NHC Project and Website: “On the Human”


[Posted by BR]

On the Human banner

First, two epigraphs:

… only of a living human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees; is blind; hears; is deaf; is conscious or unconscious. (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, sec. 281)

In [his Philosophy of Right] Hegel refers to “the right of the subject’s particularity, his right to be satisfied, or in other words the right of subjective freedom,” as “the pivot and center of the difference between antiquity and modern times.” And he continues: “This right in its infinity is given expression in Christianity and it has become the universal effective principle of a new form of civilization.” The rest of history is the working out, the concrete expressions, shapings, of this right (section 124, addition). Then I might put the question “Is there such a thing as soul-blindness?” in the following way: Is this new form of civilization being replaced by another? In particular, is it being replaced by one in which nothing that happens any longer strikes us as the objectification of subjectivity, as the act of an answerable agent, as the expression and satisfaction of human freedom, of human intention and desire? What has a beginning can have an end. If this future (civilization?) were effected its members would not be dissatisfied. They would have lost the concept of satisfaction. Then nothing would (any longer) give them the idea that living beings, human things, could feel. So they would not (any longer) be human. They would not, for example, be frightened upon meeting others — except in the sense, or under circumstances, in which they would be frightened upon encountering bears or storms, circumstances under which bears would be frightened. And of course particular forms of laughter and of amazement would also no longer be possible, ones which depend upon clear breaks between, say, machines and creatures. — Would the vanishing of the human betoken the absolute success of the scientific Weltanschauung? It would betoken the success of the picture of science, of knowledge, as subjugation — not now as that by which the human being subjugates the world, and overcomes superstition and magic, but now as that by which the human being is subjugated. So science falls back, or forward, into magic. (Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason, pp. 467-8)

Conceptual stage-setting done, I want now to let readers of this blog know about a very interesting looking website which I just learned of, called On the Human, which describes itself as “an online community of humanists and scientists dedicated to improving our understanding of persons and the quasi-persons who surround us.” The discussions on this site — by distinguished figures such as Ian Hacking, N. Katherine Hayles, and Paul Rabinow — about the contested (and changing?) meanings of such fundamental concepts as “the human,” “the animal,” and “the machine,” will likely interest many of us who care about ordinary language philosophy and who therefore (I imagine) have a deep investment in (preserving a future for) the (ever fragile, and these days often neglected, often repudiated) concept of the human (here’s another quotation from The Claim of Reason that comes to mind: “I understand ordinary language philosophy not as an effort to reinstate vulgar beliefs, or common sense, to a pre-scientific position of eminence, but to reclaim the human self from its denial and neglect by modern philosophy,” p. 154). The discussions on this NHC-sponsored site about the fate of the human are clearly timely, and my sense is that students of ordinary language philosophy will not only want to know about them, but to participate in them as well.

Here is a video in which Gary Comstock, the chief editor of the site, introduces the site’s contents and goals. And below the video is some text copied from the website’s “About” page.

From the website’s “About” page:

On the Human (OTH) is an online community of humanists and scientists dedicated to improving our understanding of persons and the quasi-persons who surround us. As persons are biological, psychological, historical, moral, and autobiographical beings, contributors employ modes of inquiry from the sciences and humanities. We explore issues in metaphysics and biology, ethics and neuroscience, experimental philosophy and evolutionary psychology. The site consists of five resources:

1. OpenSeminar On the Human (OSOTH) is a collaborative, inter-institutional, open-access, asynchronous undergraduate course. It includes a model syllabus of structured readings and interactive exercises, a suite of alternative approaches, calendar, videos, discussion questions, podcasts and a dedicated Facebook group. All resources are publicly accessible. Students may take it free of charge; it requires about 45 hours. Students who wish to earn 3 credits of distance education from North Carolina State University should send an email to gcomstock@ncsu.edu. Tuition fees apply. Instructors may open, modify, and teach their own section of OSOTH. There are no fees, thanks to our sponsors. Easy to use, cost-effective, and adaptable, the course is designed to serve the needs of those who may lack explicit training in this interdisciplinary area. First-time instructors typically teach one of our syllabi. Experienced teachers design their own courses by adding readings, changing the order of topics, modifying links. Each instructor’s syllabus becomes publicly available, creating synergistic benefits each time a new section is opened.

2. Teaching Resources gathers pedagogical strategies, links, and suggestions for success in the classroom.  “How-to” papers reflect on the experiences of instructors who are alums of the National Humanities Center’s Human Nature seminars.  We invite viewers to send us links to strengthen our bibliography.

3. The Forum is an interactive site providing free and open access to leading experts on these issues. You will find three separate rooms in the Forum: one each dedicated to the interpretation and explanation of human life; animal life; and machine-based virtual life.

4. In the News points to exciting developments in research.  We monitor a diversity of media sources and fields ranging from philosophy to biology, psychology, anthropology, and artificial intelligence, among others.  Links direct viewers to scholarly and popular stories.

5. Guiding Papers provides introductory, orienting essays. Written by members of the OTH community, articles describe authors’ research interests and ways they construe our subjects.


On the Human was created in 2009 to succeed the National Humanities Center’s initiative, Autonomy Singularity Creativity (2006-2009).

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