In critical theory, the posthuman is a speculative being that represents or seeks to enact a re-writing of what is generally conceived of as human. It is the object of posthumanist criticism, which critically questions Renaissance humanism, a branch of humanist philosophy which claims that human nature is a universal state from which the human being emerges; human nature is autonomous, rational, capable of free will, and unified in itself as the apex of existence. Thus, the posthuman recognizes imperfectability and disunity within him or herself, instead understanding the world through context and heterogeneous perspectives while maintaining intellectual rigour and a dedication to objective observations of the world. Key to this posthuman practice is the ability to fluidly change perspectives and manifest oneself through different identities. The posthuman, for critical theorists of the subject, has an emergent ontology rather than a stable one; in other words, the posthuman is not a singular, defined individual, but rather one who can “become” or embody different identities and understand the world from multiple, heterogeneous perspectives.
The posthuman, and posthumanism with it, are philosophical positions that overlap and are constantly engaged with much of postmodern philosophy, process philosophy, emerging technologies, and evolutionary biology, so the field is constantly changing. The critical notion of the posthuman is isolated from these fields as the embodiment of critical engagement itself; that is to say that the posthuman is not necessarily human in the first place, but is rather an embodied medium through which critical consciousness is manifested.
Steve Nichols published the Post-Human Manifesto in 1988, and holds a contrarian view that human beings are already post-human compared to previous generations.
Critical discourses surrounding posthumanism are not homogeneous, but in fact present a series of often contradictory ideas, and the term itself is contested, with one of the foremost authors associated with posthumanism, Manuel de Landa, decrying the term as “very silly.” Covering the ideas of, for example, Pepperell’s The Posthuman Condition, and Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman under a single term is distinctly problematic due to these contradictions.
The posthuman is roughly synonymous with the “cyborg” of A Cyborg Manifesto by Donna Haraway. Haraway’s conception of the cyborg is an ironic take on traditional conceptions of the cyborg that inverts the traditional trope of the cyborg whose presence questions the salient line between humans and robots. Haraway’s cyborg is in many ways the “beta” version of the posthuman, as her cyborg theory prompted the issue to be taken up in critical theory.
Following Haraway, Hayles, whose work grounds much of the critical posthuman discourse, asserts that liberal humanism – which separates the mind from the body and thus portrays the body as a “shell” or vehicle for the mind – becomes increasingly complicated in the late 20th and 21st centuries because information technology put the human body in question. Hayles maintains that we must be conscious of information technological advancements while understanding information as “disembodied,” that is, something which cannot fundamentally replace the human body but can only be incorporated into it and human life practices.
The posthuman is a being that relies on context rather than relativity, on situated objectivity rather than universal objectivity, and on the creation of meaning through ‘play’ betweenconstructions of informational pattern and reductions to the randomness of on-off switches, which are the foundation of digital binary systems.
According to transhumanist thinkers, a posthuman is a hypothetical future being “whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to be no longer unambiguously human by our current standards.”
The difference between the posthuman and other hypothetical sophisticated non-humans is that a posthuman was once a human, either in its lifetime or in the lifetimes of some or all of its direct ancestors. Therefore, a prerequisite for becoming a posthuman is having been a transhuman, the point at which the human being begins surpassing his or her own limitations but is still recognizable as a human person or similar. In this sense, the transition between human and posthuman may be viewed as a continuum rather than an all-or-nothing event.
Posthumans could be a symbiosis of human and artificial intelligence, or uploaded consciousnesses, or the result of making many smaller but cumulatively profound technological augmentations to a biological human, i.e. a cyborg. Some examples of the latter are redesigning the human organism using advanced nanotechnology or radical enhancement using some combination of technologies such as genetic engineering, psychopharmacology, life extension therapies, neural interfaces, advanced information management tools, memory enhancing drugs, wearable or implanted computers, and cognitive techniques.
As used in this article, “posthuman” does not necessarily refer to a conjectured future where humans are extinct or otherwise absent from the Earth. As with other species who speciate from one another, both humans and posthumans could continue to exist. However, the apocalyptic scenario appears to be a viewpoint shared among a minority of transhumanists such as Marvin Minsky and Hans Moravec, who could be considered misanthropes, at least in regards to humanity in its current state. Alternatively, others such as Kevin Warwick argue for the likelihood that both humans and posthumans will continue to exist but the latter will predominate in society over the former because of their abilities.
Many science fiction authors, such as Greg Egan, Bruce Sterling, Greg Bear, Charles Stross, Neal Asher, Ken MacLeod and authors of the Orion’s Arm Universe, have written works set in posthuman futures.
A variation on the posthuman theme is the notion of a “posthuman god”; the idea that posthumans, being no longer confined to the parameters of human nature, might grow physically and mentally so powerful as to appear possibly god-like by human standards. This notion should not be interpreted as being related to the idea portrayed in some science fiction that a sufficiently advanced species may “ascend” to a higher plane of existence—rather, it merely means that some posthuman beings may become so exceedingly intelligent and technologically sophisticated that their behaviour would not possibly be comprehensible to modern humans, purely by reason of their limited intelligence and imagination. The difference here is that the latter stays within the bounds of the laws of the material universe, while the former exceeds them by going beyond it.