In 2009, Yeshiva University, affiliated with the modern Orthodox movement in Judaism, was the site of a series of discussions on the issue of homosexuality. They began in February, when a student magazine published an anonymous piece by a student wrestling with his sexual orientation, and culminated in late December as a third of the undergraduate student body attended a symposium entitled “Being Gay In The Orthodox World: A Conversation with Members of the YU Community.” Would it even be possible for scholars to draw upon the vocabulary of secularization to describe such events? Something like the distinction, found in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age between the inimical worldviews of “buffered selves” allergic to transcendence and “porous selves” open to it, seems inadequate. All the gay students and alumni who spoke at the symposium were on the margins of the tradition from and to which they spoke, yet still “porous” to transcendence; furthermore, they were committed to lives lived in accordance with Jewish law, which proscribes same-sex acts.
One of the things that intellectual historians show us, although often only implicitly, is the fluidity of the terms of debates that we take to be self-evident. In An Atheism that Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought, Stefanos Geroulanos shows us this fluidity by focusing on the French history of objections to (and reformulations of) humanist discourse from 1929 to 1952, a history that suggests that the rigidity of the categories of “religion” and “humanism” in Anglophone discourse is exceptional and unnecessary. In Geroulanos’s history, the first chinks in post-Feuerbachean humanism in France appeared in the 1930s as a result of advances in quantum physics, particularly Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. These made it impossible to see the mind as truly mirroring the world, and thereby made it impossible to construct a metaphysics of man that could open up a path of progress toward a telos of history in which truth would be made universally manifest. One wonders how our culture wars would play out today if the philosophers who intervene in them were as trained in physics as they are in evolutionary biology. Indeed, as Geroulanos notes in his concluding pages, the long shadow that the philosophy of physics has cast over Francophone philosophy of science means that contemporary French philosophers of biology such as Henri Atlan can affirm a non-theological and non-dogmatic, yet antihumanist, stance that is absent from the popular press in the UK and America. (Geroulanos is co-editor of Henri Atlan: Selected Writings, to be published late this summer by Fordham University Press.)
This antihumanist turn can be a turn away from religion. Indeed, in the customary story of philosophical antihumanism—I think of the compact and powerful narrative of Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger’s antihumanism near the opening of Reiner Schürmann’s Heidegger on Being and Acting—antihumanism is part and parcel of a broader attack on foundational discourses, including theology. The potential of a phrase such as “antihumanist atheist,” then, is that it could serve as a category that could offer arguments against the foundationalist narratives of religious authorities as well as of those who describe human animals in essentially computational terms. Its articulation of what Geroulanos calls an “antifoundational realism” would cast a pox on the houses of both the buffered and the porous.
Nevertheless, such a phrase—if it were to be useful as an expression of skeptical voices in our contemporary discourses—would have to defend its own stance. More specifically, it would have to show that atheism proceeds apace from antihumanism, that the attack on one foundational discourse (the metaphysics of man) entails an attack on all possible foundational discourses.
In this regard, the story that Geroulanos tells is less helpful, although no less fascinating a story for it. His title comes from a description by Emmanuel Levinas (in an essay on Maurice Blanchot) of the Heideggerean and Sartrean intellectual scene: “contemporary thought holds the surprise for us of an atheism that is not humanist.” This makes it seem as if antihumanism and atheism emerge in French thought together, but antihumanism emerges earlier, and more clearly, than atheism does. The broad array of pre-WWII antihumanists whom Geroulanos treats in the first two-thirds of his book includes both secular and religious thinkers. In addition to an account of Kojève’s atheist anthropotheism, Geroulanos also offers treatments of Catholic attacks on liberal humanism, such as those offered by Jacques Maritain and Henri de Lubac; of Alexandre Koyré (described by Henri Corbin as “a great mystical theosopher”); and of Emmanuel Levinas, whose criticism of essentialist accounts of humanity in the mid-1930s was paired with the claim that only Judaism, and specifically the temporality underlying its account of repentance, could redeem history from hyper-Hobbesian brutality. It is in the last third of the book, where Geroulanos offers sketches of postwar thinkers, that atheism begins to emerge as the telos of Geroulanos’s story of French antihumanist claims. Thus, in a 1946 essay by Maurice Blanchot on de Lubac and Nietzsche, “the negation of God” becomes a key element of an account of the human as the site of freedom. What accounts for this atheist lag?
Part of the answer surely has to do with the complexities of the antihumanist project at this point in French intellectual history, but part of it may also have to do with a lack of clarity about the nature of atheism. Let me elaborate, with apologies for brevity. (My reflections here are inspired by Levinas’s 1968 essay “Humanism and An-archy.”)
What binds all of these antihumanisms together is the denial that self-consciousness can serve as a ground of meaning. Nevertheless, the claim that self-consciousness is finite (determinate, negative) can be the basis of two apparently opposed claims. On the one hand, it can lead to a claim that humans cannot definitively access any meaning that would allow them to plan the course of future history for the better; this would cover Jean Hyppolite’s articulation of the “unstable equilibrium” between the human subject and history that Geroulanos treats in his final chapter. On the other hand, it can lead to the positing of meaning outside the boundaries of a philosophical system; this would cover Levinas’s phenomenology of sensibility and its groping toward a transcendence that can never be conceptualized (it belongs to the “prehistory” of the ego) as the ground of alterity. Both of these moves are atheist insofar as they deny a place to the concept “God” in systematic thought. Yet the latter is certainly religious, and somewhat more sanguine about the possibilities of skepticism to achieve short-term liberationist goals.
If the antihumanist atheist can be either “secular” or “religious,” then a fuller account of this position could perhaps lead to the formation of common ground between various persons in their opposition both to those who claim to speak on behalf of God and to those who think that one cannot refuse theology without also refusing religion. (For this latter claim, see Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell.) But those who would find themselves on that common ground should be careful. An antihumanist atheist might conclude of the Yeshiva University conversation that there is no good reason to say that divine commands have the determinate content that Orthodox religious authorities say they do. Yet even if that statement is correct, such an expression of antifoundationalism will be rejected by others as expressing merely another dogmatism that polices culturally strange temperaments. The ability of the skeptic to be undone by his or her opponents’ own skepticism serves as a reminder of the truth of antihumanism: humans can capture nothing beyond self-consciousness. Selves are not just porous—they are leaky.