Recently, the University of Wisconsin-Madison gave the student organization, Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA) $69,000, the largest amount of grant money ever given to a non-theistic, student-led organization by a college or university.
Posts Tagged ‘humanism’
In expounding his misgiving about the humanism I proposed, Uday Mehta seeks—I think with some strain—to find an incompatibility between my ideal of fraternity and what I say in another essay of mine on Mahatma Gandhi in which I point out that, for Gandhi, one overcame relativism by presenting the moral truth (as one sees it, though, to repeat, that goes without saying) to others through exemplary living up to it in one’s actions and not by subsuming it under a universalized principle and generating an imperative. I don’t see any such incompatibility and I think that he only finds it because of the misreading of what I mean by fraternity that I have been trying to expose in this reply.
In his interesting and engaging essay, Uday Mehta addresses, with some genuine feeling of qualm, a large, concluding theme in my paper: the specific and non-standard form of humanism that I had proposed and the notion of fraternity on which it is based. But he gets wrong what I mean by both terms, “humanism” and “fraternity,” so I am glad to have this chance to repeat and amplify some points that I feel are important to make clear.
Akeel Bilgrami’s essay is important and ambitious. Its importance lies in part in making clear what secularism is and should be—its philosophical foundation one might say; its ambition, in its ability to link these foundations with a wide range of issues that include the implications of giving priority to political ideals; a subtle understanding of the grounds of Islamic fundamentalism; the way in which context might deflate the all too often overextended reach and significance of secularism; the role of reason in history and its link with the moral and epistemological psychology by which even deep convictions are subject to change; the challenge of a relativistic conception of truth; and an understanding of humanism that permits a firm commitment to one’s own view of the truth, while nevertheless embracing a fraternal attitude towards those who deeply disagree with it.
“I would go with Pierre Hadot and say that the love of wisdom is a way of life; that is to say, it’s a set of practices that have to do with mustering the courage to think critically about ourselves, society, and the world; mustering the courage to empathize; the courage, I would say, to love; the courage to have compassion with others, especially the widow and the orphan, the fatherless and the motherless, poor and working peoples, gays and lesbians, and so forth—and the courage to hope. So, it is a way of life, a set of practices, no doubt, but, at the same time, I call it a kind of focus on the funk.”
Geroulanos’s central thesis is compelling but simple: French antihumanism, in its theoretical mode, was based on a radicalized “negative anthropology,” i.e., the idea that man is a negating animal, as articulated in a widespread rejection of neo-Kantianism, first by Heidegger and then passed on to French thinkers like Bataille and Blanchot, largely via Alexandre Kojève and his “end of history” argument. Instead of the homo absconditus that Ernst Bloch was to locate in Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann’s “Protestant anthropology,” we have here a “last man,” heir to those “negations” of the world named freedom, history, and individuality, whose historical realization reveals that humanness is ultimately based upon a relation to death. And to the degree that this antihumanism continues to order thinkers like de Man, Derrida, and Foucault, it has also shaped many Anglophone intellectuals of my generation. Geroulanos tells a story that thus illuminates us too.
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? 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.
Famously posing a peculiar problem of translation, names are a necessary feature of our academic craft. We like to call things, but we may also need to, obviously, in order to give figure to that which we think and study. Remarkably true to that necessity, Stefanos Geroulanos tells us in the first pages of his impressive book that the “conceptual reorganization” he will describe and analyze became “an almost official face of French thought.” It was only later (with structuralism and everything, everyone, associated with and past it) that it “acquired the name ‘antihumanism’.” Geroulanos further proposes to expand the reach of the name “antihumanism” by meticulously documenting lesser known antecedents, earlier phases of what the term might otherwise designate, seeking thereby to bring together a fuller, and detailed, account of numerous and diverse actors, elements and factors, and trends too, which in fact jointly define the greater part of the last century.
“Man dies again.” Or so might one entitle a tabloid version of Stefanos Geroulanos’s excellent work on the history of antihumanist thought in twentieth-century France. The phrase, of course, echoes a New York Post headline—“Pope dies again”—that supposedly appeared when Pope John Paul I died in 1978, a mere 33 days after Pope Paul IV’s passing. Like that likely apocryphal tabloid title, the simplistic formula is an apparently contradictory, but perhaps telling, misreading. First, it drastically reduces the density, richness, and rigor of Geroulanos’s argument, which retraces multiple—at once overlapping and competing—formulations of atheistic critiques of humanism in the politically and intellectually turbulent decades following World War One. And second, it draws an associative link between the Post’s unintentional précis of papal political theology and those strains of French thinking which most insistently worked against the divinization of “Man.” Both the condensation and the displacement at work in the phrase seem to distort the book’s aims and claims beyond recognition.
Barbara Herrnstein Smith is a distinguished literary scholar at both Brown and Duke, who, since her undergraduate days, has had a special interest in the uses and misuses of scientific psychology. Her latest book, which stems from her 2006 Terry Lectures at Yale University, is Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion (Yale, 2010). It explores the ways in which contemporary cognitive science and evolutionary psychology are being called upon to, once and for all, explain religion. Also, don’t miss her contributions to The Immanent Frame’s discussion “A cognitive revolution?”