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IEET > Life > Vision > Futurism > Fellows > Kevin LaGrandeur

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What is the Difference between Posthumanism and Transhumanism?

Kevin LaGrandeur
By Kevin LaGrandeur
Ethical Technology

Posted: Jul 28, 2014

While at conferences and doing research and writing over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a lot of confusion about the terms “posthuman,” “transhuman,” and “posthumanism.”  A lot of people—including scholars who should know better—use these terms pretty much interchangeably and indiscriminately.  Part of the problem is that these terms are all fairly new.  So for clarity’s sake, I offer these simple thumbnail definitions of all three terms…

·         Most simply, the posthuman can be defined as that condition in which humans and intelligent technology are becoming increasingly intertwined.  More specifically, the posthuman is a projected state of humanity in which unlocking of the information patterns that those who believe in the posthuman say make us what we are—will shift the focus of humanness from our outward appearance to those information patterns. 

Thus, the focus will be on function rather than form: humanness will be defined by how a species operates—in other words, whether it processes information like a human, is sentient, empathic, intelligent, and such—rather than how it looks.  

Humans and machines will be effectively merged, since differences in appearance will be meaningless (as Katherine Hayles puts it in her book How We Became Posthuman, bodies will essentially become fashion accessories).  And, increasingly, some argue that this will also elide differences between humans and other species, as well.  In fact, it already has, to some extent.  A group called The Nonhuman Rights Project has recently won rights of legal personhood for certain great apes.  Thus the posthuman naturally undermines human exceptionalism.

·         The transhuman is the project of modifying the human species via any kind of emerging science, including genetic engineering, digital technology, and bioengineering.  Transhumanists already use implants to modify their body and seek to also modify human longevity, brain power, and senses.  The focus is on using prosthetics and other modifications to enhance, rather than compensate for, normal human functions. 

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. 

Or aliens.  Or a collection of substances that form an (arguably) intelligent entity, such as a colony of bees, the ecosphere of a planet, a group of algorithms, a group of cellular automata (which a number of thinkers, most notably Stephen Wolfram, believe constitute our universe), or a colony of cells (which is, after all, what a human body is).  In other words, human exceptionalism is dead.  And we face an era in which we have to come to terms with recognizing ourselves as merely systems integrated with other systems. 

This death of the humanist subject leads to the dilemma of how to think of a post-humanist subject position, which is the more academic preoccupation dealt with by “posthumanism” (check Amazon for recent books on posthumanism by Rosi Braidotti and Cary Wolfe, for instance).

(Image: http://www.deviantart.com/art/Cyborg-348434931)

IEET Fellow Kevin LaGrandeur is a Faculty Member at the New York Institute of Technology. He specializes in the areas of technology and culture, digital culture, philosophy and literature.
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Thank you for the article.

I have been reading a very interesting book: Posthuman Suffering and the Technological Embrace by Professor Anthony Miccoli to begin to get a grasp of this subject.

Transitional Humans and Post Humans… 

If my understanding is right, then the concept of Self in both Transhumanism and Posthumanism is different enough from Liberal Humanism that the distinction is very important. The Self is not a separate and isolated identity or cartesian ghost in the machine. In Posthumanism at least the Self is a Systemic identity and interconnected being. It has either ambiguous or permeable boundaries and is redefined as a Pattern of Information that can be migrated from one Substrate to another.

Hi Kevin, Largely agree with your gloss on transhumanism, but I don’t think your take on posthumanism covers the philosophical terrain. I’ve a brief response here http://enemyindustry.net/blog/?p=5282

Don’t feed me to the cats in Mytilini!

Transhumanism is the ideology behind transcending mankind; Mind & body with technology. We depend on advancement of emerging technologies (biotech, nano tech, cybernetics, combination technologies and integration of these technologies by choice and as we see fit in our controlled augmented evolution..transitioning us to the Posthuman era. There will be multiple varieties of Transhumans and Posthumans. alike. Transhumans are the eventual post humans.

I’m a Transhuman, and I wish to transcend myself, which will inevitably be post human if things go as planned. Transhuman is embracing ideas and technology (biotech, gene therapies n engineer, nano tech, cybernetics, combination technologies) so that we can one day transcend beyond human, evolving to a more advanced state..Upgraded, advanced memory and body.. using pretty much whatever we can to get us there (the best of the best), whatever we choose, and we all have preference..more like the transition to post human. In ways the terms are entangled as I am for both.

Hi David!  Great to see you on these boards.  I read your comments in your blog, and I agree with you.  I left some stuff out about posthumanism (as opposed to THE posthuman). I was trying to “nutshell” all of this in a convenient way, so I left out many of the complexities of posthumanism.  I agree completely with your points: Posthumanists are not ONLY 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, and so I concentrated on their connections.  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 you are right, of course: those two groups of philosophers need not be identical, as you rightly point out.  Indeed, as you point out, posthumanism ALSO descends from postmodernist and poststructuralist ideas.  AND, yes, it is clear that transhumanism is anthropocentrism on steroids because it centers on the super-enhancement of the human; but I didn’t want to say that here because it would open a whole ‘nother can of worms.  Maybe I should have…so I just did.

Ste4en: Yes.  That’s another way of summing up what I said…and even shorter.  Except that I would say that transhumanism is not so far from humanism—at least as it was originally conceived in the Renaissance.  See my other comments here.

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.

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