He understands the person from within

He understands the person from within

What’s the worst thing that could happen to a high school philosophy teacher? Maybe class do not want to think. And a second soon: an incomprehensible final exam book. It often feels like the exam topic is split in the stomach from above and you have to deal with it for four years. The undisputed highlight of the Lesson Series is this statement to the class: “Don’t look at the book, it will only cause confusion. I’ll explain it to you all!” Graduation notebooks are usually written – unfortunately – with little regard for the comprehension level of a vwo6 or havo5 student.

But this does not apply to What makes a human being?a joint achievement of Philosophy and Art teacher Kirsten Portier (University of Groningen), Philosophy Professor Erik Mehn (University of Antwerp) and Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Science and Technology Peter Paul Verbeek (University of Amsterdam, where he is also Rector Magnificus).

Is technology changing our humanity?

The consciously vague title of the philosophy of this new vwo6 final exam book alone is excellent. It refers to the question of what makes man a man and to the question of what man produces himself in terms of technology and science. This duality naturally leads to the question of to what extent people and technology can be separated: does the ability to produce technology make us human, or does technology actually change our humanity? In this way, the question about the role of technology flows seamlessly into the central question of the obligatory component of philosophical anthropology for pre-university education: What is man?

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It is a great advantage that this question is not clarified in the first place on the basis of dualism or monism. Both currents, in their extreme form, offer an answer to the riddle of human essence: You are, after all, a soul or you matter. Instead, the authors opt for a phenomenological viewpoint, in which the difference between a first-person perspective and a third-person perspective on the human being is central: Are we looking at the human experience from within? Or do we explain it from the outside with the help of science?


The authors wittily state that phenomenologists explain to us that “our body is not a ‘thing’ like other things, and that our thinking is intimately connected to our body of feeling.” Since human experience is irreducible to its scientific explanation, the question of being human remains essentially open. This approach allows final exam writers for the teacher and students to explore the many facets of this issue with equal openness.

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The way the authors present the phenomena is perfect. They do this on the basis of the work of philosopher Maxine Sheets-Johnston (1930). In the body text—which for the first time forms an integral part of the main text rather than just affixed to the end—she starts from her experience as a dancer. Sheets-Johnston argues that a dance performance is “a vivid experience, for both the dancer and the audience”. Closely related to lived experience, which every human being knows, is “body-consciousness”: you cannot separate your inside from your outside. Showing how they were inspired by Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, the two authors combine the best of both worlds. They connect their audience with a “new” and contemporary philosophy and retain the depth of canon.

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Not measurable

Obviously, not all thinkers are outsiders What makes a human being? We agree with the phenomenological point of view. For example, Yuval Noah Harari argues that “our belief in our authentic self and the importance of human experience will give way to data.” This viewpoint states that everything in the universe, including humans, is made up of data. According to Harari, we will be largely controlled in the future by computer programmes. Where is our free will?

However, Portier, Meyen and Verbeek do not give the final word to Harare, but rather to Mary Rush. On the contrary, she argues, in keeping with the first-person phenomenological perspective, that there is always still something about the human being that is not visible or measurable: “that people change their minds, (…) they go through a turning point. In that light There appears such a thing as freedom, a hopeful message that she wants to pass on to every student for life.

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