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The human condition in excellent company

At the AIAS Conference 'The Human Condition' high-level anthropologists and philosophers from all over the world met to embark on a journey to reinvent philosophical anthropology.

2015.08.26 | Lena Bering, Rasmus Dyring and Cheryl Mattingly

Photo: Michael Jackson (Harvard) engaging a full AIAS auditorium. AU Comm.

The AIAS conference The Human Condition: Reinventing Philosophical Anthropology held from 24-26 June, is the third of its kind co-organised by AIAS fellow Cheryl Mattingly and AU faculty members Thomas Schwarz Wentzer, Rasmus Dyring (Dept. of Philosophy) and Maria Louw (Dept. of Anthropology). The list of speakers showed prominent figures such as the Professors Timothy Ingold (University of Aberdeen, UK), Jonathan Lear, (University of Chicago, USA) Michael Jackson (Harvard University, USA) and Didier Fassin from IAS Princeton - the founding father institute of the AIAS. The three-day conference was very well-attended with energetic delegates from many fields of studies, broadening the conversation to new areas. The pre-conference PhD workshop on 23 June organized in collaboration with the AU Graduate School ensured that also young scholars were engaged in a dialogue with seniors.

Reinventing what?

The conference’s main focus area was to address the need for a new ‘Philosophical Anthropology’, and to discuss and formulate what this term actually covers. The purpose of the conference was to raise questions rather than answer them. It did not begin with the presumption of an already worked out theoretical framework to which participants could refer. Rather, the idea was to open the question, bringing together thinkers who, in their own various ways, had been engaged in working between anthropology and philosophy and, more broadly, in considering such fundamental questions as: What does it mean to be human? What kind of condition is this, as a lived experience? By asking such broad (and old) questions in an interdisciplinary way, the conference was not intended to come up with some consensual position but rather to consider a range of proposals for how these questions might be most fruitfully addressed.

The human lacunae and the ontological

A general theme that to some extend ran through all the talks was the idea that the human being, rather than having a fixed essence, is a being that exists in an “essential” lacuna, in radical openness. In his talk, Prof. Jonathan Lear (University of Chicago, USA) pointed to how philosophy and anthropology can benefit from each other: ‘We experience a lacuna in anthropology reflecting the lacuna in the human condition. What philosophy can add is a good way to live with and embrace the lacunas – not to get rid of them’. The theme of the human lacunae was explored in several directions. A first recurring discussion concerned the problem of the priority of culture, of the collective, of the social in human life. Prof. Bernhard Leistle (Carleton University, Canada) posed the paradox of how the human being is at once cultural “through and through”, yet open to transcend the cultural. Other talks proposed the task of foregrounding experiences of singularity reducible to neither the idiosyncratic, biographical individual, nor to the collective or cultural as the project of philosophical anthropology. A second recurrent discussion took this issue into the realm of ontology. Thus, Prof. Timothy Ingold (University of Aberdeen, UK) drew attention to what he perceives as the central problem of philosophical anthropology: ‘How do we reconcile the singular with the plural, the particular with the universal?’ According to Ingold, anthropology should foreground the onto-genetic, i.e. focus on the perpetual human becoming, rather than on the simply given human being.

The human openness

Discussing the Anthropocene, Prof. Sverre Raffnsøe (Copenhagen Business School, DK), explored the question of human openness in its geological consequence; the becoming of the human is now the humanization of the earth. A third recurrent discussion tying in with the theme of human openness was the issues of possibility and futurity. Prof. Cheryl Mattingly (AIAS and University of Southern California, USA) explored how certain ordinary practices are able to transcend the improbability of their future completion and open possibilities for ethical action in the present. Prof. Jason Throop (UCLA) took up a discussion of how certain experiences beyond our control impact us and open new possibilities for intercultural communication – what he calls the ethnographic epoché. Finally, human openness was explored in terms of the relationship between passive and active registers of human existence – a relationship several speakers described as processes of responsiveness. As Postdoc Line Ryberg Ingerslev (Aarhus University) argued, our habits are responsive on our behalf, hence tracing human openness to the level of prereflective practice.  Prof. Thomas Schwarz Wentzer (Aarhus University) pointed to the phenomenon of laughter - a human peculiarity per excellence - as a mode of responding, when there is no proper response to be given.

Publications in the pipeline

Both at this and last year’s conference a need to continue the fruitful work was detected which has resulted in several forthcoming publications. From the papers of the 2014 conference Moral engines: Exploring the moral drives in human life a book contract has been made with Berghan Press that will lead to a book entitled Moral Engines: Exploring the Ethical Drives in Human Life expected to be out in 2016. From this year’s The Human Condition conference several journals have already been approached and the organizers are currently in conversation regarding a Special Issue or even a double Special Issue that will contain several of the 2015 conference papers.

A continuous conversation

The positive and energetic collaborations and relations that have been established during the three conferences will not merely terminate with the publications, but have extended even further. Several of the participants in the two conferences have organized future ventures that will allow the conversation to continue. This includes a special panel on Humanism at the American Anthropology Meetings in Denver, Colorado, USA (November 2015) and a conference on ethics in philosophy and anthropology at University of Amsterdam (January 2016).  Further conferences and collaborative publications continue to be discussed and organized among several conference participants. These include plans for a collaborative working group that would include scholars from Cambridge University, University of Southern California, University of Amsterdam, University of California, Los Angeles, and Aarhus University.


PhD fellow Rasmus Dyring, filrd@cas.au.dk or AIAS Communications officer Lena Bering, lber@aias.au.dk


Cheryl Mattingly, AIAS Fellow at Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies, AIAS, and Professor at Department of Anthropology, University of Southern California, USA.

Thomas Schwarz Wentzer and Rasmus Dyring and the research project "Existential Anthropology – Inquiring Human Responsiveness", CAS, Aarhus University.

Maria Louw and the research group, "Moral engines", Contemporary Ethnography, CAS, Aarhus University.

Conference website 

Tags: Human Condition, Moral engines