What Was Humanism, is It Dead, and If Not, Can It Inform Our Political Debate?

Fred Baumann of Kenyon College wrote an interesting thought piece for the current issue of The American Interest on whether Humanism is dead or whether it could be informative in current political debate; these are, the author acknowledges, separate questions.  Only the first few paragraphs are available online; if the article is of interest one will have to obtain the magazine.  Baumann conceives of “Humanism” as fundamentally about a question: “What does it mean, what is it like, to be a human being?”

The Liberal Ironist might seem to have abandoned its foundational principles (ha ha) in entertaining a movement that would raise this question, but even Richard Rorty who innovated the term “liberal ironist” in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity said in the same book that he thought of philosophical problems as “just as temporary as political problems.”  In this spirit we should entertain the possibility that the “noble nihilism” of the liberal ironist who won’t define a human being before promoting Liberalism, while philosophically-justified, might be insufficient to guide the political and ethical problems posed by scientific advancement.

Whether “we” arrive at a philosophical or political consensus favoring the inherently-limiting premise that there is an idiomatic human experience, or natural right, Baumann has shown prudence in raising the issue now: This may be our last chance to define ourselves before technological whims and designs radically variegate and divide what is at least clearly a common human species.  (If anything, Baumann’s appeal to Humanism to resolve our technological debates is several years late.)  It feels like we’ve made surprisingly-few attempts to imagine a human nature both widened and deepened but also fractured by the possibilities of technology.  It’s strange that we have shown such disinclination to narrative speculation about these technological problems, as this is the only definition of “science fiction” that really makes sense to yours truly.

Our capacity to adapt not only our environment, but now ourselves, may be such that the current strange Libertarian-Utilitarian alliance on all questions technological could bring us to the point that we can no longer conceive of ourselves as a single species.  That may sound alarmist, but there is a line of such thinking running from Jonathan Swift through Fritz Lang‘s Metropolis, Blade Runner, and Mamoru Oshii‘s anime Ghost in the Shell (and the succeeding TV series).  Those who wish to defend the idea of idiomatically-human experience should be prepared to open a debate on 2 questions–what they think a human being is, and what of our humanity they believe is at stake with our rapidly-expanding and -diversifying technological capabilities.  This account doesn’t have to be based in positive qualities of human nature; there are candidate explanations that would define human being as inhering in activities such as creation or recognition of art, creating narratives, expressing devotion, or feeling love in a wider variety of contexts.  Baumann, with a solution that could revive allegations of a StraussianNeoconservative link through The American Interest, thinks the substance and argument of the “First-Stage Humanism” of Machiavelli, Shakespeare and Montaigne “still seems to me to have a future–and an important future, particularly in overcoming the abstraction of many of our current debates.”  Baumann then offers some speculation, seemingly of very-conservative resolutions of the political debate over abortion, interest-group politics, and the media-created controversy over the Danish drawings of Muhammad.

But maybe what Humanism can offer us, and what Baumann deserves some credit for highlighting, is a conservative political position which, while earning support from religious conservatives, can be articulated fully on the basis of the human condition rather than on supposedly-divine commands that are inevitably exclusive.  The Liberal Ironist is not an acolyte of John Rawls and does not want those motivated by their religious beliefs to scrub religious justifications from their statements to appeal to “public reason;” however, the frequent concern of the conservative political message with religious beliefs rather than with living human beings–which is what political ideology is about–has made helped make religion worldly and political debate hostile.


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