In the most recent issue of The Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study (NDIAS) Quarterly, TIF contributor Slavica Jakelić, in an excerpt from her book manuscript The Practice of Religious and Secular Humanisms, argues that in order to understand the moral foundation and democratic potential of religious-secular alliances, it is important to move beyond the discourse of power.
Posts Tagged ‘humanism’
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.
“Some of our comrades conceive this humanism as though it were a young, fair-haired girl walking through a scented meadow, a damsel wreathed in flowers.” So reported Hélène Iswolsky, daughter of the last tsarist ambassador to Paris, citing a Soviet poet and “fanatical adherent of out-and-out communism” as to why the new Stalinist humanism was the real one, so long as it was defined correctly. “The picture is certainly attractive, and yet I must reject it,” the poet continued. “Something within me revolts against it. … We are always talking about ‘love, joy, and pride,’ which form the ingredients of humanism, but our younger writers are too apt to forget the fourth element of humanism, which is expressed in the austere but beautiful idea of hatred.”
One of the things that intellectual historians show us, although often only implicitly, is the fluidity of the terms of debates that we take to be self-evident. In An Atheism that Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought, Stefanos Geroulanos shows us this fluidity by focusing on the French history of objections to (and reformulations of) humanist discourse from 1929 to 1952, a history that suggests that the rigidity of the categories of “religion” and “humanism” in Anglophone discourse is exceptional and unnecessary.
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.
Without art, Victor Shklovsky writes in “Art as Technique,” “life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war….And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life.” In this spirit of freedom from anaesthetizing habit we can, and urgently should, take up the torn threads that tie humanism up with civic education. We humanists can join artists as cultural agents who promote creativity and interpretation as resources for social development. The objective is not a partisan victory but the formation of “thick” civic subjects who are alive to the world and exercise the free judgment that we learn, as Kant taught us, through developing a disinterested enjoyment of beauty. Democracy depends on sturdy and resourceful citizens able to engage more than one point of view and to wrest rights and resources from limited assets. In other words, non-authoritarian government counts on creativity to loosen conventional thought and free up the space where conflicts are negotiated, before they reach a brink of either despair or aggression.
Discussions of the secular can often be peculiarly remote. Whenever secularism is imagined as unbelief, or political neutrality, or an empty social space to be filled up with religious pluralism, it can be difficult to remember how it can also serve as a framework of corporeal experience and struggle. We are used to associating corporeal discipline and affect with religion, but not with the secular. So it might be excusable to begin with some personal reflection, not for the sake of autobiography but in order to tether analysis in some awareness of how the problem comes to have stakes. […]
As a story, A Secular Age rivals Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (which curiously it ignores) and does indeed belong to the largely neglected genre of speculative history. No doubt, it is a work of a lifetime’s worth of erudition – about this there can be no argument – but the easiest thing one can do is to praise it. The best and most profound of what it has to offer is precisely that the domains of thought and history it privileges be interrogated in order to stand as departure points for further thinking. This interrogation and evaluation cannot stay simply at the level of the story, but must extend to what authorizes the story, Charles Taylor’s (conscious or unconscious, explicit or implicit) politics. […]
I want to raise some questions about Taylor’s account of “our moral landscape” after the mainstreaming of the sexual revolution in the 1960s. Our moral landscape has indeed changed—that is undeniable—and yet, in Taylor’s hands, the cartography of that moral landscape appears all too familiar, and this is so because he does not take—indeed historically has not taken—the challenge of post-Nietzscheanism seriously.
My hunch is that immanence does not necessarily lead to the “exclusive humanism” of which Taylor is so critical. My hunch is also that by questioning this connection we may (1) see some of Taylor’s own blind spots and (2) create a new frame of experience irreducible to dichotomies of belief and unbelief, naïveté and reflexivity, interior and exterior. […]
One of the most important books of our time, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age explains how many Europeans and their cultural heirs have come to experience moral fullness and identify their highest moral capacities and inspirations purely within the range of human power and without reference to God. It presents an alternative to “subtraction stories” of modernity in which superstition and belief are understood to have withered away, leaving room for modern science and humanism to flourish uninhibited by metaphysical constraints. […]