The Dreaded Humanist Debate

In 1960s France, there was a huge controversy among philosophers and others over so-called “humanism”. Rhetoric was excessive and overheated on both sides of the debate, promoting unhealthy and shallow polarization, but the topics dealt with were of great importance.

To begin to understand the various positions on this, it is necessary to realize that connotations of the word “humanism” in this context were quite different from what is usual in English. The third meaning listed in Google’s dictionary result, attributed to “some contemporary writers”, does at least have the virtue of expressing a position in philosophical anthropology, which is what was at issue in the French debate (in contrast both to Renaissance literary humanism and to explicitly nonreligious approaches to values).

Europe has an old tradition of self-identified Christian humanism. After the publication of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts in the 1930s, non-Stalinist Marxists began talking about a Marxist humanism. In France after World War II, even the Stalinists wanted to claim the title of humanist. In his famous 1945 lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism”, the notoriously anti-religious and individualistic writer Jean-Paul Sartre surprised some people by placing his existentialism under a common “humanist” banner with Christians and Stalinists. What they all wanted to assert under the name of humanism was a particular view of what it is to be a human, emphasizing the centrality of free will and consciousness, and identifying humanness with being a Subject.

In the 1960s, these views were sharply criticized by people loosely associated with so-called “structuralism”, including Foucault, Althusser, and Lacan. The “structuralist” views denied strong claims of a unitary Subject of knowledge and action; rejected any unconditional free will; and took a deflationary approach to consciousness. Sartre and others launched vehement counter-attacks, and the debate degenerated into little better than name-calling on both sides.

In my youth, I was exposed first to views from the “humanist” side, and accepted them. Then I became aware of the “structuralist” alternative, and for a while became its zealous partisan.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus had to navigate between the twin hazards of Scylla and Charybdis. Since the millenium, I have emphasized a sort of middle way between “humanism” and “structuralism” — inspired especially by Aristotle and Brandom, and now with added support from Ricoeur.

Now I want to say, there is no Subject with a capital “S”, but I am highly interested in the details of subjectivity. There is no unconditional free will (and I even doubt the existence of a separate faculty of “will” distinct from reason and desire), but I am highly interested in voluntary action as discussed, e.g., by Aristotle and Ricoeur. I prefer to sharply distinguish apparently immediate “consciousness” from other-oriented, mediate, reflexive “self-consciousness”, putting most of the philosophical weight on the latter.


I’d like to say a few words about the kind of recognition involved in Hegelian mutual recognition, and in particular to distinguish it from the ideological interpellation described by Louis Althusser in 1970. I wonder if some of the continentally inclined people who object to a stress on mutual recognition are actually misunderstanding it to mean something like mutual ideological interpellation.

Althusserian interpellation is a specific kind of recognition oriented toward the fixing of personal identity. On this model, people are socially “recognized” as who they are through associating them with preconceptions of their identity. According to Althusser’s analysis, this kind of fixing of personal identity plays a major role in reinforcing the existing social status quo. Thus, people concerned with promoting social justice have naturally considered it an obstacle to be overcome.

In sharp contrast to this, the kind of recognition involved in Hegelian mutual recognition is grounded in Kantian ethical respect for people. This has nothing to do with the details of who they are. It is based on the generic fact that they are rational animals like us, so no fixing of identity is involved. On this latter model, people are “recognized” through being treated with consideration. This also means it has nothing to do with the kind of specific claims involved in so-called identity politics.

Mutual recognition is basically mutual respect. I find it hard to imagine how anyone could find such an ideal objectionable. It is of course supposed to be genuinely mutual. If someone fails to truly recognize someone else based on some spurious ground such as race, then there is by definition no mutual recognition in that case, which means that on the mutual recognition model, something is broken that implicitly calls out for change. (See also Fragility of the Good; Stubborn Refusal.)

Archaeology of Knowledge

In the old days, my favorite text of Foucault was the beginning of the Archaeology of Knowledge (online here), revised from his “Réponse au Cercle d’épistémologie”, published summer 1968 (o pregnant time!) in Cahiers pour L’Analyse, the original of which is separately translated in Essential Works vol. 1. There is a nice summary of the original and its historical context here.

At this time, Foucault and Althusser were both working toward what has been called a rationalist philosophy of the Concept related to the work of Jean Cavaillés and Georges Canguilhem, in contrast to then popular existential/phenomenological philosophies of the Subject. (See Knox Peden, Spinoza Contra Phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavaillés to Deleuze.)

The Epistemological Circle that Foucault was responding to was a group of Althusser’s students interested in the philosophy and history of science, as well as structural Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis, who had asked Foucault a series of methodological questions. Althusser was something like the dean of France’s most prestigious university. He had actually written his dissertation (which I have still not seen) on the Concept in Hegel. By this time he was in high anti-Hegelian mode, as was Foucault.

Foucault himself acknowledged considerable debt to his Hegelian mentor Jean Hyppolite, who translated the Phenomenology to French. Hyppolite read Hegel as focused more on discourse than on subjectivity. His 1952 Language and Existence, referred to by Foucault as “one of the great books of our time”, argued strongly for the importance of language in Hegel. (It was also very favorably reviewed by the young Deleuze.) Foucault had written a thesis on “The Constitution of a Historical Transcendental in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit” under Hyppolite in 1949.

There is more good historical background in James Muldoon, “Foucault’s Forgotten Hegelianism”. While I don’t endorse, e.g., Muldoon’s remarks on Hegel and free will, his suggestion that an identification with certain specifics of Hyppolite’s reading of Hegel — particularly the attribution of a strong “totalizing” impulse — contributed significantly to the anti-Hegelian turn of Foucault and others is quite interesting.

Though I don’t recall this from his translated works, Hyppolite apparently both saw a strong element of totalization in Hegel and strongly rejected it, while continuing to identify as a Hegelian. (Previously, in absence of more specific evidence I had surmised it was mainly a reaction against Alexandre Kojève’s reading that drove the French anti-Hegelian turn. Muldoon also says Hyppolite’s reading was initially welcomed as a contrast to Jean Wahl’s more phenomenologically oriented 1929 book on the unhappy consciousness, which apparently also contributed to French perceptions of Hegel as subject-centered.)

In any case, the Hegel whom Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze and others famously rejected in the 1960s was identified as the proponent of a totalizing historical teleology of the Subject. Each of the three components of this was independently strongly rejected — the subject-centeredness, the historical teleology, and the totalization. I still agree today that these are all serious errors that should be rejected.

However, Hegel read in a broadly Brandomian way is utterly untouched by this criticism. There is no historical teleology at all in what Brandom calls Hegelian genealogy (so a fortiori not a totalizing one), and there is no subject-centeredness in the analysis of conceptual content. Subjectivity is never invoked as an unexplained explainer. Brandom’s exposition of the Hegelian critique of Mastery offers us a Hegel utterly opposed to the kind of totalization attributed to him by Foucault, Althusser, and Deleuze.

Foucault presented a long list of forms of discontinuity that should be attended to in the history of ideas. Each of these could be analyzed in Brandomian/Hegelian terms as a determinate negation.

I agree with Foucault that it is very important not to take the simple continuity of a tradition for granted. In principle, such things need to be shown. However, I still think defeasible assertions about “traditions” and other such unities that should be questioned can play a useful role in historical discussion. (See also Ricoeur on Foucault; Structuralism; Structure, Potentiality; Difference; Identity, Isomorphism; Univocity; Historiography; Genealogy.)

Althusser’s Hegel

French Marxist Louis Althusser (1918-90) was the academic director of France’s most prestigious university during the 1960s. He open-mindedly helped promote the work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan, and maintained personal friendships with other important figures such as Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze. Althusser left provocative, underdeveloped sketches of a historiography opposed to all forms of historical teleology or predetermination (see also Structural Causality, Choice). In 1960s Paris, this new historiography was considered inseparable from a strong polemic against any and all forms of Hegelianism or Hegelian influence in contemporary social thought. (See also Archaeology of Knowledge).

There indeed have been a lot of bad Hegelianisms to which this criticism legitimately applies. But much careful work in recent decades has by now, I think, established that it need not apply to Hegel himself. In fact, Hegel even appears as a major precursor of the putatively anti-Hegelian historiography.

Before his famous anti-Hegelian period, Althusser interpreted Hegelian Spirit as “process without a subject”. Process without a subject already anticipated the characteristics he later called “aleatory”. In the late period, he emphasized that history is about understanding results, not origins.

In an extremely different context and style, Brandom has developed a reading of Hegel as practicing backward-looking recollective reconstruction of the present rather than asserting forward-moving teleology or predetermination in history.

Aleatory Matter

The resurgence of interest in French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser has largely centered around his late concept of “aleatory materialism”, based on a reading of Lucretius on the alleged spontaneous swerving of atoms in the void.

Like most other recent French writers, Althusser had little use for Aristotle. He repeated many old bad stereotypes and counterposed a good Lucretius to a bad Plato and Aristotle, to whom he mistakenly ascribed — among other things — a modern-style univocal notion of causality. Althusser’s Lucretius, by contrast, stands for recognition of the contingency of events.

It is therefore all the more intriguing to note that Althusser was unwittingly recovering a key feature I have associated with Aristotelian matter. I like the Aristotelian version better, because it does not rely on a quasi-myth of a miraculous originary swerve, but just appropriately asserts the contingency of things.