The End of Humanism


EXCERPT: [...] Humanism has been savaged by theists and atheists, conservatives and progressives, fascists and socialists, scientists and philosophers, though it has also been propounded by the same diversity of thinkers. Who has not felt superior to humanism? It is the cheapest target of all: Humanism is sentimental, flabby, bourgeois, hypocritical, complacent, middlebrow, liberal, sanctimonious, constricting and often an alibi for power. The abusers of humanism, of course, are guilty of none of those sins. From Heidegger to Althusser, they come as emancipators. I think we should emancipate ourselves from their emancipations.

But what is humanism? For a start, humanism is not the antithesis of religion, as Pope Francis is exquisitely demonstrating. The most common understanding of humanism is that it denotes a pedagogy and a worldview. The pedagogy consists in the traditional Western curriculum of literary and philosophical classics, beginning in Greek and Roman antiquity and — after an unfortunate banishment of medieval culture from any pertinence to our own — erupting in the rediscovery of that antiquity in Europe in the early modern centuries, and in the ideals of personal cultivation by means of textual study and aesthetic experience that it bequeathed, or that were developed under its inspiration, in the “enlightened” 18th and 19th centuries, and eventually culminated in programs of education in the humanities in modern universities.

The worldview takes many forms: a philosophical claim about the centrality of humankind to the universe, and about the irreducibility of the human difference to any aspect of our animality; a methodological claim about the most illuminating way to explain history and human affairs, and about the essential inability of the natural sciences to offer a satisfactory explanation; a moral claim about the priority, and the universal nature, of certain values, not least tolerance and compassion. It is all a little inchoate — ­human, humane, humanities, humanism, humanitarianism; but there is nothing shameful or demeaning about any of it.

And posthumanism? It elects to understand the world in terms of impersonal forces and structures, and to deny the importance, and even the legitimacy, of human agency. It certainly does not mean, as Greif correctly notes about antihumanism, a “hatred of the human.” There have been humane posthumanists and there have been inhumane humanists. But the inhumanity of humanists may be refuted on the basis of their own worldview, whereas the condemnation of cruelty toward “man the machine,” to borrow the old but enduring notion of an 18th-century French materialist, requires the importation of another framework of judgment.

The same is true about universalism, which every critic of humanism has arraigned for its failure to live up to the promise of a perfect inclusiveness. It is a melancholy fact of history that there has never been a universalism that did not exclude. Yet the same is plainly the case about every particularism, which is nothing but a doctrine of exclusion; and the correction of particularism, the extension of its concept and its care, cannot be accomplished in its own name. It requires an idea from outside, an idea external to itself, a universalistic idea, a humanistic idea. Asking universalism to keep faith with its own principles is a perennial activity of moral life. Asking particularism to keep faith with its own principles is asking for trouble.

[...] Meanwhile the discussion of culture is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of business. There are “metrics” for phenomena that cannot be metrically measured. Numerical values are assigned to things that cannot be captured by numbers. Economic concepts go rampaging through noneconomic realms: Economists are our experts on happiness! Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be. Quantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary American understanding of, well, everything. It is enabled by the idolatry of data, which has itself been enabled by the almost unimaginable data-generating capabilities of the new technology. The distinction between knowledge and information is a thing of the past, and there is no greater disgrace than to be a thing of the past.

[...] And even as technologism, which is not the same as technology, asserts itself over more and more precincts of human life, so too does scientism, which is not the same as science. The notion that the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of the material dimensions, and that nonscientific understandings must be translated into scientific understandings if they are to qualify as knowledge, is increasingly popular inside and outside the university, where the humanities are disparaged as soft and impractical and insufficiently new. The contrary insistence that the glories of art and thought are not evolutionary adaptations, or that the mind is not the brain, or that love is not just biology’s bait for sex, now amounts to a kind of heresy.

So, too, does the view that the strongest defense of the humanities lies not in the appeal to their utility — that literature majors may find good jobs, that theaters may economically revitalize neighborhoods — but rather in the appeal to their defiantly nonutilitarian character, so that individuals can know more than how things work, and develop their powers of discernment and judgment, their competence in matters of truth and goodness and beauty, to equip themselves adequately for the choices and the crucibles of private and public life.

This gloomy inventory of certain tendencies in contemporary American culture — it is not the whole story, but it is an alarmingly large part of the story — is offered for the purpose of proposing an accurate name for our moment. We are not becoming transhumanists, obviously. We are too singular for the Singularity. But are we becoming posthumanists?...

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