Humanitas and Anthropos

By Andrea Roeland and Tess Spronk

Imagine someone entering your house, saying: ‘Hey, I’m moving in my stuff now, and taking yours, because I discovered your house this morning. I now see you’re living here as well, but nevertheless I’m going to be in charge and you’ll just have to comply with my rules. I suppose this house has been in your family for quite some generations? Too bad, it’s mine now.’ Wouldn’t that be absurd?

Still, this has happened on a larger scale, as European explorers started to travel the world in the fifteenth century, claiming political, economical and cultural dominance in most places they happened to end up, with little attention for the people who were already living there. This idea that one can come in and decide for the other what is good and what (s)he should do points to the belief that one is superior to the other. This has been described as the idea that there are two types of human being; the superior humanitas, of whom it is believed they possess knowledge, and the inferior anthropos, who are believed not to be able to create knowledge and can only be subjects of study. This logic is still present today. What the concepts of humanitas and anthropos mean and what they imply will be the topic of this short essay.

Have you ever noticed that most western countries explain certain concepts in terms of their oppositions? For example, a woman is the opposite of a man. Nature is where people are not. There are white people and black people. There is good and there is bad. Humanitas and anthropos are understood in a similar manner. This is also called a dualistic perspective on the world. The oppositions exist in a comparison with each other, in which one is always superior and its opposition is always inferior; without one, the other would not have meaning. These dualisms also divide “true knowledge” from “inferior knowledge” and anthropos from humanitas – in which humanitas is the superior. Because these oppositions are determined from within the west, it may not be surprising that western knowledge is claimed to be true knowledge and that non-western knowledge is alleged to be inferior, or immature. Also, the humanitas, then, is perceived as the cultured western man and anthropos as the uncivilized non-western man or woman. This is an invention. With the encounter of non-Western people in the age of colonialism, the westerners have claimed to  be superior, thereby making the “other” into the anthropos. They used their ability to dominate the “other” to suppress any alternative to their claim. The anthropos and the humanitas are academic terms that scholars have used to identify this notion of the superior and inferior kinds of people. They tell us the following: Humanitas, usually of European or North American descent, are people who regard themselves as a rational kind of humanity which is able to create theory. Therefore they present themselves as the ones who create knowledge, and from there they control discourse and create the category anthropos. Anthropos, usually the “other” in the viewpoint of the humanitas, are often men and women of colour and non-European, and called “of  the Third World ”, or “underdeveloped”. They cannot escape the situation in which they are objects of study and are only recognized when they reproduce knowledge and the way knowledge is created in the tradition of the humanitas. Their allegedly inferior status can often be found to be representative of the inequality in the world. In short, the West decides what is truth, that this truth is universal and that any other idea of knowledge must be wrong, inferior, and therefore this other knowledge is denied recognition.

Then, what does this imply? We already commented that the humanitas/anthropos logic can today still be seen in the large inequalities in the world. In addition, by considering the knowledge of many non-western people to be inferior to that of the west, the importance of the history on which this knowledge is built is also denied. It is similar to the situation as imagined in the introduction of this text, in which the person invading your house completely ignores that you have been living there for many years prior to the intruder’s arrival. In this history, you have acquired some know-how about your house, you have grown up there to become a person with certain beliefs, and your family history in this house has left you many good memories. By the denial of your history, the importance of your existence is denied. The denial of history, of knowledge and of persons are therefore bound closely together. The importance of acknowledging that there is not one type of knowledge that is universal, is that it does not deny the existence and beliefs of other people. This means that it is important to be aware of the fact that knowledge is local. We will explore the relevance of locality further in the text.

The monopoly of knowledge as obtained by the humanitas, has resulted in a “monoculture of scientific knowledge”. This means that it is mainly the west which decides what is considered to be true knowledge. Due to this focus on the knowledge of the humanitas, the knowledge as implemented by the anthropos becomes excluded. This exclusion deprives the people who are noted as anthropos from both their knowledge and from their dignity. To re-emancipate the anthropos, this monoculture should be replaced by an “ecology of knowledges”. The meaning of ecology of knowledges is that different kinds of knowledges are acknowledged and coexist. In this alternative knowledge system, the west should recognize locality and accept the knowledges of the anthropos as other mature possibilities.

With localizing yourself we mean that you show that what you are saying is largely framed by a local understanding. Ideas of “what the world is” and of “what knowledge about that world is” are rooted in histories that belong to certain people in certain areas – which might be as large as the Andes region in Latin America, or as small as a village. As explained before, the imaginary house that you live in brings a whole history of family customs, memories, know-how and so forth. The visitor has another knowledge. When it is recognized that what is considered to be true knowledge is not universal, such visitors remain respectful and you, as keeper of the house retain your dignity as human being.

As illustration of what we have discussed, we present an example given by Marisol De La Cadena.

It concerns a mining project that is developing in the Andes mountain range near Cuzco, the capital of Peru. The mining of the project will happen in the mountain Ausangate. Many of the people living around the mountain are against the project, partly because it would destroy manners of sustaining families (pastures would be destroyed and tourists would stay away), but also very much because the mining might anger the mountain. According to their beliefs, landslides, epidemics, and other disasters would occur. “The mountains demand respect. Otherwise inexplicable things happen” (p. 339). Seeing the mountain as a living being stands in sharp contrast with the attitude that generally characterizes western-based thought of corporations: The Peruvian president Garcia, who supports the mining project because of the economic benefits it brings to the country, says “Sacred mountains … were an invention of ‘old anti-capitalist communists of the nineteenth century who changed into protectionists in the twentieth century and have again changed into environmentalists in the twenty first century. … Those places … were nothing but tierras ociosas – idle lands, whose owners do not have any formation, or economic resources, therefore their property is not real.” (p. 340). These differences in beliefs about what the mountain actually is, are battled out on the political level. Often enough, the ones who do not correspond to the western ideas – the mountain as a resource to exploit – have lost the fight because their knowledge is considered to be inferior. In the eyes of the president and the corporations, the protesting people are knowledge: with silly ideas but no knowledge. In other words, due to the monoculture of knowledge by which the west dominates, people have been denied opportunities in their lives.

Since the west has spread its influence across the globe, it has become widely accepted that it generates and possesses the universal truth. For long, this has not been questioned and has in many parts of the world been integrated in societies. However, today, in many places you will find peoples fighting for their dignity and acknowledgement of their existence and rights. With this essay we attempted to show that it can and should be questioned, because the west is not the only source of knowledge. The many kinds of knowledge can complement each other as equals, without having to be competitive. Difference in equality may be the best way to describe it.

Sources used:

De La Cadena, M. (2010). Indigenous cosmopolitics in the Andes: conceptual reflections beyond “politics”. Cultural Anthropology, 25(2), p. 334-370.

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