The Ubermensch, the Superman and the Posthuman
The Ubermensch, the Superman and the Posthuman
January 24, 2006
In the most vicious yet thorough attack against transhumanism to date, Dr. Klaus-Gerd Giesen, a professor of political sciences at the University of Leipzig in Germany, wrote, among other things, in Transhumanism and Human Genetics (a widely-cited polemical article written in French for the Genetics Observatory, a project of the Centre for Bioethics of the Clinical Research Institute of Montreal):
Encasing the figure of the nietzchean superman - which, by the way, is a constant reference for transhumanists - in an absurd biological materialism that would no doubt amuse the German philosopher, transhumanists push their nihilism to the point of speculating about the members of the privileged stratum of society eventually enhancing themselves and their offspring to a point where the human species, for many practical purposes, splits into two or more species that have little in common except a shared evolutionary history.
Since it is a criticism that I often hear that may or may not have some validity, I decided to re-familiarize myself with the exact definition of these terms in contention.
In Thus spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche explains the steps through which man can become an Ubermensch ( the equivalent English translation would be ‘over-human’ ):
1. By his will to power, manifested destructively in the rejection of, and rebellion against, old ideals and moral codes;
2. By his will to power, manifested creatively in overcoming nihilism (any philosophy that, rejecting the real world around us and physical existence along with it, results in an apathy toward life and a poisoning of the human soul) and re-evaluating old ideals or creating new ones.
3. By a continual process of self-overcoming.
The most common misconception about the Ubermensch is that it is equivalent to the ideals of Nazism, and that it is related or equal to the concept of Herrenvolk ("master race"). The concept of racial supremacy or antisemitism is absent in Nietzsche. It is widely believed that Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, contributed greatly to this misconception by deliberately misrepresenting his work, and the Nazis themselves reinterpreted and incorporated hodgepodge elements of many philosophical and religious texts, including Nietzsche’s.
The translation of Ubermensch as “superman” may compound the misconception. Uber can have a variety of meanings, as in Uberwindung ("overcoming"), uberstehen/durchstehen ("come through"/"get over"), ubersetzen ("translate"/"take across"). Some scholars therefore prefer the translation as Overman, since the point of the Ubermensch is that man needs to overcome himself.
The German adverb “ubermenschlich” is common and used in contexts such as “mit ubermenschlichen Kraften gelang es ihm…”: “with a force no human being is capable of he managed to…” or “with superhuman force…”, the connotation is that of leaving the human sphere. Parallel constructions can be found in ubernaturlich ("no longer natural”, “transcendental"), uberirdisch ("heavenly", literally “unearthly"). “Superman” lacks the German connotation of a sphere beyond human knowledge and power. In addition, Mensch is less specifically male than the English man, closer at times to the English human. Mensch is to be understood as a neuter form of a noun.
Nietzsche’s writings are spiritual and philosophical in character, and do not state that the central ideas are biological, psychological, sociological, or sociobiological. His ideas have no firm connection to the claim of superiority of any particular race or ethnicity, and thus they are not racist in themselves.
On the other hand, a Superman, or more precisely, a superhuman is an entity with intelligence or abilities exceeding normal human standards. Superhuman can mean an “improved” human, for example, by genetic modification, or as what humans might evolve into, in the distant future. Occasionally, it could mean a “normal” human with unusual abilities, such as psychic abilities or exceptional proficiency at something. Superhuman can also mean something that isn’t human, but considered to be “superior” to humans in some ways. A robot that easily passed the Turing test, and could do some things humans can’t, could be considered superhuman. A very intelligent or strong alien could be considered superhuman. The concept of the superhuman is quite popular in science fiction, where superhumans are often mutants or genetically engineered.
And finally, according to the Transhumanist FAQ, a Posthuman is a hypothetical future being,
“whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to be no longer human by our current standards ... Posthumans could be artificial intelligences, or they could be uploaded consciousnesses, or they could be the result of making many smaller but cumulatively profound augmentations to a biological human. The latter alternative would probably require either the redesign of the human organism using advanced nanotechnology or its radical enhancement using some combination of technologies such as genetic engineering, psychopharmacology, anti-aging therapies, neural interfaces, advanced information management tools, memory enhancing drugs, wearable computers, and cognitive techniques.”
In conclusion, whether or not Nietzche would have approved of the transhumanist goal of becoming a Posthuman is open to debate. However, there can no doubt that, if Nietzche was alive today, he would be deeply offended by the attempt of some transhumanists to equate his concept of the Ubermensch with their concept of the Posthuman. Although a small minority of transhumanists will strongly disagree due to confirmation bias, since Nietzche’s Ubermensch is obviously not related to the concept of the Superman of science-fiction nor the posthuman of transhumanist speculation, the Ubermensch should never be a reference for well-informed transhumanists or anti-transhumanists.
Justice De Thezier is a social entrepreneur and creative professional. In 2003, he founded the Quebec Transhumanist Association, which he closed down in January 2008. From January 2006 to January 2008, De Thezier served on the board of directors of the World Transhumanist Association. And, from November 2005 to March 2007, he contributed to the Cyborg Democracy web portal and blog.