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The question of the human in philosophy of technology 

Over the next few years, I’ll be working on a collaborative project on trans- and post-humanism, building on the Centre for Social Ontology’s previous Social Morphogenesis series. My main contribution to this will be co-editing a volume, Strangers in a Familiar Land, with Doug Porpora and Colin Wight as well as exploring digital technology and what it means for human agency. 

This project is giving me a reason to read more widely than I have in a while, with a particular focus likely to be Andy Clark’s work in the philosophy of mind, speculative realism and continental philosophy of technology. There’s a lot of value to be found in the latter but one persistent point which frustrates me is what appears, to me at least, to be a fundamental confusion about the category of the human. This issue became clear to me when reading a thought provoking blog on Social Ecologies

Why must everything revolve back to a human relation – for-us? This human exceptionalism resides throughout the gamut of philosophical reflection from Plato to Derrida. One will ask as Bradley does: Why, in other words, can something that believes itself to be a critique of anthropologism still be seen as essentially anthropocentric? Can we step outside this temple of man and create a non-anthropocentric discourse that doesn’t find itself reduced to this human relation by some backdoor slippage of conceptuality? Are we condemned to remain human? What or who is this creature that for so long has created a utopian world against its inhuman core? If we were to be released from this prison of the human who or what would emerge? How alien and alienated am I to what I am? How monstrous am I?

Unless I’ve entirely misunderstood a literature I’m still relatively new to, ‘technicity’ is an abstraction from material culture. It’s an abstraction which serves a purpose, allowing us to isolate the technical so as to inquire into its character, but the empirical referents of the term are technological artefacts i.e. a domain of material culture. In which case, it should not surprise us that the human constantly resurfaces, nor should we impure this tendency to a mysterious stickiness which ‘humanism’ as a doctrine possesses.

Material culture will always imply questions of the human because we are talking about artefacts built by, for, with and against human beings in social contexts which are similarly human saturated. The value in considering ‘technicity’ lies in opening out a space in which we can inquire into the emergent characteristics of the technical as a domain of material culture, considering the logic that guides it and how it can act back upon creators and the social contexts in which they create. But explaining material culture necessarily entails human-centred accounts, even if these have tended to problematically exclude or marginalise non-human elements. 

To suggest otherwise strikes me as straight-forward mystification, circumscribing large domains of social life as outside analysis, rather than offering a meaningful competing ‘inhuman’ explanation. It seems like a clear example of what Andrew Sayer calls a ‘PoMo flip’: responding to a problematic dichotomy by inverting it, rather than seeking to transcend the conceptual structure that creates the problem. In this case responding to an exclusion of non-human elements by seeking to exclude the human elements instead.

Categories: Philosophy of Technology social ontology social theory Thinking Uncategorized

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11 replies

  1. To Aristotle’s eyes, technē is an essentially inert, neutral tool whose status is entirely determined by the use to which it is put by human beings. If nature (physis) contains the principal of its own motion—an acorn will grow into an oak tree all by itself—the same is obviously not true for a technical or fabricated object: an oak table or bed frame requires an efficient cause (causa efficiens) such as an artisan to bring it into being. In this way, we arrive at an idea of technicity that has dominated philosophy for almost 3,000 years: technē is a prosthesis (πρόσϑεσις: pro‐thesis, i.e., an addition; what‐is‐placed‐in‐front‐of) considered “in relation to” nature, humanity or thought; one that can be utilised for good or ill depending upon who or what happens to wield it.

    The difference between this older classic version of technicity and the conceptions in our contemporary speculations is this notion of supplement (i.e., prosthesis). In the old system we invented these prosthetic technologies of externalized material supplements because we lacked something essential in our own nature (i.e., the whole Prometheus/Epimetheus mythos). In our current thought following those like Deleuze/Guattari who overturned the Platonism of essentialism in which the concept of lack and deficient give was to difference and repetition; or, the notion of our unconscious as productive (Deleuze/Guattari) against the unconscious as a lack/void (Lacan/Badiou/Zizek) becomes integral. In this sense then originary technicity states that techne and technology were there before humans, and in fact it was technicity that conditioned and shaped the human rather than the other way around. And, in our time we are realizing that the human was a fiction, a transitional being for whom technicity has all along been utilizing it for its own ends and purposes. This fatalist and determinist view is not that technicity is opposed to the human, but that humans have never been human and that we are grounded in technicity from the beginning. So that in our time with the rise of the Mechanosphere (Deleuze/Guattari) we’ve come to see ourselves as part of the machinic phylum, as machinic multiplicities whose organic systems are over the coming centuries going to give sway to inorganic systems, a mutation from one material platform to another with modifications of intelligence and robotics as one pathway to this. This notion of Superintelligence is just one more technicity which is part of this conditioning process of transition.

    More to say, but hope this clarifies aspects…

  2. Any doubt I had has been removed by that very well put comment. Ultimately, I think we’re trying to do different things… I see the aesthetic value of what you’re doing but I don’t see how invocation of a transcendental and primordial technicity can really be squared with any sort of social scientific perspective, in the broadest sense of the term. It evacuates the empirical in a profound way, a very cool way, but ultimately a theological way.

  3. Depends what you mean by ‘same status’: equivalence doesn’t make sense to me, status should be attributed on the basis of the characteristics of the elements. Something ‘humanism’, in so far as it exists, obviously fell short of.

  4. You’re right it can’t… but of course “social scientific” paradigm is for me passé in a post-intentional world without humans as we’ve known them, nor the various Enlightenment and Liberal Individualistic concepts, philosophies – analytic or continental. Not theological, either; teleoplex and technomic, but there is not object, no representation, no God of One behind the Veil. You’re stuck in in a metaphysical critique of this rather than diagrammatic as it is… no episteme or ontology, just thermospasm.

  5. But other than extremely stylish assertion, I can’t see how this post-intentional world without humans can be established: I’m also assuming it’s not something you offer in order to persuade others, as such, in which case there’s an obvious impasse here.

  6. It’s not something I’m offering, it’s a nightmare. You’re assuming it literally, when its hyperstitional tendency. You and I are on different planets of the Mind.

  7. While I do often enjoy Hickman’s ideas and stories, I tend to see his polemic as foundational in a manner that just ‘flips the script’ . I can enjoy your (Craig) writings in an Philosophical fiction kind of way, but I have difficulty taking it much further than that because it seems like it’s based on two simple I have an idea.

    It seems to me that this simple idea is that oh humanity was delusional about it self all this time and so now here’s the real deal, like now we can finally see what’s really going on, The big irony of the whole human situation.

    I love it I really do. But at the same time I think irony is like Hagel talks about infinitely regressive. I tend to see that where there is only “one flip” and then somehow it stops revealing the ground truth that was so far hidden – I have difficulty with that.

    We have talked many times before and we always seem to get in a little bit of an argument or debate that never really ends well. Lol

    But I think in reading this post and then these comments I think I have a better grasp on what is really unsettling about your ideas.

    It’s not really that their unsettling to me, like somehow I’m afraid of the reality of technology somehow making “human” obsolete or somehow replacing humanity : I think that’s fabulous . But I think it’s just too good I think to be true. 😂

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