Machina Sapiens: Digital Posthumanism from the Perspective of Plessner’s Logic of Levels

Abstract

This paper examines whether the posthumanist vision of a new level of life is a plausible idea or a mere utopia. On a philosophical metalevel, there is always a discussion about the anthropological and thus also ontological and natural philosophical assumptions underlying posthumanism, aimed at assessing the strong presuppositions informing the posthumanist goal of a next level of life. From the perspective of Helmuth Plessner’s grounding of the different levels of organic life in a philosophy of nature, theoretically substantiating the new level appears less simple than current technophilosophical discussions surrounding posthumanism and the cyborgization of the human would have us think. Thus Jos De Mul, pursuing a line of argument that follows Plessner’s logic of levels culminating in excentric positionality, has attempted to designate the melding of the human with telepresence technologies as a new level going beyond excentric positionality. The contribution intervenes here. I will argue that De Mul did not in fact succeed in grounding a new level of life following Plessner’s logic of levels, and I will show along Plessners figure of doubleaspectivity why a further posthuman level cannot be grounded within the framework of Plessner’s levels.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The term “Machina sapiens” was first coined by Kazem Sadegh-Zadeh in his book Als der Mensch das Denken verlernte: Die Entstehung der Machina sapiens. Sadegh-Zadeh characterizes the development of technology as a system co-evolving with the biosphere, which, however, he predicts will surpass the latter and produce an autonomous, thinking machine that will use humans as its tools (see also Irrgang 2005). Contrary to this dystopian vision, technicist posthumanism, of course, tends to be characterized by a belief in progress (see Krüger 2004; Lilley 2013). The term itself, however, very fittingly expresses the reductive equation of technical and living processes that runs through posthumanist discourse like an implicit leitmotif.

  2. 2.

    In a strict sense, this means that there is actually no substance left, insofar as substance means an independent foundation instance. Nevertheless, I will stick to this term in the following considerations in order not to make the text unnecessarily complicated.

  3. 3.

    The translation of this quote is taken from the forthcoming translation by Karsten Schoellner in Helmuth Plessner’s “The Levels of Organic Life and the Human”: A Systematic Reconstruction.

  4. 4.

    Translation by the author. All other translations of quotes from Plessner’s Levels are taken from the forthcoming translation by Millay Hyatt.

  5. 5.

    Spreen fundamentally differs from Haraway here, as the latter employs the metaphor of the cyborg precisely to dissolve fixed differences. She wants to “explicitly embrac[e] the possibilities inherent in the breakdown of clean distinctions between organism and machine and similar distinctions structuring the Western self” (Haraway 1991: 174).

  6. 6.

    Heilinger and Müller point to the sorites paradox contained in the gradual determination of when a cyborg starts and a human ends. The paradox states that if 10,000 grains of sand form a heap, then so do 9999, 9998, etc. all the way down to two grains of sand, which, paradoxically, also form a heap. According to this logic, then, it is not possible to define a clear boundary: “Trying to define a cyborg will lead to the same difficulties as are found in this classical paradox. If wearing glasses does not make someone a cyborg, then neither does using hearing aids. If hearing aids do not make someone a cyborg, then neither does a cochlear implant. If a cochlear implant does not make someone a cyborg, than neither does a retinal implant. If a retinal implant does not make someone a cyborg, than neither does a brainstem implant. If a brainstem implant does not make someone a cyborg, than neither does an artificial brain, and so forth” (Heilinger and Müller 2007: 25). Thus Spreen’s boundary of the skin is arbitrarily chosen, without a formal logical foundation, and could just as well be located elsewhere.

  7. 7.

    Anyone involved in Plessner research is obliged to acknowledge the existence of two different strains of Plessner interpretation. On the one hand we have the reading—introduced in particular by Joachim Fischer into German Plessner research—of Plessner’s work as part of a completed paradigm in the humanities called Philosophical Anthropology, which encompasses a number of other authors alongside Plessner, such as Max Scheler, Arnold Gehlen, and Adolf Portmann, to only name a few (Fischer 2008a). The gist of this interpretation is an understanding of Plessner’s work primarily as a positive anthropology, whose systematic yield consists in overcoming the modern dualism between nature and culture by describing humanness as the intrication of an organic-biological physicality and a culture-creating reflexivity mediated by this lived body. Fischer identifies excentric positionality as the human mode of givenness, locating positionality as the primary natural state of affairs (realized in the organic body) prior to excentricity (realized in the human monopoly on the ability to reflect and to be at a distance from oneself) (Fischer 2008b). Understanding Plessner’s work as a paradigmatic anthropology is thus a decision immanent to modern dualism. “But it is clear that this is only half of Plessner,” as Volker Schürmann puts it pithily (Schürmann 2010: 19). The second strain of Plessner interpretation is represented by Schürmann (2014), Krüger (2006) and Lindemann (2014), and emphasizes the historical situatedness of one’s own perspective, explicitly included by Plessner, in order to precisely oppose a primacy of anthropology (or any other foundational endeavor) and thus a limitation of the sphere of personal beings. Lindemann, who refers to Plessner’s approach as a “reflexive anthropology” (1999, 2009, 2014), uses this openness of personhood, posited by Plessner himself, in order to detach processes of order formation from actors embodied as humans, instead introducing the lived body as such as the sociotheoretical basis of order formation. By focusing on the structural form of the lived body, the theory is no longer tied to the embodied human as the starting point of order-forming processes, but can identify this assumption as modern and thus as remaining within the nature/culture dualism that is actually to be overcome (Lindemann 2014, 2017). This paper is situated in this historical centered strain of Plessner readings, that is why I understand Plessner’s approach as a reflexive phenomenology.

  8. 8.

    For a more detailed look at dual aspectivity in Plessner, see Block (2016).

  9. 9.

    The anti-dualistic, relational thinking Haraway aspired to has been explicitly taken up in the feminist discourse as posthumanism, whose foremost originators are considered to be Karen Barad and Rosi Braidotti (Barad 2007; Braidotti 2013). For a critical review see for Barad, among others, Calvert-Minor 2013; on Braidotti, among others, Van Ingen 2016).

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Acknowledgements

Translated by Millay Hyatt.

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Block, K. Machina Sapiens: Digital Posthumanism from the Perspective of Plessner’s Logic of Levels. Hum Stud 42, 83–100 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10746-019-09501-x

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Keywords

  • Plessner
  • Philosophical anthropology
  • Posthumanism
  • Transhumanism
  • Phenomenology
  • Technophilosophy