An interview with philosopher Peter Sloterdijk by Nathan Gardels
Peter Sloterdijk is Germany’s most controversial thinker and media theorist. He has dared to challenge long-established divisions in traditional philosophy of body and soul, subject and object, culture and nature. His 1999 lecture on “Regulations for the Human Park,” in which he argued that genetic engineering was a continuation of human striving for self-creation, stirred up a tempest in a country known for Nazi eugenics. At the same time, he himself has concluded that "the taming of man has failed” as civilization’s potential for barbarism has grown ever greater. His seminal books include “Critique of Cynical Reason” and his trilogy, “Spheres.”
At a recent Berggruen Center on Philosophy and Culture symposium on humans and technology at Cambridge University’s St. John's School of Divinity, The WorldPost discussed with Sloterdijk the end of borders between humans and technology, the cloud, singularity and identity in the age of globalization.
For years now, you have been arguing that a new type of being was coming into existence, as the human species fuses with its technological prosthetics -- “anthropo-technology.” In this new being, man and machine are becoming one integrated, operative system linked by information.
All these years later, our consciousness has expanded into the cloud and the cloud into our consciousness; we have also learned to read, write and edit the genetic code, giving us the knowledge to purposively amend millennia of evolution.
How does your concept of “anthropo-technology” differ, or how is it similar, to that of futurist and AI proponent Ray Kurzweil’s idea of “singularity”? Kurzweil sees not only an epistemic break with the past, but a new phase of evolution altogether that reaches beyond consciousness into being and biology.
The concept of “anthropotechnics” rests on the hypothesis that the current psychophysical and social constitution of the species Homo sapiens -- note the evolutionist emphasis of this classification -- is based substantially on autogenic effects. In this context, the term “autogenic” means “brought about by the repercussions of actions on the actor.” The human being -- especially in so-called “advanced civilizations” -- is the animal that molds itself into its own pet. While evolution means adaptation to a natural environment, domestication means, from the outset, adaptation to the artificial.
What we call “civilizations” in moral and cultural-theoretical terms are, from the perspective of biological anthropology (which deals with the animal/human distinction), the result of a long sequence of auto-domestications. Tens of thousands of years before the Greek oracle could write the motto “Know thyself” above the place of encounter with the truth, the great mothers, chieftains and sorcerers had applied a different one to the lives of their own kind: “Tame thyself!” This led to what would become known much later as “education” -- in Greek paideia, in Latin humanitas, in Sanskrit vinaya, in Chinese wenhua and in German Bildung.
The term “anthropotechnics” points to the fact that the process of the humans’ domestication by humans, which began very early on, retains an open future. Firstly, it describes the largely unconscious secession of humans from pure animality -- whereby they became not only members of the “symbolic species,” a “ritual animal” (as Wittgenstein remarked on occasion), indeed a mythological narrative animal, but also a technical creature. Secondly, it points to future possibility of conscious self-shaping through forms of training of the mind, through chemical modifications, perhaps even through genetic impulses.
The concept of “anthropotechnics” thus refers to the entire autopoiesis, or self-creation, of “mankind” in its many thousands of cultural specializations. It is empirical, pluralistic and egalitarian from the ground up -- in the sense that all individuals, as heirs to the memory of mankind, are free to surpass themselves.
Ray Kurzweil’s idea of “singularity,” by contrast, contains futuristic, monistic and elitist elements. Although “singularity,” according to its logical and rhetorical design, is meant to integrate mankind as a whole, it is evident that it could only encompass a tiny group of exceptional transhuman individuals.
Kurzweil argues that expanding our minds into the cloud and vice versa will create more diversity and less uniformity because we will have access to almost infinite information with which to fertilize our imagination and construct our personality. Do you agree with this line of thinking?
In speaking of the “cloud,” Kurzweil positions himself in a field that is preformatted by traditional philosophy. With his concept of the “objective spirit,” Hegel outlined the formal premise of a “cloud”: these consist in the “expressions” of the spirit, which have solidified into institutions. Institutions are programs for cultural transmission handed down to future generations.