By Peter Wing-Kai Lok
This post is part of an ongoing symposium interacting with Lambert Zuidervaart's book Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation: Essays in Reformational Philosophy. For more responses to the book, see our table of contents.
My response has two parts. In the first part, I will summarize the basic argument of Lambert’s paper, entitled “Defining Humankind: Scheler, Cassirer, and Hart,” especially its critique of Scheler and Cassirer’s humanist notion of human beings with reference to Hendrik Hart’s philosophical anthropology. Hart is one of the important thinkers of the Toronto School of reformational philosophy. His work, Understanding Our World: An Integral Ontology serves as an important, though not the only, source for Lambert’s discussion here. Lambert argues that Hart’s reformational anthropology can break with some hierarchical aspects of Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven’s philosophical anthropologies by offering a more lucid account of how the entire human being is both body and spirit. In the second part, I will show how Hart’s philosophical anthropology can also pose a challenge to the contemporary discourse of posthumanism, especially its notion of "becoming-animal."
In his essay, Lambert criticizes the problem of Scheler and Cassirer’s essentialist notion of human beings. He argues that while Scheler and Cassirer correctly replace “substance” with “function” so as to distinguish human beings from animals, they still make a mistake by confusing differences in function with differences in kind.
For Scheler, human beings differ from animals because the former are spiritual beings. But he does not view “spirit” as “substance” but “function.” Human beings are those who actualize spirit and sublimate life. For Cassirer, the spirit, which indicates cultural forms and functions, enables human beings to have symbolic systems that distinguish them from animals. For Scheler and Cassirer, bodily life holds no difference in kind between human beings and animals since they both have some similar functions like reproduction or practical intelligence. What makes human beings unique is their possession of spiritual and cultural functions.
However, Lambert poses three critical comments to their approach:
1. They fail to consider the unique human quality of our physical, organic and sentient functions. While animals and human beings possess certain kinds of similar functions (reproduction, memory or practical intelligence), this does not mean that these functions have the same quality.
2. Emphasizing the exclusive cultural/symbolic function of human beings ignores our reciprocity with animals in certain cultural dimensions. Although human beings differ from animals in terms of their unique power of symbolic communication, this does not mean that they completely fail to communicate with animals in certain cultural/symbolic aspects.
3. Their functional definitions of human beings are ambiguously full of irresolvable tensions. While both Scheler and Cassirer tend to construct a unified notion of human beings, their definitions of human beings mixed with animal/inhuman elements generate these irresolvable tensions.
As a result, Hart’s transfunctional model can remind scholars not to use a single discipline, but inter-disciplines, to view the world and human beings.
Instead, Lambert proposes Hendrik Hart’s transfunctional definition of human beings as a more reasonable and coherent option than Scheler and Cassirer’s models. The strength of Hart’s transfunctional model of human beings is that his model spans all the functions and dimensions of human beings in which no one function/dimension is privileged over the other (more human than any other) and thus both the natural and cultural dimension are affirmed. As a result, Hart’s transfunctional model can remind scholars not to use a single discipline, but inter-disciplines, to view the world and human beings. For Lambert, this can generate a more holistic understanding of the world, a kind of horizon “without which humanity unity, uniqueness and cosmic position would remain unintelligible.”
Furthermore, Lambert argues that Hart’s model is not merely a functional one, but is also a responsible model. According to Hart, the unity and uniqueness of human beings do not depend on certain levels of human function but lie “in how all of our functions flow from and to our hearts, from and to our orientation with respect to creation’s origin and destiny, from and to that which sets the direction for our lives and calls for our response.” Human beings are thus responsible creatures who can respond to what calls them into existence and what promises life's flourishing. Love, truth, and goodness all constitute the meaning of human beings more than various functional concepts constructed by the scientific discourses.
I shall even argue that Hart’s transfunctional model not only responds to the problematic nature of Scheler and Cassirer’s humanist approach to human beings, but also overcomes some of the theoretical problems brought on by contemporary posthumanism. The advent of posthumanism attempts to mark the end of the opposition between humanisn and anti-humanism through searching for a more affirmative approach to reconfiguring the notion of human beings after criticizing the problematic nature of anthropocentrism generated from humanism. One important posthuman thinker, Rosi Braidotti, argues that posthumanism defines a critical posthuman subject "within an eco-philosophy of multiple belongings, as a relational subject constituted in and by multiplicity, that is to say a subject that works across differences and is also internally differentiated, but still grounded and accountable.”
In particular, the posthumanist thinkers emphasize a sense of inter-connection between human beings and animals by blurring the boundary of their identities. They make use of Gilles Deleuze’s notion of “becoming-animal” as a strategy to configure the posthuman subject. According to Deleuze, both animals and human beings are not static or unchanged beings; rather, both of them are always in becoming through which both the territories of humans and boundaries of animals can be re-configured in the process of affecting and being affected. Becoming-animal does not mean that one can play the role of the animal but that one can enter into the relation of movement of the animal through one’s bodily sensation, so that one can feel what the animal feels. As Deleuze says, “you become animal only molecularly. You do not become a barking molar dog, but by barking, if it is done with enough feeling, with enough necessity and composition, you emit a molecular dog.” Braidotti argues that the tension between animals and human beings which exists in the humanist worldview can be solved through such intensive assemblages mediated by bodily affect.
Becoming-animal does not mean that one can play the role of the animal but that one can enter into the relation of movement of the animal through one’s bodily sensation, so that one can feel what the animal feels.
While I agree with the posthumanists’ critique of anthropocentrism and their affirmation of animal life, I argue that they fail to see the qualitative differences of the bodily function of human beings and animals. Although both human beings and animals have the sense of smell, this does not mean that they share the same capacity. At least, the dog’s sense of smell is stronger than the human’s sense of smell. I really doubt that one who can learn to smell like a dog can completely experience what the dog experiences as suggested by the strategy of becoming-animal.
Of course, Braidotti would counter-argue that Deleuze’s theory of becoming-animal can at least make one affiliate with animals’ lives through bodily affect. As she says, Deleuze’s theory of becoming-animal can cultivate the interconnection “by positing a shift of the relation away from speciesism and toward an ethical appreciation of what bodies (humans and animals) can do.” Braidotti regards this interconnection as alliance, a “We-ness” in a post-anthropocentric way: “we are in this together, in fact, enlarges the sense of collectivity bound subjectivity to nonhuman agents, from our genetic neighbours the animals, to the earth as a bio-sphere as a whole. ‘We’ therefore, is a non-anthropocentric construct, which refers to a commonly shared territory or habitat.” However, how can we ensure that becoming-animal can necessarily lead to a non-violent association, not a violent disassociation? Isn’t it possible that becoming-animal might transform human beings into “crude animals”, not “ethical animals”? As Jedediah Purdy rightly puts it, “In the case of the Nazis’ fascism, the abuses involved understanding all of humanity as a ‘natural’ phenomenon--leveling down--and aiming to make one’s own people a world-historical biological success.” That is to say, leveling down human beings does not necessarily generate a life-flourishing ethics; rather, it might generate an unethical ground for violent acts.
Furthermore, leveling down human beings cannot help to build up a sustainable ecological development. According to Braidotti, Deleuze’s attempt in revealing a symbiotic experience between human beings and animals might help human beings to cultivate a critical horizon that can make possible a sustainable ecological development, like liberating animals from the torture of various kinds of social, cultural and economic regimes, i.e. the neo-capitalist market system. However, if we hope human beings foster such an ethical, sustainable development, then we have to affirm certain kinds of concrete and unique functions of human beings that animals do not share, like the capacity of making laws for animal rights. But how does the leveling down of human beings or thinking of people as assemblages of animals make possible such an ethical act? If post-anthropocentric ethics is a kind of ethics co-shaped by both the experience of human beings and animals, then what normative ground should we use to decide what experience we should take or should not take? In general, the posthuman thinkers do not want to use traditional ethical approaches, like Peter Singer’s utilitarian ethics, to formulate a post-anthropocentric ethics because of their anthropocentric nature. However, does it mean that only animals’ experiences will be considered as the exclusive source for making a post-anthropocentric ethics? If so, are all animals’ experiences “morally important” for us to build up a post-anthropocentric ethics?
Now we may see that the posthumanists’ notion of human beings, an ambiguous mixture of animality and humanity, makes it hard for them to reckon with the above questions, particularly building up a truly post-anthropocentric ethics that respects animals. In fact, the failure of humanism does not mean the failure of human beings. What we need to do is to restrict certain kinds of violent nature in human beings, like the problem of instrumental reasoning, that is, we do not need to completely abandon the unique identity of human beings or level down human beings.
Now we may see that the posthumanists’ notion of human beings, an ambiguous mixture of animality and humanity, makes it hard for them to reckon with the above questions, particularly building up a truly post-anthropocentric ethics that respects animals.
In contrast to the posthumanists, Hart’s reformational approach to human beings, which emphasizes the transfunctionality of human beings, could possibly overcome the theoretical contradiction of posthumanism. First, Hart’s transfunctionality of human beings makes possible our reciprocity with animals in a multidimensional way. Although both human beings and animals are different kinds, with qualitative differences, this does not mean that they cannot interact in each dimension. While the posthumanists simply highlight the importance of the affect as a mode of communication between human beings and animals, Hart’s transfunctional model allows more dimensions for the possible interaction or communication between human beings and animals. As Lambert says, “…how is it possible that animals interpret the human baby’s cry or that human beings almost intuitively tell the difference between a dog’s growl of delight and its growl of warning? Don't such phenomena indicate both qualitative differences and genuine reciprocity between animals and human beings as linguistic agents?” Furthermore, Hart’s transfunctional model, which does not privilege the thinking aspect over other aspects, can also restrict the hegemonic nature of rationality (see Hart's own contribution to this symposium). Thus, Hart’s model might possibly beget a truly post-anthropocentric ethics since it allows more dimensions (cultural, sensual, psychical…) in which the human being can be affected by animals (like sensing the suffering experience of the animals) or even to be transformed by animals without leveling down human beings.
Second, Hart’s transfunctional model, which emphasizes the ethical function of the heart, can also make human beings responsible for the flourishing of animal life. As Lambert says, the heart is the core of reformational philosophy that presumes “the responsive/responsible character of human existence” from which “to be and to become human is to be and become both gifted and called to love God, others, ourselves, and all creation.” The heart is the religious root of our human existence. It is the basis of our identity, deeper than any human function and it transcends the temporal (see Neal DeRoo's contribution to this symposium).
What I want to say is that the affective experience is better directed by a certain kind of transcendent cause, like Hart’s heart or Levinas’ face. If not, all affective experiences might easily be turned to a violent force.
In contrast, the materialist ground of posthumanism that eliminates the transcendent dimension of the posthuman subject hardly guarantees that the subject can act ethically and responsibly toward animals or nature. At least, the posthuman subject does not recognize any religious core, like the heart, to direct him or her to take a responsible action. Although Braidotti believes that the affect per se can make possible such an ethical act, it is also less certain that the affect generated through becoming-animal must be an “ethical affect”, like love, that can cultivate solidarity between animals and human beings. This does not mean that the affective dimension is not important in cultivating an ethics of other (an ethics based on embodied sensuality instead of the disembodied rule/law is badly needed today, e.g. Levinas’ ethics of the body). What I want to say is that the affective experience is better directed by a certain kind of transcendent cause, like Hart’s heart or Levinas’ face. If not, all affective experiences might easily be turned to a violent force. And thus I worry that posthumanism, as immanence-philosophy, which simply emphasizes immanence and not transcendence, might fail to cultivate a truly post-anthropocentric ethics.
In sum, although Lambert’s paper was written eighteen years ago, its constructive assessment of Hart’s philosophical anthropology, especially its transfunctional character, is still relevant to today’s debates on posthumanism or even the related topic of new materialism (as explored by Manuel DeLanda, Quentin Meillassoux, Gilbert Simondon) and the anthropocene. And I look forward to seeing more reformational philosophers from the academic community of ICS to engage with these topics.
 Lambert Zuidervaart, Religion, Truth and Social Transformation : Essays in Reformational Philosophy (Montreal, Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016), p. 217.
 Zuidervaart, Religion, Truth and Social Transformation, p. 215.
 Zuidervaart, Religion, Truth and Social Transformation, p. 218.
 Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), p. 49.
 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 275.
 Rosi Braidotti, “Affirming the Affirmative: On Nomadic Affectivity” Rhizomes, Issue 11/12 (Fall 2005/Spring 2006), p. 2.
 Rosi Braidotti, “ Animals, Anomalies, and Inorganic Others,” PMLA , 124, No. 2 p. 528.
 Rosi Braidotti, “Affirming the Affirmative: On Nomadic Affectivity”, p. 5.
 Jedediah Purdy, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015), p. 276.
 Zuidervaart, Religion, Truth and Social Transformation, p. 213.
 Zuidervaart, Religion, Truth and Social Transformation, p. 217.
 Zuidervaart, Religion, Truth and Social Transformation, p. 217.
 This blog has a good introduction of new materialism.
 Catherine Malabou delivered a clear lecture on “Anthropocene” in 2016.
Peter Wing-Kai Lok completed his PhD thesis under the mentorship of Lambert Zuidervaart in 2011. He now serves as lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University. His research interests include contemporary French philosophy, philosophy of the body and philosophical foundations of cultural studies.