Response to 1.6: On preserving aspects of humanism (Arthur Whitman)

I emphatically share the skepticism expressed by other panelists here regarding the Cartesian and other related dualisms. And yes, certainly, the notion of human selves as radically autonomous and primarily rational is one that I think has seen better days. We are embodied, embedded creatures and our capacities for abstract and deliberative thought are rooted in those for perception and affect. So if that's what "humanism" is, please sign me up as one of its enemies.

That said--and at the risk of appearing unfashionable--I think it's worth holding on to some idea of a distinctive human nature, that is, of some form of "uniqueness." All species are unique to some extent and I think that it's best to see our similarities and differences vis a vis other animals as two sides of the same coin.

It's certainly true that other animal species have tools and artifacts and can be thought of as engaging in aesthetic or even artistic activity. I would venture that there's something meaningfully distinctive about the complexity and potential range of human symbolic culture. For better and/or for worse, we have the capacity to extend our cognitive and practical abilities in continuously novel and cumulative ways--something other creatures don't seem to do. I think it is important to reckon with that and if accusations like "human exceptionalism" get thrown around too casually, they may not help with this needed reckoning.

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