By Royal, Robert
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life , No. 227
You cannot help but like a serious thinker who demolishes the pretensions of various fashion able currents of thought, starting with the 1968 French student rebellion, by pointing out the anti-human strains at their very heart. Or who, at the height of the academic infatuation with deconstruction, waves away Jacques Derrida as merely "Heidegger, plus the style of Derrida." Or who renders, page after page, similarly incisive judgments on the terminally self-important. That's why I've had a soft spot for the French philosopher Luc Ferry since he, together with Alain Renaut, took apart a lot of nonsense in La pensee 68, later published in English as French Philosophy of the Sixties: An Essay on Anti-humanism. They demonstrated, in quite readable forays through the wilder thickets of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Althusser, Bourdieu, and many other intellectual celebrities, that they all shared, willingly or not, a misguided attack on the very idea of the human.
This assault, they suggested, could be divided into two main streams. The first is the Marxist effort to debunk "humanistic" values, such as the pursuit of material prosperity, liberty, and individual dignity, as the ideological product of bourgeois economic, political, and social forces. The second is the impulse, found primarily in Nietzsche and Heidegger (sometimes despite the latter's efforts), to deconstruct the "idols" of post-Christian secular ethics that were, allegedly, a groundless continuation of a naive religious or metaphysical view of humanity.
In the intervening years, the names have changed, though it's surprising how much of modern intellectual life continues to play out within the frontiers established by old masters of suspicion and their successors, without the emergence of any truly great new thinkers. Except for figures like John Paul II and others who have tried to defend a richer notion of the human person--which includes a robust sense of human dignity and uniqueness, an openness to transcendence, and an awareness of the quite palpable threats both to individuals and to whole societies that arise when transcendence is ignored--"humane" values are still largely drowned out by the old critical theories, now joined by new ones that invoke evolutionary biology and neuroscience, which render the concept of the human person essentially empty.
This is, of course, a serious problem for many reasons, not least because we saw in the twentieth century the kind of body count that a departure from the religious and humanist traditions, for all their theoretical difficulties, could run up. Ferry is not a believer, though he presents Christianity with a warm Gallic clarity in a recent volume, La Tentation du Christianisme (The Temptation of Christianity, never translated). He cannot give in to that temptation, he thinks, because Christianity is "too good to be true" and also makes us slightly less lucid in our reasoning than does philosophy straight with no chaser. Or maybe, he muses, he just hasn't been given the gift of faith.
In any event, he would like to preserve the "humanistic" values he recognizes as indebted to the Christian tradition, even as he goes about trying to find a place for them in a chastened, post-Nietzschean humanism. Though ultimately he parts ways with Nietzsche's "philosophizing with a hammer," he believes it impossible to avoid both the great German's critique of modern humanism and the need to propose something post-Nietzschean and "after deconstruction" that can support a life worthy of human beings.
His current international bestseller, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, is aimed precisely at this ongoing reassertion of humanism. In a lucid and accessible little volume, he tries to offer "spirituality" for the reflective contemporary nonbeliever who has lost faith, usually because of some modern philosophical analysis or scientific discoveries. …