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Enhancing human in Europe: dream and nightmare of the interwar period

L’homme augmenté en Europe : rêve et cauchemar de l’entre-deux-guerres

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Published on Monday, April 29, 2019


Number of historians and philosophers consider in general that transhumanism and its aim at enhancing the human through applied science and technology have their roots in the inter-war period: Julian Huxley, Jean Coutrot, John B.S. Haldane or John D. Bernal are indeed massively considered as the precursors of such ideas. But are they the sole references to mention when considering the inter-war origins of transhumanism, or are they just the tip of the iceberg of a broader current of thought emerging at that time? Such question immediately raises another one, which requires clarification : can current transhumanism(s) really be linked to the ideas emerging in the inter-war period ? The aim of the workshop will be first to check whether and how the idea of an enhanced human through technology intervention may have circulated in Europe during that time. Secondly, space will be given to look for pertinent criteria for the identification of a « transhumanism » of the inter-war period, by evaluating the nature of the indices which may be studied: mobilizing ideas, currents of thoughts, schools of thoughts, sociotechnical imaginaries, etc. Within these perspectives, the workshop will make possible comparisons between the different European contexts (England, France, Italy, Germany, Russia, etc.), and the several papers will help us to better understand the circulation of ideas, networks and human exchanges which contributed to forge the cradle of transhumanist ideas. Communications will be in French or in English.


Workshop / December 12-13, 2019


Contemporary transhumanism, born in the late twentieth century, is often close to precedents either by the transhumanists themselves or by observers, critical or not. The interwar period focuses on filiations. They can concern thinkers like Julian Huxley, John Haldane or Jean Coutrot. They can also concern ways of thinking such as eugenics considered in all its diversity. Should we theorize that there was in the interwar perdiod such a proto-transhumanism (Bostrom)? Indeed, for Bostrom the inter-war period would carry the seeds of all the characteristics of contemporary transhumanism in the opinion of many intellectuals. On the contrary, for many critics of transhumanism, this would only be a reformulation of the eugenic thought of the time, and its aberrations. These connections often serve partisan views and do not necessarily help to have a clear knowledge. They are confronted with three pitfalls: firstly, to reduce the connections of transhumanism to the genealogy of an single occurrence by simply identifying those who have used the term, without taking into account that a word does not have the same meaning everywhere ; secondly, to extend transhumanism indefinitely by integrating all "progressive", "technicist", "futuristic" or technological imaginary ideas of an era, at the risk of finally losing the object overnight whereby all things would be equal ; and lastly, to look in the past for current conceptions of transhumanism, and to overinterpret the sources to discover the signs of the presence of what is projected there.

It seems, however, that immersing oneself in the inter-war period would help to clarify thinking. Indeed, many thinkers of the period, in the European sphere, have vowed to raise man beyond his "natural" condition by different techniques, modifying the behavior, the bodies or aspirations. Between the two world wars, debates were growing everywhere in Europe (France, England, Italy, Russia, Germany, Spain ...). Intellectuals, scientists, industrialists and politicians wanted to configure new relationship between politics and technology. Some movements have already been well determined and studied. They include, among others, quite a few totalitarian regimes that aim for the advent of a "new man" born of the overhaul of social, economic and cultural structures of the nation through political coercion. Proponents of eugenic thought, for their part, defend a biopolitical configuration (which can be as totalitarian), where technology and politics are mutually absorbed into a mission of birth control and heredity for the purpose of improving populations. To these first two types of discourse is added a third, capitalist and technocratic, which privileges the rationalization of public policies, the management of institutions and the diffusion of technologies within the social sphere to solve human problems and to promote a new form of human fulfillment.

In light of this first draft of a typology of the ways of thinking of the inter-war period, there is nothing, a priori, to conclude that the period contains in germ all the features of transhumanism today, or that it proceeded from one of these currents of ideas excluding others. This historical uncertainty requires a re-examination of the sources of transhumanism, away from the pitfalls mentioned above: would the increased man of transhumanism be the fruit of meetings between thinkers of the new man (totalitarian systems), the selected man (eugenic thought) or the man domesticated by technology (technocratic regime)? If this is the case, could we isolate these encounters and trace the history of the ideas they gave rise to? Another hypothesis would be to isolate for the interwar period the appearance of a way of thinking that does not result from the modern ideologies of the new man, the selected man or the domesticated man, although it was contemporary to them. In this case, who would be the historical representatives of this current and their interactions with the other intellectuals of their time? What would be the distinctive features, the sources and the nature of such a transhumanism over the period studied, if it could be distinguished from other anthropological imaginaries of the time? If we formulate the hypothesis that certain works of Jean Coutrot, John Haldane or Julian Huxley could be considered as the precursors of such a thinking (which perhaps would have little resemblance to our present representations of transhumanism), other voices at European level may have contributed to the advent of such a way. They would form a larger continental network that still needs to be clarified by historical and philosophical analysis.

We propose to look into the issue by a comparative survey between the different European contexts. This survey should seek to clearly define the types of projects on man developed in the interwar period, their nature, the meaning of the words mobilized by the discourses that have appropriated this issue on the European continent. The proposed survey should focus on the flow of ideas, networks and human exchanges that made them possible. It will aim, on the one hand, to detail and discuss the hypothesis of the emergence of a "transhumanist" school of thought in the interwar period and, on the other hand, to isolate its caracteristics against contemporary transhumanisms, even if it means proposing another denomination if necessary. The survey must also allow the identification of transhumanism of the interwar period, leaving open the door to questions about the nature of the object being studied: mobilizing ideas, way of thinking, school of thinking, sociotechnical imagination.

Abstract Proposals

We invite English as well as French abstracts up to 500 words, to be sent in MS Word and PDF format to: franck.damour@univ-catholille.fr

Files should be named and submitted in the following manner: Submission: First Name Last name. docx (or .doc) / .pdf    (Example: “Submission: MaryAndy.docx”)


  • Abstracts should be received by the 25st of June 2019.

  • Acceptance notifications will be sent out by the 20th of July 2019.
  • All those accepted will receive information on the venue.

Organising Committee

  • Franck Damour, Université Catholique de Lille, France
  • Olivier Dard, Sorbonne Université, LABEX EHNE, France
  • David Doat, Université Catholique de Lille, France

Scientific Committee

  • Francesco Paolo Adorno, Università degli studi di Salerno, Italie
  • Jenny Andersson, Sciences Po Paris, France
  • Stéphane Cormier, Université de Bordeaux, France
  • Fabien Ferri, Université de Franche-Comté, France
  • Jean-Yves Goffi, Université Grenoble Alpes, France
  • Hélène Machinal, Université de Bretagne Occidentale, France
  • Barbara Meazzi, Université Côte d'Azur, France
  • Alexandre Moatti, Université Paris-Diderot, France


  • 60 Boulevard Vauban
    Lille, France (59)


  • Tuesday, June 25, 2019


  • transhumanisme, homme augmenté, human enhancement, eugénisme, homme nouveau, technologie, imaginaire sociotechnique, transhumanism, Julian Huxley, John B.S. Haldane, John D. Bernal, Jean Coutrot


  • Olivier Dard
    courriel : olivierdard [at] orange [dot] fr
  • David Doat
    courriel : David [dot] DOAT [at] univ-catholille [dot] fr
  • Franck Damour
    courriel : franck [dot] damour [at] univ-catholille [dot] fr

Information source

  • Franck Damour
    courriel : franck [dot] damour [at] univ-catholille [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Enhancing human in Europe: dream and nightmare of the interwar period », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Monday, April 29, 2019, https://calenda.org/609437

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