International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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TUESDAY, JULY 7  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-R525
Organized session / standard talks
Dehumanization (1): New approaches to understanding the politics of human nature

Maria Kronfeldner (Central European University, Hungary); Robert A. Wilson (University of Alberta, Canada)

Debates about human nature in the biological and social sciences as well as in philosophy of science typically consist of a positive proposal of some kind and critical responses to that proposal. Although political considerations often enter into both sides of such debates, there is a sense in which such considerations are secondary. In this double session, we adopt a different approach, drawing on and contributing to the emerging field of dehumanization studies. This approach places the less-than-fully human in the spotlight. On the basis of recent empirical findings on dehumanization, we will discuss how dehumanization, essentialism, eugenics and disability hang together. After a short introduction by Maria Kronfeldner and Rob Wilson, we will discuss in the first session: (i) different ways of being an essentialist and the consequences of these different essentialisms for the politics of human nature (Ron Amundson); (ii) different kinds of dehumanization processes, some more, some less essentialist (David Livingstone Smith); and (iii) consequences of results from empirical dehumanization studies for philosophical theories of the concept of human nature (Maria Kronfeldner). In the second session, we will apply the results of the first session to specific political concerns, mainly (iv) ability expectation and ableism (Gregor Wolbring), and (v) eugenics and disability (Rob Wilson). The five talks are followed by (vi) a round table discussion. As a whole, the session aims to open up some novel possibilities for historians and philosophers of science in analyzing essentialist thinking by taking up a provocative theme, dehumanization, drawing on recent work from the psychological and social sciences.

The contingency of method, or can essentialism be progressive?

Ron Amundson (University of Hawaii at Hilo, United States)

The methodological or metaphysical policy labeled 'essentialism' has been under serious criticism in recent decades. Much of it is well deserved. This is true when reactionary implications of social or biological theories are derived, not directly from empirical results themselves, but from methodologies that selectively empower the researchers to generalize human characteristics to individuals who are assumed to belong to (essentially defined) groups or classes. Many of the myths of racism, sexism, ableism, and other such ideologies fit this pattern and deserve the disrespect that the critiques of essentialism have given them. Nevertheless, essentialism has been condemned in biological domains other than human social theory, and the implications have been different. Essentialism has been used to label and condemn theories that conflict with mainstream 'Modern Synthesis' evolutionary theory. Many progressive social theorists recognize that mainstream evolutionary theory has been used to support politically conservative doctrines. Relatively few have seen that the anti-essentialism of neodarwinism carries much of the conservative load. Essentialism, as it is labeled by mainstream neodarwinians, should not be seen as a regressive methodological position (although the neodarwinians label it as such) but as a progressive position (notwithstanding the neodarwinian view). Only by recognizing essentialist reasoning can important phenomena like phenotypic plasticity and unity of organic type be properly understood, and these concepts are crucial to a progressive understanding of evolutionary science. In this paper I will first argue that essentialism, under certain conditions, promotes liberatory thought. Secondly, I will try to show the ways in which (anti-Modern Synthesis) essentialism can yield outcomes that are liberatory both for disabled (i.e. non-normal) human beings and for non-human animals.

Metaphysical misfits: Dehumanization reconsidered

David Livingstone Smith (University of New England, United States)

On one account of dehumanization, we dehumanize others by denying that they possess a human essence and attributing a subhuman essence to them. However, several critics of this approach have pointed out that dehumanizers implicitly affirm their victims’ humanity, even while explicitly denying it. This criticism suggests that the view that dehumanized people are thought to be subhuman animals is either incomplete or false. I propose that dehumanized people are conceived as chimeras possessing both human and sub-human attributes. More specifically, I propose that when we dehumanize others, our mind is pulled in two incompatible directions at once. Because the other appears human, we are inclined to make a similarity-based judgment of humanity. However, in attributing a subhuman essence the other, we categorize them as nonhuman. Dehumanized people are thus felt to belong to two incompatible metaphysical kinds. Because of this, they are felt to be “uncanny” (unheimlich) monsters rather than merely as subhuman animals. Drawing on a range of work by anthropologists, philosophers, and cognitive scientists, I argue that research on monsters, horror, and the uncanny may importantly contribute to our understanding of the phenomenon of dehumanization.

The concept of human nature in light of contemporary dehumanization studies

Maria Kronfeldner (Central European University, Hungary)

Within philosophy of science, the concept of human nature has often been criticized because of its political role in demarcating and stigmatizing certain kinds of people, e.g. women or certain ethnic groups. The critique is usually based on well-known historical cases, such as the Nazi’s dehumanization of Jews and other outgroups, and on textual evidence from the history of science, e.g. Aristotle’s statements on women and slaves. This paper will present evidence on dehumanization as an ubiquitous phenomenon from contemporary social psychology and address what we can learn from it for a philosophical account of the concept of human nature. The claim that will be defended is the following: The evidence from dehumanization seems to entail that the content of the concept of human nature (e.g. that aggression is part of human nature, that altruism is part of human nature, that language is or is not essential for human nature) might well change historically and vary between people and scientific contexts, but without changing its pragmatic political function, namely social demarcation, demarcating in/outgroup, regulating who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’. That means: the function of the concept often stays, even if the content varies. A philosophy of science point of view on the concept of human nature should thus not restrict itself to the content of the concept of human nature as such (since it is a historically changing one anyway). It has to acknowledge the function it plays in the social realm. The aim of this talk is thus – in addition to providing evidence – to develop such a functional account of the concept of human nature in light of contemporary dehumanization studies.