Étienne Balibar – Anti-Humanism, and the Question of Philosophical Anthropology

Étienne Balibar presents an illuminating synopsis of debates between French humanists and anti-humanists  culminating in Foucault’s diagnosis in The Order of Things (Les mots et les choses)  here.

Balibar sees Foucault’s book as a synthesis of two initially disparate critiques of philosophies founded on a conception of Man as the subject and object of philosophical reflection: Heidegger’s analysis of human finitude (stemming from his anthropological reading of Kant) and the formalist account of agency and indetermination in the structuralist anthropology of Levi-Strauss.

Link to an eText of Kant’s logic here.

For Balibar the central chapter is l’homme et ses doubles (‘Man and his doubles’) where Foucault criticizes the sublimation of data in the social sciences like psychology and history into attributes incarnated in each singular human individual. Balibar suggests that this position is formally akin to Marx’s criticism of anthropological essentialism – as in the sixth thesis on Feuerbach – with the difference that Foucault is interested in the projection of an abstract conception of a reflective ‘I think’ onto ‘quasi-transcendental’ conceptions of man as a living, labouring and speaking being. Finally, Balibar argues that Foucault’s text implies that Marx’s identification of the human with  ‘the open system or ensemble of all social relations’  can be critically re-engaged through confrontations with madness (psychoanalysis) and the non-European ‘other’ (ethnography). Thus the death of man (qua abstract universal) does not imply the impossibility of a ‘critical anthropology of relations’.

Patrice Maniglier’s response makes some connections between the 60’s anti-humanism debates and Anglo-American interest in a teleological forms of ethics predicated on conceptions of humanly distinctive capacities (e.g. Nussbaum, Sandel, Kymlicka,etc). However, in view of claims made in my post on the ‘Category’ of the human, the most interesting claim is that Foucault’s project in OT derives from Ernst Cassirer’s assertion  that transcendental philosophy is ‘conditioned by . . . transformations within empirical sciences’.

Maniglier claims that Foucault was attempting to neutralize the distinction between a naturalistic critique of transcendental thinking and a speculative history of being on the Heideggerian model by a) objectifying the structures (the epistemes) that putatively constitute our anthropological self-understanding and b) exhibiting the incompleteness of this frame. Thus anthropology is re-conceived as a method of soliciting the limits of humanist discourse.

Now, I find it hard to buy into the metaphysical  project that Maniglier sketches here: in particular, it seems predicated on the doubtful claim that the difference between the human and the non-human falls out of a historical synthetic a priori which can then be subjected to some kind of deconstructive operation. There’s a covert anti-realism here that has tended to be passed over in most discussions. Moreover, there’s the ethical and political danger that those points of ‘otherness’ which solicit the limits of the human become mere figures of transcendence. Still the logic of the debate is of more than museological interest, if only because a similar line of argument actuates debates around the nonhuman and the posthuman in contemporary theory.


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