Humanism, Anti-Authoritarianism, and Literary Aesthetics: Pragmatist Stories of Progress

By | October 6, 2023

Humanism is back! This resurgence of humanism is a multilayered phenomenon. Pragmatists such as William James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty have developed a particularly stimulating understanding of humanism. At the center of a pragmatist version of humanism is the suggestion that there is no nonhuman authority whose commands human beings have to obey and no such thing as human answerability to something nonhuman. The pragmatists’ texts are governed by the endeavor to call attention to the significance of making, creating, inventing, poeticizing, and imagining. Their antifoundationalist and antirepresentationalist stories of progress and emancipation accentuate the necessity of making the idea of a genuinely postmetaphysical culture look attractive. At the same time, however, pragmatist aesthetics has never offered an adequate appreciation of the importance of aesthetic form. In my study, I seek to achieve three things. First, I intend to contribute to an elucidation of the contemporary significance of humanism by explaining the potential of a pragmatist humanism. Second, I advance the argument that pragmatist humanism is a form of anti-authoritarianism. Finally, I show that there is a possibility of bringing together the revival of humanism and a renewed interest in the work of aesthetic form by arguing that pragmatist aesthetics needs a more complex conception of form. I submit that pragmatist aesthetics can learn from Marxist aesthetics in this context.

Establishing a transatlantic theoretical polylogue, my interdisciplinary study brings together literary and aesthetic theory, philosophy, and intellectual history. It illuminates how humanism, pragmatism, and anti-authoritarianism are interlinked by discussing a broad range of authors (from Emerson, Whitman, James, Nietzsche, Proust, and Dewey to Wittgenstein, Lukács, Adorno, Jameson, Latour, and Rorty). Humanism, Anti-Authoritarianism, and Literary Aesthetics argues that pragmatist humanism is an anti-authoritarian philosophy of praxis and finitude, of poiesis and human freedom, which shows that progress is possible without reliance on a nonhuman power. It contributes to the revival of humanism by demonstrating that talk about humans’ responsibility to Truth, Reason, or Nature should be replaced with conversations about their responsibility to their fellow human beings.

Ulf Schulenberg, author of Humanism, Anti-Authoritarianism, and Literary Aesthetics, is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Bremen, Germany. He is also author of Zwischen Realismus und Avantgarde: Drei Paradigmen für die Aporien des Entweder-Oder (2000), Lovers and Knowers: Moments of the American Cultural Left (2007), Romanticism and Pragmatism: Richard Rorty and the Idea of a Poeticized Culture (2015), Marxism, Pragmatism, and Postmetaphysics: From Finding to Making (2019), and Pragmatism and Poetic Agency: The Persistence of Humanism (2021).

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