An Atheism that Is Not Humanist:

Atheism and antihumanism as intellectual-historical objects

posted by Stefanos Geroulanos

I begin this post by posing straightaway the questions that will guide my argument. In what way can atheism and antihumanism be posed and understood in intellectual history? In what sense do they constitute objects of study? How does one go about weaving and articulating for them an adequate intellectual-historical approach that may facilitate an understanding of texts, concepts, and systems of thought?

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I want to thank Martin Kavka, Sam Moyn, Judith Surkis, and Gil Anidjar for taking the time to read and address my book with the very encouraging care that each of them has taken. In what follows, I want to take into account a number of issues that they have raised, not so much to respond as to elaborate, in relation to their stances, some of the positions I have adopted in the book and in my introduction to this discussion. I thus frame this post as an attempt to tend first and foremost to methodological questions and critiques that have been raised directly or indirectly.

Part of the reasoning involved in the argument that follows emerges from the posts offered so far, and the way that they have handled both the usefulness, however limited, and the fragility of the tripartite definition that I have sought to offer for “antihumanism.” For purposes of clarity, let me quickly recall that definition: “antihumanism” is best thought of as a rather fluid weave of three parallel and intertwined discourses, namely, the critiques of humanism, which predate and postdate the period I discuss (1925-1955, for the most part); the emergence of a philosophical anthropology that sees man as a question and refuses a number of classic and positive answers to it; and a shift in the understanding of atheism, whereby the latter would be detached from secular humanism.

To continue working from this perspective, I would prefer to now weave together a number of the different issues that have been raised. Anidjar begins his text with a commentary on naming things, and the dangers we run in doing so; while I doubt that defining and redefining terms that are in wide use qualifies as a form of nominalistic engagement, the question that Anidjar subsequently raises is worth taking into account. He asks: “Judging the book by its cover, that name clearly is atheism. But why?  Why atheism, before and after all? […] Why not follow the approvingly described completion, radicalization, and codification of antihumanism by proposing a similar indifference, not only to man and to antihumanism, but also to God and to religion?” I do not think I am putting atheism forward as a name for antihumanism, but I certainly see it as a crucial element of antihumanism’s history. So I would rephrase the question as follows: what is the value of atheism as a philosophical concept and system of ideas, particularly in the historical frame I work in? Anidjar seems to me to decline this question already in his opening declaration of atheism as “poor,” and more insistently in his final paragraph. So (concesso non dato) I need to address the sufficiency of atheism as a rubric and, more importantly, as an object of study. Moyn indirectly asks a similar question of the limits of antihumanism: “in the end, the same charge that brought humanism low applies to antihumanism itself. It is either diversionary, or unnecessary.” Moyn furthers this point by suggesting that the “antihumanists” I study often end up in quagmires not dissimilar to those of humanism. While I agree that this early generation of antihumanist thinkers does end up with the many of the same problems as those whom they doggedly critiqued, there are additional shifts that are worth attending to here.

Moyn asks about a linked issue, which deserves to be foregrounded separately. What does a negative anthropology “leave resplendently on the throne,” insofar as the “widespread ‘negative’ campaign […] against blasphemous humanisms […] is unsatisfactory if its outcome remains negative alone.” The question of this “negative” is one that matters to my argument where atheism and negative anthropology are concerned, and it seems to matter to other contributors as well: Anidjar applauds the neither/nor effect of mid-century antihumanism, while Kavka negotiates the critiques of humanism as denials of both a religious resolution and a secular one. As Surkis notes, moreover, the negative answers often came to reappear as positive, whether explicitly or despite themselves:

Precisely because these philosophies do not always have the same target at the same moment, Man’s imminent effacement is invoked repeatedly, rather than once and for all. What might be understood as a negative anthropology in one context—for example, Kojève’s 1930s account of man’s negation with the end of history—is radically revised and reinterpreted as a Marxist anthropology in the postwar era.

I am foregrounding, then, two major problems: the adequacy of antihumanism and atheism as objects, and the frame and limits of a historical shift internal to them. As Surkis notes, in a question that articulates my main interest and that I would rather keep as a question, and will only address in part: “how can one write the history of something so mercurial?”

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As intellectual-historical problems and objects go, both atheism and antihumanism are elusive, tricky. To declare them to be such objects, and not merely topics, requires at least:

(a)   a sense of internal consistency, a logic that is largely immanent to them, rather than merely passing (and hence reducible); and

(b)   a sense that something is “under way” in this relatively consistent conception—that some transformation is occurring that demonstrates both the course and limits of the object, as well as the self-sufficiency thanks to which it merits being named an object.

I would avoid generalizing about “atheism”; their differences apart, the writers I address do seem to understand atheism in a particular way, to grant it a broad conceptual structure and an immanent logic. This is what renders atheism an object for intellectual-historical study and allows us both to address the huge differences between these writers and the sense of a conceptual and cultural transformation of “atheism itself.” In other words: To call this “all together, now and again” is misleading, for, whatever atheism may mean, what is rather clear is that in the 1930s and 1940s, for these and other writers, it came to mean something rather precise and significantly different from what it had meant before. Rather than denote a secularism that simply declared religion dead, atheism engaged with religion, and Christian anthropology in particular, much more explicitly and much less negatively than secularist atheisms had, acknowledging a continuing and substantive debt, rather than a mere surpassing. And, furthermore, it thoroughly rejected the claim, which seems paramount to today’s cheerleaders of atheism, among whom somewhat surprisingly Anidjar places “my” thinkers and at times myself as well, that atheism offers a solution, a voie royale, a superior form of redemption or society. Quite to the contrary, non-humanist atheism entailed a kind of skepticism toward political projects and solutions, as well as toward epistemological and moral certainty based on a nineteenth- and early twentieth-century thought (Kantianism and positivism most significantly); I have named this last practice antifoundational realism.

These three points—that atheism was fundamentally theological, that it denied itself a secular redemptive project, and that it involved itself in a deep epistemological and frequently existential skepticism—are decisive for expressions of atheism during the period. These points appear in different guises in Kojève, Levinas, Bataille, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and others during the 1930s and late 1940s, despite their rival projects, arguments, and preferred solutions. Some of them (notably Kojève, Bataille, and Sartre) time and again pointed out that their projects mattered in a world after the “death of God.” Others, like Hyppolite and Levinas, understood classical humanism as specifically secular, i.e., as specifically tied to an immanence that refuses “vertical” transcendence. In other words, these three points are suggested by and help explain the dismantling of transcendence in the 1930s and the admission of a post-Christian anthropology deprived of Christian theology that Kojève argues for, and the obsession with the inescapable metaphysical grounding of western modernity (a diagnosis that both Koyré and the young Heidegger aided), and the neither/nor attitude toward religion and atheism, as in Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism” as well as Hyppolite’s late-1940s essays and his Logic and Existence. It is because atheism came to be identified with them, and through them with existentialism, and later with structuralism, that it deserves central billing in the story of humanism’s demise.

These same three points grounding atheism’s internal logic are, finally, very much at stake in the contemporary critiques of various humanisms, insofar as these involve rejections of vastly different projects with well-defined, if often utopian, goals. Anidjar suggests that the rejection of humanism should instead be seen to take priority, with Catholic critiques of humanism adding to the non-Catholic ones. I think this account is a bit teleological and follows the perspective established from the 1960s on, a perspective toward which I point, but which I avoid in my argument. Moreover, it seems to me that Catholic critiques led the way insofar as secular humanism itself was at stake, and that they are not quite equivalent to critiques not committed to religious resolutions and affirmations, which, as Moyn argues, end up in a far worse-defined space. (In this context, I very much appreciate Kavka’s effort to see antihumanism as a refusal of a strict religion/secularism/atheism divide.) The idea, which atheist thinkers proposed, that one should avoid both God and Man as solutions seems to be much more decidedly new than Catholic criticisms of humanism, which dated at least to de Maistre and came with Counter-Enlightenment baggage that non-Catholics as well as some Catholics wanted to steer clear of. In any case, Catholic critiques of humanism gave an opening for something that was taken up by others who refused the positive resolutions of community and personalism—and even, as Simon During notes in a comment to my first post, Maurrassianism. To those who refused these solutions belongs what I have tried to see as an atheism in the process of changing. The emergence and course of antihumanism is, to me, impossible to conceive outside of this broader shift.

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In addition to suggesting that philosophical atheism had a kind of internal logic to it (as did the other two main lines of my argument), I have also suggested that these changes are revealed by and thanks to the transformation that atheism underwent in this particular historical moment. In other words, definitive is not only the internal logic but specifically the internal logic in the process of its assertion and transformation. Though atheism obviously means and has meant other things as well, what marks its force in the 1930s and the postwar decade is precisely the loss of conviction, by many thinkers who attached themselves to it, in the secular projects it had been—and, to a degree, often continued to be—most closely attached to.

This is what seems to me to be one angle of Surkis’s point on history as critique: the immanent logic of a concept or a constellation of concepts is also a historical one; it is immanent because it is historical. If, in other words, the history of atheism is mercurial, if its value as an object of study is to be found in its opacity and elusiveness, then only thanks to the development of particular affiliations and arguments amidst this elusiveness did it come to provide the stakes for antihumanism’s conceptual history. Hence the overall weave of the three discourses, or angles, of my study that I have offered: by addressing what is at stake in the critiques of humanism, or in the theorizations of man, it becomes possible to ask whether something is also happening for those thinkers who proclaim the end of transcendence or the death of God. And vice versa. These are objects in relation to one another; their histories emerge in their parallel constitution as objects of study. Other angles would be possible: to emphasize the question of the “normal” man (from Halbwachs and Bataille on), or the postwar epistemological angle (in Lacan and Canguilhem most significantly, and then Foucault), or the devastating question that Surkis poses in her last sentence—the question of woman, a question I have avoided, both through respect for it and through argumentative failure. But, mutatis mutandis, it seems to me that those angles “receive” much more from the emergence of antihumanism than they “contribute” to it.

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That atheism, critiques of humanism, and negative anthropology may suffice as objects, particularly in their interlocking, does not mean that they moved in the same direction. In the book, I am perhaps too brief on this: the critiques of humanisms per se continue well into the 1970s, when they seem to be displaced, at least in part, by a new trust in human rights “after” Solzhenitsyn. Atheism, central to the developments I discuss, recedes from view (though not in substance) in the 1960s, and in some cases is affected by adjusted understandings of the divine (Levinas seems to me the major case for this) and perhaps by the “indifference” Anidjar speaks of. Whereas negative anthropology is decidedly taken up, institutionalized, and radicalized by thinkers usually placed under the rubric of “structuralism,” I would insist that from the mid-1960s onward, its assumption becomes a foundation for a number of “schools” of French philosophy and even beyond it. While the tripartite definition I have offered for antihumanism would have to be adjusted for the post-1963 period, its fundamental force, particularly its negative force, is largely in place and complete by then. If I insist on ending my account before the anti-subjectivism of the 1960s comes front and center, this is precisely because the shifts that did the most damage to an entire worldview had been established by the mid-1950s.

Thus, Moyn is right to emphasize that what sits on the throne at the endpoint of my story is unclear. If language, being, structures, the other, human rights, etc. could occupy or dismantle that throne, one reason for this may well be that the answers offered by the end of the 1950s are hardly definitive or sufficient, and perhaps the critical reactions building on their impulse in the 1950s and 1960s are directed precisely at this lack of a new figure.

This is to say that if no figure is definitively enthroned, this is also because antihumanism seems to become more of an exigency and less of a single philosophical movement. The “hatred of humanism” becomes a denial that does not deny all possibilities of humanism, nor all possible anthropologies. If, as Moyn argues, the same problems reemerge, this is because the ground shifts, and not because humanism is de-legitimized in toto. If “humanism” needed to be laid low, this also allowed new mini-humanisms to emerge—humanisms that would not suffer the critique of old European male, colonial, etc. anthropocentrism. In my account, what facilitates this is the emergence of negative anthropology. In keeping with Derrida’s “The Ends of Man,” I have argued that antihumanism remains “on the same shore,” that it allows for, and perhaps even engenders, new and much more minimal humanisms. When Levinas argued for an humanisme de l’autre homme, when human rights were declared essential, regardless of their possible insufficiencies (and I look forward to reading Moyn’s forthcoming The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, which will probably force me to add subtlety if not adjust this point)—are these not positions to which antihumanism contributed, precisely through its anti-anthropocentric drive, and its re-theorization of the conceptual place of “the human?” Could not much the same be argued of positions that saw this developing antihumanism as nowhere near sufficient? The throne that is usurped, but by no one in particular, and the refusal of affirmative solutions and anthropologies are, to my understanding, indices of the force of the suspicion and rejection of a humanist narrative routinely seen as dominant in the rise of the modern West.

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As I have suggested, this does not mean that this empty throne is not also the mark of a failure or limitation—and Moyn has a very real point when he writes that “there is no denying how hard it must have been to undermine humanism—which, of course, is alive and well, some days almost as if the developments Geroulanos […] chronicles had never occurred.” And even if I may disagree with Anidjar that what he calls the “poverty of atheism” deprives it of historical value or internal consistency, I understand his suggestion that atheism contributes to a disregard for others, with its implication that non-humanist atheism may go a step further in that direction. Anidjar seems to suggest further that non-humanist atheism is a sort of ruse of Western Christendom, which, having already absolved itself of explicitly religious imperialisms, can now abscond from their secular variants as well. I prefer to think of antihumanism as an expression of European thought’s self-consciousness of its own finitude. The skepticism involved in non-humanist atheism and negative anthropology was perhaps a matter of hatred, as Moyn writes, but perhaps more a matter of fear—no doubt mixed with contempt—that humanism was too ideologically successful and self-congratulatory to be able, after two world wars, to understand that it was also harmful in ways conceptual as well as everyday. Of course, one may and should negotiate and debate this. However insufficient it may be, ultimately, this skepticism and its signatures during this phase are too significant to be left to dissipate.

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In the beginning of this essay, I asked how one may go about weaving and articulating for atheism and antihumanism an adequate intellectual-historical approach that may facilitate our understanding of specific texts, concepts, and systems of thought. Obviously an essay as short as the present one cannot answer this question in full. Yet I do hope that in the process of explaining myself before the generous essays and critiques of Surkis, Anidjar, Kavka, and Moyn, I have offered a sense of how I approach these methodological, historical, and philosophical questions in the book, and in doing so I have perhaps given reason to either resolve or open to further debate a couple of their worries.

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2 Responses to “Atheism and antihumanism as intellectual-historical objects”

  1. avatar Rex Styzens says:

    I have been following online the stimulating discussion of Geroulanos’s new book. As I have not yet found the opportunity to study it, I am in no position to offer a commentary or critique. Yet I find Moyn’s question, asking what we are then left with, to be most evocative. I am acquainted with the work of Mark C. Taylor, in particular his latest After God, which to all intents and purposes seems to me to be pursuing that issue, while from a somewhat broader context than 20th Century French philosophy alone. Following an extended interpretation of Derrida, he gives a concise representation of his position at the conclusion of the chapter “Recovering the Real.” The following quoted material comes from that conclusion.

    At this point—in this point—God and the imagination become one in the bacchanalian revel of a world that is a work of art.

    The evanescent itself must…be regarded as the essential, not as something fixed, cut off from the True, and left lying who knows where outside it, any more than the True is to be regard as something on the other side, positive and dead. Appearance is the arising and passing away that does not itself arise and pass away, but is ‘in itself’ and constitutes the actuality of the movement of the life of truth. The True is thus the Bacchanalian revel in which no member is sober; and yet because each member collapses as soon as he drops out, the revel is just as much transparent and simple repose. (Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 27)

    What Stevens describes as the “permanence composed of impermanence” in which everything arises and passes away is the Infinite, and this Infinite is life itself. The Infinite comes by not coming after God. “We keep coming back and coming back / To the real” (Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems, 471, 472). Monism and dualism are both theologies of death: in the former, individual differences collapse in the entropic totality where Eros becomes Thanatos; in the latter oppositional differences negate themselves by destroying each other. To overcome this destructive nihilism, it is necessary to cultivate emergent creativity in complex adaptive networks that figure, disfigure, and refigure what once was believe to be the substance of things seen and unseen. Always after God, the endless restlessness of the Infinite is the eternal pulse of life.

    From the conceptualization Taylor offers of “complex adaptive networks” it seems to me that the place he opens for imagination, if not yet deserving of a “throne,” at least earns imagination a seat at the table, as that is in keeping with Derrida’s affirmation in conclusion in Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question, where he tells us that a “Yes” comes before every “No.”

    I thank you for your attention and look forward to a response.

  2. Very stimulating thesis and treatment.

    What I find most compelling is the implication that atheism might always have held the seed of antihumanism within itself—even though unrecognized in its naive forms until sufficient force of history had been applied.

    A cataclysmic failure of civilization like the period 1914-1945 worked as a solvent to expose the merely conditional or conventional bond which had until then allowed atheism to cling to humanism as part of its raison d’etre. If the French thinkers cited are correct, history after all shows that it has the circumstantial potential to destroy the illusion of this combination, so that atheism is exposed as something unique and quite apart from both theism and humanism.

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