I want to go back to school with this textbook
Kirsten Poortier, Erik Myin and Peter-Paul Verbeek
What makes man? Our physicality in relation to science and technology
Boom Editor; 272 pages. €34.90
Kirsten Poortier teaches philosophy and art. Erik Myin is a professor of philosophy at the University of Antwerp, specializing in perception, cognition and consciousness. Peter-Paul Verbeek is Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Science and Technology and Rector Magnificus at the University of Amsterdam. What makes man? is the 2024-2028 final exam book for philosophy at vwo.
“You were not born a woman, but you became a woman.” The title of the book can be interpreted as a nod to this famous quote from Simone de Beauvoir. Just as there is no woman, there is no man. Poortier, Myin and Verbeek develop this non-essentialist view of man in relation to technology and science.
Our perceptions, our actions and even our morality evolve with technologies, they write. The arrival of the pill, for example, contributed to the disconnection of sexuality and reproduction and therefore also played a role in the acceptance of homosexuality, as the Dutch ethnographer Annemarie once showed Mol. People also give meaning to their lives with metaphors from technology. They “pattern” like a clock, search for “exhaust valves” like a steam engine, and come home on “autopilot.”
In theory, according to Elon Musk, it is possible to download our entire “mind” to an external hard drive, so that we can continue to live in a robot body. The question is: is it still a human being? Broadly speaking, this book is a defense against dualism, which the authors describe as the legacy of thinkers such as Plato and Descartes. Musk, who absolutely does not belong on this list, makes the separation between body and mind more explicit than ever. He believes you can cut your mind from the body, transfer it, and live unchanged.
The body that eats, moves and, on a good day, dances, however, is not a frenzied instrument, say the authors. It is an essential part of our being. Techniques that affect the body therefore also affect the mind. In this regard, the work is based, among other things, on the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the theory of mediation developed by Verbeek. There is also attention to feminist and postcolonial perspectives on the body, including that of De Beauvoir. After all, it goes without saying that your body matters if you are unwittingly confronted every day by your skin color or your supposed gender.
Anyone who points to the influence of technology should not go too far into determinism. The techniques can lead to drastic changes, but according to the authors, there is always room for a critical attitude. The art is to develop – according to Foucault – a “free relationship” with technology. You should not categorically reject the influence of technology on your life in search of radical freedom, but freely relate to this influence. It takes thought, exploration – and good teaching materials.
“Man has no essential characteristics. It gives us the opportunity to resist exclusion and oppression based on a view of humanity that some people agree with and others don’t. It offers us the opportunity to get used to a society in which all sorts of composite identities, different experiences and contradictory points of view coexist.
Reasons to read this book
This book seems to me like a treasure chest for teachers who, according to teacher friends, sometimes need good teaching material. It’s rich with examples from art, literature and film, without ever feeling fanciful. Poortier, Myin and Verbeek discuss quantum mechanics and neural networks with the same ease as the poems of Lieke Marsman and Marieke Lucas Rijneveld.
There is also a lot of attention for philosophers from Belgium and the Netherlands, such as Miriam Rasch, Petran Kockelkoren and Jos de Mul. If all textbooks were like that, I want to go back to school. Fortunately, the book isn’t just for students. This lively, well-organized and clear introduction to the philosophy of technology can appeal to everyone.
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