networks associated with the humane/inhumane –- including the effects of gender relations, family forms and modes of domesticity, religiosity and modes of faith, communal organisations, support groups etc. 


·      Humanist/Anti-humanist

These concepts signal one of the major sites of ethical debate in the contemporary world – with a long history of intellectual and political engagement on the kind of society we want to inhabit.  We will be interested in a genealogy of humanist thinking and its critiques, with a particular interest in the resonances of these issues in South Africa and the continent at large.   Also of interest will be concepts of human rights, as well as projects of humanitarianism and the ideological and political interventions associated with them.