Over at Critical Animal, James has a very nice post up critiquing human exceptionalism. Here’s a taste:
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.
There’s a lot more, so read the rest here. What James outline– and Alex Reid, to whom James is responding, has a great post up on the issue as well –is something that drives me up the wall about the discipline of philosophy. Not only do we begin from the default position of the subject and the object as if it’s self-evident as to what constitutes a subject, but philosophers seem to have a jaw dropping degree of ignorance when it comes to talking about these issues. Too many in our profession believe that we can just jump into discussion making all sorts of claims about humans without bothering to acquaint ourselves with various ethnographic studies, psychology, the lives and worlds of the disabled (at least read Temple Grandin folks), various histories of everyday life, and so on. In chapter 3 of Difference and Repetition Deleuze remarks that we always speak poorly when we say “we”. It is precisely this sort of issue he’s getting at. We make all sorts of generalizations and assumptions about what human nature is that are little more than repetitions of our own cultural and historical assumptions based on life in this historical moment. How can we even begin to properly pose ethical, political, and cognitive questions without having a rich background knowledge of these things? What makes someone like Jerry Fodor– not to mention socio- and psychobiologists –think that he can simply outline his modular theory of mind or the nature of human kinship structures without looking at the various ways in which people have lived and thought? There’s much more in James and Alex’s posts so be sure to check them out.