'Human' isn't a category

A  post on the on the “epistemology of affect”  by Rebekah Sheldon at the Nonhuman Turn blog characterizes a certain Posthumanism as a critical project which:

seeks to produce an account of the human and its subtending epistemologies that would hasten its end—not the end of the human-qua-human, but of the “species Homo sapiens as a stable ontological category.

This may true for subject-centred philosophies insofar as those characterize objects of knowledge as modes of presentation in contiguous phases of experience.  When Foucault wrote in The Order of Things that “man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end” he seems to have been thinking of the precariousness of a subject-centred “transcendental humanism” that takes our first person phenomenology as an organizing scheme for knowledge production in general.

Human awareness is temporally ordered and superficially linear. But while this might be one way of designing an effective cognitive agent, other ways of synthesizing the Manifold may be out there: multi-threaded or multi-core cognizers distributing agency and affect over myriad quasi-agential components. As Dennett and others have argued, it is likely that human consciousness is implemented by a self-organizing pandemonium of lower level intentional or sub-intentional systems.

We feel “human” (thus qualified) because of the graded transparency of neurocomputation. But the possibility of attributing epistemic agency to non-personal or sub-personal agents (nematodes, chess playing computers, or neural networks, say) tells against the mooted status of the human in epistemology.

If this is what Posthumanists are exercised with, they are in excellent company, but they are saying nothing you cannot already get from the mainstream of last-century analytic philosophy (Ryle, Wittgenstein, Sellars, Quine, Davidson, Dennett, the Churchlands, etc.). For this reason, Critical Posthumanism and its allied discourses are decent enough prophylactics against The Spirit as long as you can get a hyperbole bypass.

Yet, if the epistemic category of ‘the human’ is apt for retirement, this seems not to be true of the ontological or ethical status of Homo sapiens.  The biological distinctiveness of the human really isn’t at issue in philosophies of transcendental subjectivity and remains untouched by the demise of Foucault’s Man. Animals don’t make it into Rawls’ Original position for a good reason: they may have goods but unlike human language users, can’t deploy a conception of the good in political colloquy.  This may be unfair, but their exclusion reflects a gulf in cultural and social capacity whose moral import remains contested. The human may not have a categorical status, but it has ontological status just because humans are a different kind of thing.






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