Sunday, October 29, 2006

Lyotard on the Human Condition

In his introduction to The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard entertains the idea that if humans were born human it would not be possible to educate them. This is not exactly a viewpoint Lyotard adopts, but I want to consider it before getting to what Lyotard's view actually is. I don't know how long it takes for a human being to fully develop. Several decades at least, and most people should like a little longer than that. Is there any stage at which one, finally, becomes human, any stage at which one ceases becoming? What is the truth in the status of "adult"? Is it really a cultural universal, and what does its apparent universality suggest? Hannah Arendt (in Life of the Mind) put forward the idea that all living beings reach a point of epiphany, a full flowering of their potential which irrevocably defines them, after which they have only senescence to look forward to. Can that really be true? Don't we all know people who seem to undergo multiple epiphanies, who never cease to develop? If lifelong development represents the true potential of the human being, then isn't wrong to regard any stage of development as marking a boundary between the human and the inhuman?

For Lyotard the dilemma is this: "What shall call human in humans, the initial misery of their childhood, or their capacity to acquire a 'second' nature which, thanks to language, makes them fit to share in communal life, adult consciousness and reason" (p.3). He comes down on the side of the former:

Shorn of speech, incapable of standing upright, hesitating over the objects of its interest, not able to calculate its advantages, not sensitive to common reason, the child is eminently the human because its distress heralds and promises things possible. Its initial delay in humanity, which makes it the hostage of the adult community, is also what manifests to this community the lack of humanity it is suffering from, and which calls on it to be more human.

....That it always remains for the adult to free himself or herself from the obscure savageness of childhood by bringing about its promise–that is precisely the condition of humankind.

(pp. 3-4)


Having expressed some reservations, I can't quite fully agree with Lyotard on this, though it does resonate with me. Does my view on freeing oneself from the obscure savageness of childhood become necessarily Sisyphean? Is there any reason to think Lyotard's view of the task isn't Sisyphean? What do you make of Lyotard's description of the human condition?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:07 AM.


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