The case for much maligned humanism
Once upon a time, humanism was a term of sovereign approbation, a
badge of recognition, an attribute worth fighting for. Many writers and
intellectuals, justifiably, sought to wrap themselves around humanism as
a way of gaining greater visibility and legitimacy for their projects.
That was then; during the last two or three decades we have begun to
notice a sea-change. Humanism is no longer promoted as a worthwhile
goal; it has not only lost much of its lustre, but is increasingly
becoming a term of disparagement. It has degenerated into a smear-word
in certain Western intellectual circles.
To say that a writer displays a certain residual humanism is to
condemn him in no uncertain terms. Why has this transformation taken
place and who is responsible for it? This is due in large part to the
spread of such approaches to arts and letters as structuralism,
post-structuralism, post-modernism. These schools of thought,
admittedly, have had a salutary impact in the sense that they
demonstrated the fallibility of the thinking that human beings are
sovereign, self-present and in total command of their circumstances,
which is clearly not the case.
However, they have moved to the other extreme of totally denying
human agency and responsibility, thereby undermining the central pillar
of humanism. What we need to do is to re-occupy the radical middle.
Humanism, to be sure, is a word that has a complex history and admits
of a plurality of definitions. As with words such as culture and
ideology, we have to recognize its multi-faceted nature and seek to
interpret it while not removing from its interpretive habitats. From the
very beginning, humanism gave rise to certain predictable debates and
controversies. There are a number of dominant features associated with
humanism" human beings are the makers of their destinies, there are no
supernatural powers that guide human action, one has to have unwavering
faith in the possibilities of human beings, questions of ethics and
morality have to be grounded in this-earthly experiences (after all,
etymologically humans refer to earthly creature), reason, logic,
scientific methods should inform our thinking and behaviour. These are
important traits, and many of them deserve our assent. However, the
problem arises when they are applied to diverse societies, especially
non-Western ones, without taking adequately into considerations the
complex and shaping powers of different cultures.
In the early phase; humanism aroused deep antithetical passions of
various religious groups who saw it as a threat to religious thinking.
This battle has been fought over the centuries, both in the East and the
West, and today there are many who express the view that religion and
humanism are perfectly compatible; as a result we have concepts such as
Buddhist humanism, Upanishadic humanism, Confucian humanism and so on.
Some years ago, I co- edited a series of books for the State University
of New York Press titled Self as Body in Asian Theory and Practice",
"Self as Person in Asian Theory and Practice", "Self as Image in Asian
Theory and Practice", "Self-Deception"; in all these books, I sought to
underline the need to understand Asian humanisms within religious and
cultural frames of intelligibility.
As I stated earlier, the last twenty or thirty years have witnessed a
formidable challenge to humanism by structuralists, post-structuralists
and post-modernists. Structuralism, as given original shape by the Swiss
linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, undermined the expansive authority of
the speaking subject .As Levi-Strauss, the originator of structuralist
anthropology remarked, "What I have struggled against, and what I feel
is very harmful, is the sort of unbridled humanism that has grown out of
the Judeo-Christian tradition". Louis Althusser, who formulated a form
of structuralist Marxism, observed that, "Strictly in respect of
theory". One can, and must speak openly of Marx's theoretical
anti-humanism." Michel Foucault, the post-modernist thinker proclaimed
the dissolution and death of man.
The eminent cultural critic, Roland Barthes, went so far as to
announce the death of the author. Similarly post-structuralist thinkers
such as Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, from their diverse vantage
points, have sought to undermine the power of the human subject as
originator of meaning, and thereby undermine humanism.
These newer modes of analyses and their resolute attempt to undercut
humanism have great implications for the understanding of literature.
Highly privileged terms such as genius"authorship- imagination-
consciousness have been replaced by terms such as discourse" system -
cultural formations "ideology" inscription - textuality. On the one
hand, the move to challenge the notion of unbridled and unfettered
humanism that is still prevalent should be welcomed as justified.
The liberal humanist articles of faith such as the sovereignty of the
subject, the transparency of language and reason as infallible guide to
unitary truth as well the perceived elusive inexhaustibility of humanism
needed to be questioned. However, the danger is that we have moved to
the other extreme. There is a disconcerting thread of iconoclastic
desire that runs through these writings and a certain destructive temper
shadows much of them. As a consequence, we seemed to have lost the
significance of the sense of agency, ethically grounded humanism, the
powers of resistance that are so vitally needed. For this mind-set to
descend just at the moment when women were securing their due rights and
people from post-colonial societies were beginning to assert their
individuality is indeed a cause for concern.
While discarding the unbridled humanism, we need to recognize the
importance of a limited, but purposive, humanism. In order to achieve
this aim, it is important for us to, for a start, pluralize the concept
of humanism; the term humanism should not be confined to lexicography
alone and the contexts of use should be given their due weight. As it is
we tend to think of humanism as a unitary phenomenon that had its
origins and growth in Europe. However, countries such as India and China
have long and different traditions of humanism, and they need to be
explored in their full plenitude. Martin Heidegger is wrong when he says
that, "It is in Rome that we encounter the first humanism."
There is a widespread feeling that modern critical theory is
incompatible with humanist thought. This is clearly not the case. Edward
Said who has done as much as any other scholar to disseminate modern
critical theory in the United States as well as in Asia, makes the
following pertinent observation.
"Although I was one of the first critics to engage with and discuss
French theory in the American university". I somehow remained unaffected
by the theory's ideological anti-humanism". In fact, in his book
"Humanism and Democratic Criticism", which I would recommend very
highly, he makes a powerfully persuasive case for humanism in the
context of modern Cultural Theory. In order to clarify the point I am
making, let me invoke the name of one of our distinguished writers -
Martin Wickramasinghe. Wickremasinghe, Sarachchandra and Gunadasa
Amarasekera are the three most brilliant Sinhala writers of the
twentieth century, and each in his own way, promulgated a form of
critical humanism. Let me focus on the writings of Martin Wickremasinghe.
In my book "Enabling Traditions", I have discussed at length the
humanism inscribed in Wickremasinghe's work.. In his creative works such
as "Gamperaliya", "KaliYuagaya", "Yugnathaya", "Viragaya" as a well as
his critical works such as "Sinhala Sahitye Nagima", "Sinhala Vichara
Maga", "The Buddhist Jataka Stories and the Russian Novel", he mapped
the complex ways in which a form of Buddhist humanism invigorates the
best of Sinhala writing.
Let us, for example, consider Wickremasinghe's approach to literary
criticism. His ambition was to fashion a form of literary criticism that
had as its central and guiding strand the animating presence of Buddhist
humanism. Buddhist thought provided him with an authority of conviction
and a communion of shared resonance. He maintained that humanism was not
monolithic and unitary and that there were differences among humanists.
This is indeed true when we consider the broad range of humanisms
available to us today" civic humanism, Protestant humanism,
rationalistic humanism, positivistic humanism, revolutionary humanism,
existential humanism, pragmatic humanism, technological humanism and so
on. He advocated a form of Buddhist humanism that could not be
conveniently mapped on to the Eurocentric humanism that is still
mistakenly regarded by many as a universal humanism. Humanism does not
have to speak in a European accent. What is important, in
Wickremasinghe's judgment, is that it remains a corrective pathway to an