Human Enhancement and the Anthropology of the “Entire Human Being”


About one and a half decades ago, two prominent reports were published in the United States (US) which strongly influenced subsequent international discussions on the topic of human enhancement: a 2002 report on “converging technologies for improving human performance”, based on a workshop which was organised by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the US Department of Commerce in December 2001, and the first report of US President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics (PCBE), published in October 2003 with the title Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness. The 2002 report included a wide variety of contributions from academics in various fields of research, from representatives of US institutions, and from companies. Due primarily to the influence of the two NSF staff editing the report, it can be regarded as the first major instance of the influence of transhumanism, a techno-futurist ideology and movement, on the US technology and innovation discourse. The PCBE report, on the other hand, is a prime example of a conservative critique of the transhumanist notion of human enhancement. In this invited contribution, these two crucial publications are analysed mainly in order to point out the relevance of philosophical anthropology as developed since the 1920s by Helmuth Plessner and others. This remarkable school of thought is experiencing a revival in countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, and, to some extent, in the English-speaking world. In this article, it is argued that philosophical anthropology provides us with an important alternative to both anthropological essentialism and scientism, two approaches that are still highly relevant in current discourse on human enhancement.

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  1. 1.

    The term “human enhancement” is disputed in scientific and scholarly discourse ([1], pp. 17–20). In the following, I will use the term in the sense of a heuristic working definition which must prove its worth by the empirical material and not by a normatively charged concept of illness or health. My focus is, however, on non-therapeutic interventions into the human body for the purpose of improved performance.

  2. 2.

    All translations from texts originally written in German were created for the present article.

  3. 3.

    Joseph Fischer ([15], 236), for example, emphasises that the human being cannot be rid of the body and the urge to “embody” his inventions. Due to the ineluctable manner in which the body is bound within the cosmos, the human being remains reliant on the re-translation of his eccentric reaching into the macro- and micro-cosmos into the language of positionality, on the reconnection of the abstract with the concrete. However, how is this back-reference to happen if the human “lived body”, upgraded to the extreme, merges with the machine and this restructuring of the physique results in its own destruction?


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Correspondence to Richard Saage.

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Saage, R. Human Enhancement and the Anthropology of the “Entire Human Being”. Nanoethics 12, 237–246 (2018).

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  • Philosophical anthropology
  • Human enhancement
  • Transhumanism
  • Helmuth Plessner
  • Adolf Portmann
  • Converging technologies
  • Essentialism
  • Scientism