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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. [1] Central to antihumanism is the view that concepts of "human nature", "man", or "humanity" should be rejected as historically relative or metaphysical. [2]



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. [3]

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 [4] – 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. [5]

The young Karl Marx is sometimes considered a humanist, [6] 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. [7]

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. [8]

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.[ further explanation needed ] Heidegger nevertheless retains links both to humanism and to existentialism despite his efforts to distance himself from both in the Letter on Humanism (1947). [9]

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. [10] Positivism assumes that there is valid knowledge (truth) only in scientific knowledge. [11] Obtaining and verifying data that can be received from the senses is known as empirical evidence. [10] 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, [12] the concept was developed in the modern sense in the early 19th century by the philosopher and founding sociologist, Auguste Comte. [13] 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. [14]

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. [15] 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." [16] 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." [17]


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; [18] 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. [19]

Lévi-Strauss in anthropology systematised a structuralist analysis of culture in which the individual subject dissolved into a signifying convention; [20] 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". [21]

Taking a lead from Brecht's twin attack on bourgeois and socialist humanism, [22] [23] structural Marxist 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. [24] 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, [25] 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". [26]

Foucault challenged the foundational aspects of Enlightenment humanism, [27] as well as their strategic implications, arguing that they either produced counter-emancipatory results directly, or matched increased "freedom" with increased and disciplinary normatization. [28] 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. [29]

Cultural examples

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." [30] 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". [31] 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. [32] 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". [33]

See also

Related Research Articles

Historicism is the idea of attributing meaningful significance to space and time, such as historical period, geographical place, and local culture. Historicism tends to be hermeneutic because it values cautious, rigorous, and contextualized interpretation of information; or relativist, because it rejects notions of universal, fundamental and immutable interpretations.

A subject is a being who has a unique consciousness and/or unique personal experiences, or an entity that has a relationship with another entity that exists outside itself.

Post-structuralism is either a continuation or a rejection of the intellectual project that preceded it—structuralism. Structuralism proposes that one may understand human culture by means of a structure—modeled on language —that differs from concrete reality and from abstract ideas—a "third order" that mediates between the two. Post-structuralist authors all present different critiques of structuralism, but common themes include the rejection of the self-sufficiency of structuralism, and an interrogation of the binary oppositions that constitute its structures. Writers whose works are often characterised as post-structuralist include: Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Judith Butler, Jean Baudrillard, Julia Kristeva, and Jürgen Habermas, although many theorists who have been called "post-structuralist" have rejected the label.

Posthumanism or post-humanism is a term with at least seven definitions according to philosopher Francesca Ferrando:

  1. Antihumanism: any theory that is critical of traditional humanism and traditional ideas about humanity and the human condition.
  2. Cultural posthumanism: a branch of cultural theory critical of the foundational assumptions of humanism and its legacy that examines and questions the historical notions of "human" and "human nature", often challenging typical notions of human subjectivity and embodiment and strives to move beyond archaic concepts of "human nature" to develop ones which constantly adapt to contemporary technoscientific knowledge.
  3. Philosophical posthumanism: a philosophical direction which draws on cultural posthumanism, the philosophical strand examines the ethical implications of expanding the circle of moral concern and extending subjectivities beyond the human species.
  4. Posthuman condition: the deconstruction of the human condition by critical theorists.
  5. Transhumanism: an ideology and movement which seeks to develop and make available technologies that eliminate aging,enable immortality and greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities, in order to achieve a "posthuman future".
  6. AI takeover: A variant of transhumanism in which humans will not be enhanced, but rather eventually replaced by artificial intelligences. Some philosophers, including Nick Land, promote the view that humans should embrace and accept their eventual demise. This is related to the view of "cosmism", which supports the building of strong artificial intelligence even if it may entail the end of humanity, as in their view it "would be a cosmic tragedy if humanity freezes evolution at the puny human level".
  7. Voluntary Human Extinction, which seeks a "posthuman future" that in this case is a future without humans.
Structuralism Theory that elements of human culture must be understood in terms of their relationship to a larger, overarching system or structure

In sociology, anthropology, and linguistics, structuralism is the methodology that implies elements of human culture must be understood by way of their relationship to a broader, overarching system or structure. It works to uncover the structures that underlie all the things that humans do, think, perceive, and feel. Alternatively, as summarized by philosopher Simon Blackburn, structuralism is "the belief that phenomena of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations. These relations constitute a structure, and behind local variations in the surface phenomena there are constant laws of abstract structure".

Louis Althusser French philosopher

Louis Pierre Althusser was a French Marxist philosopher. He was born in Algeria and studied at the École normale supérieure in Paris, where he eventually became Professor of Philosophy.

Scientism is the promotion of science as the best or only objective means by which society should determine normative and epistemological values. The term scientism is generally used critically, implying a cosmetic application of science in unwarranted situations considered not amenable to application of the scientific method or similar scientific standards.

Continental philosophy Set of 19th- and 20th-century philosophical traditions from mainland Europe

Continental philosophy is a set of 19th- and 20th-century philosophical traditions from mainland Europe. This sense of the term originated among English-speaking philosophers in the second half of the 20th century, who used it to refer to a range of thinkers and traditions outside the analytic movement. Continental philosophy includes German idealism, phenomenology, existentialism, hermeneutics, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, French feminism, psychoanalytic theory, and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and related branches of Western Marxism.

Tzvetan Todorov Bulgarian historian, philosopher, structuralist literary critic, sociologist and essayist

Tzvetan Todorov was a Bulgarian-French historian, philosopher, structuralist literary critic, sociologist, essayist and geologist. He was the author of many books and essays, which have had a significant influence in anthropology, sociology, semiotics, literary theory, intellectual history and culture theory.

Existential humanism is humanism that validates the human subject as struggling for self-knowledge and self-responsibility.

The philosophy of social science is the study of the logic, methods, and foundations of social sciences such as psychology, economics, and political science. Philosophers of social science are concerned with the differences and similarities between the social and the natural sciences, causal relationships between social phenomena, the possible existence of social laws, and the ontological significance of structure and agency.

Positivism philosophy of science based on the view that information derived from scientific observation is the exclusive source of all authoritative knowledge

Positivism is a philosophical theory stating that certain ("positive") knowledge is based on natural phenomena and their properties and relations. Thus, information derived from sensory experience, interpreted through reason and logic, forms the exclusive source of all certain knowledge. Positivism holds that valid knowledge is found only in this a posteriori knowledge.

French philosophy, here taken to mean philosophy in the French language, has been extremely diverse and has influenced Western philosophy as a whole for centuries, from the medieval scholasticism of Peter Abelard, through the founding of modern philosophy by René Descartes, to 20th century philosophy of science, existentialism, phenomenology, structuralism, and postmodernism.

Humanism is a philosophical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively. The meaning of the term humanism has fluctuated according to the successive intellectual movements which have identified with it. The term was coined by theologian Friedrich Niethammer at the beginning of the 19th century to refer to a system of education based on the study of classical literature. Generally, however, humanism refers to a perspective that affirms some notion of human freedom and progress. It views humans as solely responsible for the promotion and development of individuals and emphasizes a concern for man in relation to the world.

20th-century French philosophy is a strand of contemporary philosophy generally associated with post-World War II French thinkers, although it is directly influenced by previous philosophical movements.

This is a list of articles in continental philosophy.

Marxist humanism school of Marxism that primarily focuses on Marxs earlier writings, esp. the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 on alienation, as opposed to his later works, concerned with a structural conception of capitalist society

Marxist humanism is an international body of thought and political action rooted in an interpretation of the works of Karl Marx. The tendency was born in the 1940s and reached a degree of prominence in the 1950s and 1960s before being largely outshined by the anti-humanist Marxism of Louis Althusser.

Reification (Marxism)

In Marxism, reification is the process by which social relations are perceived as inherent attributes of the people involved in them, or attributes of some product of the relation, such as a traded commodity.

Young Marx

Some theorists consider Karl Marx's thought to be divided into a "young" period and a "mature" one. There is disagreement to when Marx's thought began to mature and the problem of the idea of a "Young Marx" is the problem of tracking the development of Marx's works and of its possible unity. The problem thus centres on Marx's transition from philosophy to economics, which has been considered by orthodox Marxism as a progressive change towards scientific socialism. However, this positivist reading has been challenged by Marxist theorists as well as members of the New Left. They pointed out the humanist side in Marx's work and how he in his early writings focused on liberation from wage slavery and freedom from alienation, that they claimed was a forgotten element of Marx's writings and central to understanding his later work.

Marxist philosophy Philosophy influenced by Marxist political thought

Marxist philosophy or Marxist theory are works in philosophy that are strongly influenced by Karl Marx's materialist approach to theory, or works written by Marxists. Marxist philosophy may be broadly divided into Western Marxism, which drew out of various sources, and the official philosophy in the Soviet Union, which enforced a rigid reading of Marx called dialectical materialism, in particular during the 1930s. Marxist philosophy is not a strictly defined sub-field of philosophy, because the diverse influence of Marxist theory has extended into fields as varied as aesthetics, ethics, ontology, epistemology, theoretical psychology and philosophy of science, as well as its obvious influence on political philosophy and the philosophy of history. The key characteristics of Marxism in philosophy are its materialism and its commitment to political practice as the end goal of all thought. The theory is also about the hustles of the proletariat and their reprimand of the bourgeoisie.


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  2. Childers, p. 100
  3. Childers, p. 95-6
  4. Tony Davies, Humanism (1997) p. 37
  5. "Chapter III §14". On the Genealogy of Morality .
  6. Marxist Humanism
  7. Karl Marx On the Jewish Question (1843)
  8. Peter Gay, Freud (1989) p. 449
  9. What becomes of the Human after Humanism? Archived November 2, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  10. 1 2 John J. Macionis, Linda M. Gerber, "Sociology", Seventh Canadian Edition, Pearson Canada
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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.
  12. Cohen, Louis; Maldonado, Antonio (2007). "Research Methods In Education". British Journal of Educational Studies. Routledge. 55 (4): 9. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8527.2007.00388_4.x..
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  15. Tzvetan Todorov. The Imperfect Garden. Princeton University Press. 2001. Pg. 20
  16. Tzvetan Todorov. The Imperfect Garden. Princeton University Press. 2001. Pg. 23
  17. Outhwaite, William, 1988 Habermas: Key Contemporary Thinkers, Polity Press (Second Edition 2009), ISBN   978-0-7456-4328-1 p.22
  18. Elisabeth Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan (2005) p. 332
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  20. Appiganesi, p. 66-7
  21. Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection (1997) p. 216 and p. 264
  22. M. Hardt/K. Weeks eds., The Jameson Reader (2005) p. 150
  23. Zhang, Xudong and Jameson, Fredric, Marxism and the Historicity of Theory: An Interview with Fredric Jameson
  24. Simon Choat, Marx through Post-Structuralism (2010) p. 17
  25. "Post Structuralism". Suhandoko Suhandoko. May 7, 2017. Retrieved January 16, 2018.
  26. Quoted in John D. Caputo, The Tears and Prayers of Jacques Derrida (1997) p. 349
  27. G. Gutting ed., The Cambridge Companion to Foucault (2003) p. 384
  28. Gutting, p. 277
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  30. David Lodge, Nice Work (1988) p. 21-2
  31. Lodge, p. 22
  32. Lodge, p. 153 and p. 225
  33. Laurie, Timothy (2015), "Becoming-Animal Is A Trap For Humans", Deleuze and the Non-Human eds. Hannah Stark and Jon Roffe.

Further reading