Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Spenser and "The Human" an Introduction

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Spenser and "The Human" an Introduction

Article excerpt

This special volume of Spenser Studies begins with a question that is as venerable as it is trendy, as old-fashioned as it is cutting-edge: what does it mean to be "human"? Throughout his writing, Spenser contributes to a longstanding philosophical tradition that probes the ontological, ethical, educational, and political dimensions of this question. Engaging the varied positions of classical and humanist thought, Spenser does not so much propose a definitive answer as offer new ways of thinking through this question. His work therefore offers a vital resource both to scholars studying the intellectual history of the concept of "the human" and to recent theoretical work in posthumanist studies. By way of introducing this volume's stakes and scope, below we briefly discuss the related frameworks of humanism and posthumanism as they relate to Spenser studies before outlining the contents of the volume.

At least since Aristotle, the validity of understanding "the human" as a distinct ontological category has been up for debate, and this philosophical history attests that clear taxonomies of human identity and claims of human exceptionalism are fairly recent inventions. Indeed, it was only when Descartes explored the distinction between the cogito of the human, defined in terms of the capacity to think self-consciously, and the automatic motions of the bête-machine that the blanket categories of "the animal" or "the machine" began to be understood as humanity's ontological opposite. And the ascendency of the Cartesian model was itself contested and uneven. Until the early seventeenth century, the dominant model had been that articulated in Aristotle's De anima, which postulated a more fluid taxonomy in which higher forms of life incorporated all souls below it, so that human beings were on a continuum with nonhuman animals.

This view influenced the writings of theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas and humanists such as Ficino and Pico, for whom "true" humanity required the exercise of faith and reason, a requirement that brought with it the corollary possibility that human beings could become indistinguishable from beasts. Even more radically, philosophers such as Montaigne observed that certain animal behavior appears rational and thereby questioned whether "human" reason is indeed a special capacity, while natural philosophers such as Thomas Browne and Margaret Cavendish continued to imagine hybrid life forms that included human, animal, vegetable, and machine characteristics. In the realm of politics and colonialism, the seemingly abstract question of what defined the "human" had urgent and concrete effects: to take just two instances, the Valladolid debate in 1550 over the Amerindians' humanity and rights and early justifications of the nascent African slave trade starkly revealed the political and ethical consequences of early modern discourses of human exceptionalism.

Recent work in posthumanist theory has continued to question the validity, ethics, and politics of defining "the human" as a distinct and privileged ontological category. Work by Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, Katherine Hayles, Cary Wolfe, Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, Jane Bennett, Timothy Morton, and Graham Harman has stressed instead the permeability of boundaries between human and other forms of life. These posthumanist theorists have focused variously on animal rights, environmentalism, science and technology, and the history of modern philosophy, and their work has offered new frameworks and vocabularies for considering the connections as well as the disjunctions of "human" life and cognition, on the one hand, and that which is traditionally seen as other-thanhuman, on the other-from cats to computers, trees to trash. This work has prompted many scholars in the humanities, and particularly literary studies, to think anew about agency, knowledge, aesthetics, and ethics. Much posthumanist theory has, however, tended to focus on a twentieth- and twenty-first-century archive, and therefore has neglected the complex history of thought that anticipates, complicates, and enriches many of its key questions and insights. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.