What is Human?

An Interdisciplinary Humanities and Science Initiative

The What Is Human? initiative fostered revitalization of intellectual and institutional relationships between the sciences and the humanities. Aiming to break down what C.P. Snow called a “Two Cultures” division between the humanities and the sciences, WIH created a new interdisciplinary learning community and public intellectual dynamic. WIH fostered collaborative research partnerships across the disciplines and explored collaborative scientific and humanistic strategies and resources for funding and project development.

The interdisciplinary initiative at the Center for the Humanities was supported by the Robert F. and Jean E. Holtz Fund of the University of Wisconsin Foundation and the College of Letters & Science.


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WHAT is human?

Does consciousness make us human? If so, what kind of consciousness? How does it differ from that of primates or even non-primates? Do cultures and communities make us human? Is it useful to think of the human as a community of microbes? What philosophical problems, such as essentialism, are associated with the range of possible formulations of the question of the human, and how can we update the philosophical parameters of such investigation?

WHERE is human?

How can we culturally diversify our understanding of the ways that scientific traditions in different parts of the world and different historical eras have incorporated reference to the human-or not–into their paradigms?

WHEN is human?

Are biological and social life coterminous? At what point of evolution does the primate become human, and what is the basis for that distinction? How are contemporary debates informed by “anthropodenial”-self-definition away from the primate? What is the “posthuman”? Is there a crisis in the human at the start of this new millennium? When did the idea of the human become a key organizing trope in the sciences, and at what point did it diverge from concepts of the human in the humanities, and why?

What is INhuman?

What ethical responsibilities are associated with human consciousness, community, etc.? Why do we qualify as “inhuman” phenomena performed by humans?) What is NOT human? (How do chimeras, clones, modified, and engineered humans present new testing criteria for the identification of the human, and for the values associated with hybridity?


From 2008-2010, the Center hosted symposia featuring keynotes from national steering committee members, lectures by leading UW-Madison faculty, a lunch series that created discussion on topics common to the initiative by engaging members in inquires from different vantage points, and supported collaborative work across disciplinary divides.

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Collaborative Theory and Practice in Humanistic and Scientific Research

What Is Human? Symposium I
The Center for the Humanities
University of Wisconsin-Madison
March 5, 2008

8:30-9:00 Coffee

9:00-9:50 Keynote I

Marco Iacoboni (Associate Professor of Neuropsychiatry, UCLA)
“Mirroring People: Existential Neuroscience and Inter-Subjectivity”

10:00-12:00 Panel Discussions on Collaborative “What Is Human?” Projects

10:00 Networks: Neural, Social, Civic, Technological

10:15 Botany and Anthropomorphism

10:30 The Stomach as a Second Brain

10:45 Mimetic Humankind

11:00 Transplantation and Chimeras: Practices of Change at the Edges of the Human

11:15 Human Violence and Human Rights

11:30 Triage of Humans, Animals, and Insects

11:45 Additional Abstracts

12:00-1:00 Lunch and Small Group Discussions

1:00-1:30 Lecture I

Craig Werner (Professor, Afro-American Studies and Integrated Liberal Cultures)
“Blind Men and Elephants: Teaching Beyond the Two Cultures”

1:30-2:00 Lecture II

Neil Whitehead (Professor, Anthropology)
“PostHuman Anthropology”

2:00-2:40 Roundtable I

Strategies and Resources
Herb Wang, Jay Clayton, and Laura Heisler

2:40-3:20 Roundtable II

Professional Cultures and Mixed Methods
Daniel Kleinman, Jon McKenzie, Linda Hogle, and Laurie Beth Clark

3:20-3:30 Break

3:30-4:30 Keynote II

Jay Clayton (Professor of English, Vanderbilt University)
“Literature and Science Policy: A New Paradigm for the Humanities”

4:30-5:00 Synopsis and talking points

Beyond Human

What Is Human? Symposium II
The Center for the Humanities
University of Wisconsin-Madison
March 27, 2009

A one-day symposium devoted to exploring the limits and excesses of the human across the division of the humanities and the sciences.

8:30-8:45 Registration and Coffee

8:45-9:00 Introductions and Welcome Address: Sara Guyer

9:00-10:15 Keynote I

Catherine Malabou (Professor of Philosophy, University of Paris X-Nanterre; Humanities Institute Distinguished Scholar in Residence & Visiting Professor of Comparative Literature at University at Buffalo)

“Is Plasticity A New Name For Freedom?”

To what extent do the recent neuroscientific discoveries concerning the plasticity of our brain challenge the notion of program (in genetics, cy-ernetics or ethics)? How is freedom to be defined in the absence of determinism? These issues confront us with a new concept of both the Human and the Humanities.

10:15-10:30 Break

10:30-11:30 Animal Studies Roundtable

Gregg Mitman
Cary Wolfe
Karen Strier

11:30-12:30 Keynote II

Richard Davidson (Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Director, Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience; Director, Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior)

“Change your brain by transforming your mind”

12:30-1:30 Lunch

1:30-2:30 Disability and Prosthesis Roundtable

Walt Schalick
Jay Martin
Linda Hogle

2:30-3:30 Posthuman Roundtable

Stephanie Youngblood
Alastair Hunt
Jon McKenzie

3:30-3:45 Break

3:45-5:00 Keynote III

Lewis Gordon (Laura H. Carnell University Professor of Philosophy, Temple University; Director, Institute for the Study of Race and Social Thought; Director, Center for Afro-Jewish Studies)

“Theorizing the Human: A Pedagogical Imperative of a Philosophical Anthropology”

Modern thought has reflected upon itself and faces a set of theoretical problems raised by the question of questioners. To what extent, for instance, are disciplinary impositions on such inquiry efforts to squeeze humanity into a structural framework smaller than itself? This talk will outline several theoretical problems of theorizing the human, especially the challenges of cultural-symbolic life, and, through a formulation of what the speaker calls “a pedagogical imperative,” bring to the fore challenges of thought premised upon the importance of interrogating concepts of the human or, as he articulates it, philosophical anthropology, which, in his understanding, is a self- displacing activity of philosophy going beyond philosophy.

5:00-5:15 Closing Remarks

What is Human? Conference

What Is Human? Conference
The Center for the Humanities
University of Wisconsin-Madison
October 1-3, 2009

What is Human? Lunch: Spring 2008

Professor, Departments of German and Comparative Literature
University of Wisconsin-Madison
“Humanity is/was not ‘humane’: A Programmatic Reminder”
Friday, 1 February

Professor, Department of Philosophy
University of Wisconsin-Madison
“Simplicity and Complexity in Arts and Sciences”
Friday, 22 February

Associate Professor, Department of English
University of Wisconsin-Madison
“On the Posthuman”
Friday, 28 March

Professor, Departments of French and Comparative Literature
Bard College
“Therapeutic Obsessions: Creativity and Compulsion in Literature and Art”
Thursday, 10 April

What is Human? Lunch: Spring 2009

Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology; Obstetrics & Gynecology; Medical History and Bioethics; African Studies Program; Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies; Center for Global Health
University of Wisconsin-Madison
“Human Subjects: Bioethical Boundaries and Global Health”
Friday, 30 January

Professor, Pediatrics Waisman Center
University of Wisconsin-Madison
“What is Human: Lessons from Childhood”
Friday, 20 February

Assistant Professor, Department of English
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Department of Entomology
University of Wisconsin-Madison
“The Human/Animal Divide”
Friday, 6 March

What is Human? Lunch: Fall 2008

Assistant Professor, Department of Medical History & Bioethics; Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation; Department of History of Science; Department of Pediatrics; Waisman Center
University of Wisconsin-Madison
“’What He’s Never Known, He’s Never Missed:’ Children With Disabilities, Rehabilitation and the Meaning of ‘Human’”
Friday, 21 November

Associate Professor, Department of Bacteriology
University of Wisconsin-Madison
“The Micro Human”
Friday, 5 December


Core faculty members in this initiative were drawn from departments or programs in Anatomy, Anthropology, Art History, Bacteriology, Botany, Chemistry, English, French, Gender and Women’s Studies, German, Geology, History, the History of Medicine, the History of Science, Obstetrics and Gynecology, Neurology, Pediatrics, Philosophy, Sociology, and Visual Culture.