Descartes' daughters: Thinking-machines and the emergence of posthuman complexity

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Gregg Lambert


Complexity, Thinking-machine, Posthuman, Identity, Mitchell, Edward Page, Complexity theory, Complex systems

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Comparative Literature | English Language and Literature | Philosophy


The very nature of the machine seems to signify determinacy, to preclude it from calling upon the kind of indeterminate creativity that characterizes human thought and reason. Indeed, at least since Descartes, the machine and the human have each been conceived precisely in opposition to one another, and in this sense, each is strictly inconceivable without the other. But, already within Descartes, the concept of contingency, expressed as speech, will, reason, and soul, thus folded into its own material actualizations, became the function of contingency. And this function, once sundered from substance, could be infinitely iterated both within and beyond the human. Thus, each iteration of the thinking-machine redistributes the component concepts of the human and the machine across the boundary of their respective identities, while transforming and destabilizing our concepts of both.

Chapter One begins by examining Descartes' concept of the human, and the significance of its identification in opposition to the machine, arguing that the effect of Descartes' multiple iterations of these oppositional concepts is to render the relationships among their components contingent rather than essential, and to transform the surrounding discourse of substance ontology to one of becoming function. Chapter Two examines the calculating engines of Charles Babbage as material iterations of the thinking-machine, and the discursive formations surrounding them, focusing upon an emerging functional image of thought. Chapter Three considers the ontological uncertainties that the thinking-machine provokes as a source of anxiety surrounding Maelzel's automaton chess-player, as evidenced in numerous texts, including Edgar Allan Poe's well-known essay and selected short stories by Herman Melville, Edward Page Mitchell, and Ambrose Bierce. Chapter Four is concerned with the proliferation of both interest and success in the production of thinking-machines during the 1940s and 1950s, focusing on Norbert Wiener's work in cybernetics and Alan Turing's universal machines. The Conclusion takes up contemporary debates, suggesting that the new patterns that emerge from these transformations, and the uncertainties about (human) identity that they produce, provoke anxiety precisely insofar as they persist in conceiving "what matters" as a substance rather than as a function.


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