The Inhuman Gaze and Perceiving Otherwise

In the gaze …. ‘the other person transforms me into an object and denies me, I transform him into an object and deny him, it is asserted. In fact, the other’s gaze transforms me into an object and mine him, only if both of us withdraw into the core of our thinking nature, if we both make ourselves into an inhuman gaze, if each of us feels his actions to be not taken up and understood, but observed as if they were an insect’s’.
— Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception

Merleau-Ponty here responds to the pessimistic and reductive Sartrean account of the Gaze, highlighting that this objectifying gaze only becomes possible by withdrawing into our thinking nature. The capacity to compartmentalize our manner of engagement with others, becoming empathically unavailable, closing down affective responsiveness, can serve positive ends as in bomb disposal and surgery.  However, outside circumstances such as these, empathic unavailability may facilitate violence, negligence and ethical failure. It is arguable whether or not primordial empathic responsiveness is ontologically basic. What is clear, nonetheless, is that empathy drives psycho-social development and serves as an affective touchstone for the more cognitive modes of intersubjective engagement and metadiscursive practices, ensuring that subjects remain positively connected with others and the shared world.

Merleau-Ponty’s inhuman gaze both ‘animalizes’ the ‘object’ of the gaze but paradoxically requires a ‘rational’ retreat, effectively ‘de-animalizing’ the gazing subject – this paradox points to more than a mere conceptual tension.  How is an inhuman gaze achieved and at what cost? How might the emerging insights of the role of perception into our interdependencies and essential sociality from various domains, challenge the practices and institutions of science, medicine, psychiatry and justice? What can we learn from atypical social cognition, psychopathology and animal cognition? What can aesthetics reveal about inhuman gazes and perceiving otherwise?

These and related questions will motivate the papers and discussions presented at a three-day conference to be held at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris between June 6th and June 9th, 2018.

Could include topics such as:

  • The scientific/ medical/ psychiatric gaze
  • The psychopathological gaze 
  • Shame and the gaze of others
  • Dehumanisation and demonization
  • Violence/ torture
  • Atypical social cognition
  • Ideologies of exclusion- in-groups/ out-groups
  • Bias and discrimination
  • Interanimality – animal gazes
  • The inhuman gaze/ perceiving otherwise in aesthetics


The underlying motivation for the conference title and the description is to inspire questioning in regard to perceptions of ‘the human’; how this designation - 'human' - can be used beyond the mere identification of a species to underwrite exclusion, denigration, dehumanization and demonization of what is then designated -  inhuman or nonhuman.  Key to understanding these issues is consideration of the nature and scope of perception. The fact that individuals can report entirely different perceptions of the same phenomena and entirely different perceptions of others warrants closer investigation.

More than ever, this question of what it is to be human demands urgent attention: not only in light of the increasing influence of dehumanizing and exclusionary political ideologies, but also as we enter the age of the Anthropocene, and move ever closer to potentially causing our own and other species’ extinction. While much important work has focused on proposing solutions to these pressing political and environmental crises, a number of underlying issues concerning the (sub-personal, personal, interpersonal, and cultural) origins of our sense of one another as human beings and its disruption, remain relatively neglected. Accordingly, the conference aims to clarify the phenomenological and psychological character of perceiving others as human or inhuman, in tandem with its embodiment in various social phenomena. The theme is intentionally broad so that the intersections will generate interesting papers offering new insights, connections, reconfigurations and future research directions. This is an opportunity for the participants to choose how they wish to tackle the topic on the basis of their own research interests.

Questions concerning what it means to be ‘human’ and conversely ‘non-human’, ‘post-human’ or ‘inhuman’ are key to a number of domains from the hard sciences (evolutionary theory, biology, and artificial intelligence) to the human sciences (sociology, psychology, psychiatry and anthropology).  And all these domains are enriched and given wider significance through engagement with the humanities and specifically with philosophy.  Philosophy furnishes not only theoretical frameworks and alternative pathways of interpretation of the data, but also is able to situate issues within a metaphysical context.


Increasingly universities are recognising the immense value that is generated with multidisciplinary projects. Such projects inspire questioning and challenges from outside the usual assumptions and conceptual frameworks, thereby stimulating creative and ‘outside the square’ thinking.  The medical humanities, a relatively new research domain appearing in the research statements of many progressive universities, fruitfully exploits this multidisciplinary approach.  The conference thus seeks to advance these cross-disciplinary exchanges.

The inclusion of academics at all stages of their career in the speaker line-up will provide the opportunity for early career researchers to engage with senior researchers and lay down networks for possible future collaborations.  This is also why that apart from a number of speaking slots dedicated to junior faculty and early career researchers, there will be an opportunity for others to present their research in short presentations or as respondants to the keynote speakers.  Furthermore, there will be two one-hour dedicated sessions for these early career researchers to consult in small groups with professors about their own projects to determine if there might be sufficient alignment for future collaborations etc., - such as Marie Curie, Leverhulme, Welcome Trust, IRC fellowships and grants.

Tentative Conference Schedule:

Wednesday 6th June 2pm. Opening address, presentations – inhuman gazes, psychiatry, psychopathology and perception, followed by a drinks reception (weather permitting in the courtyard)

Thursday 7th June – the inhuman gaze, dehumanization and atypical social cognition. The schedule on Thursday will include a one hour small-group consultation session (3 groups) for junior faculty and early career researchers to consult with senior academics about their projects and possible collaborations and mentorship.

Conference dinner

Friday 8th June – ideologies of exclusion, in-groups/ out-groups; interanimality etc,. The schedule on Friday will include another one hour small-group consultation session (3 groups) for junior faculty and early career researchers to consult with senior academics about their projects and possible collaborations and mentorship.

Saturday 9th June (until 1pm) – The inhuman gaze/ perceiving otherwise in aesthetics – then buffet lunch in courtyard/ or at Irish Embassy

The sessions will be run sequentially (not in parallel) and this will ensure a conference experience that is cohesive and collegial.