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Our Christmas Day Post: Age of Anthropocene: Where Is Humanism Going?

At the heart of the notion of humanism is that something that we all share and which sanctions our aspirations towards equality, despite our differences. The Enlightenment philosophers looked for it in the crucible of a singular rationality; today we need to search at the crossroads of different visions of morality.
Humanism is, amongst other things, the claim or intuition that all humans have something fundamental in common, and that this mandates equal entitlement to dignity and respect. This, however, does not serve to distinguish humanism from other doctrines and understandings, including religious ones, which treat all humans as sharing a commonality (an immortal soul, etc) which commands respect.
What historically distinguished humanism from the many other affirmations of human dignity and worth was the specific form that this affirmation took; in particular, two supporting or buttressing arguments which, in affirming human equality and dignity, give this affirmation its distinctively ‘humanist’ cast. These are, first, that human worth is affirmed independently of god(s), and more generally, that ‘man’ replaces god as the measure of all things. Second, that what all humans have in common at once consists of, resides in, and can only be discovered through, a singular rationality.
Thus understood, humanism is not simply a Renaissance phenomenon, but something that comes to full flower in the Enlightenment, in the form of the idea of a universal humanity and a singular Reason.
In this essay, I ask whether the affirmation of human commonality and worth is best secured by an anthropological understanding of the world, and by the search for a singular rationality. In short, is the aspiration to affirm human commonality and dignity best served by humanism?
Man at the centre of the universe
Edward Said1 declares that the ‘core’ of humanism is the secular notion that the historical world is made by men and women, and not by God, and that it can be understood rationally. At the core of humanism, then, is a philosophical anthropology, which in according centrality to man diminishes (though it does not necessarily eliminate) the role accorded to god(s). Once the purposes and the acts of gods explained the world of men; with humanism, to understand the gods of men you have to understand the men, for their gods are the fantastical creation of their minds.
If the centrality accorded to Man as maker of meanings and purposes involves a diminution of the role once accorded to god(s), it also involves a separation, a distinction, between a human world and a non-human one. There are two worlds, one of impersonal processes and laws, the other of human intentions and meanings.
Nature is not a realm of purposes and meanings, and so to gain knowledge of nature is to gain understanding of the impersonal and often lawlike forces that shape it; knowledge of the historical or cultural world is knowledge of purposes and meanings, for the historical world is where the meanings and purposes of men are apparent in the traces they leave behind. Knowledge of nature, the preserve of the natural sciences, can lead to mastery of natural forces; knowledge of the historical world, the preserve of the human and humanist sciences, leads to self-knowledge.
Humanism replaces a view of a single world shot through with meaning and purpose, in which the purposes and designs of nature are prefigured and reflected in the social world, with two worlds, one devoid of meaning and purpose, and the other constituted of the meanings and purposes humans have given their world in different times and places.
‘What has changed is, above all, an environmental crisis that calls into question the absolute privileging of humans, as well as the sharp distinction between man and nature, that are characteristic of traditional humanism.”
There have always been critics of these presumptions, including Hamann2, Kierkegaard3, Adorno4, Horkheimer5, and Heidegger6. In the non-Western world, just as there were many who accepted and celebrated the values that were part of western humanism, there were also always those, like Gandhi7, Césaire8 and Fanon9, who were critics of a ‘civilisation’ that in purporting to exalt Man frequently degraded men. Nonetheless, it is the account of the birth of this philosophical anthropology delivered by those who are the progeny of it that has been dominant, and this account celebrates its ancestry.
I suggest, however, that circumstances have changed such that a critical reconsideration of this defining aspect of humanism is required. What has changed is, above all, an environmental crisis that calls into question the absolute privileging of humans, as well as the sharp distinction between man and nature, that are characteristic of traditional humanism (see pp. 34-35). It is not only and obviously that our privileging of man may have something to do with the despoliation of the conditions that make human life sustainable, but also that the very distinction between the world that men make and the world that exists independently of them is in the process of collapsing. With global warming and the mass extinction of species, humans have become geological, and not (as before) simply biological agents.
The Enlightenment project
If anthropology (and a consequent division between nature and society) is one defining element of humanism, the conviction that what all humans have in common resides in, and can only be discovered through a singular rationality, is another. The project to establish this was at the heart of the Enlightenment.
In his “Was ist Aufklärung” Kant10 famously defined Enlightenment as mankind coming to maturity through the exercise of its reason. But if the pre-modern notion of a morally ordered and purposive universe had been (in Weber’s later phrase11) ‘disenchanted’; if tradition and custom no longer seemed the source of Reason, or indeed, even reasonable; and if Hume’s sceptical challenge12 raised the possibility of as many reasons as there are persons; then what Reason was this, and whose Reason?
The most enduring answer to this puzzle was offered by Kant. Its power lay, above all else, in the argument Kant called ‘transcendental’. Instead of ‘dogmatically’ asserting certain propositions to be true, or seeking to identify, on empirical grounds, a set of rational principles common to all men, Kant instead asked what sort of beings we had to be to have cognitions and perceptions in the first place. The transcendental question allowed Kant to deduce universal categories of Reason which were not derived from human experience, which is varied, but was the basis for our having any experience in the first place. Kant managed to make a powerful argument for a Reason that was universal, because notwithstanding the immense variety of human experience, moralities and notions of beauty, it was the precondition for humans having any sort of experience, morality or conception of beauty.
Modern knowledge, as elaborated and defended by Kant and by the Enlightenment more generally, could now stake a claim to having validated or proven itself, thus revealing all earlier knowledge to have been speculation or dogma. And of course this singular Reason, which does not vary from culture to culture, proved that all humans, irrespective of the differences among them, were to be treated as ends in themselves, and not means.
It is testimony to the vitality of the line of argument initiated by Kant that the most sophisticated contemporary attempts to salvage or retrieve the Enlightenment project, while acknowledging, as they must, that Reason is inseparably bound with interests, culture and power, all do so by returning to Kant. The criticism that can be levelled at such arguments, unsurprisingly, is similar to the criticism that was levelled at Kant by his contemporaries and immediate successors, namely that such proofs presuppose what needs to be proven.
Modern knowledge, as elaborated and defended by Kant and by the Enlightenment more generally, could now stake a claim to having validated or proven itself, thus revealing all earlier knowledge to have been speculation or dogma. And of course this singular Reason, which does not vary from culture to culture, proved that all humans, irrespective of the differences among them, were to be treated as ends in themselves, and not means.
The example of the political philosopher John Rawls13 is especially instructive. In his A Theory of Justice and some subsequent works Rawls sought to draw upon Kant to develop a theory of justice that would be grounded upon a few rationally defensible principles that would be acknowledged by almost all. In later works, he acknowledges that his theory of justice, and his defence of liberalism, already presuppose a certain kind of public political culture, one shaped by the Wars of Religion in Europe, by the separation of politics from religion thereafter, and so on. The aim of his later theory is thus to elaborate a pragmatic and procedural defence of a justice which is acknowledged to be Western and liberal, and cannot be passed off as ‘universal’. (Rawls 1995 and 1996).
That which Rawls reluctantly comes to ‘concede’ has been levelled as an accusation by others, who have charged that Reason always turns out to be not a placeless universal, but European. Here are their arguments: What we have learned to call Reason is not rationality as such, but a historically and culturally specific way of constructing and construing the world. Moreover, treating this tradition as universal has been an essential part of the story of, and justification for, colonialism. Armed with the certainty that it possessed nothing less than universal Reason, Europe could proceed with its colonial conquests, no longer principally in the name of bringing the true word of god to the heathen, but rather in the name of bringing Enlightenment and civilization to the benighted. What were being encountered were not other traditions of reasoning and other ways of being in the world, but unreason. The institutions and practices that constituted colonialism, or came in its wake, were now seen to be educating the colonized, so that they too might one day reach their maturity and be able to participate in and exercise the Reason that was to be Europe’s gift to them.
Lest there be any confusion, let me be very clear that I am not suggesting that the intellectual and cultural tradition of modern
Europe was the only one to think that it was right and all others wrong, or the only
one that has sought to impose its
vision on others. Neither the modern age nor Europe has had a monopoly
on arrogance or dogmatism. What I
 am suggesting is that the
 Enlightenment heritage – the
European conviction in a context
and tradition-free Reason – made it possible for Europe to conquer and
rule not in the name of a tradition
that claimed to be superior to all
others, but in the name of something
that did not see itself as a tradition at all. This was a knowledge which claimed not only to be true, but declared itself to be deduced from nothing less than
Reason itself, rather than being grounded in the ideals and practices of real historical communities.
In the era after decolonization,
it should however be all too clear
that what humans have in
common, and what may allow us
to ‘ground’ their claims to dignity
and respect, neither resides in nor
can be discovered by a singular Reason. All attempts to do so have ended up, whether wittingly or unwittingly, by substituting ‘European’ or ‘Western’ for ‘human’. The idea of a singular Reason, although deeply rooted in Western culture and thought, cannot be sustained, and needs to be critically re-examined.
New avenues to explore
I began this essay by suggesting that humanism consists of an affirmation that all humans, notwithstanding their many differences, have something important in common, and thus that all humans should be equally accorded respect and dignity; and that this rests upon two supporting arguments/presumptions. One of these is a philosophical anthropology, which makes the ‘discovery’ that men are the source of meanings and values, not gods, and discovers also a domain of
nature that is devoid of meaning and purpose, an inert object that is subject to human knowledge and manipulation. The second is the presumption that the counterpart of a common humanity is a singular Reason.
I have gone on to argue that neither of these arguments or presumptions can be sustained; they were never true, and are more demonstrably untrue today than ever before. These were not ‘truths’ finally discovered, but rather have been a particular way of construing and constructing the world. As such, they have been the source of many human achievements; but they have also entailed great costs, costs which are especially apparent today, as the exaltation of man despoils that which is the very condition for any sort of human life; as the distinction between the human and the natural collapses; and as it becomes increasingly clear that what all humans have in common neither resides in, nor is to be discovered through, the search for a singular Reason that abstracts from the differences that characterise humankind.
The affirmation of human commonality and dignity is something that is no less urgent today than at any time before. Because such an affirmation can plausibly be seen as being, in some sense, at the core of humanism, we cannot reject humanism, but rather need to re-found and to reinterpret it. I suggest that a reinterpreted and viable humanism, will be one in which our moral intuitions regarding human commonality and dignity no longer rest upon a questionable anthropocentrism or on dubious claims to a universal Reason. I further suggest that such a reinterpretation will be the product of a dialogue between different civilizations and moral perspectives, rather than a declaration that one moral perspective (that of the modern West) is the correct one.
 1. Edward Saïd [1935-2003], Palestinian American literary theorist and founding figure in postcolonial studies. Author of Orientalism (1978) and Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2004.)
2. Johann Georg Hamann [1730-1788], German philosopher, friend and intellectual opponent of Immanuel Kant. He was convinced that faith and belief, rather than knowledge, determine human actions.

3. Søren Kierkegaard [1813-1855], Danish Christian philosopher, known as the Father of Existentialism.

4. Theodor Adorno [1903-1969], German philosopher and social critic, and member, with Horkheimer and others, of the Frankfurt School of social theory and philosophy.
5. Max Horkheimer [1895–1973], German philosopher and sociologist, best known for his “critical theory” that combined Marxist-oriented political philosophy with social and cultural analysis informed by empirical research. He co-authored with Theodor Adorno Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947).

6. Martin Heidegger [1889-1976], German philosopher, known for his phenomenological exploration of the question of being, and for his critique of philosophical humanism. Read: The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays , Harper Torchbooks,1977; “Letter on Humanism”, in Basic Writings, 1993.
7. Mahatma Gandhi [1869-1948], political and ideological leader, father of the Indian nation. His philosophy of nonviolent resistance inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world.

8. Aimé Césaire [1913-2008], French poet from Martinique, one of the founders of the Négritude movement. Read: Discourse on colonialism, Monthly Review Press, 2000.

9. Frantz Fanon [1925-1961] French psychiatrist from Martinique, active member of the Algerian struggle for independence. Well known as a thinker on the issue of decolonization. Read: The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press, 1963.
10. Immanuel Kant [1724-1804], German philosopher and a pivotal figure in modern philosophy. “Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” is the title of an essay published in the Berlinische Monatsschrift (Berlin Monthly), in 1784.
11. Max Weber [1864-1920], German sociologist and economist.

12. David Hume [1711-1776], one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment. Known especially for his philosophical empiricism and scepticism.

13.  John Rawls [1921-2002], political philosopher. His book A Theory of Justice (1971), is considered as one of the primary texts in contemporary political philosophy. Quoted works: “Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical” in Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1995; Political Liberalism, Columbia University Press, 1996.
Author: Sanjay Seth (India), held teaching or research positions in Sydney,
Melbourne (Australia) and Tokyo (Japan), before joining Goldsmiths,
University of London (United Kingdom) in 2007, where he is
Professor and Head of Politics and co-Director of the Centre for
Postcolonial Studies.
Reproduced from the UNESCO Courier
64th year

2011 – No. 4 
The UNESCO Courier is published quarterly in seven languages by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
7, place de Fontenoy 75352, Paris 07 SP, France

Image: Eric A. Ambata for Lopez Museum and Library