Re: "Post-humanism": The right term?

Brian Manning Delaney (
Tue, 10 Aug 1999 13:56:43 -0700

Brian Manning Delaney <> wrote:

> But why [a term other than "humanism"] might be
> needed became clearer when I read Edward
> Wilson's _Consilience_.
> At any rate, if I recall correctly he takes
> the view that humanity is largely defined by our genes,
> and likes that, and fears genetic engineering as an
> ill-tethered attempt to deny our nature. And fears
> or disbelieves in AI, I forget which.

But he is most definitely not a humanist, whatever he might call himself. He's a biological essentialist, to an extreme degree.

> If Wilson is representative of humanism in this
> respect then we do need a new term, or else to
> wage war to reclaim the Renaissance humanism,
> and I don't think such wars of linguistic reclamation work.
> I know I have seen essays by humanists expressing
> fears of life extension and of the changes that
> might make to the human experience.

Yes. Although I don't think Wilson is a humanist at all, others who would more commonly be called humanists (but nevertheless -- by the lights of those who have read Renaissance authors and the classical writers who inspired them -- are NOT humanists) do often display a technophobia.

>> not. So then is it that a post-human would have
>> to be someone with a particular _degree_ of
>> physical transformation? What degree is necessary?
>> How does a quantitative difference get turned
>> into an _essential_, or _categorical_ difference?
>> In a hundred years I may be a file cabinet-sized
>> hunk of metal with an IQ of 50,000, but to argue
>> that such a difference with what I am now means
>> that I won't be human is, I contend, to engage
>> in almost a kind of fetishism, a fetishism of
>> the non-carbon.

> You seem to associate 'human' with Homo proteus,
> the flexible intelligence.

Most definitely. In fact, if Wilson read some Petrarch, or for that matter Plato or Nietzsche, or perhaps drank a nice glass of Merlot, he'd realize that his gene-based definition makes sense only in a very limited context (for example, efforts to update Linnaeus).

> Others do have a fetish of the carbon, of sex
> and sweat and the poignance of death. I'd point
> less to being a file cabinet or having a high IQ
> than to having no fixed lifespan, and being able
> to copy oneself, as possible qualitative breaks
> in experience.

Very good points. Renaissance humanism worked generally with the common classical definition of the human, roughly: "between beast and god." With 1) no fixed life span, and 2) the ability to copy oneself, we might be, in a certain sense, gods, and thus: post-human (or ueber-human or whatever).

Yet it's a tricky issue: seeing either self-copying or, especially, life-extension, as categorically different from the sorts of activities the humanists of the Renaissance sought to pursue -- as opposed to seeing these efforts as a different, if _very_ different, way of achieving the same thing -- may, too, be rooted in a kind of essentialism, either biological, or egoistical. In pre- or proto-technological times, one "immortalized" oneself by, for example, writing a book. Likewise for making copies of oneself (though that wouldn't have been a commonly expressed goal).

Personally -- and I think I speak for most people reading this -- writing a book isn't enough life-extension. But it would not be easy to prove that a published book isn't AT ALL a kind of life-extension. One would need a definition of the self that rested either in the flesh, or in the PARTICULAR I (ego/Ich) that says things like "I don't want to die." Again, personally, some such definition is the one I want operating when I plan my life and (I hope distant) death. But to have a broader, or more flexible one is not necessarily to be an anti- or non-life-extensionist. Thus, the understanding of the self in Renaissance humanism would not only be flexible enough to encompass the 50,000 IQ hunk of metal, but also the immortal hunk of metal, indeed, the immortal, self-copying hunk of metal.

>> term is the best one, if "post-humanism" (along with
>> "trans-humanism," though for slightly different
>> reasons) won't work?

> I'd like you to give those reasons, because I
> prefer it to any of the others. I agree that
> superhumanism would be a horrible idea.

I'm going to chomp on that for another day.

Thanks for the thoughts,