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Posts Tagged ‘philosophical anthropology’

I stole the title of my previous post from Fergus Kerr’s book Immortal Longings: Versions of Transcending Humanity. It’s a collection of essays about twentieth-century philosophers whose thought, often indirectly, has touched on the human encounter with the transcendent. Kerr is interested in what lies at the very edge of human experience, in those ill-defined questions about origins and meaning and ends that don’t always get asked. It’s the border between philosophy and theology, between reason and faith.

Kerr was a great help to me when I was trying to find a title for my PhD dissertation eleven years ago. I knew I wanted to study in the general area of ‘philosophical anthropology’ – the philosophy of the human person. I had some initial ideas about focussing on the notion of the self and second nature in contemporary philosophers like Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre. But more and more I was drawn to the subject of human freedom, not as a particular capacity or skill, but as a reflection of the extraordinary fact that human nature is open-ended and only incompletely defined; and that some of the defining is – strangely – up to us. We are, to some extent at least, self-creating creatures. The rest, in turns of my academic journey, is history. Or more simply, the rest is Aquinas and Sartre

Here is the publisher’s blurb about Kerr’s book.

Daringly extending the agenda of what is usually considered as ‘philosophy of religion,’ Fergus Kerr argues that more religion exists in modern secular philosophy than many philosophers admit.

Examining much-discussed contemporary philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum, Martin Heidegger, Iris Murdoch, Luce Irigaray, Stanley Cavell, and Charles Taylor, Kerr reads their respective stories in the light of Karl Barth’s notion that “transcending our humanity only makes us more human than ever.”

In Kerr’s view, transcendence-the “immortal longings” of his title-plays a central role in many of these philosophers’ systems of beliefs.

Kerr’s brilliant and long-awaited study shows that the theological content of modern philosophy deserves much more attention than it has received in the past.

And here are some comments from the review in the International Philosophical Quarterly.

What does one carry away from this learned and engaging book? Many specifics: insights, aperçus, and good readings of Nussbaum, Barth, and the rest. This alone would justify a close reading by anyone interested in philosophy of religion or in the religious elements in philosophy.

But there is more. One of the delights of this book is Kerr’s humane presence in the text. Through the text shines a person in a certain attunement toward these issues: an attunement which we can admire and learn from.

But finally Kerr does more than catalog a set of concerns and exemplify an orientation toward them. He has named, and lifted up for our attention, the philosophical career of the central theme of religion: what lies beyond us humans, and how do we stand with regard to it? The two conflicting intuitions-that we are at once somehow intrinsically tied to it and yet alienated from it, that we know it and yet do not-seem perennially present in human self-understanding.

To Kerr we owe thanks not only for showing us some fascinating patterns of commonality in surprising places but also for disclosing the problematic unity underlying those patterns.

It’s well worth a read.

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We have just begun the second semester at the seminary, and I started teaching a new course entitled ‘philosophical anthropology’. It’s about the nature of the human person – not from the perspective of faith (that comes later), but just from the perspective of philosophy, reason, science, experience, etc.

I start with Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2):

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god – the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!

But then I go on to explain how difficult it is today to justify this classical view that the human being has these unique qualities. The thrust of so much science and philosophy is to prove that there is simply a sliding scale of natural skills, and that the differences between human beings and other animals are differences of degree and not of kind.

Dolphins in the Red Sea by Tom Weilenmann.

As an example of this type of thinking I brought out an article by Jonathan Leake and Georgia Warren from the Sunday Times from a couple of weeks ago, giving evidence of human-like traits in the animal kingdom. Here are some quotes:

In the past few years researchers have been finding similar examples of sentience and self-awareness across the animal kingdom in species ranging from elephants and dolphins to crows and parrots. Even sheep, cows and pigs appear to be far more self-aware and to lead more emotionally charged lives than we have previously understood.

It means that humans, used to regarding ourselves as unique in our ability to think and feel, are not so special. Increasingly scientists believe we are merely at the top of a spectrum of intelligence across the animal kingdom, rather than standing apart from it. We may be better at thinking and more able to articulate our feelings — but animals can do all the same things…

Last year that was topped by Alex Kacelnik, a professor of behavioural ecology at Oxford, who discovered that crows are capable of using multiple tools in complex sequences, the first time such behaviour had been observed in non-humans. In an experiment seven crows successfully reeled in a piece of food placed out of reach using three different lengths of stick.

Crucially, they were able to complete the task without any special training, suggesting the birds were capable of a level of abstract reasoning and creativity normally associated only with humans.

Last week it emerged that researchers from Padua University in Italy had found that birds were able to read numbers from left to right, as humans do, and count to four even when the line of numbers was moved from vertical to horizontal. They also showed that birds performed better in tests after a good night’s sleep.

All this is powerful evidence against the idea that people are unique and, some argue, also undermines the idea that humans should have “dominion” over animals, as the Bible puts it.

This has traditionally been the justification for the exploitation and abuse of animals in many different ways, the most emotive of which is animal experimentation, particularly involving primates…

Such ideas suggest that the cognitive abilities of animals and humans lie on a spectrum. The skills of humans may be at the top end but they are no different in kind from those of many animal species.

Thomas White, professor of ethics at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, believes that some animals are bright enough to merit human rights. He suggests that hunting dolphins or capturing them for aquariums is “roughly the same thing whites were doing to blacks 200 years ago in the slave trade”.

This is the question of whether there are non-human persons. 

So I have the next eleven weeks to explain how much of this is true, but that there are still some unique qualities about human reason, freedom and moral conscience that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.

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