Monday, February 20, 2012

Humanism & Posthumanism

One's views about digital technology and "digital people"--even what one identifies as questions, problems, issues, advantages, worries, etc.--will depend upon one's other assumptions and values. Here, I want to talk about two different philosophical systems or stances: humanism and posthumanism.


Humanism comes from the Enlightenment (The idea of the "human" changed significantly with the turn to secular science and the increased emphasis on "reason.") It is the view that human life/being is somehow morally distinct from other forms of life/beings. Humanism is really human exceptionalism. The most common basis for "human exceptionalism" claim looks something like this: human beings are the only forms of life who are capable of reason. Because we humans can reason, we can autonomously make decisions for ourselves--we don't need to obey anyone (like a king), or anything (like natural law). However, with this autonomy comes responsibility: we make our own beds, so to speak, so we have to sleep in them. Human exceptionalism itself assumes several things: that humans are the only forms of life capable of reason; that reason is good; what counts as "rationality"; that reason necessarily enables/leads to autonomy; etc.

In addition to human exceptionalism, humanism entails other values and assumptions. First, humanism privileges authenticity above all else. There is a "true inner you" that ought to be allowed free expression. Second, humanism privileges ideals of wholeness and unity: the "self" is undivided, consistent with itself, an organic whole that ought not be fractured. Related to the first two is the third value, that of immediacy: mediation in any form--in representation, in communication, etc.--makes authenticity and wholeness more difficult to maintain. Copies are bad, originals are good. This leads some humanisms to commit what philosophers call the "naturalistic fallacy"--i.e., to mistakenly assume that what is "natural" (whole, authentic, unmediated, original) is preferable to what is "artificial" (partial, mediated, derivative, etc.).

Though most of our commonsense, everyday mainstream ideas, ideals, and values in the global North are fundamentally, if not largely informed by humanism, there are many, many problems with humanism. The most pressing of these problems is the circularity of the definition of "human" itself. If you look at the history of philosophy, no one has been successfully able to determine a set of criteria for who counts as (fully) "human" that do not already presuppose some idea of what a human is/who already counts. For example, for a long, long time, non-white, non-Western people did not count as fully human (read the US Constitution, for example, with its 3/5 clause, for a very literal example of this). So, the definition of "human" relied on unquestioned assumptions about the less-than-human-ness of non-whites, women, disabled people, and other historically marginalized populations. "Human" has been defined in ways that make it easier for privileged people to "count" or be "recognized" as fully human.

Humanism can be problematized on other grounds as well. For example, its ideals of wholeness, authenticity, and immediacy are both empirically and philosophically problematic. For instance, if there are cognitive processes that happen in our brains, but of which we are not consciously aware, then our "selves" aren't unified or whole--there are facets of ourselves that happen beyond our control. Human exceptionalism is problematic from ecological and animal-rights perspectives. We can also question the extent to which humans are fundamentally or necessarily "rational" (e.g., infants aren't rational, so does this mean they're not human?).


Just as there are many humanisms, there are many posthumanisms. Some posthumanisms merely extend humanist ideals of rationality, progress, and self-improvement. Other posthumanisms are critical of humanist values and assumptions, and offer alternative values and assumptions. I'll offer a brief overview of posthumanism in this post, but a more extensive discussion can be found here.

I'll use the term "instrumental posthumanism" to describe those posthumanisms that are really just integrate humanist values and ideals with post-industrial technologies. Instrumental posthumanisms treat the human body, human "life," etc., as things that can and ought to be optimized by technologies. Pacemakers, prostheses, insulin pumps, exercise equipment that provides biofeedback data, genetically modified food, diet supplements, iPods, all these are posthuman technologies that are in current and widespread use in the "developed" world. In this sense we are already posthuman.

Critical posthumanism challenges the values and assumptions on which humanism is based. There are a variety of critical posthumanisms. There is cyborg feminism, Afrofuturism, cyberpunk, goth(ic) posthumanism, animal studies, just to name a few. Though these are all very different theories and practices, they share the view that humanism is a limiting and most often oppressive ideology that needs critique. They are all alternatives to humanism and human exceptionalism. For example, Afrofuturism holds that the Atlantic slave trade turned African slaves into "wetware" robots ("robot" being Czech slang for "worker" or "slave"), and that Middle Passage was a form of alien abduction (funny-looking guys land in your community with huge, technologically advanced ships, abduct you, and experiment on you). Rather than viewing robot or alien identity as impediments, Afrofuturism argues that even as robots and aliens, Afrodiasporic subjects/slaves resisted white supremacy, and crafted a unique and vibrant culture. The underlying point is this: though they were not "human," this did not mean they didn't live meaningful lives. So, "human" does not need to be the only, or even the central, model for a worthwhile, valuable life.

So what does critical posthumanism mean for thinking about "digital people"?

First, it means that most of the common critiques of technology are basically humanist ones. For example, concerns about alienation are humanist ones; posthumanism doesn't find alienation problematic, so critical posthumanisms aren't worried by, for example, the shift from IRL (in-real-life) communication to computer-assisted least they're not bothered by its potential alienation. Critical posthumanisms don't uniformly or immediatly endorse all technology as such; rather, it might critique technology on different bases--e.g., a critical posthumanist might argue that technological advancement is problematic if it is possible only through exploitative labor practices, environmental damage, etc.

Humanism often includes the belief that "technology" is the opposite of "natural humanity." Critical posthumanisms do not see these as opposed: the human body is just as "technological" or "mechanical" as the digital device on which you're reading this post. The brain and the heart rely on electricity, just as DNA is a kind of programming. Critical posthumanism holds that technology is itself neither good nor bad, helpful nor hurtful. It's the contexts in which it is used, the conditions under which it is produced, etc., that make it a positive or negative thing.


  1. Robin,

    Thanks for your post-I hope this can be discussed in some enough depth where it leads to some useful ideas.

    I recently concluded in my preliminary research project that my inquiry is based on the philosophy of humanism. That is, human nature, was a premise that supports the argument of why beneficent actions produces a social good: a good that where more is made available, benefits the person who encounters it.

    I recently came across some articles on post humanism and they were along the same basic ideas that you explicate. I wonder, though, how I would respond to the challenge of post humanism to my research, especially the tenet that the unified self and especially a Christian ideal self is a necessary premise upon which to build a framework when producing a 'good' for another's benefit.

    To launch contra post humanism or pro humanism post is not my point but I would appreciate careful and intelligent discussion about this particular point, which come fro G.H Mead:

    A human can interact with contents of its self to another, in fact it is only through the other that the human realizes it has those contents.

    So to do good for another, I would have to interact with the other and produce the good, as it is apprehended in the other, then act to provide the good with symbols already in the other's mind in order to satiate it. It is only through this interaction that I know what the other wants, how to alleviate his want, and that the 'want' contents reside in his mind no more.

    In humans, this interaction is possible. In animal to human interaction it is not: I can feed a dog, but the dog can not feed me.

    In technology, it is not the prosthetic or tool that interacts it is the human that makes an empathetic thing that interacts with another.

    Expanding those ideas above I can give a sufficient definition of the human by a humanist framework: A human is thing in which I can interact with and impart a social good.

    Now permit to cast my doubts on post humanism. Humanism has a feature proofs; of realizing progress(though not perfectly) why exposing its shortcomings. We can see achievements when plied in handling problems of both 'know how' (i.e. What is AIDS) and 'how to' (i.e.Curtailing its spread).

    Post humanism, as yet, has no proofs, and from the examples of interaction I gave in examples animals and technology you implied does not seem to lead to promise of achieving humans with both 'know how' or 'how to'.

    I know i have not made a crystalline theory here, but hopefully enough enough start a discussion.


  2. What is the relation between posthumanism and the religious context of humanism? Check this out: