A Seminar on Humanity

For my intro to feminist philosophy course, I am reading Louise Antony’s essay, “Natures and Norms,” which is her engagement with Martha Nussbaum’s defense of an internalist account of human nature.  As a pragmatist poststructuralist and a reader of Arendt, I find the endeavor to ground human dignity in some essence curious and mistaken.  But I see the appeal.  Without some kind of fixed nature, some might call for such radical relativism as to say that others don’t feel pain the way we do and so we can let them live their lives in squalor.  Well, that’s Antony’s and Nussbaum’s worry, but I think it’s overblown. Surely there are many alternatives in between.

To me the obvious alternative to searching for human nature or abandoning the notion of human altogether is thinking of being human as a project, something we might achieve under the right conditions: clean water and good food, communities that sustain us, immersion in a language that helps us think, opportunities to choose a life and make a difference, recognition from others, and more. Given such conditions we might become what we recognize to be human, which is itself an idea and phenomenon that has emerged over thousands of years of development.  Absent such conditions we’d be the feral child who cannot interact meaningfully with others.

Okay, there’s a lot more to it than this.  But this has got me thinking that it would be great to draw up a syllabus for a senior seminar or graduate seminar on “humanity.”  What texts would we include?  Surely, Aristotle’s the Nicomachean Ethics, Kant’s Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Arendt’s The Human Condition.  What else? What texts would you add?

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.

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