Bishop - Becoming (Trans/Post) Human

Additional Information

Category Lecture
Speakers Bishop, Jeffrey
Year 2018

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Jeffrey Bishop

Saint Louis University 

“Becoming (Trans/Post)Human: Mathēsis and the Technoscientific Imaginary of Transhumanism”

With the rise of technology in medicine, there has been a correlated collapse in the distinction between therapy and enhancement. While thinkers like Leon Kass drew our attention to the loss of this distinction more than thirty years ago, therapy and enhancement have become one and the same activity in the technological imaginary that is transhumanism.

In the older way of thinking—in which therapy and enhancement could be distinguished—the human was understood to have a nature or to belong to a natural kind; therapy restored human function to some natural and therefore normal state for the kind of thing that it is, whereas enhancement was understood as optimizing or maximizing a natural capacity, or as adding a capacity that is not natural/normal to the human animal. The collapse in these domains of meaning that once separated therapy and enhancement resulted from a shift in our thinking about the ontology of the body. One can only distinguish between therapy and enhancement if one has a robust notion of human nature; but in the transhuman imaginary, the human animal is no longer conceived as having a nature. Thus, those activities once deemed therapies are now seen as part of a spectrum of activities aimed at enhancing the life of the human animal beyond merely human capacities. How did the human body cease being a thing with a nature and telos, and become mere material to be enhanced/manipulated?

In this essay, I shall argue that the human body ceased being a thing with a nature and a telos because of a shift in the way mathematics was understood. Heidegger, in his 1962 essay “Modern Science, Metaphysics, and Mathematics,” claims that the shift from the ancient (and even the medieval) understanding of mathematics to the early modern understanding resulted in a shift in metaphysics. With this shift in mathematical understanding, bodies—celestial bodies—ceased having natures and became mere matter in motion in the mathematical field of space and time, animated by various forces of attraction and repulsion. With mathēsis and measurement of the human body, the forces of motion became more essential than the bodies being moved. One is less concerned with the nature of the things—bodies—in the data field and turns one’s attention to the fields of measurement within which the body moves. Thus, the technoscientific research enterprise imagines the human body as mere matter in motion aimed at no particular form of being. What is the telos of the human body under the new mathēsis? There are two answers to this question, depending on which transhumanist philosophy one reads: either some arbitrary telos of the human will, or a telos constructed out of a techno-evolutionary process, without human agency. Thus, this technoscientific mathēsis subtracts out any robust sense of human nature, human agency, and human telos, resulting in the loss of the distinction between therapy and enhancement. It is this mathēsis that stirs the techonological imaginary of transhumanism as it enacts a posthuman future.