The Epistemology of the In/Human
The aim of the project The Epistemology of the In/Human is to take an epistemological perspective on the historical and contemporary negations of the concept of the human, in particular with respect to the phenomenon of dehumanization.
Dehumanization – that some people are regarded, depicted and treated as not human or less human – has often been taken to account (in part at least) for the inhuman - discrimination, inequality, hate, violence and atrocities.
At issue in the project is mainly how knowledge about 'being in/human' is established in social cognition, how 'being in/human' should be studied in contemporary human and social sciences, and which future the category of the human should have in philosophy, our social interactions and our technological developments, vis-à-vis similar fundamental categories such as the category of the person or individual on the one hand, and the standard contrasts on the other hand, namely the categories of the animal and of the machine.
Central questions are: What are the epistemic and ontological assumptions that enter how we think about humans? How can one make sense of dehumanization across disciplinary boundaries of the humanities, the social sciences and technological fields? Is the epistemological status of dehumanization explanatory or only descriptive? How do we include and exclude people (and animals or machines) from the diversity of social categories used in social interaction? Is essentialism grounding dehumanization? What is (if there is) the justification to deny full human status to some people, animals and machines? How have the boundaries of humanity shifted in the past and how will they shift in the future? Which role do the animal/human and the machine/human divide play in our social ontology? How is the category of the human connected to hierarchies in societies? How does dehumanization connect to the explanation and prevention of violence, prejudice and discrimination? What does research on dehumanization tell us about the entanglements between science and society?
The overall aim is to openly develop pioneering philosophical ideas via an intellectually rigorous but open interdisciplinary process and to contribute to the understanding and dissolution of key social problems that relate to the inhuman, some of them urgent (e.g., the representation and treatment of refugees), others perennial (e.g., animal ethics; disability ethics; ethics of killing), still others emerging (e.g. roboethics).
The project uses an embedded and reflective historical and philosophical methodology. On the one hand, the project aims at a substantive scholarly contribution to understanding dehumanization by using an embedded historical and philosophical approach towards the social sciences, humanities and technological research. Such an approach is oriented at problems that scientists and scholars studying a specific phenomenon themselves have (e.g. in social psychology, robotics, literary studies, nationalism studies, gender studies, animal studies, etc.) without losing its philosophical core. Therefore, close collaboration with the scientists and scholars concerned is integral to such an approach. With respect to its philosophical core, the project aims at a unique and rather reflective contribution to genuinely philosophical issues related to dehumanization. That reflective part of the project concerns epistemological and ontological issues, in particular a philosophical reflection on the values, purposes, methods and standards in the respective scientific fields. Even though these issues are highly releveant for practicing scientists and scholars, the latter usually do not work on these issues directly, except if they are active in methodological discussions. Since both parts, the more embedded and the more reflective part, are critical in spirit, the overall aim is – in a nutshell – to take a critical epistemological stance on dehumanization and the inhuman, the negations of the human in sciences and societies. So far it included an interdisciplinary and international conference on Dehumanization: New approaches to the politics of human nature (April 2016), a smaller philosophical Workshop on Dehumanization (Jan 2017), and further events.
In 2021, we will have a workshop on Dehumanization and Narrative Empathy in Literary Theory and Philosophy, co-organized with Andrea Timár, Senior Core Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies at CEU, Budapest.
In cooperation with the artist Lukas Einsele and the Group Kultur einer Digitalstadt e.V, we realized in 2020 the philosophical-artistic project Hiding Faces, studying and visualizing together the cultural, social and philosophical meanings of faces, in order to understand how contemporary technological and social challenges affect our ways of being human. The Covid-19 siutation showed us how hard it is to 'go digital' when faces are at issue and at the same time how important it is to reflect on the importance of faces.
As part of the project, a Routledge Handbook on Dehumanization will soon be published (expected for fall 2020/early 2021), featuring articles from leading experts on dehumanization, from a diversity of social science and humanities disciplines.
The handbook aims to solidify the progress that has been made in understanding dehumanization since social psychologists like Herbert C. Kelman took up the topic in the 1970s from philosophers such as Hannah Arendt, following her in the aim to understand dehumanization as an important factor in explaining atrocities such as the Holocaust. Much has been written on dehumanization ever since, be it in philosophy, political sciences, legal studies, criminology, media studies, history, Holocaust studies, gender studies, racism studies, disability studies, or literary studies, etc. It is time to synthesize and synergize the interdisciplinary discussion. More on that soon here ... (around mid-August; if you need some information on the content earlier, please drop Maria Kronfeldner a line).
Two Fully Funded Interdisiciplinary PhD Fellowships in the thematic area "Understanding Humanity". See here. (Call now closed).
- Workshop (postponed to 2021) on Dehumanization and Narrative Empathy, co-organized with Andrea Timár, Senior Core Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies at CEU, Budapest.
- Interdisciplinary Session on Dehumanization and Biology (09 Jul 2019), Conference of the International Society for History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB), Oslo.
- Symposium on Dehumanization and Human nature (24 Sep 2017), XXIV. Congress of the Dt. Gesellschaft für Philosophie (DGPhil), Berlin.
- Workshop on dehumanization (31 Jan 2017) focused on philosophical issues. See event page for details.
- Dehumanization Conference (6-8 Apr 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. See event page for details.
Lecture series 2017
- Rebekka Hufendiek (Basel): The Essentialist Fallacy: Critical Theory and Naturalism.
- David Ludwig (Amsterdam): Why Race is Still Socially Constructed.
- Eszter Timár (Budapest): Celebrating Biodeconstruction.
- Magdalena Smieszek (CEU): The Categorized and the Categorical Human in Human Rights.
- Thomas Brudholm (Copenhagen): Dehumanization as Monstrification.
- Marianna Szczygielska and Zsuzsanna Varga (Budapest): Between Science and Show: Human Zoos in the 19th and 20th Centuries.
- Silvia Sebastiani (Paris): Humanization and Dehumanization within Enlightenment Debates: An Attempt to Contextualizing the Ape/Human Divide.
Lecture series 2016
- 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.
Podcasts/Videos related to the project can be found at our Youtube-Channel.
- Slam poetry by Peter Molnar (as part of the 2016 Conference). Watch it here.
- Podcast "How we are Human" (discussion of 2017 ToPHSS course lecturer and participants, directed and compiled by Magdalena Smieszek). Listen to it here.
Interviews with PI Maria Kronfeldner:
- Can we get rid of dehumanization? Interviewer L. Köszeghy, Élet és Irodalom (vol. LXIII/30), Jul 26,2019.
- Relativism and Racism. Interviewer J. Steizinger, The Emergence of Relativism Blog, Jan 2017.
Recently finished research and teaching activities include:
- A 2018 and 2019 fall term seminar on "Critical perspectives on human nature", as part of which students followed their own research interests regarding human nature, prominent among these: dehumanization.
- A pre-study for a project "Mapping dehumanization studies", as part of a new and more focused project under the title "The Epistemology of the In/human". We analyzed the publications available on dehumanization quantitatively (using digital humanities tools). The aim was to map the history and contemporary interconnections of research on dehumanization. (Involved: Perica Jovchevski, research assistant; Maria Kronfeldner, principal investigator).
- A 2017 winter term ToPHSS Seminar, with a series of lectures and a workshop.
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'
History of the project
The project is a successor project of the Humanities Initative funded project on "Topics in the Philosophy of the Human and Social Sciences" (ToPHSS). The focus of that project was on whether there is really something – in addition to a label such as ‘the human’ – that unites academic concerns regarding humans. Thus, at issue was 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. Below are a few lines of research that has been pursued as part of that.
For instance, 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, that are not only of scholarly importance, but also of utmost social and political importance, in the case of aggression also because it is supposed to help explain the inhuman in us.
Second, ideas such as humanity, human nature and human kinds (a term I. Hacking introduced, refering to kinds within humanity and with a history, e.g. ‘homosexuals’) are defining for the social sciences and humanities, even if often implicitly assumed, i.e. not explicilty discussed. The same holds for what we might call constructed kinds, those things that are made by humans (e.g., artifacts). 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? In reply, classificatory and explanatory looping effects have been studied as part of that focus of the project.
Third, specific fundamental categories such as human nature, individual or person have 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.
Finally, leading to the current focus of the project, 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 has resulted in the book "What's left of human nature? A post-essentialist, pluralist and dialectic account of a contested concept" (Kronfeldner 2018). See here for a synopsis.
As mentioned, in the next years, the focus will be on the phenomenon of dehumanization itself, as it has been already in some of the events since 2016.
To reach out to other disciplines, to arts, to the public and to politics, requires much cooperation. 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 the interactions and cooperations regarding this project. I also want thank my colleagues Laszlo Kontler (CEU, history) and Andrea Timar (ELTE, literary studies) for the collaboration.
Further cooperations are planned, at the local and international level.