Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Ernst Bloch's Laboratorium Possibilis Salutis: On the Humane Ideal in History

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Ernst Bloch's Laboratorium Possibilis Salutis: On the Humane Ideal in History

Article excerpt

The concept of the world as a "Laboratorium possibilis Salutis" represents a condensation of Ernst Bloch's imaginative understanding of the world and of history.1 This evocative phrase indicates a plane in which history does not entirely coincide with its own unfolding; a moment in which humanity is not curtailed by the facticity of the prevailing order. Over and above the facticity of what is-alienation and oppression-the world offers a workplace for well-being and the restoration of health and dignity, as well as the expansion of the humane ideal.

Bloch propels the tradition of Hegel and Marx in accounting for the dialectical unfolding of history at large; he continues this tradition through an emphasis on the teleological characteristic of the human project, and retains a prospective moment of hope for the sublation of contradictions at the end of history, the fulfilment of human lack and the fulfilment of the human project through the realisation of a joyful and a just communal realm.

Since the second half of the twentieth century it has become commonplace to treat any account of the unfolding of the human project at large (especially those with recourse to Utopian and/or dialectical traditions) with scepticism, caution and resistance. Particularly influential in this regard has been the rise of anti-totalitarian humanism-a tradition which has contributed to the dissemination of the suspicion that the worth of the human individual succumbs in the face of larger-scale accounts of the unfolding of history. Seen thus, antitotalitarian humanism is not confined to moral engagement with and reflection on the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century only.

Anti-totalitarian humanism established its influence in various fields of philosophy. For example, through the influence of anti-totalitarian humanism memory has attained a new moral and philosophical significance. This tradition has focused academic attention on recent atrocities, arguing that the horrors of the twentieth century resulted from humane-sounding social ideals. This emphasis has resulted in a growing awareness of the dangers that lurk in social ideals with Utopian aspirations or pretensions. It is not surprising in this context that Utopian ideals are increasingly suspected of carrying the germs of totalitarianism.2 Antitotalitarian humanism can be understood to include any philosophical and moral engagement with past evils that explores the systemic violation of human dignity, as well as the critical awareness of the risks involved when a society sets itself the objective to create the preconditions for a more equitable social order. It should be added in this regard that through the influence of anti-totalitarian humanism memory has attained a cautionary and preventative significance. That is to say, the remembrance of the past-by way of the construction of memorials, public rituals, exhibitions and academic studies of the atrocities of twentieth-century European and colonial history-serves to prevent the recurrence of such atrocities and the derailment of ideals.3

Anti-totalitarian humanism deserves acclaim for the manner in which it has contributed to the sharpening of our moral awareness and the expansion of our sense of moral experience. Notwithstanding these contributions and the philosophical plausibility of anti-totalitarian humanism, however, one has to question the premises established in contemporary Western culture and social philosophy through its influence. The extent to which the assimilation of anti-totalitarian humanism leads to a stigmatisation of"Utopia"as a figure of discourse is concerning, as this may result in an eventual impoverishment of moral discourse. While anti-totalitarian humanism serves to critically inform us in our pursuit of ideals, one has to question its premise that Utopian philosophies in general carry the seed of totalitarianism, as well as the assumption that in large-scale dialectical accounts of the unfolding of history the human individual will necessarily suc- cumb in the face of the indifference of history. …

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