The story of humanity
and the challenge
Bielefeld University, Germany
Today’s technological-scientific prospect of posthumanity simultaneously evokes and
defies historical understanding. On the one hand, it implies a historical claim of an
epochal transformation concerning posthumanity as a new era. On the other, by pos-
tulating the birth of a novel, better-than-human subject for this new era, it eliminates the
human subject of modern Western historical understanding. In this article, I attempt to
understand posthumanity as measured against the story of humanity as the story of
history itself. I examine the fate of humanity as the central subject of history in three
consecutive steps: first, by exploring how classical philosophies of history achieved the
integrity of the greatest historical narrative of history itself through the very invention of
humanity as its subject; second, by recounting how this central subject came under heavy
criticism by postcolonial and gender studies in the last half-century, targeting the uni-
versalism of the story of humanity as the greatest historical narrative of history; and
third, by conceptualizing the challenge of posthumanity against both the story of
humanity and its criticism. Whereas criticism fragmented history but retained the pos-
sibility of smaller-scale narratives, posthumanity does not doubt the feasibility of the
story of humanity. Instead, it necessarily invokes humanity, if only in order to be able to
claim its supersession by a better-than-human subject. In that, it represents a funda-
mental challenge to the modern Western historical condition and the very possibility of
historical narratives – small-scale or large-scale, fragmented or universal.
historical understanding, humanity, otherness, posthumanity, temporality
´r Simon, Faculty of History, Philosophy and Theology, Bielefeld University, Universita
25, 33615 Bielefeld, Germany.
History of the Human Sciences
2019, Vol. 32(2) 101–120
ªThe Author(s) 2018
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We have called history ‘the science of men’. That is still far too vague. It is necessary to add:
‘of men in time’. (Bloch, 1992: 23)
As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one
perhaps nearing its end. (Foucault, 2002: 422)
History and the figure of the human
Discussions of the relationship between historical studies and the figure of the human
tend to lead to the above quotes from Marc Bloch and Michel Foucault with a great
degree of predictability. And there are good reasons for this. To begin with, what Bloch
claims in The Historian’s Craft is that history is nothing other than the science of human
beings in time. Regardless of the persistently debated question of whether history qua-
lifies as science, Bloch’s concise definition is particularly illuminating in that it names
both what the discipline of historical studies shares with other disciplines and what it can
claim as specifically its own.
As to the specific quality of history, this is the introduction of the temporal dimension.
What history has had at its disposal since its institutionalization as an academic disci-
pline is the specific temporal ordering of human affairs, offering sketches of change over
time in the human world in a processual, developmental manner. As to what history
shares with other disciplines, this is the study of human beings. In the early 19th century
– at the time of the institutionalization of historical studies – quite a few new-born
disciplines began to claim expertise in studying the emerging object called ‘man’, today
known as ‘human’. History was one of these newly launched ‘scientific’ endeavours. By
showing the changing face of human beings in time, it contributed to the common
constitution of the figure of the human as an object of knowledge. In The Order of
Things, Foucault’s concern is precisely with this modern invention of the human as an
object of knowledge of the freshly established ‘human sciences’, and also with the
context in which the above quote envisions the prospective disappearance of the human.
When Foucault closes the book by poetically claiming that ‘one can certainly wager that
man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea’ (Foucault, 2002:
422), what he claims is that insofar as certain arrangements of knowledge disappear, the
figure of the human constituted by those very arrangements must also disappear.
The disappearance of the human is often regarded as a mind-blowingly bold claim,
even a prophecy, which the entire community of humanities scholarship should seriously
ponder. But is it really? It seems to me that there is an unfortunate tendency to treat
Foucault like the Oracle from the movie Matrix, expecting that the most famous dead
scholar in the humanities might have had peculiar foresight at his disposal to guide the
living. Although Foucault’s work is indeed exceptionally inspiring, this tendency is
rather disconcerting. Especially because there is nothing surprising in Foucault’s claim
concerning the prospect of the disappearance of the figure of the human. It is neither a
scholarly divination nor a revolutionary programme for social action, but an ordinary and
unpretentious assertion that is logically intrinsic to what we came to label as a (social,
cultural and/or linguistic) constructionist approach. In the brilliant analysis of Hacking
(1999: 6–19), the basic contention of any constructionism is simply that the existence of
102 History of the Human Sciences 32(2)
whatever is considered to be constructed is not inevitable. Accordingly, when Foucault
claims that the figure of the human was constituted at a certain time in a certain historical
environment under certain conditions of possibility, he simply claims that the existence
of the figure of the human is not inevitable. And what is not inevitable, must be so both
retrospectively and prospectively: what has appeared as an invention at one point might
just as well disappear at another.
But the fact that the ‘death of man’ means only the disappearance of the human as an
object of knowledge, and the fact that the claim itself is simply a logical entailment of a
constructionist approach, does not diminish the significance of Foucault’s ideas. Even if
the claim itself is anything but surprising, it poses serious questions. If the human as an
object of knowledge is not inevitable and will vanish once its conditions of possibility
are dissipated, then sooner or later it should be asked: Is this already happening? And, if
yes, how exactly?
By the end of this article, these questions will hopefully be answered either explicitly
or implicitly, although in a manner and framework very different from that of Foucault
and Bloch. First of all, the inquiry I wish to carry out on the following pages concerning
the relation between the modern Western idea of history on the one hand and the figure
of the human and humanity on the other cannot be limited to historical studies. The
constitution of the human in time as an object of knowledge was not the exclusive work
of historical studies; it happened in cooperation with the philosophy of history. Modern
philosophy of history was born during the same period as professional historical studies –
that is, the period that Reinhart Koselleck (2004) called the ‘saddle period’ (Sattelzeit),
covering approximately a century between 1750and 1850 – and it had the very same agenda
of redefining the human (Marquard, 1989). In constituting their common object of study,
philosophy of history and the discipline of history had to establish their respective fields of
expertise, which set them against each other concerning the question of how to study humans
in time. Yet, despite all disagreements over whether philosophical or historical ‘methods’
are the ‘proper’ means to gain knowledge about their shared object, and in competing over
how to study change over time in the human world, they jointly constituted the notion of
history as the course of human affairs within which such change was supposed to play out.
When particular histories told stories of change in human affairs, they found their place in
the ultimate and most general story told by philosophies of history about history itself (about
an all-encompassing historical process), which, in turn, informed particular histories. The
generality of stories told by philosophies of history concerned not merely the scope – the
entirety of human affairs – but also the object of investigation shared with historical studies.
Whereas particular histories told stories about certain human beings in the most dominant
19th-century context of nations, the ultimate story of philosophies of history concerned the
entirety of humankind. In other words, phrased in the vocabulary of storytelling: the central
subject of the ultimate story of change in humanaffairs (that is, once again, the ultimate story
of history itself) was nothing other than humanity.
This story of the central subject called humanity as history itself is the one I wish to
put under scrutiny here, with special attention paid to posthumanity as a recent challenge
to such a story. What I mean by ‘central subject’ is what the theoretical research of the
last decades on historical narratives vests with organizing, structuring and unifying
powers (Dray, 1971; H. White, 1987; M. White, 1965). It is of course open to debate
whether or not a central subject is an essential organizing and structuring element and
thus a defining feature of historical narratives. But any answer to this question is com-
patible with a weaker position claiming only that having a central character is typically
required of historical narratives. As Hayden White (1987: 16–17) points out, even
chronicles have central characters, despite the fact that in many other respects they fail
to qualify as historical narratives as we know them. What White’s example shows is that
featuring a central subject is not specific to historical narratives. Yet, this is still not an
argument against the requirement of having a central subject. Notwithstanding all ques-
tions concerning defining characteristics and specificities, having a central character
remains a requirement as an added value and a crucial element of achieving coherence
and integrity in historical narratives – coherence and integrity, which, according to
White (ibid.: 24), ‘real events’ do not themselves possess.
In putting the story of the central character ‘humanity’ under scrutiny, I will focus on
three historical episodes. The first episode is the birth of the story itself in the ‘saddle
period’. Here, I will examine how classical philosophies of history tried to achieve the
coherence and integrity of the greatest historical narrative of history itself through the
invention of the central subject called humanity. The second episode jumps to the second
half of the last century (with a focus on its last decades), when the story of humanity came
under heavy criticism targeting the universalism of both humanity and the greatest his-
torical narrative of history itself. The critique of postcolonial and gender studies, arguing
for the dissolution of universal history, must necessarily have entailed the dissolution of
the universal subject called humanity. In having a look at these historical episodes, I will
concentrate mostly on a few classic texts as central pieces of larger discourses.
Finally, the theme of the third episode is an entirely different challenge that the ideas
of history and humanity face today: the challenge of posthumanity as entailed in current
On the one hand, the prospect of posthumanity implies a histor-
ical claim of an epochal transformation as an entry into a new era. On the other, it
postulates the birth of an other-than-human subject as the central character for the new
era, eliminating the human subject of modern Western historical understanding. Whereas
postcolonial and gender criticism fragmented the story of humanity on the one hand but
still enabled narratives on a smaller scale in terms of identity politics on the other, the
prospect of a posthuman future questions history and humanity through the promise of
bringing about a subject that is no longer – or never has been – human. Whereas
postcolonial and gender criticism attempted to deconstruct the universalism of humanity,
posthumanity is the prospect of the potential supersession of humanity by another uni-
versal. Unlike postcolonial and gender criticism, posthumanity does not question or
doubt the feasibility of humanity as the central subject of history. Instead, it has to
reinvent its universality in order to be able to claim its supersession. To gain an under-
standing of how all this happens, the first thing to do is to examine the constitution of that
which appears to be reinvented today: humanity.
The birth of humanity as a central subject of history
According to Koselleck (2004: 33–6), the most momentous semantic invention that took
place in the late 18th and the early 19th century was the creation of the concept of history
104 History of the Human Sciences 32(2)
as a collective singular: the German word die Geschichte lost its plural character and
came to be used as referring to the whole of history. Notwithstanding an apparent
overreliance on the German-speaking world, Koselleck’s investigations into the birth
of the modern Western concept of history wonderfully coincide with an inquiry into the
birth of humanity. If the newly invented history in the singular integrated all individual
histories in a unitary course as Koselleck argues, and if individual historical narratives
are required to have their individual subjects, then it seems rather self-evident that the
newly invented singular history must have had its nonetheless newly invented singular
and universal central subject that similarly integrated all individual subjects: humanity.
Indeed, the story of humanity – humanity as history itself – has been told by new-born
philosophies of history in various ways with various emphases. To begin with, for
Enlightenment thinkers the story revolved around the idea of the perfectibility of human
beings. Although human faculties were far from being perfect at their present stage and
although they had been far from being perfect in the past, Enlightenment philosophies of
history argued that within and as history the human being and human faculties never-
theless are perfectible. It was in this manner in which Condorcet (1796: 10–11) declared
right at the outset of his sketch of the progress of the human mind that his viewpoint was
historical inasmuch as it was opposed to being metaphysical: whereas the latter view
would concern ‘what is common to the different individuals of the human species’, the
historical view ‘is formed by the successive observation of human societies at the
different eras through which they have passed’. The ‘historical’ view had to show ‘that
no bounds have been fixed to the improvement of human faculties; that the perfectibility
of man is absolutely indefinite; that the progress of this perfectibility [ ...] has no other
limit than the duration of the globe’ (ibid.: 11).
Human perfectibility, however, was not supposed to be a matter of the development of
individual capacities. As the central subject of the historical narrative of history was not
the individual faculty of each individual human being but human faculties, perfectibility
had to play out on the largest collective level of humanity. Kant (1991: 42)
captured this in the second proposition of his essay on universal history, stating that
‘in man (as the only rational creature on earth), those natural capacities which are
directed towards the use of his reason are such that they could be fully developed only
in the species, but not in the individual’. Or, as the argument proceeds, the eighth
proposition of Kant (ibid.: 50) makes it clear that it is ‘the history of the human race
as a whole’ that brings about a ‘perfect political constitution’, and that this history is
nothing other than ‘the only possible state within which all natural capacities of mankind
can be developed completely’.
It would nevertheless be false to assume that history as the development of human-
ity’s potential is merely an Enlightenment concern. Herder, who is usually credited today
as the sharpest opponent of the Enlightenment invention of developmental and proces-
sual history, also recounted a version of the story of humanity. Despite the fact that, in
the treatise Another Philosophy of History (2004), Herder indeed refuted many
universalizing tendencies in Enlightenment thought and its overreliance on reason by
arguing for the specificity of historical periods and for efforts to understand them on their
own terms, he did not wish to completely escape the overall story of the development of
humanity. In fact, Herder took great pains to reconcile the idea of the specificity of
epochs with such an overall story. In an impressive follow-up endeavour, Herder
(1800[1784–1791]) brought balance to Another Philosophy of History by outlining the
ultimate development of humanity, beginning with a discussion of the planet Earth
within the solar system. In the course of his reconciliation, Herder even granted a
prominent place to Enlightenment ideals that came to stand above the specificity of
epochs and organize them into a larger pattern, perfectly captured in the title of the third
chapter of Book XV: ‘The human Race is destined to proceed through various Degrees of
Civilization, in various Mutations; but the Permanency of its Welfare is founded solely
and essentially on Reason and Justice’ (ibid.: 450).
Although subsequent philosophies of history of Western modernity did not necessa-
rily share the particular insights, hopes, priorities and prejudices of the Enlightenment,
they stuck with humanity as their central subject. They either largely disagreed on the
question of what particular faculty or capacity defines human beings and provides the
ground for uniting each and every human being in the collectivity of humanity, or, in
some versions, did not even necessarily hold the view that there is a certain capacity or
faculty that essentially defines humanity. For example, when Marx and Engels
(1978: 489) asked the heavily rhetorical question ‘Does it require deep intuition
to comprehend that man’s ideas, views and conceptions, in one word, man’s conscious-
ness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social
relations and in his social life?’, they implied a historical process that has not much to do
with innate human faculties. Yet the Marxian and the Enlightenment stories of humanity
are of the same structure. The historical process as a history of class struggles that
eventually leads to a classless society is nothing other than a history of inner antagonism
in light of the expected endpoint of a unity of all. Like Enlightenment philosophies of
history, Marx and Engels postulated a unitary course of history centering around the fate
of a universal subject whose development and future occurrence (encompassing the
entirety of humanity) is at stake in that very course. Furthermore, the inner antagonism
of the unitary subject is just as much a starting point of the Kantian scheme as it is the
point of departure of the Manifesto. True enough, the inner antagonism that Kant
(1991: 44) calls ‘the unsocial sociability of men’ has not much to do with class
struggles. It is about the asocial qualities of the individual which – despite being sources
of conflict and competition – Kant considers to be necessary for developing the natural
capacities of the collective. But, just like in the Marxian scheme, this antagonism appears
as both the ‘means’ and the ‘cause’ of the desired outcome of a societal order (cosmo-
politan order in Kant). And in this sense, the historical process is not simply the devel-
opment of the central subject called humanity; it is also the achievement of its proper
unity that is not yet given, only assumed as a potential.
The achievement of humanity’s proper unity as the historical process itself also
characterizes the most paradigmatic classical philosophy of history, that of Hegel. In
outlining world history as the actualization of Spirit and its arrival to self-knowledge of
its intrinsic freedom, Hegel (2011: 88) outlined the achievement of coming to
consciousness ‘that the freedom of spirit constitutes humanity’s truly inherent nature’.
The long and short of Hegel’s story is that whereas ‘the Orientals only knew that one is
free’, and whereas ‘in the Greek and Roman world some are free’, Christianity in ‘the
106 History of the Human Sciences 32(2)
Germanic nations’ brings about the consciousness that ‘we by contrast know that all
human beings are intrinsically free, that the human being as human is free’ (ibid.).
The story of humanity, once out there, informed not only endeavours that explicitly
aspire to be philosophies of history, but all those 19th-century projects that implicitly
relied on the idea of a historical process. The best illustration of such an implicit
invocation of the idea of a historical process together with its central subject is August
Comte’s positivism. Comte did not merely base his doctrine on a historical vision about
the progress of humanity, but even established the ‘religion of humanity’ at a later stage
of his life, with the aim of providing the moral integrity of a scientific society (Pickering,
2009: 453–515). Of course, in order for a scientific society to receive its matching
secular religion, first that scientific society had to be reached. And this is precisely what
was supposed to happen according to Comte’s story about the inevitable rise of the
doctrine of positivism as the arrival of the scientific society. As the foundational story
goes, it is ‘from the study of the development of human intelligence, in all directions, and
through all times’, that ‘a great fundamental law arises’. According to this law, ‘each of
our leading conceptions – each branch of our knowledge – passes successively through
three different theoretical conditions: the Theological, or fictitious; the Metaphysical, or
abstract; and the Scientific, or positive’ (Comte, 1896[1830–1842]: 1–2). And inasmuch
as the case is so, this ‘law of three stages’ must itself be both the product and the proof of
humanity’s arrival at the scientific-positive society, provided that this is the positive
stage of development in which such laws can be discovered.
Although it would be possible to trace further the occurrence of the story of humanity
throughout the 19th century, the above considerations should provide sufficient support
for the mutual invention and interdependence of history and humanity in Western mod-
ernity. With this message as the background to the coming pages, it seems more rea-
sonable to execute at this point the promised time jump to the postwar period and
introduce the second historical episode.
There is no such thing as humanity
What has been invented as bound to each other must also fall together – and so it
happened to history and humanity in the second half of the last century. When Foucault
hinted at the possible disappearance of the human as an object of knowledge in 1966
(1970 in English), the Western world had already become suspicious about the story of
humanity. Following the horrors of the world wars, a suspicion concerning the gradual
development of human capacities and improvement of human societies might have come
as rather natural, even though it would be mistaken to attribute the growing suspicion to a
single cause of disillusionment. Mapping the complex web of causes of how the story of
humanity lost credibility in the first few postwar decades is, however, not what I intend
to do here. What I wish to point out is only that those decades reverberated with
discussions revolving around the unrealistic character of the idea that humanity is pro-
gressing toward a better future, around a skepticism about the idea that this progress
takes place within and as history, around the absurdity of the enterprise of the philosophy
of history to fashion such a notion of history (see, for instance, Berlin, 2002; Lo¨with,
1949; Popper, 2002), and around the proclaimed end of ideology and utopian visions
(Bell, 1960; Shklar, 1957; for a concise review of a larger tendency see Jacoby, 1999: 1–
When – most forcefully in the 1970s and 1980s – gender, subaltern, and postcolonial
criticism joined the cacophony of voices questioning the integrity of humanity as a
central subject of the story of history itself, that story already looked implausible to
many. Postcolonial and subaltern criticism confronted Western universalism by showing
that it is Western universalism, while, at the same time, gender studies brought to light
how its constitution reflects masculine standards. As a result, whatever had previously
been considered as universal and unitary, now looked embarrassingly particular through
postcolonial, subaltern, and gender lenses.
Unveiling universals as particularities in disguise brought questions of power and
domination to the forefront, entailing serious consequences both to the story of humanity
and to humanity as a subject. If professional historical studies had been founded on
gendered standards as Bonnie Smith (1998) argues, and if the codes of the profession and
the ideas of what constitutes historical knowledge reflect masculine standards, then the
stories produced according to those standards must have been gendered in the same
Or as Christina Crosby (1991: 1) explicitly states, ‘in the 19th century “history”
is produced as man’s truth, the truth of a necessarily historical Humanity, which in turn
requires that “women” be outside history, above, below, or beyond properly historical
and political life’. What this means is that, according to Crosby (1991: 1), ‘“women” are
the unhistorical other of history’, they are ‘something other than history’, against whom
the construction of history – in which ‘man’ emerges and realizes himself – could take
Being excluded from history and from the story of humanity, however, is not the only
possible interpretation of the power effects of Western universalism. According to
Nandy (1995: 46), ‘historical consciousness now owns the globe. Even in societies
known as ahistorical, timeless, or eternal – India, for example – the politically powerful
now live in and with history. Ahistoricity survives at the peripheries and interstices of
such societies’. The problem entailed by this picture is not so much to be left out of the
story of humanity as an ‘ahistorical’, but rather to be repressively subsumed under it,
thereby obliterating meaningful constructions of the relationship to the past and the
future other than ‘history’.
Nandy’s view is unique in that it looks for such meaningful constructions of the
relationship to the past other than the ‘historical’ one, which leads him to criticize even
those postcolonial scholars who present ‘powerful pleas for alternative histories, not for
alternatives to history’ (Nandy, 1995: 53, italics in the original). Yet, notwithstanding the
crucial differences between calling for alternative histories and alternatives to history,
Nandy proceeds on the very same basis as the mainstream of postcolonial and subaltern
history. In one way or another, both wish to release people from the story of humanity
that appears as imposed upon them. However, those who look for alternative histories
confront the following question concerning the paradoxical nature of their enterprise: are
such alternative histories possible when the story of humanity is the historical story per
se and when professional historical studies is informed by a set of conceptual tools
invented by Western universalism? How alternative can such histories be when, as
histories, they may necessarily be based on particular categories in the guise of
108 History of the Human Sciences 32(2)
universality, that is, on categories criticized as repressive? Accordingly, when subaltern
scholars – Spivak (1988) in general terms and Chakrabarty (1992) with respect to history
– ask the question of whether it is possible for the subaltern to speak in the first place,
they must concede that they cannot speak without having recourse to that which they
wish to deconstruct. Being also a feminist scholar, Spivak (1987: 107) already noted that,
the only way I can hope to suggest how the center itself is marginal is by not remaining
outside in the margin and pointing my accusing finger at the center. I might do it rather by
implicating myself in the center and sensing what politics make it marginal.
In a similar vein, it is from the inside that Chakrabarty (1992: 23) calls for ‘a history that
deliberately makes visible, within the very structure of its narrative forms, its own
repressive strategies and practices’.
All in all, postcolonial and gender criticism unveils the story of humanity as the story
that either excludes others by treating them as ‘ahistorical’ or ‘unhistorical’, or violently
enforces its particular stance in the guise of universality upon those ‘others’ who are
committed to different, particular stances. On the one hand, such criticism implies that
there is no such thing as humanity; that there is no such thing as the greatest historical
narrative of history itself to which humanity could give integrity as its central subject. On
the other hand, it cannot but contend that the conceptual tools that could enable alter-
native histories of alternative subjects are necessarily those of the story of humanity; thus
fragmenting and decentering the story of humanity from the inside is the best option
there is. The merits and the shortcomings of such criticism, its potential achievements
and potential hazards, are still widely debated and will be debated in the near future too,
for reasons to be explored in the following pages.
The challenge of posthumanity
The third historical episode concerning the story of humanity that I wish to discuss takes
place in same period as the second, in a broadly understood postwar period that stretches
until today. Its context is science and technology, in which an alternative story emerged
due to the newly perceived capacity of technology to bring about a kind of individual and
societal transformation that has been unimaginable before. The claim I wish to advance
here is that although it remains largely unnoticed by historians, today’s technology and
science pose a challenge both to the story of humanity and its postcolonial and gender
criticism. More precisely, the challenge lies in the vision of the future that technology
and science have lately exhibited, in the prospect of entering an era of posthumanity. In
discourses revolving around the themes of transhumanism, human enhancement, bio-
technology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and technological singularity,
technological-scientific prospects promise to overcome the capacities associated with
being human (as a brief sample, see Bostrom, 2014; Chalmers, 2010; Coeckelbergh,
2013; Sharon, 2014). This technological prospect is, of course, multifaceted. Engaging in
a lengthy discussion about how its variations might have an impact on historical thinking
would exceed the confines of this article (for such a discussion, see Simon, 2018). What I
wish to sketch here instead is the challenge of posthumanity by one of its most apparent
prospects as a representative of the transformative potential of technology: transhuman-
ism. I will briefly analyze the historical narrative that transhumanism makes use of as its
legitimizing strategy and show how transhumanism’s explicit prospects defy its own
In the first decades of this century, transhumanism aims at delivering the old Enlight-
enment promise. At least, this is the narrative that transhumanists themselves like to
deploy in arguing for the feasibility and socio-cultural desirability of their views.
Although leading transhumanist thinkers hardly invoke the doctrine of the perfectibility
of man in explicit terms, they certainly tend to legitimize their views by outlining the
respectable historical inheritance of the Enlightenment that they wish to carry forward.
This is how Nick Bostrom – probably the most celebrated transhumanist philosopher
today – binds postwar and 21st-century transhumanist ambitions (while being more
ambivalent toward interwar ones) to certain 18th-century visions of the progress of
humankind. In a historical sketch Bostrom (2005) explicitly claims that transhumanism
is rooted in Enlightenment rational humanism.
Identifying such roots, however, does not compel anyone to accept the entire
Enlightenment paradigm. The appeal of transhumanism based on the historical reason-
ing of its advocates is precisely in its being a better version of the Enlightenment,
stripped from the conceptual shortcomings of the latter. In the argument of Max More
(2013) – another prominent transhumanist – the insistence on progress in transhumanist
thought prevails without the support of determinism and inevitability that the Enlight-
enment attributed to all forms of progress. The politically more engaged transhumanism
of Fuller and Lipinska (2014) fully shares these sentiments in its argument against what
they describe as the dominant precautionary attitude toward technological novelty.
Whereas precautionary thinking perceives the potential of technology in terms of
threats and calls for minimizing risk, Fuller and Lipinska advocate the ‘proactionary
principle’ – originally popularized by More – as a risk-taking attitude focused on
potential benefits, as a foundation for transhumanist thought. Wedded to the idea that
it is humanity’s destiny to achieve its ‘divine potential’, they even offer the entire
precautionary–proactionary dichotomy as a new form of political division to overwrite
the old Left–Right divide.
The contentions concerning such innate human divinity as well as the insensitivity of
Fuller and Lipinska to the potential wrongdoings and evils arising out of a proactionary
attitude have somewhat naturally provoked criticism (Hauskeller, 2016: 168–71). As it is
not my intention to debate the feasibility of particular views on transhumanism here,
what I wish to point out is only that such politically motivated transhumanism claims the
very same historical inheritance as the more philosophically oriented transhumanism of
Bostrom. This is most apparent in the definition of being proactionary as meaning, ‘in
the first instance, to identify with this progressive historical narrative, which in the
secular West has been known mainly as “Enlightenment” but in our own day is expressed
as the drive to “human enhancement”’ (Fuller and Lipinska, 2014: 129). The same
applies to the politically more modest ‘democratic transhumanism’ of Hughes (2004),
which, due to its concerns for the safe use of technologies, would qualify as precau-
tionary according to Fuller and Lipinska’s account. Nevertheless, much like all of the
transhumanists mentioned above, Hughes (2010: 622) claims that transhumanism is an
110 History of the Human Sciences 32(2)
‘ideological descendent of the Enlightenment’, inheriting not only its promise but also its
contradictions and tensions.
Given the omnipotence of such transhumanist self-narrative, it is no wonder that even
scholarly interpreters tend to align with it rather automatically. Whether the interpreta-
tive aim is that of gaining an understanding of transhumanist assumptions (Allenby,
2012) or that of exercising a critical posthumanist critique of the inherent anthropocentr-
ism and humanism underlying transhumanist thought (Braidotti, 2016: 16–19; Wolfe,
2010: xiii–xv), Enlightenment inheritance typically remains the interpretative frame-
work of transhumanist thought.
Eventually, all this adds up to what I would like to call the promise of a technological
Enlightenment, that is, the promise of achieving through technology what the Enlight-
enment failed to deliver: the betterment of the human condition. But does this seem
persuasive enough? Is the autobiography of transhumanism the most reliable tool and
source of trying to understand transhumanism as a socio-cultural phenomenon of rapidly
growing significance? Should our understanding and scholarly interpretation of
technological-scientific prospects of change over time be guided by the very terms and
agendas set by engaged advocates of those prospects? Probably not. Accordingly, what I
wish to point out is that the promise of transhumanism is, I think, something completely
other than what transhumanists themselves claim. There certainly is a transhumanist
promise, and that promise is definitely technological, but it has little to do with the
Enlightenment and not much with history as we know it.
In order to see why it is better to understand transhumanism as a technological
promise in its own right and not as the promise of a technological Enlightenment that
it aspires to be, the first thing to consider is the Enlightenment promise, which transhu-
manism appropriates as its legitimizing narrative. As discussed earlier, that promise is an
advancement in the human condition that presupposes a belief in the perfectibility of
human beings, which is expected to play out not on the individual but on the collective
level of humanity. Hence the idea of the perfectibility of human beings (whether con-
sciously held or tacitly presupposed) necessitates a corresponding belief in the perfect-
ibility of human societies. As the earlier discussion of Kant on universal history and
Condorcet on the progress of the human mind made clear, for Enlightenment thinkers,
human betterment could be achieved through the betterment of the political constitution,
eventually stretched over the entirety of humanity. What seems to be even more impor-
tant is that the betterment of the human condition was supposed to play out both within
and precisely as history. For the greatest invention of the Enlightenment was nothing
other than the idea of history, the movement and mechanism of human affairs, the idea of
the historical process that conceptualizes change over time in the human constitution. In
history, humanity could be supposed to fulfill its already assumed potential – a potential
that must have been assumed in order to able to be gradually changed for the better.
Now, how does the promise of transhumanism relate to this Enlightenment promise?
It is one thing for transhumanism to describe itself retrospectively as a better version of
the promise of human betterment and as an updated, 21st century version of the story of
humanity, while making use of the most conventional historical narrative as a strategy to
legitimize itself as a technological Enlightenment. But, as soon as one shifts perspective
and considers how transhumanism describes its prospective aims, the historical narrative
about carrying forward an inheritance begins to look rather implausible. Indeed, what
transhumanists explicitly wish to achieve in the future looks drastically different from
visions offered by the Enlightenment.
The twofold definition of transhumanism in The Transhumanist FAQ (Bostrom, 2003:
4, italics mine) brilliantly – but hardly deliberately – captures the contradiction between
the retrospective historical narrative and the prospective aims. On the one hand, the first
definition claims that transhumanism is
the intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fun-
damentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by develop-
ing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance
human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.
On the other hand, according to the second definition, transhumanism is ‘the study of the
ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to
overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters
involved in developing and using such technologies’. Even though this second definition
evidently refers only to the study of a cultural movement that also features in the first
definition, the difference between the two descriptions of the potential of technology is
striking. Whereas the first definition falls in accordance with its claimed Enlightenment
inheritance insofar as it promises improvement upon what human beings are (and have
always been), the second definition vests technology with the capacity of being a precise
means of escape from the confines of what being human means. The best example of
latter potentiality is, however, the self-branded ‘speculative posthumanism’ of Roden
(2015), which attempts to conceptualize the human–posthuman relationship as
Simply put, it is not the betterment of the human condition and humanity that
transhumanism desires, but the creation of something better than the human condition
and humanity as we know it; that is, a posthuman condition. Accordingly, the figure
emerging in technological posthumanity is not simply that of a better human being, but
a better-than-human being that is also other-than-human.
Where the Enlightenment
assumed the malleability of human beings and human capacities, transhumanism
instead presupposes that, whatever the human being and human capacities may be,
technology can transcend them. Whereas the Enlightenment promised the unfolding of
an already assumed human potential, transhumanism wishes to surpass what we think
is humanly possible. Finally, if the Enlightenment thought that human perfectibility
plays out as the course of history in a scenario of processual and developmental
change, transhumanism aims at introducing changes that are not merely stages of a
historical development but potentially displace the entire modern schema of history
The change that transhumanism wishes to introduce is what I have called elsewhere
the prospect of unprecedented change (Simon, 2015). By this, I mean a wider category
that encompasses emerging postwar visions of the future of Western societies on a
structural level, exhibiting a temporality other than the developmental one that Western
modernity associated with history. Instead of expecting the fulfillment of a process, the
112 History of the Human Sciences 32(2)
prospect of unprecedented change is conceived of as the sudden emergence of an epochal
event defying any preceding states of affairs. Although I first introduced the term in
relation to the notion of the Anthropocene and to the ecological vision it harbors, more
recently I have extended it to postwar visions of technology that, I believe, have already
transformed the Western historical sensibility (Simon, 2018).
Seen within this broader framework of postwar future visions, transhumanism is
far from being a new chapter in the Enlightenment story of human betterment, that
is, in the story of humanity as history. Rather, transhumanism proves itself to be one
of the most relentless contemporary cultural practices, and one posing perhaps the
most serious challenge to the very historical thinking that it employs as a legitimiz-
ing strategy. To phrase all this as a thesis: today’s technological promise is not a
continuation of the Enlightenment story of humanity as history itself (the process of
human betterment), but an alternative to history as Western thought essentially
Humanity is over, therefore humanity is united
The case of transhumanism very powerfully indicates how postwar technological-
scientific prospects rely on a notion of humanity while, at the same time, prophesizing
its end. Yet the picture is even more complex because such prospects have a troubled
relation not only to the story of humanity as invented by Western modernity, but also to
its postwar criticism. To begin with, by making use of the vocabulary of postcolonial
studies in a rather heretical manner, I would like to put forward the claim that in today’s
technological-scientific prospects posthumanity appears as humanity’s temporal other.
It is the other that wants to be liberated from the limitations of humanity, but this other –
unlike the postcolonial other – is anything but marginal and powerless. Posthumanity
appears as humanity’s temporal other that is more capable than humanity ever was. And
this creates, I believe, the most urgent paradox to face.
The paradoxical nature of the challenge of posthumanity lies in the confrontation
between the aspect of temporality and the aspect of otherness. As to the former aspect,
inasmuch as posthumanity is conceived of as humanity’s temporal and more capable
other, it invokes the supersession of humanity. The temporal aspect declares the potential
end of humanity as a subject, and thereby also proclaims the end of the story in which
humanity features as a central character. Given that this story of humanity is the greatest
historical narrative of history itself, the challenge of posthumanity is an effective end of
an entire modern historical sensibility. The challenge is not just another version of an
‘end of history’, or at least not necessarily. It can be, depending on how one defines
‘history’, but it certainly does not end history in the sense of ending the possibility of
change over time. Quite the contrary: posthumanity as the temporal other of humanity is
the promise of change over time, a change that is far more radical than the Western
notion of history could ever have offered. It promises to bring about a change that creates
an entirely new subject that is expected to replace humanity. The prospect of posthuman-
ity thereby eliminates humanity as a central subject of the greatest historical narrative of
history itself, along with the integrity and coherence that such narrative might have (cf.
the category of narrative philosophies of history as mentioned earlier: Dray, 1971; H.
White, 1987; M. White, 1965). From the viewpoint of humanity, posthumanity is not
humanity’s future; from the viewpoint of posthumanity, humanity is not posthumanity’s
past. There is no historical narrative with integrity and coherence that could be both the
story of humanity and posthumanity, because there is no one central subject to provide a
continuity in change by remaining self-identical. Between two central subjects, between
humanity and posthumanity, there is no continuity in change, only change without
continuity. And therein lies, I think, the challenge of posthumanity to the story of
humanity and to the very possibility of historical narratives.
As to the challenge of posthumanity to the postcolonial and gender fragmentation of
the story of humanity, it lies in the aspect of otherness. Posthumanity as humanity’s
temporal other, in order to be able to temporally supersede humanity, must constitute a
unified and universal humanity as ‘other’ in the first place. But the humanity constituted
by posthumanity is not the humanity that postcolonial, subaltern and gender criticism
attempted to deconstruct by decentering and fragmenting it as the supposedly universal
central subject of history. The humanity constituted by posthumanity is not a subject of a
historical process directed toward a fulfillment of its inherent capacities. It is constituted
as a universal, but this universal does not appear as the promise of a better future. Instead,
it appears as an obstacle and a limitation to a better-than-human nonhuman. In other
words, posthumanity as humanity’s temporal other is the other that potentially outper-
forms humanity even in domains considered to be specifically human.
This prospect may even appear as desirable to many, insofar as it relies on familiar
notions of betterment. Yet, inasmuch as it anticipates unprecedented change, inasmuch as
it harbors a novel sense of historicity and a novel configuration of change over time, and
inasmuch as it is attached to the temporal aspect in which humanity is expected to be
superseded and in which betterment means better-than-human, the overall prospect of
posthumanity as humanity’s temporal other inherently contains the prospect of ending
humanity. Ultimately, it is the aspect of otherness as seen together with the temporal aspect
of potential supersession that creates the paradox I would like to formulate as follows: faced
with the threat of posthumanity ending it, humanity is united in a singular universal. In other
words, today’s technological prospects bring humanity into existence precisely insofar as
they postulate its potential non-existence, without assuming a destined fulfillment of its
latent capacities through a historical process (an idea that nevertheless survives in legitimiz-
ing narratives). In order to gain an understanding of such a novel universalism of humanity,
what needs tobe understood inthe first place isthe theoretical horizon ofposthumanity and
its better-than-human central subject that constitutes humanity through challenging it.
How to conceive of the better-than-human?
Instead of enabling a firm conclusion, all this points to questions vital for both human
societies and the academic disciplines studying them. Among these, the question of the
figure of the human and humanity, its ongoing redefinition as triggered by the prospect
of posthumanity, is rapidly tending toward occupying the centre of both public discus-
sions and academic debates. However, any answer to this question must come as a
correlate of the way one conceives of the prospect of posthumanity. If – as in the above
approach – such a prospect paradoxically evokes and defies historical understanding at
114 History of the Human Sciences 32(2)
the same time, if posthumanity as humanity’s temporal other is the better-than-human
collective subject, then the pivotal question becomes: how to conceive of the better-than-
human of posthumanity? For it is one thing to imagine posthuman futures or to claim that
the future is likely to be posthuman and quite another to try to make sense of such
posthumanity by understanding it in relation to that which is not posthumanity. In other
words, what needs to be discussed and come to terms with is the question of what the
prospect of posthumanity means.
In light of posthumanity’s implied appeal to historical understanding (however incon-
sistent or self-defeating that appeal may be), investigating the shortcomings of subject-
ing the prospect of the better-than-human to the historical sense-making operation of
Western modernity amounts to one possible framework of discussion of the overall
question of what the prospect of posthumanity might mean. Making sense of posthuman-
ity as measured against the story of humanity is of course not the exclusive and ultimate
way of framing a discussion on technological prospects, although it certainly is a para-
mount and critical one. Its significance is provided not only by the current flourishing of
visions of posthumanity, but also by the simultaneous and complementary trend of
returning to large-scale historical thinking with a renewed interest in humanity.
Today, a big data approach to history aims at recasting human history as a ‘better
version of large and small contours in the overall story’, which does not mean ‘a
straightforward tale of progress, but a set of overlapping stories’ (Manning, 2013: 23).
At the same time, big history tells the evolutionary epic in which humanity features as a
part of the ‘history’ of practically everything since the birth of the universe (see the
analysis of Hesketh, 2014). Finally, disguised with the rather suspicious label of ‘his-
torical prediction’, the popular history of humanity by Harari (2017) tells the story of
humanity becoming gods in posthumanity through a conventionally sketched develop-
mental historical process. In one way or another, all these efforts are spin-offs of the
modern Western story of humanity as told by classical philosophies of history. They all
introduce minor updates, such as the multiplicity of stories or the extension of the single
human story to the story of the universe, but they still rely on a directional continuity in
human affairs as invented by classical philosophies of history.
Both transhumanists themselves and their scholarly interpreters tend to proceed along
similar lines. Mobilizing such familiar patterns of thought is the most apparent in efforts
that historically affiliate human enhancement with preceding religious aspirations and
evolutionary concerns. With respect to religion, a popular way of making sense of
transhumanism either affiliates transhumanist thought with religious precedents (Bur-
dett, 2015; Graham, 2016; Tirosh-Samuelson, 2012; Trothen and Mercer, 2017), or, as
seen above, claims that transhumanism and human enhancement represent the latest
stage of human development in which humans achieve god-like powers (Fuller and
Lipinska, 2014; Harari, 2017). Placing visions of enhancing the human condition into
the context of long-term religious aspirations of humanity is closely related to the idea
that transhumanism is somehow nothing other than engineered evolution. Julian Hux-
ley’s groundbreaking and discourse-initiating essay on transhumanism in the middle of
the last century has already set the terms of the debate with reference to both. Huxley
(1968: 73) established the evolutionary framework, reiterated the modern idea of direc-
tional history as the story of humanity, and played out the religious connotations of
destined fulfillment at the very same time by claiming that the situation in his own
lifetime ‘is as if man had been suddenly appointed managing director of the biggest
business of all, the business of evolution’, which appeared to him as humanity’s ‘ines-
capable destiny’ to realize ‘its inherent potentialities as fully as possible’.
Since Huxley, directed evolution has continued to provide the underlying sense of
historicity in the enhancement debate, with much of Huxley’s sentiments retained. It
pervades discussions of particular enhancement scenarios such as bioelectronics
implants (McGee, 2008) or moral enhancement (Persson and Savulescu, 2011) just as
much as general conceptions of transhumanism (Bostrom, 2004; Fuller and Lipinska,
2014; Harris, 2007). Despite the apparent omnipotence of describing transhumanism as
directed evolution, Askland (2011) may be right in arguing that evolution is a misnomer
inasmuch as the transhumanist advocacy of teleological self-engineering contradicts the
idea of an a-teleological evolutionary process (which does not attribute exceptionalism
to humans among other species).
In light of the main points of this article, however, directed evolution is a misnomer
for transhumanism on a much deeper level. Whether teleological or a-teleological,
whether directed or not, the change in question is of a very peculiar kind, associated
with the developmental and processual change of Western modernity. As Lynn Hunt
(2013: 213) notes, it is precisely the question of telos over which a Darwinian natural-
scientific understanding of evolution and the modern sense of historicity disagrees.
Notwithstanding this, conceiving of transhumanism as directed evolution means nothing
other than conceiving of it ‘historically’ – as the Western world has conceived of change
over time since the late Enlightenment. In other words: thinking about transhumanism as
directed evolution amounts to conceiving of it as the latest chapter in the story of
humanity as we have known it for two centuries or so.
Giving in to the legitimizing historical narrative of advocates of posthumanity or to
the historicity of Western modernity and telling a story about humanity’s historical quest
for self-improvement is of course not a problem in itself. It is no doubt a legitimate
approach, representing a safe and easy mode of making sense of novelty. It answers the
question of what posthumanity means by sketching how such a posthuman condition is
what humans either always have aspired or were simply meant to be. But the question is
not one of whether it is possible to apply historical thinking as we know it to future
prospects. The question is whether, in facing changes which appear as unprecedented,
we should or should not domesticate such future prospects ‘historically’. My final con-
tention is that conceiving of posthumanity and the better-than-human posthuman as
opening a new chapter in the story of humanity is the way in which we should not
apprehend current technological prospects. It exemplifies an overreliance on one side
of the above paradox, the extent to which the post of posthumanity necessarily evokes
modern historical understanding. And inasmuch as this overreliance means a rather
automatic recourse to the story of humanity, it might easily drive attention away from
the exploration of the other side of the paradox, that is, the extent to which the prospect
of posthumanity defies that very same historical understanding.
A far more demanding and stimulating – and yet regrettably missing – approach
would be to configure the relationship between humanity and posthumanity in a way
other than a simple reiteration of the old story of humanity with a new telos of
116 History of the Human Sciences 32(2)
posthumanity toward which the story of humanity necessarily gestures. While being
more strenuous and laborious, such an approach would address both sides of what may
be called the history-paradox of posthumanity, by incorporating them into a compre-
hensive, albeit probably highly complex answer. The question of the hour is whether
such an approach is possible in the first place. This, I believe, is the question that the
humanities and social sciences have to come to terms with in the near future.
The section of the article on the legitimizing narrative of transhumanism contains a substantially
reworked version of my online essay that appeared on the Blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas
under the title ‘The Promise of a Technological Enlightenment: On Transhumanism and History’.
1. Unlike the majority of humanities scholarship, my interest does not lie in posthumanism as the
latest version of critical thought. I investigate posthumanity as a potential future era that is
literally post human, with its other-than-human subject displacing humanity as a self-conceived
central subject of history. Unlike this, the dominant understanding of posthumanism within the
humanities means the deconstruction of anthropocentrism and speciesism by critical thinking
aimed positively at an ecotopia of planetary life that encompasses both humans and nonhumans
(Braidotti, 2013; Domanska, 2015; Haraway, 2008; Wolfe 2010). Although such critical post-
humanism oftentimes blends the technological-scientific prospect in its agenda of anti-
anthropocentrism, and although the distinction between them is thereby not very firm, it seems
crucial to point out their most essential difference. The critical posthumanism of humanities
scholarship aims at overcoming anthropocentrism and thereby initiating a still human post-
humanity as a new configuration of human thought. Contrary to this, technological prospects
revolve around the exceptional human capacity to engineer nonhuman beings that outperform
humans in domains previously considered as domains of ultimate human achievements, mark-
ing the possible emergence of nonhuman thought even more exceptional than the human.
2. For a history of gender history from 1969 to the end of the century, reviewing a large variety of
approaches to the question of gender and history, see Alberti (2002). See also the instant classic
of Scott (1986), which proved to be the cornerstone in theorizing the relationship between the
category of gender and historical studies.
3. By characterizing the technological posthuman as better-than-human I do not mean to refer to
moral categories. Talking about beings ‘better’ than human beings simply refers to, in the above
context, a prevailing imaginary of the posthuman in transhumanist and enhancement discourses
as outperforming the human. In this sense, the better-than-human is ‘better’ than human
because of being conceived of as having capacities greater than human.
4. Rosi Braidotti’s critical posthumanism is very well aware of the above paradox, in which
ending humanity by posthumanity constitutes a universal notion of humanity. Yet, Braidotti
(2013: 187) merely conceives of it as ‘a negative category, held together by shared vulnerability
and the spectre of extinction’, without considering the possibility that the ‘spectre of extinction’
may be one of the most crucial features of an emerging novel understanding of humanity.
Declaration of conflicting interests
The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/
or publication of this article.
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
Zolta´ n Boldizsa´r Simon https://orcid.org/0000-0001-8763-7415
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´r Simon is a research associate at Bielefeld University and a board member of the
Centre for Theories in Historical Research in Bielefeld. Zolta´n has written extensively both on the
theory and philosophy of history and on thechallenges posed by current ecological and technological
prospects for the journals History and Theory,The Anthropocene Review,Rethinking History,
European Review of History,Journal of Social History,andtheJournal of the Philosophy of History.
120 History of the Human Sciences 32(2)