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The convergence of evolution, humanism and information technology


Jos de Mul

Humanism (…) is nothing other than confidence that the intellectual
powers necessary to raise life to its highest possible level are inspired
by association with people in the present and in the past who possess(ed)
these powers.

H.J. Pos

In the past centuries the humanism has developed itself through a great
number of confrontations and interactions with other movements. As Harry
Kunneman, the present rector of The University for Humanist Studies in
Utrecht and one the leading intellectuals of the humanist movement in the
Netherlands, has rightly observed this means that in the past humanists
were often on the offensive: "As defenders of a universal vision of
humanity they waged war against traditionalism and religious dogmatism,
in the name of values such as fairness, equality, humanity and
unrestricted self-realization. In this struggle they had history on their
side, the history of western civilization and therefore the history of
mankind, too, from the radiant beginning of true humanitas in ancient
culture to the prospect of 'prosperity and well-being for all' offered by
industrialization, modernization and scientification. The positive
self-image of twentieth-century humanism is marked at its most profound
by a self-confident modernity, by the proud consciousness of representing
the positive, future-orientated power with respect to religion and
tradition".[1] At the beginning of the twentieth-first century, according
to Kunneman, the roles appear to have been reversed. In the confrontation
between humanism and postmodernism, in particular, it is the humanists
who have been forced on the defensive. Not accustomed to arguing from a
defensive position, humanists often avoid this confrontation by idly
dismissing postmodernism as 'unrestrained relativism' or 'pure nihilism'.
According to Kunneman this is a less than fruitful strategy, not only
because postmodernism voices worthwhile criticism on the close links
between technological-scientific rationality and faith in the makeability
and controllability of the world and modern humanism, but more
particularly because postmodern criticism is based on values which occupy
a central role in humanistic tradition - such as self-realization,
savoir-vivre and radical self-criticism. In Kunneman's view postmodernism
is a radicalized form of humanism, which allows humanists to rethink more
radically humanistic notions such as individuality, autonomy and
community (76).

Although in his article Kunneman subscribes to postmodern criticism on
thinking in hierarchically valued opposites - he mentions, for example,
high-low, white-black, modern-traditional, man-woman,
autochthone-alletochthone, rich-poor, true-untrue - in his attempt to
reconcile humanism and postmodernism he himself makes use of this model
in a striking manner. With regard to humanism as well as with regard to
postmodernism, he differentiates between a good and a bad variant. For
example, against the bad, the humanism of the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries linked with technological rationality and control, he sets
the good, sixteenth century humanism of Montaigne, which its emphasis
on corporality, contextuality and openness (68). With regard to
postmodernism Kunneman differentiates the 'good' postmodernism of
Lyotard and his associates, inspired by humanistic values, from the
'bad', which corresponds with "the present-day, thoroughly modern, late
capitalistic consumption culture", which is characterized by "the new
domination of the text by the image, the novel by the video clip, the
filing card by the data bank, an exchange of letters by the network,
and by making industrial and post-industrial production processes both
global and flexible" and "the creation of globe-spanning amusement and
information networks with increasingly faster rotation times" (67).

Although I would not deny that there are interesting similarities
between sixteenth-century humanism and certain motifs in postmodern
thinking, and, moreover, subscribe to the fact that these motifs are
relevant to the self-reflection and self-criticism of modern-day
humanism, it is my opinion that Kunneman, because of the dichotomies he
employs, does not do justice to the complex and ambivalent nature of
(post)modern culture.[2] The caricatural image he sketches of 'bad'
(because: hypermodern) postmodernism, leads him - without appreciable
argument - to the conclusion that this form of postmodernism "appears
to be much more nihilistic and much more threatening to central
humanistic ideas, such as the rationality and autonomy of the subject,
than the fundamental criticism postmodern philosophers put forward on
these ideas" (67). Kunneman therefore lapses into the same idle
rejection of unwelcome criticism for which he reproaches his fellow
humanists, and in so doing he deprives himself and his readers of the
opportunity to enter into a serious confrontation with, in my view, the
no less radical criticism of humanism voiced by this 'bad'

This confrontation, therefore, is of the greatest importance for
humanism because the capitalistic information society linked by
Kunneman to 'bad' postmodernism is developing extremely quickly, and on
a global scale, into the dominant form of society.[3] One way or
another, humanists have to take up a position against this development.
What makes this confrontation even more urgent is that these
hypermoderns also claim to be the pre-eminent standard bearers of
humanism. In their view the "interweaving of humanity and technological
rationality" (70), loathed by Kunneman, has actually made an important
contribution to the realization of humanistic ideals such as "fairness,
equality, humanity and unrestricted self-realization" (65). The
confrontation with 'bad' (hypermodern) postmodernism, finally, is of
the greatest importance for humanism because the hypermoderns actually
derive their motivation to rise above man and his limitations from the
humanistic ideal of unrestricted self-realization.

It is not my intention in this article to once again reverse the
hierarchical opposition between 'good' (anti-modern) and 'bad'
(hypermodern) postmodernism and, in opposition to Kunneman, defend the
latter. What I want to do is to illuminate the side of the
confrontation between humanism and postmodernism neglected by Kunneman,
and the questions which it raises. I shall do this by discussing the
body of ideas of transhumanism, a movement which propagates the
hypermodern program of 'bad' postmodernism in the most explicit and
radical way. After an introduction of the program of this movement,
which is concentrated on the work of Hans Moravec (