By Dr. Kathleen Kesson
The philosophy of Humanism and its practical handmaidens, science and technology, brought us incredible control over the natural world through the application of empiricism and reason, harnessing the energies of nature to bring portions of the world to our current peak of technological development. It has also influenced social structures, bringing in its wake tolerance for diversity, the ideals of democratic governance, and the universal recognition of human rights, all promises yet to be realized.
However, just as events, inventions, constructs, and ideas often contain the seeds of their own destruction, so the social products of Humanism (technological/scientific and social/political) have brought us to the brink of self-annihilation. Fossil fuels, and the comfort and ease these have brought to those with access and the resources to purchase them, bring climate change. The chemical soup we live in, once thought to enhance agricultural productivity and human well-being, has brought soil depletion and disease. Capitalism, the economic system that developed alongside the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and which promised to mobilize material resources for the benefit of humanity, is now revealed to serve the interests of the few at the expense of the many, and its commitment to unlimited growth is proving to be a danger to life itself. And Communism, the great hope of the oppressed masses, crumbled under the weight of its repressions, exterminations, crimes against humanity, and misguided attempts at social engineering.
In the wake of Humanism’s failure to bring about universal justice, well-being, widespread happiness, an ecologically stable bio-system, and world peace, a new set of “Posthuman” discourses arose in the late 20th century that challenge some of the central premises of Humanism. Variously termed Antihumanism, Dehumanism, Transhumanism, and Neohumanism, there are consistencies as well as variabilities among them. All of them suggest the possibility of becoming a “new form of human,” of decentering the traditional Humanist subject, with its individual ego and the premise that humans could and should exert mastery over the rest of nature.
The intersecting discourses on Posthumanism all, to some degree, consider the triadic formulation of human/animal/machine. Many of the Posthuman discourses focus on the historical violences that have been done in the name of defining some people as human and some as “subhuman.” Some Posthumanist discourses explore the new forms of being generated by novel human/machinic connections: the impact on cognition through digitized information technology, including AI and virtual realities; enhanced physicality through prosthetics, pacemakers, and the like; increased awareness of microworlds and macroworlds through equipment that enhances our senses, such as the electron microscope and telescopes. Some people are focusing on new understandings of the human/animal connections, including, but not limited to studies of animal behavior and interspecies communication. It is claimed that “The scientific order supporting an anthropocentric worldview is…being called into question” (Pederson, 2006, p. 228), a statement supported by a listing of the new academic disciplines, research societies and centers devoted to new studies of animal/human relationships. While this may indicate that new knowledge is being produced that could ultimately benefit both humans and other animals, the devastating reality is that (according to research by scientists at the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London) human activity is responsible for the loss of over 60% of the animal population left on the planet – the animals, birds, fish, and reptiles – in just the past four decades (WWF, 2018). We are living through a mass extinction and it is passing with minimal notice.
Each of the Posthuman discourses is distinct, though all point to new visions of humanity arising in the historical moment. Which of these perspectives we adopt will, in large part, shape the world of our future.
At first glance, this word seems to signify the disposition to be “against” humans, but it is something different than that. It actually is a philosophy that calls into question many of the taken for granted attributes of the human being: the ideas that there is a “human nature,” that humans are uniquely capable of consciousness, that we possess agency, choice, and the capacity for reason and moral decision making. Antihumanism considers all of these capacities human “constructs,” not essential characteristics of human beings. Antihumanism is a theoretically compelling rejection of Humanism’s hubristic attempt to elevate humans to metaphysical heights above all other species and rejects all claims of anthropocentric dominance, but it does not propose an emancipatory agenda of its own.
There is, in fact, a movement for “voluntary human extinction” that could be characterized as anti-human advanced by those who profess to care for the life of the planet. They propose, as an alternative to the extinction of all life on Earth, the voluntary extinction of humans, in terms of choosing not to breed. But this somewhat misanthropic vision is not theoretically related to philosophical Antihumanism.
Many Western thinkers and philosophers have attempted to define what it means to be “human” in ways that depended upon “othering” – that is, defining Human by what is Not-Human – and in various contexts this has included women, non-white people, slaves, indigenous people, people with disabilities, and animals. Singh (2018) links the process of Dehumanism with decolonization, a move consonant with revealing and undoing the power of the “mastery/subject” that is, the version of humanity that upholds domination whether of women, people of color, the subaltern, or the Earth itself. The processes of Dehumanism cannot be understood without squarely facing the reality that centuries of oppression by colonial powers aimed to reduce the oppressed to the level of beasts, to dehumanize them in order to justify the violence, the taking of land, the exploitation of labor, the plundering of resources, and the dismantling of language and culture everywhere the colonial foot stepped. Sartre, in his Preface to Fanon’s classic The Wretched of the Earth here reveals the “nakedness” of Humanism: “nothing but a dishonest ideology, an exquisite plundering; its tokens of sympathy and affectation, alibis for our acts of aggression” (lviii). Singh proposes the practice of Dehumanism, “a practice of recuperation, of stripping away the violent foundations (always structural and ideological) of colonial and neocolonial mastery that continue to render some beings more human than others” (p. 4). Dehumanism embodies a critical deconstruction of the idea of “mastery” and the exploration of new forms of relational solidarity that might enable a survivable collective future.
Transhumanist discourses speculate on the potential of humans to become “more than human” through the applications of technology and nanotechnology, augmenting the human organism through the use of pharmaceuticals, bio-technology, genetic engineering, computer implants, and the application of virtual realities, cryonics, and other “futuristic” endeavors. Transhumanism implies no necessary rethinking of the human/nature connection; instead placing faith in the ability of technology to solve human problems. Nor does it necessarily demonstrate any interest in equitable distribution of the “super-intelligence” and longevity that could come in the wake of these developments, suggesting that Transhumanism would more than likely serve to exacerbate the inequities that already plague the planet.
Even now, humans hold the potential power to control reproduction through genetic engineering of plants, animals, and human beings. While modern scientific and technological discoveries are truly awesome, we have lagged behind in our ability to monitor the application of new ideas and respond to unanticipated consequences. A case in point is the development of nuclear power – the first nuclear power generating reactor was in 1942 – and our continued failure to come up with a solution for its radioactive waste disposal, not to mention the horrendous failure to deal with the results of catastrophic events such as Chernobyl and Fukushima. It seems that every advance that humans term “progress” has its corresponding shadow: air travel brings global connectivity and it brings carbon emissions; antibiotics save lives and create resistant strains of bacteria; fast foods bring convenience and nutritional deterioration; the Internet brings a vast wealth of information plus fake news, data mining, the loss of privacy, cybercrime, and a whole new range of addictive behaviors. It seems inevitable that every solution to a perceived problem will bring with it a whole new set of problems. Science and technology, from the development of fire to the invention of nuclear fission, are a central aspect of human evolution, and we would be remiss to think it should not constitute our human future. However, given the extraordinary brink of disaster to which our inventiveness has brought us, there is an urgent need not just for much longer term thinking than we are used to, but for moral conversations and deep understanding of the ethical dimensions of advances in technologies (including biotechnology) and the cultural consequences of their application.
I first encountered the ideas of Neohumanism, propounded by Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar (1921‐1990), in the early 1970s, long before the other “posthumanist” discourses appeared on my radar. I was attracted to the philosophy because it presented a meaningful alternative to the militarism, materialism, consumerism, racism, and reductionism of the society I lived in. Sarkar was an enlightened guru in the tradition of Yoga, but unlike other Yoga teachers who advocated for contemplative seclusion and withdrawal from the world, he promoted spiritual practices such as meditation and an active, service-oriented engagement with the world. His philosophy of Neohumanism asserts the centrality of spirituality and the intuitive faculties to human experience, yet does not discount the importance of reason, rationality, and science. It acknowledges the sanctity of all life forms, and urges us to live in accordance with deep ecological principles, a revival of the ancestral wisdom embodied by people who have lived in sustainable ways with their biosystems for centuries. It recognizes the vitality and worth of all of the cultures of the world and argues against the homogenization of local cultures through economic and cultural exploitation. It regards all beings as worthy, and advances a rational and egalitarian distribution of wealth and resources, so that all people on the planet are guaranteed a minimum standard of living, and it challenges all forms of violence, imperialism, racism, sexism, exploitation, and injustice.
It is Neohumanism that appears to me to hold the most promise in terms of helping us traverse the distance between our present dystopia and a more livable future. Neohumanism draws upon modern science, so it doesn’t reject some of the futuristic visions of transhumanism. But it also draws on ancient Yogic wisdom for its ethical grounding. It is radically egalitarian in terms of valuing all the world’s people and cultures that have been “dehumanized” by various oppressions and mastery/domination relationships. Most important, it is a positive vision of the future; not a rejection of humanity as hopelessly flawed, but a vision of humanity that is intimately linked to all other life forms and places creativity and love at the center of all of our endeavors. It provides us with a more optimistic vision of the future than some of the other posthumanisms, a vision stated eloquently by Western theologian Thomas Berry:
Whether we can make this transition to an “Ecozoic Era” will depend on the good will and efforts of thousands, millions of us. Effort and goodwill are not enough, however. These “new ways of thinking” involve questioning the very foundations upon which our contemporary assumptions of what it means to be human rest. Without such a radical (in the sense of “getting to the root of”) reconceptualization of our taken for granted concepts, we will not create the necessary new ways of thinking and being that will sustain life on this planet.
Neohumanism doesn’t abandon the main organizing principles of Humanism; rather it believes the philosophy needs to be revised in terms of new understandings that place humanity not at the center, but as a unique and essential part of the ontological whole of creation. And it demands the full realization of the promises of Humanism: the celebration of diversity, the implementation of democratic governance, and the universal recognition of human rights. It simply extends these rights beyond the human realm to embrace the other-than-human species, animate and inanimate, with whom we share the planet.
Kathleen Kesson is Professor Emerita, LIU-Brooklyn, and is the former Director of the John Dewey Project on Progressive Education at the University of Vermont and Director of Education at Goddard College. She currently lives in Barre, Vermont and is actively engaged in the work to make Vermont schools more equitable, sustainable, and joyful. Her latest book is Unschooling in Paradise. You can read other writing by her as well as an excerpt from this book at https://www.kathleenkesson.com. Visit the book link at AMAZON and see the new Kindle version, available for only $.99 (AMAZON’s minimum price).