No one likes to be pigeon-holed but it’s an undeniable fact of life. There is no escaping the differences to be found in human beings, these differences can differentiate individuals in a variety of ways relative to the culture in which they belong. If you are a different gender (including any variety covered by ‘queer studies‘) or a different race from those who hold power in your culture, this could mark you out as ‘different’ regardless of population density. You can also be marked out as ‘different’ on an individual level based on these kinds of characteristics.
Sometimes we embrace these ‘differences’, especially when we find others who share this feature in common and, more importantly, share our perspective on what it means to have this feature. Often, when this happens we don’t feel so different any more. These features are what philosopher Ian Hacking calls ‘human kinds’ and according to Hacking it is by being responsive to these kinds, by rejecting some and embracing others, and by providing input into how these ‘kinds’ are defined, that we develop and augment the original cultural understanding of said ‘kind’.
The way in which a culture understands a ‘kind’, for the most part, can be changed by the actions and attitudes of those who identify (or are identified) as belonging to a kind. That said there is one human kind that seems to be recognised in almost every culture on earth. Individuals belonging to it are treated in very different ways to those who don’t belong and there is no escaping it, you have no choice about whether you belong to it and you have no choice about when society deems you unfit to be associated with that kind any longer.
That kind is ‘child’ and there is so much that we adults do and say which defines the kind (and often a little too little that we take from children themselves that contributes to it): things can be ‘childish’ or ‘infantile’, but they can also be ‘naive’ or ‘innocent’. If there is anything truly universal about human culture it might just be the belief in the existence of ‘children’. Of course there is a great variance in the way different cultures think children should be treated but there is little doubt that cultures accept that we have a very distinct sub-group of human beings living among us.
There may even be some simple correlations in the way a ‘child’ is defined by different cultures. Primary among these will obviously be age, but another important and undeniable feature of ‘childhood’ is the way that children learn: they learn by seeing, then by replicating behaviours and actions and further to this they learn by experimenting with these behaviours and the ideas they’ve picked up. It might not be the case that every culture has a set name for this but in English-speaking cultures we call these behaviours ‘play’.
One of the trickiest things for any philosopher who looks at the nature of human existence is the difficulty of providing generalities, absolutes, and/or ‘universalisable’ ideas. In the face of sometimes overwhelming anthropological evidence it has become clear that for many ‘intuitive’ ideas about ‘human nature’ there is often a counterexample where some culture out there in the world, enjoys an existence which is contrary to what ‘common sense’ would expect. There are cultures without numbers, cultures in which criminals are ignored as if ‘dead’, and countless cultures with a far less solid marking between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ than we are familiar with.
In response to this, if there is anything that we might have a chance of seeing as universal I doubt it will be a grasp of basic numbers or even some kind of over-ruling ethical principle. I would be willing to take a fairly large wager that one of the most universal traits that define human existence is the fact that we have all, at some point in our lives, played. As a species we share play (in fact some other species can also be said to play in the way we do), in my opinion play is as close to a universal human behaviour as you could get. I’d also be inclined to say that most adults still play without even noticing it.
Play and childhood are features I’d bet you can find in any human culture (and in many other animals too), is it any wonder that a philosopher with an interest in the meaning of human existence would find so much to talk about in the world of toys?