An Atheism That Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought

An Atheism That Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought

An Atheism That Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought

An Atheism That Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought


French philosophy changed dramatically in the second quarter of the twentieth century. In the wake of World War I and, later, the Nazi and Soviet disasters, major philosophers such as Kojève, Levinas, Heidegger, Koyré, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Hyppolite argued that man could no longer fill the void left by the "death of God" without also calling up the worst in human history and denigrating the dignity of the human subject. In response, they contributed to a new belief that man should no longer be viewed as the basis for existence, thought, and ethics; rather, human nature became dependent on other concepts and structures, including Being, language, thought, and culture. This argument, which was to be paramount for existentialism and structuralism, came to dominate postwar thought. This intellectual history of these developments argues that at their heart lay a new atheism that rejected humanism as insufficient and ultimately violent.


I walk among human beings as among the fragments and limbs of human beings!
This is what is most frightening to my eyes, that I find mankind in ruins and scat
tered about as if on a battlefield or a butcher field.

—NIETZSCHE, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

But if cows [and horses] and lions had hands / or could draw with their hands and
make things as men can make / then horses would draw the forms of gods like
horses / cows like cows, and they would make their bodies / similar in shape to
those which each had themselves


“Man” is the ideology of dehumanization.


1. Neither Gods Nor Men

From World War I through the 1950s, a philosophical and intellectual revolution in France created a new kind of atheism, demolished the value of humanism, and altered the meaning of “the human” virtually beyond recognition. French thought began in the mid-interwar period to reject central intellectual foundations of nineteenth-century atheism and priorities of inquiries that had forged and sustained conceptions in which man was based on a human “nature” or “essence” that is given or immutable, or served as his own highest being and ideal. Faced with philosophical opposition and political catastrophe, the status of humanism eroded dramatically, taking with it the imagination of a modern humanity based on innate qualities, character, or rights. Once a foundation of knowledge, man was reconceived as a construct of science and technology, religion . . .

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