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Quora Answer : Are you anti-humanist? Why or why not?

Oct 28, 2014

When it was created, "humanism" was an emancipatory and progressive project. It opposed humans to God and put human freedom and responsibility centre stage.

Instead of telling us to live according to 1600 year old superstitions under the absolute rule of hereditary kings, it invited us to go out and find what humans could discover by observing nature; what we could create by letting art tell our own stories, not God's; how well we could live by giving all members of society the rights to citizenship, property and suffrage.

However, by the 20th century, humanism had locked into a new sort of orthodoxy, one which seemed as constraining as before.

When people asked why they couldn't live and love as they liked, they were told that human nature prohibited it. When they asked why there was poverty amid productivity and plenty they were told that the iron laws of enlightenment economics could not be broken. When they asked why nature was being destroyed - on an industrial scale - they were told that human demands must be prioritized.

Everywhere, the "human" was the measure of all value and the justification for both good and bad.

In the name of human rationality, Ford and Taylor turned factory workers into tightly controlled cogs on the production line. In the name of human rationality Le Corbusier and his followers built ugly, identical, soul-less apartment blocks and urban planners smashed thriving communities to build roads. In a century allegedly dominated by human rationality and scientific progress, humanity fought it's largest, most vicious wars, built weapons of extraordinary mass destruction and threw up totalitarian systems that killed millions.

In the 20th century, the claims of humanism : that human reason was the highest wisdom, that morality could be built on human rights or human utility calculations, looked pretty flaky.

Thinkers began to ask "what' so great about the 'human'?. Shouldn't we look again at the value of animals or the ecosystem? Or the wisdom of those who rejected "progress" (both economic and scientific)?"

The humanist philosophy was based on the sharp distinction between the "subject" (the rational thinking, enquiring agent, struggling to understand and operate in the world) and the "objects" (the distant, separated world of things and others that are merely to be interpreted, used and engaged with). Now people began to ask : what if emphasizing this distinction itself was leading us astray? Perhaps we'd be better off if we saw ourselves not as separate from it but as part of it. What if we felt the whole ecosystem should be our measure of worth, not crude human wants? And that understanding the whole was more important than analyzing it down into its constituent parts.

What if we didn't try to deduce our own limits from crude models (evolutionary / economic / psychological) of human essence. But instead tried to simply become. Whatever we could. What if we just pursued becoming animal or technology or god. Or just other than the thing that humanism dogmatically insists we are?

Anti-humanism is a rich mixture of different criticisms and experiments - some fairly conservative, some exotic - aimed at getting beyond the limits that a stereotypical "humanity" seems to place on us. You don't have to accept or subscribe to all of them to find value in some of the questions that have been raised and some of the thinking that has come from them.

Of course, there's also been a different kind of backlash against humanism, also due to many of the problems of the 20th century. This is simply a retreat BACK into those religious dogmas and certainties that humanism was meant to have put paid to. Fundamentalisms have been on the rise across the world.

These are also a kind of "anti-humanism" but they arean't typically associated with the anti-humanist (or post / trans etc.) schools of thought, as they tend to emphasize old certainties rather than new possibilities.
But sometimes anti-humanists will refer to them, not entirely negatively, if they seem to be making a good point. Most of the time though, the two groups are distinct.

Related :

Phil Jones (He / Him)'s answer to Could someone explain the essence of postmodernism?

Phil Jones (He / Him)'s answer to Who are some active Nietzschean philosophers working today?

Phil Jones (He / Him)'s answer to Is post-truth politics an inevitable and unsurprising consequence of post-modernism?

Phil Jones (He / Him)'s answer to Why are so many French academics behind the postmodernist/ Neo-Marxism movement?

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