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Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Slavery—we all seem to know about it: that it is bad, that it was and is rampant in the human world, that it caused the Civil War in the United States in the 19th century; and also that it is at the origin of the race problem in the US. We also seem to know what anthropology is: apart from social, ethnological, medical, biological and a few other anthropologies there is philosophical anthropology, however not very popular in the English speaking world. Philosophical anthropology addresses the question: what does it mean to be human? The answer usually takes two forms: either it sets humans apart from animals or it tries to determine the essence of man. Between that there are many shades that are all variants of the Renaissance humanist definition of man as the peculiar being that, somewhere between beasts and God, determines itself. If it is the essence of humans to define their essence, then humans as humans cannot be an object of empirical observation, even if one were dealing with an unknown tribe, but only of hermeneutical research into the ways how humans express their attitude towards themselves and to fellow humans insofar as they express, assert or otherwise state their own humanity. Needless to say that actions, work, and language are the most probable resources for that.
One commonality of most anthropologies, even the existentialist ones, is to define a ‘human being’ as endowed with peculiar skills and somehow worthy of being elevated; and thus they tend to swerve into Sunday school exhortations and glorifications of “man as man,” usually combined with normative virtue ethics. The religious discourse about the fallibility of man is an antidote against optimism and yet not sufficient to constitute a philosophical anthropology, unless fallibility seen in non-exhortative terms (which contradicts religion and ethics), that is, the weakness of human beings as such and while interacting with fellow humans is identified as a marker of what makes a human, then including also the ability to strive for overcoming flaws. Therefore I suggest looking at humans from the angle of their endangerment, from the moments of utter denial of humanity. What is it that is being denied; how does a human being survive at the fringes of humanity; and what is it that remains in spite of denial? Here I propose to read first person slave narratives with the question in mind: what makes a slave human? The answer will be universal: the humanity of a slave is truly human; it is the core of the meaning of being human; and the endangerment and denial of humanity to slaves yields an anthropology that by its origin and nature defies being denied.
Full article in Annals of Cultural Studies (Roczniki Kulturoznawcze), issue: Vol.4 (2) / 2013, pages: 2139, on