Heidegger and posthumanism
by Alex Hogue
The relationship between Heidegger and posthumanism can be understood as taking at least two basic forms, each of which corresponds to different understandings of posthumanism itself. The first is inherent within Heidegger’s goal of replacing dualistic Cartesianism with Dasein[i] and being-in-the-world. In offering this Being-centric ontology, Heidegger first removes the human subject from its central place in Western philosophy, and second undermines the metaphysical dualism that has defined the structures of humanist philosophies since Descartes. The second form concerns the complex relationship humans have to technology as it influences how Dasein relates to its own being-in-the-world.
Heidegger’s philosophy is based on an inquiry into the nature of being, which he claims is at once the most fundamental question of existence and the most difficult to consider (Being 1996: 2f). In Being and Time Heidegger offers Dasein as the primary mode of existence. Dasein, in its most basic sense, is the kind of existence experienced by individuals who make their own Being an issue for themselves; that is, they live philosophically and self-reflexively. Crucially, Dasein is also inseparable from its spatial and temporal contexts. This relationship, being-in-the-world, is not external to Dasein, rather it is an a priori condition within the construction of Dasein itself. No longer is the world a collection of extended material objects for perception by a thinking mind as Descartes described it, Heidegger’s formulation binds the world to Dasein as an intrinsic existential element. This relationship between Dasein and being-in-the-world has also influenced prominent posthumanists: eg. N. Katherine Hayles’ dream of a posthumanism, in which humans no longer see their bodies as mere fashion accessories, but rather as integral parts of their (post)human existence in-the-world (Hayles 1999: 5).
Dasein‘s interactions with objects within the world are likewise now understood in relational, rather than oppositional terms. For Heidegger, objects may appear as ready-to-hand or present-at-hand. Those things presenting themselves as ready-to-hand, for which Heidegger also uses the word equipment [Zeug], are understood by Dasein in terms of their use, as well as within their particular spheres of association. A claw hammer, for example, is understood as a tool for pounding and pulling nails, but also as an element of the larger sphere of carpentry, implying through its own readiness-to-hand, nails, lumber, saws, etc. (Being 66f). Contrary to readiness-to-hand, presence-at-hand is the quality of objects that simply exist within the world, but not usefully; however, since presence-at-hand and readiness-to-hand are not intrinsic qualities of the objects themselves, a change in Dasein’s relation to a particular object can also cause a shift between these two categories.
Heidegger’s influence on posthumanism can be seen in the conflict between his relational ontology and the Cartesian dualism that he is working against. This dualism often underpins imaginings of artificial intelligence, mind uploading, and collective intelligences in popular posthumanism; however, as N. Katherine Hayles and Hubert Dreyfus both argue, this need not be the case. In fact, Heidegger’s construction of Dasein as a self-reflexive kind of existence exhibited exclusively by humans has been the topic of some debate within posthumanism. The possibility of non-human Dasein is explored in both animal studies and philosophies of artificial intelligence, which further contribute to the gradual dissolution of anthropocentrism of philosophy since the Enlightenment.[ii] [iii]
Heidegger’s later work in “The Question Concerning Technology” assumes the basic ontological structure outlined above and focuses on the problematic way humans relate to the world of, and through, advanced technology. Technology is both an instrument used toward an end and an end in itself, but crucially, it is primarily a way in which humans relate to the world (Question 1977: 294f) Relating to the world technologically, for Heidegger, means not just interactions with objects within the world. Rather, relating to objects technologically means seeing them as standing reserve for the accomplishment of some other goal (298). Heidegger takes as his example the juxtaposition between a bridge depicted in Hölderlin’s poem “The Rhine” and a modern day hydroelectric plant on the eponymous river (297). The natural beauty of the river coupled with the human addition of the bridge that Hölderlin depicts reflects a harmonious relationship between humans, the river, the raw materials of the bridge, and the will and effort that went into constructing it, all of which reinforce the unified construction being-in-the-world that describes Dasein’s embeddedness within its environment. The opposite of this is the “monstrousness” of the hydroelectric plant as it reduces the river to a mere means for water power by diverting the flow, controlling the water level, and altering the natural ecosystem of the area. Additionally, by reducing one area of the Rhine to a mere producer of energy, it also corrupts the purity of other areas where nature has been left untouched by turning them into real or potential areas of tourist exploitation (ibid.).
The danger of seeing the world as standing reserve is that it prevents Dasein from understanding the world and its inhabitants as integral parts of its own existence, which ultimately dissociates Dasein from its essential embeddedness in-the-world. The view that humans are standing reserve in the form of electro-chemical machines, or are “machine-like bodies” that are ontologically compatible with computers, is a defining element of functionalist philosophy, as well as popular posthumanism. Heidegger’s argument warns against the view that the integration of human bodies and minds with computers (a central motif in the cyberpunk genre, but also many non science fiction texts, is either possible or desirable—a view which is taken up and expanded by Hayles (1999). For Heidegger, the ontology of Dasein exists separately from the digital spaces created by humans, and trying to merge them is an attempt to dismantle Dasein’s fundamental being-in-the-world, which thereby also reduces Dasein itself to an exploitable means.
In “Only a God Can Save Us” published posthumously in Der Spiegel, Heidegger attempts to clarify his attitude toward technology further. Advanced modern technology, as well as the culture and economy that have created it, have together promoted an understanding of the world and other humans as mere standing reserve and have thereby formed a culture of technicity (Only a God 2009: 331). In Heidegger’s view cybernetics (and physics generally) has taken over the role that philosophy once played for humans. As a result technology has surpassed the control of humanity; it no longer corresponds to the embeddedness Dasein has in-the-world (327f; cf. also Hassan 1977).[iv] For Heidegger, the relationship of humans to modern technology must change to one that no longer alienates Dasein from its interconnectedness in-the-world, a change that will have to come from both the return of humans to being-in-the-world and simultaneously through humans’ own relationship to technicity (331f.).
It is worth stressing, however, that Heidegger’s is not a technophobic position; rather, he advocates reworking the relationship between humans and modern technology so that technology neither distances humans from their embeddedness in-the-world nor reduces people or the world to standing reserve. This view places Heidegger in opposition to versions of posthumanism that allow for, or indeed are built upon, mind-uploading, body enhancement, and, space exploration (Only a God 2009: 325). Apart from providing the philosophical basis for N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman, Heidegger’s thought has also helped to raise the question of whether non-human Dasein may be extended to animals, robots, and artificial intelligences. While Heidegger’s relationship to humanism generally is complicated, in this respect his views remain fundamentally humanist. Humans, for Heidegger, are the only beings capable of existing in-the-world as such because they are world-forming. Animals, on the other hand, are world-impoverished in that they are capable of being affected by beings, but are not able to execute the agency inherent in the world-forming quality of Dasein (Collected 1975: 261f.). These humanistic beliefs complicate his views of humanism generally as they are expressed in “Letter on Humanism.” Here he views humanism as valuing beings over those beings’ relationship to Being itself.
Heideggerian ontologies and experimentations with digital versions of Dasein and being-in-the-world also underlie a number of films that are critical of posthumanist themes including Spike Jonze’s Her, Automata, the Battlestar Galactica franchise, the holographic doctor’s quest for self understanding in Star Trek: Voyager, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Welt am Draht [World on a Wire] (1973). These works reject the notion that human and machine Dasein are compatible citing the fundamentally different conceptions of world, Being, temporality, and being-the-world that Heidegger originally put forth.
— University of Cincinnati, May 2015
Keywords: Being and Time; The Question Concerning Technology; Only a God Can Save Us; Letter on Humanism; Dasein; technicity; temporality
Automata. Dir. Gabe Ibáñez. Millenium Entertainment. 2014. Film.
Battlestar Galactica. Sci-Fi. 2004-2009
“Calamur, Krishnadev. “N.Y. Judge Grants Legal Rights to 2 Research Chimps.” NPR. April 21, 2015. Accessed April 21, 2015.
Cave, George P. “Animals, Heidegger, and the Right to Life.” Environmental Ethics. 4.3. (1982): pp 249-254.
Dreyfus, Hubert. “Why Heideggerian AI Failed and How Fixing it Would Make it More Heideggerian.”
Hassan, Ihab. “Prometheus as Performer: Toward a Posthumanist Culture?” The Georgia Review. 31.4. (1977): 830-850.
Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1999.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. Albany: SUNY Press. 1996.
—. “Letter on Humanism.” Basic Writings. 2nd edition. Ed. D.F. Krell. London: Routledge. 1993. Print.
—. “The Question Concerning Technology.” Basic Writings. 2nd edition. Ed. D.F. Krell. London: Routledge. 1993. Print.
—. “Only a God Can Save Us: The Spiegel Interview (1966).” Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker. Ed. Thomas Sheehan. New Brunswick NJ: Transacton Press. 2010. Print
Her. Dir. Spike Jonze. Annapurna Pictures. 2013.
Inwood, Michael. A Heidegger Dictionary. Malden Mass: Blackwell. 1999. Print.
Miccoli, Anthony. Posthuman Suffering and the Technological Embrace. [particularly Ch. 3] Plymouth UK: Lexington Books. 2010.
Phillips, Jayson. “The Case for Dasein in Non-Humans.” Pserberate.com. 24 Dec 2013.
Rae, Gavin. “Heidegger’s Influence on posthumanism: The destruction of metaphysics, technology, and the overcoming of anthropocentrism.” History of the Human Sciences. 27.1 (2014). pp 51-69.
Star Trek: Voyager. UPN. 1995-2001.
Welt am Draht. Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Janus Films. 1973.
[i] While Heidegger’s use of language is notoriously complex and nuanced. The English translations of key terms here are consistent with A Heidegger Dictionary:
Dasein (usually left untranslated) is a compound word made up of da (here/there) and sein (to be). It is at once a common word for ‘existence’ in German, but is also used more specifically by Heidegger. For Heidegger, Dasein is the specific kind of existence of humans in that it is possessed by them individually. “Dasein always refers to a ‘who’ and never a ‘what.’ Dasein is the kind of entity that makes its own existence an issue for itself, that is to say, it considers its own existence philosophically and self-reflexively” (Being 10).
Being (capital B) is the kind of ontological existence of something/someone in particular, for example “The Being of Dasein is philosophically self-reflexive, temporally finite, and defined through its embeddedness in the world” (Dictionary 1999: 26f).
Being-in-the-world is an a priori condition of Dasein, and in being thus constructed as a compound phrase, a unified phenomenon. This refers to the essential way that Daseinis connected to its spatio-temporal environment, i.e. the physical world. Dasein is not in the world in the same way water can be in a glass, rather Dasein’s existence requires both temporal finitude and physical space (the world) as necessary conditions of itself: “The world is an essential and inseparable part of Dasein’s Being such that Dasein can be understood as being embedded in the world” (Being 49).
[ii] On non-human Dasein see e.g. Jayson 2013. In addition to non-human Dasein, the legal conception of personhood, and with it the acknowledgment of non-human self-reflexivity is also the source of some debate. Recently, a New York judge granted the writ of habeas corpus to two chimpanzees allowing them to contest their prolonged detainment in a university research laboratory. See “Judge Grants Legal Rights to Chimps” 2015.
[iii] A case of non-human Dasein is explored through the character Samantha in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her. Samantha, an AI, exists self-reflexively and becomes part of a romantic relationship with Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Theodore. Ultimately, however, the film shows itself to be faithful to Heideggerian constructions of ontology by demonstrating how Theodore’s human Dasein is distinct from and incompatible with Samantha’s electronic version of it by means of their respective, fundamentally different, interpretations of world and being-in-the-world. Samantha is existing as a kind of Daseinin a digital computer world, which expands Heidegger’s original conception of the term; however, it is not the same kind as Theodore’s human, more traditional, kind of self-reflexive ontology in the physical world outside of the computer.
[iv] This concept taken to its extreme underlies the premise for the 2014 film Automata. In the film, the world has become hostile to life due to a build up of radiation from solar flares. The automata, originally created to help rebuild civilization and stop the desertification of the planet, emerge unexpectedly as sentient beings who seek their own kind of existence separate from that of the humans, namely where the radiation is too strong for humans to exist, and faithful to the conditions of their material existence: rebuilding and improving themselves, creating other automata, and based in a lack of temporality, the ability to live in environments hostile to biological life. The film ends with a dialogue between Jacq Vaucon (Antonio Banderas) and the automaton Cleo regarding the nature of their two kinds of existence and the emergence of non human Daseinfollowed by the automata forging their new existence separated from the humans by a canyon.