Reflecting on the pedagogical methods that might enable an ape to speak a human language, Julien Offray de La Mettrie suggested that such a speaking ape ‘[…] would no longer be a wild man, nor an imperfect man, but a perfect man, a little man of the town, with as much substance or muscle for thinking and taking advantage of his education as we have.’ La Mettrie concluded this meditation by declaring that ‘from animals to man there is no abrupt transition, as true philosophers will agree.’ While undermining the traditional Christian view of man’s unique place in the universe due to his creation in God’s image, this short passage also highlights several issues that will stand at the centre of this workshop. Its main aim is to explore the as yet unclear links between eighteenth-century anthropology and contemporary political and theological theories, especially via the distinction between complete (or perfect) and incomplete (or imperfect) human beings.
This was not merely an idiosyncratic dichotomy made by a particularly radical thinker. In various other domains similar distinctions could be found – especially in late eighteenth-century notions of complete and incomplete rights and duties, as discussed by Adam Ferguson, Christian Garve, and Moses Mendelssohn (among others). Underlying this dichotomy was often the idea that human beings do not necessarily deserve any inalienable rights only by merit of being born human: one had to activate some latent capacities and act in certain ways in order to deserve enforceable (‘complete’ or ‘perfect’) rights as a human being. While this notion may sound alien in the context of post-Kantian theories of human dignity, participants in the workshop will rethink the emergence and contours of these differences.
Could we change our status from incomplete human beings to complete or perfect ones, and how? Might animals be considered as either incomplete human beings or, as La Mettrie suggested, complete men and women? What kind of obligations do we owe complete and incomplete human beings? What are the theological implications of such a distinction? These were some of the questions raised by eighteenth-century authors in this respect. The seminar will bring together scholars of history, philosophy, political theory, theology, and literature who will move beyond current disciplinary boundaries in order to reconstruct the Enlightenment debate on complete and incomplete humanity.