Thursday, December 3, 2009

Heidegger and Humanism

Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut wrote Heidegger and Modernity in 1988; which was translated into English by Franklin Philip in 1990.  In their introduction they define “Humanism” using Sartre:
            “Contrary to the claims of contemporary antihumanism, Sartre’s definition of humanism, which he was unfortunately to recant, means the denial of a human essence, the refusal to shackle man with some historical or natural definition.  In a tradition going back to Rousseau, man appears as the lone being for whom neither history nor nature can supply codes: if man has a distinguishing feature, an authenticity (Eigentlichkeit), it can only lie in his ability (small difference whether we call it transcendence or freedom) to wrench himself free from every attribution of an essence.  In short, if the notion of humanism has a meaning, it is that the distinguishing feature of man is his not having one; the definition of man is to be indefinable; his essence is to have no essence.  Things and no doubt animals too are what they are; man alone is nothing: it is impossible for him, without foundering in ‘bad faith,’ to equate himself with any identity whatever, whether natural, familial, or social.  And although it follows that existentialism is a humanism, authentic humanism is also necessarily and existentialism, for man’s existence (eksistence = transcendence, the ability to wrench oneself free of codes) is always beyond any reduction to an essence.”
            Given this definition we can see how “unreasonable” it would be for anyone to summarize man’s “humanism” as being this or that.  F&R go on to refer to “the universal” which I won’t quote at length.  They say, “. . . Plainly, each person endlessly risks confusing himself with particular determinations; he may conceive of himself as belonging to a particular nation, a sex, an ethnic or other group, a role, a social function; thus he may be ‘a nationalist,’ ‘a sexist,’ ‘a racist,’ a ‘corporatist’ – but he may also (and this is the humanitas of man) transcend these definitions by entering into communication with other (universality).”
            “To assert that the distinguishing feature of man is his nothingness is to contend that he can wrench free of any particularism (and aim toward universality).  Saying that man aims at the universal means that he is a nothingness, that he never wholly confuses himself with any particular identity or being.  The problematic of communication with others, of intersubjectivity, thus proves inseparable from that of humanism as existentialism.”
            F&R then express their exasperation: “Why under these circumstances do the French Heideggerians need to maintain at any cost – at the cost of truly mind-boggling contortions of the intellect and manipulations of history of philosophy – the idea that humanism must be the bearer of all ills, even to the point of being responsible for Heidegger’s political deviation?  What imperative needs does Heidegger’s thinking meet so that, to safeguard its purity, we are asked to condemn if for what it is not (a humanism) rather than for what it is (a deconstruction of humanism)?"

COMMENT:  F&R then go on to discus Farias’ Heidegger and Nazism, but I’ll leave them here at present.  Surely the antihumanists would not claim that man has an essence. In fact they seem to be saying that the Humanists are making that claim, but we see from F&R’s definition that cannot be the case.  There is no essence, and if there seems to be one it will be discovered to be founded in tradition.  We do not break free from our essence to licentiously rush hither and yon after every comfort and pleasure we imagine.  We break free from our traditions.  Our traditions have a longer view than that.  They do not focus on immediate, short term pleasure, but on long term success.  They are what we have in place of instincts, and they are intended for the good of our “group,” and not to free us from constraints.
            Heidegger defined his “group” as the German Ethnicity.  He wanted Germans to hark back to that “tradition.”  No, man does not have an essence, but it is not good for him to use this lack to believe in nothing (nihilism).  He should instead believe in (and be loyal to) his tradition. 
            But how will an individual or an association of people know when they are functioning in keeping with their tradition?   One should obviously seek an “authentic” relationship with that tradition, but how shall we be guided?  How shall we know whether we are being authentic or inauthentic?  Well, in the case of the French, Derrida is up to that task of deconstructing the authentic from the inauthentic.  And if you are concerned about the Christian “tradition,” Bultmann will be happy to help you with that by demythologizing Christianity in such a way as to show you the true Christian tradition.  They are the ubermenschen that you should look to.

            I agree with Alan Bloom that we should not abandon our “Western” tradition.  Replacing “traditional” poets with modern politically-correct poets, because we have no essence and can, moves us away from our “Western Tradition” toward nihilism.  For those of us who want to continue to honor and (authentically coincide with as much as possible) our Western Tradition, the arguments of the “Politically Correct” for some current fancy is anathema.  No, we “Western Traditionalists” can’t prove that our tradition is an essence.  And no, we can’t prove that an essence denies you Politically Correct people your current fancy, but we can assert that what you are doing isn’t authentically relatable to the Western Tradition.   We can go further than that and assert that what you are doing smacks of nihilism.

1 comment:

Dwight Gilbert Jones said...

An interesting discussion Lawrence Re: what humanism may or may not be, and I'm sure that Jacques Derrida would be in accordance with your ideas here. He would be quick to dismiss any value in the word itself out of regard for the phenomenon it is alleged to represent.

While such musings are useful, I always wonder when we are going to begin talking about the subject itself -- after all you can parse the word humanism only so many times before you give up and look elsewhere.

I lament the equating of humanism with simple atheism, the de facto nihilism you refer to perhaps-- and as an apologist for Humanism cannot rest until its association with any religion or non-religion is seen to be irrelevant.

Looking ahead, I envision an inclusive humanism that is primarily concerned with species governance; and the individual can take what they might from membership in that process. Analogous to the duties of a citizen in ancient Rome. Or, by association with institutions as you mention, our traditions certainly, as the rebuilding process once this deconstruction era, willed or not, at last passes.