I want to go back to school with this textbook

Kirsten Portier, Eric Min, and Peter Paul Verbeek
What makes a human being? Our physicality in relation to science and technology
Boom publisher 272 p. 34.90 euros

Jessie Reemersma

the book

Kirsten Portier teaches philosophy and art. Erik Menn is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Antwerp, specializing in cognition, cognition, and consciousness. Peter Paul Verbeek is Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Science and Technology, and Rector of the Magnificus University of the University of Amsterdam. What makes a human being? It is the final exam book for 2024-2028 for Philosophy at vwo.

the book

“You were not born a woman, but you were made a woman.” The title of the book can be seen as a reference to this famous quote by Simone de Beauvoir. Just as there is no such thing as a woman, there is no such thing as a man. Portier, Maine, and Verbeek developed this non-essential view of man in relation to technology and science.

They write that our perceptions, actions, and even morals move with technologies. The arrival of the contraceptive pill, for example, contributed to the separation of sexuality from reproduction and thus played a role in the acceptance of homosexuality, as Dutch ethnographer Anne-Marie Mol has shown. People also give meaning to their lives with metaphors from technology. They “pull” like a clock, look out for “exhaust valves” like a steam engine and cycle at home on “autopilot”.


Theoretically, according to Elon Musk, it is possible to mount our entire “brain” to an external hard drive, so that you can continue to live in the body of a robot. The question is: is this still human? Overall, this book is a defense against dualism, which the authors describe as the legacy of thinkers like Plato and Descartes. Musk, which absolutely does not belong on that list, makes the separation between body and mind clearer than ever. He believes that you can cut your mind off the body, transfer it, and live unchanged.

The authors argue that eating, moving, and dancing on a good day is not an uninhibited tool. It is an essential part of our existence. Therefore, technologies that affect the body also affect the mind. In this regard, the book draws, among others, on the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the theory of mediation developed by Verbeek. There is also interest in feminist and postcolonial perspectives on the body, including de Beauvoir. After all, it goes without saying that your body matters if you’re unwittingly confronting your alleged skin color or gender every single day.

Anyone who refers to the impact of technology should not go too far into determinism. The methods may lead to dramatic changes, but according to the authors, there is always room for a critical stance. Art is the development of – according to Foucault – a “free relationship” with technology. You should not outright reject the impact of technology on your life in pursuit of extreme freedom, but you should freely relate to that influence. This requires reflection and exploration – and good teaching materials.

Model paragraph

“A human being has no essential characteristics. This gives us the opportunity to resist exclusion and oppression on the basis of a view of humanity that some people agree with and others do not. It provides us with the opportunity to get used to a society in which all kinds of complex identities, different experiences and conflicting points of view coexist.

Reasons to read this book

This book seems to me to be a treasure for teachers, who, according to friends of teachers, sometimes need good teaching material. It’s rich with examples from art, literature, and cinema, without ever feeling fancy. Portier, Maine, and Verbeek discuss quantum mechanics and neural networks with the same ease as poems by Leakey Marsman and Marek Lukas Rijnfeld.

There is also a great deal of interest in philosophers from Belgium and the Netherlands, such as Miriam Rasch, Petran Köckelkorein, and Jos de Mol. If every textbook was like this, I’d want to go back to school. Fortunately, the book isn’t just for students. This lively, well-arranged, and crystal-clear introduction to the philosophy of technology can appeal to everyone.

What makes a humanphoto tree

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