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IEET > Security > SciTech > Rights > Personhood > Vision > Staff > Kristi Scott

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Transhumanism vs. /and Posthumanism


Kristi Scott
Kristi Scott
Ethical Technology

Posted: Jul 14, 2011

After several years of using the terms ‘transhumanism’ and ‘posthumanism’, I have decided that their points of difference and contention are too much to bear. This past May at the Humanity+ conference in New York, I decided I was no longer going to sit on the sidelines and hope that the terms would work themselves out. I wanted to understand what was going on.

Personally, I use them both with no problem. Why can’t these two camps exist together without animosity? What is the fundamental difference? Is it ideological, or is it something more? Can these two ideas be held in congruence with each other?

To understand these questions better, I have spent the last several months in conversation with friends, colleagues, and anyone willing to listen, all while immersed in the literature of posthumanism. This article is a condensed result of those engagements. So, let us see if we can sort it out.

As with all good disagreements we have to look where they come from as part of the solution to the understanding their fundamental differences. In short, posthumanism and transhumanism use two different perspectives to look at the world. Transhumanism is based on the Enlightenment and on reason. The focus of Transhumanism is to look at the way technology interacts with humans, through enhancement, modification, etc.

This is the key. It is all about the human, and taking a rational, logical, and scientific approach to human-technological interactions. Given the scope of the voices in these discussions, however, you could surmise that ‘human’, while we would like to think applies to any Homo sapiens, is being defined primarily by the white, Western, middle-class male perspective. We are examining human-technological interactions through this predominant lens. They are defining the normative value of what the ‘human’ in transhumanist is. 

Here is where it gets tricky then. As someone invested in the Rights of the Person, I am also invested in who the person or human is that is being considered. For example, while it is easy to assume that robots, A.I., animals, etc., all fall under the heading of Transhumanism, I disagree. From what I understand, these broader considerations should actually fall under the Posthumanist perspective based on where these two theoretical perspectives differ.

image1Transhumanists use the term posthuman to describe the next stage of human development. It is that point where we will we have used technology to transition ourselves to something beyond human. The transhumanist perspective breaks humanity into a binary of ‘this is who we are’ and ‘this is who/what we will be’. This assumes that we are not already posthuman, given the versions of human before us.

The way I am using ‘posthumanism’ in this article follows the idea as stated by N. Katherine Hayles “that we have always been posthuman.” In this disconnect, we can see part of the communication problem. Both sides are using one term that holds very different meanings to the other. Knowing this, we can see that the transhumanist use of posthuman is problematic to the cultural use of posthumanism. The way I am using posthuman finds the binary problematic because there is much to understand between the poles.

Posthumanism is a solution to poststructuralism and humanism, born out of the (some would perceive) “evils” of postmodernism. Therefore, this perspective is a shift away from humanism. Posthumanism rejects anthropocentrism and instead understands human as a social and cultural construct. The normative value of what is human and what is not differs. Another way of understanding posthumanism is that once we have dramatically altered the body, we are changing what the human is, but it is still a human. The posthuman perspective then gives us two different ways of looking at what the human is as we are trying to understand it in relation to technology.

Now, to understand the human, it is helpful to have a variety of voices and perspectives to shed light of these various understandings of what ‘human’ is. Incidentally, this would include branching out to listen to more than the voice of the white Western male and not to take this perspective as the norm that is applicable to all other voices. This is where the postmodernist underbelly of posthumanism is helpful, because it brings in these various voices through queer, gender, feminist, race, class, etc.

image2While the two perspectives of Transhumanism and Posthumanism are in opposition on the grounds of Enlightenment/humanist and Postmodern/anti-humanist perspectives, they are doing themselves a disservice by not appreciating the liminal overlapping space between them. I would like to argue strongly that they can co-exist. In fact, it is useful to take the two perspectives and use them together.

Technology has been a part of humanity for a long, long time. Technological effects need to be addressed, scrutinized, and examined. Posthumanism allows us to step back and take a bigger picture look at how we define the human and who/what should be considered in our understanding. This is a closer analysis of what is going on with human/technological interactions. The postmodernist perspective is harshly dismissed for its inaccessibility, its lack of empiricism and grounding. To overcome these perceived limitations and differences, there needs to be a communicative effort on both sides to make the knowledge useful, intelligible, and accessible. We cannot all know everything, but what we do know could be incredibly useful to others if we make it accessible and get over our divide.

In summary, Transhumanism reminds us that the body and society can be systematically altered with technology. Posthumanism reminds us of the countless variables and voices that need to be heard, but also to consider the effects of technology. These voices range from the everyday (different ethnicities, genders, and classes) to the extreme (robots, A.I., animals, etc.). Used in conjunction, transhumanism and posthumanism can paint a broader picture of humans, culture, and society that allows us to see that we are all trying to answer similar questions.

Let us choose our lines in the sand wisely. Come on, we look at the future! We are open-minded people! Or are we?


Kristi Scott M.A. is an IEET Affiliate Scholar. Her work centers on the way popular culture presents issues of identity, body modification, cosmetic surgery, and emerging technologies. She has been a freelance writer since 2003 writing for a variety of magazines over the years, most recently as a writer and copy-editor for h+ magazine.
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COMMENTS


Very interesting and clarifying.

“branching out to listen to more than the voice of the white Western male and not to take this perspective as the norm that is applicable to all other voices. “
This is an important and necessary point. The challenge is bridging the technological chasm to enable those voices to participate.

“step back and take a bigger picture look at how we define the human and who/what should be considered in our understanding.”
This brought to mind the TED talk by Alice Dreger “Is anatonmy destiny?”  (http://www.ted.com/talks/alice_dreger_is_anatomy_destiny.html). We have layers and layers of complexity in understanding our human relationships with each other and our relationships with other intelligent beings.

“Used in conjunction, transhumanism and posthumanism can paint a broader picture of humans, culture, and society”
Yes! You point out a need for getting beyond the labels and focusing on creating inclusive and just goals. This is a step toward helping us realize the best of human potential.





Fascinating! You win the internets simply for using “postmodernist underbelly” in an article. Your description of posthumanism makes me think of Donna Haraway’s classic A Cyborg Manifesto. The movement desperately need more queer and feminist voices. Thank you for writing!





Nice article. Two lines of thoughts.

I would apply first those concepts “trans-post-humanism” to the community who invented those concepts (which i agree not necessarily means that other communities might use those concepts with a different name) ; in my point of view, the “white western man” is not necessarily the worst one when he has enthusiasm, manners and culture (and the man who invented the atomic bomb also had a heart and ironnically foreigners are often better at revealing our identity)

Sorry for this remark, let’s go further. Second I do not think that “humanism” means anything either really relevant today. An aabstract use of “individualism” seems more adapted to me. Each human is so different from the other (even fundamentally the same) that, as you know, we’ll get personnal health care etc. From this perspective, the common law system (jurisprudence) is better although older than the civil law or roman law system (codification) which tries to “abstract” and make us believe we are all the same : yes, with new technology justice will be far more individualized too (although i think that we’ll not need it like we do now, not even of technology but because i suspect a shift in mentalities which will dramatically reduce the criminality rate, but that’s an other subject)

I would personnally advocate the term “cosmist” !





I think the problem really is more that the word transhuman is being adapted to describe a group of people who have not in any way transcended humanity.  It’s really a bad joke.  Almost cultish in that these people somehow feel special and attributive special gifts to themselves even though they have none.  If spider man walked down the street I think it would be fair to call them transhuman, but not Bob the overweight postman.  I think the term transhuman should be received for individuals who have exceeded what is naturally human possible buy retain human emotions and morality.  As for posthuman I think that a posthuman is an entity which is no longer bound by the will of humanity either because humanity is extinct or because it has become vastly more powerful.  A posthuman could be anything from an evolved dolphin to a super intelligence the term is really unclear.





“I think the term transhuman should be received for individuals who have exceeded what is naturally human possible buy retain human emotions and morality.”

No, that would be Ubermensch; transhuman is transitional.





“Why can’t these two camps exist together without animosity?”

camps?

The conflict is everywhere.





What is appealing IMO is a transhuman can be defined as a being existing at this time: Grandma has an organ transplant and thus by one definition she becomes a transhuman. She doesn’t have to bend steel bars or fly over a skyscraper. Posthuman? the possibilities are so boggling, a limited mind such as mine seizes like a car engine; will stick to Granny & Gramps getting artificial hearts, or something, if there is no sustained objection.





What appeals to me is the Now-ness of it: those with artificial organs live in their thousands now; not 2020, 2030, 2040, 2050…





“Wrong”

Human being have allways been transhuman : searching for more

A Post human knows what he want : AND WHAT KIND OF SOCIETY HE WANT

There will be no total freedom, sorry

And there will be no king of the world : an artificial intelligence do a lot a more today, robots ,systems are doing the jobs TODAY , and artificial intelligence will be a lot more than us tomorrow

end of story





ohoh

freedom can only be absolute, not total : guess why

total: A quoi il ne manque rien, entier.
absolu: Qui n’est relatif à rien d’autre que soi, qui ne dépend de rien, que rien ne limite, sans bornes.

well of course destroying earth is only the power of the Queen of the world : she’s here for her heart and not her brain, you seem to be a bad student mr singularité





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