There is a long tradition of misunderstanding the importance of oneself. The tradition of modern philosophy, as with Descartes, has emblazoned the individuated self as the fundamental basis of existence. The world can only make sense to an individual, and morals, ethics, traditions – indeed all knowledge – must rest in the heart of the lonely subject, incapable of escaping the confines of his individual subjectivity. Whilst this may have merit – and I do not intend to demonstrate the wholesale foolishness of modern philosophy, for that would be foolish – this orientation of modern philosophy is pervasive and inaccurate.
Immanuel Kant recognised the transcendental (individuated) ego: his moral law was a commandment for anyone to read; his politics were a unity of different and cooperating individuals. For everything Kantian, the individuated subject is the very foundation of all human existence. Indeed, the individual is what we wake up with every day, needing ‘my’ coffee in ‘my’ mug. Even the more enlightened Kantians – phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl, Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger – only dilute Kantian individualism with the highly individuated terms ‘inter-subjectivity’, ‘plurality’, and ‘commonality’. All of these recognise that we are ‘Being-together’ and that our subjectivity owes something to the ‘inter’ of the Other, but the orientation of this relation determines the individual at the centre (as Kant) and the Other, the ‘inter,’ the common, as an outside to be sought, interacted with, disdained, loved, hated, feared, or honoured by me, the individual. Indeed, these ‘enlightened’ approaches to ‘the enigma of subjectivity’ do not stray far from the nest of the modern understanding of the subject. Though they recognise the role of community, community is to be understood as a relation between me (the zero-point, the holder of all meaning, the anchor in the chaos of reality) and all other things, which encircle me in an infinite circumference. Indeed, I am still at the centre, a solid mind penetrating through the world-circle, and attempting to find joy, satisfaction, authenticity: for me, who must fit into a world of ‘différence’ (different from me).
Whilst this picture has great philosophical merit, it seems dogmatic to determine the foundation of the Other, of community, and of the world outside that affects me, as myself, the individuated subject, the unique. Indeed, at its base level, when the Other is understood as a subject for natural ethical duty, or even a mere phenomenon of my personal life (an acquaintance), the relation between ‘me’, as uniquely individuated, and ‘you’ as a uniquely individuated Other, remains. We are here separated, but the primary movement of separation is ‘me from all else’; Archimedes lives on. What justifies this constant harping on the individuated subject as the primum movens of all action, thought and philosophy? If one abandons that most sacred of axioms: “I am myself”, then this dogma of modern philosophy (even the anti-Christs did not escape this dogma) appears a mere formal category; indeed, we are all individuals, but we are not quite so individuated. Indeed, why has there been no serious consideration by these philosophers to understand the philosophical importance of our inextricable similarities? Perhaps the transcendental ego of Kant attempts to understand the category of ‘human’ and so aims at universal similarity, but we have long ago surrendered the claim that ‘man is reason, reason is man’; most of us are not from Königsberg.
No, a true philosophical study should be into the base similarity – what I shall call humanity – that binds all ‘individuals’ (now an archaic and opaque term). ‘Humanity’ is the lexis of a genus, and a genus is based on similarity. Humanity has previously been used to mean ‘a collection of individuals’, a ‘nexus of subjects, communities and their inter-relations’. In this work, humanity takes on its taxonomic and descriptive function: to describe the fundamental and hence universal factors of humanity itself. Importantly, this taxonomical approach will avoid the tradition which claims ‘humanity is me’, ‘I think therefore I am’ (nowhere is the modern subject clearer than in Descartes’ conclusion that the fundament of human existence, and knowledge, is me) but will strive to understand how humanity is fundamentally constructed by what is precisely not me, constructed by cultural history developed before my birth, and constructed by the womb from whence no-one can escape unchanged. Indeed, the womb is the greatest sign of our humanity: our radical un-freedom and our radical sameness; the womb is from whence we all came, no matter our colour, size or shape.
Importantly, this understanding is not a sentimental holism. I do not wish to claim, like Jesus, that we should ‘love thy neighbour as thee love thyself’, as if to abandon all difference, criticism and dissent (though Jesus understood humanity more than most philosophers). Nor do I wish to totally abandon the modern notion that we are individuals. I simply wish to illuminate a fundament that has not been credited as such in the modern western tradition: humanity, which entails a radical sameness and constraint, contrary to the modern conclusion of radical individuality and freedom. It would be traditional in philosophy to at this point call ‘crisis’, but such constellations invariably over-inflate the importance of the philosopher as an individuated thinker, separate from the foolish battles of those (plural) in crisis, overlooking the scene and developing unique solutions, that only his solitary contemplation could deign to resolve. No, the situation is not for me to see, it is there for us all equally; we need only recognise what we see every day and everywhere: we are fundamentally the same.
Why is it that great modern philosophers of universality never appreciated the importance of hunger, or thirst, or pain? These seem the most universal of all human things. The answers they gave were too simple: ‘they are mere phenomena,’ said Kant; they are ‘lust of the flesh,’ said John – and the difference between these two statements dissolves into mere pedantry. Indeed, there has been a long history of determining the senses and the body as mere nuisances. Hunger is an inconvenient mechanism of the mechanical body: like a slot machine needs coins, the human needs food. However, as with slot machines, where one cares for the spinning symbols, not the pay-slot, so the human cares for the activity of the mind, not its fuel. So hunger, pain, suffering – even elation, satisfaction and joy – are considered meagre, unworthy and, in the derogatory sense, base (though they were correct to use a word that actually means ‘foundation’). What foolishness is this? What light does this foolishness cast upon the philosophy of modernity? What of their understandings of subjectivity? How can something as fundamental to the individual as hunger, pain – sensation! – be so discredited? Indeed, there has been a wholesale conspiracy against such universal features of humanity! The body and its sensations have been subordinated to the mind; furthermore, as is the way of Christians, the body has been deemed sinful, an aberration, and a divine calamity of clay and bone.
With admonishments of sin, outpourings of disdain, and mistrust of what is so fundamental and universal to humanity, we can begin to understand how ‘humanity’ – understood as radical sameness – has been misunderstood. It is precisely in these non-rational, non-graceful, wholly base and sensational and, crucially, human qualities, that our inescapable sameness and similarities snap into clear view. Beneath the misunderstanding of our individual freedom – the misunderstanding inaugurated by modern philosophers, beneath the foolish claim that I am unique, or that I know myself – or worse, I am myself – lies the human (all too human) who is hardly different from any other squalling babe heaved into the world with a push and a slap. The human loves love, and fears fear; she hopes for hope and cries tears. The human hungers, sleeps, gets bored, wakes, dreams – on and on this list can go – the similarities that are forever shown. Anxiety, calamity, embarrassment, concern, compassion, understanding, and attraction: these are invariant and global features of humanity from which no human can be radically free – not without ignorance of humanity, not without an over-inflation of the self. For we are humanity, not ourselves; we are equally driven to be human, for being anything else would be impossible. To not-be is not-human.
But trust me, I am different! I am smarter, I am faster and I am more beautiful! I appreciate things that others do not; ‘I care for the finer things’. What a mistake is this? One should not equate the unique difference of one’s life, one’s surroundings, and the events of one’s life, with one’s self – you are not those things. These things merely happen to you. You are human and are thereby brought into the fold. Yes, you can run fast; yes, you think deeply; yes, you are the beauty that gained a thousand clicks – but why do you care to be beautiful, fast and smart? How can you even recognise such qualities? It is because you are human and that is the only fixed thing; it is the only thing that can be called ‘you’. When you age, you will not be fast; when your mind withers, you will not be smart; when your skin wrinkles, you will not be beautiful – but until your death (and perhaps even for some time afterward) you will be human.
So, who am I? I am becoming. I have not been, nor will I be, but I am always becoming. Who has not looked upon one’s previous works, or thoughts, or photographs, and thought: How could I…? Why did I….? What did I….? We are never the same for long. What does not kill us makes us stranger. From the cradle, to the grave, we are temporal – not just before the grim reaper, but before our very self; our assumed self is temporal and always bends to the strictures of time. What remains constant is our humanity, our courage, our hope, our fear, our desires, our hunger, our pain, our joy – as sensation, as experience, as humanity. Yet what these words mean, or to what they refer, is ever changing. The child who fears kidnap and torture may become the adult who loves chains and pain; the soldier who is violent before the enemy may come to show love to those he hurts; those who fear the dark rarely do so for long.
We are compelled by sensation, experience and emotion; we are pushed along by the desires and drives of humanity and, arriving from this broad boulevard, we are pushed into a series of unique and tight streets. We find ourselves in different rooms, with different people, with different sights, and sounds, and joys. But these are only temporary and are not to be confused with ‘me’. None of these streets, the friends we meet, the careers we choose, the activities of which we partake, are free individual choices and preferences. They are mere pit-stops, fill-ins, momentary fascinations – intended to satiate our eternal and universal human desires that care not for specifics.
The only constant factors of human existence are humanity and becoming; the former is the anchor – invariant and productive – and the latter the means – fickle and reactive. The final product? Myself. The unique differences between us are reduced to mere circumstance and fancy; given the right circumstances we could all prefer the same, circumstantial thing. Indeed this must be how fashions occur. So, in the end, myself = becoming + humanity and since becoming and humanity are common to all subjects, myself and all other subjects are brought together in a radical sameness. Ergo, myself = all others.
This is a more radical appreciation of the Other, and of the ‘inter’. I am not a lonely island at the centre of a sea of others, and of events, – I am standing on the outer edge of the circle, shoulder to shoulder with my fellow humans, each of us looking into the circle of community, taste, personality, reason, rhyme, law, politics: the world – which lies at the centre of us all. We are separated by distance around the circle’s edge, and each of us sees different parts of the world more clearly than others, but we are all united, standing side-by-side as humans around the world’s edge, encircling and holding together all particular, individual events and stories.
I claim here that the individual should be understood in light of this human sameness. Particularity and individuation (things confused for identity) should be understood as mere contingencies, as fleeting events experienced by a same-like human. The Other and the community are therefore understood as a society of ontological equals. The plurality of individuals should be altered to a multiplicity of humans, and the individual subject in relation to community, should be understood as a human of community. Liberal tolerance should be understood as mere freedom for fancy, and for particular tastes, while genuine equality must be understood as an appreciation of sameness, not difference. Human sameness is more fundamental and foundational to the individual than any individuated event, or formal solipsism; indeed, without humanity we would not-be.
Immanuel Kant – Critique of Pure Reason.
Friedrich Nietzsche – Thus Spoke Zarathustra / Beyond Good and Evil
Edmund Husserl – The Crisis of the European Sciences
Martin Heidegger – Being and Nothingness
Hannah Arendt – The Human Condition
Lao Tzu – The Dao De Ching.
Wang Bi – On the Dao De Ching.