The ever-receding horizon of human exceptionalism

When I was younger, so much younger than today, what we were told made humans exceptions—that is, outside the natural order, different from animals—was that God made us in His image, no wait, it was opposable thumbs, no wait, it was tool-use, no wait, it was language, no wait…

The claim of human exceptionalism is a metaphysical and theological one. It is a radically dualist disjunction between the (putatively) natural and the supernatural realms, between the human body/mind and the spirit, between, as Descartes argued at what is considered by many to be the start of modern philosophy, humans who have a soul and animals which are mere mechanisms. The boundary markers of human exceptionalism have continued to be moved, however. Each time that one criteria or another is confidently declared as the sharp dividing line that justifies human dominion over the natural world, upon closer examination it becomes fuzzy, if not breaking down completely—sometimes simply as false, sometimes as only sharp by our own definition.

Claims of human exceptionalism are fundamentally arbitrary, despite their long basis in Western, i.e., theologically inflected thinking. They only seem natural because they are so habitual,  a point made by the old children’s rhyme about eating peas with honey: “I eat my peas with honey. I’ve done it all my life. I know it may sound funny, but it sticks ’em to the knife.”

All this is by way of comment on yet another step in the receding horizon of human exceptionalism to be found in this morning’s “The Stone” column by Roger Scruton “If We Are Not Just Animals, What Are We?” in the NYTimes.

We human beings do not see one another as animals see one another, as fellow members of a species. We relate to one another not as objects but as subjects, as creatures who address one another “I” to “you” — a point made central to the human condition by Martin Buber, in his celebrated mystical meditation “I and Thou.”

Aside from rather muddling up Buber’s mystical, i.e., religious and non-empirical, declaration of a distinction between the “I–you” relation and the “I-Thou” relation, and the all-too-human propensity for objectifying others as in tribalism, racism and war (oh, yes, and professional sports), there is a prejudice, literally a prejudgement,  made evident in the title by use of the phrase “just animals.” The point of the column is to show that we are not “just animals” but something else, something exceptional. And that claim is supported by reference not to evidence, but to Buber’s theological assertion (which I admit seemed very sweet and reassuring when I first read it some three and a half decades ago).

If we stop to ask, how does the author know that animals have no sense of individual selves in relation to one another?, it might seem rather obvious that he doesn’t. He is trying to move the goal post yet again in an effort to retain the privileged status bequeathed up on us by our exceptional status—as the especially beloved of God’s creatures, or who have opposable thumbs, or language, or tools, or now supposedly a unique sense of self-identity in relation to others.

Yesterday, while driving around doing errands, there was an article on KQED fm about language research with spotted dolphins. Each dolphin has its own unique “name-whistle.” And, not only does this suggest an analog to a sense of individual identity, but dolphins will use it when the named dolphin is not present, suggesting abstract thought processes. But, if we stop arguing from the presumption of human exceptionalism and the belief that it only needs to be properly located somewhere further away on the playing field, such analogs indicate that the distinction is one we make, not empirically based. And since they’re our convention-based goal-posts, we can move them wherever we want in order to make sure that we’re not just animals.

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One thought on “The ever-receding horizon of human exceptionalism

  1. Interesting post. Certainly we are animals, and nothing else but animals. But, like all other species, there are characteristics unique to ours–we need not call this “exceptionalism,” with all that term’s ideological baggage. “Difference” will do.
    And it seems to me crucial that we don’t, for ideological reasons, work so had to deny difference. This is particularly important in the one difference that matters the most–we are, in fact, the only species on the planet that uses symbolic language. Symbolic language is different from other forms of communication, and it is why we are the only species with the capacity to exterminate other entire species, as well as potentially all life on the planet.
    There is an obsession, particularly in Western Buddhist and MIndfulness discourses, but equally in psychology and other more or less academic fields, of denying the power and usefulness of language. A sort of terror of language, perhaps. We are told that we need to stop thinking, escape the trap of language, and become more like animals–who, we are to believe, “think” in better ways because their “simple languages’ are less prone to delusion. (Swift lampooned this naive idea three centuries ago, but it is fairly common, even among philosophers). If we don’t grasp that we are different from other species, and that only our capacity to use symbolic langauges has enabled us to escape natural history, we certainly won’t be able to address the problems we are creating, with language as well as technology, today.
    No, dolphins do not use some kind of “simple language.” Their communication is radically different from ours, as is that of bees, and whales, and monkeys. Take a look at Terrence W. Deacon’s book “The Symbolic Species.” He addresses this question of dolphins using name calls specifically (see page 57 and following).
    Please, don’t encourage the terror of language! Either by suggesting we can escape it, or by representing it as something even animals do and so not unique–either way, we lose the ability to grasp what langauge really is, and why it is our only hope!

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