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Nov 26, 2021

“People Are Equal Like the Teeth of a Comb”

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Rosabel Ansari

Georgetown University

Rosabel Ansari researches Ancient and Islamic philosophy, with a specialization in metaphysics, Graeco-Arabic studies, and philosophical Sufism.

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“People Are Equal Like the Teeth of a Comb”

Humanity, Equality, and Individuality in Classical Philosophy

Bartolomeo Passarotti 1529 1592 Attributed To  A Group Of Six Men Including A Self Portrait  872158  National Trust

A Group of Six Men (including possibly a Self-portrait), anonymous, c. 1500s

The pursuit for human equality sometimes seems ditheringly far off. How can we recognize, as a society and collective, the common humanity we each equally share? One important avenue for this type of question is human language and what it reveals about how we construct the world. In fact, reflection on the term human from the perspective of classical logic and philosophy can reveal how the essential equality of all human beings may be embedded in our language in ways we had not thought of. Language is, after all, a key to how we see the world. 

According to classical logical theory, when we predicate a species (such as human) of its various individual subjects (such as myself or you the reader or the man on the street), we predicate that term with the same exact meaning in each case. That is to say, human applies equally to each of its subjects. No one subject can be more or less of a human than another.

There are important philosophical reasons for this. In line with its biological connotations, in classical philosophy, a species can also be the group or collective to which something belongs essentially. For example, all the furry four-legged creatures that say “meow” can be identified as essentially belonging to a species, which we call cat in English. In classical logic, when we predicate a species of various individuals, we mean to say that those individuals belong essentially to that species. If the species is essentially what these individuals are, then according to this theory, it is not possible for any one individual to be more or less than another in terms of its species. The species applies equally to all of its members. Recognizing a common species of individuals is then, in some sense, to equalize.

This train of thinking also manifests in the way we speak about ourselves as human. For example, if you have ever messed up or made a mistake, someone might have said to you something along the lines of “It’s okay, we’re all human; we all make mistakes.” In addition to the emotional value such language carries, it also carries a logical implication. Given that we are all human and belong essentially to the same species, we are all equally prone to exhibit the traits of our species—whatever those may be. The idea that we are all equally human, and no individual is more or less human, is also what undergirds some of the language in modern declarations of rights, such as the US Declaration of Independence and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which posit human equality as concomitant to the existence of individuals as humans.

As discussed so far, predicating a species of various individuals entails that those individuals are all said to equally belong to that species. Moreover, our ability to predicate a species such as human of a multitude of subjects stems from our recognition of a common concept of humanity that is shared between those subjects.

In other words, the reason we recognize that we are all human is precisely because we recognize the universal concept, or essence, of humanity that is common to us all. If no such commonality existed, we would not be able to recognize the truth to the claim that we are all human. We would also not be able to turn to other people we do not know and recognize their common humanity. In fact, projects such as Humans of New York would lose meaning.

This means that our instinctive recognition of other human beings as human beings is borne out by the recognition of an essence of humanity that is common and universal to all humans. This essence is not something material contained within our bodies. It is known in classical philosophy as an “intelligible,” a concept that exists in the mind. An essence such as humanity is an immaterial and intelligible concept that allows us to recognize the commonality between human beings. As mentioned, if there were no such intelligible essence of humanity, how would we recognize different people from different parts of the globe as human? Indeed, the Qur’an (49:13) tells us that we have been created into different peoples and tribes so that we may recognize one another:

O mankind! We have created you from male and female and We have made you into peoples and tribes so that you may know one another.

One classical Islamic philosopher, Abū Naśr al-Fārābī (d. 339 AH/950 AD), argued that apprehending immaterial, intelligible concepts derived from our experience of the world is what makes us human. In the Book of Letters, he tells us that to reduce the world to the mere sensory objects before us is to somehow be unhuman. Our ability to abstract intelligible concepts from what we perceive with the senses is what allows us to speak about the world, learn, and teach others. In Fārābian terms, denying that anything exists beyond the sensory world removes the possibility for knowledge of anything—a decidedly unhuman claim. The reason this would lead to the impossibility of knowledge is precisely because to have knowledge of anything is to abstract intelligibles and perceive that something exists beyond the material. True knowledge can only be of immaterial universals and essences, not of material things that come in and out of existence.

To return to the universal concept of humanity, this intelligible essence that we share in equally means there is something special and immaterial that makes each of us human. If you lost your arm, you would not be less of a human. This is because it is not your arm, or any part of your body, that makes you human. The immaterial essence, which perhaps cannot be precisely pinned down, is what we constantly grasp for when we ask what it means to be human. The classical philosophical tradition considered not only that a species such as humanity is predicated equally but that our ability to recognize this common humanity means the essence of our humanity, perhaps embodied in our cells, is still beyond the material or quantifiable.

This notion of essence explains the common humanity that is shared between us. It also explains that different members of a species share in an essence equally. Whatever is common to different individuals, by virtue of which they are what-they-are, must apply to each one in the same way. Yet from the perspective of classical logic and metaphysics, how do we account for human equality without falling into a static notion of humanity? How do we account for a common humanity in a way that does not lead to bare uniformity, whereby we must all be human in the same way? One philosophical critique of the theory of essences is that it renders the world of reality (that is, beyond the sensory world) static, running the risk of a stagnant ontology.

A notion al-Fārābī discusses that might prove helpful for this problematic is that of substantification (tajawhur). This term, a verbal noun in Arabic (maśdar), refers to a process of becoming, whereby an individual being substantiates itself to become fully what-it-is. Although individual beings have essences, like the essence of humanity, that make them what-they-are, al-Fārābī pairs this with the notion of substantification, whereby a being becomes what-it-is (in addition to its essence, which makes it what-it-is). Think of it as a complementary relationship between being who you are and becoming who you are. Both coexist at the same time and can function in a complementary fashion.

1200Px Redon  Evocation Of Butterflies Ca Between 1910 And 1912

Evocation of Butterflies, Odilon Redon, circa 1910–12

In Fārābī’s metaphysics, an individual being substantiates itself through contemplating and striving to be like the divine. Given that substantification is a process, it points to an ongoing journey that is never actually completed. Perhaps like an asymptote, one never actually reaches what it means to be divine, although one strives to do so through the path of purification (tazkiyah), emptying (takhliyah), and adorning (taĥliyah). As such, an individual being continually seeks to realize its essence, to become fully what-it-is, and to reach its final goal. While all human beings are equally human, the notion of substantification provides a framework for our individuality and paths of self-actualization.

Theories from classical logic and philosophy concerning the predication of species, the intelligibility of essences, and the metaphysics of substantification may have traditionally been developed in a more conceptual and theoretical framework, yet as explored here, they can also be developed for practical and social purposes. These theories provide us with one way to think about how what makes us human (i.e., our humanity) has to apply equally to each of us. This is not to say that a metaphysics of essences is the only way to theorize human equality; rather, it is to show that classical logic and metaphysics can be philosophically vibrant and relevant to contemporary concerns. Such theories also help us to think about our ability to recognize that other individuals whom we have never before met are members of our species and that this intelligible commonality means something beyond the material.

Finally, the theory of substantification can give us a way to consider that our equality in being human can function in a complementary fashion to our individuality in becoming human. As such, a single essence of humanity can be embodied in the multitude of individuals on the planet and can simultaneously unfold dynamically in those individuals as a result of nature and the process of substantification. As individuals interact with the natural world around them, these experiences provide the framework within which an individual uniquely substantiates itself.