Meet Professor Stefan Sorgner
Professor Stefan Sorgner, one of the world’s leading post- and transhumanist philosophers, joined John Cabot’s faculty in Spring 2016 after teaching at a number of universities across Germany and Austria. He is currently the director and co-founder of the Beyond Humanism Network, Research Fellow at the Ewha Institute for the Humanities at Ewha Womans University in Seoul and a Fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET).
What is your teaching philosophy?
What is particularly important to me is to show the contemporary relevance of the philosophical issues we examine. Therefore, I try not only to help students understand the history of philosophy, but rather to show them how philosophy can help us to deal with contemporary issues. I see teaching as a way to give students a chance to participate in various discourses and draw their own conclusions, especially when we tackle questions where the answer remains unclear. Students are the leaders of tomorrow, and as such they have a chance to influence our culture. But in order for this to happen there first needs to be an understanding and a well thought response to the questions we analyze.
You taught in Germany, Austria, South Korea. Considering how different the educational systems, not to mention the culture of these countries are, how did these experiences change, or broaden, your teaching method?
In Germany I taught in a philosophy department, a social sciences department, even a medical department for some years. Obviously you encounter different types of rationalities in the students you have: a philosophy student often has a much different mindset from that of a medical student. Therefore, there’s always a different reaction to the same material. For instance, medical students often expect there to be a finite, certain answer. My challenge is to show them that this is not always the case. I think that teaching in so many departments has really helped me to teach here at JCU, as my classes are very diverse in terms of majors students are pursuing and cultural backgrounds. Therefore, I try to draw from these different backgrounds to broaden the discussion, to have everyone bring something different to the table.
Today, perhaps because of the economic crisis, a lot of emphasis is put on studying something that will “guarantee” occupation, for instance something in the STEM field. Do you agree? And what are the benefits of studying philosophy in this day and age?
I would argue that philosophy actually increases your likelihood of having a job in the future! In fact, a study by Frey and Osborne dealt with the future of employment and showed that about 47 percent of all current jobs will be automated in 10 to 20 years from now. Here it needs to be considered that a job in which you need mathematical calculations is much easier to automate than a creative job. So I guess for the future of work it might even be advisable to focus on philosophy!
As for the importance of philosophy, it’s important to mention that many of the issues we are faced with today have no possible way to be answered by using a traditional perspective, simply because they are new problems. For example, we have never been able to alter our genes before, but now we can and we’ll have to regulate this soon. That’s where philosophy is extremely useful.
What exactly are Posthumanism and Transhumanism?
Posthumanism and Transhumanism represent two separate traditions, even if they both deal with the impact of emerging technologies on humans and society. In the first tradition, Posthumanism, this impact has been studied in a circumscribed way in different fields: gender studies, cultural theory, literary studies, sometimes philosophy. The main focus of academics in this tradition is to put forward a new anthropology, a new non-dualist understanding of the human.
The second tradition is Transhumanism. The main focus of transhumanists is on normative, ethical, political issues. Their background is based in analytic philosophy and bioethics, and in a linear, scientific way of thinking. Transhumanists are strongly affirmative of the use of technologies in order to enhance human beings. According to this tradition, the Posthuman is not only a new understanding of who we are as human beings, but also of beings that lie beyond the current definition of “human.” An example of Transhumanism, even if an extreme one, would be an idea suggested by Ray Kurzweil: mind uploading, or the uploading of one’s consciousness into a computer network.
What do you cover in your course, Posthuman Studies: Philosophy, Technology and Media?
The course deals with all the challenges related to emerging technologies and the impact on our society: in the cultural, social, ethical, legal, and artistic field. New challenges can and will be included whenever they arise. What I’ve been doing with the course “Posthuman Studies” is to bring together Posthumanist and Transhumanist traditions that have historically been separate, as I believe that members of both traditions can benefit from the other one. This is a new idea I’m pursuing, and because of this I think John Cabot might be the first university in the world to offer a course entitled “Posthuman Studies”. However, interest in this field is growing rapidly, and from next year onwards, Penn State University Press will publish an Academic journal entitled “Journal of Posthuman Studies” of which I will be an Editor-in-Chief.
What is your first impression of JCU?
It’s a wonderful place, I am really enjoying it. What I appreciate in particular is how international it is. I think that being in this environment represents a really challenging intellectual situation, opens people’s minds to new perspectives and promotes global international cooperation both for professors and students. As I mentioned, I think that liberal arts colleges, especially one like JCU where one studies in English while living immersed in Italian culture, and with such an international community, provide students with the best external conditions for developing the skills that will be of central relevance for their future employment.