Kevin LaGrandeur on Posthumanism and Transhumanism

Kevin has provided a typically engaging gloss on the difference between posthumanism and transhumanism over at the IEET site. I don’t fundamentally disagree with his account of transhumanism (though I think he needs to emphasize its fundamentally normative character) but the account of posthumanism he gives here has some shortcomings:

Two significant differences between transhumanism and the posthuman is the posthuman’s focus on information and systems theories (cybernetics), and the posthuman’s consequent, primary relationship to digital technology; and also the posthuman’s emphasis on systems (such as humans) as distributed entities—that is, as systems comprised of, and entangled with, other systems.  Transhumanism does not emphasize either of these things. 

Posthumanism derives from the posthuman because the latter represents the death of the humanist subject: the qualities that make up that subject depend on a privileged position as a special, stand-alone entity that possesses unique characteristics that make it exceptional in the universe—characteristics such as unique and superior intellect to all other creatures, or a natural right to freedoms that do not accrue similarly to other animals.  If the focus is on information as the essence of all intelligent systems, and materials and bodies are merely substrates that carry the all-important information of life, then there is no meaningful difference between humans and intelligent machines—or any other kind of intelligent system, such as animals. 

Now, I realize we can spin definitions to different ends; but even allowing for our different research aims, this won’t do. Posthumanists may, but need not, claim that humans are becoming more intertwined with technology. They may, but need not, claim that functions, relations or systems are more ontologically basic than intrinsic properties. Many arch-humanists are functionalists, holists or relationists (I Kant, R Brandom, D Davidson, G Hegel . . .) and one can agree that human subjectivity is constitutively technological (A Clark) without denying its distinctive moral or epistemological status. Reducing stuff to relations can be a way of emphasizing the transcendentally constitutive status of the human subject, taking anthropocentrism to the max (see below). Emphasizing the externality or contingency of relations can be a way of arguing that things are fundamentally independent of that constitutive activity (as in Harman’s OOO or DeLanda’s assemblage ontology).

So I raise Kevin’s thumbnails with a few of my own.

  • A philosopher is a humanist if she believes that humans are importantly distinct from non-humans and supports this distinctiveness claim with a philosophical anthropology: an account of the central features of human existence and their relations to similarly general aspects of nonhuman existence.
  • A humanist philosophy is anthropocentric if it accords humans a superlative status that all or most nonhumans lack
  • Transhumanists claims that technological enhancement of human capacities is a desirable aim (all other things being equal). So the normative content of transhumanism is largely humanist. Transhumanists just hope to add some new ways of cultivating human values to the old unreliables of education and politics.
  • Posthumanists reject anthropocentrism. So philosophical realists, deconstructionists, new materialists, Cthulhu cultists and naturalists are posthumanists even if they are unlikely to crop up on one another’s Christmas lists.

For more, see my forthcoming book Posthuman Life and my post Humanism, Transhumanism and Posthumanism.


8 thoughts on “Kevin LaGrandeur on Posthumanism and Transhumanism

  1. Hi David: Thanks for the commentary on my article. I agree completely with your points: Posthumanists are not necessarily descendents of the posthuman (which is one of the reasons I get irritated when people use the two terms indiscriminately). I was just trying to show how they might be confused–i.e., because the posthuman leads to a destabilization of anthropocentrism, it also must lead to a destabilization of humanist ideals based on it; and thus there is a relationship, but those two groups of philosophers are not identical, as you rightly point out. Indeed, as you point out, posthumanism ALSO descends from postmodernist and poststructuralist ideas. But I was trying to “nutshell” all of this for a general, educated audience. So I left the complexities of posthumanism. AND, yes, it is clear that transhumanism is anthropocentrism on steroids, but I didn’t want to say that on IEET, because I would have been pilloried. Maybe I should have….Thanks for your expansions, in any case.

  2. Thanks for your response, Kevin. It’s really hard to do justice to the nuances of use that “posthuman” and “posthumanism” have acquired. Stefan Herbrechter talks about a process of “posthumanization” – which corresponds closely to the process of technological intermingling you describe. Your overview is probably more consistent with his use and that of other critical posthumanists (Neil Badmington, Katherine Hayles, Rosi Braidotti, etc.)

    I’ve approached the topic with a interest in systematic philosophy, and the complex relationship between posthumanism and transcendental thinking. I’m particularly influenced by the way new “speculative” realist thinking has attempted (with varying success) to work beyond the post-Kantian/pragmatist idea that philosophy should be concerned with how humans deal with or “think” the world and eschew attempts to limn a mind-independent reality. Posthuman Life is, in part, an attempt to approach the long-run future in a similar spirit. Obviously, this concern inflects my usage of terms like posthuman and anthropocentrism.

    Looking forward to seeing you in Greece next month. I’m almost certain to go (funding sorted, ticket, hotel booked) though I’ve a few unexpected availability issues to sort out first. D

  3. As a possibly naive question, what about the transhumanist who isn’t a philosopher? dmf links to the anarcho-transhumanism website which concerns itself with the maximal use of technology in the struggle for revolutionary social change. In one respect we can say this is a machinic politics that refuses the dichotomy of technology and human precisely because it doesn’t respect the application of normative reasons surrounding the protection of one category from the other- whether this remains necessarily anthropocentric I don’t know, after all couldn’t you be a transhumanist for political reasons, while also holding that you are gambling, that profound alterations in the machinic circuitry could produce a cascade of unforeseen posthuman outcomes?

    I’ve come closer to transhumanism not for reasons of revolutionary politics, but for the political therapeutics at work in my professional field of psychiatric nursing. The position of someone like David Pearce in the Hedonistic Imperative are compelling because they offer the promise of sophisticated treatments that don’t stop at treatment but extend to what is coded as enhancement (although there is no compelling case for that coding). My recent interest in transhumanism is less about advancing a humanist framework and more about the practical requirements of my profession. Of course, humanist commitments may be part of the history of psychiatry and nursing but there is nothing that necessitates my upholding the norms that psychiatry has put forward.

    I guess I’m asking whether it is possible to reformulate an old axiom that was applied to antihumanism, revamped for contemporary concerns: is it possible to be posthumanist in theory, whilst being transhumanist in practice?

  4. Hi Arran,
    What a great question! I think I’m inclined that way (i.e. theoretically posthumanist, practically transhumanist). For me, there is no inconsistency because the non-speculative side of my posthumanism is a rejection of Kantian-style transcendental humanisms: the idea that anthropoform subjectivity forms or structures the world. So, for example, I don’t think reality is an object for a transcendental subject or the collection of linguistically expressible facts. But beyond that I’m some kind of anthropological humanist. There are humans and (mostly) I still think like one.

  5. Kevin, just happened to catch your presentation @ the Personhood Beyond the human conference in 2013 on youtube. Great Job! Not really having any context, I was still very engaged and informed by your talk. I would suggest you start with the ending first which provides clarity and context. I’m somewhat annoyed at headings such as “beyond the human,” and “transhuman.” I feel like we have a lot more work on what it is to be a person and what a human being actually is or can be before we jump off beyond human. maybe that’s one of the themes of this movement. see Carl rogers book “On Becoming a Person.” love to engage you on some of your interests. I’ve written a book called “Being Human.”

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