In Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis, Stefan Herbrechter suggests that it ‘would indeed be difficult to overestimate the Nietzschean influence on posthumanism’.[1] Certainly, posthumanists of different stripes like to reference and quote Nietzsche, and some even claim him as one of their own. Yet, his reception is as varied as the motley group of schools of thought associated with posthumanism or one its variants. Herbrechter himself identifies two Nietzsches relevant for posthumanism: the ‘critical Nietzsche’ who is ‘intent on breaking up traditional and venerable but ossified knowledge’ and ‘no longer accepts any final forms of truth’;[2] and Nietzsche the ‘prophetic vitalist’, who with his concept of the overhuman seems to foreshadow contemporary fantasies about an enhanced posthuman or transhuman, a being who will have escaped the limits of the ‘human, all too human’. Despite many apparent continuities there is disagreement about Nietzsche’s historical relevance for posthumanism. While Herbrechter puts Nietzsche at the beginning of a genealogy of posthumanism, Nick Bostrom, the leading proponent of transhumanism (now ‘humanity+’), sees only ‘surface-level similarities’ between Nietzsche and transhumanism.[3] Associations of Nietzsche with posthumanism get even thornier if we think of parallels that address ethical questions. Nietzsche’s philosophical anthropology, for example, challenges essentializations of the difference between humans and animals, yet based on commonplaces about Nietzsche’s affirmation of strength and power it is hard to fathom how the defence of animal rights so central to critical posthumanists like Cary Wolfe might be part of Nietzsche’s political horizon – though this is precisely what Vanessa Lemm finds as she reads Nietzsche through the lens of an ‘affirmative biopolitics’ that ‘sees in the continuity between human and animal life a source of resistance to the project of dominating and controlling life-processes’.[4] The contemporary relevance of Nietzsche’s ethics in any case is difficult to assess. Nietzsche’s unveiling of power assertions behind even the loftiest of ethical ideals is in line with the political ethos of critical posthumanism, yet Nietzsche’s often bellicose rhetoric is harder to align with posthumanism’s support for a ‘situated pluralism and diversity’[5] and its desire to extend values of empathy, compassion and respectfulness within and beyond the human species.

In the short space provided here,[6] I want to identify briefly four areas where a closer examination of Nietzsche’s philosophy promises to add insights on the genealogy of posthumanism while also shedding light on some of posthumanism’s own internal tensions. These concern his epistemology, and the neurophysiological science that informed it; his theory of sociality that draws on the entomological research of his time and that complicates the association of Nietzsche with celebrations of individuality and will power; his reflections on technology, in particular on the hominization and cultivation effects of media communication technologies such as the printing press and language itself; and, finally, on Nietzsche’s ethical contentions, specifically his critique of Western morality, and their possible relevance for today.

Epistemology. While Nietzsche extends a neo-Kantian epistemology – in a nutshell, one that recognizes that cognition is the product of, and thus limited by, neurophysiological processes –this epistemology should not be viewed as ‘correlationist’, as some of the new materialists put it, but rather as anticipating models of embodied or enactive cognition along the lines described in the twentieth century by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela.[7] Nietzsche was familiar with nineteenth-century neurophysiological research that shows how ‘our environment emerges through embodied interactions that create meaning, and make sense of otherwise arbitrary sensory input’.[8] Understood along these lines, embodiment challenges dualistic modes of thinking that revolve around mind/body, subject/object and similar distinctions, and that serve to affirm the supremacy and independence of the mind, of consciousness and of human agency. It suggests that what is sensed or perceived, and any relation to an outside that is inferred therefrom, is the product not of a correlation (the favourite target of some of the new materialists), but of a self-differentiation process, of operations that have learned (on their inside) to distinguish in organism-specific ways between inside and outside. Even the most primitive life forms have this ability (e.g., crabs tend not to pinch themselves).

Nietzsche extends his time’s neurophysiological findings to language. Nietzsche’s famous critique of correspondence theories of truth builds on the recognition that words are abstractions that take us away from what is ‘actual and individual’. If not an adequate representation of things, then truths are but expressions of conventions. As such their primary function is social. They constitute socio-politically consequential realities (think of the oppressive realities supposed truths about gender or sexual orientation continue to create). The equation of truth with power is part of Nietzsche’s poststructuralist legacy. But Nietzsche’s linguistically informed epistemology is also of relevance for posthumanists who might have tired of the ‘baroque intricacies of the linguistic turn’.[9] When Nietzsche notes that language, and with it reason, science and even logic and mathematics, creates its own, alternative, seemingly free-floating world, a world of its own creation ‘with which nothing in the real world corresponds’,[10] he uses this insight to challenge the erroneous reliance on language as the basis for humans having separated themselves from and lifted themselves above the world. It is, then, not language per se, but a blindness toward the nature of language that has given humans a sense of dominance over their surroundings that is erroneous and, as posthumanists know all too well, also dangerous.

Sociality. In the popular imagination, Nietzsche is viewed as a champion of individualism and his will to power read as an unbridled affirmation of might. Yet, a closer examination of his philosophy and the science that informs it reveals a more complex picture. Nietzsche was keenly aware of the entomological and ethological research of his time which observed how swarms, hives and other social aggregates exhibit behaviours that challenge the privileging of higher (human) faculties, of consciousness, reasoning or will power.[11] What insect hives make apparent in the nineteenth century are organizations where interacting elements constitute a whole that exhibits properties that cannot be attributed to the individual actors independent of their interactions. Because of the discrepancy between the achievements of the collective and the limited cognitive and communicative abilities of the individual members of the collective, insects raise fundamental questions about the relationship between the wants, desires and reasoning of individual members of a species and about the functionality of the whole that forms from their interactions. The entomological research of his time thus allows Nietzsche to think of social orders as self-organizing aggregates – in a famous aphorism on the ‘impossibility’ of the working class, he likens modern Europe to a beehive – rather than along the lines of a dichotomy between individuals and societal forces (anticipating Bruno Latour’s critique of a central conceit of modern sociology).




This understanding of societal orders challenges popular interpretations of Nietzsche that reduce his social theories to dichotomies between the strong and the weak, between the sovereign individual and the herd, and so on. As John Richardson succinctly summarizes Nietzsche’s counterintuitive stance on individuality: ‘The individual is ultimately a device of the common to improve itself’.[12] Likewise, Nietzsche’s understanding of society as an aggregate of competing forces necessitates a reassessment of the idea that his philosophy calls for a strengthening of the will in response to the perceived ills or décadence of modernity. Nietzsche recognized that it is not the absence of will that promotes the formation of herds, but the colliding of wills at a most rudimentary level. This is not merely a theoretical question. As the ‘cult of the will’ that reigned in the twentieth century and that continues to hold its sway to this day has shown,[13] calls to strengthen the will easily translate into a strengthening of what Nietzsche chastises as the herd. Nazi Germany offers perhaps the clearest example for these dynamics in which affirmations of will offer no escape from the herd but help constitute it.

Technology. The cyborg has become the unofficial symbol of posthumanism, expressing the extensive interest of many of its strands in how technology alters what it means to be human and how it might affect the future of the species. But the cyborg also applies a rather narrow understanding of technology that reaffirms the stark separation between technology and nature the very moment it projects their merger. Nietzsche does not reduce technology to gadgets, add-ons, or prostheses that are understood as mere extensions of the human. Instead, he recognizes how technologies such as the printing press but also writing itself are constituting human subjectivity and agency. By focusing on linguistic operations and the evolution of particular interpretive schemas, Nietzsche puts forward a more radical notion of the technological embeddedness of humans and human agency, of self and subjectivity, than can be found in the writings of many contemporary posthumanists. That is, Nietzsche recognizes the hominization effects of technology, how technologies constitute in fundamental ways what it means to be human and, accordingly, that humans evolve along with the evolution of technology. Moreover, Nietzsche’s genealogical account of humanism’s specific cultivation processes – its history to seek ‘justice’ by institutionalizing ever new techniques of reward and punishment – reveals how existing moral codes and ideals extend rather than overcome modes of ‘human, all too human’ thinking and valuing that promote rather than overcome violence.

Ethics. Nietzsche’s rejection of Judeo-Christian morals and his well-known affirmations of power and structures of domination seem to contradict a contemporary posthumanist ethos that puts the ‘emphasis on the respectful co-existence of different perspectives, individuals, groups, and systems’,[14] or one that is viewed as expressing ‘a grounded form of accountability, based on a sense of collectivity and relationality, which results in a renewed claim to community and belonging by singular subjects’?[15] While posthumanists today adapt ethics to the complexities of contemporary societies and the modern pervasiveness of technology, from a Nietzschean perspective their arguments are often problematic because their addressee is the rather familiar figure of the imaginative, rational, and morally-upright individual that was the hope of Enlightenment humanism all along. Behind this addressee hide in plain sight detached norms and moral expectations that sooner or later will elicit enforcement mechanisms in the form of punishment or reward. The argument is also pragmatically questionable. Historically, such appeals have hardly been very effective, or effective only when used to pit one party in the name of solidarity against opposing interests. The problem lies in the idealism and the universalizing tendency of such claims to community and belonging. Not only do they ignore the contentious social dynamics Nietzsche recognized, but the adoption of this humanist perspective is also prone to suppress opposition. Sooner or later an ethical idealism will have to immunize itself against those who might not want to share these ideals, values and perspectives. In short, such arguments are prone to turn against community in the name of community.

With his affirmation of agonism as an indispensable basis of the political, Nietzsche’s political thought can offer an alternative perspective on posthumanist invocations of community, one that despite its critique of democracy, as recent Nietzsche scholarship has shown, might in fact contribute to the development of ‘a revitalized and agonistic conception of democracy’.[16] Furthermore, Nietzsche’s affirmation of power, and of agonal and agonistic interactions, recognizes better the situatedness of human beings, of their reasoning, as well as their continued becoming as they simultaneously contribute to and are swept up by the biological, social and technological processes within which they find themselves embedded. Nietzsche’s posthumanism thus holds the potential to further a posthumanist ethics that is more pragmatic and perhaps more apt than the articulation of moral ideals to address the complex challenges humanity faces today – that is, in a time when human, all too human modes of thinking intersect with posthuman, all too posthuman predicaments.


[1] Stefan Herbrechter, Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 21.

[2] Herbrechter, Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis, p. 32.

[3] Nick Bostrom, ‘A History of Posthumanist Thought’, Journal of Evolution and Technology 14.1 (2005): 4.

[4] Vanessa Lemm, Nietzsche’s Animal Philosophy: Culture, Politics, and the Animality of the Human Being (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009), p. 9.

[5] Francesca Ferrando, Philosophical Posthumanism (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), p. 151.

[6] For a more comprehensive treatment, see my book Nietzsche’s Posthumanism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2023).

[7] See Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (Dordrecht / Boston / London: D. Reidel, 1980).

[8] Katharina Engler-Coldren, Lore Knapp and Charlotte Lee, ‘Embodied Cognition around 1800: Introduction’, in German Life and Letters 70.4 (2017): 417.

[9] N. Katherine Hayles, ‘The Cognitive Nonconscious and the New Materialisms’, in Sarah Ellenzweig and John H. Zammito (eds), The New Politics of Materialism. History, Philosophy, Science (London and New York: Routledge, 2017), p. 181.

[10] Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All too Human, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 16.

[11] Chapters 3 and 4 of my book on Nietzsche’s Posthumanism trace in detail the role insects play in Nietzsche’s work against the backdrop of the entomological research of his time.

[12] John Richardson, Nietzsche’s Values (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), p. 206. Furthermore, Richardson notes that, for Nietzsche, ‘morality is the way that herd-instinct still expresses itself in members who now think of themselves as (agential, übersittlich, autonomous) individuals’ (230).

[13] See Michael Cowan, Cult of the Will: Nervousness and German Modernity (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008).

[14] Ferrando, Philosophical Posthumanism, p. 151.

[15] Rosi Braidotti, ‘Posthuman Critical Theory’, in Debashish Banerji and Makarand R. Paranjape (eds), Critical Posthumanism and Planetary Futures (New Delhi: Springer, 2016), p. 27.

[16] Paul Patton, ‘Recent Work on Nietzsche’s Social and Political Philosophy’, Nietzsche Studien 50.1 (2021): 385.