What was Humanism?

Blake Stimson

What a priceless invention statistics are, what a glorious fruit of culture, what a characteristic counterpart to the de te narrator fabula [the tale that is told to you] of antiquity. Schleiermacher so enthusiastically declares that knowledge does not perturb religiousness, and that the religious person does not sit safeguarded by a lightning rod and scoff at God; yet with the help of statistical tables one laughs at all of life.

Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, 1843     [1]    


We are all posthumanists now. In the shorter view we can trace our beliefs back to various overlapping moments from the not-so-distant past—structuralist and poststructuralist intellectual developments in the 1960s and 70s, say, or the anti-Stalinism of the 1940s and 50s that gave rise to neoliberalism on the right and the whole cornucopia of micropolitics on the left, or existentialism’s hunkering down into trauma and monotony fuelled by the psychopolitical fallout from two world wars, or the opening up of the dream of desublimation by figures like Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud in the decades before. In the longer view, however, antihumanism was already present as humanism’s regular companion, nemesis, and vanquisher at least since the latter emerged en force in the Renaissance and we have seen its legacy of conquest in many guises: as empiricism, liberalism, positivism, scientific socialism, postmodernism, and more.

Throughout the history of western secular thought, the two have mostly worked in tandem to give a two-faced definition to human activity separating itself from the dictates of God’s plan. Where humanists looked inward by turning from divine will to human desire in order to develop meaning and purpose for a secular world, antihumanists have looked outward to the systemic operations of society and nature, body and machine. Using a distinction from our own standing critical parlance, the two alternatives to the older ideal of God-directed religious subjectivity are that of the self-directed ‘subject’ and that of the other-directed ‘subject position’. Where the best figure of humanism’s alternative to God was Art, that of posthumanism is culture understood in the anthropological sense we use today with terms like ‘culture industry’ or ‘culture of the oppressed’.

We might take the great Renaissance humanist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola to speak for one side of this pairing when, in a secularising remake to the founding Christian principle, he wrote that God

took man as a creature of indeterminate nature and, assigning him a place in the middle of the world, addressed him thus: ‘Neither a fixed abode nor a form that is thine alone nor any function peculiar to thyself have we given thee, Adam, to the end that according to thy longing and according to thy judgement thou mayest have and possess what abode, what form and what functions thou thyself shalt desire. The nature of all other beings is limited and constrained within the bounds of law. Thou shalt have the power to degenerate into the lower forms of life, which are brutish. Thou shalt have the power, out of thy soul’s judgement, to be born into the higher forms, which are divine’.[2]

Likewise, we can take Pico’s contemporary Luca Pacioli to speak for the other side when he explained the advantages of his world-changing double-entry bookkeeping system: not only did it create the necessary base psychological conditions for the emerging market economy—without which ‘it would be impossible for [businessmen] to conduct their business, for they would have no rest and their minds would always be troubled’—it created a way for profits and losses to be calculated ‘from overs or shorts in the debits and credits, and not from actual transactions’.[3]

Where Pico’s account internalised the question of the value of human activity by shifting its sphere of action from divine will to human desire, Pacioli’s externalised that same question by shifting it from human desire to business ledgers. Where the first unbundles the myth of a divine centre for human action in classic humanist fashion, the second performs the same work of unbundling on the logocentric myth of the centred, authorial subject. Instead of resolving the distinction between God and man ‘into a third term that comes in order to aufheben, to deny while raising up, while idealising, while sublimating into an anamnesic interiority (Errinnerung), while interning difference in a self-presence’, as Jacques Derrida would put it, the antihumanist gesture has consistently externalised that difference into the play of language, statistical tables, and business ledgers.[4]

This formal distinction between internalisation and externalisation of value can itself be taken as the operative difference between humanism and antihumanism as two forms of secularisation. Even if antihumanism has long triumphed over humanism, their pas de deux—really a pas de troix with the figure of God playing the role of third—can still be seen at the centre of our on-going ‘dialectic of enlightenment’. Like any ‘anti-’ or ‘post-’, antihumanism must step on the dying body of humanism to take its stand.


In order to recall what humanism once was, the first thing we might say from our posthumanist perspective is simply that it was a secularised religious principle. It took the idea of God as the totalising standard or ideal by which all are understood to be judged and ported it into a principle of human self-realisation rather than the realisation by divine will. This principle was then set loose under a variety of headings—Art, Civilization, Enlightenment, Progress, Democracy, Socialism, Revolution, etc.—as an alternative means of judgment. Whether religious or humanist the world could be judged according to criteria that transcended the philosophical and political limits of individual interest, in the first place, and the hermeneutics of suspicion that provided the power to qualify and contextualise the judgements of others, in the second. In short, humanism as a secularised religious principle allowed for participation in and identification with a project larger than the self—a ‘body politic’ or self larger than the self.[5] It has always been just this inflated sense of self that antihumanism has decried, dismissed, and dismantled as religion by other means.

The second thing we might say about humanism is that, like the religiosity it was originally derived from, it believed in institutions as the embodied historical form of its inflated sense of self. We can cast those institutions as humanism’s ideals—Art, Civilization, Democracy, and the like—but these all have an antiquated ring to our posthumanist ears, even as objects of critique, which gives us little purchase beyond experiencing them as myth. More technical terms like governmentality, or identity, or society are available to us as material historical actors but on the whole offer us little traction as viable vehicles of human actualisation. So too with actually existing institutions—particular governments, say, or museums, or universities, or other civil-social and political bodies—for very good reasons, all are subject to our pervasive and now instinctual institutional critique. Central to our posthumanism, thus, is not only a lack of faith in the old metaphysical principles of God and enlightenment but also a governing lack of faith in institutional form as such. Humanism’s urge to express itself institutionally that linked it to the great modern political experiments—democracy, socialism, communism, etc.—and to their social and cultural emissaries—museums, universities, political parties, labour unions, social aid organisations—is evermore a thing of the past even as many of these institutions trundle onwards in increasingly bureaucratised and spectacularised forms, or in forms that have been simply taken over by the interests of the political right.

Understandably enough we are quick to recite the scoundrel’s list—Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Mao, Pol Pot, just to name a few leading lights—that reminds us why that old humanist reach for a social body in statisms, corporatisms, and collectivisms of all kinds—that is, in politics proper in its modern sense—is emotionally available to us now only as a distant memory and dream image. The best we can muster of politics in this old form is that of interest groups and anarcholibertarian adhocratic social structures like the general assemblies popularised by the Occupy movement.

In this sense, whether we acknowledge it or not, we all agree with Margaret Thatcher that there is no such thing as society, that society itself is a myth used for purposes of social control and domination just as was done with the myth of God. In the end, we assume, humanism’s reach for a social form larger than the self, like the religious reach for God, inevitably lends itself to totalitarianism in one way or the other. Boris Groys’ The Total Art of Stalinism published at the end of the Cold War can stand well enough as a period marker of this view for art historians.[6]Capitalism left to its own devices begets oligarchy and plutocracy more readily than democracy and meritocracy, we readily concede, but compared with the alternatives we have to agree with the great neoliberal theorists like Milton Friedman that it is the only viable basis for freedom—or at least our actions say as much. These unspoken agreements, even if they are unthought default positions or tied to objections, disavowals and contradictions, form the psychopolitical cornerstone of our posthumanism. As much as we may quibble with specific policies and their promoters, at base we are all neoliberals now.


Of course, there have always been antimoderns, romantics, true believers, and others who have found the antihumanist solution worse than the problem it purports to solve. Søren Kierkegaard, for one, put it this way in his foundational polemic with the antihumanism of his day:

See, here you are at one with the philosophers. What unites you is that life comes to a halt. For the philosopher, world history is ended, and he mediates. This accounts for the repugnant spectacle that belongs to the order of the day in our age—to see young people who are able to mediate Christianity and paganism, who are able to play games with the titanic forces of history, and who are unable to tell a simple human being what he has to do here in life, nor do they know what they themselves have to do.[7]

Life goes forward with purpose drawn from religious or humanist principles, from God’s plan or an essential human telos such as enlightenment, he suggests, or it comes to a halt as one is reduced to merely revelling in the cleverness of one’s own labours or, worse, sitting back and laughing at life passing by. Hiding ‘away in a small corner so as to watch the Comedy at one’s ease’ is how Nicolas Poussin had put it a couple of centuries before.[8]

We don’t have to agree with Kierkegaard’s solution to recall the critical purchase of his concern.[9] That is, we don’t have to fall back on sheltered interiority to remember the old view that the radical exteriority of instrumental thinking hollows out human desire and puts the glib gamesmanship of functionaries, money managers, and careerists in its stead. As one contemporary observer has put it, ‘the treatment of “culture” as a “resource”’—that is, ‘culture’ as we use it now in phrases like ‘culture industry’ or ‘culture of the oppressed’—‘is an administrative tendency inherent within the general concept of culture’.[10] Humanism believed that fully realised human desire is never the exteriorised, instrumentalised desire of subhuman animality—the desire of conquest and satisfaction, of raw fear and abject need—but instead can only be realised through interiorisation and idealisation—in the desire of love, of communal bonds, of shared purpose and insight, the desire once associated with ideals such as Civilization, Democracy, and Art. It was this collectivism that was the telos, the human project, the aim of progress and enlightenment. Our posthumanism has given up on that old distinction and adopted the governing conviction that animality and humanity, the individual’s everyday politics of expediency and the collective’s institutionalised politics of principle, are one and the same.

The problem with this collapse is that it leads to confusion about the object of desire for those on the left. Slavoj Žižek has put this simply enough: ‘the deepest hope of the utopian left, “horizontal organisation”, local communities, direct democracy, self-organisation—all this, I don’t think it works’.[11] It doesn’t work because its desire jumbles animal and human aims. On the one hand, it yearns nostalgically for the old humanist ideals, for community, democracy, organisation, and the like; on the other, it is driven forward pragmatically by posthumanist de-idealisation and individuation, by conquest and satiation, by DIY’s art of the deal rather than judgment’s principle of art. No longer a subject in the old democratic sense of the citizen, leftist political subjectivity has become that of the subject position triangulated by power that can only dream of citizenship, only reminisce about the political being of the past, while it carries out its day-to-day business in the same instrumentalised and exteriorised manner that has become the cri de coeur of the right. Jodi Dean has described the symptoms of that disavowal honestly:

We protest. We talk. We complain. We undercut our every assertion, criticising its exclusivity, partiality, and fallibility in advance as if some kind of purity were possible, as if we could avoid getting our hands dirty. We sign petitions and forward them to everyone in our mailbox, fetishising communication technologies as the solution to our problems. We worry about conservatives even as we revel in our superiority—how can anyone be so stupid? We enjoy. … We want to make ourselves seen as political without actually taking the risk of politics.[12]

There is little of this contradiction and confusion on the right, and for good reason. Animal horizontality is fully embraced as the de facto human condition, a form of natural human being in harmony with the equally natural horizontality and self-organisation of the market. Politics, in turn, is engaged directly and whole-heartedly as a desublimatory return to nature, a process of freeing ourselves from our misguided over-investments in metaphysical inflations of the past such as God or Humanity or Enlightenment or Society or Government and localising the principle of human desire and its corresponding principle of action within the restricted domain of our own individual self-interest. Even if we do not recognise each other, right and left now come together gleefully in this shared posthumanism, in our common day-to-day suspicion of anything that presumes to meaningfully transcend the evermore privatised sovereignty of individuals, families, communities, affinity groups, corporations, and markets.


Photography has had its place in the pas de deux between humanism and antihumanism, of course, and with two complementary qualities of its own. In the main, we have thought for a long time now, it is photography’s capacity for technological reproduction that defines its greater meaning, both by indexing the world and through its expanded and accelerated means of semiosis. This emphasis on the proliferation of signs and indices has been part of our posthumanism, and it has turned us away consistently from readings that emphasise photography’s second, humanist quality, its capacity to produce recognition through the power of judgment and thus realise the experience of solidarity or common cause.

In keeping with the framing for this collection of writings, we might call the first of these two qualities photography’s ‘either/and’ impulse and the second its ‘either/or’.[13] Where the first impulse draws its structuring ideal from deferring the moment of judgment as it moves laterally from one iteration to the next, one photograph to the next, the second develops its philosophical ground by seeing more than meets the eye in any given photograph or image as the basis of judgment. For example, this is how Kierkegaard described the experience of a ‘shadowgraph’ (or ‘an inward picture which does not become perceptible until I see it through the external’) in his Either/Or:

Sometimes when you have scrutinised a face long and persistently, you seem to discover a second face hidden behind the one you see. This is generally an unmistakable sign that this soul harbours an emigrant who has withdrawn from the world in order to watch over secret treasure, and the path for the investigator is indicated by the fact that one face lies beneath the other, as it were, from which he understands that he must attempt to penetrate within if he wishes to discover anything. The face, which ordinarily is the mirror of the soul, here takes on, though it be but for an instant, an ambiguity that resists artistic production. An exceptional eye is needed to see it, and trained powers of observation to follow this infallible index of a secret grief. … The present is forgotten, the external is broken through, the past is resurrected, grief breathes easily. The sorrowing soul finds relief, and sorrow’s sympathetic knight errant rejoices that he has found the object of his search; for we seek not the present, but sorrow whose nature is to pass by. In the present it manifests itself only for a fleeting instant, like the glimpse one may have of a man turning a corner and vanishing from sight. [14]

Roland Barthes was trying to describe a similar experience with his account of the punctum just as Walter Benjamin did with his figure of the angel of history: ‘His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events [in the same way we experience photography’s ‘either/and’ iteration of images], he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet’.[15] As Kierkegaard, Barthes, and Benjamin suggest, the old humanist experience of struggle with the singular experience of on-going failure to realise its hallowed ideals only ever arose in photography or anywhere else fleetingly, but it is all but invisible to us now.

We register that invisibility in many ways but perhaps first and foremost in the squeamishness we feel when we encounter photographs that smack of the old humanist yearning for totality—pictures of children and the elderly, for example, or of the working poor and labourers, who address us first and foremost not with personality or attitude or expressions of their status as poor, old, labouring, etc. but instead with what might best be called the expectation to be recognised as universal human subjects. Expressions of this squeamishness are legion, of course, but Hilton Kramer put it well enough in 1955 when, turning squeamishness to scorn, he characterised the Family of Man exhibition as ‘a self-congratulatory means for obscuring the urgency of real problems under a blanket of ideology which takes for granted the essential goodness, innocence, and moral superiority of the international “little man,” “the man on the street,” the abstract, disembodied hero of a world-view which regards itself as superior to mere politics’.[16]

Like Kramer, we are right to respond this way, of course. Humanist photography, like humanism generally, has always been ideological: it obscures real social and political issues with an abstract image of humanity; it falsely elevates the common and unwittingly serves to protect elites from any meaningful sense of social responsibility; it vests too much in ideals and institutions and not enough in the specific needs of particular people; it is a form of retreat from social responsibility into the protected enclave of the self.

The problem, however, is that our alternative has turned out to be no less ideological and has resulted in its own repressive consequences. We posthumanists have always countered the old humanist dreams of freedom through society and state with our own dream of an animal freedom found in iteration, in moving laterally from one image to the next, one identity to the next, one conviction to the next. This is the freedom from being troubled that Pacioli championed and the one that Kierkegaard disparaged for laughing at all of life with the help of statistical tables. This freedom has accomplished immeasurable good on many fronts, of course, but at one and the same time it has turned out to be the medium and instrument of our disenfranchisement. As the old humanist institutions that created the conditions for greater equality have been progressively dismantled and wealth, opportunity, and the rudimentary means of life redistributed upwards to the superrich on a massive scale, our posthumanist freedom of iteration has begun to reveal itself as a practice of everyday life that unwittingly and instinctively consents to the collapse of the social welfare state and the principle of public accountability. Our role is only confirmed and complemented by the emergence of a plutocracy in the resulting void that governs by corresponding means—through systemic iterations of images, data, and force rather than through the old lofty ideals that once were the special province of people like us.

In the end, perhaps the only real value to be had by remembering what was at stake in humanism’s old inflated sense of self can be found in its very obsolescence. Humanism and posthumanism alike have always been intricately bound up with political and economic forces larger than themselves and the capacity to speak from a critical position outside such forces that each in its own way promised has proven to be a double-edged sword. It is humanism’s distance from us now that permits its ideological cast to be so readily and repellently evident leaving little room for political naiveté on the part of any would-be neo-humanism. By contrast, it seems safe to say, we are still too much in the thrall of our present for any similarly squeamish self-awareness to be readily available to our posthumanism.


  1. Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, translated by David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson, volume I, Princeton, 1959, 5. back
  2. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, ‘Oration on the Dignity of Man’, in Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller and John H. Randall, eds., The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, Chicago, 1948, 224-225. back
  3. Jane Gleeson-White, Double Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Created Modern Finance, New York, 2012, 94, 109. back
  4. Jacques Derrida, ‘Interview with Jean-Louis Houdebine and Guy Scarpetta’, in Positions, Chicago, 1981, 43. back
  5. See Blake Stimson, ‘Why I am a Humanist’ for a brief account of such larger purpose: http://povatdhi.wordpress.com/2010/01/19/why-i-am-a-humanist/ back
  6. Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, London, 2011. back
  7. Søren Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard's Writings, IV, Part II: Either/Or, Part II, translated by Howard and Edna Hong, Princeton, 1988, 171ff. back
  8. Nicolas Poussin, letter to Paul Freart de Chanetelou, January 17,1649, quoted in T.J. Clark, The Sight of Death, New Haven, 2006, 182. back
  9. This is how Theodor Adorno described that solution, for example: ‘Kierkegaard recognised the distress of incipient high-capitalism. He opposed its privations in the name of a lost immediacy that he sheltered in subjectivity’. Theodor Adorno, Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic, Minneapolis, 1989, 39. back
  10. Peter Osborne, ‘Whoever speaks of culture speaks of administration as well’, Cultural Studies, 20:1, 2006, 43. back
  11. ‘The Occupy movement, a renascent Left, and Marxism today: An interview with Slavoj Zizek’, http://platypus1917.org/2011/12/01/occupy-movement-interview-with-slavoj-zizek/. back
  12. Jodi Dean, ‘Politics without Politics’, http://repub.eur.nl/res/pub/15161/oratiejodidean.pdf, 12, 28. back
  13. See Ben Burbridge and Charlotte Cotton, ‘Either/And: An Introduction’, http://eitherand.org/eitherand/eitherand-ben-burbridge-and-charlotte-cotton-conve/ back
  14. Either/Or, volume I, 171, 173. back
  15. Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Illuminations, New York, 1968, 257. back
  16. Hilton Kramer, ‘Exhibiting the Family of Man: “The World's Most Talked About Photographs”’, Commentary 20, October 1955, 367. back

Image references

  1. Paul Strand, Farmworker, Luzzara, Italy, 1953, ©Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive] back