Humanity between gods and beasts? Ontologies in question

Date: 20 January 2011
Speaker: Professor Sir Geoffrey Lloyd


Wherein lies the humanity of human beings? Many conflicting answers have been attempted in ancient and in modern times, with many focussing on the triadic relationship between humans, gods and beasts. This lecture will review a wide range of suggestions, from those of ancient Greeks and Chinese, to recent anthropological proposals (by Viveiros de Castro and Descola in particular) of alternative ontologies. We have every reason to take rival human understandings seriously, but that should not be thought to lead to radical relativism, let alone to a breakdown of mutual intelligibility. Rather, they offer resources for exploring the substantive questions and for reflecting on the propensity of human beings to entertain or presuppose strong views on, precisely, what makes humans human. While evolutionary biology, ethology, cognitive science and anthropology itself have all contributed to an increased recognition of the complexities of the question, we need the input not just of those disciplines, but also of philosophy and of history, to evaluate potential answers. In that spirit the lecture offers an interdisciplinary commentary on the problems.

Speaker Bio

Professor Sir Geoffrey Lloyd 

Fellow of the British Academy 

Professor Sir Geoffrey Lloyd has been based at Cambridge for most of his University career, holding a Fellowship at King’s College from 1957 to 1989 and becoming Master of Darwin College in that year. Professor Lloyd is currently an Honorary Fellow of both Colleges. As the holder of a personal Chair in Ancient Philosophy and Science, Professor Lloyd taught in the departments of Classics and History and Philosophy of Science especially. On retirement in 2000, Professor Lloyd has been based at the Needham Research Institute, whose Trust was chaired by him from 1992 to 2002. Professor Lloyd has held visiting professorships in North America (e.g. Berkeley, Stanford, Cornell, Princeton), Europe (e.g. Paris), Japan, Korea and China: he held the first Zhu Kezhen Visiting Professorship at the Institute for the History of Natural Science in Beijing in 2001. Professor Lloyd has published 24 books various of which have been translated into nine different languages, as well as about 130 articles and many other reviews. Professor Lloyd was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1983, received the Sarton medal (for History of Science) in 1987, was elected to Honorary Foreign Membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1995, was awarded an Hon. Litt. D. by the University of Athens in 2003 and the Kenyon Medal for Classical Studies by the British Academy in 2007. He was knighted for 'services to the history of thought' in 1997.