Rehabilitating the Concept of the Human

From the Series: Book Forum: A Possible Anthropology

Photo by Anand Pandian.

One of the most compelling arguments in Anand Pandian's A Possible Anthropology (Duke University Press, 2019) is that we urgently need to rethink and rehabilitate the concept of the human in anthropology by achieving a dialectical, cross-cultural, and empirical understanding of the interplay of universal and particular aspects of the human condition (anthropos and ethnos)—what is unique about our species and what is specific to an individual person or particular society.

Clearly, this goal cannot be accomplished if we assume, a priori, that radical ontological, cultural, racial, or epistemological differences mean that people from different backgrounds not only have nothing in common, but people from Euro-American backgrounds have somehow acquired superior skills—logical, scientific, or philosophical—for understanding others. In As Wide as the World is Wise (2016), I argued for a deconstruction of Western philosophy that by stripping it of its transcendental or foundational pretensions, makes it simply one mode of thought among many—one particular human strategy or coping skill for making life viable and bearable. I share with Pandian the conviction that anthropology can play a meaningful role in realizing this Socratic idea, and “bring some life into the [disciplines] which lie at the heart of our humanity" (Lear 1998, 3–4).

Not only does ethnographic research enable us to fully realize Kant’s cosmopolitan ideal by encompassing all world societies, past and present; it helps us see that thinking is not the sole property of European philosophers but an inalienable aspect of every human being’s psychic life and everyday existence.


Jackson, Michael. 2016. As Wide as the World Is Wise: Reinventing Philosophical Anthropology. New York, N.Y.: Columbia University Press.

Lear, Jonathan. 1998. Open Minded: Working out the Logic of the Soul. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.