Philosophical Post-Humanism

Last week I had the pleasure to attend a colloquium from the University of Twente Department of Philosophy by Dr. Francesca Ferrando who is based at the NYU-Liberal Studies, University of New York, USA.

In her colloquium she gave a very good introduction to various strands of philosophical post-humanism and the difference to the transhumanism movement. All of these movements she explained start from the basic assumption that the human is an open frame, and not a closed option. And so that therefore they all want to redefine our relations to ecology and technology.

The first philosophical movement she discussed was transhumanism, which aims to enhance the human in different ways. In comparison to the other movements she discussed later, it is important to note that according to the transhumanists we are not yet post-human. This is because according to the transhumanism movement a posthuman would only be achieved if we enhance the current human form to such extent that we can speak of a new type of being. To achieve this new type of human there are then different kinds of transhumanism with their own goals: democratic, libertarian, and so forth. Another important distinction of the transhumanism movement is that they don’t see humanism as a problem. Which is not the case for the next movement she discussed.

Philosophical post-humanism is in some ways more complex to understand then transhumanism because the different movements within post-humanism differ much more greatly. During her lecture Dr. Ferrando gave an example of three different kinds of post-humanism. The first type offers a critique on the definition of “humanus”. Already from Ancient Greece and earlier, this definition of who was considered a human has never been comprehensive. And throughout the ages there have been hierarchical relations to consider who is human and dualist definitions of humanism. Against these ideas we can see post-modernism responding to these definitions by deconstructing the human. Consider for example Michel Foucault’s idea of disappearance the human1:

One thing in any case is certain: man is neither the oldest nor the most constant problem that has been posed for human knowledge. Taking a relatively short chronological sample within a restricted geographical area – European culture since the sixteenth century – one can be certain that man is a recent invention within it. It is not around him and his secrets that knowledge prowled for so long in the darkness. In fact, among all the mutations that have affected the knowledge of things and their order, the knowledge of identities, differences, characters, equivalences, words – in short, in the midst of all the episodes of that profound history of the Same – only one, that which began a century and a half ago and is now perhaps drawing to a close, has made it possible for the figure of man to appear. And that appearance was not the liberation of an old anxiety, the transition into luminous consciousness of an age-old concern, the entry into objectivity of something that had long remained trapped within beliefs and philosophies: it was the effect of a change in the fundamental arrangements of knowledge. As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end.

If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared, if some event of which we can at the moment do no more than sense the possibility – without knowing either what its form will be or what it promises – were to cause them to crumble, as the ground of Classical thought did, at the end of the eighteenth century, then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.

Two other types of post-humanisms that Dr. Ferrando discussed was post-anthropocentrism and post-dualism. The first movement holds that the notion of human itself is a problem (i.e. the distinction between humans and non-humans), and is against the idea of human exceptionalism. Post-dualism on the other hand focuses more on the need to acknowledge dualisms and to deconstruct them. For example the dualism between human and machine.

In conclusion she noted we can say that the question “Who am I?” now needs to be answered in conjunction with “What am I?” and “Where and when are we?”. Dr. Francesca Ferrando has a Youtube channel with a video playlist available which gives a similar crash course in philosophical post-humanism. Dr. Ferrando is a very engaging speaker so make sure to have a look at the video series here.

  1. Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Oxford and New York: Routledge, 1989. [return]