"Post-humanism": The right term?

Brian Manning Delaney (b-delaney@uchicago.edu)
Sat, 07 Aug 1999 00:46:05 -0700

I recently had another "What's the Hell's up with this 'post-humanism' business?!" discussion with some friends of mine who are academics in the humanities. Many of them are technophobes, or simply unimaginative when it comes to the possibilities of human transformation. But their objections to the term
"post-humanism" I share. I'm curious what others on this list think about the

(It's still not clear to me if the "post-" governs "human," with the "-ism" tacked on to make the substantive, or whether it governs "humanism." What I'm saying here applies to both, but more strongly if "post-humanism" is the latter.)

The operative notion of humanism in post-humanism seems to me possibly historically blind; and the notion of the human itself seems to me impoverished and biologically essentialist.

This is a very long story, but, as I see it, in brief: humanism, even in its early forms (Erasmus, etc.), already includes the idea of self-transformation, indeed, of self-transcendence. To be post-human, then, would be to be complete, in the way a god is complete. To use the classical terms in which this would often be discussed: it would be to have achieved perfection, to be a finished product, to be past the need for self-transformation. This is an unattainable goal.

We can leave aside the beliefs associated with traditional humanism, and consider what the human itself is. Even many centuries ago, people transformed themselves physically. Someone living millennia ago with false teeth is still human. Someone in the 14th century with a peg leg is still human.

Would people who call themselves post-humanists disagree with this? I assume 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.

I raise this terminological objection not simply in the interest of accuracy, but also because of a need to "de-fringize" life-extension and related efforts. If those who champion the goal of radical physical self-transformation are seen as wide-eyed, historically ignorant technophiles (as, alas, many of us are indeed seen -- certainly among academics in the humanities), it will make it more difficult to soften what is still a very strong resistance to radical self-transformative ideas. "Screw 'em!", one might be tempted to say. But that might not be, in the end, productive. And, more importantly, on this one terminological point, I think the traditional humanists are correct.

I've raised these issues with a couple of people who (I believe) would call themselves "post-humanists." Max More made the sensible point that one of the reasons for the need for a new term was simply to "stress things that most humanists do not show much interest in." I agree. So the question is: what new term is the best one, if "post-humanism" (along with "trans-humanism," though for slightly different reasons) won't work?

The ones I suggested were: "telo-humanism" and "ultra-humanism." Some others that have occurred to me in more recent discussions are: "preter-humanism,"
"super-humanism," and "neo-humanism." "Super-humanism" sounds a bit too
Nietzschean, which, for the de-fringizing effort, wouldn't be helpful.
"Telo-humanism" and "preter-humanism" sound too ugly. "Ultra-humanism" has the
nicest ring to it, but it's only the contemporary usage of "ultra-" that would make this term work. The most common older meaning, "beyond," would recreate the post-humanism problem (though it's often "beyond" in the sense of "beyond the norm," which would be on target). "Neo-humanism" doesn't feel strong enough, but it captures the connection to humanism, yet stresses that it's responding to the needs of a new era (as "neo-Kantianism" was true to Kantianism, but responded to the insights of social theory).

Anyway, just a few late night thoughts -- any contentiousness is apparent only.

Best wishes,

Brian Manning Delaney
For the new year. -- I still live, I still think:
I still have to live, for I still have to think.
Sum, ergo cogito: cogito, ergo sum. -Nietzsche.