15.6.22 Book review: The Invention of Humanity (Stuurman 2017)

Stuurman, Siep (2017). The invention of humanity: Equality and cultural difference in world history. Harvard University Press.

This is an important book that, in my opinion, ought to be read by everyone who is seriously interested in greater equality, or wants evidence that human thought has proceeded towards greater equality over time: slowly and unevenly, but nevertheless:

“When a sufficient number of people believe that all people are fellow humans, or even equals, those beliefs become social facts on a par with other social facts, as much a part of society as political power, material wealth, and the force of arms. Whenever a sufficient number of people embrace universal ideas of common humanity, the limits of the thinkable are extended and new courses of action appear on the horizon.”

The book asks how people came to see others as fellow human beings, or even as equals. Its narrative weaves through the history of how the deeply ingrained ethnocentrism was surmounted, and how the vision of all humans being basically alike was arrived at.

The theoretical framework of the book relies on two ways to question cultural difference: 1), the notion of “common humanity”, which Stuurman argues transforms the stranger into a fellow human being, and which he proposes to define as “culturally significant similarity:” all human beings share one or more attributes, origins, obligations, faculties, or potentialities. How this could begin, in Stuurman’s view:

“An incipient notion of common humanity became thinkable when humans began to demarcate themselves from animals, imagining a hierarchy of sentient beings with humans at the apex of the pyramid. By enumerating the attributes that distinguished humans from animals, such as speech, morality and reason, they summed up the faculties all human beings were supposed to share.”

(Note that studies in comparative or evolutionary cognition strongly suggest that this hierarchy, modeled after Aristotle’s “scala naturae”, is largely an artifact of human insecurities – see e.g. the works of Frans de Waal – and in itself a hierarchy is problematic because it always implies some are less valuable than others.)

and 2), the “anthropological turn,” which invites us to see through the eyes of others and deconstructs the semantics of the familiar and the alien.

Stuurman traces the development of the notion of common humanity starting from the “Axial Age” and the great religious and philosophical texts of antiquity, including Stoicism and Confucianism (Chapter 2). Chapter 3 discusses how the early historians of the Axial Age, namely Herodotus, Sima Qian, and Publius Cornelius Tacitus discuss their respective empires and their “barbarian others.”

Chapter 4 advances the timeline to the Medieval Islam, again focusing on three exemplary case studies: the comparative study of civilizations of Al-Biruni, who discusses the differences and commonalities of two great civilizations; the common quest for God along different theological avenues of Attar, who argues that all people can engage in the quest for God; and Ibn Khaldun’s new theory of history, where the interactions between sedentary and nomadic peoples are the engine of history.

Chapter 5 examines the Atlantic Frontier and the limits of Christian equality in the age of exploration. Case studies in this chapter include the protest against the Spanish treatment of the Native Americans voiced by the Dominican friar Antonio de Montesinos (1511); the justification and critique of the Spanish Empire by Francisco Vitoria in the mid-sixteenth century; the criticism of Spanish rule by Bartolomé de Las Casas (1514-1566), José de Acosta’s Natural and Moral History of the Indies (1590), which served as a foundation for most 17th century writing and research about America; and finally, Michel de Montaigne’s deconstruction of the notion of the “barbarian”, when the atrocities of Europeans are compared to the supposed “barbarians.”

Chapter 6 proceeds to the Enlightenment. Stuurman notes that the Enlightenment saw the invention of the modern notion of equality, but also the invention of the modern notion of inequality, much like the invention of the ship also became the invention of shipwreck. The Enlightenment discredited the traditional and theological justifications of inequality, such as divinely ordained hierarchies, but introduced what Stuurman argues are four modern discourses of inequality: 1) political economy, which justified inequalities in terms of utility and productivity; 2) theories of gender, which justified gender inequalities on the grounds of women being “naturally different”; 3) racial classification, which treated humans as animals and therefore subject to taxonomies of natural history (note that here the “scala naturae” and its hierarchies really become problematic); and 4) the most consequential of them all, the notion that ordered human subsistence modes and societies into a scale of “more” and “less” advanced stages of human development.

The discourses 3 and 4 together produced an ideology where Europeans represented the vanguard of humanity that had a mission to “enlighten” the “lesser races”. Given that we are still suffering from the problems engendered by this ideology, this chapter is in my opinion among the most important of this book. Stuurman discusses the intellectual history of this period, making the chapter (and the book) a valuable companion to Graeber’s and Weingrow’s more recent “The Dawn of Everything” and its discussion of the Indigenous roots of the Enlightenment thought and social critique. Stuurman identifies Francois Poulain de la Barre as one of the first recognizable Enlightenment political philosophers; Poulain challenged (among others) those philosophers who had justified male supremacy as “natural” and develops a general critique of prejudice and custom, wedded to an environmentalist social psychology.

Chapter 7 looks at the modern equality and scientific racism in the nineteenth century. It begins with the three revolutions that proclaimed the equal rights of “all men”; the American, the French, and the Haitian. The advance of modern equality, however, was an intermittent and uneven process, and after Napoleon in particular there was also a backlash, as modern discourses of inequality were marshalled to defend the existing power structures. Stuurman examines, for example, the critiques of slavery by one born into slavery, Frederick Douglass, and the criticism of colonialism by a victim of colonialism, the Indian Dadabhai Naoroji. He also highlights John Stuart Mill’s inconsistencies: Mill was a critic of despotic authority, but he could not bring himself to apply the same standards to the British “civilizing mission” in India – which relied on precisely the sort of despotic authority Mill criticized. Mill basically succumbed to racism, saying in effect that some “backwards peoples” need to be “civilized”, even against their wishes.

Chapter 8 centers on the decades between 1880 and 1940, marked by the ascendancy of the color line and scientific racism; but also by the growing power of anticolonialism, antiracism, and democratic ideas in Asia, Latin America, North America, and Africa. In Europe, democratic ideas gained much ground until the 1920s, but declined almost everywhere in the interwar years. However, the Russian Revolution increased the expectations of global emancipation to the peoples in colonized lands. Exemplars are drawn from e.g. W.E.B. Du Bois, Gandhi, and Franz Boas.

Chapter 9 contains (among other things) a very useful history of the inclusion of a radical and non-racist discourse of equality in the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the theorization of post-colonial equality by Aimé Césaire. These alone make the chapter well worth reading; the discussion of how colonial empires, Great Britain in particular, tried to prevent the inclusion of language suggesting of truly universal equality into the Charter of the United Nations is almost hilarious. (London would have prevented such ideas as they had done in the Versailles peace conference, but felt embarrassed because both British and the world opinion would associate a categorical rejection of racial equality with Nazism.)

Of particular importance is the background to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It shows how the document was a product of thorough consideration and cross-cultural compromise that was agreeable to almost all the signatories. The Declaration is not a “Western” document, even though its language about individual rights is mostly drawn from Western philosophy. As Stuurman shows in the book, the fundamental views of common humanity and personal dignity have always been shared throughout the world, even if the individualistic conception of the human person is somewhat of an European peculiarity (although see Graeber and Weingrow 2021, who suggest that the Enlightenment ideas may have not been so “European” after all). On the other hand, without the participation of the colonized peoples in the drafting of the document, the language may not have ended up as radically egalitarian as it ultimately did. As Stuurman notes when discussing a 1947 UNESCO survey that attempted to canvass the global views on the matter,

“A broad consensus existed on the need for truly universal rights, irrespective of race, skin color, sex, religion, and language. Apparently, there was cross-cultural agreement about the desirability of a list of universal rights but not about their philosophical or religious grounding.”

Finally, in an epilogue, Stuurman gives a cautiously optimistic view of the future, based on the fact that people can evidently start from very disparate ideas of common humanity yet still come to largely the same conclusions about equality.

In the long run, equality simply makes more sense than inequality. To quote:

“Viewed in the long run of history, discourses of inequality display less consistency than discourses of common humanity and equality. They have assigned inferiority to ever-different ideas, customs, and categories of people. The boundaries they drew were changeable and subject to the contingencies of history. Discourses of inequality may appear realistic because they refer to factual, empirically verifiable human traits and differences, but for that very reason they are vulnerable to a critical examination of the purported “facts.”

The history of the other component of equality discourses, the anthropological turn, further impairs the “realism” of the inequality discourses. We have seen that even under conditions of extreme inequality, as in the sixteenth-century European conquest of America, the doctrines of inequality were fiercely contested. Besides references to common humanity, the inversion of the gaze had a powerful equality effect. Bartolomé de Las Casas invited his audience to realize that the Native Americans’ belief in their gods was as deep and sincere as the Christian belief in the Trinity. Michel de Montaigne advised the Europeans to take a good hard look at their own religious wars before triumphantly celebrating their superiority over the benighted cannibals. Two thousand years before, Herodotus made the lapidary remark that the Egyptians called all speakers of foreign tongues “barbarians.” A couple of centuries later Sima Qian demonstrated that the Chinese condemnation of the customs of the northern nomads was paralleled by an equally critical view of China on the part of the nomads. As every frontier is two-sided, all cultural hierarchies are susceptible to inversion. Given the changeability of cultural boundaries and the ever-varying classifications of humanity in the history of inequality thinking, the conclusion follows that hierarchical judgments of one culture about another are always historically contingent. Ultimately, then, common humanity represents the Archimedean point of the moral history of humanity.”


About J. M. Korhonen

as himself
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