Homo Oeconomicus — A Side-Trip to the Human Park

“There are some people who begin the Zoo at the beginning, called WAYIN, and walk as quickly as they can past every cage until they come to the one called WAYOUT, but the nicest people go straight to the animal they love the most, and stay there.”
[A.A. Milne, in the Introduction to “Winnie-The-Pooh”]

In September 1999, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk published a discourse entitled “Rules for the Human Park: A Response to Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism”, which he had prepared for a conference on Martin Heidegger in Germany. The piece gave rise to a highly publicized scandal which was quickly ensued by an international debate on whether the “end of humanism” was really coming and if it would be followed by something like Sloterdijk’s description of the self-domestication of humans. In this essay Sloterdijk offers a reflection on humanism, genetics and the problems posed by what he calls the “domestication of the human being”. The use of the word “Selektion”(a very sensitive term in Germany since Nazism) caused Sloterdijk to be severely criticized, notably by Jürgen Habermas who had supported him in his early career (the moralists are always quick in their responses). The term is used twice in the paper. First in the context of “native selection”, and in parallel with the word “lektion” (lesson). However, Sloterdijk would also receive support from other intellectuals, including Jean Baudrillard who taught at EGS until he died in 2007.

Mankind is not suffering of lack of natural features and resources, as philosophical anthropologists since Johann Gottfried Herder assert (man as “deficient being”), but of sheer abundance. Sloterdijk argues that humans have too many impressions, too many thoughts, too many words, too many options for action, and a latent surplus of internal tension and energy. Human beings are creatures that live in the lap of luxury – and yet constantly think of themselves as being poorly endowed. What makes humans so interesting to study – as Niall Ferguson states in “The Great Degeneration” (2012) – is that we are at the same time citizens, residents and taxpayers, shareholders, managers, employees, litigants, defendants, judges, club members, officials and trustees. We exist, simultaneously, in many and more bewildering institutions than a zoo. Homo oeconomicus is only one of the many parts we play. We are zoon politikon, as Aristotle put it – social beings.