There is no such thing as intrinsic humanity, Humanism itself is false consciousness.

This article from the Guardian has really got my synapses in a mess. The full article itself is worth a read but the summary can be found in this highlight:


It was mostly Marxists who developed this idea and ran with it. Louis Althusser coined the term anti-humanism. Forget the significance of the human individual, he argued, it is historical processes that make the difference. There is no such thing as intrinsic humanity, we are all the product of external forces. Everything that cannot be analysed structurally is false consciousness. Humanism itself is false consciousness.


There is a small but growing group of atheists that actually court those who also consider themselves non-humanists or anti-humanists.  They say that just as God was a man made concept and will die, so is the idea of humanism. We are all products of external forces and there is nothing intrinsic about being a human being.


I have a hard time with this because I do consider myself a humanist. That is to say I believe in the idea that we share common attributes with every other homosapien on this planet. These are very basic and primitive attributes which include pain, joy, anger, sorrow, happiness, etc... I feel that regardless of these "external forces", environmental influences, social economic conditions etc...we all feel these things in the same way. It is through these common threads that I believe we can connect with and should treat each other. I would venture to say that many other atheists and freethinkers consider themselves humanists as well.


So I pose the question to the community, what are your thoughts about this? It seems to me to be an anti-humanist seems to be somewhat counter-intuitive to being on the path we are all on. Before you respond and to all the deep thinkers on this site, as I am in no ways a philosopher or even a deep thinker, please try to respond in a fairly simplistic manner so I can follow as I am a simple man!

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I guess you could say I'm on the fence about this sort of thing. Yeah we're all human, but... so what? Big deal. That certainly is not to say I think we should start treating each other like crap. With being human comes certain things: we should respect each other, care about our loved ones, attempt to take care of this planet, all that. But that doesn't mean we have intrinsic value as a whole, or even as individuals.

That could just be the cynical part of me speaking, but... I've never really connected with the idea that just because I'm a human being I have some sort of 'special' worth. I am what I am, and as such, I will enjoy this little ride we call life for as long as I possibly can.

I agree with you, nice.

On further review, I will now be an antihumanist, possibly a planetist.

Humans are destroying the dam planet, because they cannot control their reproduction, even though we have the tools to do so. This is the same thing atheists blame god for, he could stop evil but chooses not to do so.

I am an atheist, by the way.

Special worth is not at issue. Just worth in contrast to the hierarchy of moral worth that preceded the humanistic movements.
"There is no such thing as intrinsic humanity"
By that logic, there's no such thing as dog-like, or cow-like, etc.
Expand on that Doug.
All peas are beans, but not all beans are peas. In other words, I can recognize the group, but understand that every member is not like every other.
When I read that article I thought it was pretty much a load of waffle that stopped just short of stating outright that atheism was fundamentally anti-humanistic. Which is bull. That said though, I do believe atheism does not necessarily lead to humanism (or antihumanism, or really any other -ism).

I think there will always be people who perceive the inseparability of our existence with our environment and then decide that, because we are not isolated entities complete and absolutely distinct and confined within ourselves, therefore the extreme opposite must be true - that as individuals we do not have meaning or value. Cos, yanno, the world is pretty binary and absolutist and if it's not one it must be the other.

That there have been atheists who did not and do not embrace humanism does not mean that anti-humanism defines all atheists, nor that it is the inevitable end point of atheism. It does not mean that anti-humanism has any reason to have a significant or justified hold over atheism.

I think it is complete crap for the author to have implied that antihumanism is a significant or integral aspect of atheism and that new atheists are 'ducking' the idea. As with all such situations when people like to bring up Marx (or Hitler or Stalin or any other alleged atheist), what an atheist does and thinks and does not necessarily mean that those thoughts or actions reflect an essential progression of the idea of atheism.
The author appears to make the argument that eventually antihumanism will overwhelm atheism because humanism is weak. And the evidence for this claim is that there have historically been people who passionately argued against religion who also argued against humanism. And perhaps because that party predated the 'new atheists', their position is thus somehow more integral to atheism and thus the rather illogical conclusion that therefore atheism will lead to anti-humanism.

I think this idea arises also from the misconception that meaning is defined by the sum of our parts, unless given purpose from some higher external authority. So unless god is present in a sunset or a baby's smile, it is not beautiful. And so since we are a product of our environments, unless god or some other authority tells us to believe in humanity, we will apparently have to reject humanism.

I think that atheism can be simply the rejection of superstition and the supernatural. I therefore think it's perfectly possible and logically consistent to be both atheist and to be committed to human solidarity and human progress. A rejection of the supernatural does not mean a rejection of whatever meaning we decide for ourselves.

A ramble, possibly interesting.


I feel like the piece sets up a Straw Man in its depiction of humanism. Whatever the theological commitments of the Enlightenment, for instance the supposed 'sunny optimism of the Enlightenment – not least its commitment to progress and a sense of the intrinsic goodness of human nature' only describes humanistic thought at a certain period.


The notion of humanism has been revised as new evidence has been collected. Indeed the Holocaust put a dent in the notion of natural human goodness, on the other hand, that was something that could have been picked up from the facts of human history for a long time.  We have been killing each other for a while.


The key insight of humanism was to make the desires of the individual human at the center of moral concern.  Morality then is no longer defined in terms of God, and as the author correctly points out 'The Enlightenment hadn't found another word for sin.' Indeed, problems with the notion of free will mean than sin is a difficult concept to adjust to in an humanistic ideal.  As an example of this consider this next, which  is the strongest segment of the piece:


'Forget the significance of the human individual, he argued, it is historical processes that make the difference. There is no such thing as intrinsic humanity, we are all the product of external forces. Everything that cannot be analysed structurally is false consciousness. Humanism itself is false consciousness.'


What if humanism doesn't argue for an intrinsic humanity? What happens to this critique of humanism.  The enlightenment humanists may have had a rosy view of the world, but that is hardly the case for contemporary humanism.  It is distinct from an anti-humanism in that it still agrees with the baseline supposition that the needs of the human being are the correct touchstone for moral discussion.


To see it's influence in this post-modern scientific world, one only has to look at the contrast, the thing humanism was critiquing, the moral force of the notion of sin, or in reality, blame. It was critiquing a moral code that focused the moral attentions of humanity on the interests of God. 


This notion that humanism itself may be overturned is not an insult to humanism. It is obviously true. Things, even cultural moments do not persist. They change, they achieve new synthesis, new form and impact. However, what comes later still in oft part does depend on what came before. It should at least be uncontested that humanism is a change from the old style of placing other concerns than the human at the center of human moral judgement.  The reason, however, that it is no insult to humanism to say it may be overturned is that it is may nonetheless contain within it the frame or structure of whatever follows.  What else would replace it at this point? Our alternatives are all poorer than humanism, and so many of them have already adopted humanistic viewpoints even as they decry them.


Consider the difference between a Pope that declares that the only way to salvation is through acceptance of Christ and confession of sins, and a Pope that declares that all those who are good go to heaven. Why has that change happened? Why has being good become enough for many Christians. It is because they have moved the center of moral concern from God's instructions to notions of what is just and fair, which are notions internal to human morality.


My prediction then. Whatever the turn of history that comes to wipe humanism of the face of the earth, will be better and more geared towards the needs of the individual, or at least a redefinition of the 'correct' moral subject. It will not be a return to an arbitrarily defined code of morality. Humanism is a structure we have build, whatever comes next will be build upon it, renew it, and change it for the better, but it will not throw out the human being as the center of moral concern, however it ends up describing what it means to be human.  Like all theories, it must be partially evaluated on its utility. What are its contributions? What new thought did it bring? What does and doesn't bring people happiness and joy will still be the subject of debate in the short term future.  This is a humanistic concern. We may find a theory of greater utility in the future, but for now humanism does a better job than the alternatives. Its like democracy.


A final point to tidy up: Why should we consider the individual relevant if we are merely subjects of historical forces?

The individual is the only thing which experiences the world. We experience is through our culture for sure, but we are not blank slates.  Our intuitions about what is right and wrong guide the historical movements of the times. These movements emerge from the composite of human views, not as structures coming from the outside. They are certainly dependent on the historical accidents of our evolution as well. The experience of the individual is at least partial evidence for the experience of the species.  We are so similarly structured that to claim that NO understanding of other humans is possible seems a massive leap to me.  Our evolutionary constraints at the very least lay out the same or similar sets of capacities for each person. The differences are fascinating, but they are tiny by comparison to the broader generalities that we share as a species.


 The individual might be powerless, but to try understand a morality without considerations of his/her concerns seems futile. Can a collective be attributed a moral understanding, for instance, that we might say that the benefits to a nation should predominate the moral discourse?  Of course not, not unless we are willing to reify those entities. The challenge to any anti-humanist is to demonstrate that a different touchstone for moral thought is relevent and can provide answers. Personally, God, or any essentialist system of values cannot be considered viable alternatives.


A fundamental challenge for instance is vegetarianism, which asks the moral concern to be expanded to the animal world. On the other hand, we see that the vegetarian movement has often borrowed arguments from the humanistic  camp to make their point.  An example then of a new synthesis.


In summary, I look forward to what comes next, without looking behind to see that which is obviously wrong.








When we talk about what it is to be *human* most people define it with a set criteria like the ability for rational thought and the ability to feel empathy for your fellow humans.  To some extent I agree with that, but I do believe that there is a difference in the way individuals take in and process external forces.  A child who is severly abused will never look at the world the same way as a child raised in a safe, secure home.  That child's world view, and therefore the way they relate to others, will forever be altered.  A child raised in a war zone will most likely never develop the ability to empathize with others, their world will be tainted by the violence they are surrounded by everyday.  Individuals, such as myself, who live with mental illness also process external stimulous in a way different from others.  I am Bipolar and so I live with wild swings in my mood.  Depending on where my mood sits it external forces at work in my life have different meanings and different effects.  When you take situations like this into consideration, I think the argument can be made that while we do all share many things in common, not all people are essentially the same.
What would count as essentially the same anyways? That we are the same in many respects, if not most respects is enough. The differences can be seen as variations on the frame then.

You say you are bipolar. At the very least you have an affliction related to human use of moods the functional) or a deviation from a set of chemical or neurologically structured constraints that is within the range of human possibilities.

When we look at that range, and compare it to the vast vast number of possibilities outside of that range (think fish or bird senses, animal behaviors) we come across as being variations over a range that is fairly narrow.

Nobody should discount culture, but one of the great challenges of todays world is to pick apart the mechanisms by which inherited characteristics interact with culture. That we can almost all interact with culture is another example of how similar we are. No other species can. To claim however, that ALL change is cultural change, or that ALL human actions can be entirely cultural seems to me to be an extraordinary claim with very little evidence.

The point of the original article was that atheists seem to want to avoid discussing the differences in people at all.  While I'm sure this isn't the case, I was simply voicing the way I see things.  It's true that at a biological level we are all very much the same, the point I was making is that we can not ignore the psychological differences.  It changes the human experience and so also changes how we relate to the world and other individuals.  The article makes the point that "Thus they dismiss the significance of philosophy just as much as they have always done of theology – as if the two were fundamentally in cahoots. But this is nonsense. Nietzsche, Marx and Freud attacked Christianity with passionate ferocity."  Meaning that many atheists simply ignore or refuse to participate in philosophical discussion of what it means to be human.  You seem to want to dismiss the way my illness effects how I relate to individuals and the human condition as a whole, but I can't dismiss it.  I don't deny that on a purely scientific level we are, indeed, all the same, but there is a whole other side of being "human" that should be considered.

Sorry, my reading of the article is that it claims the humanistic position is flawed due to its failure to consider difference, and that atheists are culpable.


My position is merely stating that human similarity is sufficient for us to make a claim for it, and for us to base moral intuitions on SOME of those similarities.  Those being the ones with the greatest claim to universality.


The difficulty of providing evidence for WHAT the differences are is one of the great scientific challenges of our day, and very poorly explored by what is known as evolutionary psychology, which really does seem to be sociobiology revisited. 


'I don't deny that on a purely scientific level we are, indeed, all the same, but there is a whole other side of being "human" that should be considered.' Nor is this my position. In fact I would argue against this. We are not all the same, we are just similar. 


I was not claiming your illness gave you a new perspective, only that that perspective is within the range of possible human thought, in a way that the motivations of a salmon willing to fight the river is not.  



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