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.

Kantian Will

Will for Kant is the ability to act in accordance with a conception of law. In spite of his confusing rhetoric about free will, this is clearly not the voluntarist notion of a faculty superior to reason, free to do or choose any arbitrary thing. However much I dislike images of law in ethics — which by default suggest what Hegel called “positive” or empirically existing, first-order law — acting in accordance with a conception of law is clearly not acting arbitrarily.

Kant also distinguishes between acting in accordance with a conception of law from merely acting in accordance with law. The latter would be mere obedience, without thought. So the important thing is not really the law as such, but thought about how to interpret it. (See also Kant’s Groundwork; Kantian Freedom; The Autonomy of Reason.)

Kantian Freedom

Brandom’s 2007 Woodbridge lectures (reprinted in Reason in Philosophy) opened my eyes to a new and much more positive appreciation of what Kant was trying to say about freedom. Brandom’s treatment is a marvel of clarity in comparison to the tortured arguments of a text like the Critique of Practical Reason. Kant was among the greatest of philosophers, but much of the second Critique seems occupied with producing a square circle, in its attempt to reconcile overly strong Newtonian determinism with the legal and political voluntarism popular among 17th and 18th century theorists like Pufendorf and Rousseau, and related talk about an incompatibilist notion of free will.

Brandom charts a middle path between the extremes of determinism and voluntarism, highlighting Kant’s key insights into freedom as essentially normative and positive and involved with reason, while deemphasizing Kant’s questionable invocations of will and causality in this context. This turns the ugly caterpillar into a butterfly.

The kind of determinism Kant was sympathetic to was the univocal sort, which wants to say not only that that there are sufficient reasons why everything is the way it is, but also that it could not have turned out any other way. I want to say that in hindsight there are always sufficient reasons why everything turned out the way it did, but that in advance, multiple outcomes are possible. (See also Equivocal Determination.)

In terms of the classic medieval debates about the priority of reason or will, Brandom’s reading puts Kant squarely on the side of the priority of reason. Talk about freedom as positive and related to specific capabilities, rather than negative and “infinite”, already rules out voluntarism. Kant’s deep concern with the autonomy of reason is also materially incompatible with any subordination of reason to will.

I think understanding of Kantian freedom should focus on the autonomy of reason, as well as applying something like the Critique of Judgment notion of the free play of the imagination and understanding in reflective judgment to the synthesis of unities of apperception.

After clearing away univocal determinism and voluntarism, we are left with ethics, which seems a good outcome. (See also Structural Causality, Choice; Values, Causality; Kantian Will.)

Strong Omnipotence

The Greek-speaking Jewish theologian Philo of Alexandria (1st century BCE to 1st CE) was perhaps the original antiphilosopher. That is to say, he used some philosophical ideas with learning and sophistication, but was unequivocally hostile to the autonomy of reason, which was something of a commonplace among the Greek philosophers.

For Philo, any equivalent of ethical virtue seems to come exclusively from faith in the revelation of the Greek Old Testament, taken as the literal word of God. To me, this sounds like an unfortunate precursor to today’s fundamentalisms, which ignore all sounder theology, and preclude the very possibility of genuine ethics. Where there is no allowance for virtue independent of one-sided authority, it may become all too permissible to hate whomever is called an unbeliever or heretic. Many other theologians have been far less one-sided, allowing for at least a relative autonomy of reason, and a possibility of genuine virtue independent of sheer obedience to presumed dictates of revelation. With them, a moral philosopher can find common ground.

Philo may have originated the suggestion that Platonic ideas exist in the mind of an omnipotent God. An emphatic supernaturalist, he defended creation from nothing, grounded in an ultra-strong version of divine omnipotence. On this view, God has absolute liberty, and thus can do absolutely any absolutely arbitrary thing at any time, as with the later Islamic occasionalists. Philo explicitly contrasted this view with those of all the Greek philosophers and those influenced by them, who at the very least would expect God to act in ways that are genuinely reasonable and good, and thus put reason and goodness before any will. Unlike the God of Aquinas, for instance, the God of Philo is even supposed to be able to do logically impossible things if he so wills. This is extreme theological voluntarism.

Philonic strong omnipotence is precisely the kind of thing Leibniz later said would make of God an arbitrary tyrant, with disastrous ethical and social consequences. Notions of divine will tacitly assumed to be known with certainty by human authority, and not subject to any inquiry go against the whole better tradition of faith seeking understanding, and make it all too easy to mask hate in the name of supposed holiness.

In all three of the major monotheistic traditions, this dangerous kind of voluntarism has been applied by some to God. Some have gone on to attribute similar supernatural free will to humans as well, on the ground that they are made in the image of a God that has that kind of completely unconstrained freedom. This is using bad theology to justify bad anthropology. As anthropology, it is what Hegel called the illusion of Mastery. Some bad philosophers have simply postulated a similar completely unconstrained “negative” freedom or “freedom of indifference” for humans, without even a pretended explanation of how this could be. (See also Freedom and Free Will.)

My main source for statements about Philo here is the actually sympathetic essay by Harry Austryn Wolfson, in his book Religious Philosophy: A Group of Essays (1961). I always thought of Wolfson as a Spinoza scholar, but Wikipedia says he is actually best known for another, larger work on Philo. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a nice summary of current Philo scholarship. (See also Fragility of the Good; Theology.)

Freedom and Free Will

Plato and Aristotle got along perfectly well with what many people think was no concept of a separate “will” at all. Aristotle nonetheless developed a nuanced account of deliberation and choice, which should have made it plain for all time that no extravagant assumptions are necessary to provide a basis for morality. All that is required for ethical development is that there be things within our power, not that we can somehow magically escape from all determination.

Curiously, the notion of a “freedom of indifference” emerged in Stoicism, generally thought to be a haven of determinism. The Stoic sage is claimed to be completely indifferent and unaffected by passions, therefore completely free. Some monotheistic theologians later applied an even stronger version of this to God. God in this view is absolutely free to do absolutely any arbitrary thing. Some even claimed that because man is in the image of God, man too is supernaturally exempt from any constraint on the will. Descartes claimed that the physical world was wholly determined, but that the human soul is by the grace of God wholly free. (See also Arbitrariness, Inflation.)

Others thought we are free when we are guided by reason. This view takes different shapes, from that of Aquinas to that of Spinoza.

Kant introduced another kind of freedom, based on taking responsibility. Where I decide to take responsibility, I am free in that sense, with no need for a supernatural power. I can take responsibility for things that are by no means fully within my control. Kant unfortunately confuses the matter by talking about freedom as a novel form of causality, while denying that this makes any gap in Newtonian physical causality. (See also Kantian Freedom; Kantian Will; Freedom Through Deliberation?; Beauty, Deautomatization; Phenomenology of Will.)

Hegel too reproduced some voluntarist-sounding rhetoric, but his version of freedom is a combination of both the reason and responsibility views with absence of slavery or oppression. (See also Independence, Freedom.)

Confusion continued into the 20th century notably with Sartre, who claimed that man is free even in prison, and attacked so-called structuralism for allegedly undermining said freedom.

Freedom as reason, freedom as responsibility, freedom as absence of slavery and oppression are all things we should want. As for the rest, see the Appendix to Book 1 of Spinoza’s Ethics (though unfortunately Spinoza is unfair to Aristotle in treating all teleology as supernatural in origin). (See also Subject; God and the Soul; Influence.)

Brandom explicitly mentions theological voluntarism as associated with what he calls the “subordination-obedience model” of normativity.