Now, you can’t write in a philosophical context that you’re critiquing humanism without someone in the audience mentioning Martin Heidegger.* His “Letter on Humanism,” the most famous text where he engages with this concept. He spent virtually his entire career critiquing humanistic ways of thinking, in different words at different times.
* Usually an academic specializing in writing commentary on Martin Heidegger.
But Heidegger’s thinking can’t go far enough in the critique of humanism. His quietism, piety, and fatalism get in the way of understanding the most profound aspects of what humanistic thinking does in the world.
|We consume our whole world as if it were a fancy meal in a restaurant.|
This is humanity at its most pathetic – turning the cosmological into
a petty pleasure. Image by Brittany Jackson.
Humanism is, quite literally, understanding all experience as ultimately related to human ends. It universalizes human ends to all things.
That’s part of what Heidegger has to say. But his concerns are to restore a proper relationship between humanity and being in a sense very disconnected from the problems of suffering and destruction. Destruction – social and ecological – is for Heidegger a symptom of a greater ontological failure.
For me, the priorities are reversed – Actually no, not reversed. Merged. The Heideggerian way of thinking merges questions of being with social and ecological questions. But it subsumes the social and ecological into questions of being, because for him being is the paramount question of philosophy.
For me, screw that. If I could give my philosophical perspective a label – at least for today – I’d call it a pragmatist anti-humanism. We destroy our societies and our ecologies with self-absorbed humanist ideas that our chauvinist priorities are the only ones that matter for human action.
You want an example? Okay, go back to Friedman’s words about national parks. You can think of many reasons to create national parks and wilderness reserves.
As far as I’m concerned, the best reason to conserve significant tracts of wilderness is to keep complex ecosystems functioning. There’s a humanistic angle to this, because humans need complex ecosystems to maintain all the processes that keep us alive – atmospheric balances, dealing with air pollution, cleaning water, preventing erosion of our land, preserving the processes that keep our soil arable and our food growing.
But there’s also the priority of wanting more complex ecosystems because ecological complexity builds a robust biosphere. The complexity of our ecologies are literally what keeps the Earth alive. Earth is a body that literally dwarfs humanity, no matter how powerful we’ve become.
We’re one recently-evolved, self-destructive species on a remarkable planet 4.5 billion years old. Earth is a body with far greater dignity and majesty than humanity. Humanity are pests compared to the Earth. And we tend to be pests on the Earth as well.
Take seriously the material existence of cosmological majesty. Humans are petty, small creatures. We can do amazing things, and we have a lot of potential. Our science-fiction can be the vehicle of our ambitions to achieve our greatest potential. But we won’t achieve that potential until we understand our pettiness and purge ourselves of it.
Pettiness like Milton Friedman writing that the purpose of national parks and nature reserves is to provide good customer service to campers and hikers.