Between Poison and Remedy: Transhumanism as Pharmakon, Ben Ross

SERRC —  May 15, 2017 — Leave a comment

Author Information: Ben Ross, University of North Texas,

Ross, Ben. “Between Poison and Remedy: Transhumanism as Pharmakon.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 23-26.

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Image credit: Jennifer Boyer, via flickr

As a Millennial, I have the luxury of being able to ask in all seriousness, “Will I be the first generation safe from death by old age?” While the prospects of answering in the affirmative may be dim, they are not preposterous. The idea that such a question can even be asked with sincerity, however, testifies to transhumanism’s reach into the cultural imagination.

But what is transhumanism? Until now, we have failed to answer in the appropriate way, remaining content to describe its possible technological manifestations or trace its historical development. Therefore, I would like to propose an ontology of transhumanism. When philosophers speak of ontologies, they are asking a basic question about the being of a thing—what is its essence? I suggest that transhumanism is best understood as a pharmakon.

Transhumanism as a Pharmakon

Derrida points out in his essay “Plato’s Pharmacy” that while pharmakon can be translated as “drug,” it means both “remedy” and “poison.” It is an ambiguous in-between, containing opposite definitions that can both be true depending on the context. As Michael Rinella notes, hemlock, most famous for being the poison that killed Socrates, when taken in smaller doses induces “delirium and excitement on the one hand,” yet it can be “a powerful sedative on the other” (160). Rinella also goes on to say that there are more than two meanings to the term. While the word was used to denote a drug, Plato “used pharmakon to mean a host of other things, such as pictorial color, painter’s pigment, cosmetic application, perfume, magical talisman, and recreational intoxicant.” Nevertheless, Rinella makes the crucial remark that “One pharmakon might be prescribed as a remedy for another pharmakon, in an attempt to restore to its previous state an identity effaced when intoxicant turned toxic” (237-238). It is precisely this “two-in-one” aspect of the application of a pharmakon that reveals it to be the essence of transhumanism; it can be both poison and remedy.

To further this analysis, consider “super longevity,” which is the subset of transhumanism concerned with avoiding death. As Harari writes in Homo Deus, “Modern science and modern culture…don’t think of death as a metaphysical mystery…for modern people death is a technical problem that we can and should solve.” After all, he declares, “Humans always die due to some technical glitch” (22). These technical glitches, i.e. when one’s heart ceases to pump blood, are the bane of researchers like Aubrey de Grey, and fixing them forms the focus of his “Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence.” There is nothing in de Grey’s approach to suggest that there is any human technical problem that does not potentially have a human technical solution. Grey’s techno-optimism represents the “remedy-aspect” of transhumanism as a view in which any problems—even those caused by technology—can be solved by technology.

As a “remedy,” transhumanism is based on a faith in technological progress, despite such progress being uneven, with beneficial effects that are not immediately apparent. For example, even if de Grey’s research does not result in the “cure” for death, his insight into anti-aging techniques and the resulting applications still have the potential to improve a person’s quality of life. This reflects Max More’s definition of transhumanism as “The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities” (3).

Importantly, More’s definition emphasizes transcendent enhancement, and it is this desire to be “upgraded” which distinguishes transhumanism. An illustration of the emergence of the upgrade mentality can be seen in the history of plastic surgery. Harari writes that while modern plastic surgery was born during the First World War as a treatment to repair facial injuries, upon the war’s end, surgeons found that the same techniques could be applied not to damaged noses, but to “ugly” ones, and “though plastic surgery continued to help the sick and wounded…it devoted increasing attention to upgrading the healthy” (52). Through its secondary use as an elective surgery of enhancement rather than exclusively as a technique for healing, one can see an example of the evolution of transhumanist philosophy out of medical philosophy—if the technology exists to change one’s face (and they have they money for it), a person should be morphologically free to take advantage of the enhancing capabilities of such a procedure.

However, to take a view of a person only as “waiting to be upgraded” marks the genesis of the “poison-aspect” of transhumanism as a pharmakon. One need not look farther than Martin Heidegger to find an account of this danger. In his 1954 essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger suggests that the threat of technology is ge-stell, or “enframing,” the way in which technology reveals the world to us primarily as a stock of resources to be manipulated. For him, the “threat” is not a technical problem for which there is a technical solution, but rather it is an ontological condition from which we can be saved—a condition which prevents us from seeing the world in any other way. Transhumanism in its “poison mode,” then, is the technological understanding of being—a singular way of viewing the world as a resource waiting to be enhanced. And what is problematic is that this way of revealing the world comes to dominate all others. In other words, the technological understanding of being comes to be the understanding of being.

However, a careful reading of Heidegger’s essay suggests that it is not a techno-pessimist’s manifesto. Technology has pearls concealed within its perils. Heidegger suggests as much when he quotes Hölderlin, “But where danger is, grows the saving power also” (333). Heidegger is asking the reader to avoid either/or dichotomous thinking about the essence of technology as something that is either dangerous or helpful, and instead to see it as a two-in-one. He goes to great lengths to point out that the “saving power” of technology, which is to say, of transhumanism, is that its essence is ambiguous—it is a pharmakon. Thus, the self-same instrumentalization that threatens to narrow our understanding of being also has the power to save us and force a consideration of new ways of being, and most importantly for Heidegger, new meanings of being.

Curing Death?

A transhumanist, and therefore pharmacological, take on Heidegger’s admonishment might be something as follows: In the future it is possible that a “cure” for death will threaten what we now know as death as a source of meaning in society—especially as it relates to a Christian heaven in which one yearns to spend an eternity, sans mortal coil. While the arrival of a death-cure will prove to be “poison” for a traditional understanding of Christianity, that same techno-humanistic artifact will simultaneously function as a “remedy,” spurring a Nietzschean transvaluation of values—that is, such a “cure” will arrive as a technological Zarathustra, forcing a confrontation with meaning, bringing news that “the human being is something that must be overcome” and urging us to ask anew, “what have you done to overcome him?” At the very least, as Steve Fuller recently pointed out in an interview, “transhumanism just puts more options on the table for what death looks like. For example, one might choose to die with or without the prospect of future resurrection. One might also just upload one’s mind into a computer, which would be its own special kind of resurrection.” For those sympathetic to Leon Kass’ brand of repugnance, such suggestions are poison, and yet for a transhumanist such suggestions are a remedy to the glitch called death and the ways in which we relate to our finitude.

A more mundane example of the simultaneous danger and saving power of technology might be the much-hyped Google Glass—or in more transhuman terms, having Google Glass implanted into one’s eye sockets. While this procedure may conceal other ways of understanding the spaces and people surrounding the wearer other than through the medium of the lenses, the lenses simultaneously have the power to reveal entirely new layers of information about the world and connect the wearer to the environment and to others in new ways.

With these examples it is perhaps becoming clear that by re-casting the essence of transhumanism as a pharmakon instead of an either/or dichotomy of purely techno-optimistic panacea or purely techno-pessimistic miasma, a more inclusive picture of transhumanist ontology emerges. Transhumanism can be both—cause and cure, danger and savior, threat and opportunity. Max More’s analysis, too, has a pharmacological flavor in that transhumanism, though committed to improving the human condition, has no illusions that, “The same powerful technologies that can transform human nature for the better could also be used in ways that, intentionally or unintentionally, cause direct damage or more subtly undermine our lives” (4).

Perhaps, then, More might agree that as a pharmakon, transhumanism is a Schrödinger’s cat always in a state of superposition—both alive and dead in the box. In the Copenhagen interpretation, a system stops being in a superposition of states and becomes either one or the other when an observation takes place. Transhumanism, too, is observer-dependent. For Ray Kurzweil, looking in the box, the cat is always alive with the techno-optimistic possibility of download into silicon and the singularity is near. For Ted Kaczynski, the cat is always dead, and it is worth killing in order to prevent its resurrection. Therefore, what the foregoing analysis suggests is that transhumanism is a drug—it is both remedy and poison—with the power to cure or the power to kill depending on who takes it. If the essence of transhumanism is elusive, it is precisely because it is a pharmakon cutting across categories ordinarily seen as mutually exclusive, forcing an ontological quest to conceptualize the in-between.


Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy.” In Dissemination, translated by Barbara Johnson, 63-171. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Fuller, Steve. “Twelve Questions on Transhumanism’s Place in the Western Philosophical Tradition.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, 19 April 2017.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. HarperCollins, 2017.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In Basic Writings, edited by David Farrell Krell. Harper & Row, 1977.

More, Max. “The Philosophy of Transhumanism,” In The Transhumanist Reader, edited by Max More and Natasha Vita-More, 3-17. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

Rinella, Michael A. Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010.

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