Thursday, November 3, 2011

On Human Exceptionalism and Ethical Abstractions

(I am still interested in feedback about this job market question)

Alex Reid has a post up about human exceptionalism and the environment. So, that has prompted me to write some things about human exceptionalism, some of which directly responds to his points, some of which has nothing to do with what he wrote.

One of the reasons that I always find human exceptionalism problematic is that most people seem to skip the hard work of philosophical anthropology. Or to put it another way, most people take the human as given, without doing the conceptual work to draw a dividing line between all the variations of humanity on one side, and all manifestations of life on the other side. There is a sort of almost Supreme Court on obscenity feel to such discussions: we know humans when we see them. Of course, our track record of knowing humans is actually pretty bad. Slavery, sexism, colonialism and coloniality, racism, our treatment of the mentally disabled, peasantry and poor, the mad, physically disabled, and more and more. You get the picture, right? It was not uncommon in the histories of coloniality, for example, to believe that the languages of the colonized were not full languages, but existed somewhere between animal languages and full, human languages. Indeed, those colonized peoples were not seen as full people. As little back as the 1950s, it was fairly common to talk and think about people with autism as being not fully human, of not being capable of language, thought, and humanity. We have to have a certain level of hubris to believe that we have finally understood who are humans and who are not, when quite frankly this question of humanness is both old and recent. It haunts the boundaries of every project of philosophical anthropology, it haunts the boundaries of every claim of human exceptionalism.

To counter one example from Alex Reid, he writes:
Humans are unique (apologies to ET) in their symbolic behaviors, in our particular cognitive capacities and uses of technology, etc., etc
I mean, both yes and no, right? Most attempts to create a clear dividing line between human animals and other animals tend to fall into one of two categories. The first is to claim some trait and say only humans have it, when other animals clearly have it--like claiming only humans have self-consciousness. The second way is to claim some action that exists only for some humans as if it defines humanity--like saying that other animals may have language, but only humans have poetry. We know there are animals that use a great deal of symbolic behaviors (Great Apes, elephants, certain birds, etc), and we know that there are many animals that make tools, even some that make tools to make tools. Of course, we don't know if there are any animal poets, and I don't think there are any animal inventors of complex machines. Of course, most people aren't poets, and I have never invented or made a complex machine. There are certainly expressions of certain traits that seem to be found only in humans, but not for all of humanity. On the other hand, there are all sorts of traits that can be found within animals (tool-use, symbol use and language, mourning, getting high to relieve boredom, friendship, painting, sexual taboos, etc etc). To give an example from Reid's field, George Kennedy, in "A Hoot in the Dark", argues that rhetoric precedes the human (h/t Jim Brown). This is the shores that the projects of philosophical anthropology crash upon: Either characteristics include too many, or not enough. Which makes sense, because as Reid points out:
However not unique in a way that our development cannot be understood as part of the development of the rest of the world. No doubt, for a long time we had a belief (and most humans still believe) that human exceptionalism was not part of the life world but granted by an external divine force.
Evolution is a blind system of forces and relations. It tends to work by repeating adaptive strategies. To believe in evolution as opposed to divine intervention, is to believe that there is a chance that nothing about humans, as such, that does exist in the expressions and manifestations, to some degree, in other species. There is a possibility that we are hopelessly non-unique. Humanity is an abstraction. Abstraction here used in the sense that Pierce, Whitehead, and Deleuze all (differently) use the term. And because humanity is not given, but abstracted, it means that the political and ethical questions of relations are based upon such abstractions. How we attend and care for our abstractions will necessitate different forms of relations. This is probably a good way of thinking through Jane Bennett's claim about necessary anthropomorphism. For a long time (and still is in many places) the way people knew you were purely constructing your abstractions is that they suffered from anthropomorphism--they discovered within non-human categories traits that only belonged to humans. Bennett argues that thinking certain types of relations will require anthropomorphism. And I agree. But I agree, partially, that it will be necessary as a corrective of what primatologist Frans de Waal calls anthropodenial. Anthropodenial is when we refuse to characterize expressions of non-humans by what they are, because they are characteristics we have tautologically assigned to only humans. If we say, for example, that apes do not engage in prostitution because prostitution is an uniquely human activity, that would be anthropodenial. While we have long been wary of abstractions that engaged in anthropomorphism, we are almost never worried about abstractions that engage in anthropodenial. It seems you can never go far enough in your claims about human exceptionalism, you can never been seen as absurd for assuming there are activities and thoughts that belong uniquely to humanity. Anthropomorphism is necessary to counter our millennia long history of anthropodenial.

I want to end, however, with the challenge that Reid ends his post with:
What would a non-humanocentric humanities look like? What would it mean to read literature or examine rhetoric or study philsophy or history or whatever without this exceptionalist view of humans? These are the kinds of changes that Bennett suggests for environmentalism, so perhaps they are not as modest as I suggested at the outset.
Back when we had the group blog of The Inhumanities going on, that was part of the desire. The desire, also, of Cary Wolfe's posthumanism and posthumanities. It is certainly important to note that the humanities, originally and historically, were very much about the domination of a certain expression of the human against other groups that we also consider human. The humanities, of course, have often lead the charge against such colonial impulses, as well. I have high hopes for a posthumanities or an inhumanities. This is also to say, quite simply, that I think the humanities are often great ways of changing our abstractions. Whitehead contented that "You cannot think without abstractions; accordingly it is of the utmost importance to be vigilant in critically revising your modes of abstraction" (Science and the Modern World, p.73). Time for a revision. One after the abstraction of human exceptionalism.