Kyborg 8: The Human Question 1

How do we see people?

One answer: open your eyes and they’re right there.

We don’t need any special apparatus to see people beyond what Darwin/God has endowed us. I believe that’s correct, and that our biological endowment helps us parse the world for people, but the biological answer to the seeing people question fails us on at least two counts:

  1. It doesn’t capture the immense variety with which people have seen others and themselves - aka culture.

  2. It doesn’t capture the ways in which people aren’t ‘people’ - to a tailor they are bodies to be draped, to a priest they are souls to be saved and so on.

So the eye-opening question is:

How do we see people as people?

Humanism has a long history in many philosophical and religious traditions, but seeing people as people, as autonomous self creating beings not dependent on divine sanction (i.e., people as people, not people as children of God) is a major departure from prior conceptions of being human.

The ‘people as people’ turn has tremendous impact on our collective existence. Kings ruled with the mandate of heaven, i.e., they didn’t justify themselves as self-making beings, and they didn’t see themselves answering to the people - they answered to God or their ancestors, but not to the people.

But once we can see ‘people as people’ humans become the proper subject of history, making it possible for democracy to arise, for leaders who are both elected by the people and are responsible to the people (which is true even in modern authoritarian regimes). Similarly, it becomes possible to write novels about the everyday life of ordinary people, for their interior landscape is as interesting as the heroics of a king.

The person qua person is the central category of modern life. The capacity to see a person as a person precedes any exposition of that insight in literature or philosophy - it’s part of the ontological opening of modern culture.

Seeing ‘people as people’ is particularly important for moral judgments, and (in my opinion) it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to talk about human rights, without having institutions that can see people as people. Not just institutions, seeing people as people also helps us train our cognition to recognize them as such, so that we invite strangers into our homes. Genuine cosmopolitanism would be impossible without the cognitive and institutional recognition of people as people.

The mass art forms: first the novel, then photography and finally cinema and TV are central to our experience of people as people, but philosophy has also played an important role, by turning people into an autonomous ontological category. The new media and the new message are closely related.

It’s the transformation of the person to an ontological category, the person qua person prepares the ground for cognitions and technologies that pick out humans as bearers of rights, responsibilities etc.

Once that ontological move becomes available we can expand and contract it as the situation demands:

  1. We can expand the concept of person to include animals and not just human beings, perhaps even plants and rivers.

  2. We can contract the concept of person to separate social classes like laborer and capitalist.

Kant is the central figure in making that ontological move possible, though we might argue that with the anthropocene in full flow, we are fast approaching the limits of what that ontological move can do for us. We could just wait for the planet to tell us the limits of that conception but we could also try probe the limits intellectually before we are forced to do so by the wrath of Gaia.

We have to read Kant in conjunction with the art forms of modernity that help us experience people as people - they are two different creative takes on the same insight. Incidentally, the German poet and writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe compared the experience of reading a page of Kant to ‘the feeling he had when entering a brightly lit room.’

Strictly speaking, the seeing of ‘people as people’ is an ontological opening, not an ontological judgment - I’ll cover that distinction tomorrow.