Philosophical Topics

Volume 49, Issue 1, Spring 2021

Social Visibility

Karen Ng
Pages 145-163

Humanism: A Defense

This paper develops an approach to humanist social critique that combines insights from Marx and Fanon. I argue that the concept of the human operative in humanist social critique should be understood both as the normative background against which questions of human flourishing and dehumanization can come into view, and as the evolving demand for universal human emancipation. Far from being abstract, essentialist, or ahistorical, Marx and Fanon show that humanist social critique operates through a dialectic between particular, socially and historically situated forms of oppression and struggle, and the universal species-context of the human life-form in which particular forms of suffering and injustice can come into view as instances of dehumanization. In developing this approach to humanist social critique, I defend humanism against three prominent objections: the charge of speciesism, the charge of essentialism, and the recent charge from Kate Manne who argues that humanism underdescribes relations of social antagonism and that recognition of humanity is compatible with inhumane treatment. In addition to considering the necessary relation between the particular and the universal, I also consider the relation between the psychological and social/political, arguing against the recent approach to the problem of dehumanization in the work of David Livingstone Smith.