The End of Man

On Man as Idea

The word “man” does not mean “a man”, as in the sense of an adult human male; nor does it mean “a person”, which is used to denote an individual, whether directly or by context; nor does it mean “human”, which is generally used in the biological context of species, separating us from other animals or even machines, or in the emotional sense when talking about the effects of our inherent nature. The word “man” is a singular of “mankind”, that is: it is a single member of the human race, but while the word “human” has almost the same meaning in English, there is a very fundamental difference in the way it is commonly used. Humans are a species, man is an idea.

Man is a rational conception of what life a human being ought to live. It is a conceptual entity constructed atop a value system. The purpose of this formulation is twofold. First, it gives us the framework to help us live our everyday lives – that is, it answers the question: “What should I do?” Second, it gives us the framework to help us function as a society, answering the question: “How should our society be governed?” Man is an abstract, an idea. It is not a description of any single member of the human species, but a formulation of what a sentient, rational being ought to rise up to. What separates mankind from other animals is not just higher intelligence, but a decision to live by our values – a life that is guided by reason rather than instinct. Our values define us.

In the recent years, the gender-neutrality movement has been trying to eliminate the use of the words “man” and “mankind” from the English language. These words are deemed sexist. And they are, to a certain extent. While the origin of the word “man” is gender-neutral (in Old English the word for males was “wer”, and “wif” for females, with “man” referring to both sexes), the historical usage has shifted its meaning to generally refer to males, with the old gender-neutral meaning being reserved for proverbial speech. In modern usage, the word almost always carries a male connotation.

The unfortunate effect of changing usage from “man” to something like “human” is that there is a danger of losing the meaning of the original as it gets displaced by the typical meaning of the new word. Where the proper use of “man” refers to an idea, “human” is generally used to refer to a member of the human species – it carries with it biological and anthropological connotations. Where “man” focuses on what ought to be, “human” examines what is. The original meaning may be lost unless it is carried over specifically as another meaning of the word “human”.

In an appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four titled The Principles of Newspeak, George Orwell wrote about the fictional language of the novel, Newspeak, covering the reasons for its creation and the methods of achieving them. The main goal of Newspeak is the control over the thoughts of the population using it, and this goal is achieved by a careful construction of its vocabulary. By controlling the words, we control the thoughts, and consequently by eliminating certain words, or meanings, we lose the thoughts that develop from them:

Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever.

The political burden of the English word is unfortunate, but the transition to an alternative, such as “human”, is not as straightforward as some believe. The word “mankind” can be transitioned to “humankind” without much trouble, given that the plural form of “human” is actually “humans”. This gives the word “humankind” a philosophical meaning rather than biological. Transitioning “man” to “human” is harder given the general usage of the term. For example, the Wikipedia page for “man” is only about “human males”, while the Wikipedia page for “human” only covers biological and anthropological aspects of the species. By eliminating the philosophical variant, the meaning of the original, as a moral entity, is lost between these two terms. In the end, the word “man” is no more elegant than the word “human”, but by switching usage to the latter you not only remove the gender specific connotation, but also, unless the terms are clearly defined, the fundamental meaning of the original.

Further Reading

Proust wrote that the true voyage of discovery is not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold a hundred universes that each of them beholds. Thus, in the words of Ruskin, what good books give us is not mere knowledge, but sight.

Sign up to my email newsletter to receive regular recommendations to exceptional books on a wide range of topics including design, art, history and philosophy. A summary of latest site updates will also be included. Sign up below: