Topics in the Philosophy of the Humanities and Social Sciences
Topics in the Philosophy of the Humanities and Social Sciences (ToPHSS) aims to cross boundaries between disciplines of the humanities and social sciences concerned with ‘the human’, that is with human beings, humanity, society, culture, history, and more. It focuses on methodological and ontological issues, in particular on those concerned with contested categories of the humanities and social sciences, and of those primarily on the categories of human, individual and person. (Scroll down for details on the topic).
Currently, activities are divided into:
- A pre-study for a project "Mapping dehumanization studies", as part of a new and more focused project with the working title "In/human: Dehumanization in Science and Society". We analyze the publications available on dehumanization quantitatively (using digital humanities tools) and qualitatively. The aim is to map the history and contemporary interconnections of research on dehumanization. (Involved: Perica Jovchevski, research assistant; Maria Kronfeldner, principal investigator).
- A winter term ToPHSS Seminar, with a series of lectures and a workshop. (See upcoming events below).
Upcoming events (all events are open to the public)
We will continue with our series of events - in the framework of the annual ToPHSS seminar (Jan-Mar 2017).
- Jan 24, 1:30-3:10 (N15, 106): Silvia Sebastiani (Paris) - ToPHSS lecture on "Humanization and Dehumanization within Enlightenment Debates: An Attempt to Contextualizing the Ape/Human Divide." AB: What do “orangutans” make to our understanding of Enlightenment “science of man” – considered by historiography as a major contribution to the shaping of human and social sciences? How do they connect with the conceptualization of humankind and to what extent does such a conceptualization interplay with the humanization and/or dehumanization of peoples? My paper deals with the multiples uses to which comparative anatomy was put in different disciplinary frameworks, such as natural and philosophical histories, political as well as legal discourses, and even trials, in eighteenth-century Britain. Within this context, – I’ll argue – the humanization of the “orangutan” went hand in hand with the dehumanization of a part of humankind. Physicians, natural historians, lawyers, judges, merchants or politicians engaged in the slave trade, while reshaping the boundaries between humans and apes, also contributed to increase the distance between the “savage” and the “civilized” peoples: whereas the human/animal divide lowered, the divide between human “races” increased and crystallized. In the our current context in which human and social sciences, as well as politics, have challenged and reconceptualized the human/animal divide, I suggest that a longer chronology - starting with the economic European domination of the global slave trade -, might contribute to a more nuanced and complex understanding of the question.
- Jan 24, 3:30-5:10 (N15, 106): Marianna Szczygielska and Zsuzsanna Varga (Budapest): ToPHSS lecture on "Between Science and Show: Human Zoos in the 19th and 20th Centuries". AB: In this presentation we consider historically specific ways and sites of knowing such as world’s fairs, zoos, circuses and freak shows, which fundamentally structured how visitors made sense of humanness and civilization. These diverse types of exhibit were at the intersection of scientific authority and popular hunger for exoticism, and require an interdisciplinary theoretical approach combining critical race, postcolonial and gender studies. Our focus is on the human zoo, which we present from three analytical perspectives: the idea of progress, the management of space, and the blurred boundary between human and nonhuman. We bring case studies to show how human zoos, often advertised as “native villages,” created “authentic” contexts through gender- and dress-codes played on themes of nudity and wildness. It provided an opportunity for visitors to immerse in ethnographic study in the metropolis, to witness exotic Others, and gave the impression of an unmediated value-free scientific learning. Nevertheless, human zoos shared entertainment value with sideshow attractions, freaks shows, circuses, and other popular forms of display considered vulgar for middle-class tastes. We will introduce the intermingling of science and entertainment in human exhibitions, which lead to questions of how animalization and dehumanization structured ideas of race, gender and class in various forms of exhibiting humans.
- Jan 31, 1:30-5:10 (N15, 106): Workshop on dehumanization, with an Intrdoduction (starting at 1:30) by Maria Kronfeldner and the following speakers: Johannes Steizinger (Vienna) on "Ideological and Psychological Dehumanization: The Case of National Socialism". Starting at 13:50. AB: Dehumanization was at the core of Nazi ideology. National Socialism regarded itself as a political revolution that broke with the humanist tradition and realized a new concept of humanity. This attempt to redefine what it means to be human was accompanied by a radical animalistic dehumanization of certain groups of people. The first part of my talk examines this extreme form of dehumanization and analyses its foundation in a specific political anthropology. The second part raises the question what the significance of dehumanization for Nazi ideology can tell us about the psychology of Nazi perpetrators. Already in 1964, Alex Bein claimed that the image of the “Jewish parasite” belongs to the psychological roots of Shoah. Such views are controversial today. Johannes Lang, for instance, questions the involvement of dehumanization in the reality of Nazi mass murder. I will take up this issue from a methodical point of view and discuss what an account of Nazi ideology can contribute to the knowledge about the psychology of the Shoah. -- Helena Ivanov (Oxford) on "Dehumanization in Genocide". Starting at 14:30. AB: The victims of genocide are not perceived as human. The Jews were regarded as parasites, the Rwandan Tutsis as cockroaches, the Bosnian Muslims as balije (those deemed unable to behave, barbarians), the Armenians as dogs, and the Kurds as cattle. They are stripped of their humanity and individuality - relegated to the category of ‘subhuman’. Because it threatens the idea of integrated multicultural societies (by portraying ‘the other’ as less than human) and the security of human rights (by denying the human status to certain groups within the society), dehumanization stands in opposition with what political theorists perceive to be a just society. In my presentation I aim to do two things. First, I plan to clarify the difference between dehumanization that operates in genocide as opposed to dehumanization in non-violent instances, e.g. sexual objectification of women or inferior treatment of African Americans. Second, I plan to further substantiate this claim by looking into dehumanization of Jews in Nazi Germany, and dehumanization of Bosnian Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, with a particular emphasis on those who lived in Srebrenica. -- Perica Jovchevski (Budapest) on "Alienation as Subtle Dehumanization". Starting at 15:30. AB: Alienation has traditionally been understood as a form of dehumanization, both in its socioeconomic dimension, as a loss of control over one’s labor, as well as in its psychological dimension, as a distancing from one’s authentic self. However, contemporary debates on dehumanization set the phenomena of alienation on the margins of the field. In my talk I will sketch an account of alienation as a subtle form of dehumanization, demonstrating that the theoretical marginalization of this phenomena is unjustified. I start by pointing out the origin and the historical developments of the notion of alienation. I then uncover some of the reasons behind the marginalization of alienation in the contemporary debates on dehumanization. I proceed further with an analysis of two manifestations of alienation in today’s labor relations within organizational environments (the alienating consequences of emotional labor of service agents, the oppressive aspects in “dis-identification” between an occupational and an ‘authentic’ self). I conclude that both manifestations prevent the potential for development of traits of human nature such as emotional responsiveness, individuality and interpersonal warmth. In this respect both phenomena contribute to the development of subtle dehumanization.
- Jan 31, 5:30-7:00 (N15, Auditorium B): Thomas Brudholm (Copenhagen) - ToPHSS lecture on "Dehumanization as Monstrification". AB: How to understand dehumanization, given that it is involved in mass atrocities such as genocide? This talk discusses whether extreme forms of dehumanization can be further specified as monstrification. We are familiar with representations of entire groups as animals, diseases, or insentient things. Such evidence invites the thought that dehumanization is about not seeing the Other as a human being at all. Yet, a closer look at genocidal hate speech and violence invites another, a more complex perspective, according to which dehumanization involves recognizing members of the targeted group at once as not human and human: as rats, blood poisoning, and cargo, but – at the same time – also as evil and malevolent human beings. As Sartre put it, ‘the Jew’, in the imagination of the anti-Semite, is a strange being: free, but free only to will evil. In order to capture this ambivalence in cases of dehumanization similar to anti-semitic dehumanization of Jews, I propose the concept of monstrification.
- Feb 07, 1:30-3:10 (N15, 106) Magdalena Smieszek (CEU) - ToPHSS lecture on "The Categorized and the Categorical Human in Human Rights". AB: The question of what constitutes a human being, being human, humanness or humanity, in all its variations, has been a longstanding feature in academic and public discourse, and particularly in its relation with human rights. The varied answers and perspectives can influence attitudes and social behaviour that are either in line with or in opposition to human rights norms. The lecture will consider the various perspectives from philosophical, biological, theological, sociological and legal sources, and how these categorizations intersect with human rights objectives. Particular consideration will be given to how concepts of equality and dignity are incorporated or omitted in the categorizations, and finally, the necessity for consensus about what is categorically human, in light of the dangers that categorizations can lead to dehumanization and breaching of human rights standards.
- Feb 21, 1:30-3:10 (N15, 106) Rebekka Hufendiek (Basel) - ToPHSS lecture on "The Essentialist Fallacy: Critical Theory and Naturalism." AB: There is a strong tendency in critical theory to criticize naturalist takes on human features for describing them as biologically determined and thereby fixed. It is a central part of the ideological dimension of the nature-nurture debate that describing a feature as a result of nurture or social construction is associated with the features being changeable, and describing features as changeable is associated with progressive positions about what we are and what we could be. In this talk I argue that it is just as wrong to think of biological features as fixed or unchangeable as it is to think of social features as changeable and under our control. I call the identification of biological traits with essential and unchangeable properties the essentialist fallacy. The essentialist fallacy can also occur in reverse form, where social properties are identified with contingent and malleable properties. I argue that the essentialist fallacy owes its seductive power to a long history in critical theory that aims to unveil what seems to us like a natural eternal order as a contingent product of social history that we can change. I suggest that while critical engagement with the ideological implications of scientific or naturalist takes on human features is highly relevant, the (often implicit) assumption should be dropped that there would be any interesting ideological implication in describing a feature as biologically or socially determined per se.
- Feb 28, 1:30-3:10 (N15, 106): David Ludwig (Amsterdam): ToPHSS lecture on "Why Race is Still Socially Constructed". AB: Social constructionism has become a widely endorsed position in contemporary philosophy of race. According to social constructionists, terms such as "white" and "black" refer to real human groups. However, they do not refer to biological populations but rather to social groups that have been created through racist privilege and subordination of people with different skin colors. While social constructionism has become the default position in philosophy of race, the constructionist mainstream has been challenged by both biological realism and antirealism. Biological realists argue that the rejection of racism is compatible with accounts of races as biological populations while antirealists insist that racial categories refer to false racist ideas. The aim of this talk is to evaluate social constructionism in the light of these challenges. I argue that the biological challenge should be rejected. While it is indeed sometimes necessary to talk about human biological variation, the use of racial terminology in biological contexts is both unnecessary and harmful. The antirealist challenge requires a more nuanced response. While social constructionism is preferable in some contexts (e.g. debates about social stratification in American society) antirealism seems more adequate in other contexts (e.g. debates about "Rasse" in Germany).
- Mar 07, 1:30-3:10 (N15, 101): Eszter Timár (Budapest): ToPHSS lecture on "Celebrating Biodeconstruction". AB: Derrida’s work is often seen as overly removed from the world of things, life, and matter. However, arguments on deconstruction’s capacity to capture some foundational logic of life also abound. First I will join the latter group by focusing on the Derridean terms “autoimmunity” (“Faith and Knowledge”), and allergy (“Plato’s Pharmacy”) in order to show that the recent theory of Thomas Pradeu and Clemens von Pirquet’s 1906 coinage of allergy rely on a deconstruction of the immunis performed by Derrida: Pradeu’s understands immunity as a dual activity of destructive inflammation and its regulatory suppression. Pirquet introduced the term allergy in order to suggest a similar duality in immune activity and conceived of allergy as the general organizing principle of immune activity instead of its pathology. However, instead of concluding along the lines of “Derrida is proved right by science””, I want to suggest that the situation is more complicated. Placing Derrida on the side of biology as ontology as a rejoinder to accusations of irrelevance works by stopping short of critiquing the gesture of anointing what we can call live matter with special authenticating value. In order to demonstrate a resistance in Derrida’s work to be simply proven right, I would like to consider what Derrida calls “life in general,” where “natural life is not the whole of life” (Biodegradables)—and thus, the “domain of biology” can be read as part of a more general political thought.
- Dehumanization Conference (6-8 April 2016): The international and interdisciplinary conference "Dehumanization: New approaches to understanding the politics of human nature" brings historians, scientists, philosophers and artists together in order to discuss the phenomenon of dehumanization. The need for such an interdisciplinary setting arises since scientific literature on dehumanization ignores by and large philosophical debates on human nature and essences; at the same time, philosophical literature on the concept of human nature (and the underpinning essentialism) by and large ignores scientific dehumanization studies (even if dehumanization is mentioned as an issue). If the two are brought together, tensions become visible. Both areas rarely consult historical literature on ‘human nature,’ ‘essence’ and actual historical cases of dehumanization in science, society and art. Finally, artists often address the issue in their works and try to rehumanize people through art. See event page for details.
- Julie Zahle (University of Copenhagen): Values in Qualitative Research.
- Heather Douglas (University of Waterloo): Jettisoning the Value-Free Ideal: Why do it and where does it leave us?
- Tatjana Buklijas (Senior Thyssen Fellow, CEU IAS/ University of Auckland): What is at stake in the ‘epigenetic revolution’?
- Mihai Surdu (Senior Fellow, CEU IAS): Whose blood, which genes? Narratives and sampling strategies in Roma-related genetic research.
- Film Screening (as part of the ToPHSS seminar) of "Secrecy"
Several events of the project took place avant la lettre:
- Film screening of 'Fixed – The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement'
- Talk by Robert Wilson on 'Knowing Agency from the Margins'
- Film screening of 'Surviving Eugenics'
Description of topic
In the first years, the focus shall be on whether there is really something – in addition to a label such as ‘the human’ – that unites academic concerns regarding humans. Thus, at issue shall be whether there are shared methodologies or shared ontologies at the foundation of those contemporary academic disciplines concerned with the human, such as history, literary studies, anthropology, sociology, political science, cognitive science, network science, etc.
To ask about these foundations is important since they are contested foundations. Yet, without secure foundations the humanities and social sciences might become quite fragile.
For a long time philosophical discussions about humanities and social sciences have focused on the methodologies of the respective disciplines (e.g., regarding explanation versus understanding). Recently, however, often implicitly made ontological assumptions and the very idea of a shared ontology of the humanities and social sciences has come under attack too.
First, none of the humanities or social sciences is studying the human (or humans) as such. What they study are rather derivative epistemic objects, such as culture, society, literature, etc. This fragmentation of the human in contemporary humanities, social sciences and natural sciences concerned with humans (i.e., biology, cognitive science, etc.) has led some philosophers to proclaim a radical incommensurability of the knowledge produced in these disciplines. The pluralism is about matters, such as aggression and sexuality, that are not only of scholarly importance, but also of utmost social and political importance.
Second, without ideas such as humanity and human kinds (a term Ian Hacking introduced), kinds within humanity and with a history (e.g. ‘homosexuals’), there would not be any social sciences and humanities studying these kinds. The same holds for what we might call constructed kinds, those things that are made by humans (e.g., artifacts such as money). Yet, philosophers still have difficulties in classifying human kinds and constructed kinds ontologically, since, after all, the philosopher asks: are they really real – given their historicity, constructiveness and reflexivity?
Third, specific fundamental categories such as human nature, individual or person have also become contested. Take human nature: there is a consensus in philosophy of science that Darwinism means that there is no human nature, no essence of ‘being human,’ to which disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, cognitive science or even history can refer to as disciplinary primitive, as something not studied but assumed as shared between all humans. However, the variety of disciplines just mentioned – basically all those that want to refer to humans in general – simply are in need of some concept of human nature. Furthermore, the category of the human has a dark side, leading to dehumanization of those conceived as less human. Because of the Darwinian challenge and because of dehumanization, philosophers have suggested that it is better to eliminate the concept of human nature from science and political philosophy. Yet social psychology has collected evidence that the category is so entrenched in our cognitive processes that it is unrealistic to reach elimination. How to resolve these issues is an open question in the field, and the project aims at making steps towards answers that cross disciplinary boundaries.
ToPHSS is one of the initiatives that continue the earlier Human Project.
To reach out to other disciplines, to arts, to the public and to politics, requires much cooperation. Some has started already, mainly locally. Thanks therefore to the Center for Law in Biomedicine (CELAB), the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archive (OSA) and the Center for Arts and Culture (CAC) for joining in for this project and for helping in various ways.