No Future? Catherine Malabou on the Humanities

Catherine Malabou has an intriguing piece on the vexed question of the relationship between the “humanities” and science in the journal Transeuropeennes here.

It is dominated by a clear and subtle reading of Kant, Foucault and Derrida’s discussion of the meaning of Enlightenment and modernity. Malabou argues that the latter thinkers attempt to escape Kantian assumptions about human invariance by identifying the humanities with “plasticity itself”. The Humanities need not style themselves in terms of some invariant essence of humanity. They can be understood as a site of transformation and “deconstruction” as such.  Thus for Derrida in “University Without Condition”, the task of the humanities is:

the deconstruction of « what is proper to man » or to humanism. The transgression of the transcendental implies that the very notion of limit or frontier will proceed from a contingent, that is, historical, mutable, and changing deconstruction of the frontier of the « proper ».

Where, as for Foucault, the deconstruction of the human involves exhibiting its historical conditions of possibility and experimenting with these by, for example, thinking about “our ways of being, thinking, the relation to authority, relations between the sexes, the way in which we perceive insanity or illness “.

This analysis might suggest that the Humanities have little to fear from technological and scientific transformations of humans bodies or minds; they are just the setting in which the implications of these alterations are hammered out.

This line of thought reminds me of a revealingly bad argument produced by Andy Clark in his Natural Born Cyborgs:

The promise, or perhaps threatened, transition to a world of wired humans and semi-intelligent gadgets is just one more move in an ancient game . . . We are already masters at incorporating nonbiological stuff and structure deep into our physical and cognitive routines. To appreciate this is to cease to believe in any post-human future and to resist the temptation to define ourselves in brutal opposition to the very worlds in which so many of us now live, love and work (Clark 2003, 142).

This is obviously broken-backed: that earlier bootstrapping didn’t produce posthumans doesn’t entail  that future ones won’t. Even if humans are essentially self-modifying it doesn’t follow that any prospective self-modifying entity is human.

The same problem afflicts Foucault and Derrida’s attempts to hollow out a reservation for humanities scholars by identifying them with the promulgation of transgression or deconstruction. Identifying the humanities with plasticity as such throws the portals of possibility so wide that it can only refer to an abstract possibility space whose contents and topology remains closed to us. If, with Malabou, we allow that some of these transgressions will operate on the material substrate of life, then we cannot assume that its future configurations will resemble human communities or human thinkers – thinkers concerned with topics like sex, work and death for example.

Malabou concludes with the suggestion that Foucault and Derrida fail to confront a quite different problem. They do not provide a historical explanation of the possibility of transformations of life and mind to which they refer:

They both speak of historical transformations of criticism without specifying them. I think that the event that made the plastic change of plasticity possible was for a major part the discovery of a still unheard of plasticity in the middle of the XXth century, and that has become visible and obvious only recently, i.e. the plasticity of the brain that worked in a way behind continental philosophy’s back. The transformation of the transcendental into a plastic material did not come from within the Humanities. It came precisely from the outside of the Humanities, with again, the notion of neural plasticity. I am not saying that the plasticity of the human as to be reduced to a series of neural patterns, nor that the future of the humanities consists in their becoming scientific, even if neuroscience tends to overpower the fields of human sciences (let’s think of neurolinguistics, neuropsychoanalysis, neuroaesthetics, or of neurophilosophy), I only say that the Humanities had not for the moment taken into account the fact that the brain is the only organ that grows, develops and maintains itself in changing itself, in transforming constantly its own structure and shape. We may evoke on that point a book by Norman Doidge, The Brain that changes itself. Doidge shows that this changing, self-fashioning organ is compelling us to elaborate new paradigms of transformation.

I’m happy to concede that the brain is a special case of biological plasticity, but, as Eileen Joy notes elsewhere, the suggestion that the humanities have been out of touch with scientific work on the brain is unmotivated. The engagement between the humanities (or philosophy, at least) and neuroscience already includes work as diverse as Paul and Patricia Churchland’s work on neurophilosophy and Derrida’s early writings on Freud’s Scientific Project.

I’m also puzzled by the suggestion that we need to preserve a place for transcendental thinking at all here. Our posthuman predicament consists in the realization that we are alterable configurations of matter and that our powers of self-alteration are changing in ways that put the future of human thought and communal life in doubt. This is not a transcendental claim. It’s a truistic generalisation which tells us little about the cosmic fate of an ill-assorted grab bag of  academic disciplines.


Clark, A. 2003. Natural-born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. New York: Oxford University Press.







3 thoughts on “No Future? Catherine Malabou on the Humanities

  1. Some spot on criticisms here, David. I’ve never understood how Malabou derives freedom from stochastic systematicity, or why she thinks neuroplasticity is any kind of game changer. The whole edifice seems to turn on a not-so-covert equivocation of the brain with the agent, when this identity of natural and normative orders is the very Gordian knot no one seems have a way to untangle.

    And that argument from Clark has had me mystified for years now.

    But both thinkers are quite revealing in their own way, insofar as they highlight the complementary naivetes of the analytic and continental traditions, the former’s hamfisted sense of the sociohistorical, and the latter’s facile grasp of the scientific. There’s many exceptions converging on a new rule, I think. Ray and yourself, certainly, from the continental angle. From more the analytic side I’ve recently found myself gobsmacked by Stephen Turner (another golden link sent to me by dmf). Anyone who wants to know what the future of the humanities might look like should definitely check him out. His recuperation of Verstehen, for instance, is very, very interesting stuff:

  2. Thanks for the Turner link, Scott. Downloaded and due to be read at the first opportunity. Looks just great.

    Regarding Malabou, this was, in some ways, an inadvisable post, as I don’t know Malabou’s work in any detail (beyond an good-tempered exchange with herself and Rick Dolphijn at last years SEP-FEP conference in Kingston).

    It’s pretty obvious I was struggling here, I think. But the position she attributes to Foucault and Derrida here seems similar to Sellarsian attempts to arbitrate between the claims of science and of the manifest image by shifting to some formal account of being. Derrida is a more dangerous ally than Kant, here. because, as Hagglund and Steigler both argue, the transcendental opening he descries is too wide to be pecular to a “who” as opposed to a “what” – even if, as you have argued I think, the arguments for the trace structure, differance, etc. draw on a subjective conception of temporality.

    But it’s not just an occasion to tread these well worn grooves. I think the posthuman predicament raises some really interesting issues about inter-discplinarity which are fundamentally political. I’m just not sure if framing these in terms of some quasi-transcendental notion or other is particularly helpful.

  3. I think Derrida (like Adorno) gives a canny *phenomenological* account of the irreflexivity of neurobiology from the standpoint of a system incapable of metacognizing that irreflexivity as such ( But you’re entirely right, I think. The aleatory nature of differance, phenomenologically described or no, makes it no more a friend of autonomy than does the indeterminacy/plasticity of the brain does. Noise redeems nothing intentional, whether characterized quasi-transcendentally as in Derrida, or empirically as in brain science.

    Anyone who’s uncomfortable with Sellarsian attempts to bootstrap the normative needs to read Turner’s Explaining Normativity. Powerful demolition. It’s hard to believe that he’s been overlooked as long as he’s been.

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