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The Human in its Limits

About: Thierry Hoquet, Les Presque humains. Mutants, cyborgs, robots, zombies… et nous, Seuil


by Stanislas Deprez , 31 October
translated by Arianne Dorval
with the support of Cairn.info



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Science fiction and fantasy allow us to think the human from its margins. Through a gallery of twelve fictional characters, Thierry Hoquet uncovers this philosophy as well as the political and ethical issues at stake.

Philosopher Thierry Hoquet is one of today’s leading specialists on Darwin, Buffon, and evolutionists in general, to whom he devoted ten books, including translations and anthologies. This work led him to take an interest in the questions of virility and gender equality. Ten years ago, he extended his reflection to technology in the book Cyborg philosophie. Penser contre les dualismes (Cyborg Philosophy: Thinking Against Dualisms) [Hoquet 2011]. In Les Presque humains (Almost-humans), he develops this perspective further by moving into the field of science fiction and fantasy. The result is an original work, a philosophy of fiction—or pop philosophy—that draws on biology to build a moral anthropology.

The Human at the Margins

Fiction serves as material for thought experiments, for an exploration of the limits of the human. As Thierry Hoquet explains, the almost-human is the stranger who bursts in, but it is also us insofar as we are at risk of losing what makes us human. We are all potentially almost-humans, capable of stepping out—of being stepped out—of our common humanity. Thus, the “question is no longer to determine who is human and who is not, but to consider a number of fictional characters that can be described as almost-human” (pp. 34-35). This question is both political and epistemological, for to be stripped of one’s humanity is to be open to abuse, exploitation, or extermination. To define the human is to exclude. Conversely, being human is an ethical task that consists of including, of “breaking down one by one all the discriminatory barriers that prevent the human from being the genuine universal it aspires to be” (p. 126). As the title of the conclusion, “Humanizing ourselves” (p. 369), indicates, humanity is an imperative insofar as almost-humanity is both a state—ours as much as others’—and a constant risk.

The book is divided into two parts. The first explores the prefixes of the human, post-, pre-, and trans-, as so many ways of going beyond the human, by excess or by defect. While biology multiplies prehumans (the first chapters are devoted to this discipline), the idea that there exists a human nature is being challenged by technology. According to Thierry Hoquet, two figures are currently emerging: transhumans, who inherit and continue evolution, and posthumans, who reject biological matter as obsolete. When he used the term “transhumanism” in 1957, Julian Huxley envisioned an artificial evolution of the human through a form of eugenics that would be “positive (difference-making) rather than negative (eliminatory)” (p. 144). Posthumanism, on the other hand, is only concerned with the result of evolution, that is, with the production of intelligent beings, whose bodies are indifferent media, advantageously replaced by mechanical and electronic organs. In a way, this process has begun with cell phones: these turn us into exohumans and telehumans, subjectivizing us as they subjugate us.

A Typology of Almost-Humans

It is in the second part of the book that the author really delves into the philosophy of fiction, which he presents as an aid to thinking reality. Thierry Hoquet proceeds according to what he calls “tabular thinking” (as per the title of Chapter VIII, p. 231). Drawing from works of science fiction and fantasy, he lists a series of fictional characters —Alien, Zombie, Robot, etc.—each of which embodies a lack of humanity: rigidity, predation, insensitivity, etc. Rather than constituting a simple catalog, these complementary characters are arranged into a table similar to the table of categories found in the Critique of Pure Reason. This gesture is slightly artificial—the author admits that he runs the risk of sacrificing too much “to the intellect’s pure passion for classification” (p. 367)—and Kant specialists will no doubt find this comparison unwarranted. No matter: the procedure is highly suggestive. Each category is associated with an almost-human character that has its own distinct personality and driving force. Moreover, as with Kant, the categories fall into four classes: vitality (which answers the question of quantity: how many of us are there?), means (quality: are we free or determined?), ends (relation: who made us?), and becoming (modality: what are we becoming?).

 Quantity: As a symbol of the raw power of life, the Aliens reintegrate humanity into the fundamental biological cycle based on three logics. Ghoul is a predator filled with an all-consuming drive and a destructive hatred. Driven solely by its appetite, Zombie wanders about like a body without consciousness. Symbiont embodies a widespread mechanism in the living world: the fusion of two othernesses that become partners in the exchange.

 Quality: The Equipped are almost-humans by excess which show that being human requires technical means that seem both natural and artificial, superfluous and indispensable. Mecha is a mobile habitat: it has no organs, like a brain in a vat. Cyborg, which has been modified to live in other environments, integrates its tools as organs. Organorg, “a reconciled version of the equipped organism” (p. 295), uses its tools like organs but without merging with them.

 Relation: Created to serve humans, the Golems aspire to be their own end. Robot is an insensitive, monomaniacal machine that mechanically pursues its ends. Sensitive and rebellious, Clone refuses to be viewed as a machine. The mimetic Android seeks to integrate into human society and raises the question of what makes a disinterested relationship possible.

 Modality: The Trans express the fact that the human is in a perpetual state of becoming. Defeated after an ordeal, Rogue wants to replace the existing order with another, in which it will be the Chosen One. Avatar is queer, defined by fluidity at the risk of losing its identity. Mutant, a symbol of the inventiveness of life, “embodies the general model of liberal individualism: every difference is valued as a promise for the entire species” (pp. 329-330).

Thierry Hoquet does not just list these twelve ideal types. He treats them as a dynamic force, in a vein more reminiscent of Hegel than Kant. In each category, the first term (Ghoul, Mecha, Robot, Rogue) represents the exclusive dominance of one pole. The second term (Zombie, Cyborg, Clone, Avatar) is the moment of liberation. The third term (Symbiont, Organorg, Android, Mutant) marks the reconciliation of opposites.

The table of categories forms a system of almost-humans, that is, of ways of failing to be human, whether by excess or by defect. It is an « orientation table » (p. 367) that enables us to think our political and ethical reality and to act in such a way as to become fully human.

Criticism and Praise

The main criticism one can level at Les Presque humains is that it feels like two books in one: the first book offers an ethical reflection on the biological and technical margins of the human, while the second provides a classification of the fictions of the almost-human. It is difficult to see how the two parts fit together: is this simply a juxtaposition of two different approaches to the almost-human? Or is there a common thread running through the book, and, if so, what is it? At times, one almost gets the impression that the author accumulated countless notes and wanted to include all his preparatory work in the book. This is the case, for instance, with the summaries of the films “The Fly,” “Otto,” and “L.A. Zombie” (pp. 360-367), which add little to the discussion. Likewise, the chapter on cell phones would seem like an excursus if it did not mention one of the underlying—almost subterranean—reasons for writing the book: in his conclusion, Thierry Hoquet reveals that this work is a post-mortem dialogue with his grandmother, who was struck down by Alzheimer’s and became an almost-human: a ghost (p. 373). However, the ghost is not included in the table of almost-human characters, and there is no in-depth analysis of this figure, apart from brief allusions in the study of cell phones, which Hoquet says are used to let ghosts in (p. 164). Curiously, the analysis of this “hauntology” (p. 175) is itself ghostly.

The chapter on transhumanism and posthumanism will provoke discussion. The distinction between genetic transhumanism and robotic posthumanism leaves something to be desired. In reality, for thinkers of these two currents, it does not matter what the means are, the essential thing is human enhancement and the affirmation of libertarian individualism. Moreover, while the idea that posthumanism is a Gnostic movement is widespread, it is generally false—to our knowledge, only one author defends a position that might be described as Gnostic [Goffi, 2021]. Indeed, unlike Gnostics, posthumanists do not want to escape from the world, they want to transform it [Deprez 2019]. Another major criticism is that the author does not seem to have noticed that transhumanists and posthumanists bridge the gap between nature and technology: in their eyes, nature is a technology and technology is natural, such that the body is a tool and the tool is an organ. Consequently, there is no reason to oppose transhumanism and posthumanism, nor to argue that hybridizing the body with technology amounts to denaturalizing it. On the other hand, Hoquet has perfectly understood that “transhumanism is a mission entrusted to us due to our level of technical development. We did not ask for this: we were backed into a corner, and we must now make virtue of this necessity” (pp. 134-135). To say this is to recognize that transhumanism, whatever we think of it, is produced by the state of our civilization.

However, one can only praise the typology of almost-humans, for here the book more than fulfills its promise. Going beyond the philosophy of fiction, the table with twelve categories is an anthropology by defect and by excess that traces the contours of the human. It is a highly impressive tool that could be used in other disciplines, such as in history and ethnology—do excesses and defects vary from culture to culture?—or in clinical psychology—where one might want to share and compare this typology with Frédéric Tordo’s work on prostheses and orthoses [Tordo 2019]. As regards the reference to Kant, it is perhaps less the Critique of Pure Reason than the Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View that Les Presque humains brings to mind.

Thierry Hoquet, Les Presque humains. Mutants, cyborgs, robots, zombies… et nous, Paris, Seuil, 2021, 392 p., 24, 50 €.

by Stanislas Deprez, 31 October

Further reading

Further reading
• Stanislas Deprez, « Le transhumanisme est-il une gnose ? », Revue d’Éthique et de Théologie Morale, n°302, 2/2019, p. 29-41.
• Jean-Yves Goffi, « Un transhumanisme radical et spirituel », publié le 28 mai 2021.
• Thierry Hoquet, Cyborg philosophie. Penser contre les dualismes, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 2011.
• Frédéric Tordo, Le Moi-Cyborg. Psychanalyse et neurosciences de l’homme connecté, Paris, Dunod, 2019.

To quote this article :

Stanislas Deprez, « The Human in its Limits », Books and Ideas , 31 October 2023. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL : https://laviedesidees.fr/The-Human-in-its-Limits

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