Tuesday, July 11, 2006

"Whoops, there goes humanity!"

Bill Benzon has posted at The Valve his reflections upon a recent article by Geoffrey Harpham ("Science and the Theft of Humanity"). Harpham has many lines that will sound familiar from the debates that have unfolded at this blog (e.g. "While humanistic scholars have been presuming core facts about human nature, human capacities and human being, scientists have been getting to work"). Harpham's conclusion:
We stand today at a critical juncture not just in the history of disciplines but of human self-understanding, one that presents remarkable and unprecedented opportunities for thinkers of all descriptions. A rich, deep and extended conversation between humanists and scientists on the question of the human could have implications well beyond the academy. It could result in the rejuvenation of many disciplines, and even in a reconfiguration of disciplines themselves—in short, a new golden age.

Benzon's rejoinder:
No doubt, but first we have to get to it. The (in)famous structuralism symposium at Hopkins back in the 1960s had similar aims. We’ve got more interdiciplinary centers now than we did back then, but the same old departmental structures still run things. The ground plan is still the one we inherited from 19th century Berlin.

I’d like to see it happen, I’ve been waiting 30 years, I’m not holding my breath.

The unfolding comments also make good reading.


Anonymous said...

So many recent blog postings and so little time to jump in an comment!

Just a quick note, though, to say that Harpham's recent article, "Science and the Theft of Humanity" and Benzon's response at The Valve cover the exact ground that was partly the impetus for BABEL. EDGE [www.edge.org] is where I first stumbled onto the debates among scientists [cognitive scientists, biologists, physicists, geneticists, chemists, robotics engineers, etc.] regarding all the ways in which recent discoveries about cognition, mind/body, the category "human," etc. are likely to profoundly change how we understand what we mean when we invoke certain terms and concepts like "human," "the self," "free will," "agency," etc. For me, it isn't just going to be about, as Harpham writes, "the rejuvenation of many disciplines," or even a "new golden age" [okay, that's just a bit *too* hyperbolic for me], but also about issues of human rights, social justice, and global economies. I think we need to spend more time in the humanities building bridges with faculty working in the so-called "hard" sciences viz. the "big" philosophical and ethical questions that revolve around what we mean when we say "the human person," not just because we can therefore write interesting cross-disciplinary books that reflect new ideas like, "guess what? there's actually no such thing as a free will!" or: "guess what? there's no such things as an authentic 'experience'!" BUT because we need to re-envision the humanities as a site within which we can work toward refashioning and, yes, safeguarding, in politically progressive ways, this thing we call "the human being." I can also see the future of the humanities as a powerful site of resistance to a possibly thoroughly technocratized future. But don't get me wrong. I'm not anti-science, or anti-cloning, or anti-nanotechnology, or anything like that. I just don't want science disciplines to refashion our understanding about "human being" without our input and vice versa.

Karl Steel said...

Well that's exciting! I guess I'm totally suspicious about 'the human' for all the usual anti-(post?)-Englightenment reasons. Here's what I think, from a snippet of the diss. in progress:

The state [human] is a relation of men [humans] dominating men [animals], a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e., considered to be legitimate) violence. If the state [human] is to exist, the dominated [animals] must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be.

That bit of slightly modified Max Weber along with Derrida's 'L'animal donc je suis' is pretty much the core of my diss and my posthumanist suspicions.

And now back to work on it, which now involves reading Harpham, yeah?

Anonymous said...

Karl, your dissertation sounds really interesting and I think you would also make a wonderful contributor to the BABEL Group, if you ever want to join our cabal. Before reading Harpham's essay, though, I would bypass him and go straight to www.edge.org. let me explain why. First, Harpham's essay, which I read last night, doesn't say anything new that the founders of Edge haven't been saying for a long while now; in addition, the urgency for those of us working in the humanities regarding the whole "what did/does/will it mean to be human?" question derives more from discussions within science disciplines over our possible intellectual irrelevance than from discussions within humanities disciplines about, as Harpham writes, a "new golden age" of multidisciplinary scholarship. Let me explain why further. First, the founders and existing members of Edge [a.k.a. "The Reality Club," a.k.a. "The Third Culture"] comprise the most important scientists and scientific philosophers of our time--i.e. Edward O. Wilson, Jared Diamond, Freeman Dyson, Brian Greene, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Roger Penrose, Rodney Brooks, J. Craig Venter, and on and on. Second, their intrepid "leader," John Brockman, published an essay in 1991, "The Emerging Third Culture," in which he argued that,

"The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are."

By "traditional intellectual," Brockman is referring to those of us who work in traditional humanities fields, and who he sees as largely irrelevant to the so-called "most important questions of our time." Of our discipline, he writes,

"Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost."

Hmmm . . . actually sounds kind of familiar to some of Emile B.'s arguments against a lot of what we do, and that's why I take, and have taken for a while now, *very seriously* the arguments Edge members have been making about the so-called *necessity* of hijacking from us the "philosophical" questions of import, which they see as being intimately connected to discoveries in science, and better left to the "real thinkers"--THEM. With everyone's patience, let me quote a bit further from Brockman's essay:

"Unlike previous intellectual pursuits, the achievements of the third culture are not the marginal disputes of a quarrelsome mandarin class: they will affect the lives of everybody on the planet.

The role of the intellectual includes communicating. Intellectuals are not just people who know things but people who shape the thoughts of their generation. An intellectual is a synthesizer, a publicist, a communicator. In his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals, the cultural historian Russell Jacoby bemoaned the passing of a generation of public thinkers and their replacement by bloodless academicians. He was right, but also wrong. The third-culture thinkers are the new public intellectuals.

America now is the intellectual seedbed for Europe and Asia. This trend started with the prewar emigration of Albert Einstein and other European scientists and was further fueled by the post- Sputnik boom in scientific education in our universities. The emergence of the third culture introduces new modes of intellectual discourse and reaffirms the preeminence of America in the realm of important ideas. Throughout history, intellectual life has been marked by the fact that only a small number of people have done the serious thinking for everybody else. What we are witnessing is a passing of the torch from one group of thinkers, the traditional literary intellectuals, to a new group, the intellectuals of the emerging third culture."

By "third culture," Brockman means scientists who are also taking on the humanistic philosophical questions in addition to traditional scientific research. I would suggest that, for those of us who care about the future of humanities study in the American university, that we take Brockman et al. pretty seriously and seek to engage them more directly. We are not irrelevant, although we could be seen as such, and are certainly guilty of making ourselves, in certain cases, such. I share Karl's skepticism [and even fear] of all the ways in which the category/concept "human" has underwritten oppression, destruction, etc. But if we completely discard the concept, how do you have a human rights? We NEED "the human"--as a conceptual category, as a basis for legal definitions, as a site of social activism, etc.--put we need to redefine, with the scientists, what we think "the human" is/means, why, or why not, it is important to preserve, refashion, etc. Against Harpham, I do not see a new "golden age" of scholarship; what I see is an epic struggle, and one with real consequences.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks for the invite! I've been radically downscaling my blog reading for the past month or so (compared to say the Summer of 2004 when I was at 2-3 hours a day: which is why I'm still working on my diss.), so I think what I should do is dip my toe in BABEL a little, but only a little, first. But there's the problem that a dissertating grad student doesn't have the opportunity to experiment too much. We--or speaking for myself--just have to get this shit done.

In trying to get myself ready for the market, I've been reading through the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (at least, all the post-Hagel material). What inspired me? The realization that all I knew about Habermas was his name. Plus Berube's theoretical fluency made me feel small. There. I said it! Well, last night I read the Habermas section, and Brockman sounds like Habermas, yeah? From what you've said, I'm suspicious of him for all the reasons I find H.'s nostalgia for European bourgeois coffee culture suspicious...

Per human rights, Derrida, from my diss. (and an upcoming article. I trust I'm not quoting so much here that I screw the pooch. If I am, JJC, delete this post):

In his work on animals, Derrida seeks to sidestep ethical systems founded on the rights owed to subjects, because even as they grant or recognize rights in subjects, such systems also invariably deny subjecthood and hence ethical relationships to others. Jeremy Benthem had suggested that “the day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny” and argued that because a horse or a dog is far more rational and social an animal than a human infant, the problematic of the animal is not “Can they reason? nor, Can they talk, but Can they suffer?” Derrida follows Bentham by imagining grounds for a new ethics based around “not-being-able,” that is, around a shared vulnerability between creatures:

What is this nonpower at the heart of power? What is its quality or modality? How should one account for it? What right should be accorded to it? To what extent does it concern us? … Mortality resides there, as the most radical means of thinking the finitude we share with animals.

In asking these questions, Derrida aims to prevent the mere extension of “human rights” to animals, since, by being based around positive capacities, such an extension would only duplicate the “philosophical and juridical machine” this extension purports to critique. Moreover, such an extension would, Derrida argues, require what he scorns as a facile “biologistic continuism” that, in drawing humans and animals together into homology, would lose awareness of the differences between all animals, including those between all humans. In refusing to reduce the immense multiplicity of animals’ lived experiences, Derrida also aims to preserve the unknowable excess without which ethics degenerates into utilitarian calculations guided by simplistic certainties about shared capabilities between self and other.

So, there you go.

There's also Cary Wolfe, who in Animal Rites has argued that so long as a speciest prejudice against the animal, as such, persist, the discourse of the animal will be available for use against scorned others.


So you can see my suspicion about human rights. I think 'human rights' tends towards collapsing the radical alterity of the other, substituting recognition and response of self in the other for an ethics that can actually treat the other well in all its unknowability.

I skimmed the Harpham article and didn't find that it adequately engaged these problems. Maybe I missed something though.

If you want more from the diss., let me know, and I'll send you a link...

Anonymous said...

EJ and JJC: I trust you know of this journal. It is worth revisiting, for some of the same reasons that EJ (and I, too) find edge.org fascinating.


"MANAS is a journal of independent inquiry, concerned with the study of the principles which move world society on its present course, and with searching for contrasting principles- that may be capable of supporting intelligent idealism under the conditions of the twentieth century. MANAS is concerned, therefore, with philosophy and with practical psychology, in as direct and simple a manner as the editors and contributors can write. The word "manas" comes from a common root suggesting "man" or "the thinker." Editorial articles are unsigned, since MANAS wishes to present ideas and viewpoints, not personalities."

Anonymous said...

Derrida also aims to preserve the unknowable excess without which ethics degenerates into utilitarian calculations guided by simplistic certainties about shared capabilities between self and other.

There is a bit of a strawman here. Any ethical enterprise with the potential to enhance humanity--oh, let's take psychology, for example--is predicated upon recognition that "shared capabilities between self and other" retain uncertainty, unknowability. The shift from ontology to epistemology, in full swing by the end of the 17th c., set the stage for this recognition. Read the final (6th) Shilleto edition of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, which runs to over 1300 pages, for a nice catalogue what I would call the covert determinants (fundamentally unknowable) of humanity's relation to its possible others.

On the other hand, I see your point when I read Lavater's Aphorisms on Man, which I happened to be doing on the bus today, and I note that he has no problem whatsoever with extending his meditations on how form is the outward expression of a being's inner spiritual essence to animals--monkeys, horses, elephants, birds, even insects. "The ostrich," he assures us, "knows not what compassion means."


Anonymous said...

America now is the intellectual seedbed for Europe and Asia

I think it would be news to some of the people on your list that they are American.

Otherwise this sentiment renders me speechless ... so much that might be said ...


Karl Steel said...


So long as it's only a "bit" of a strawman. Thankfully, there's a bit of time before publication, so there's time to change it. And, at any rate, the next sentence proclaims that what I'm doing isn't rights-based anyway: i.e., a cheap gesture of disavowal. That said, the, oh, "read this 1300-page 17th c. book" suggestion isn't exactly useful for a grad student who's declared that he just needs to "get this shit done." So! I'm sure I can track down what I need for ethics so as to not make an ass of myself, but if you could spare me some time by suggesting 1 or 2 things not longer than 100 pages, you'd earn my thanks, and even an acknowledgement when book time comes...and a pony.

Now, vis-a-vis unknowability: that ethics still seems founded in certainty of shared humanity, and when extended to animals (as various people have said), it's extended on the basis of whether or not those animals are recognized as having an experiential life similar to those of humans. In other words, it strikes me that there's a provicial core there to this kind of human-based ethics no matter how much uncertainty it admits. And that's a weakness: all that's needed for it to be suspended is for the actor not to recognize humanity or whatever in the other.

You see?

Karl Steel said...

Oh, more about Brockman:

whoa. I'm hella suspicious about the reestablishing the preeminence of America in the realm of important ideas. It strikes me that science is this country is increasingly tangled in the merely commercial or caught up in support of the military-industrial complex. What science there is that assails the human--evolution and genetics--has come under assault by religious fanatics who believe, correctly, that evolution destroys anthropocentrism and hence every major religion. So, given the material conditions under which science labors in this country, I'm dubious about America being the country to carry the torch into the future etc.

Plus that crack about mandarins: I find that impatience with interpretation dangerous. Why should people who aren't trained in culture or language, people I might deride as having a bourgeois vocational degree (like my brother, the cardiologist), be trusted to fix meaning so we can get on with carrying the torch into the future, etc.?

But I can see your point, EJ, that there's a vacuum there, and if we don't try to step in, if we don't engage with other professions, the robotics engineers will do it alone.

Anonymous said...

Karl & N50--I didn't mean to imply in my quotation of John Brockman that I agree with all of his sentiments. I think some of them are downright mean-spirited and simply *wrong*. But because The Reality Club and www.edge.org comprise so many important scientists and thinkers [and N50, many of those persons happen to be British, like Richard Dawkins, so I'm not sure why Brockman wrote what he did about America as an intellectual seedbed for Europe and Asia], scientists and thinkers, moreover, who work and teach at top research universities, write books that garner large public audiences, and are funded by huge government and corporate grants, their ideas can have [and have had] profound "real world" effects. I think it behooves those of us working in the humanities not to dimiss Brockman's hyperbole, but to vigorously engage it, and perhaps even create our own counter-intellectual/social action movement. I am wholly committed to this endeavor.

Karl, thinking further about your dissertation and your ideas regarding the human/animal split [especially viz. your use of Derrida's idea od ethics and the "unknowable excesses" of living being and your idea that "'human rights' tends towards collapsing the radical alterity of the other, substituting recognition and response of self in the other for an ethics that can actually treat the other well in all its unknowability"], and also thinking about E.B.'s comment regarding [viz. Burton] "the covert determinants (fundamentally unknowable) of humanity's relation to its possible others," I agree [again] that the concept/legal definition/biological entity "human being" is capable of "collapsing" that "radical alterity" between self and other, which can lead to dangerous exclusions of "persons" [all living animals, let's say, human and otherwise] from certain protections of self, life, etc. However, we will have to be extremely careful when going about our redefinitions of "humanity," "the self," "personhood," "life," etc. It is precisely because the White House legal team was so deft at delineating the difference between "lawful" and "unlawful" combatants [which was another way of implying "human" versus "inhuman"] that they could elide the Geneva Convention dictates regarding torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. But at the same time, in order to mount a defense of those same detainees as persons who should not be tortured, we have to do various things, like demonstrate that the distinction between "lawful" and "unlawful" is a bogus distinction in this case, or not true, or irrelevant, buit we also have to have a means for defining the detainees *as persons* or *as humans* or as some kind of *living* entity whose physical/psychic "self" is never to be available for purposeful wounding. We have to have a way to philosophize the "shared features," as well as the multi-dependent yet still "other to other" relationships, of living creatures/entities [which might ultimately include plants, streams, etc.], in order to defend and protect, somehow and some way, the "right to life" or "freedom" or physical safety, etc. etc., of those entities. And "we humans" [however you want to define "us"] will have to do this work *for* the cats, *for* the trees, *for* the imprisoned, *for* the beggars, etc. We are a unique species, and we've made a lot of hay out of that fact that has led to a lot of destruction, but the fact remains that we are uniquely gifted and the questions is: what are we to do with these gifts? And we will have to somehow undertake a new "human rights" discourse that does not necessarily discard the category "human" [but somehow redefines it] and might occasionally have to put aside "unknowable excess" because when we go out into the real world and start tussling with dictators, NGOs, parliamentary and other types of rule-based governments, and with whoever is out there suffering under psychic and physical deprivations, Derrida will suffice only insofar as he helps us think through the thickets of certain existential and philosophical puzzles, which is fine, as far as it goes [it may help us craft legislation, let's say, that is innovative in determining rights and obligations to others]. But we have to also think about APPLICATIONS--how are we going to APPLY the insights of Derrida on, say, hospitality [a subject that I think about a lot and have written on viz. suicide terrorism] to partcular real-world "human rights" [for lack of a better term] situations? We have to do both. And I want intellectuals to be very, very, very, very, very careful when they think, along with Foucault, that "the death of Man" is devoutly to be wished. Foucault, I believe, got it backwards, and cognitive science is showing that pretty definitively. The soul was *not* the prison of the body. The body is the prison of the body, which is also the soul/mind. The two cannot be separated, and a "person" [whether human or cow] under torture is no longer a person--the mind, in this situation, does not *withstand* the abuse of the body, but dies along with it. But if we go too far in the direction some scientists want to take us, and say there is no mind *and* body, but only body, how do we define and protect this thing called "a person"? And why should this thing called "a person" matter, anyway? How can we protect "human rights," for example, without lapsing into religious dogma regarding the sanctity of life and so on and so forth? This is where, I believe, the humanities can be so important. If we are custodians of anything, we are the custodians of human thought, of that thing called the inner life of the human person [which is capable of contemplating the inner and external lives of everything else]. And yes, that matters. Because of Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, slaughterhouses, poverty, genocide, etc., it matter a hell of a lot.

Karl Steel said...


I didn't think for a minute that you were endorsing Brockman! The point was that students of culture shouldn't abandon the field to the scientists, yeah? Agreed.

When I have a moment, I might be able to respond to your post. I love "body is the prison of the body," though. All I can say right now is: strategic essentialism. Derrida wouldn't disagree with that either, although I'll have to do some digging for that particular sententia. Looking forward to your guest-posting.

Re: the horror of distinguishing between lawful and unlawful combatants, you read Agamban's (short! coherent!) State of Exception? Again, if I had time (and the brains?), I'd summarize it. But it's useful here, as is, I suppose, his Homo Sacer (which I haven't read yet...)

Anonymous said...

OK, Karl, I'll capitulate. But bear in mind that when I was in grad school, I would read 1300 pages in one sitting, under unsteady candlelight, with no breaks for eating (because I couldn't actually afford food anyway), to the incessant sound of jackhammers piercing the walls of my cardboard box-home. The worst was when it rained.

Now, to your argument: I think I like the shape of it. I can see where you might argue that there is some real value in suspending recognition (and imputation) of the human in/to the animal. Quick question: is this suspension to be permanent (i.e., ongoing) or is it strategic?

You might draw some real strength for this argument from the anti-/post-Lockean tradition, which of course extends up to some of the people I suspect you admire: but I have in mind going back to the historical moment in which many arguments were generated precisely around the question of the relation of human "consciousness" (a term I use anachronistically) and morality to that of the animal, "the brute."

Item 1: Ashley Cooper’s (Lord Shaftesbury) An Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit. You will find Walford’s 1977 edition of the 1711 Inquiry, as part of the 3-volume collection of Cooper’s writings known as the Characteristics, but I warn you that this edition contains only about half of the original text which appeared in an unprepossessing, unauthorized version in 1699, which I read in England one summer. At any rate, Cooper, drawn toward the Cambridge Neo-Platonist tradition, argued quite forcefully that virtue/morality is an objective reality irreducible to utilitarian and egoistic terms. Cooper’s benign and optimistic morality, often seen as a harbinger of Romanticism, and his belief in a “moral instinct” was enthusiastically adopted by later Scottish philosophers (e.g., Adam Ferguson and Smith) in their efforts to devise naturalistic accounts of human society. Specifically, it is in his account of the “Oeconomy of the Passions” where Cooper expounds his moral philosophy in terms that might be very useful for your thinking.

Item 2: J. O. de la Mettrie’s Man a Machine (1750 ed.), where his attack on the soul as “nothing but an empty term, of which we have no idea” is part of a thoroughgoing (anti-clerical) materialist account where “man is but an animal made up of a number of springs….” His discussion of animals is particularly illuminating.

Item 3: Hume, of course—particularly the books of the Treatise concerning the “passions” and morality. I would think his notion of “Sympathy,” which he uses so deftly to close the doors that his analysis of morality had opened to ethical relativism, should be useful to you.

And, of interest to discussions of the alterity of the monstrous non-human, though it predates the above-mentioned tradition, is Bulwer’s Pathomyotomia where his fascination with the universal language of expressive behavior and its biological basis leads him to bracket “humanity” as the basis for an ethics. There is good reason for Darwin respectfully footnoting Bulwer in his Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. (Bulwer would go on, in his Anthropometamorphosis to offer a naturalistic account of the acephalic blemmyae.)

As I type this, it occurs to me that a strain of thinking you might pursue is the naturalistic, physiologic philosophers of morality, who, without fail, turn to the animal world in their analyses. One thinks of Thomas Willis’s Two Discourses Concerning the Soul of Brutes, which I haven’t looked at in years.

I’ll continue to think about this if it's helpful for you.

Anonymous said...

^^^^^ That should be Emile ^^^^^

Anonymous said...

I have just consulted on microfilm a copy of Edward Tyson's 1699 version of Orang-Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris: or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie compared with that of a monkey, an ape, and a man.

All I can I say is WOW. Buried in the midst of this anatomical study (pp. 55ff.) is a discussion of the human brain that I think will push your argument into new ethical territory.

Check it out.

Jeffrey's way beyond monsters now, but I note that there is an appended "Philological Essay" on the "Cynocephali, the Satyrs and Sphinges of the Ancients" in which he vigorously demystifies these reported bizarre varieties of humanity. (Cynocephali patently being baboons.)

Karl Steel said...

Having a quick look at the Orang-Outang book for starters, and it’s fascinating, but at the same time familiar stuff. I’ll quote:

There is a vast difference to be observed in the formation of the Parts, that serve to compose the Brain in these various Animals. And tho’ the Brain of a Man, in respect of his Body, be much larger than what is to be met with in any other Animal (for Vesalius makes the Brain of a Man to be as big as those of three Oxen) yet I think we can’t safely conclude with him, that Animals, as they excel in the largeness of the Brain, so they do likewise in the Principal Faculties of the Soul: For if this be true, then our Pygmie must equal a Man, or come very near him, since his Brain in proportion to his Body, was as large as Man’s….

Since therefore in all respects the Brain of our Pygmie does so exactly resemble a Man’s, I might here make the same Reflection the Parisians did upon the Organs of Speech, That there is no reason to think, that Agents do perform such and such Actions, because they are found with Organs proper thereunto: for then our Pygmie might be really a Man. The Organs in Animal Bodies are only a regular Compages of Pipes and Vessels, for the Fluids to pass through, and are passive. What actuates them, are the Humours and Fluids: and Animal Life consists in their due and regular motion in this Organical Body. But those Nobler Faculties in the Mind of Man, must certainly have a higher Principle, and Matter organized could never produce them; for why else, where the Organ is the same, should not the Actions be the same too? And if all depended on the Organ, not only our Pygmie, but other Brutes likewise, would be too near akin to us. This Difference I cannot but remark, that the Ancients were fond of making Brutes to be Men: on the contrary now, most unphilosophically, the Rumour is, to make Men but meer Brutes and Matter. Whereas in truth Man is part a Brute, part an Angel, and is that Link in the Creation, that joyns them both together.

What strikes me here is something Thomas of Cantimpre wrote, which I’ve quoted on this website before:

Et non mirum, si monstra huiusmodi alicuius actus habilitatione ceteris animalibus preferantur, quia forte secundum quod plus approprinquant homini exteriori forma in corpore, tanto illi approprinquant sensu estimationis in corde.

And do not marvel if the acts of some of these monsters in habit rise above the other animals, since perhaps according to the more they approach they human outwardly in bodily form, the more they approach human sense in their minds.

Tyson and Thomas seem to do much the same thing. They observe the similarities, suggest that proximity of body means proximity of ontology, and then back off by declaring that it cannot be so. For each of them, as for Heidegger etc., the human must be more than mere life. It has to have something special in it. What strikes me in Tyson, though, is how much space he gives to the arguments of what would have been called the physici in Thomas’s day. Tyson’s desperate measures at the end hardly seem more convincing to him than they do to me.

Thanks for sharing this! I’d love to hear your thoughts about this too, as I expect you’ve something you’re aiming at. By the way, since my school gives me access to early English books online, I now have a pdf of Thomas’s book in its entirety, and I think can I do the same for anything printing and in English before 1700. Email me if you want a copy/copies, as these are easier to use than microfilm.

Per Cynocephali: I think Lecouteaux's efforts to explain Cynocephali are more interesting than either the baboon explanations or the deep cultural analyses of White, but I think Ratramnus's letter, which I engage in my diss., is by far the most interesting take on them (at least in the West, i.e., not counting Ctesias of Cnidus). But I'll have a look at Tyson's take tomorrow, when the margaritas wear off. Other q's about ethics will have to wait until then, too.

Karl Steel said...

I now have a pdf of Thomas’s book in its entirety,

Sorry, Em(n)ile. Tyson's book.

Anonymous said...

I have always thought that one of the most impressive things about the US education system is its multidisciplinarity - the ability of students to study arts and sciences together and switch from one to the other. In the UK things are slowly changing towards a more multi/interdisciplinary ethos. In school pupils have to take a more mixed curriculum post 14 than they once did and this is showing up in more students pursuing multidisciplinary studies post 16. We are just at the very beginning of this having an impact post 18 too. New programmes bridging the two worlds are emerging and growing slowly in popularity.

The good thing about this is that scientists see the inclusion of the arts and humanities as a positive thing - a means of recruiting bright students, producing better critical thinkers, communicators and writers, reaching out to a wider audience, engaging the general public and politicians, winning funding. There are a diverse range of new initiatives with an equally diverse range of objectives.

Now - this may seem practical rather than philosophical - but I think it may be wrong to distinguish one from the other. You cannot import the methods of the humanities into science without importing some of their content and concepts as well.

My last post for a while - going into writing frenzy and then on holiday.

Have fun!

Anonymous said...

Just a quick note to say thanks to Emile B. [whose erudition is starting to scare me] for the link to MANAS, a journal of which I was actually unaware. It is fascinating [and sad that it is no longer published], and I have already down-loaded several articles on "the human condition." Here is an interesting quotation from Ortega y Gasset [quoted in MANAS essays, which are unsigned] that are pertinent, I think, to the conversations we have been having here:

". . . unlike all other beings in the universe, man is surely never *man*; on the contrary, *being man* signifies being always on the point of not being man, being a living problem, an absolute and hazardous adventure . . . . While the tiger cannot cease being a tiger, cannot be detigerized, man lives in perpetual risk of being dehumanized."

MANAS reminds me a little bit of my favorite current journal, "The Hedgehog Review: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture" [http://www.virginia.edu/iasc/hedgehog.html], which always devotes each issue to a theme, such as "The Body and Being Human" or
"Religion and Violence," and features short, very clearly-written essays, with minimal bibliographic apparatus, and also includes book reviews, interviews, and a bibliographic essay that covers the theme. It is produced by the Institute for the Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia and comes out about three times a year [but web versions of particular issues are also available online].

Anonymous said...

Karl wrote, regarding some of the texts he has been reading for what sounds like a highly-publishable dissertation:

"Tyson and Thomas seem to do much the same thing. They observe the similarities [between human bodies and supposedly non-human bodies], suggest that proximity of body means proximity of ontology, and then back off by declaring that it cannot be so. For each of them, as for Heidegger etc., the human must be more than mere life. It has to have something special in it."

But the human *is* more than "mere life," just as the tiger is more than "mere life" just as the oak tree is more than "mere life" just as the stream is, and so on and so forth. As much as it may pain those of us educated in postmodern and post-structural thought, the human *is* a unique species--call us "animals," that's fine [because, of course, we *are* animals, although, let's face it, even the term "animal" is, at the end of the day, as unsatisfactory a label, whether applied to codfish or us, as is "human" or "person"]--and we have been endowed with certain, let's say, chemical and physiological properties that put us in a unique position vis-a-vis other life forms. We have a mind, for example, that enables us to contemplate not only our own "inner lives," as it were, but also the "inner lives" of everything else. Karl's dissertation is a brilliant example of this, for while he may contemplate the life/selfhood of the baboon, the baboon will not write a dissertation on Karl. But what is the ultimate *use* of Karl's dissertation, viz. the "real world" of humans & animals & everything else, strikes me as the more important question, and one that is inherently, um . . . human. Here again, a quotation I pilfered from an essay in MANAS ["The Enigma of Being Human"], this time from Abraham Heschel:

"One thing that sets man apart from animals [I would say "from *other* animals"] is a boundless, unpredictable capacity for the development of an inner universe."

And this from Maslow, also quoted in the same MANAS essay:

"If, as I think has been demonstrated sufficently, the human being is a choosing, deciding, seeking animal, then the question of making choices and decisions must inevitably be involved in any effort to define the human species. . . . The questions then come up: Who is the good chooser? Where does he come from? What kind of life history does he have? Can we teach this skill? . . . . And beyond that [we have the task] of raising the old axiological questions 'What is good? What is desirable? What should be desired?'"

So now we are, at least for me, back to ethics and its relation to "being human." Human beings are uniquely endowed with the ability to ask these questions and to begin choosing answers and ways of enacting those answers in real contexts with real consequences. We do not always choose or act well, but the fact that we can also *value* our choices and actions--this is also uniquely human. It is also a responsibility we cannot afford to shirk, but only if we believe our present existence, and the present existence of all other life forms [and by extension, our planet], as well as the history of all of this, is worthy of a future.

Anonymous said...

Regarding my last post, I think it is, again, awfully important for those of us working in traditional humanities disciplines, to really engage with these issues, since other, more scary people, are already far ahead of us in this regards. For example, the "Future of Humanity Institute," recently established at Oxford University, with philosophy prof. Nick Bostrum as its head. Go here for a sample of that:


And also, entities like the European Council on Artificial Life. Go here for a sample of that:


These people have vast power and resources. They're a little frightening, but also really, really smart.

Anonymous said...

Looks like the EEBO has the 1699 Inquiry. I just d-led that bad boy. Shame that EEBO cuts off at 1700; I was jonesing for an electronic Man a Machine. And, curiously, no Bulwer to be had.

See if this helps you at all, Karl: What I was thinking, having read as little of your argument as I have, is that there would be immense value in returning to the 17th/18th c. philosophers who were initiating a struggle with the questions of what constitutes man and animal in the context of either directly opposing Church doctrine (esp. that concerning the soul) or responding to the Associationism of Locke.

I would identify at least four sort of nodal points that are relevant here:
1. The shift in focus of philosophical concern from the ontological to the epistemological;
2. Emphasis on the concept of "mechanism": hence, the emergence of elaborate physiological psychologies (Descartes & Hobbes, of course, but many others of potentially deeper interest to your project). Later, in the 19th, we're talking Natural Philosophy, but for now we're talking Descartes's Passions and the attempt to clarify the borderline between psychological phenomena dependent on the body and those properly and exclusively ascribable to the soul. Enter animals;
3. The invention of privacy (David Morse's book still one of the best, for my money). Burton relevant here; and
4. The question of language; debates on the nature of language extending from Hobbes to Wilkins to Locke, which has a vital bearing on the whole issue of the conceptualization of the human and the animal. Thus, I thought of Bulwer, but also Lavater to Gall to Darwin.

So then I wonder if there isn't some value in looking at the revisionist readings of Descartes--e.g., de la Mettrie, who writes a brilliant rhetorical manifesto from a materialist point of view and ends up redefining man in animal terms with his emphasis on soul as motion. You have to go back to Wm. Coward's Second Thoughts for something this polemical/radical.

In short, I'm interested, given what you've said on the subject so far, in thinking about whether the areas of imbrication between moral philosophies of the 17th and 18th centuries and physiologies/psychologies by (often) the very same authors might yield a historical recontextualization of the question of "human rights" as it bears on animals, and presumably "animal rights."

It's been years since I looked at Hodgen's history of anthropology, and I'm sure you've looked at it, but I always found it a useful starting point just for thinking.

Anonymous said...

Given many of the conversations on this blog over the past couple of months regarding whether or not literary studies can have any kind of social impact, whether or not "history matters," how "humanity" is being redefined by the scientists [and what, therefore, should we in humanities disciplines *do* regarding that?], and Karl's and Emile B.'s exchanges on philosophies [medieval, Enlightenment, and otherwise] of "the human" versus "the animal" [and how that might ultimately impact how we formulate, say, human and other types of rights in the future], and finally, thinking again about that quotation from Maslow--that "if the human being is a choosing, deciding, seeking animal, then the question of making choices and decisions must inevitably be involved in any effort to define the human species. . . . The questions then come up: Who is the good chooser? . . . . And beyond that [we have the task] of raising the old axiological questions 'What is good? What is desirable? What should be desired?'"--I finally went to see the Al Gore documentary yesterday, "An Inconvenient Truth," and much like JJC's thoughts regarding extracurricular activities at the New Chaucer Society meeting in NYC went immediately to the fanciful image of a "Cruise of Death," with untenured faculty using tenured, more eminent scholars as flotation devices, I likewise began thinking about all of our recent dialogues in the context of the scientific *fact* that, within 50 years, most of Manhattan and San Francisco and Shanghai, as well as many other sites throughout the world, may very well be underwater, with a new ice age not very far behind.

Of course, I've thought about global warming *a lot* over the past ten or so years, and I've always found certain "doomsday" scenarios [whether involving the break-up of ice shelves in Anarctica or a "dirty" nuclear device exploding in NYC] useful for thinking through the question of the ultimate relevance of doing historical, aesthetic, and more generally philosophical research and writing. The possible impact of global warming is not a fanciful Nostradamus-type prediction, but predicated on "real science," and probably should not be dismissed too lightly. In fact, consider "The Future of Humanity Institute" recently established at Oxford University with millions of dollars already at its disposal and the British Parliament *already* calling upon its Director, philosophy prof. Nick Bostrum, to advise it on certain future-oriented issues [such as "human enhancement technologies"]. Nick Bostrum isn't interested in figuring out ways to extend the life of humans, as they exist now, or even the planet; his assumption is that the existence of *us* and the earth itself is already very near its end, and that is why he has developed his "transhumanism" movement [which, by god, Oxford is funding!], which believes, for one thing, that

"Just as we use rational means to improve the human condition and the external world, we can also use such means to improve ourselves, the human organism. In doing so, we are not limited to traditional humanistic methods, such as education and cultural development. We can also use technological means that will eventually enable us to move beyond what some would think of as 'human'."

Transhumanism envisions future societies, likely situated somewhere else other than earth, in which "regular" humans live alongside "posthumans":

"Posthumans could be completely synthetic artificial intelligences, or they could be enhanced uploads, or they could be the result of making many smaller but cumulatively profound augmentations to a biological human. The latter alternative would probably require either the redesign of the human organism using advanced nanotechnology or its radical enhancement using some combination of technologies such as genetic engineering, psychopharmacology, anti-aging therapies, neural interfaces, advanced information management tools, memory enhancing drugs, wearable computers, and cognitive techniques."

One of the hallmarks of transhumanism is "singularity" [celebrating and further augmenting the absolute and untrammeled freedom of unique individuals] and also "extended life" [i.e. gee, wouldn't it be great if we could live forever?--Nick B. obviously thinks so, and look at his photo on his website--he's such a young lad, and if only he could remain so!].

It goes without saying that Nick B. et al. spend a lot of time calculating all sorts of catastrophic "risk" scenarios for us and our planet, and regularly publish their projections on very eminent science journals such as "Nature" and "Science." Apparently, traditional humanistic knowledges, as far as they are concerned, are not necessary to forumlating the transhuman future, where they will have uploaded themselves after we have perished in the next ice age.

So the question, I think is, do we just laugh at Nick B. and his ilk [and shake our heads at Oxford and even the British government for taking them so seriously], and fume a little at the "third culture" scientists over at Edge who have supposedly appropriated our humanistic discourses because they feel they are better suited than we are to address the "big" philosophical questions, and do we also kind of cluck sadly yet shrug our shoulder's at Al Gore's doomsday projections regarding global warming, OR, do we ask ourslves, *especially* in light of recent conversations on this blog: if, in about 50 or so years, this planet entered a phase of global catastrophe, with 50 or so million persons displaced by rising ocean tides, but probably enough time to live out our own lives before the real "real end," what kind of humanistic work do we want to do? What would be best? What would be most virtuous? Most sane? Most useful? Why is it uncool not to take these questions more seriously? What if you can't preserve the future--how might you preserve the past, anyway? Food for thought.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks for the advice and kind words folks. Per taking in more material, I will, I will: but the main thing, at this point, is just to get to the end of it first, which means an editorial process with and against the 200 or so more pages I have that are, by and large, garbage, to arrive, somehow, at the 100 more pages I need to get through this professional hoop. That means the Exemplaria article won't be fantastic, but first articles can be about testing the water, can't they?? So! The diss. will be okay; hope the book will be very good, and if it is, I can thank EJ for the q's and EB for the bibliography. I'll work in what I can when I can.

And thanks EJ for directing me to the Hedgehog Review. I read some pieces in the transhumanism issue (& have you seen this? Seems this requires a response re: your most recent post), but their body issue, the one that I could use!, can't be had for anything.


Now, I think it might come down to this mawkish scenario, which is, in part, a response to this question: is this suspension to be permanent (i.e., ongoing) or is it strategic?:

There's a cow. There's a human baby; or, hell, an adult. There's a gun. And there's me. I must shoot one. Is there any decision I could make here that would be ethical? No, I think.

Of course, this zero sum scenario might just be a varient of the conservative's favorite fantasy, the terrorist who must be tortured to reveal the location of the bomb 20 minutes before it goes off. In other words, laughable on its face.


That said, I'm dubious about building an ethics around the unique capacities of humans (or, better, 'the human,' i.e., the species granted subjectivity, reason, the soul, discursive and historical productivity, etc.) precisely because such an ethics characterizes our umwelt--our subjective, biologically determined universe--as something more than merely unwelt while relegating the umwelts of other creatures to being merely unwelts. On what basis can we elevate humans so? On what basis can we declare that turtles don't dream as well as we do? This doesn't seem sufficient to me:

We have a mind, for example, that enables us to contemplate not only our own "inner lives," as it were, but also the "inner lives" of everything else. Karl's dissertation is a brilliant example of this, for while he may contemplate the life/selfhood of the baboon, the baboon will not write a dissertation on Karl.

So the baboon lacks access to the means of production, or at least any means of production that we recognize as such. For that reason, and because we imagine we, to borrow some Derrida, can see and not be seen by the baboon, we exclude baboons from the community of creatures to which we owe rights. Because such logics of exclusion are so readily exportable to relations between humans (although this can't be the only reason), I'm dubious of drawing the lines of ethics here, as, to say it again, it just looks like provincialism, i.e., based around proximity to an idealized human.

That said, as you say EJ, humans do seem to be able to do things for others in ways that other species cannot. That "being for" others that we must not cease to realize as others seems to me the roots of developing a truly posthuman ethics. To speak a little out of my pay-scale, am I suggesting that we just kick Levinas a little further....?

EJ, Strikes me that your discussion of post (trans?) humanism should be front-paged out of the comments....

Karl Steel said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Karl Steel said...

Once more with the necessary information:

Oh, Emile. I have an electronic Man a Machine, via Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (which allows only 50-page downloads at a time so the book has to be in 2 files). If you don't have access to this db, email me (bleet54 AT yahoo), and I'll make my copy available to you (i.e., I'll upload it to my website and send you a link).

If you happen to have software that can join pdfs together, you could reciprocate by joining the 2 pdfs and making that file available to me.

The Bulwer's easier to get. Go to EEBO, search 'dissection' under title keywords, and it'll be item 8. It took a little doing to figure that mofo out.

Anonymous said...

Aha...Found the Pathomyotamia. Search under author keyword "Bulwer" and nada, but follow your path, and voila. Thanks, Karl.

And, I now have me a La Mettrie!

This will prove to be a good day.

Anonymous said...


yes, I read the Zizek essay on "biogenetic intervention" when it first appeared in the LRB, but I always take Zizek with a little bit of salt, since he has such a bombastic style [and often changes his mind], but he does raise certain ideas there that trouble me, such as the "hope" that biogenetic technologies will "emancipate" us "mere humans" from our supposedly fleshy "finite limitations" [such also is the hope expressed, somewhat differently, in JJC's chapter "Chevalerie" in his book "Medieval Identity Machines," but through the route of Deleuze's "inhuman circuits"]. Most terrifying of all to me--a person who believes her identity is fully rooted in and can only be enacted with her body/phsyiology--is Zizek's idea that our "true" subjectivity will only emerge after we have traversed the "phantasmal stuff" of which our ego is made [our bodies? . . .]. Beginning with Plato, then Genesis, then Augustine, and all the way through Western & continental philosophy, the body has always been shunned or considered only a "temporary" and always-corruptible residence. Whether through religion or biotechnology or ascension to the Platonic One, it has been very "human" to want to escape ourselves, or the physical "container" we feel we have been accidentally trapped within. This seems to me the wrong route, and even, on certain days, makes all of Western philosophy to me appear to be completely on the wrong path. Our consciousness, however we want to define that, is *embodied* and arises, to a great extent, in the ways in which we move in and out of physical spaces, encounter other physical objects [biological and otherwise], etc. And thinking can never be dispassionate, or unemotional. We cannot "think" outside of our own skin, period, no matter what Hans Moravec [author of "Mind Children" and head of robotics at Carnegie Mellon] and others believe about the possibilities of uploading our minds elsewhere. Perhaps, like all species, we have an evolutionary glitch, such that something else will supersede us [evolve beyond us], or we'll simply destroy ourselves or *be* destroyed by a supreme act of accidental, universal chaos. In the meantime, I want to live in my always-decaying, imperfect body, outside of which I cannot fathom a relationship to others or to this world in which I live.

And Karl, as to your argument that we should not assume that turtles cannot dream, and your conviction that you do not want an ethics that previleges the category "human"--hear, hear. I agree, but I also want an acknowledgement that *all* species--whether ant, human, naked mole rate, whatever--are unique, and possess unique characteristics that are *disposed* to particular abilities that raise the question--what best to do with these unique capabilities? And I think human beings are possessed of some very powerful mind/body capabilities that place upon us a very heavy ethical burden as regards all other living species and the planet itself. But perhaps, in the end, we're still just a blip in some kind of randomly accelerating-while-also-decelerating life force called a universe.

[Also, Karl, I possess *all* back issues of "The Hedgehog Review" and when I am back in St. Louis, first week of August or so, I will be happy to scan "The Body and Being Human" issue and send it to you as a .pdf file, if you like].

Anonymous said...

Naked mole rats.

And so we find ourselves up against Morris's Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control, do we not?

This may be the filmic document of the last decade that best encapsulates our discussions over the last month.

There's something here, I intuit.

Karl Steel said...

This has been so much fun! I want to leap in quickly and write more tomorrow if I have time, but, first, I want to:

a) second EJ's reading of that Zizek (some of which, I discovered today, he repeats in Welcome to the Desert of the Real). I'm against sacrificing ourselves to so-called 'natural' limitations (see Marcuse's 'Ideology of Death,' which remains such an eye-opener for me), but I hope for an end to death, not an escape from the body. Per the Hedgehog Review that treated transhumanism (thankfully available to be read online), I'm convinced that humans are creatures of body and of community (which indeed mainstream medieval Xians believed! They tamed body and spirit rather than denying it, and they imagined a community of purified bodies in heaven). This communitarian/corporeal human is a fact on which the transhumanist/libertarian dream (mocked so nicely at blogs like Sadly No!) runs aground.* Thank goodness.

b) thank you EJ for offering to scan the Hedgehog Review for me. Given that my fancypants library doesn't have the review but that NYU does, I was thinking of schlepping my scanner to NYU tomorrow and making my own pdf!

* Although the idea of thought/person being only information suggests that this information could be exchanged/swapped, which does provide the possibility for the realization of the dream of totaly presence to the other and vice versa. Which is on the one hand alarming and on the other horrifying. Maybe there's some good to be had in it.


Ethical questions will have to wait.


Emile, that, or Robocop (if we push it back to the late 80s). But, yeah, the mole rats do seem to get at something new.


Any of you read Simon Glendinning's Being With Others? I read about 15 pages and found it so useful that I (stupidly?) ordered a copy. It might be elementary for y'all, but probably not for me.

Karl Steel said...

I was thinking of schlepping my scanner to NYU tomorrow and making my own pdf!

Er. In other words, I think I'm going to make the pdf myself. Which I can share with you to save you the trouble if you want to pass it on to anyone else.