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definition - antihumanism

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Antihumanism (or anti-humanism) is a set of ideas, beliefs, and practices responding critically to traditional humanism or to traditional ideas about humanity and the human condition. Central to antihumanism is the view that concepts of "human nature", and "man" or "humanity", should be rejected as historically relative or metaphysical.

The term is usually restricted to the realm of social theory and philosophy. Although there is a genre of misanthropic organizations such as VHEMT, antihumanism as discussed in this article is based on the above sense of the word.



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.

The young Karl Marx criticised the project of political emancipation, embodied in the form of human rights, as symptomatic of the very dehumanisation it was intended to oppose. Marx argued that because capitalism forces individuals to behave in an egoistic manner, they are constantly in 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. While the mature Marx may have retained a belief in the inevitability of progress, he also became more forceful in his criticism of human rights as idealist or utopian. For the mature Marx, humanity is an unreal abstraction: because rights themselves are abstract, the justice and equality they protect is also abstract, permitting extreme inequalities in reality.

For Friedrich Nietzsche, humanism was nothing more than a secular version of theism. He argues in Genealogy of Morals that human rights exist as a means for the weak to constrain the strong; as such, they deny rather than facilitate emancipation of life.

In the 20th century, the view of humans as rationally autonomous was challenged by Sigmund Freud, who believed humans to be 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 and claimed that humans were social and historical beings. He also rejected Kant's notion of a constituting consciousness that constructs the ambient world. Suggestions that Heidegger is nonetheless a forerunner to the ostensibly humanist movement of existentialism compelled him to distance himself from humanism in the "Letter on Humanism" (1947).

  Structuralism, post-structuralism, and post-modernism

The development of structuralism was initially greeted as a means of overcoming the problematic concept of "man". Much as modern empirical science had replaced philosophical speculation about the nature of "matter", so would abstract philosophical speculation be superseded by concrete sciences such as linguistics (Saussure) or anthropology (Lévi-Strauss).

When Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser coined the term "antihumanism," it was directed against Marxist humanists, which he considered a revisionist movement. It meant a radical opposition to the philosophy of the subject. Althusser considered "structure" and "social relations" to have primacy over individual consciousness. For Althusser, the beliefs, desires, preferences and judgements of the human individual are the product of social practices. That is to say, society makes the individual in its own image. The human individual's belief that they are a subject responsible for their own actions is not innate; rather, the individual is constituted as a subject by society and its ideologies. For Marxist humanists such as Georg Lukács, revolution was contingent on the development of the class consciousness of an historical subject, the proletariat. In opposition to this, Althusser stated that it was not "man" who made history, but the "masses". Thus, Althusser's antihumanism downplays the role of human agency in the process of history.

Closely related to Althusser's antihumanism were the philosophies of post-structuralists, such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. While their philosophies are quite different, they both problematize the subject. A common neologism for this is "the decentered subject", which implies the absence of human agency. For instance, Jacques Derrida argued that the fundamentally ambiguous nature of language makes intention unknowable and leaves language to structure and govern thoughts and actions. Michel Foucault, in The Order of Things, argued that there is a basis for knowledge in every epoch, what he called episteme. He argued that this contemporary time is the "Age of Man" and he envisioned and supported a time where thought finally moves beyond the human as the object of inquiry.

The semiological work of Roland Barthes (1977) decried the cult of the author and indeed proclaimed his death, whilst other social scientists advocated that in postmodern terms, the humanism model in literary texts created a problematic condition. Classic realism narratives cannot maintain the chaos of a dysfunctional content as the subject struggles in opposition against dominant cultural principles.


Critics of antihumanism, most notably Jürgen Habermas, claim that while antihumanists may highlight humanism's failure to fulfill its emancipatory ideal, they do not offer an alternative emancipatory project of their own. While Habermas accepts some criticisms leveled at traditional humanism, he believes that humanism must be rethought and revised rather than simply abandoned.

  See also


  • Roland Barthes, Image: Music: Text (1977)
  • Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (1966)
  • Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (1977)
  • Martin Heidegger, "Letter on Humanism" (1947) reprinted in Basic Writings
  • Karl Marx, "On the Jewish Question" (1843) reprinted in Early Writings
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals (1887)
  • Stefanos Geroulanos, An Atheism that is not Humanist (2010)

  External links



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