Trapped in our humanity?

January 13, 2012

Being human, can I think nonhuman thoughts? Can the world I perceive be anything but a human world?

These philosophical questions arise when I read Cora Diamond’s and Bernard Williams’ humanistic portrayals of our relations to animals.

A certain form of “human self-centeredness” is often deemed unavoidable in philosophy. If I talk about a dog as being nervous, for example, I use language. But since this language is my language, and I am human, the dog’s “nervousness” would seem to have its ultimate reference point in my humanity.

When I try these thoughts, they make it look as if we, in some almost occult sense, were trapped in our humanity. The more we reach out toward other bodily beings, the more entrenched we become in our own spirituality. Language may open up an entire world for us. But since language is human, it makes us a solipsistic being that cannot but experience a fundamentally human world.

Believing in an “ineliminable white or male understanding of the world” would be prejudiced, Williams writes. But our humanity cannot, of course, be eliminated as if it were an old prejudice. Therefore: “A concern for nonhuman animals is indeed a proper part of human life, but we can acquire it, cultivate it, and teach it only in terms of our understanding of ourselves.”

Similar thoughts appear in Diamond’s notion that the kind of moral response to animals that can motivate vegetarianism (such as her own) is an “extension to animals of modes of thinking characteristic of our responses to human beings.”

Perhaps I misunderstand them. But the idea seems to be that we become human primarily with other humans, and only thereafter relate to a “nonhuman” world on the basis of the more primordial human one. Humanism, in such philosophical form, could be called: the idea of “humanistic immanence.”

What is valuable in the idea of humanistic immanence is what it has in common with all good philosophy: the self-critical occupation with our own thinking. What I find more questionable is what appears to be an unfounded assumption: that we become human primarily with other humans (a purification of what is human).

One does not have to be a “post-humanist” to make the following observation:

  • “… in the lives of many people animals occupy a place which is, in certain respects, as central as that occupied by other human beings. In particular, certain animals have a quite fundamental place in the lives of many young children; and a child’s use of the words ‘pain’, ‘fear’ and so on may be acquired as immediately in connection with the pet cat as in connection with human beings.” (David Cockburn)

Consider, in the light of this observation, Diamond’s important idea that, “we learn what a human being is in – among other ways – sitting at a table where WE eat THEM.” Take this notion of human becoming to ape language research, where apes and humans meet daily over food and have conversations that may concern such matters as what to eat, who eats what, and who eats with whom.

What happens when humans share food with apes, sitting down on the ground rather than around a dinner table? What happens to our “humanity” and to their “animality”? What happens to us as men and women when apes communicate attitudes to how humans of different sex and age should behave? What happens to our moral understanding when apes view some visitors as bad and urge their human friends to bite them?

My (human) notion of nervousness may in part have developed through interaction with our sensitive Great Dane when I was a child. What I learned through these interactions may only thereafter have been extended to human nervousness.

I am human and so is my language. But the manner in which I became human (and acquired language) transcends, I want to say, the purified human sphere of “humanistic immanence.”

My ineliminable humanity already is more than human. What are the consequences for philosophy?

Pär Segerdahl

The Ethics Blog - Thinking about thinking


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