There was a piece by Philip Hensher in Sunday's Observer, commenting in nostalgic spirit on the vanishing art of handwriting. Extracted from his new book, The Missing Ink, it's an interesting read, and what Hensher says brings out some of the possible reasons for regret: that in our handwriting we express a little bit of our personality, and that our handwriting is 'part of who we are'; that handwriting registers our individuality and is good for us; and that other modes of writing lack these personally expressive and individuating qualities.
However, Hensher goes so far as to make writing by hand something that marks our humanity, and this strikes me as going a shade too far. Handwriting can have all the attractive features one wants, but to suggest that, by contrast with more 'mechanized' modes of writing, it encapsulates our distinctively human character is open to question. This, however, is just what Hensher does do, repeatedly. He writes: 'We have surrendered our handwriting for something more mechanical, less distinctively human'. And: 'to diminish the place of the handwritten in our lives is to diminish, in a small but real way, our humanity'. And: that handwriting is 'human in ways not all communication systems manage to be'.
Conceptions of human nature - if I may digress with a brief and simplifying observation about a complicated subject - can sometimes be openly normative: specifying how all humans ought to live in order to realize their best potentialities. But 'best' will be in the eye of the beholder and may not be what others wish to embrace. Human nature then risks becoming an oppressive concept, in case it should be deployed to coerce others towards the projected ideal. Another, different conception of human nature simply takes the latter to be what all human beings empirically have in common in the way of abilities, needs and so forth. Such a conception can also be used in normative argument, but it requires supporting moral premises. So, if everyone has a certain need - for food, say, or rest - then we may favour the meeting of that need, so long as it is benign. If it were, say, a cruel need, then we wouldn't favour its being met. The moral argument here has to be up front, explicit. To smuggle it in by means of an inherently normative conception of human nature puts things less clearly than they can be put.
Returning now to Philip Hensher's argument, if diminishing the place of handwriting in our lives diminishes our humanity, are we to say that pre-literate societies were less human? Not just lacking an important resource, note, but less human? Equally, are we to say that a person who has never learned to write in a literate society is, not just disadvantaged, but not as human as one who has? These aren't good ways of expressing the virtues of handwriting that Hensher wants to express. To put the point more crudely, it's a bit like taking the nearly universal attribute of play and on that basis claiming that a society without ball games would be one of diminished humanity.