In social theory and philosophy, antihumanism (or anti-humanism) is a theory that is critical of traditional humanism and traditional ideas about humanity and the human condition. Central to antihumanism is the view that concepts of "human nature", "man", or "humanity" should be rejected as historically relative or metaphysical.
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In the late 18th and 19th centuries, the philosophy of humanism was a cornerstone of the Enlightenment. From the belief in a universal moral core of humanity, it followed that all persons are inherently free and equal. For liberal humanists such as Kant, the universal law of reason was a guide towards total emancipation from any kind of tyranny.
Criticism of humanism as being over-idealistic began in the 19th Century. For Friedrich Nietzsche, humanism was nothing more than an empty figure of speech – a secular version of theism. Max Stirner expressed a similar position in his book The Ego and Its Own, published several decades before Nietzsche's work. Nietzsche argues in Genealogy of Morals that human rights exist as a means for the weak to constrain the strong; as such, they do not facilitate the emancipation of life, but instead deny it.
The young Karl Marx is sometimes considered a humanist, as opposed to the mature Marx who became more forceful in his criticism of human rights as idealist or utopian. Marx believed human rights were a product of the very dehumanization they were intended to oppose. Given that capitalism forces individuals to behave in an egoistic manner, they are in constant conflict with one another, and are thus in need of rights to protect themselves. True emancipation, he asserted, could only come through the establishment of communism, which abolishes the private ownership of all means of production.
In the 20th century, the view of humans as rationally autonomous was challenged by Sigmund Freud, who believed humans to be largely driven by unconscious irrational desires.
Martin Heidegger viewed humanism as a metaphysical philosophy that ascribes to humanity a universal essence and privileges it above all other forms of existence. For Heidegger, humanism takes consciousness as the paradigm of philosophy, leading it to a subjectivism and idealism that must be avoided. Like Hegel before him, Heidegger rejected the Kantian notion of autonomy, pointing out that humans were social and historical beings, as well as Kant's notion of a constituting consciousness. Heidegger nevertheless retains links both to humanism and to existentialism despite his efforts to distance himself from both in the Letter on Humanism (1947).
Positivism and "scientism"
Positivism is a philosophy of science based on the view that in the social as well as natural sciences, information derived from sensory experience, and logical and mathematical treatments of such data, are together the exclusive source of all authoritative knowledge. Positivism assumes that there is valid knowledge (truth) only in scientific knowledge. Obtaining and verifying data that can be received from the senses is known as empirical evidence. This view holds that society operates according to general laws that dictate the existence and interaction of ontologically real objects in the physical world. Introspective and intuitional attempts to gain knowledge are rejected. Though the positivist approach has been a recurrent theme in the history of Western thought, the concept was developed in the modern sense in the early 19th century by the philosopher and founding sociologist, Auguste Comte. Comte argued that society operates according to its own quasi-absolute laws, much as the physical world operates according to gravity and other absolute laws of nature.
Humanist thinker Tzvetan Todorov has identified within modernity a trend of thought which emphasizes science and within it tends towards a deterministic view of the world. He clearly identifies positivist theorist Auguste Comte as an important proponent of this view. For Todorov "Scientism does not eliminate the will but decides that since the results of science are valid for everyone, this will must be something shared, not individual. In practice, the individual must submit to the collectivity, which 'knows' better than he does." The autonomy of the will is maintained, but it is the will of the group, not the person...scientism has flourished in two very different political contexts...The first variant of scientism was put into practice by totalitarian regimes." A similar criticism can be found in the work associated with the Frankfurt School of social research. Antipositivism would be further facilitated by rejections of scientism; or science as ideology. Jürgen Habermas argues, in his On the Logic of the Social Sciences (1967), that "the positivist thesis of unified science, which assimilates all the sciences to a natural-scientific model, fails because of the intimate relationship between the social sciences and history, and the fact that they are based on a situation-specific understanding of meaning that can be explicated only hermeneutically ... access to a symbolically prestructured reality cannot be gained by observation alone."
Structuralism was developed in post-war Paris as a response to the perceived contradiction between the free subject of philosophy and the determined subject of the human sciences; and drew on the systematic linguistics of Saussure for a view of language and culture as a conventional system of signs preceding the individual subject's entry into them.
Lévi-Strauss in anthropology systematised a structuralist analysis of culture in which the individual subject dissolved into a signifying convention; the semiological work of Roland Barthes (1977) decried the cult of the author and indeed proclaimed his death; while Lacan's structuralist psychoanalysis inevitably led to a similar diminishment of the concept of the autonomous individual: "man with a discourse on freedom which must certainly be called delusional...produced as it is by an animal at the mercy of language".
Taking a lead from Brecht's twin attack on bourgeois and socialist humanism, Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser used the term "antihumanism" in an attack against Marxist humanists, whose position he considered a revisionist movement. Althusser considered "structure" and "social relations" to have primacy over individual consciousness, opposing the philosophy of the subject. For Althusser, the beliefs, desires, preferences and judgements of the human individual are the product of social practices, as society moulds the individual in its own image through its ideologies.
For Marxist humanists such as Georg Lukács, revolution was contingent on the development of the class consciousness of a historical subject, the proletariat. In opposition to this, Althusser's antihumanism downplays the role of human agency in the process of history.
Post-structuralism and deconstruction
Post-structuralists such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida rejected structuralism's insistence on fixed meaning, its privileging of a meta-linguistic standpoint, but continued all the more to problematize the human subject, favoring the term "the decenter-ed subject" which implies the absence of human agency. Derrida, arguing that the fundamentally ambiguous nature of language makes intention unknowable, attacked Enlightenment perfectionism, and condemned as futile the existentialist quest for authenticity in the face of the all-embracing network of signs. He stressed repeatedly that "the subject is not some meta-linguistic substance or identity, some pure cogito of self-presence; it is always inscribed in language".
Foucault challenged the foundational aspects of Enlightenment humanism, as well as their strategic implications, arguing that they either produced counter-emancipatory results directly, or matched increased "freedom" with increased and disciplinary normatization. His anti-humanist skepticism extended to attempts to ground theory in human feeling, as much as in human reason, maintaining that both were historically contingent constructs, rather than the universals humanism maintained.
The heroine of the novel Nice Work begins by defining herself as a semiotic materialist, "a subject position in an infinite web of discourses – the discourses of power, sex, family, science, religion, poetry, etc." Charged with taking a bleak deterministic view, she retorts, "antihumanist, yes; inhuman, no...the truly determined subject is he who is not aware of the discursive formations that determine him". However, with greater life-experience, she comes closer to accepting that post-structuralism is an intriguing philosophical game, but probably meaningless to those who have not yet even gained awareness of humanism itself. In his critique of humanist approaches to popular film, Timothy Laurie suggests that in new animated films from DreamWorks and Pixar "the 'human' is now able to become a site of amoral disturbance, rather than – or at least, in addition to – being a model of exemplary behaviour for junior audiences".
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- Marxist Humanism
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one of the features of positivism is precisely its postulate that scientific knowledge is the paradigm of valid knowledge, a postulate that indeed is never proved nor intended to be proved.
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- Roland Barthes, Image: Music: Text (1977)
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