Program Description

In the early seventeenth century, the philosopher René Descartes chronicled his reflections on how little he actually knew, when he looked closely. He found he even had to ask, “How do I know I myself exist?” His answer, “I think, therefore I am,” became a keystone of Western philosophy. When he asked further, “What then am I?”, he answered, “A thing that thinks,” not just a body, but an immaterial mind. To be human, he concluded, is to be a compound of two elements: mind and body. His contemporary, Thomas Hobbes, argued this was wrong, that we humans, however mind-ful, are entirely material. The debate continues to this day.

In concluding that the human element is our immaterial mind, Descartes reasoned that non-human animals differ from us by being only material, that they are completely mindless. Are animals then, only machines, without thought, even without feeling? (This was Descartes’ conclusion!) What about machines that mimic rational conversation (surely a very strong indicator of thought)? Couldn’t they be as mind-ful, and therefore as human, as we? Or from Hobbes’s materialist point of view, if we humans are only machines, how can we justify, for example, punishing a human who has caused some harm? Would we punish a car that has broken down and gone out of control? These questions  remain with us today: consider the force of arguments concerning animal rights by organizations such as PETA, or the tangle of human-machine interactions evident in programs such as Second Life. What makes us different from other animals? What makes people different from the machines we create, or envision? To ask the question more broadly: what are the qualities that make humans different and unique – if there are any at all? Is there a “human element,” or are we just made up of those found on the periodic table?

Questions about the ‘unique’ nature of humanity will be this program’s driving force. We will consider what makes us different from our animal, vegetable, mineral, mechanical and spiritual peers on planet earth, and how we might or might not live in symbiosis with them. We will consider shifts in our understanding of human nature, shifts that have been shaped by developments in science, from mechanics to evolution, and by developments in how we lead our daily lives, from hunting and gathering to browsing the internet. Fields of study will include epistemology, literature, and the history of technology. The program will include significant attention to writing and reading well.

Students are invited to join this program in order to examine questions of enduring concern that only rarely receive close and sustained attention within communities devoted to inquiry. The Human Element will be such a community. Students will not only think critically about what they read, but investigate their own beliefs and submit them to rigorous analytical scrutiny. Thus, the program has at its center the opportunity to explore what it means to be human by doing innately human things well: reading, writing, and discussing interesting and important ideas. Fall quarter’s work will concentrate on developing competencies as readers and writers and building a shared fund of knowledge for work in winter quarter. Later in the program, students will complete larger term projects that employ analytic, critical, creative, and reflective skills, all with the aim of understanding and appreciating what it is to be human across time and around the globe.

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