My question is not “What is a human being?” but a smaller question, one that isn’t frequently asked but one that turns out to be important to understand the significance of the larger one. This question is this: do human beings always recognize other human beings as human beings? A special case of this would be: do human beings always recognize themselves as human beings? If they do, what are the means of recognition? One reason for asking the question is because of the way in which violence is discussed. Generations of journalists, historians and writers concerned with the nature of violence, and especially with the crimes and murders of states, have noted an attempt to deny the status of human beings to the victims of these crimes. The problem with this is that the language of such denial of victims’ status as humans tends to come in forms of reduction rather than outright exclusion from humanity. Scholars speak of dehumanization as the general linguistic effect. The agents of hatred speak of “sub humans” and of every possible variant on the term, of “waste” or “dirt.” Clearly the language speaks of a will to deny the term “human being” to a group. But it doesn’t, or doesn’t fully answer the question of whether the hatred of others causes a “failure” to recognize them as humans. Without trying to resolve this I want to put the question to one side and simply observe that the problems start with issues of language and discourse. It is in speech and writings that these denials and non-recognitions occur, even if they are performed in war, in murder or just in speech.
The question of whether human beings necessarily recognize themselves as human beings was given concrete form in the nineteenth century when Karl von Steinen, a German ethnographer, made his second expedition in Brazil and visited the Bororos. In his memoir of the trip he described a scene that was subsequently posed and re-posed to generations of anthropologists and linguists as a test of their acumen, as a rite of passage. Steinen first cautions the reader: “We must put out of our minds, the boundaries between men and animals,” and then goes on to report that the Bororo say they are red parakeets. After talking to them about various ways of interpreting this, they answer that they mean: “We are red parakeets.” They are not tempted to agree that it means they would become red parakeets when they died, nor that the red parakeet has some totemic value amongst the Bororo. They simply repeated that they were red parakeets. Bororos are red parakeets and red parakeets are Bororos. It is as if the scene concludes with Steinen giving up: “They mean it literally.” But what is this literal? Is it something bare and blunt, left when intellectual categories, when idiom, has been discarded? The literal here is a belief that utterances have a meaning prior to, and independent of sense.
As others started to read von Steinen’s texts, his account of the Bororos functioned as a challenge to explain its underlying meaning. The first candidate who tried to tame the red parakeet and make it safe for thought was the anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, who thought that rationality had an opposite, which he called “primitive mentality”: “In the collective representations of primitive mentality objects, beings, phenomena can be, though in a way incomprehensible to us, both themselves and something other than themselves (à la fois eux meme et autres chose qu’eux memes)…” Primitive mentality obeys what Lévy-Bruhl calls the law of participation; it lives in a world in which everything is connected, and from our point of view knows no contradiction. It is a world, if indeed that is the word for such an unbounded and borderless place, in which the instruments of Western reason are lacking. Due to its apparent absence amongst the Bororo, syllogism becomes an object for discussion, for the syllogism, or rather the possession of it, is seen as the signature of reason. To be able to reason with the syllogism is to enter rationality; to lack it is to be primitive. Human? Perhaps, but the term “human” is now working like a scale rather than a type of being or a species, and even less a moral collectivity.
In an anecdote from Alexander Luria, the great Soviet neuropsychologist, the problem is clear. After the revolution, Luria was part of an investigation of pre-literate peoples in northern Siberia. Before meeting a local group, the question of the syllogism emerged: would these people understand it? To test this, the specialists invented a model syllogism in the form of a question.
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