Transhumanism in the 1930s: Szathmári, Bernal, Horkheimer

While reviewing and researching Sándor Szathmári's classic Voyage to Kazohinia last year, I revisited and recognized the importance of this article:

Schäfer, Wolf. "Stranded at the Crossroads of Dehumanization: John Desmond Bernal and Max Horkheimer," in On Max Horkheimer: New Perspectives, edited by Seyla Benhabib, Wolfgang Bonß, and John McCole (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993) pp. 153-183.

Here is what I wrote on 28 December 2005 upon first reading this essay:

This is right in keeping with a major concern: i.e. the incapacity of the Frankfurt School to engage intelligently the natural sciences, an inadequacy yet to be repaired. Schafer is pointed in his diagnosis of how the split between the "two cultures" (anyone still remember C.P. Snow?) could not be more sharply manifested than in the fundamental orientation of these two individuals.

What is essential to understand here is not only an absolute antithesis between Bernal and Horkheimer II, but the fact that both were products of two cultures--science and humanistic--that did not intersect or understand one another. (170-1)

Schafer quotes Horkheimer's The Eclipse of Reason (p. 75) to point up his hopeless position:
"that the division of all human truth into science and humanities is itself a social product that was hypostatized by the organization of the universities and ultimately by some philosophical schools, particularly those of Rickert and Max Weber. The so-called practical world has no place for truth, and therefore splits it to conform it to its own image: the physical sciences are endowed with so-called objectivity, but emptied of human content; the humanities preserve the human content, but only as ideology, at the expense of truth."
Schafer's evaluation of Horkheimer's position is not kind:
"If one could regard this statement itself as true and as not being warped by ideology, then the professional fractalization of truth could be cured and made whole and healthy again by a new social product, perhaps by reorganizing the universities and our intellectual life according to the gospel of some holistic philosophical school. False objectivity and true ideology could be overcome; truths without human content could be rehumanized; and truths with untruthful human content could be corrected. But the view of Horkheimer II cannot be true since it was produced inside the humanities--those branches of learning that preserve the human content . . . as ideology." Horkheimer must situate his own thinking in this ideological context. We may as well conclude, therefore, that Horkheimer II fell victim to his own deconstruction of occidental reason--that he is part of the problem and not of the solution." [172-3]
Schafer also criticizes Bernal, but then he returns to the shortcomings of critical theory:
"But neither early, middle, nor current critical theory has paid, or is paying, enough attention to the sciences and technologies that feed into and shape the natural half of human history. The dreams, fantasies, and projects of our technoscientific culture thrive with very little or no internal technocritique that is not purely technical; our most eloquent technocritics are often crudely antitechnological; and relevant academic fields, like the professional history and sociology of science and technology, care more about their own problems and research fronts than about society at the crossroads into the future." [173]
I would have phrased this differently. The key here is the incompetence of the humanistic critics of science and technology, not their willingness to criticize.

Schafer concludes with what the universities might and could do to bridge the divide, but specialization is so firmly entrenched there are no signs of any remediation.

So in the end this essay is a cry of alarm about the "two cultures", rather than the specific shortcomings of Horkheimer's philosophical understanding of the natural sciences. But as far as he goes, I'm in near complete agreement.
Returning to this essay last year, I was not so interested in Horkheimer's shortcomings as I was in Bernal's and in a key contraposition in 20th-century intellectual history that the Horkheimer-Bernal juxtaposition exemplifies.

Though Horkheimer was on the warpath against positivism, as were his philosophical colleagues, it should be noted that the logical positivists that had recently come into prominence were on the left.  Bernal, a scientist and eventually a pioneer historiographer of science, himself became a Communist, I don't know when offhand. In question here is Bernal's 1929 work The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, in which Bernal projects the transcendence of human physical existence, presenting a transhumanist vision which can readily be classified as a precursor of Szathmári's 1964 novella Maŝinmondo (Machine World).

For an extensive overview of this theme, see: Christopher Coenen, "Utopian Aspects of the Debate on Converging Technologies"; Pre-Print: 13.11.2007.

One man's utopia is another man's dystopia. The basic themes of transhumanism, while still being debated, are old now, but there was a time when they were fresh, spanning a half-century from Wells to Orwell. Szathmári merits induction into the utopian/dystopian/transhumanist Hall of Fame as one of its central figures.

In the critical literature on Szathmári in Esperanto there are some incisive critiques of the philosophical assumptions underlying Kazohinia. While there exists in Esperanto a bit of material and references here and there to the philosophers of the Frankfurt School and related thinkers, no one has yet staged a confrontation of Critical Theory and Szathmári's work. The Frankfurt theorists drew on the irrationalist philosophical heritage but always with the goal of preserving Reason, which they saw as degraded by positivism. There are still lessons to be learned from the warring dichotomies of the past century.

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