“Man dies again.” Or so might one entitle a tabloid version of Stefanos Geroulanos’s excellent work on the history of antihumanist thought in twentieth-century France. The phrase, of course, echoes a New York Post headline—“Pope dies again”—that supposedly appeared when Pope John Paul I died in 1978, a mere 33 days after Pope Paul IV’s passing. Like that likely apocryphal tabloid title, the simplistic formula is an apparently contradictory, but perhaps telling, misreading. First, it drastically reduces the density, richness, and rigor of Geroulanos’s argument, which retraces multiple—at once overlapping and competing—formulations of atheistic critiques of humanism in the politically and intellectually turbulent decades following World War One. And second, it draws an associative link between the Post’s unintentional précis of papal political theology and those strains of French thinking which most insistently worked against the divinization of “Man.” Both the condensation and the displacement at work in the phrase seem to distort the book’s aims and claims beyond recognition.
And yet, the exaggerated brevity of “Man dies again” does encapsulate what I take to be one of the central—and powerful—claims of this book, namely, that the “Man” who has been called into question by antihumanism is not always the same Man, but rather a historically shifting intellectual and political construct. Precisely because these philosophies do not always have the same target at the same moment, Man’s imminent effacement is invoked repeatedly, rather than once and for all. What might be understood as a negative anthropology in one context—for example, Kojève’s 1930s account of man’s negation with the end of history—is radically revised and reinterpreted as a Marxist anthropology in the postwar era.
Because the “Man” at stake in these debates is not always the same, “nonhumanist atheism” cannot be viewed as a singular phenomenon, event, or even theory. Its history rather spans several decades of mid-century French thought, from the interwar period to the immediate postwar—and, implicitly, beyond. The “movement” that Geroulanos traces is thus neither unified, nor unidirectional. Indeed, it is not always clear that it makes sense to call it a “movement” at all. As he writes at one moment in the Introduction: “I do not mean to argue here that antihumanism was the driving force or the secret heart of intellectual movements and philosophies, nor do I claim that it was a single movement, concept, idea or trend; rather, it is what emerged from, shaped, and configured a major matrix of concerns.” The book poses a significant methodological challenge: how can one write the history of something so mercurial?
The concepts and thinkers involved in this story are indeed extremely dynamic, as critiques of humanism are propelled forward by internal tensions and shifting contexts of articulation: confrontations between Catholicism and Communism; intellectual non-conformism in the 1930s; the events of World War II and the politics of the French resistance; growing acknowledgement of the realities of Soviet violence. While they kept critiques of humanism in motion, however, these internalist and externalist contexts do not determine—or endow—“antihumanism” with an ultimate end or definitive form. The “ends of man,” to cite the essay by Jacques Derrida that informs, but by no means overdetermines, the arc of this story, are indeed multiple—in part because the humanisms called into question by mid-twentieth-century French thought are themselves contingent and shifting. And for that very reason, neither Derrida’s famous 1968 essay—nor Foucault’s equally famous statement in the Order of Things—can be understood as the high-point or culmination of antihumanism as it is presented here. For Geroulanos, they represent, a “radicalization,” but by no means a definitive form or end.
The recounting of such a history presents a narrative challenge precisely because it refuses an ultimate telos and rejects easily discernable heroes. In other words, the book does not privilege—or seek to redeem—the antihumanist vision of one figure as truer than that of others. By contrast—and perhaps befitting a work concerned more with negation than affirmation—several anti-heroes can be found, such as Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, whose “fuzzy, overdetermined, and often pejorative” use of antihumanism served to present its “purported philosophical partisans” as “disrespectful to the humanist tradition.” By demonstrating the complexity and contingency of the antihumanisms that emerged in France between the 1920s and the 1950s, Geroulanos responds to accounts such as Ferry and Renaut’s, not by simply inverting their normative philosophical and political claims, but by appealing to historical analysis as, in itself, a powerful modality of critique.
This at once historical and historiographical intervention is, in my view, one of the most compelling and important aspects of the book. Combining archival research with close textual analyses, Geroulanos significantly revises not only the most polemical and problematic accounts of antihumanism’s emergence, but also many of the standard narratives of the successive stages of twentieth-century French philosophy, from Kojève’s purportedly Marxist and anthropological readings of Hegel in the 1930s to Heidegger’s 1946 “Letter on Humanism,” understood as a manifesto of antihumanism. In Geroulanos’s account, the story is far more complicated and much less linear. Beyond recasting the work of the best known thinkers of the mid-century, Geroulanos also highlights the significance of lesser-known figures, from the philosophy of science to theology. In incorporating these voices, he is able to show that atheist antihumanism, far from being opposed to currents of either scientific or religious thinking, was, in fact, deeply indebted to them.
I will not seek to reconstruct the considerable intricacies of the argument here. Rather, what I want to highlight is how this book integrates the powerful philosophical and political lessons of antihumanist critiques precisely by writing a history of them. For example, many of its protagonists interrogated “the possibility of politics in a world that can no longer depend on the certitude of progress or human harmony.” Geroulanos implicitly asks a similar question about the possibility of historical writing. In doing so, he avoids the biggest pitfalls not only of humanist philosophies and politics, but also of humanist histories: progressivist teleologies, the celebration and/or vilification of their principal actors, and redemptive or moralizing conclusions.
Given these philosophies’ multiple and repeated critiques of Man, how can one adequately write their history? And, perhaps more radically, how can one write histories tout court? In taking up this challenge, Geroulanos provides one powerful example of a history that does not presume humanist atheism as either a normative ground or telos. But nor does it take the reiterated “ends of man” as injunctions to stop writing history. On the contrary. This book instead asks questions about the writing of history anew. In the process, it posits new horizons for thinking about the interrelationship between secularity and religion at a moment when these are highly charged questions in French history and politics—as well as beyond them. Not least, it would be interesting to pursue how the book helps us to understand why so much recent discussion of secularism and human rights has focused on the question of Woman.