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

Brian Manning Delaney (
Sun, 15 Aug 1999 10:34:07 -0700

Nick Bostrom <> wrote:
> Brian Manning Delaney wrote:

>> That's not a lot to chew on, but that sums it up pretty
>> well. To put my objections to both "post-" and
>> "trans-humanism" somewhat turgidly: The "human"
>> itself is already the permanent "self-post-ing" of what
>> we are (the "self-overcoming beast," to sound
>> Nietzschean and/or Aristotelian). To be post-human
>> would thus amount almost to being "post-post-human"
>> -- not something I want to be (assuming no state
>> of perfection is possible). "Trans-human" would
>> mean moving towards adding that second "post-."
>> Who needs it?

> I'm not convinced about the need to uproot
> our terminology just when it has begun to get settled.

If the only important criterion is the recent settledness of the term, then I agree. But I was more concerned with the question of accuracy.

> Maybe humans are essentially a "self-overcoming
> beast" but that doesn't mean that all such
> beasts need to be humans. For example, there
> could be non-human extraterrestrials who are
> also essentially self-overcoming beasts.

The question, then, as I've said before, is: To what degree is the "human" defined biologically (or materially)? To many early humanists, extraterrestrials who think would actually be considered human, just not earthly humans. Our instincts are to reject such a broad definition of the human (especially after seeing so many explicitly defined non-humans in science fiction shows), but if we, today, encountered thinking non-Earthlings who were at our same level of technological development (exceptionally unlikely, of course), our debate might simply shift to asking whether our new term should be thinking-creatures-ism vs. post-thinking-creature-ism (with less ugly terms, I hope...).

In any event, if someone could define "human," it would be helpful.

> Think about it like this: An egg, let us say, is
> something whose nature it is to overcome itself
> and become a chicken. Does that mean that the
> egg is not really an egg or that the chicken is
> strictly speaking an egg? Of course not.

I think it's more accurate to say that an egg is something that "IS overcome," or simply: changes. It doesn't overcome itself, though I'd have get into the definitions of a bunch of terms to justify that, which effort is already getting tedious to some on this list! What happens to an egg is that it changes. There's no difficulty, let alone paradox, there (unless you want to give a non-material definition of an egg and its transformations, which would be odd, since it would require a kind of extra-egg teleology that the non-material definition of the human does not require.)

Likewise, with a material definition of the human there's no paradox or difficulty, and no need for most of these questions about "humanism" vs. "post-humanism" vs. "ultra-humanism" etc. The human is defined as that being descended from the certain ape-like creatures, having somewhere between 1200 and 2000 cc's of cranial capacity, etc., etc., or that being with certain genes, or some combination of these descriptions. Say it changes to file cabinet-sized hunk of metal with a cranial capacity of 100,000 cc's. Given a material definition, it's not human anymore, period. The first is human, and the second needs to be called something else: "post-human," "meta-human," "ueber-human," "techno-human," "adios-to-the-human," "SI," whatever (but _not_ "ultra-human," since, under the material definition of human, the metal being isn't ultra-human at all).

> The egg is the human or the transhuman
> The chicken is the posthuman.
> The full-blown bird is a more advanced posthuman.

The question of the accuracy of the above comes down to whether or not a biology-based definition is a good definition of "human," the further question being: what counts as a "good" definition here? A biology-based definition of the human is not good in the sense of historically true to humanism. In fact it's horrible. But that might not matter. But then: "ultra-human," and even "trans-human," are not good terms. So, again: what is "human?"

>> So, again, I wonder: why not "human," and
>> "humanism," or some ratcheting up of
>> the same: like "neo-humanism," or
>> "ultra-humanism"?

> "ultra-humanism" seems to mean almost exactly
> the same as transhumanism (though with
> somewhat tackier overtones IMHO), ....

Not as I've seen transhumanism defined, though I suppose there are many definitions of both "transhumanism" and "ultra-humanism!"

> The term "posthumanism" is not very well
> established so if you don't like it, don't use it.
> As for "posthumans", well, I quite like the term.
> As Technotranscendence said, it makes people
> think.

I guess it depends on what people you use the term to. Most people I've used it to yawn when they hear it, but these are people who have heard a _lot_ of "post-X" terms. Not that the issues are boring to them! I had an eight or nine hour spontaneous salon of sorts on these questions last weekend with a bunch of "humanities humanists." Most of them concluded that the beliefs of people on this list (as I represented them) would best be described by what I call "techno-humanism."