Sunday, April 15, 2012

My Humanity, My Identity. Part I: The Long Road Ahead

I should probably start this with an apology. First, for writing this instead of working on that exam we have due tonight. Second, for not being as active as I promised I would be in my initial post. I've probably been setting a bad example as Guru. In my defense, I did have two posts written, but all the interesting things I had to say about Metal Gear Solid were preempted by Gattaca, and I think I ranted about the irony of Race Is a Four-Letter Word enough in private. To make up for this, I bring you the first in a long series of posts that touches directly on the questions that guide this course, this blog, and the papers all our Contributing Variants are (read: should be) working on, namely, "What makes me human?" and "What makes me me?"

There should probably be little doubt that everyone answering these questions for a grade here in APG 350 has a unique perspective and a wonderful account of what makes them feel like a participating member in this thing we call the human race. There is also almost certainly little doubt that there is a plethora of materials gathered by scientists of all varieties (biological anthropologists not least among them) that lend themselves to answering or otherwise elucidating possible answers to these questions. But I don't see why we should settle for that.

So here's my suggestion: Let's work toward a good, meaningful answer to these questions. In the best case scenario, we'll reach answers that are not only good and meaningful, but also useful to the way we conceive of ourselves in the world. In the worst case, these questions will be completely unanswerable, though maybe knowing that will also be useful. (More on what we mean by "meaningful" later.)

I won't lie; I really don't like these questions. They've been bugging me for a while now and I doubt I will ever feel comfortable giving any kind of definite answer to them, especially in the context of anthropology. I hope the reasons for this will become obvious following the later parts of this series, but suffice to say, these questions are actually really freaking complicated and, perhaps surprisingly, the more difficult question may be the first one.

Though I'm sure this will come as a surprise to no one, these questions, "What makes me human?" and "What makes me me?", seem to me to be philosophical in nature. This is not to say that the investigation of the various issues involved in answering them belongs to a discipline called "philosophy." What I mean instead is that these questions do not seem answerable simply through gathering and analyzing empirical evidence*, such as how members of Homo sapiens physically differ from other species and how individuals within the species physically differ from one another. Rather there seems to be a metaphysical component to these questions which addresses something at the core of the spirit of the question, namely, "What does it mean to be human?" Because of this, we must also admit an epistemological aspect. If you think of metaphysics being a subject that deals with the question, What is a human?, epistemology is the subject that deals with the question, How do we know what a human is?

*This point is highly controversial and any good empiricist should attack me on these grounds alone. We'll revisit this issue more directly in the next post, however, when we ask exactly what it would take to give a complete answer to these questions.

The goal of this series of posts, then, is to address the following questions: what do we mean when we ask a question like "What makes me human?"; what do we understand to be the components of that question and what are their natures?; what are the limits of taking any single approach to such a question?; is this question answerable in a meaningful way?; what can we learn about issues that have such questions at their core?

And lastly, will I complete this series before everyone stops reading this blog? Stay tuned if you want to find out!

(Oh, and don't worry, this has everything to do with biological anthropology--it will just take some work to get there.)


  1. "(Oh, and don't worry, this has everything to do with biological anthropology--it will just take some work to get there.)" - GOOD! ;)

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