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Raymond Corbey: The metaphysics of apes 4/5

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Published on Mar 15, 2008

Professor Raymond Corbey, PhD, Ethnologist and Philosopher, Universities of Tilburg and Leiden, The Netherlands

The metaphysics of apes: Negotiating the animal-human boundary (Part 4 of 5)

19 July 2006, University of Heidelberg

The discovery and study of the great apes since the seventeenth and ape-like early hominids since the nineteenth century added to the strains generated by a fundamental reordering going on in North Atlantic cosmology under the influence of processes of modernisation, secularisation, and the burgeoning of the natural sciences. Hesitantly, "man's place in nature" came to be articulated in terms of the contingencies of evolution instead of the theology and teleology of creation. The newly-discovered creatures, uncannily similar to extant humans yet beasts, turned out to be their closest biological relatives, thus threatening age-old, deeply cherished notions of human dignity and unicity. However, the sacrosanct human-animal boundary, specifying what can be owned, killed, eaten, and what not, was not abandoned but redrawn. The exclusionary human space was relentlessly policed and time and again purified. The present history, anthropology, and epistemology of anthropology examines the role of, and the unwilling retreat from, notions of human unicity in several disciplines since the seventeenth century. Focussing on three great ape debates - c. 1760, c. 1860, and since 1960 - and their aftermaths, it investigates the articulation of both disciplinary and human identities in terms of an obstinate metaphysical and moral commitment to human unicity, which was continuously challenged and adjusted. It analyses how humans as symbolizing creatures classified and reclassified themselves in the face of apish, yet humanlike, beings that were profoundly ambiguous with respect to the most heavily tabooed boundary drawn by Western cosmology: that between humans and (other) animals.

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