Philosophy, talking apes and social media

Most of us know Pär Segerdahl from the Ethics Blog where he invites readers to philosophize about research regulation, the meaning of consent, human-animal relationships, and what it means to think.

Pär SegerdahlPär Segerdahl's interest in language has moved him from Wittgensteinian philosophy to how apes learn to speak to his current work on the disclosure of incidental findings in biobank research together with a PhD student. When he is not sharing his thoughts with us on the Ethics Blog, Pär Segerdahl is developing new ideas for research on how ethics changes when the world changes and publishing philosophical work on the contrasts that are often made between animals and humans.

But even though he has been writing for his entire career, writing for the blog didn’t come naturally. The move from doing philosophy to working with communications was a challenge, but one he says he has thoroughly enjoyed. Pär Segerdahl compares writing for the blog to a philosophical genre that most of us have heard about: Aphorisms.

“What above all is difficult with blogging is to quickly introduce the topic of the post, in just a sentence or two. Of course, academic philosophical writing doesn’t use aphorisms, so the difficulty of moving to blogging was actually, and more exactly, the difficulty of moving from academic writing to a form of writing that is more appropriate for philosophical thinking!”, Pär Segerdahl says.

Pär Segerdahl interest in language brought him to meet with the bonobo apes at the Language Research Center (LRC) in Atlanta. There, the bonobos communicate by pointing to symbols on a communication board. During his first visit in 2001 he had a close encounter with a bonobo mother, Panbanisha. He was told not to touch the apes, but couldn’t help himself when he was standing outside the enclosure facing her baby Nathan. Suddenly Panbanisha approached him with the communication board, sat down in front of him and pointed to the symbol ‘Monster’.

“I felt shame, as you do when you’re corrected for having misbehaved. But I also felt vertigo. I went to LRC hoping I could observe linguistic behavior in apes, but I didn’t expect that the apes would actually speak to me, and I certainly didn’t expect being corrected by them”, says Pär Segerdahl.

His very personal encounter with Panbanisha has followed him ever since. Some of his most recent articles deal with the contrast between animals and humans and the kind of dizziness we experience when we realize that if humans are animals, it means that I myself am, in fact, an animal.

Pär Segerdahl, Editor, the Ethics BlogTraditionally, researchers have been trying to teach apes to ‘speak’ the same way we teach second languages. But one of the young bonobos, Kanzi, learned language spontaneously. Just like human children learn to speak for the first time. He was simply learning by observing others communicate. Pär Segerdahl has called this early acquired ability to speak ‘primal language’ and wrote a book about it.

“Learning to speak for the first time is more than just learning ‘a language’, like you do when you learn foreign languages. People who learn second languages already know how to speak. But learning to speak for the first time means learning a whole form of life: You don’t have to learn that entire way of living a second time, when you learn a second language”, Pär Segerdahl says.

Even though we see a lot of Pär Segerdahl on the blogs, most of his posts deal with research regulation, biobanking and registry research and not with talking apes.

“I am not writing directly about research regulation, biobanking, or talking apes. I am writing about how we think about them. Often, our ways of thinking are too simple, and I enjoy thinking about problems that arise simply because we don’t think well enough. What brings all these topics together is that there are such ‘thought problems’ connected with them that challenge me to think about how we think”, Pär Segerdahl says.  

About Pär Segerdahl

Pär Segerdahl received his PhD in Theoretical Philosophy from Uppsala University In 1993. He was a guest researcher at the Centre  for Gender Research at Uppsala University from 2007-2009. Pär Segerdahl became Associate Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at Åbo Akademi University in 1998 and Uppsala University in 2001. He currently develops new ideas for research on how our ethical outlook changes when the world changes, for example, when new biotechnology emerges. His work is concerned with what philosophy is, what it means to philosophize. Pär Segerdahl is also involved in research communication for the (Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructure Sweden) and editor of the ethics blog and etikbloggen.

A selection of his blog texts have also been published in book form (in both Swedish and English). Pär Segerdahl is also a member of The Nordic Wittgenstein Society.

Josepine Fernow 2015-16-11