Blogs > Cliopatria > Humanity

Oct 27, 2009 7:27 pm


Thanks to Ralph Luker for his kind introduction. I am looking forward to reading and contributing to Cliopatria. My first post is derived from my latest book, The Idea of Humanity in a Global Era (Palgrave Macmillian 2009). I hope you enjoy it.

Humankind, humanity, and the concept of Humanity are terms that change over time but have core meanings. What makes the subject especially difficult is the fact that the three terms merge into one another, are given erratic usage in historical sources, and have a certain ambiguity hanging over them. My thesis is that a detailed analysis of their permutations, especially that of the concept of Humanity, is of critical importance if we wish to understand not only the human past but our present time and future challenges.
Though these terms are on a spectrum of meaning, there are major differences among them. Humankind means first and foremost the biological species or, as the dictionary has it, “the human race.” A synonym is Mankind, but this has gender problems and has given away to the more neutral term. The term humanity, whose usage is restricted to the more recent past, is in part a synonym for humankind; one part of the dictionary definition is “the human race, mankind, people.” However, another part of its definition is “human qualities, characteristics of human beings,” and, even beyond that, “the fact or quality of being humane; kindness, mercy, sympathy.” Thus humanity is a more complicated word and concept than humankind.
Dictionary definitions tend to be static. Historical treatment brings them to life. Such treatment is essential in regard to my story about the concept of Humanity and its emergence in a global epoch. As I see it, Humanity, signaled by a capital H, is an idea that arises in tandem with the notion of “crimes against humanity.” The latter, extending the legal notion of “war crimes,” enters common consciousness at the end of World War II with the Nuremberg trials. Though these crimes are plural, the major one at the trial was genocide. The concept of Humanity emerges without intention from the legal briefs at Nuremberg and from the trials and tribunals of Yugoslavia and of Rwanda, which built on it.
I want, however, to make a clear distinction between “humanity” (small h) as in “crimes against humanity,” and the concept of Humanity (capital H). The former is a passive victim: crimes are committed against it. The latter is an active agent:in its name legislative decrees, moral interventions, and a host of other actions are or can be taken. Humanity is a newly conceptualized form of social integration, going beyond that of other bonds in the shape of tribal, regional, or national loyalties. It does this not only as an abstraction but as a reality, given legal form in various international organizations as well as actual form as a result of present-day globalization. Stretched to its limits, the concept is an ongoing development, offering “humanity” a new type of sovereignty.

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