Interview with Daniel Chernilo

To be Human: An Interview with Daniel Chernilo

 Daniel Chernilo & David Beer

This interview explores the key themes and ideas in Daniel Chernilo’s recent book Debating Humanity: Towards a Philosophical Sociology (2017, Cambridge University Press). It is a hugely ambitious book that tackles a range of questions around the notion of humanity and the category of the human. Drawing on a wide range of thinkers, the book pushes at a number of far reaching issues, problems and questions concerning humanity. It’s a rich text that develops themes that are likely to be of interest across the social sciences and humanities, not least because it tackles some of the most difficult and crucial questions that face social theory today. The interview was conducted in October of 2017.


David Beer: Maybe to start we could reflect on the relationship between disciplines that is at the centre of your book. I notice that you suggest that good sociological questions are philosophically orientated. You also argue that sociology needs a close relationship with philosophy. Could you say something about how you see the future of sociology and also how you see it relating to other disciplines like philosophy?

Daniel Chernilo: Perhaps we can start by looking at the past rather than at the future. Sociology has always had a close relationship with philosophy, albeit a very troubled one. On the one hand, the early sociological imagination was very much embedded in the philosophical debates of its time. We know this much about Marx or Simmel, for instance. But let me give you a different example: Tönnies’ work on Community and Society is explicitly modelled on Hobbes’ distinction between the state of nature and civil society. When I was doing research for my previous book on Social Theory and Natural Law (CUP 2013), one of the biggest surprises was that this theme did not figure at all in the sociological literature on Tönnies even though Tönnies himself was open about it and wrote two huge biographies of Hobbes and Marx. The clues to interpret the philosophical debt of Tönnies’ sociological contributions were being missed even if they were very much in front of our eyes. My explanation for this is, quite simply, that we sociologists just don’t know enough philosophy so these connections simply don’t become visible.

On the other hand, sociology has always been an attempt to supersede the deductive, more speculative dimensions of philosophy. If you think again of Weber, or Marx, or Simmel, they both accepted and rejected the significance of philosophy vis-à-vis sociological research. There is no sociologist worth her salt that at some point hasn’t made this claim: time has come to abandon previous (i.e. philosophical, metaphysical, unwarranted) forms of knowledge and embrace the new, empirical drive that sociology brings with it. We are always searching for ever “newer” rules of the sociological method. The irony, of course, is that this call is itself a philosophical rather than a scientific one!

The current situation and future prospects of sociology isn’t altogether different from the one I’ve just described, I think. On the one hand, there is of course much “social theory” debate. But over the past 60 years or so what has passed as sociology’s interest in philosophical debates tends to be the much narrower debate on the epistemological foundations of social scientific claims. Even in the case of more recent discussions about “social ontology”, which can be very illuminating, in most case there isn’t much philosophical purchase in debates and at stake are the more methodological questions about the internal operation of the social sciences. On the other hand, for most sociologists none of that is of much interest because the real stuff is straightforward empirical research.

I do think though that at least some of sociology’s prominence in wider cultural and political debate lies in its ability to remain more speculative and be able to raise questions that are not to be answered only in empirical terms: it is one thing to say that society has become more (or less) unequal over the past 10, 50 or 100 years and is quite another to reflect on what are the wider implications of this being the case. The latter is a fundamental dimension of the sociological imagination that requires but is not confined to sociology as an empirical discipline. It is this sensibility that is behind my formulation that “all good sociological questions are, in the last instance, also philosophical ones”.

DB: You take on an ambitious aim in the book, with regard to trying to understand what it is to be human and the definition of humanity. That is clearly really a tricky question. It left me wondering what problems you discovered that you perhaps weren’t aware of when you started and what obstacles you had to navigate in writing the book?

DC: The book’s project started off with the idea of trying to put together a catalogue, as it were, of ideas of human nature in contemporary sociology and philosophy. I wanted to explore how certain ideas of society (e.g. power, markets) depend on certain preconceptions of what makes us human with independence of society: we are fearful beings therefore we have states; we are selfish beings therefore we have markets, etc. But I then realised that this strategy was problematic for two, rather fundamental, reasons: first, because it reinforced the monist view that human nature consists of one key property that can be defined unequivocally. And it also reinforces a rather determinist way of thinking that is deeply problematic: society is Y because human nature is Z. But neither works if we want to understand the normative dimensions of social life, so the book then moved towards its definitive shape: the ways in which our ideas of the human become more or less articulated reflects wider intellectual, sociological and indeed normative commitments.

There is another question which wasn’t so much an obstacle I didn’t know about before but a realisation of how central it is to our ways of thinking. Ideas of the human can and do have a fundamental emancipatory role to the extent that they highlight those human universals in the absence of which our potentials as a species (and as individuals) are being curtailed. This is what make slavery, torture or extreme poverty unequivocally and universally “wrong”. The book makes this point several times: ideas of justice, fairness or freedom – however you define them – do not hold unless we uphold universalistic ideas of humanity. This is, of course, my definitive difference with posthumanisms, poststructuralisms and postcolonialisms of all kinds as they all reject as a matter of principle the possibility of universalist conception of humanity. But ideas of the human, also rather naturally, lend themselves to conservative notions of unity, stasis and immutability. Reproduction and abortion debates, for instance, make this particularly clear: so-called pro-life supporters make precisely the claim that they are the ones defending principles of what makes a life human! This tension is most lucidly expressed in Luc Boltanski’s book on reproduction and abortion that I discuss in Chapter 8 of the book. Despite Boltanki’s progressive politics, to my mind he ends up favouring an anti-abortion position.

There is no easy way out of this problem and a fundamental difficulty of much “critical” theory is that they seek to keep the emancipatory baby whilst throwing out the universalist bathwater. But they cannot offer normative grounds for their normative critique of power, inequality or discrimination because they no longer have the intellectual tools with which to avoid that their ideas of justice of fairness and equality are reduced to strategic bargaining (e.g. Bourdieu), positionality (postcolonialism) or power relations (e.g. Foucault). I’ve developed this argument at greater length in my article ‘The Idea of Philosophical Sociology’.

DB: Also, of course, it means that I inevitably have to ask what you discovered about being human?

DC: There are perhaps two things. The first is, I hope, more or less apparent in the book’s pages: that a core dimension of being human is our unique ability to acknowledge each other as humans through normative ideas, practices and institutions. Whether we do this to each other, or we withdraw this normative recognition from fellow humans and mistreat one another, is a fundamental social fact. But this fact very much depends on how we see those anthropological properties that make us the humans that we are. This is why freedom of speech debates, to name just one, are so divisive in most parts of the world: of course, they are about a certain set of practices and institutions that are socially construed. But there is arguably a more fundamental aspect to them: they define us as members of the same species and their regulation has a fundamental bearing on whether our human potentials are being enhanced or hindered. Crucially, whilst these practices are of course socially and culturally specific, they depend on the recognition of general anthropological features that do not depend on their social actualisation and are to be seen as universal.

The second aspect I only touched in passing and became apparent to me after the publication of the book: the idea of imagination. Arendt and Archer (another connection I did not anticipate!) both make the point that human reflexivity gives us the ability to create new practices, institutions and ideas: Imagination as the ability to envisage stuff that is actually new. In the context of the book, this matters because it is our normative imagination that creates new forms of, for instance, granting each other such rights as human rights: rights that we give to each by the simple fact of being human and with independence of any other affiliation or defining feature. Arendt’s discussion of Kant in her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy was truly inspiring on this and I wish I had picked up on it more explicitly.

DB: Your book deals with a series of thinkers, each chapter takes a central thinker and elaborates on their perspectives. How did you make the difficult choices about which theorists to include? I also wondered if there was a particular reason for choosing to deal with the thinkers separately rather than through themes or some other collective or comparative reading of the texts?

DC: For me, writing books has to be a way to have a good time. I say this because I have in the past written article-long pieces that focus on criticising a particular theorist or line of argument and they gave me no joy; on the contrary, I really did not like doing that kind of demolition job. The selection of writers is therefore somewhat (and perhaps inevitably) arbitrary; they are all writers whose work I admire and felt the need to engage with as part of my own intellectual education as much as for systematic reasons.

There are some criteria for their selection though: Apart from Sartre and Heidegger in Chapter 1 (and Heidegger is the one writer that comes for severe criticism in the book!) all substantive chapters focus on post WWII writers. The book is also organised chronologically: it starts with Sartre/Heidegger in the 1940s, then Arendt in the 1950s and 60s, Parsons in the 60s and 70s, Jonas and Habermas in the 70s and 80s, Taylor in the 90s, Archer and Boltanski after the turn of the century. Another criterion is that half of the writers I discuss there are philosophers and the other half are sociologist. The distinction is somewhat crude of course but I did want to make good of the promise that I am developing a genuine philosophical sociology. Thirdly, and this is the most systematic reason for their choosing, is that all these writers developed rather general theories of modernity and their interrogations into what makes us human was something that became a necessity for them by the immanent logic of their own research agendas. Take Hans Jonas: his first philosophy that centred on the imperative of responsibility developed in the context of his environmental concerns. Margaret Archer’s work on human reflexivity depends on her previous sociological work on structure, agency and social change; in the case of Habermas, language becomes a key question for him because of his exploration of the normative foundations of modern democracy. What they all found, and this is something I fundamentally agree with, is that their work remained fundamentally incomplete if they weren’t able to say something meaningful about the human condition: those set of unique properties that make us the extremely stage species that we humans are. And there is a fundamental reason behind this lack of completion that they themselves felt and pushed there in this anthropological direction: they were unable to grasp the normative dimension of social life without some more explicitly articulated ideas of the human.

This strategy is best suited to working through individual writers. You would have noticed perhaps that I don’t use a huge amount of secondary literature and for most chapters I really focus on one or two key works in each of the chapters. I was talking to Mark Carrigan about the book a while ago and he asked something similar (you can listen to the podcast here). He queried me on the idea of ‘deep reading’; that is, the extent to which the speed of modern academia makes slow, careful reading (and writing!) nearly impossible. I decided to focus on individual writers because I thought I needed to read their “big books” as carefully as contemporary academia allows.

DB: So the trends in higher education have found their way into your book? With it being based around detailed readings of major texts and a carefully scholarly engagement with the detail of those volumes, do you think that the book is in some way a resistance to some of those pressures?

DC: I can see that writing a book like this seems to oppose or at least contravene a number of trends that are now prevalent in contemporary academia: the preference of papers in high impact-factor journals over more systematic monographs, the preference of collaborative and so-called interdisciplinary work over the scholarship of the lone researcher (I do think of my work as interdisciplinary though!) and the preference of research with ‘impact’ over ‘conventional’ academic work or ‘pure’ scholarship. It is true that this kind of writing has to some extent put me in a collision course against some prevalent trends in modern academia, but challenging these trends has never been an explicit motivation for me. This is not something I set out to do nor do I think about it in this way whilst doing my work.

When I have disagreed with administrators and also colleagues, this is perhaps a result of the rather ‘traditional’ way in which I conceive academic work: as an academic (and the more so because of the kind of issues that I write on), I do not take kindly to being ‘suggested’ what to do my teaching and research on and I have never been shy in making my opinions felt. But my view of the university isn’t at all completely negative. I’ve been teaching for over 20 years and see the relationship with my students as one of mutual learning. I love the cooperative and mentoring dimension of collegiality, the wonderfully cosmopolitan experience that is the modern university and the joys of making an unexpected connection and embarking on a new intellectual project.

DB: In what seems to be a crucial juncture in your book, you indicate that it is the ‘interplay between human embeddedness and imagination’ (21) that is central to understanding how humanity is defined. It seems that this observation then echoes throughout the book, with different thinkers combining and working at this interplay in different ways. I notice that the imagination in particular crops up frequently in exploring the different thinkers. Have I read this right? Is it this interplay that in some ways unites this wide set of theorists?

DC: Yes, that’s absolutely right. As I mentioned above, the idea of imagination does figure in several chapters, although I wish I had registered it more explicitly as one of themes that gives coherence to the book. At the same time, this ‘interplay between human embeddedness and imagination’ that you picked on is my way of saying that, whichever way we decide to look at it, the mind-body duality is a fundamental fact of the human condition; one that cannot be altered without transforming the very meaning of what is to be human. Another way of making a similar point would be that there can be no idea of imagination without embodiment: the window towards universality that the idea of imagination opens is constituted in the here-and-now of our social, cultural and indeed biological particularities. To my mind, all writers in the book are aware of this and, whether they explicitly emphasise more ideal or material factors, at no point do they succumb to reductionist positions in which one is sacrificed or becomes a mere epiphenomenon of the other. For instance, Hans Jonas’s idea of responsibility, a fundamentally moral feature, is embedded in human biology and a general ontology of nature; Hannah Arendt’s conception of self-transcendence is the reflexive instance of the pushing boundaries between a universal imagination and the particular concerns of today. The same can be said of Parsons, Archer or any other writer in the book.

DB: At the end of the detailed chapter in which you revisit humanism through the work of Heidegger, Sartre and Derrida you set up some key issues for examination. Amongst these you argue, from these sources, that ‘conceptions of the human…underpin our normative notions of social life’ (62). Is this where the imagination comes in to impact on what we think of as the human? This is seems to place the concept of the human as a kind of core concept from which other ideas of social life branch. In this case, it seemed that human becomes a sort of metaconcept that feeds into other concepts and notions and which sets many of the limits of social life. Are you approaching the human in this kind of agenda setting way in which this particular concept is fulcrum for the social?

DC: Let me try to specify this point a little. I do not argue that our conceptions of the human underpin all forms of social life; that all forms of social interaction are based on the ways in which we prefigure what are our basic anthropological features. To my mind, that would be exaggerated as an empirical claim, reductionist as a conceptual claim and even potentially totalitarian in a normative sense, because it would mean that social life in its wonderful complexity, variety and unpredictability will be subordinated to specific conceptions of the human. What the book does contend, however, is that the ways in which we see the normative dimensions of social life is dependent upon conceptions of the human that are not always or necessarily articulated in full. It argues that the ways in which we grant rights to each other, the ways in which we construe justifications for our social arrangements, the ways in which we evaluate whether certain practices or institutions are acceptable or not, all these normative issues are the ones that are construed around ideas of the human.

Let me try this argument in two steps perhaps: (1) It is because we have certain notions of the human that certain normative ideas and practices are deemed acceptable or unacceptable. For instance, for some groups or under certain conditions, torture is seen as acceptable: for instance, if you are thought to have betrayed your nation, then torture may be a legitimate punishment. Here, the underlying idea of the human that legitimises torture is one that subordinates your universal membership to a common species to the particularity of your belonging to a particular group: given that your humanity depends on belonging to the nation, the betrayal of the nation withdraws this human status from you and then torture becomes acceptable. (2) But then I also contend that not all ideas of the human are of equal worth. Think of Marx’s dictum that humans have to be alive and work for society to exist; or Weber’s idea that interpretation is a fundamental feature of how people make sense of the world. These are the general ideas upon which sociology emerged as a discipline and they are as universal as they get: all humans are interpretative beings, all humans have to reproduce themselves through work. In other words, only a universalistic conception of the human is adequate for the purposes of sociological research, and more importantly, as normative standpoint: empirically, this is the case because the human potentials that we now have in the 21st century are, if not the same, at least wholly comparable with those of 2,000, 3,000 or 5,000 years ago: the linguistic, social, emotional and bodily skills that constitute us as members of the same species. Conceptually, this is also the case because fundamental social relations such as competition, cooperation, hierarchies, solidarity, violence, etc. are again universals that we found in all known human societies; and, normatively, this matters because sociology has a core critical edge that favours those emancipatory values, practices and institutions that open up spaces that had been closed before for particular groups.

Is, then, the idea of the human a metaconcept? I guess the answer is no in the sense I mentioned above that social life does not cohere around it. But the answer may be yes in the sense that ideas of the human are precondition for our ability to comprehend the normative dimension of social life, which is fundamental to how humans live in common.

DB: As a side issue, you mention posthumanism quite frequently and also there are some occasional mentions of artificial intelligence. I wondered if you have any observations about how something like artificial intelligence might challenge the concept of the human and might even come to redraw that central concept – and thus redraw other concepts and limits that make up the social?

DC: As you say, this is really a side-issue in the book so I am not really sure what I can say that has not already been said hundreds of times: one thing I did not want to do was to argue that AI poses a fundamental challenge to our humanity. And the reason for that is that this kind of argument, which presents itself as highly original and embracing novelty, is on the contrary anything but.  It is, in fact, prevalent in modern reflections of the human over the past 150 years: In the 19th century, it was machine-driven physical power that was to enhance the human (which it did) beyond recognition (which it did not). In the 20th century, think of the period between the rise of cybernetics in the 1940s to ideas of information society in the 1990s, it was information-processing machines that were to enhance the human (which they did) beyond recognition (which they did not). Now, in the 21st century, the argument is that genetically-enhanced ‘nature’ and indeed computer-generated ‘intelligence’ will radically alter the human predicament. We are moving in circles here: this surely is the wrong way of thinking about these issues! A better approach, it seems to me, is to seek an improved understanding of the set of anthropological features that remain stable in the human make up; they are the ones that remain so that we are able to recognise each other as members of the same species and they are the ones giving us real indication of social change. Because technology is the fundamental link between nature and society, it has always played and will continue to play a key role in the ways in which humans see themselves. But until transhumanist utopias (which to me are much more like dystopias!) of a carbon-free and free-from-disease-and-death ideas of humanity become realised, then the sociologist in me is happy to explore the transformations of human life in kinds of ways without the need to resort to rather exaggerated claims on the death or radical transformation of the human.

In the introduction to the book, I discuss the famous Turing’s test of whether our ability to discern if we are talking to a machine or a human may allow us to speak of AI. My argument there is that this wouldn’t constitute a qualitative change with previous forms of technology because the key features of our humanity are not to do with a machine of any kind being able to do X, Y or Z but with the all too human motivation, excitement and inventiveness of Alan Turing himself having this kind of thought experiments at all! The question is not that we now have computers that are better than people at playing chess but the fact that humans invented chess at all, that they like playing chess for a number of different reasons and that they decided to challenge themselves by creating chess-playing machines. Questions of the human have more to do with this multiplicity of ideas and motivations that play a key role in social life than with what machines can or cannot do.

DB: Perhaps my previous question relates to a broader focus on the relationship between science and philosophy that you pick up in your epilogue to the book. You place this amongst a series of themes that cut across your book. When exploring those themes I began to wonder about what the broader forces that shape and maintain notions of humanity. Is this a concept that you see as being in constant tension? Given these themes and what they suggests, what do you think are the forces that might be likely to change concepts like the human and humanity in the coming years?

DC: Science, art, myth, religion and philosophy are all radically different but they also have in common the fact that they are human attempts at making sense of human life. They focus on different kinds of experiences, they may have different goals, and they may be based in very different sets of rules, but at stake is the need to be able to come to terms with fundamental human experiences: why do we exist, why are we here, what are we supposed (expected) to do with our lives, what can we know with certainty about the world that surrounds us, etc. Interestingly, the deeply humanist orientation of the early tradition of Philosophical Anthropology arose with very similar questions. Ernst Cassirer’s The philosophy of Symbolic Forms, which he published under very difficult circumstances between the 1910s and the 1930s, makes precisely these points. Already in his work we see that, while myth had played a huge role in previous times, in modernity science and philosophy lead the way in reshaping our ideas of the human. One may argue that Cassirer’s overall framework has some fundamental flaws: he may have misunderstood the position of art in modernity, he unwittingly equated 20th century science with technology, and he surely exaggerated the extent to which academic philosophy was going to remain the queen of all forms of knowledge. But the general intuition remains: how is it that humans try to make sense of the fundamentals of their human existence.

As in the previous question, I am not keen on embarking on speculative futurology in terms of trends that may be reshaping our notions of the human. But we can certainly see some powerful challenges in the ways in which we see and treat each other as humans. On the negative side, there are wars, patterns of forced migration, natural disasters and the persistence of extreme forms of poverty and coercion. On a more positive note, we find the democratisation of technology, growing life-expectancy or  increased literacy. It is perhaps in the unanticipated interaction between these forces, and their exponential cycles of reproduction at unprecedented speed and globally, where the future transformation of the human may lie.

Daniel Chernilo is a Professor at the Institute for the Humanities at Universidad Diego Portales in Chile and a Visiting Professor of Social and Political Thought at Loughborough University, UK. In addition to Debating Humanity, his other books include The Natural Law Foundations of Modern Social Theory (2013) and A Social Theory of the Nation State (2007).

David Beer is Reader in Sociology at the University of York, UK. He is also an editor at Theory, Culture & Society. His recent book is Metric Power.