SENIOR SEMINAR: ON BEING HUMAN
2012/2013, Semester 2
University Scholars Programme (University Scholars Programme)
Modular Credits: 4
The Senior Seminar consists of a series of modules, each taught on a specific multidisciplinary and meta-analytical topic. In this particular module, we ask what might be the ultimate question about ourselves, a question about the nature of humanity itself. This question will be raised and considered from many different perspectives, including the biological, the social and the philosophical perspectives. We will consider the relevance of genetics, the sociohistorical developments on issues such as slavery and racism, and the philosophical debates about human nature.
“On Being Human” aims at providing a critical multi-disciplinary study of an issue that has been considered in many different contexts. The module provides students with opportunities to reflect on their own academic discipline and to question the way the issue of being human is approached from within each discipline. Specifically, it aims to show that the question about our humanity is a complex one and cannot be fully understood or appreciated from a single perspective, and that each perspective has its own assumptions and implications. The module will encourage students to assess critically the underlying assumptions and to explore the implications of their discipline’s approach to the question of being human, the reason for their own discipline’s approach and other disciplines’ approaches to the question of being human in terms of their aims and methodologies.
The broad objective of the module is to encourage students to think about a fundamental issue and to consider the implications of various possible approaches to it. Specific objectives include familiarizing the students with some of the literature surrounding the question about humanity and human nature and encouraging them to extend their reflections and make connections with scientific issues such as stem cell research, political issues such as human rights, socio-philosophical issues such as racism and equality and environmental issues such as the impact of human activities on the environment.
Students should be at least in their second year of study, preferably third year.
Weeks 1: Introduction: Habermas’ Thesis
The aim here is to get students to think about the multidimensionality of knowledge, to realize that what counts as truth and knowledge and what mode of inquiry is appropriate depends on what it is that we want to know and why. Students will be encouraged to question the notion that some particular disciplinary approach is privileged over, or superior to, others. [The Habermasian argument is that as long as a particular human interest is legitimate, any disciplinary or intellectual approach that serves such interest is legitimate. Naturally, the assumption that a certain disciplinary approach is best suited to serve a certain human interest, itself willbe challenged.]
Weeks 2-3 Reviewing the Literature
In these two weeks, students get to read, review and discuss a sample of materials that reflects a variety of perspectives and views on being human.
Weeks 4-7 From within one’s academic discipline, or familiar territory
During these four weeks, students will be asked to reflect on the question “What is it to be human?” from within the disciplinary territory that they are familiar with. This is the beginning point of the journey of reflection. For any kind of journey, we have to start from somewhere and the most natural starting point is the “home” point. However, we need to reflect on where we are heading and why. This is determined in part by the disciplinary territory from which we start.
For the question “What is it to be human,” students have a choice of answering the question from (1) the biological point of view, (2) the traditional point of view (human = rational), (3) a particular philosophical point of view (e.g. the “existentialist” view: to be human is to exist in the human world; Archer’s “agency” view…), (4) the psychological/social point of view (e.g. Fromm’s), (5) any other (historical, cultural, religious…).
On this level, students learn to approach the question from a particular perspective. However, they are also required to think about where their approach will take them and ask whether there might be other destinations, hence thinking about why they want to get to where their disciplinary approach will take them. For guidance, students can think in terms of the intellectual interests that might be served by their disciplinary approach, the adequacy of their approach if they wish to head in a different direction (for example, defining being human biologically will serve the interest of explaining the human biological life and will help us master and control human biological processes, curing diseases, etc, but what if we want to go somewhere else, such as building a better society by combating racism or promoting human rights: would the biological approach still serve as a useful map to get us to this different destination. Conversely, if the students take a non-scientific approach, they will be required to ask the same questions about the adequacy of their “road map” for some other destination, such as the scientific understanding of being human).
Weeks 8-11 Beyond one’s academic discipline, or familiar territory
In these four weeks, students will get an opportunity to think back reflectively and critically of their own perspectival understandings of being human. The readings will be “swapped around.” For instance, the “biological” group will now have to explore non-biological reading materials, the “literary/historical” group will have to examine the scientific and philosophical literature and so on.
At this stage, students are no longer asked to speculate about other possible approaches and possible destinations. They are required actually to walk a different walk. Whatever disciplinary approach they took in their first lot of essays and presentations, they will be required to take a different approach. Part of the readings for the assignment in this section will be essays by fellow students who take a different approach in their first assignment. Students will be required to reflect in the same way as above but also to begin to think critically about their own disciplinary approach. They will become aware of the assumptions and presuppositions in different approaches, the different methodologies, the various intellectual interests that might be served by different approaches and so on. The aim is to make students aware of the various different underlying assumptions, presuppositions, the problems, the why’s and wherefore’s of various disciplinary approaches to the question at hand. They are required to bear all of them in mind and think about the conceptual basis of any particular disciplinary approach to the question of being human, as well as the implications of any particular conceptual underpinning.
Week 12-13 Thinking Beyond
This week students will be encouraged to envision a future for humanity, given the current developments in science, technology and social interactions, focusing perhaps on the questions “How should I live?” and “What kind of human future should we try to promote?
Week 1: Introduction
. Habermas, “Knowledge and Human Interests,” in
The Habermas Reader
, ed. W. Outhwaite, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998 (Chapter 8, pp.96-104).
Week 2-11: [What students need to read from week to week depends on their disciplinary background. For instance, biology students can focus on the first lot of readings below. The readings will be “swapped around” in the “reflective” part of the semester.]
On Being Human: The Biological Approach
The Mismeasure of Man
, NY: WW Norton 1981 (“Introduction” and “Biology and Human Nature” – pp.324-334) – CL: BF431 Gou.
Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human
, NY: HarperCollins (Chapter 1 and Epilogue).
Morality and Human Nature
, Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1990 (Chapter 11: “Biological Human Nature”) – CL: BJ1031 Mcs.
The Selfish Gene.
On Being Human: Reason and Agency
Descartes’ Meditations 1 and 2 (any edition).
Human Being Human
, London and NY: Routledge, 2005, “Introduction” and “Being Human or Human Nature.”
A.T. Nuyen, “Sociobiology, Morality and Feminism,”
, Vol.8, 1985.
Being Human: The Problem of Agency
, Cambridge UP, 2000, selected chapters.
On Being Human: Social and Psychological Aspects
, Eric Fromm: The Courage to Be Human
, NY: Continuum, 1978, Chapters 1-3.
On Being Human: Literature, History, Religion
Lord of the Flies
Human Being Human
, selected chapters (on depiction of humans in films).
Morality and Human Nature
, Chapter 10: “Traditional Human Nature Value Theory.”
Persons and Things.
Humanity in the Age of Biological Control
A.T. Nuyen, “Confucian Ethics and ‘the Age of Biological Control’,”
Philosophy East and West
, Vol.57, 2007, pp.83-96.
A.T. Nuyen, “Stem Cell Research and Interspecies Fusion: Some Philosophical Issues,”
Bioethics Advisory Committee
Humanity in the Cyber Age
A Cyborg Manifesto
A.T. Nuyen, “From Cyborg to Cyber Punk: The Art of Living in the Cyber Age,”
Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Web Information Systems and Technology
, Barcelona, 2007, pp.92-96.
Humanity in the Hot Climate
Being Human: Ethics, Environment and Our Place in the World
, Berkeley and LA: University of California Press, 2001, Chapters 7&8.
Weeks 12 and 13: On Cyborg and Chimera: A Post-human Age?
No readings, just thinking. However, the following works will be referred to:
A.T. Nuyen, “From Cyborg to Cyber Punk: The Art of Living in the Cyber Age.”
Cyborg Citizen: Politics in the Posthuman
Age, NY and London, Routledge.
How We Became Posthuman,
Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999, particularly ch.11, “What Does It Mean to Be Posthuman?”
Not applicable to USP modules.
Workload Components : A-B-C-D-E
A: no. of lecture hours per week
B: no. of tutorial hours per week
C: no. of lab hours per week
D: no. of hours for projects, assignments, fieldwork etc per week
E: no. of hours for preparatory work by a student per week