Monday, November 29, 2004

From humanism to humanitarianism

So I've been wondering what happens to humanism in a post-human (c.f. Hayles) world. And, geek that I am, I immediately go to the dictionary to make sure I know what things mean.

human: of or characteristic of people as opposed to God or animals or machines. Origin ME humaine, from L. humanus, homo

humane: compassionate or benevolent; inflicting the minimum of pain. Origin ME, the 18th century form of human, humaine

humanize: make more humane; give a human character to.

humanoid: having an appearance or character resembling that of a human.

humanism: a rationalistic outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters; a Renaissance cultural movement which turned away from medieval scholasticism and revived interest in ancient Greek and Roman thought.

humanitarian: concerned with or seeking to promote human welfare.

First of all, I recognise that there are many kinds of humanism, and I'm specifically referring to one kind of posthumanism (and one that definitely shouldn't be confused with transhumanism). Now that gets dodgy, so I try to clarify.

When I think of humanism, I think of the philosophies that hold that "reason and science are the soundest means for investigating claims of truth; that all ideas, values, myths, and social systems are based on human experience; and that free thought thrives best in free, democratic societies." These ways of thinking are historically bound to particular types of scholarship that are the foundations of both the Renaissance and a liberal arts education like my own.

Two elements of humanism interest me the most: the focus on rationality and the focus on individualism. From what I understand, the Greek philosopher Epicurus taught, amongst other things, that pleasure makes humans happy. While certainly suggesting that "people only act according to what they find pleasurable and in their self-interest", Epicureans were referring to the sort of pleasure that comes from avoiding everyday passions and delights in favour of the more lasting aspects of a virtuous life. But this focus on self-interest is what's most interesting to me because it provided the foundation for Western civilisation's belief in free will, individual rights, democracy and capitalism. Futhermore, the scientific revolution was greatly influenced by the combination - and exaltation - of the principles of individualism and rationality.

Now I find myself stuck. Personally, I do not hold individualism and rationality amongst the most important aspects - let alone defining characteristics - of being human. In fact, anthropological fieldwork in aboriginal communities taught me that there are places and ways of living where these concepts are almost entirely meaningless except in, for example, their ability to explain why I was there studying those people instead of the other way around. Because of these experiences I find it very easy to imagine a posthuman world where our assumptions about individualism and rationality are challenged.

Hayles discusses why we may fear the posthuman - at best it suggests redefining what it means to be human and, at worst, it suggests that humans will be replaced by something else (intelligent machines, for instance). Either way, it changes how we understand what it means to be human. In the former case, Hayles suggests that our understandings of humanity may have only ever been true for the privileged few who had the power, wealth and leisure time to conceptualise themselves as autonomous beings. Hayles continues to argue that we might be able to mitigate the fear of becoming enslaved or obsolete by understanding that there is a limit to how seamlessly humans can be articulated with machines because our embodied experiences are fundamentally different.

The redefinition of the human does not scare or worry me. In fact, I might be inclined to extend Latour and say we have never been human. Neither does losing the belief in the supremacy of individualism or rationality bother me. Actually, I find it somehow comforting. So why do I keep thinking about this?

Is it my fear that there are as many kinds of posthumanism as there are humanism? Some of these ideas - and none more so than the ones that proclaim to be humane - enrage and frighten me to the point that I find myself wanting to defend a humanity I don't even believe exists! In the end, I think what I really want to hold on to - whether or not we are entering a posthuman world - is a sense of humanitarianism. I am, first and last and always, concerned about the welfare of people, all kinds of people.

And that leaves me with a new question: what happens to humanitarianism in a posthuman world?


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