Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Social Constructivism as Anti-Humanism

Alain Renaut and Luc Ferry in 1985 wrote French Philosophy of the Sixties. It seems to have been extremely influential in France if not in Europe as a whole. It criticizes Marxism and Fascism not from the standpoint of Capitalism, but from the standpoint of Humanism. If we imagine the “Renaissance Man” of the Enlightenment, a man who could will and do all things, then we can see how far he has fallen. Totalitarianism in any form, but in the 20th century, Marxism-Leninism and Fascism, knocked the legs right out from under our Renaissance man. He cannot do or will all things any more. He must conform. And as we saw in the previous note, that represents no problem because man is utterly malleable. Marxist-Leninist leaders can make of man anything they like. Social Constructionism is the governing principle for the future, not Individualism.
On page 17 of a subsequent book by Alain Renaut, The Era of the Individual, A Contribution to a History of Subjectivity, he provides definitions of two terms that are critical to the critique of Marxism-Leninism, “Humanism” and “Individualism”:
“Humanism is basically the valorization of humanity in its capacity for autonomy. What I mean by this – without, of course, claiming any originality in the matter – is that what constitutes modernity is the fact that man thinks of himself as the source of his acts and representations, as their foundation (read: subject) or author. (This is why, by the way, the antihumanistic passion common to various genealogical practices of the 1960s so often involved criticizing the idea of the author.) The humanistic man is one who does not receive his norms and laws either from the nature of things (as per Aristotle) or from God, but who establishes them himself, on the basis of his own reason and will. Thus modern natural right is a subjective right, posited and defined by human reason (as per juridical rationalism) or by the human will (as per juridical voluntarism). Thus modern societies conceive of themselves politically as self-established political systems based on a contractualist scheme, in contrast to societies where authority is established through tradition by means of the deeply antimodern notion of ‘privilege.’
Individualism, on the other hand, carries a different emphasis. Tocqueville accurately predicted that at the level of sociopolitical phenomena it constituted a dangerous, but not irresistible, tendency in modernity. The best definition no doubt follows from Benjamin Constant’s deceptively simple formula of the ‘freedom of the moderns.’ Constant placed less stress on the valorization of autonomy than on independence: among the ancients, he explained in a famous speech delivered at the Athenee royal in Paris in 1819, freedom was defined in terms of participation in public affairs and the direct exercise of sovereignty, by this ‘collective freedom’ was held to be ‘compatible with . . . the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community,’ to the point that ‘[n]o importance was given to the individual independence, neither in relation to opinions, nor to labor, nor, above all, to religion’’; in contrast, among the moderns, for whom the sovereignty of the individual was profoundly restricted, being publicly exercised only ‘at fixed and rare intervals,’ the individual nonetheless thinks of himself as free because he is ‘independent in his private independence,’ Constant added; and in an age where, ‘[l]ost in the multitude, the individual can almost never perceive the influence he exercises, . . . we must be far more attached than the ancients to our individual independence.’
Renaut and Ferry preferred the term “Humanism” or “the subject” to “the individual” or “Individualism,” which I found awkward as an American brought up to value “individualism,” but in these regards, especially in Humanism as Renaut defines it, we are coming athwart the Marxist-Leninist approach Brent is learning about as he pours over the Communist archives, and we are also coming athwart the more subtle, or at least less straightforward influence of the other Totalitarian influence (setting aside Islamism which didn’t arise as a totalitarian threat until long after the Ferry and Renaut books I’ve read), Heideggerianism-Nietzscheanism-Freudianism. The latter term requires fleshing out. Ferry and Renaut would say, for example, that Heidegger’s fascination with Fascism was not accidental. He was philosophically in tune with Fascism. And Nietzsche was a precursor, in this sense, who believed that the “Great Leader” was necessary to lead his sheep-like followers, and Freud described man as an utter response to environmental influences.
We can see that all the above influences are opposed to “Humanism.” There is no “natural right” posited in the individual man’s “human reason.” Other elements are at work, and we must turn to Heidegger, Nietzsche, Freud, and such followers as Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu and Lacan to find out what they are.
Our vaunted knowledge has been attacked by these anti-Humanists. In our old Humanistic days we thought we knew quite a lot and would surely know more – who knows, perhaps everything. But Heidegger followed by Derrida taught that we really can’t know anything, and what we think we know is merely a misunderstanding. Derrida deconstructed almost everything.
Alexander Nehamas in his introduction to The Era of the Individual, a Contribution to a History of Subjectivity wrote, “To attack humanism is to deny that a subject conceived in such terms exists, to deny that human beings are fully self-aware and autonomous. According to Ferry and Renaut, Heidegger and his followers dispute, in just this way, the sovereignty of human beings. Permeated or even fully constructed by lines of impersonal power, domination, and normalization (Foucault), by codes whose ability to communicate fully is undermined by their own structure (Derrida), by unconscious forces and desires (Lacan), or by economic and social factors (Bourdieu, Althusser), the human subject is held to be anything but transparent to itself. And what the subject does not know, it cannot control Autonomy disappears, since apparently free decisions turn out to be effects of those unknown and independent lines of force.”
Just as we observed that Stalin was “winging it” in regard to economic experimentation, he was winging it as well in regard to Social Constructivism. He believed he could make of humans whatever he liked and set about doing it. We see the result. He was just as much a failure in regard to Social Constuctivism as he was in regard to his Economic Experimentation. And yet Putin, many modern-day Russians, and many American and European Leftists continue to believe Stalin was a great man.
I am very tempted to feel critical of those who accept Stalin’s beliefs without trying to understand and wrestle with their philosophical underpinnings. In addition, I am tempted to feel critical of those who don’t strive to understand the philosophical influences in our modern age. It is so much easier, I know, to accept the teachings of a “Great Leader.” If Stalin said it, it must be true. If Hitler said it, it must be true. If Chomsky said it, it must be true. If Rush Limbaugh said it, it must be true. If you aren’t thinking through or wrestling with the philosophical underpinnings of these people, and of course you aren’t because if you were you wouldn’t bother with their ideas, but if you aren’t then it depends entirely on luck as to whether anything these “great leaders” says is true and accurate. If you have selected one of these “Great Leaders,” or a great leader like them to believe, then you will be congratulating yourself on your own cleverness. To which I say, good luck.


thedistanceiskillingme said...

Dear Lawrence,
Very interesting read I do say. Although your beliefs and opinions vary from mine, I do hold accordance with your belief for humans to empower themselves with personal beliefs and personal moralistic values.
Contrasting though is that I believe that the average human does not have enough knowledge or understanding of the inner workings of our political/social systems to make much opinion, other than idle gossip or uninformed slander.
I think there is a balance, a middle road, using great minds or as you dub them "great leaders" as a base of research to further your intelligence on the matter so you can in-turn make educated judgment on the system of which we belong.
You have obviously looked into these, hence you have something worthwhile to talk about.
Good read. Thanks

Lawrence Helm said...


I have responded to your note at