Humanism and Postmodernism: A Reconciliation

This essay originally appeared in the Humanist, 1993, V53, #1, pp. 18-23.

Humanism is often characterized as a secular alternative to religion in our quest for a good, moral, and self-fulfilling life. Much space in humanist publications is devoted to exposing the internal contradictions of theistic philosophies and their negative social and personal consequences, while extolling the virtues of doing without the belief in God, spirit, the afterlife, and other standard religious assumptions. Our lives, in order to be worthwhile, and our society, in order to be humane, need not be grounded in the supernatural: we can be good without God. While such claims are certainly true, and important to reiterate and defend publicly, humanism is, or should be, subject to the same sort of scrutiny that it brings to bear on its religious antagonists. One of my purposes here is to show that some of the assumptions that have been used to ground humanism may themselves prove indefensible from the perspective of postmodern philosophy. We might be mistaken to suppose, for instance, that there are such things as an ultimate or universal rationality, a finally true science, a fixed human nature, or a unique social utopia to which we can tie the humanistic impulse. If we take a thoroughly naturalistic view of our situation–the view I would recommend– we will discover that the appeal to such absolutes mirrors the religious dependence upon theistic presuppositions. They are, like notions of a supreme being or a first cause, generated by the belief that our cognitive and ethical dispositions need a foundational justification, a warrant of truth given by correspondence to the way things really are. Although I believe that any coherent world view always includes some realist notion about what "actually is the case", the postmodern, anti-foundationalist turn in philosophy suggests the possibility that such realist claims are simply a matter of being compelled, as cognitive creatures, to adopt some general picture of how the world is. In any case we do not have a objective, perspective-neutral world at hand to which we can compare our views of it.

I would not want such an anti-foundationalist critique to be construed as an attack on core humanist values, since I share and want to protect these values. Rather it amounts to a defense of humanism against the possible charge that since it lacks rationalist or scientific underpinnings, it can't serve as a viable outlook. I want to say that as humanists, we don't need to invoke Reason or Science to justify our preferences for a democratic, tolerant, and caring society, within which individuals are free to pursue their private projects. Instead, we are better served by the realization that these preferences are all the foundation we could ever have, or need. We then can proceed immediately to the political project of defending and expanding the humanist agenda.

I don't think that I am setting up a straw man to contend that secular humanists often resort to rather simplistic appeals to reason, science, and human nature to butress their case against religion. It's as if to counter the sectarian rallying cry of "God, Country, and the Immortal Soul!" the humanist felt obligated to retort "Reason, Science, and the Individual!". The rhetorical force of both slogans derives from the social currency of the respective standards invoked. We are indeed a highly individualistic, technologically complex, and intellectually sophisticated society, and the humanistic appeal to secular "absolutes" trades on this, just as the Christian community, in its various campaigns, trades on being the de facto state religion. In both instances it is just "obvious" that what is invoked represents a secure basis for defending one's world view and implementing its program. Take for instance Alan Dershowitz's recent prescription for countering what he warns is "a far more intelligent, far more presentable fundamentalist movement". He says: "We have to prepare for the day when we can't win the debate by laughing at our enemies, when we must out-reason them....We believe that reason will prevail."[1] This exhortation has the same, somewhat desperate, ring to it as "God is on our side", and well it should, for it seeks support in an absolute and invincible rationality, before which even the most ardent fundamentalist must humble himself. If such a rationality existed, one which could pin fundamentalists to the wall by sheer force of dialectical argument, then it is unlikely there would be any of them still left to deal with. But Dershowitz's strategy is simply to ignore the underlying problem of whether or not such a rationality exists and simply to use the name of Reason as a rallying cry to mobilize his forces.

The same sort of examples could be adduced with regard to scientific method, empirical evidence, and what Tim Madigan has called the "metaphysical primacy of the human person".[2] In humanist manifestos (e.g. the back cover of Free Inquiry) these are held to be compelling grounds for claims to establish ethical and social systems. The mention of science, evidence, and the individual occasionally assumes an incantatory role, lulling unwary or unsophisticated secularists into the comforting belief that their perspective is somehow endowed with unbiased clarity and universal objectivity. These hallowed names are deployed rhetorically against the opposing array of religious invocations, but with little effect on those to whom they are anathema.

All this is not to deny that many humanists are aware that the assumptions underlying their agenda are just that, assumptions in need of whatever further justification can be mustered. Nor is it to suggest that humanism lacks the resources, intellectual and otherwise, to go beyond slogans in its quest for popular support. But the tendency nevertheless exists to think, complacently, that humanism has a secure philosophical footing in rationalism and science, when in fact the situation is rather more tenuous, at least by standards of contemporary philosophy. What Dewey called the "quest for certainty" colors humanist thought just as it does theism and traditional Western philosophy, and defending such certainty ties up energy better spent on practical issues. In what follows I want to sketch the general outlines of a postmodern critique of traditional philosophical questions, explore in greater detail a few of the issues that are most relevant to humanist concerns, and in the light of this critique attempt to recast humanism as a non-foundational but nonetheless worthy and viable project.

Postmodern Anti-Foundationalism

Although there is nothing completely new in postmodern thought (and given the well-worn paths of philosophical exploration, this is understandable) the overall emphasis represents a striking departure from earlier periods. The traditional philosophical project, that of establishing criteria for the true and the good, has always been subject to metaphilosophical criticism, but recently such criticism constitutes one of the dominant themes in what has come to be called the postmodern era. The questions at the heart of most philosophical inquiry have themselves been called into question on grounds that they ask the impossible, lack coherence, or are no longer interesting or useful. Richard Rorty, the current leader of the metaphilosophical attack, believes that the traditional search for cognitive and ethical foundations is forlorn, or as he puts it in pragmatist terms, "has not paid off". The central issue, he says, "is one about whether philosophy should try to find natural starting-points which are distinct from cultural traditions, or whether all philosophy should do is compare and contrast cultural traditions."[3] To take the latter position is to recommend, as Rorty puts it "the abandonment of the notion of discovering the truth which is common to theology and science." (emphasis Rorty)[4] There is no "Archimedian point" from which we can compare our views of the world to the world itself, no way to step out of our culturally limited perspective to see how things really are in themselves. Hence our conceptual schemes, our sciences, our rationalities, and our ethical beliefs all lack the absolute, objective grounding that the traditional philosophical project hoped to provide. Our choice among them becomes a matter of their relative utility for the purposes at hand, not a matter of discovering which of them reflects a true picture of the world.

Rorty is not new in this anti-foundationalism; in fact he claims merely to be the most recent exponent of a long anti-metaphysical, pragmatist tradition including James, Nietzche, Dewey, Wittgenstein, and later Foucault, Quine, Kuhn, Sellars, Davidson, and Derrida. (Not that any of these philosophers except for Dewey, James, and possibly Quine would have considered themselves pragmatists; but Rorty shows the pragmatist implications of their work.) The common thread of this tradition is the attempt to cure us of our thirst for metaphysical essences and timeless certainties, to show how the secular fascination with the possibility of ahistorical absolutes simply repeats the religious quest for theological sanctuary. The mistaken impulse is the same: to seek a safe haven from the contingency and relativity of our lot in life, to contrive an escape, albeit only intellectual, from the messy if occasionally pleasurable business of getting by in the world. To suppose we might gain some absolute philosophical distance from our situation and thereby achieve an objective point of leverage is as deluded, these philosophers warn, as a belief in the Rapture or the Second Coming. A primary function of the philosopher, Rorty believes, is to wean us from the notion that philosophy or any discipline can point the way to our necessary destiny or true nature. Freed from the futile attempt to transcend the perspective imposed upon us by being the limited creatures we are, philosophy becomes simply the historically contingent, most up-to-date effort to see generally "how things hang together".[5] Liberation from philosophy, at least as it has been traditionally conceived, is the logical next step for the culture that has presided over the death of God.

Not surprisingly there is a good deal of resistance to the anti-foundationalist thesis both inside and outside the academy. The relativist implications of seeing both cognitive and ethical systems as strictly historical, cultural, and contingent are unpalatable to many, including some humanists, who believe that without secure foundations their views become untenable. The consequences would be, as philosopher Israel Scheffler puts it that

Independent and public controls are no more, communication has failed, the common universe of things is a delusion, reality itself is made...rather than discovered....In the place of a community of rational men following objective procedures in the pursuit of truth, we have a set of isolated monads, within each of which belief forms without systematic constraints.[6]

At first glance this scenario seems plausible because we are so used to thinking of rationality, objectivity, truth, and reality as the necessary and proper determinants of belief, not, as the postmodern view would have it, the creations of belief. Without the check of some universal rationality, or some fundamentally shared human nature, what indeed is to prevent the arbitrary splintering of humankind into warring camps with irreconcilable or incommensurable cognitive and ethical systems? But we have to admit that things haven't turned out as badly as the picture Scheffler paints. For in fact we do reach agreements, there are systematic constraints on belief, men and women are often rational, communication does succeed, and there exist public controls. All this, from Scheffler's traditional standpoint, implies that anti-foundationalism is false. How do we account, for instance, for the success of science, for the growing awareness of the common ecological threat, and for the global push for democracy and human rights without positing something fixed and stable beyond historically contingent cultures? Surely there is some reality "out there" in the world, and something essentially human within us, which ground the humanistic commitment to science, democracy, tolerance, and compassion.

Before responding to this I would like to take note of another objection to anti-foundationalism that converges on somewhat the same point. This is that Rorty et al. inevitably invoke some definite picture of the world in their recommendation of pragmatism and so make claims which involve the very sorts of metaphysical commitments they would have us abjure. If we are told it is futile to seek outside our conceptual schemes for confirmation of them isn't this to take a stand about the ultimate nature of knowledge and reality, namely that since knowledge is always perspectival, reality is therefore constructed, and not discovered? Doesn't anti-foundationalist talk of historicity, contingency, and the role of culture and language in shaping beliefs presuppose, at the very least, a complex world which acts in certain causal ways upon us rather predictable creatures? The answer has to be that of course it does presuppose all this, or some version of it, and of course it does make implicit metaphysical commitments. There is no way Rorty's (or anyone else's) critique of traditional philosophy can get off the ground without assuming a very real and specific world of people, culture, traditions of belief, etc. which his arguments claim to portray correctly. The impossibility of getting outside our conceptual and perceptual schemes–the central insight of anti-foundationalism–is itself implied by the ordinary realist assumptions that human beings are physical and cognitive creatures, whose perspectives are shaped by biological and cultural circumstances.

Further, and this is the other important point regarding metaphysics, Rorty and the philosophers he cites as his progenitors are strictly naturalistic in their ontology. It is pretty much taken for granted in their work (they spend little time arguing the point) that there exist no souls, spirits, metaphysically distinct mental essences, omniscient deities, or other non-physical entities that could enable the individual to escape the limited perspective he or she inhabits. There is no transcendent mental or spiritual approach to Pure Reason or Ultimate Reality, nor is there an unchanging internal essence within the individual exempt from physical law. This is what I would call the basic naturalistic presumption of anti-foundationalism. Whether and how it is justifiable are questions I won't raise here.

It is of course inevitable that however anti-realist and pragmatic one's philosophy, its starting point will assume a more or less commonly accepted world of ordinary objects and persons. If it doesn't it risks being too obscure to capture much attention or credibility. (Although of course you can always find adherents for any set of beliefs, however crazy or counterintuitive. Christian Science is my favorite example.) Likewise, when setting out arguments, it is unavoidable to make general claims about how things are in some respect, or what sorts of things exist. To philosophize, even metaphilosophically, is to speak within a network of assumptions, some tacit and some explicit, which it is hoped the listener (one's potential convert) shares or will come to share. My point regarding anti-foundationalism is, that as much as it claims to be metaphysically agnostic it must, even as a critique of the traditional metaphysical quest for certainty, say and assume a good deal about the furniture of the world. This furniture, it seems, is wholly naturalistic, that is, unbifurcated into separate physical, mental, and spiritual realms. Such naturalism, which eliminates the possibility of spiritual or psychic transcendental knowledge, combined with an appreciation of the complex biological, historical, and cultural determination of any world view, creates skepticism about non-perspectival foundations for beliefs and leads, finally, to the pragmatic refusal to take seriously the philosophical notion of Truth.

Cognitive Contingency and Relativity

Given this analysis of anti-foundationalist assumptions, I want to return to the earlier question of how to account for progress in science and how we might justify at least the hope for progress in human rights. The issue becomes whether naturalism and pragmatism are adequate to these tasks, which are of central concern to humanists. Humanism has been broadly, if not completely, naturalistic[7], but in its rationalist leanings it is at odds with the postmodern denial of universal, perspective-neutral Reason. The thrust of Rorty's argument is that if we are content to posit simply the natural world of physical objects, human beings, languages, and cultures, then we should be skeptical about the notion of a rational faculty, independent of one's time and place, which hooks on to the world as it "really" is and so could unite all peoples in a shared, uniquely true set of beliefs and values. From this perspective, humanism contains a contradiction if it tries to be both naturalistic and rationalist. But is it necessary, either to explain the successes of science or to provide ammunition in the battle for human rights, for humanism to cling to rationalism of any sort? And would appeals to evidence, reason, and tolerance lose their force if deprived of rationalist foundations?

To help show why these questions can both be answered in the negative I will recur to the work of Stanley Fish, an aggressively postmodern literary theorist who borrows heavily from analytic philosophy and has a good deal to say on topics outside of literature. In his book Doing What Comes Naturally Fish starts from a critique of textual formalism, the thesis that the meaning of a text is objectively fixed by lexical, grammatical, or semantic features independent of interpretation. He then attacks the more general notion that there are context-free, interpretively uncontaminated grounds for establishing any facts, theories, beliefs, or values. In his version of anti-foundationalism facts and values are "social and political constructs" held within particular communities and not subject to an assessment that might escape its own partiality and situatedness.[8] So far this is very much Rorty's line, but Fish puts his own rather interesting emphasis on one facet of the postmodern situation. This is the realization that knowing that our conceptual schemes and values are relative to our historical and cultural situation will do nothing to free ourselves from the constraints imposed by that situation. That is, we cannot escape our situatedness and so cannot escape taking seriously the values and world views generated by the circumstances surrounding us. As Fish puts it

even if one is convinced ... that the world he sees and the values he espouses are constructions, or as some say, "effects of discourse," that conviction will in no way render the world any less perspicuous or those values any less compelling. It is thus the condition of human life always to be operating as an extension of beliefs and assumptions that are historically contingent, and yet to be holding those beliefs and assumptions with an absoluteness that is the necessary consequence of the absoluteness with which they hold–inform, shape, constitute–us.[9]

As Fish reiterates throughout his book, we need not worry that anti-foundationalism will deprive us of anything, since perforce we are never without values and criteria for belief. If we do worry that our central convictions about what's rational and right are parochial, this worry is in the context of the assumption, deeply held, that our beliefs gain validity only by reflecting a uniquely true picture of the world. Now, if under the withering gaze of postmodernism we surrender this assumption, do we then lapse into a state of moral and cognitive emptiness? Not in the least. We discover that we still have preferences, we still have practical, rational ways of dealing with the world, and we remain just as committed to our ambitions and projects. Anti-foundationalism reveals not only that "deep" philosophical justifications for beliefs are unobtainable, but also that they are superfluous. Rationalism, as one form of the search for context-free, ahistorical grounds for belief, can be safely left behind once we see that preferences, values, and beliefs are as deep as we can, or need, go.

From this vantage point the success of science comes not from the use of a transcendent rationality, or from getting closer and closer to a reality independent of our human perspective, but comes from the resolution of specific difficulties within this perspective as it has grown more complex. New theories, new discoveries, and the increasing range of prediction and control cannot be explained by a better correspondence of science to a perspectivally unmediated Given, since that Given is precisely what, as situated creatures, we cannot grasp. Fish, following Kuhn in his discussions of science, reminds us that it is the scientific community–not the "higher court" of nature–that decides between theories and paradigms[10]. We are not about to abandon our cognitive preference for intersubjectively verified evidence (if such is indeed our preference; it is certainly for humanists) just because we learn that it is unavoidably relative to our community of shared belief. There is nothing that would get us through the day that would work as well, and as Fish says, we don't really have much choice: we are inextricably caught up in our scientific-empiricist version of rationality. (We are also equally caught up in our public controls on behavior, our forms of communication, and our shared hopes for the future.)

It is difficult to abandon the notion of a perspective-neutral foundation for empirical claims, especially for well-verified, long-standing physical laws and entities. This is because the situation of being a self-conscious, cognitive creature requires a working distinction between the knower and the known, the perceiver and the perceived. Once this distinction is in place, the legitimate, practical question inevitably arises about the veridicality of perception and the accuracy of knowledge. We find that we are constantly correcting ourselves. But the question of accuracy can lead to the more dubious philosophical debate about the "nature" of what is known. Do we know it in its true essence, in its intrinsic reality apart from the human perspective? The impressive accumulation of mathematically precise, coherently interlocked, and practically effective descriptions of nature that is science prompts the idea, as Rorty would put it, that we are learning the language of nature, not simply refining a human dialect. But the scientific, or more broadly, the naturalistic picture of ourselves as included within nature undercuts the foundationalist notion that we might assume the Archimedian vantage point. Knowledge, thus conceived, is always a function of a specific, limited perspective, whether individual or collective, a perspective generated by a reality which only takes shape as given in that perspective. The human dialect of science is one attempt, through us, that nature makes at introspection, but due to the recursive limits of self-knowledge, nature can never fully objectify itself for itself. Nevertheless, reality is no less real for being given only in perspectives. As Nelson Goodman puts it, we are world-makers[11], and as Fish reminds us, the world we make insures that we are never without a supply of assumptions, opinions, and hard facts to cite for our purposes.

The humanist purpose with regard to science and evidence is often to cite them in attacks on the "fuzzy" and "wishful" thinking of religious opponents. Nothing I've said here impugns this strategy, for if someone is wavering in his allegiance to theism or supernaturalism then the appeal to his nascent respect for empirical justifications may be just the thing to bring him into the humanist fold. But what we can't claim is that the humanist commitment to science gets things ultimately "right", and that therefore there is either something cognitively defective or willfully recalcitrant about those who don't share this commitment. Rather, we will understand them as belonging to a different culture, as inhabiting a different perspective, as living out a different version of the accommodation between knower and the known. These differences explain the limited success of our appeals to science and evidence, and likewise of our appeals to reason, "common moral decencies", justice, fairness, and the rest of our dearly held standards. Our appeals will only carry weight if there already exist in the culture of our opponent the seeds of what we want to inculcate. For these things do not exist outside whatever particular cultural worlds contain them. They are part of the "furniture of the universe" only in the precarious, contingent sense that any particular is; they don't exist as Platonic forms, awaiting use as irrefutable absolutes.

Human Nature and Humanist Hope

If there are no sure-fire foundational or philosophical justifications for the humanist agenda, then it seems as if the prospects for its implementation might be bleak. There are no guarantees that the seeds of tolerance, compassion, and the humanistic versions of justice and fairness will take root (should they exist at all) in non-democratic, authoritarian, and fundamentalist societies. In this regard humanists have often banked on the notion that there is, within each individual, an essential core of decency and reasonableness, or lacking this, at least a shared human nature of some sort that would serve to anchor the progressive, utopian development of a properly humanistic culture. If this core or nature exists, then it would give grounds for hope in the eventual triumph of humanism as the culminating expression of that nature.

But the postmodern "deconstruction" of the notion of human nature and the human "subject" as something fixed, universal, and foundational casts some doubt on the utopian project. Looking for the subject within, we discover simply the Humean stream of experience occuring without benefit of an observing or controling ego. This looking and discovering are simply additional experiences, having a particular content but providing no evidence for something that observes experience. There is nothing solid behind the flux of thoughts, desires, feelings, beliefs, and intentions which "has" them or manages them.[12] The "metaphysical primacy of the human person" is thus no more than the bare fact of a limited, contingent consciousness, shaped by genetic inheritance and by physical and social circumstances.

The consciousness and the person thus shaped are as contingent as the natural and cultural events which did the shaping. As Stephen Gould is fond of remarking, if we could replay the tape of evolution, the dominant forms of life on earth might now be vastly different[13] and consciousness, if it existed at all, conceivably the property not of individuals, but of communities. (Could ant colonies, given the proper twist of evolutionary fate, collectively model the environment and themselves in a way analogous to the human brain?) The human species, therefore, is simply the current "state of the art" in self-consciousness, having arrived at this particular juncture by a tortuous route of natural selection that only Laplace's demon could have predicted. There is no reason to suppose that the biological constants encoded in our genes may not undergo further change, either at our own whim or by some catastrophe. Human nature, and human culture, are potentially whatever we decide we want them to be, and that decision will in turn be the complex result of social, technological, and ecological forces now in motion. Given the fluidity of this situation, any utopian prescription for a finally "natural" state of human society based on a fixed human nature seems naive. There is no end point, no destiny, democratic or otherwise, towards which we are moving. There is only the current state of affairs, biological and cultural, that contains the preferences, values, beliefs, and dreams that now define us.

Humanists, no longer able to rest securely in the certainties of either a transcendental subject or a natural social destiny, must work with whatever commonalities do obtain among us in order to bring about what they desire. And these commonalities are substantial. Within the contingent and sure to change status quo–the global babble of creeds, philosophies, political systems, and moralities–there are discernable, if not immutable, universals which may enable the humanistic project to gather force. We all share, at this point, a relatively stable biological endowment which bases the normal compliment of human needs, and these in turn motivate the creation of a need-satisfying society. Democratic ideals of individualism, tolerance, justice, and fairness, vague as they might be, nevertheless define a widespread set of preferences for how society should be structured. These preferences speak to the hope, present occasionally in just about all of us, that we might flourish as individuals, and yet find security and community in association with others. Humanism, as part of a broadly liberal Western culture, seeks to reinforce this hope while staying true to a naturalistic view of things. Bereft of the reassurances given by God, a universal rationality, an ultimately objective science, a fixed human nature, or a necessary utopia, humanism will discover that its agenda still remains the same: to create the best solution to the human predicament that the desires, aspirations, and skills of its adherents allow.

There is nothing privileged about these desires and aspirations, facing as they do the equally human predeliction to dominate, inflict suffering, and exact retribution. They bear no mark of cosmic propriety, nor are they rationally defensible in any philosophically deep sense that would turn the heads of committed authoritarians and despots. However, the plausible postmodern skepticism about foundations leaves these aspirations quite intact, since they originate not from theory, but from our constitution as physical and social beings. Once free of the mistaken supposition that humanistic values have a transcendental justification, we will expend our argumentative energies more efficiently–on reaching those who already in some sense agree with us, instead of preaching to the unconvertible. And things aren't so bleak as those who fear relativism might imagine. For there are many who do agree with us, of all faiths and persuasions, on what matters most, namely the development of a sustainable global capacity to meet basic human needs, the protection of the planet, and the personal and political freedom to express oneself. If we accept the fact, adduced within a naturalistic postmodern framework, that humanism is a political project concerned with advancing a contingent but widely shared set of preferences, then philosophical disagreements about the basis of those preferences will come to seem fairly innocuous. Humanists will always want to argue naturalism against theism, evidence against faith, rationality against superstition, the individual against the herd, but to find allies for the real fight the pragmatic recommendation is to see where one's presumed opponents stand on practical issues. When and if agreement is reached about ends and means, many ideological differences can safely remain unresolved. The humanistic project will continue on in as many different guises and under as many different names as our tolerance for ideological diversity will permit.

© Thomas W. Clark 1993


1. Alan Dershowitz, "Upholding the Wall of Separation", Free Inquiry, vol. 11, no. 2, p. 56.

2. Tim Madigan, "Postmodern Humanism", Free Inquiry, vol. 11, no. 1, p. 53.

3. Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (University of Minnesota, 1982), p. xxxvii.

4. Ibid., p. 151.

5. Ibid., p. xxxviii.

6. Israel Scheffler, as quoted by Stanley Fish in Doing What Comes Naturally (Duke University Press, 1989), p. 487.

7. For a critique of some non-naturalistic assumptions in humanism see T.W. Clark and Corliss Lamont, "Free Choice and Naturalism" in The Humanist, May/June, 1990.

8. Stanley Fish, Doing What Comes Naturally, p. 26.

9. Ibid., pp. 245-6.

10. Ibid., pp. 486-8.

11. Nelson Goodman, "The Fabrication of Facts" in Relativism: Cognitive and Moral, Michael Krausz and Jack W. Meiland, editors. (Notre Dame, 1982).

12. For a detailed exposition of these claims see Paul Breer's The Spontaneous Self: Viable Alternatives to Free Will (Institute for Naturalistic Philosophy, Cambridge, 1989), chapters 1-3.

13. Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (Norton, 1989), p. 51.