uniqueness

Ernst Cassirer’s An Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture is essentially (more so than I realized when I began it) a simplification and condensation of his three-volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. And therefore it’s a good introduction to his work. But I want to talk just about one theme in it.

Much of the first third of Cassirer’s book is devoted to distinguishing Man from the other animals. He says that all other animals have a “receptor system” for registering stimuli and an “effector system” for acting in response to those stimuli. (He’s borrowing these terms from a biologist.) But, Cassirer claims, human beings are unique in that we have in addition to those two systems a “symbolic system” – we are the symbol-making animal. But why shouldn’t we say that our making of symbols is just part of our effector system? It seems very important to Cassirer to insist that it is a different thing altogether, and that’s a reminder that “the age of the crisis of man” is not just about understanding “the nature and destiny of man” but also requires the conceptualizing of that nature and destiny in ways that strictly distinguish us from all other creatures – and by those means resolve the “crisis.”

That human beings are unique in the scheme of creation is of course a point present and important in Jewish and Christian traditions – indeed perhaps only in Jewish and Christian traditions, though the point is debatable. In the Hebrew Bible the context of the claim that humans are made in God’s image is very clearly that none of the other creatures is made in God’s image – but there are many other passages in Scripture that remind us that the rest of creation has its own stake in the outcome of our story, that when God comes the trees of the forest shout for joy, that until He comes the whole of creation groans in its labors. And it’s an interesting thing that so many people our own time, including I think many Christians, have grown weary of and perhaps annoyed by all these attempts to establish and define human uniqueness, and prefer instead to emphasize all the ways in which we and the rest of creation share a history, share a story, share a destiny. To some degree, of course, this is the result of more careful study of the kinds of things that animals are capable of, but I don’t think that’s the only cause, and maybe not even the chief one.

(Here let me pause to give a plug to Frans de Waal’s extraordinary book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? I have to write about it at some point….)

I think many of us, and I count myself in this number, feel that all the discourse about human uniqueness hasn’t been good for us or for the rest of Creation. It’s not (this is what I would say anyway) that we need to deny human uniqueness – we are by any measure a very strange animal indeed, and with a distinctive role in God’s economy – but rather that we don’t seem to be able to talk about our uniqueness in ways that help us to live more wisely with one another or with the rest of Creation. And that’s a reminder that some things can be true and yet not always edifying to dwell on.