Class Examines Relationship Between Humans and Animals

“Whether or not we like it, we are animals,” says USF professor Gerard Kuperus, “We constantly try to deny this. Even while Aristotle describes us as animals with reason, we mostly forget the animal part and emphasize reason.” In the freshmen seminar The Human Animal, Kuperus and his students explore the natural relationship between humans and animals, focusing on the philosophy behind human rationality and the ethical questions raised by human-animal relations. Originally, the seminar stemmed from Kuperus’ interest in existentialism and philosophy and his research in the past three years as a professor at USF.

The class studied philosophers like Aristotle and Descartes in the first few weeks of the semester, and then moved on to more theoretical discussion. For example, The Human Animal examines how and why humans are afraid of being animals and why, as a society, we distance ourselves from our animal roots. The course includes a weeklong unit on ethical issues related to human exploitation of animal welfare. Kuperus, however, tries to keep this section short in order to avoid off-topic debates. Currently, the class is covering the works of Peter Singer, an author who cites human elitism as a cause of animal abuse. Kuperus prefers Singer’s work to that of Jane Goodall, who wrote Harvest For Hope, a required reading for incoming freshmen. Kuperus describes Goodall’s book as a, “summary of facts” and prefers authors who make direct arguments.

In addition to in-class discussion, readings, and lectures, the class also participates in several excursions into the city. Mailyng Blair is a student in the seminar who originally took the class to fulfill a core requirement, but admits that she has actually learned a lot. Blair went to the De Young Museum with the class to view how different cultures display animals in artwork. She found that exposure to foreign cultures helped her to understand the different opinions about human and animal hierarchy across the globe. The class also went to a Zen Center, where they investigated Buddhist interpretation of human-animal relationships and participated in meditation. Later in the semester, Kuperus is also planning to take the class to the California Academy of Science.

Blair, an economics major, says the class has inspired her to start, “thinking about humans as closer to animals.” Philosophically, Kuperus tries to educate his students about the different perceptions people can have about living things. Specifically, he mentions the philosophical debate about whether reason is an instrument of the body, or if the body is an instrument of reason.  This kind of controversy is prevalent in much of philosophy and the class is highly recommend to philosophy majors, although all majors are welcome and will, most likely, learn quite a bit from it. Kuperus plans to teach the class again in the fall of 2010 and will be teaching existentialism next semester.


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