An Atheism that Is Not Humanist:

Secularism, atheism, antihumanism

posted by Stefanos Geroulanos

In a 1956 text on ethics and literature, Emmanuel Levinas offered the following diagnosis of the philosophical trends of his time:

Contemporary thought holds the surprise for us of an atheism that is not humanist. The gods are dead or withdrawn from the world; concrete, even rational man does not contain the universe.

This atheism that is not humanist, the sense that certain strands of contemporary philosophy had abandoned secularism’s central ethical and political investment in humanism, poses the motivating question behind the book I am presenting for discussion here, An Atheism that Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought. In twentieth-century French thought, particularly in the period from the end of World War I through the late 1950s, a new form of atheism, and with it, a new conception of man, emerged and crystallized. What historians and critics of French thought, literature, and intellectual culture have, since the 1960s, called “antihumanism,” I argue, can be best understood in terms of this development, which is at once theological, epistemological, and political. By way of introducing the exchanges, critiques, and discussion to follow (and I thank The Immanent Frame for making these possible), I would like to offer a quick overview of the book, a general treatment of its questions, leaving a clearer articulation of the consequences of this transformation for the next generation of thinkers for a later post.

Beginning from Levinas’s proclamation, I have sought to re-define and describe antihumanism in terms of three different and interconnected problems and their historical trajectories: 1) transformations in atheism; 2) the fragmentation of the humanist imagination amidst a series of rejections of particular competing humanisms; and 3) the development of what I call a negative philosophical anthropology—that is to say, a theorization of “the human” as a construct or category fundamentally dependent on others.

Some questions are worth posing immediately, and in describing my research, these are the ones I will try to address. What does this new “atheism” amount to—in political, philosophical, and even theological terms? How does one trace it? How does this transformation of atheism animate the mid-century political critiques of humanism? How does it reformulate religious attitudes? Lastly, how does it affect, and how is it shaped by, contemporary conceptions of “the human”?

But first, a quick note on my call for a new approach to “antihumanism.” The term “antihumanism” is usually linked to its supposed golden age, the 1960s; this linkage, itself largely a product of 1970s and 1980s “neo-humanist” trends in French thought, suggests that antihumanism is an appendix of “post-Heideggerian” or “structuralist” philosophies. This narrative, which is still occasionally evoked by critics today, often claims that antihumanism 1) can be traced to a continuation of the Counter-Enlightenment; 2) is committed to a confused mix of Marxisant and right-wing themes, and is the political position of former Marxists unwilling to turn toward liberalism; and/or 3) designates, above all, an illiberal mistrust of the promises of egalitarianism and human rights, a mistrust of forms of liberal humanism.

This kind of narrative replaces the philosophical, theological, and cultural complexity of the term and the problem with the simplistic and confusing label of “Nietzschean post-Marxism,” which, regardless of the importance and influence of Marx and Nietzsche, renders the aims and claims of “antihumanist” thinkers politically absurd and philosophically senseless. Something else also gets lost: the way in which what is usually referred to as “antihumanism” is not correlated to the great transformations of French intellectual culture that occurred after each of the two World Wars. Not only were people excited about certain elements of “antihumanism” already in the 1920s (André Malraux asked about the “death” of European Man already in his 1926 The Temptation of the West), but the politics of criticizing humanism was by no means simply a mixture of illiberalism and Marxism. Rather, such critiques were to be found almost everywhere on the intellectual spectrum of the 1930s.

If the refusal of some humanism could be seen across a rather wide array of positions at the time, this was largely because every political position in the period claimed to be, not only a humanism, but the only possible humanism. Breaking with their century-old refusal of the humanist language and tradition, Catholics now began to claim that humanism was misguided and tragic only insofar as it was not a “theocentric” and, in Jacques Maritain’s influential expression, integral humanism. Following Marx’s treatment of human rights in “On the Jewish Question,” as well as Andrei Zhdanov’s 1934 lead in the First Congress of Soviet Writers, communists responded that only “socialist humanism” afforded man the dignity he deserved. And already before these positions developed, so-called non-conformists like Thierry Maulnier had led searches for an “adequate” humanism. Their direct target was the liberal, secular humanism of the Third Republic, itself best expressed by academic philosophers of the Dreyfusard generation—a humanism which seemed to them to have, not only strongly Eurocentric, but even fantastic and imperial implications out of step with the realities of contemporary France. As Paul Nizan memorably put it, in his call for a socialist humanism, “On the one hand, we have the idealistic philosophers who promulgate truths concerning Man; and, on the other hand, we have a map showing the incidence of tuberculosis in Paris, a map which tells us how men are dying.” A further victim of these criticisms was the humanist imagination itself: fragmented and attached to political projects that did not shy from, and indeed legitimated, violence, it became more attached to the suspicion directed at it than to any of its own promises. After World War II, and even though the French resistance understood itself as taking the side of humanity against Nazi barbarism, these doubts were radicalized and, by 1947-48, became common currency among philosophers and many literary authors. And not only were such doubts radicalized, but they became attached to an array of different and even opposed political positions.

This breakdown of humanism (and with it, of notions of history as progress, nature as in the service of man, and suffering as eradicable) halted the great hope, once integral to European atheism, of a harmonious secular society, something that, though in some doubt since Nietzsche and Sorel, now entered a renewed period of crisis. Concomitant to this was a doubt regarding notions of human nature linked to secularism and, moreover, a general suspicion of unified notions of man, the positing of which now appeared as unfounded and over-assertive. In writing intellectual history today, the problem of antihumanism is of methodological interest because it involves a change in something that is not simply a political stance among intellectuals, nor a specific concept or philosophical movement, but a precondition of thought, a somewhat fluid matrix of ideas—a philosophical attitude, if you prefer. To restate the questions that interest me somewhat differently: How does one write about something as nebulous as that, keeping together the different strands—political, theological, and philosophical? As critiques of humanism point to changes in atheist thought, how can we think of their joint history? How do philosophical and theological concerns shape and get shaped by political problems?

The overall umbrella of answers that I propose suggests two further histories. The first is the transformation of atheism and the abandonment of its traditional identification with anthropotheism, humanist morality, and secular utopia. Nineteenth-century atheism had routinely posited Man as replacing God, or as having to transform himself in certain ways in order to do so adequately—in, for example, Comte, Feuerbach, Proudhon, Marx, Wagner, and Nietzsche. To make up for the absence of God in human affairs, philosophers linked atheism with a positive ethico-philosophical project that claimed to provide for man, as highest being, the modes of thought and action integral to a good life and proper society. Humanism, in this sense, was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries what reaches, reveals, and cultivates the proper humanity of man; it turned an improvement of human relations into the core of ethics, and man himself into the bearer and guarantor of his own dignity, equality, and freedom.

But certain strands of atheism seem to have accepted a much more limited stance after World War I, one that rejected this anthropotheism. The idea that the replacement of God by man suffices as a project, a mode of life, or an ethic begins to be rejected in French thought and literature from about 1930 on. A number of prominent philosophers and literary figures, including—to give just a few names—Jean Wahl, Alexandre Kojève, Georges Bataille, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Blanchot, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Albert Camus, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, identified atheism, the “Death of God,” and the philosophical enterprise itself, not with secularism, but with the collapse of a unified and virtuous figure of man, and with man’s sense of entrapment in a hostile world of invidious ideologies and violence. This is a major, and largely sudden, shift, and within philosophy it clearly appears as a new generation’s response to the failure of older philosophers to “understand” World War I, as well as an epistemological-cum-existential response to new scientific movements.

The second parallel history that I trace specifically concerns this collapse of a unified figure of man and the new argument that man should not be seen as a basis for philosophy and a premise of ethics. It is a claim that there is no such thing as human “nature,” or that “human nature” is unknowable, unavailable, and, in any case, hardly benevolent or ethical. Because it seeks to talk about man in the negative, and in order to keep its proximity to negative theology in mind, I call this a “negative anthropology.” Negative anthropology rejects the idea that man is his own highest being or foundation. Enlightenment definitions of man as a being sovereign over the earth, in control of his destiny, and the force behind his own assured progress had worked in just this foundational direction. Kant saw man as his own highest being and highest end, and in his Logic of 1800 even placed the question “What is Man?” at the base of his entire critical project. Diderot’s short definition of man in the Encyclopédie reads as follows:

Man—masculine singular—is a sensing, reflecting, thinking being, which freely traverses the surface of the earth, which appears at the head of all other animals over which it reigns, which lives in society, which has invented the sciences and the arts, which has its own goodness and viciousness, which gives itself masters, which makes its own laws, etc.

What changes with the advent of negative anthropology is that this kind of definition becomes irrelevant. Man is no longer to be talked about as the basis of a philosopher’s thought, or in the masculine singular of a powerful, self-possessed I. He can no longer claim to be capable of scientifically understanding the entire world. To the extent that he may still be a sensing, reflecting, thinking being, these are not properties that are in interplay with the fact of his humanity—indeed, what is in question is this very humanity. At stake, then, is the conceptual dependence of human nature on structures of Being, language, thought, and culture.

More specifically, 1930s French thought undermined the idea that man, especially the scientist, is a privileged observer of the world around him. Thinkers such as Alexandre Koyré, Alexandre Kojève, Georges Bataille, and Jean-Paul Sartre, imported and adopted Husserlian and especially Heideggerian phenomenology, as well as new developments in scientific thought (notably quantum physics), in order to articulate a radical skepticism toward the positivistic belief in man’s ability to understand and fully know his “world.” Denying the purity or even possibility of transcendence became a way of seeing man as not only embedded but trapped in the world, Thus, the epistemological problem concerning scientific observation and truth is continuous with the existentialist anxiety about the weakness of man in the face of the world.

In the late 1940s, many of the same thinkers, together with some younger ones, furthered this position, dismissing the idea that one can simply speak of humanity on its own premises at all. For philosophers like Merleau-Ponty, even the Marxism whose success they worked for could not a priori define or guarantee humanity:

Even those of us today who are taking up the word “humanism” again no longer maintain the same shameless humanism our elders. What is perhaps proper to our time is to disassociate humanism from the idea of a humanity fully guaranteed by natural law and not only reconcile consciousness of human values and consciousness of the infrastructures which keep them in existence, but insist upon their inseparability.

Thus, even humanists were antihumanists first: at this point, history, language, the unconscious, being, and society came to definitively take priority over notions of human nature. Inhabiting such systems or structures, man does not grant meaning to reality, language, history, being, and society; he finds his own role and status produced and located by the way that they con­struct his interaction with the world and with other beings. These systems are not consequences of Man’s creative activity, desire, or will; they are not figures of his difference from an animal; they become the structures on the basis of which the human can be addressed, understood, discovered, and debated. This idea is most often associated with Heidegger’s “Letter on ‘Humanism,’” but it was also adopted in France by influential and well-positioned thinkers like Jean Hyppolite, who, working off of Hegel’s Logic, claims that “When man is reduced to him­self, he is lost… Man is an intersection,” and should be understood as suspended from History, Being, Language—not as their foundation. Merleau-Ponty similarly rejected earlier definitions in which “human nature had truth and justice for attributes, as other species have fins or wings”; so did contemporaries from Lacan through Canguilhem (who would later write that “the concept of man covers with a false appearance of specific identity individual organisms whose existence is thus deprived of different powers of resistance to aggression”). As is well known, in the 1960s, thinkers from Foucault to Derrida would radicalize this position; but so did others who continued to advocate for humanisms, though without grounding them in human nature, natural right, or law.

This, I would argue, constitutes the matrix of the epistèmè that came to be called “antihumanist”: an atheism that rejected many of the grounds of secular humanist conviction, and with them, the definitions of human nature that had supported and had claimed to guarantee humanism’s trust and thrust.

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2 Responses to “Secularism, atheism, antihumanism”

  1. avatar Simon During says:

    I very much enjoyed this post, and learnt from it. I’m looking forward to reading the book. Just one historical question: doesn’t politics, and in particular anti-social-democratic politics (whether from the left or the right) play a more important role in this history than we catch sight of in this summary? My own admittedly limited sense of this French “new atheism” leads me to think of a figure like Charles Maurras who is, of course, politically driven. He, like Henry Adams in his old age was a Catholic (i.e. not a humanist) unbeliever, inaugurating a new kind of radical conservatism, and makes an important impact on the younger antihumanist atheists in the twenties and thirties. One thinks in particular of Blanchot and Maulnier, both of whom are involved in ultra-rightist politics in the Maurrassian slipstream, but also of Bataille who begins very pious (and, in England, T.E. Hulme).

  2. avatar Lois Lee says:

    Thank you Stefanos Geroulanos / The Immanent Frame for this piece—it is, in itself, fascinating and important, but also an excellent advertisement for the book.

    My work has focused on everyday expressions of theist and non-theist philosophies and, although my empirical research has taken an inductive approach, humanism and antihumanism have both emerged as ‘epistemological cultures’ which shape the thought and lives of, in this case, contemporary Britons. Your work puts these ‘lived nonreligions’ into intellectual historical context—and both the philosophical and sociological accounts illustrate well an important point: that scholarship has often failed to recognise even the potential variety of secular / nonreligious epistemological cultures that shape human life.

    I often find it striking that ‘atheism’ is taken up, in both popular and academic discourses, as a named, substantive position equivalent to ‘Christian’ or other religious culture, yet often given as the SOLE nonreligious culture – compared to a diversity of religious denominations and non-denominational positions. The atheoretical coupling of ‘religion’ and ‘atheism’ is also fairly frequent and reveals some of the religious and nonreligious conceptual assumptions that the speaker or author is making (e.g. nonreligion is purely cognitive, whilst religion is social and cultural). All in all, a ‘cultural turn’ in how philosophers and social scientists conceive of and investigate ‘secular’ and nonreligious positions is to be called for and welcomed.

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