What do “orangutans” make to our understanding of Enlightenment “science of man” – considered by historiography as a major contribution to the shaping of human and social sciences? How do they connect with the conceptualization of humankind and to what extent does such a conceptualization interplay with the humanization and/or dehumanization of peoples? My paper deals with the multiples uses to which comparative anatomy was put in different disciplinary frameworks, such as natural and philosophical histories, political as well as legal discourses, and even trials, in eighteenth-century Britain. Within this context, – I’ll argue – the humanization of the “orangutan” went hand in hand with the dehumanization of a part of humankind. Physicians, natural historians, lawyers, judges, merchants or politicians engaged in the slave trade, while reshaping the boundaries between humans and apes, also contributed to increase the distance between the “savage” and the “civilized” peoples: whereas the human/animal divide lowered, the divide between human “races” increased and crystallized. In the our current context in which human and social sciences, as well as politics, have challenged and reconceptualized the human/animal divide, I suggest that a longer chronology - starting with the economic European domination of the global slave trade -, might contribute to a more nuanced and complex understanding of the question.
ToPHSS Lectures are part of the project “Topics in the Philosophy of the Human and Social Sciences”, funded by the Humanities Initiative. The project aims to cross boundaries between disciplines of the humanities and social sciences concerned with ‘the human’, that is with human beings, humanity, society, culture, history, and more. It focuses on methodological and ontological issues, in particular on those concerned with contested categories of the humanities and social sciences, and of those primarily on the categories of human, individual and person. This term the first focus is on the contested divide between nature and culture.