Saturday, August 05, 2006

Man can hardly be defined

Thursday, July 20, 2006 A Collection of Philosophical and Theological Definitions of a Human Being
1. Aristotle— a “rational animal”
2. Nietzsche—the “yet undetermined animal” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)
3. Dostoyevsky’s underground man—“an ungrateful biped” (Notes from the Underground)
I would love to expand this list to include 10-20 philosophical/theological “definitions” of a human being, so please send your comments (and if possible, please cite the work in which you found the definition). Also, I would be interested in which definition you believe to be the best and why. posted by Cynthia Nielsen at 9:49 AM 19 Comments:
Paul said... Roy Clouser: "a human is a religious being". Genesis Regained, p.3. See his articles on genesis & evolution here: I agree for various reasons. 12:08 PM
Cynthia Nielsen said... Thanks, Paul. I recently purchased Clouser's book, The Myth of Religious Neutrality. I haven't read it yet, but I look forward to doing so. Cheers, Cynthia 12:44 PM
David Mackinder said... Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.(Pascal, Pensees, 347) 1:22 PM
Xavier said... Since human beings are persons, then I suppose we might use Boethius' definition of a person as "an individual substance of a rational nature." I should add, of course, that not every person is a human being so that might weaken the value of my contribution, I suppose :-). 3:26 PM
the metaphysician said... Don't forget "featherless biped." :) 7:34 PM
byron said... I was about to add 'featherless biped'. The coiner was Plato himself. When Diogenes plucked a chicken and set it loose in the marketplace calling 'Here is Plato's man!', Plato adjusted the definition to 'featherless biped with broad nails'. 9:26 PM
Cynthia Nielsen said... Thanks, Byron, Sean, Xavier and David for contributing. Personally, I like the idea of "defining" a human being as essentially imago Dei--even though one probably cannot fully explicate imago Dei given that we are images of the incomprehensible God, nonetheless, even if one, as Calvin did, understands the fall to entail noetic as well as affective effects,our status as imago Dei is ineradicable. Cheers,Cynthia 6:14 AM
Joel said... Ludwig Feuerbach famously said, "Man is what he eats."Marx sees human beings as "homo faber" - toolmaking man, defined by labor and production.There's some true to both of those if one recalls that our food is to do the will of God and that the first work of humanity is liturgy. 9:38 AM
Cynthia Nielsen said... Hi Joel,Thanks for two more additions. On the humorous side, I think (but am not positive about this) that Paul Tillich once said that human beings are not best defined as rational animals but rather as animals who are always in heat. Any interesting thought...Cheers,Cynthia 9:53 AM
Anonymous said... Tillich's comment might be more self-revealing than he intended, given what we now know of his life . . .10:32 AM
Rev Sam said... To be human is to be restless, eternally unfinished.(Links to this post) 1:13 PM
John said... Great Question! I took a course this semester on Theological Anthropology with Ian McFarland...Most of his books have dealt (in some way or another) with the imago dei, personhood and what constitutes a human being (his most recent book titled "The Divine Image: Envisioning the Invisible God").Ultimately, in discussing this topic it becomes increasingly difficult to settle on precise definitions. THis became especially clear while reading post-colonial and disability theology. In the end, the argument can be made that humans are not the imago dei...rather we were created in the imago dei (perhaps a matter of semantics, but thats what we do in theology!). Thus, it is Christ alone who imputes to us our image-ness. THis guards against abstract and difficult definitions that circle around rationality, freedom, or a capacity for self transcendance.rather than the image being something within us, it is nothing less than Jesus Christ...and it is in him that we find our definition of what it means to be human.what do you think? 3:11 PM
Steve Bishop said... For Plato, humans are immortal souls locked in the dual prison of body and world; for Darwin, we are civilised animals; for Marx, we are an alienated, working self-creation; for Nietzsche, we are "a rope fastened between animal and Superman - a rope over an abyss"; for Freud, a sex-obsessed biped, for biologist Richard Dawkins, we are gene survival machines; for advocates of strong artificial intelligence, we are trousered computers ... For H. Evan Runner 'Man [sic] is a covenantal being.'2:46 AM
Steve Bishop said... Zoologist George Gaylord Simpson when asked what is man[sic]? answered ‘The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer the question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely.’ 2:53 AM
Clay-Edward Dixon said... I believe that Gabriel Marcel refers to humanity as : Homo Viator 11:15 AM
Cynthia Nielsen said... Many thanks to all for these suggestions. My list now "overfloweth." Cheers,Cynthia 1:43 PM
D.W. Congdon said... It seems we need some more theological definitions, so here is one from Eberhard Juengel:"Truly human persons are those who are able to accept themselves, able to receive their being continually anew as a gift. Truly human persons are those who are gifted - not with any special advantages, but - with themselves. ... In sum: the truly human person is the person who is definitively recognized by God."I would also like to add that John is absolutely right to say that the imago Dei is Jesus Christ, and thus human beings are not naturally created in the image of God but must be re-created in the image of God. The imago Dei is a relational concept that signifies our restored relation to God, and thus happens through our reconciliation to God in Jesus Christ.Juengel's definition is in concord with the imago Dei as I just outlined it, because he speaks not of natural human persons but of the "truly human person" -- the person who now corresponds to God. 7:36 AM
Cynthia Nielsen said... In my saying that human beings are imago Dei, I am not saying that we are the perfect imago Dei, which is Jesus Christ and he alone. Perhaps the clarification should be made--created in or to the image of God. Yet, I would say that believers are re-created in the imago Christi. Which in the end may be that we are saying the same thing. Cheers,Cynthia 8:12 AM
Tom said... "Man can hardly be defined, after the fashion of Carlyle, as an animal who makes tools; ants and beavers and many other animals make tools, in the sense that they make an apparatus. Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded."G. K. Chesterton, Heretics 6:48 AM

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