On June 8, 1960, in a session of his seminar on the “Ethics of Psychoanalysis” dedicated to Sophocles’ “Antigone,” Jacques Lacan recommended his students that, while he agreed with the erudite view of Sophoclean tragedies as standing halfway between “rootedness in archaic ideals” and a different, more individual-oriented “pathos, sentimentality, criticism, and sophistry,” they should not associate this typological position with the concept and the values of “Humanism”: for “we consider ourselves to be at the end of the vein of humanist thought” (Lacan 1992: 275). Lacan based this historical diagnostic on the observation of a “splitting” in the “relationship of man to the signifier,” and saw himself in proximity to Claude Lévi-Strauss “when he attempts to formalize the move from nature to culture or more exactly the gap between nature and culture.”
As so often with arguments from Lacan’s seminars, it seems difficult—or impossible indeed—to agree on an ultimate meaning of the phenomena he is pointing to, here with the intention to explain his impression of having arrived “at the end of the vein of humanist thought.” But whatever may have triggered this statement, it anticipated by several years the famous final paragraph of Michel Foucault’s book The Order of Things
where the author dared to “bet that,” after having emerged around 1800, “the concept of ‘man’ will vanish like a face drawn into the sand at the border of the sea.”1
Similar to Lacan, Foucault did not feel ready to predict under what specific circumstances “the face” and the concept of being human would disappear (“nous pouvons tout au plus pressentir la possibilité” ), and even less so was he able to say how this form might be replaced one day. Foucault was quite precise, by contrast, in referring to the time “around 1800” as the moment of its first emergence.
In today’s retrospective, the 1960s may appear as an early stage within a movement at whose tail end we find ourselves, that is as an early stage in the process of growing fragility about a conception of being human which during much of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries had been regarded as meta-historical—or at least as a definitive achievement of human self-understanding. In Central Europe and in North America, the intellectual years following the end of the Second World War, with its hitherto unimaginable humanitarian catastrophes, had been energized by an astonishingly optimistic belief in the possibility
of redirecting the course of humankind toward the values of Enlightenment and the “project of Modernity.” This belief, however, turned into impatience and frustration, culminating in the youth protests of 1968, when it became clear that an atmosphere of restoration had established itself instead of the high-flying ideals of humanistic progress (see Gumbrecht 2013). The subsequent reactions of incipient skepticism may have been the driving force behind Lacan’s and Foucault’s intuition about the imminent end of traditional “Humanism.”
Different from the days of those first and vague uncertainties, we are now drowned by an oversupply of suggestions as to what forms of self-reference and life may have substituted (or should substitute in the future) the traditional notions of being human. There is a need and a market indeed for handbooks that distinguish and individually describe the fast-expanding horizon of meanings that we give to words like the “posthuman” or the “transhuman” (see, for example, Braidotti and Hlavajova 2018). If in 1967, one year after the publication of Foucault’s Order of Things, Jacques Derrida paradoxically—and also famously—stated on the opening pages of Grammatology that “we had left behind metaphysics” and the human self-reference inherent to it, “without being able to go beyond” (Derrida 1974: 20ff). I believe that today we have departed toward truly new, different, and sustainable conceptions of what it might have become “to be human.” Otherwise documentary volumes like the one of which this text belongs had no reason to exist. Now under the title of “Humanism” it is not my assignment to penetrate into the intellectual jungle of all those descriptions and definitions of new forms of being human that can be seen either as the result of a historical transformation or as a consequence of more normatively oriented suggestions toward better collective and individual life forms.
What I will try to narrate instead are two prehistories of our present which, in the majority of its voices, wants itself “posthuman.” I will offer a history (including its own prehistory) of the emergence of the conception of “Humanism” that dominated large segments of the Western nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and I will then continue with the trajectory, starting in the early to mid-twentieth century, of that ever-growing fragility undercutting the notions and conceptions of “Humanism.” Needless to say that no such narrative can claim to be all-comprehensive or objective. What I will therefore have to present is obviously my own version of that story, a version whose central idiosyncrasy may lie in the close connection (already announced by Foucault) that I see between the emergence of the so-called “historical world view” from 1780 to 1830 and the simultaneous shaping of the concept of “Humanism”; a version of the story of “Humanism” also whose main goal will be to provide clear contours for an epistemological reconstruction that lends itself to comparisons with (already existing) competing narratives.
The long prehistory of the “Humanism” that we now seem to leave behind started in Roman Antiquity, and it did so based on a distinction which quite surprisingly resembles the semantic contrast lying at the foundation of “Humanism” after 1800. If the late Roman Republic and the earlier imperial period were times when thinkers intensely
debated what being human was and should be like, this seems to suggest that a distance of the everyday from coherent mythologies or religions has long been a premise and a condition for such discussions. During the third quarter of the second century AD indeed, the grammarian Aulus Gellius noted how the word “humanitas” was mainly invoked by his contemporaries in the Greek sense of “paideia,” that is, for an “education and training in the liberal arts,” whereas another meaning of the word that Cicero had used simultaneously, namely, “philanthropy” as a positive feeling toward all men without distinction, was largely abandoned (Gellius 2006: 17). More than 1,600 years later, in 1808 the Bavarian educational commissioner Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer would coin the neologism “Humanismus” (in the exact meaning of “paideia”) to describe the curriculum, mainly based on texts from Greek and Roman antiquity, that he wanted to introduce to the Gymnasium of his State, while his larger political environment cultivated generous ideas of equality and freedom for all human beings promoted by the bourgeois Revolutions (in the sense of “philanthropy”).
The seeming continuity connecting Roman antiquity with the early nineteenth century through the contrast between those two meanings of “Humanism” hides a more complex history in which their distinction, rather than being stable, needed to be reinvented. For in its very different idea of humans being shaped by a monotheistic God and inhabiting the world as an all-comprehensive divine creation, medieval theology had by no means shared the premises of classical anthropocentrism. Against the medieval background, Renaissance scholars rediscovered Aulus Gellius and his two notions of “Humanism”—but this was not yet the beginning of a “Humanism” linked to the historical worldview that I believe we have inherited from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The logical and historical precondition for its slow emergence was a human self-image as outside observer of the material world whose ontological distance from the world followed from a purely spiritual self-reference in the style of Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum.” It was this spiritual outside observer who first elevated reason and rationality to the levels of absolute norms and criteria for any kind of world appropriation.
The rise of the historical worldview, together with a reshaped conception of “Humanism” as its core dimension, did not start before self-observation in the act of world observation became habitual (to the degree of inevitable) among intellectuals (“philosophes” in the French koiné of that time) during the third quarter of the eighteenth century.2
It is quite easy to document how almost immediately two new concerns sprang from this structural innovation on the level of human self-reference. In the first place, a self-observing world observer had to realize how each experience of individual objects and persons depended on his or her particular point of view, and as the potential numbers of such points of view appeared infinite, the result was a potential infinity of representations in relation to each object of reference. For many “philosophes” this new condition of absolute contingency turned into an existential challenge (sometimes indeed into an existential nightmare). The second problem came from the rediscovery of the body and the senses as a medium of world appropriation through self-observing world observers, and it led, within
eighteenth-century “Materialism,” to new questions regarding the (in)compatibility between (rational) world appropriation through the spirit and its concepts and (material) world appropriation through the body and its senses.
Looking back we can see how both problems, the problem of contingency and that of Materialism, soon found “solutions” thanks to epistemological changes that were then not experienced as solutions. From the late eighteenth century on the intellectual problems of Materialism became increasingly bracketed as peripheral (without ever being actively repressed or excluded). The problem of contingency, by contrast, got absorbed by a shift from a mirror-like principle of world appropriation (as it had for example oriented the “Encyclopedias” as a favorite genre of Enlightenment) to a narrative form of world appropriation. Since around 1800, questions about the identity of places or institutions received “historical” answers; questions about objects of Nature triggered “evolutionary” narratives; and even Hegel’s first book, The Phenomenology of the Spirit, gave a narrative answer to the question of what the spirit was.
This shift toward narrative forms can be understood as a “solution” (or “absorption”) of the problem of contingency because narrative discourses are capable of integrating different representations of individual objects of experience and of presenting them as a philosophically “necessary” and meaningful sequence. Hegel’s philosophy explored and systematized this new and all of a sudden “inevitable” relationship to the world3
that would yield the historical worldview as a temporality that also contained a different human self-reference. Through the historical worldview the future appeared, probably for the first time in Western culture, as an open horizon of possibilities from which humans believed they could choose and that they wanted to shape; the past seemed to recede behind the present and to lose all value of orientation the further distant from the present it became; the present itself was experienced as an “imperceptibly short moment of transition.”4
Most importantly and centrally from the perspective of “Humanism,” this short present of the historical worldview became the epistemological habitat for a (Cartesian) self-reference of being human as purely spiritual (“Subjekt” is the German concept in question) and capable of shaping the future, based on experience extracted from the past (this is exactly what we call “agency” today). Finally time, within the historical worldview, functioned as an inescapable agent of change.
By 1830, this conception had found such intense resonance and acceptance all over the Western world that it was not only appreciated as an ultimately “true” conception of human existence but also became the epistemological ground for a new, democratic conception of politics, based on equality (a purely spiritual self-reference does not allow for fundamental difference and hierarchy) and on agency over the future (as allowed by an open future). It would offer a basis for Socialism and Capitalism (both needed an open future), and for a “Humanism” that, besides agency, self-determination, and a completion of the knowledge about the world, called for an ongoing self-shaping as “Bildung” (see Clemens 2015). According to Foucault (1966), humans thus turned for the first time into both the Subject and the Object of description, analysis, and investigation in the now emerging “Humanities” (“Sciences Humaines,” “Geisteswissenschaften”) (360–366)—and it is interesting to see how the majority of the European languages
used the root of the word “Humanism” to baptize the cluster of academic disciplines rising from that matrix since the late nineteenth century.
If the historical worldview, with its inherent conception of “Humanism,” emerged as the overwhelmingly strong institutional matrix of the West, a different epistemological configuration coming from the eighteenth century, that is the epistemology underlying “Materialism,” had been pushed, as I said before, to the intellectual periphery without ever being actively repressed. In this other worldview, presupposed and practiced by authors and artists like Diderot, Lichtenberg, Goya, or Mozart (see Gumbrecht, forthcoming), the growing impression of (and even indulging in) contingency as the result of self-observation becoming habitual had never been absorbed by a shift toward narrative patterns of representation. Instead of “History” with its narrative discourses, judgment became central here as the ongoing everyday practice of coping with the world’s complexity. Human self-reference, as illustrated by the title hero of Diderot’s “Neveu de Rameau,” never turned completely spiritual, and “Materialism” (in the original eighteenth-century meaning, rather than in that of Karl Marx) remained high on the intellectual agenda here.
One would probably go too far in giving to this peripheral syndrome the status of an elaborated and coherent “epistemology.” But I think that it did remain on the Western intellectual horizon throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a repertoire of alternative, often less anthropocentric ideas and motifs that never quite came together as a legacy or as a tradition with full self-awareness. And yet it was capable of occasionally challenging the established “Humanism” together with the historical worldview. In this sense and almost paradoxically, we may today adopt traces of that peripheral intellectual style as a prehistory of our own, more programmatic posthumanism. Schopenhauer’s philosophy is such a case, with its concept of the “will” as an impersonal principle of unrest that permeates human existence and provokes change without ever coming together in the form of a trajectory. Even more so we should refer in this context to Nietzsche’s temporality of the “eternal return,” as a counter-concept to History, combined with the “will to power” as energizing humans in a not exclusively spiritual surge. The young Martin Heidegger was still at a distance from thinkers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche but with the concept of “Dasein,” introduced and developed in “Being and Time” from 1927, he re-inserted a both spatial and bodily component into human self-reference, undermining thus the hitherto dominant epistemological configuration of the Humanities where humans were at the same time Subject and Object of observation. At the same time, Heidegger anticipated a philosophical fascination of our present by giving the moment of facing one’s own death (death in its “Jemeinigkeit”) the central place in his conception of human existence.
During the years of the Second World War it was the concept of History that entered a zone of multiple revisionary critiques. In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” written in 1940, Walter Benjamin’s “angel of History” would turn its back to a future that was no longer open for a German-Jewish author with leftist leanings (after the Soviet Union had joined Nazi-German in non-aggression treaty) and would concentrate, in an empathetic view, on the victims of the past. Eight years later, Heidegger’s former Jewish student Karl Löwith published his book Meaning in History trying to argue that any attempt at extracting philosophical meanings from the past implies the risk of feeding into totalitarian ideologies.
What intellectually dominated the post-war years, however, were good-intentioned efforts of returning to basic values of “Humanism,” now seen as features of individuality that had been abused (or at least neglected) by the competing ideologies. Jean-Paul Sartre’s lecture “L’Existentialisme est un Humanisme” from October 1945 ...