The Thin Reed of Humanism

Dürer, "Melancolia I" Städel Museum

Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I (1514), Städel Museum

Leon Wieseltier is at his cantankerous best in his latest essay “Among the Disrupted.” After two opening paragraphs that are difficult to read as anything but a commentary on the recent demise of the New Republic, Wieseltier returns to his own well-trod turf:

[A]s technologism, which is not the same as technology, asserts itself over more and more precincts of human life, so too does scientism, which is not the same as science. The notion that the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of the material dimensions, and that nonscientific understandings must be translated into scientific understandings if they are to qualify as knowledge, is increasingly popular inside and outside the university, where the humanities are disparaged as soft and impractical and insufficiently new. The contrary insistence that the glories of art and thought are not evolutionary adaptations, or that the mind is not the brain, or that love is not just biology’s bait for sex, now amounts to a kind of heresy.

Wieseltier is reprising many of the themes of his public feud with Steven Pinker in the pages of the New Republic (here, here, and here). More than anything else, this earlier spat and Wieseltier’s latest essay are cultural barometers of our impoverished cultural imagination concerning the relationship of science, the humanities, and technology.

When Wieseltier invokes “scientism,” he’s gesturing toward real concerns about the reductive materialism or naturalism that tends to underlie the work of popular polemicists like Dawkins, Dennet, and Pinker. He is not denying that our world and our selves can, in part, be explained through material mechanisms. I assume he enjoys the benefits of modern medicine like the rest of us.

But terms like “scientism” and “technologism,” however well-intentioned, can obscure more than they clarify. Those who bandy them about presume, as the historian James Schmidt lays out, a number of things. First, they presume that there are different ways of knowing the world. There are limits to a uniquely scientific knowledge. There are some things that cannot be fully explained by modern science. Second, they presume that they can discern what those boundaries are. And, finally, they presume that they can diagnose the deleterious consequences of these illicit boundary crossings.

I’m sympathetic to all three of these premises. But I’m much less confident in our ability to identify where science begins and ends than those who so diligently guard the borders of knowledge exclaiming “scientism!” when they suspect interlopers. Those who invoke “scientism”—and there is a long tradition of its use and occasional abuse as Schmidt has wonderfully documented—put themselves in the position not only of policing the borders of knowledge but also of distinguishing real science, a science that knows its place, from a false science, a science that engages in constant and illicit “border crossing.”

My point is that these ominous sounding terms are all too often used as polemical cudgels. They refer to an illicit encroachment of one sort of knowledge into what is perceived as the proper sphere of another. Thus, “scientism” ultimately refers to the use of uniquely scientific knowledge within a distinctly non-scientific domain. Any appeal to the biological basis of love would be “scientism.” And very bad. These big, ugly worlds are, in short, the searchlights of our epistemic border guards.

But if “technologism” and “scientism” refer to types of knowledge that don’t know their place, then what type of knowledge or disposition adjudicates where these boundaries begin and end? For Wieseltier and many others today, it’s humanism. Humanism is the positive correlate of all those other “–isms,” those forms of knowledge that blithely stray beyond their boundaries.

But what is humanism? “For a start,” writes Wieseltier, “humanism is not the antithesis of religion, as Pope Francis is exquisitely demonstrating. The most common understanding of humanism is that it denotes a pedagogy and a worldview:

The pedagogy consists in the traditional Western curriculum of literary and philosophical classics, beginning in Greek and Roman antiquity and — after an unfortunate banishment of medieval culture from any pertinence to our own — erupting in the rediscovery of that antiquity in Europe in the early modern centuries, and in the ideals of personal cultivation by means of textual study and aesthetic experience that it bequeathed, or that were developed under its inspiration, in the “enlightened” 18th and 19th centuries, and eventually culminated in programs of education in the humanities in modern universities. The worldview takes many forms: a philosophical claim about the centrality of humankind to the universe, and about the irreducibility of the human difference to any aspect of our animality; a methodological claim about the most illuminating way to explain history and human affairs, and about the essential inability of the natural sciences to offer a satisfactory explanation; a moral claim about the priority, and the universal nature, of certain values, not least tolerance and compassion. It is all a little inchoate — ­human, humane, humanities, humanism, humanitarianism; but there is nothing shameful or demeaning about any of it.

Yes, it is all rather “inchoate.” And therein lies the problem.

Wieseltier is correct about the long and admirable lineage of a humanist classical pedagogy, less so about the worldview claim. “Humanism” as a human-centered worldview is a neologism invented not in the Renaissance but in the early nineteenth century as another polemical cudgel, one used to fight the same types of cultural battles that Pinker and Wieseltier have long been waging.

As far as I can tell, humanism, or rather its German cognate Humanismus, was first used in 1808 by the German pedagogue and philosopher F.I. Niethammer (1766–1848). In The Conflict of Philanthropinism and Humanism in Contemporary Theories of Education and Pedagogy, he juxtaposed humanism with philanthropinism, an Enlightenment-era educational theory that regarded the human as a natural being who needed to develop his or her natural capacities. What distinguished “humanism” from more modern forms of education was an underlying concern for, as Niethammer put it, “the humanity [over] the animality” of the human. As a worldview, humanism subordinated the body to reason and defended the autonomy of human nature from the material world. As first used by Niethammer, it was a boundary term; it marked what Niethammer thought was the clear line between the mental from the material, the human from the animal.

When critics invoke “humanism” against “scientism” or “technologism,” they presume to know the proper boundaries of science and technology; they presume that they can readily and forcefully articulate where scientific knowledge ends and humanistic knowledge begins. They assume the role of guardians of our intellectual and ethical world. That’s a heavy burden.

But it’s also a presumption that ignores how much of our knowledge comes from these border crossings. It’s at the margins of our established ways of engaging our world and ourselves that new ways of seeing and imagining what it is to be human so often emerge. We may well need knowledge police and concepts like “scientism” and “humanism” to warn us of charlatans and interlopers but we should hope that they do so with a little less alacrity and a bit more humility.

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