How Did Humanism Die? How Did It Survive?

In 2019, the idea of “humanism” feels passé. If humanism means “universally shared values,” or “progress,” or an exceptionalism based on the power of ...

In 2019, the idea of “humanism” feels passé. If humanism means “universally shared values,” or “progress,” or an exceptionalism based on the power of reason, then the cruelties of industrial capitalism and the mass violence of two World Wars have given those meanings very little to subsist on. And that doesn’t even address the legacies of colonialism, which can persuasively be said to have dehumanized the colonized and the colonizers alike, or to have given the lie to the category of “the human” altogether. And the overdue recognition, in the United States at least, of the persistence of the racism born of Atlantic slavery makes universal claims about our “shared humanity” sound naive at best.

In the academy, the death of humanism has been presumed for half a century—or for a century, or for a century and a half, depending on whether you date its demise to Nietzsche, Darwin, and Marx, to Freud and Heidegger, or to Foucault and Derrida. Factor in 60 years of feminist writing on the false universality of “man,” two decades of Silicon Valley triumphalism about the imminent arrival of our robot masters, and you have to wonder why anyone today would believe that there’s some human “we” who share anything at all.

And yet, despite all this, day to day “we” continue to negotiate a half-aware vernacular sense of the “human,” even now. Three recent books tell slightly different stories about the death and the survival of “the human,” or at least afford the chance to rethink our narratives about humanism. The first suggests that people may experience themselves as most human when most typical; the second that our ideas about the self are most challenged when confronted with our hormonal and psychic complexity; and the third, most pointedly, argues that we may have dodged the hardest questions about humanity for political reasons.

Merve Emre’s The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing tells the story of Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, the mother-daughter team who worked across the middle of the 20th century to spread a gospel of “personality types” that survives to this day. The legacy of the system they devised is ambiguous: depending on how you view it, the “types” they identified either ground a kind of humanism by naming something innate to each of us, or dismantle humanist notions of the individual because we are all potentially reducible to a mere “type.”

Briggs and Myers were a remarkable pair: the mother home-schooled until college at the turn of the century, the daughter in turn educated at home until enrolling at Swarthmore, and both of them early, passionate readers of Carl Jung. Long before reading Jung in the early 1920s, however, Briggs had begun to develop her own ideas about distinct types as she observed her young daughter, which she honed further when Isabel was courting her eventual husband, Clarence “Chief” Myers—a steady, practical character whom Briggs felt was an odd match for her intuitive, artistic daughter.

Taking Jung’s typology of opposed pairs (extraversion and introversion, sensing and intuition, and thinking and feeling) and adding to it a further opposition (judging and perceiving), Briggs and Myers spent the rest of their long lives promulgating the idea that people would be happier in their marriages and workplaces if they were given tools to recognize their innate capacities and orientations. But does this make them more fully human, or just better cogs in a smoother machine?

Emre’s book is the first to give flesh and blood to Briggs and Myers, and specifically to highlight the fact that the near-universal recognition of the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) is the work of two women—women who, though college educated, were never trained in social-scientific research methods. But Emre’s frame is not quite a feminist one. Her deepest story, instead, is about the contradiction between the idealism that drove Briggs and Myers, and the cold realism driving the institutions that had a hand in disseminating the idea of type. As she puts it:

For some time, it has been a well-known fact that the type indicator is not scientifically valid … What remains unexplained is why, in the face of this knowledge, so many people … continue not only to embrace the type indicator but to defend its inviolability with the kind of ardor usually reserved for matters of the deepest faith.

That phrase, “deepest faith,” is the key to Emre’s book: her tale is one of faith despite all evidence, of belief in the face of secularization. Indeed it is a tale of the need for belief. If this need “remains unexplained,” as Emre says, her answer is not given in philosophical or religious terms but in narrative ones: she suggests that the promise of matching potential spouses, or matching employers to employees, was for Briggs and Myers like a love story, even a Cinderella story.

Emre inserts us into her narrative. In one long interlude, describing the World War II–era use of MBTI-inspired group scenarios by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, Emre uses the pronoun “you” to invite the reader to imagine herself as a spy sent to the OSS training camp to be “tested” for suitability to espionage. And perhaps most strikingly, she writes a whole penultimate chapter in the style of an imaginary biography of a typical (female) consumer of type, loosely of Emre’s generation, evaluated in the cradle and comforted by type to the grave. Though she doesn’t say so explicitly, Emre seems to think the goal of preserving a passionate sense of innate selfhood is worth the price of being typed, even pseudo-scientifically.


The World in a Blot of Ink

By Susan Zieger

Stefanos Geroulanos and Todd Meyers’s The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe tells a different story. Whereas Emre is curious about what deep impulse in people allows them to accept or even crave being reduced to type, thereby undermining our sense of the individual as unique, Geroulanos and Meyers present an account of early 20th-century blows to our sense of the individual as integral. These challenges to the idea of the self’s integrity emerged, a century ago, from the study of the body itself. Focusing on a mostly European (but increasingly American) conversation among physiologists, doctors, and therapeutic professionals in the years just before and after World War I, the authors argue that the mysteries presented by the shocks to soldiers’ bodies led researchers to rethink the individual organism as a web of homeostatic relations in danger of collapsing under almost any pressure.

The puzzles presented by war wounds, and by the long afterlives of the traumas they generated, collided with new discoveries about the modulating work of hormones; the result was an image of the human that was almost impossibly easy to dissolve. It turns out that those speculations predate and shape the great demystifications of “the human” later in the century. It’s not just that we have unconscious impulses that lie outside our sense of self, or that we evolved from less individuated organisms, or that social structures shape our deepest desires. It’s that each of us is a complexly homeostatic medley of substance and force. As Geroulanos and Meyers put it: “Traditionally Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud are credited with subverting the concept of individuality. We credit that subversion to [American physiologist Walter ] Cannon, [British physiologist Henry] Dale, and [German psychiatrist Kurt] Goldstein.”

What this subversion amounts to, in The Human Body, is the rise of a loosely conceived picture of the individual as both extremely particular and newly liable to categorization. “This was a particular kind of individuality,” they write, “one premised on a need to treat each human being … as singular, while, perhaps surprisingly, actively depriving that human being of agency, voice, and subjectivity.”

The split between the individual as a precarious ensemble of cellular and psychic and hormonal activity, on the one hand, and as the subject of newly state-administered medicine, on the other, is for Geroulanos and Meyers the forgotten precondition of the great structuralist pronouncements about the derivative character of subjectivity at mid-century. That split is also a forgotten warrant for 1960s-era anti-humanist thinkers. By illustrating the debts of the postmodern era to the medical sciences of the early century, Geroulanos and Meyers give us a very different picture of the demise of the liberal subject than the one we knew.

Why is it easier to declare the end of the human, or the end of religion, or the end of universalism, than to replace it with something?

In The Philosophy Scare: The Politics of Reason in the Early Cold War, John McCumber gives us yet another unexpected tale of the demise of humanism. In his case, it’s a story of tactical retreat, in which mid-century American philosophy gives up thinking through questions of value (What is humanity’s worth? What is a good life?) in favor of the rigors of logic (How can we strictly determine true or false statements?). But it’s also a story about how value, with all its human messiness, keeps creeping back in.

In an unusual blend of archival research and philosophical analysis, McCumber relates a previously untold story about the political pressure conservative evangelical Christians placed on academic philosophy in the 1950s and 1960s, and about the consequences of that pressure for the direction of the discipline since then: specifically, its turn away from ancient questions about the good life, and toward a quest for what grounds true or false propositions. McCumber adds to this a somewhat more familiar story, of philosophy seeking—and finding—prestige in an alliance with the “rational choice theory” promulgated by the researchers at the RAND Corporation.

This meant that American philosophers by and large rejected older traditions of idealism. The catch, as McCumber deftly demonstrates, is that a blunt rejection of idealism in its vernacular American form—that is, the belief in a supernatural order, and a personal God—would sound (and be) atheistic. Instead, McCumber shows, the “idealist” enemies became Kant and Hegel—Kant for daring to presuppose the character of human relation to the cosmos—i.e., limited by our minds—and Hegel for supposedly reducing the cosmos to the mind. In the short term, the German philosophers were far easier to defeat than the letter-writing evangelicals: they could be denounced head-on. But in the long run, the particular agnosticism American philosophy came to prefer could not escape the problem of providing an account of what philosophy is for.

By mid-century, McCumber argues, most philosophers had disdain for God-talk, but couldn’t afford to admit it. Instead, by targeting idealist philosophy—especially Hegel, and his idea of “the Absolute”—they were able to equate idealism with both religion and totalitarianism. This kept them off the radar of the evangelicals who were conducting letter-writing campaigns against the hiring of “atheists” in philosophy departments, and made them look appealing to the powerful anti-communist forces of the day. And university administrators, at least in California, were happy to encourage this attitude if it held off the Christians and the red-baiters. McCumber details especially well how the University of California’s hiring and firing, not to mention its notorious 1950 anti-communist loyalty oath, serve as the link between intellectual substance and larger political currents.

The spiritual optimism of the American idealists of the early 20th century proved easy to mock, McCumber shows, but the science-loving logicians did not fare much better. Dedicated to a “stratified naturalism” that bracketed the question of the mind’s relation to nature in favor of the seemingly easier question of the mind’s relation to science, these ascendant philosophers kept backing into nature anyway—and therefore, into old questions about God, the human, and the cosmos. Philosophy doesn’t need to speculate dreamily on our place in the cosmos, they argued, but it can rank the sciences so that physics is the fundamental one—to which, in the long run, the other sciences will conform, even messy ones like biology.

But the “long run” of the naturalists ends up looking like the endless journey to Hegel’s Absolute that the realists liked to mock: as McCumber puts it, the project of even a studiously non-value-driven philosophy “is indefinitely postponed.” What was much easier, The Philosophy Scare shows, was to denigrate religion obliquely, by swapping in dialectics and speculation where revealed truth was, and to champion rational choice theory as a funding-friendly science of the individual mind, cosmically agnostic but also opportunistic, and pointedly anti-communist.


Bearing Risks and Being Watched

By Greta R. Krippner

The Philosophy Scare therefore provides one answer to the question that dogs the authors and the subjects of The Personality Brokers and The Human Body: Why is it easier to declare the end of the human, or the end of religion, or the end of universalism, than to replace it with something?

As Emre describes them, her “true believers” leave us dangling: they know very well that “science” has disproved the empirical justification for their yearnings, but they feel, somehow, that they are being successfully described. Geroulanos and Meyers’s theorists of the medical and social body, meanwhile, help invent a besieged “subjectivity” whose intellectual force is largely negative: they describe it as too “singular” to be liberal, or fascistic, or communist. But McCumber’s red-baited philosophers and administrators left an archival trail, in which a scientific-sounding “logic” gave cover to a retreat from hard questions about the very human struggle over what, in our shared existence, is worth valuing. Especially during the Cold War, when it was possible to ask whether we might prefer a world of ownership and property, or a world of shared resources, both the administrators and the analytic philosophers chose not to face that problem. Rather than ask big questions about society or the cosmos, and risk being taken by their colleagues for crypto-Marxists or closet Christians, they punted.

All three authors know that we have still, today, not escaped the dilemma of the “human.” Everyone in their books feels there’s something like a universal humanity, but nobody feels comfortable describing it. In 2019, the idea is opposed from the multicultural left and the neo-fascist right alike. Is our choice today between complete social fragmentation and enforced conformity? It was once possible to think about this seeming dichotomy as part of a concrete political dialectic. Perhaps we can credit anti-communism with making us feel that we have to choose between a collapsing “individual” and an overwhelming “society.”


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

Featured image: Piero di Cosimo, detail of A Hunting Scene (ca. 1494–1500). Tempera and oil transferred to Masonite, 27 3/4 x 66 3/4 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York