Virtual Issues

Non-Human Intellectual History—Machines: Virtual Issue 1.3

By Shuvatri Dasgupta

Over its more than 80 years in print, the Journal of the History of Ideas has accumulated a pretty large archive. Oftentimes, that archive is representative of the history of intellectual history—its trends, priorities, methods. Sometimes, it involves scholarship that, by virtue of appearing once-in-a-while, cannot quite get either the visibility or the relevant context in which to be seen.

With the Virtual Issues initiative on the JHIBlog, we propose to recall earlier articles from the JHI that fit with a particular subject or theme, and to place them in a new and current context. We do not pretend that the JHI could ever be comprehensive on these themes, and we are well aware of the limits of the journal’s success in addressing particular subjects. But as with every archive, all sorts of surprises await. With Virtual Issues, we bring out work that has some connection to current concerns, and to recall ways in which authors engaged a particular theme, including ways that may now be out of fashion but that are suggestive of past trends. Each Virtual Issue—the first being Nonhumans in Intellectual History, to appear in several instalments—features an introduction that resituates these articles. Anyone interested in curating such an issue together with us should contact the lead JHIBlog editors with a proposal and a list of relevant articles.

     — Stefanos Geroulanos, on behalf of the Executive Editors

By Shuvatri Dasgupta

The third installment of our virtual issue on Nonhuman Intellectual History examines intellectual histories of machines, published in the Journal of History of Ideas. These articles explore the diverse ways in which various conceptualizations of machines evolved in the Euro-American world from late medieval times to the twentieth century. In late medieval times, talking statue heads that could predict the future were not classified as machines. With increasing military activities in early modern Europe, new understandings of machine as a concept evolved. In René Descartes’ (1596-1650) understanding, animals were like machines. Men, armed with rationality and speech, were superior to both. Contrary to this, in Julien Offray de La Mettrie’s (1709-1751) writings, humans were conceptualized as machines, sharing similarities with animals. Therefore, in early modern Europe, we witness a dialectical moment in the conceptual history of machines.

On the one hand, some thinkers conceptualized machines as similar to humans and animals. On the other, other thinkers subjugated machines to humans so that they can be used to colonize humans and animals in different parts of the world. This ambiguity of early modernity gave way to a conceptual reversal in the context of increasing global industrialization during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Instead of deliberating on man’s relation with animals via the concept of the machine, thinkers chose to reflect on man’s association with machines through the concept of the animal. In nineteenth-century England, socialist thinker William Morris (1834-1896) argued that machines were transforming the working-class man into a domesticated animal. In twentieth-century America, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) argued that even though manual labour has reduced man into an animal, they remain superior to machines, for they possess the capacity to think. Through this longue durée European intellectual history of the concept of machine, I will argue in this virtual issue, that human superiority over animals was formulated through diverse understandings of the idea of the machine.

Elly Truitt’s piece “Celestial Divination and Arabic Science in Twelfth-Century England: The History of Gerbert of Aurillac’s Talking Head” provides an interesting prelude to this intellectual history of machines. It captures a historical moment when automata retained their sacrality and were not subservient to humans. The piece takes us back to late medieval times in the footsteps of Gerbert of Aurillac, a scholar from Reims, who traveled across the Holy Roman Empire. In Spain, his paths crossed with intellectuals who were proficient in Arabic practices of divination and astronomy. From them, he acquired these transcultural forms of knowledge. Eventually, he met Otto I, the Holy Roman Emperor, who employed him to tutor his son and then elected him as the next Pope. Truitt argues that as the bishop of Rome, Gerbert deliberately chose the title Sylvester II. Sylvester I was Pope during the time of Roman Emperor Constantine I, the first Roman emperor in history, to convert to Christianity. Oracles had foretold Sylvester I of this moment when the Roman Empire would no longer persecute Christianity. Instead, it would flourish by receiving state patronage and recognition. Truitt’s article shows that Gerbert, in his attempt to consolidate the alliance between the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire, took up the title Sylvester II.

However, he did not stop there. In order to re-enact the prophetic element in that historical moment, Gerbert enabled a statue to respond to questions regarding the future. William of Malmsbury, who chronicled the life of Gerbert in twelfth century England, described it: “the head of a statue…which spake not unless spoken to, but then pronounced the truth, either in the affirmative or negative(statuæ caput… quod non nisi interrogatum loqueretur, sed verum vel affirmative vel negative pronunciaret)”. Notably, William of Malmsbury did not classify the head of a statue that could speak as an automaton or as a machine. This is not to argue that machine as a concept was not used in the late Middle Ages. On the contrary, it indicates that the understanding of machines as something fundamentally different from men was not yet consolidated. 

From late medieval England, we now look towards early modern Europe with Julian Jaynes’ article titled “The Problem of Animate Motion in the Seventeenth Century” Jaynes’ article traces the history of the idea of motion by analyzing the writings of sixteenth and seventeenth century thinkers like René Descartes (1596-1650), Giovanni Borelli (1608-1679), Johannes Swammerdam (1637-1680), and Isaac Newton (1643-1727). The piece shows that up to the sixteenth century, motion as a concept was articulated in spiritual and mystical terms. Jaynes argues that automata, which were defined back then by their ability to move, were, in turn, also considered to be sacred. By the seventeenth century, however, constant warfare demanded a reformulation of the idea of motion in secular and scientific terms, emptying the concept of its other meanings. With the secularisation of the concept of motion, automata came to be referred more frequently as machines. The word ‘machine’, derived from the Latin ‘machina’, denoted their use in battles to trick the opponent. Motion, through the moving machine, came to be utilized by man to subjugate humans and animals.

In this context, René Descartes (1596-1650) wrote Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences (Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la vérité dans les sciences). He argued that even though animals could move, that did not make them like men. On the contrary, certain tests would reveal that animals were identical to moving machines. Descartes formulated this argument by denying reason to machines and animals. He wrote “…this proves not only that the brutes have less reason than man, but that they have none at all (…Et ceci ne témoigne pas seulement que les bêtes ont moins de raison que les hommes , mais qu’elles n’en ont point du tout)”. Therefore, based on this alleged absence of reason in animals and machines, man appeared superior to both, in the writings of Descartes. Wallace Shugg’s article titled “The Cartesian Beast-Machine in English Literature (1663-1750)” analyses the reception of Descartes’ arguments about the similarity of machines and animals in seventeenth and eighteenth century Anglophone literature by looking at the works of Henry More (1614-1687), Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733), and Alexander Pope (1688-1744), amongst others. Some authors, such as Samuel Butler (1612-1680) and Matthew Prior (1664-1721), disputed this anthropocentric claim and considered animals to be conscious actors. However, others like Joseph Addison (1672-1719) accepted Descartes’ arguments and established man as superior to both machines and animals. This ambiguity towards animal reason, often constructed through the category of the machine, continued into the eighteenth century.

Blair Campbell’s article titled “La Mettrie: The Robot and the Automaton” locates Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751), a biologist and physician, within this genealogy of thinking about animals in comparison with machines and man. La Mettrie argued that men were identical to machines, and to a certain extent, animals were also identical to men. He wrote: “these proud and vain beings, more distinguished by their pride than by the name of men…, are at base nothing but animals and perpendicularly rampant machines (ces êtres fiers et vains, plus distingués par leur orgueil que par le nom d’hommes, …ne sont au fond que des animaux et des machines perpendiculairement rampantes)”. He had to pay a heavy price for equating humans with animals and machines. His arguments struck at all those who believed in human uniqueness and superiority. Campbell shows that he provoked “scorn and ridicule” of “cleric and philosophe” alike. Finally, he was forced to abandon Paris. He fled to Leiden and ultimately found refuge in the court of Frederick II in Prussia, where he spent the rest of his life. Hence, in early modern Europe, there remained an ambiguity towards machines: for Descartes, they were inferior to men and similar to animals; for La Mettrie they were comparable with both humans and animals. Thinkers contested human and animal relationship in early modern Europe via the concept of the machine.

In nineteenth-century England, socialist thinker William Morris formulated his critique of capitalism with the category of the machine. For him, machines helped capitalists exploit the proletarianized workers, making them “worse off than mere beasts of the field.” He further wrote:  “It has been said already that our lives, scared and anxious as the life of a hunted beast, are forced upon us by the present system of producing for the profit of the privileged classes.” Ruth Kinna’s article titled “William Morris: Art, Work, and Leisure” illustrates that in William Morris’ writings, machines and humans would help each other and exist in mutual interdependence, only under socialism. Morris’ writings provide an interesting departure from the early modern practice of conceptualizing human animal relationships via the category of the machine. Instead, what we see here, is a mediation of man-machine relationship via the category of the animal.

Increasing industrialization in nineteenth century England transformed machines into devices that determined the fate of the working-class man. Repeated resistance of man against machines, most notably in the Luddite movement, testify to this transition. In fact, nineteenth and twentieth centuries unlocked the highest potential of machines to unleash violence on humans (and animals), as seen in the colonial conquests, two world wars, the Holocaust, and nuclear bomb explosions. It is in the aftermath of this context, that Hannah Arendt began to explore how technological innovations would transform the relationship between man and machine.  

Brian Simbirski’s article titled “Cybernetic Muse: Hannah Arendt on Automation, 1951–1958” analyses these discourses by narrowing down on Arendt’s responses to cybernetic innovations proposed by Norbert Wiener (1894-1964) in his book titled Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. This concept was derived by Wiener from the ancient Greek word kubernáō, meaning to govern or to steer. Cybernetic technology would then formulate a way in which machines and animals could be governed or steered by humans. Hannah Arendt was quick to recognise the potential of this technology for violence, and as a result put forth a defence of man’s superiority in her magnum opus The Human Condition, published in 1953. In that book, she argued that humans remain superior to all other life-forms because they can think and speak. She posited that manual labor alienates humans from their ability to think and to speak meaningfully, reducing them into a laboring animals who “no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities…”.

Since machines will not be able to think on behalf of humans, all the other promises its innovators put forth, remain irrelevant and unimportant to Arendt. Therefore, Arendt establishes man’s superiority over machine, through the mediating category of the laboring animal.  The present day rise of artificial intelligence (AI) devices and software provide an interesting challenge to Arendt’s anthropocentrism. If thinking and knowledge production is now something machines are allegedly capable of doing (and sometimes far better than humans), does humanity then lose that one quality which makes them superior, according to Arendt? What implications does this have on man’s relation with animals and machines in general?

Therefore, this virtual issue has argued that from late medieval times up until the eighteenth century in Europe, the relationship between man and animals was mediated via the concept of the machine. Descartes established human superiority by equating animals with  machines. This claim was reversed by La Mettrie who found similarity in man, animals, and machines. From this ambiguity, a subtle conceptual reversal can be seen during the nineteenth and twentieth century. With the onset of industrialization in England and America, man’s relationship with machine became a more important question than man’s relationship with animals. As a result,  William Morris and Hannah Arendt formulated their differing approaches to man’s ties with machines, with the concept of the animal. By constructing this transtemporal genealogy of European intellectual history, this virtual issue on nonhuman intellectual history has conclusively argued that diverse understandings of machine have played a crucial role in shaping how humans conceptualized their relationship with other humans and nonhumans.

Shuvatri Dasgupta teaches at the School of History, University of St Andrews. She is also a doctoral candidate at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge and an editor for the Journal of History of Ideas blog.

Edited by Artur Banaszewski and Thomas Furse

Featured Image: Fall of Icarus by Jacob Peter Gowy. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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