The Invention of Humanity

Given the number of studies on inequality, Siep Stuurman decided to buck the trend and focus instead on equality. In 'The Invention of Humanity' he investigates the history of ideas about common humanity and cross-cultural equality in religious, philosophical, literary and scientific writings from antiquity to the present, ranging from Europe to America, the Islamic world and China. Its global range makes his book unique.

Original title
Uitvinding Van De Mensheid
Siep Stuurman

Stuurman shows how acknowledging others as equals has never come naturally but required an intellectual effort and was often risky. Equality had to be imagined and reinvented time and again over the course of history. There were always inquisitive minds who were able to go beyond ethnocentric thought to investigate cultural frontiers, able to see fellow human beings where others saw ‘savages’, ‘barbarians’ or ‘nomads’. Such thinkers often insisted on the rationale of unfamiliar customs and were able to imagine how outsiders might respond to a supposedly superior civilization.

Stuurman’s discussion of antiquity highlights the radical novelty of Enlightenment thought, which defined European civilization as the highest and final stage of human development, thereby consigning other cultures to a backward status. This way of thinking, termed the ‘hyperreality of Europe’ by Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, is still deeply engrained. Stuurman argues that the West’s ideological dominance can continue as long as it remains an economic and military superpower, despite its downfall as a moral paragon as a result of two world wars.

Most religions and philosophies have posited universalist notions of equality, while asserting the superiority of fellow believers or the like-minded above all others. Similarly, the Enlightenment proclaimed universal equality as a fact of nature while dividing humanity into the enlightened and those who had yet to see the light of reason. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Stuurman concludes, was not simply an application of European Enlightenment ideas. Its radical notion of global equality reflected the convictions and experiences of the Latin Americans, Indians and Chinese who helped to draft it.

  • An invitation to consider the philosophical dilemmas faced by a globalized world Applies anthropological insights to an analysis of the Enlightenment, which turns out to share the tensions and contradictions of the great religions

  • Declines to engage in Huntington-style predictions and therefore allows room for a more open and possibly optimistic vision of the future

'The Invention of Humanity' is a pioneering work, enhancing the debate that crops up daily about the similarities and differences between people and cultures.

Vrij Nederland
Siep Stuurman
Siep Stuurman is Professor of European History at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.
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