What Creates Human Being?

When one tries to be a critical scientist, one is always somehow opposing the mainstream and tries to think differently and question whether the mainstream ideas are justified and valid. Being critical is important to be able to contribute to a better world and a different future. But it can also put one in a rather solitary position and can make one lonesome. This is also the case with the position I regularly represent on this blog site and which, at least within human geography is not ‘mainstream’ but in my view highly relevant and stimulating innovative thinking. This is the position inspired by the philosophical anthropology of Helmuth Plessner. I must admit, that this week, when I heard about the final high school examination programme for philosophy for the next few years, I somehow felt some satisfaction, and less ‘alone’… The central topic for philosophy at high school in the Netherlands for the next few years will be the question ‘What makes us human?’

Traditionally, philosophers answer this question by pointing to our ability to think, but this answer is problematic. If computer engineers were able to mimic our ability to think in machines, then we would have to consider robots to be human too. Moreover, research on animal and plant cognition shows that our ability to think is not as unique as we thought. Any boundary we draw between humans and non-humans thus seems to be fuzzy.

Kisten Poortier of the University of Groningen, Prof. Erik Myin of the University of Antwerp and my colleague from the University of Amsterdam, Prof. Peter-Paul Verbeek, explore, in their newly made textbook for high school students (in Dutch), how we can answer the question of what makes us human if we start not with thinking, but with the body. But even that does not yield a single definition. After all, we can change our bodies with technical interventions, and our experiences are constantly influenced by theories and metaphors. Especially in these times when our existence has such an impact on the world, and the relationship between human beings and the environment – the core issue of human geography – it becomes clear that the question of the human being, next to the question of what space or ‘environment’ entails, deserves our full attention. See the table of contents below.

Hopefully, this promises a number of philosophically topically well-informed generations of students, who also might discover that human geography is the field in which they can apply their ideas also practically…
Until a new generation of critical students will emerge, who again want to think the future differently…

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