The Humanistic Turn



The Humanistic Turn



A popular narrative has it that analytical philosophy replaced an emphasis on knowledge with an emphasis on language. It is said that Descartes brought epistemology to the center of philosophy and that Frege shifted the center to the philosophy of language (assisted by Wittgenstein, Austin, et al). Thus we have the “linguistic turn”. Some add to this the idea that the linguistic turn gave way to the conceptual turn, in which the study of thoughtbecame the central preoccupation of philosophy. From knowledge to meaning to thought, there has been a succession of intellectual revolutions during the last three centuries. Continental philosophers may wish to add the phenomenological turn, initiated by Husserl and taken up by Heidegger and Sartre, in which philosophy takes as its central concern the study of lived experience. Yet others may prefer the idea of the logical turn, in which formal logic became foundational. And there may be various sub-turns: the linguistic turn itself exhibited a number of smaller turns, from propositions to speech acts to language games to theoretical linguistics. In any case, philosophy has undergone various shifts of emphasis, beginning with Descartes: moves towards something and away from something else. There are then debates about whether these moves were good or bad, and how exactly they should be characterized.

But what was Descartes turning from? I think there are two answers that are not unconnected: religion and traditional metaphysics. He was turning away from reliance on Scripture and church authority, which lie outside of the human subject; and he was also turning away from the legacy of Platonic metaphysics and Aristotelian scholasticism, which emphasize impersonal ontology. Philosophy must focus not on a transcendent God and not on external Nature, both construed as non-human realities, but on the human capacity to know—on human reason, human experience. How do we know and what do we know—with the accent on “we” (or “I”). We must study the human ability to know things, not an extra-human God or Nature. Human knowledge (its scope and limits) is something we can get our teeth into, since it is an aspect of us, part of our nature. Philosophy must turn from the non-human to the human—to human nature, in a word. Descartes accordingly meditates on himself, alone and unaided, as a natural human creature, particularly as a knowing creature. The Cogito is one of his first discoveries: he finds that he is a thinking thing that indubitably exists. The question then is whether this thinking thing can know the things it thinks it knows, and more besides; thus the stage is set for the analysis of knowledge and the attempt to rebut skepticism—central concerns of post-Cartesian philosophy, up to and including the analytical kind.[1] The important point is that this epistemic turn was a humanistic turn: a turn towards the human and away from the non-human. The focus on knowledge was the form this humanistic turn took for Descartes and subsequent thinkers.

The successive turns away from knowledge–which came to include perception and reasoning, common sense and science–were also humanistic turns: language is a human attribute too, an aspect of human nature; and the same is true of concepts and thoughts. We humans have these attributes as aspects of our given nature, and philosophy is now construed as an investigation of human nature under this dispensation. Philosophy becomes the philosophy of the human, specifically our powers of linguistic and conceptual representation—a kind of rarified psychology. Thus we find Strawson’s project of “descriptive metaphysics”: the attempt to map our ordinary natural conception of reality—our “conceptual scheme”. This is to be contrasted with theology and with science, which both attempt to describe the non-human world. It also stands opposed to the Platonic style of metaphysics in which we attempt to describe reality as it exists independently of humans—the world outside the cave. The world of Forms has nothing intrinsically to do with human beings, but exists independently of us, and will go on existing whether we do or not. And before Strawson’s humanistic metaphysics we had such works as Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature—note the occurrence of the word “human” in both titles. These are avowedly books about the human animal, if I may put it so—about a certain type of creature with a specific nature. We know, we perceive, we think, we speak: that is what philosophy should concern itself with. If it is not about such things, we should turn away from it and towards its proper object. Thus, seen from a broader perspective, the epistemic, linguistic, and conceptual turns are all turns within a larger humanistic turn. The debate between empiricism and rationalism, for example, is a debate within the humanistic conception of philosophy, namely how human knowledge is arrived at and what its nature is. We today have become very accustomed to this turn and are scarcely aware of it, perhaps not even seeing anything turn-like about it. This is because it is a shift in intellectual history that goes back centuries and whose antecedents are barely comprehensible to us moderns—the time of religious domination and pre-modern metaphysics. At one time it was startling to maintain that philosophy should concern itself with the human being, whether as knower, thinker, or speaker. Aren’t we just too small and insignificant compared to God and the Platonic Forms to be awarded such a prominent place? What does the universe care about our ability to know, think, and talk (especially the last)? Isn’t the Form of the Good so much grander than our feeble human meanderings? Isn’t there something impious and vain about focusing philosophy on ourselves? Isn’t humanistic philosophy anthropocentric philosophy? And isn’t that culpably self-centered?

Not all modern philosophers have adopted the humanistic approach. Two giants stand out: Spinoza and Leibniz (we might add Schopenhauer and even Kant in some respects). Both developed traditional-sounding metaphysical systems without regard for human perspectives, and both are alien to modern sensibilities. Spinoza and Leibniz have struggled for curricular recognition and are often regarded as eccentric at best. That is not a false impression given that they don’t share the humanistic turn (proudly in the case of Spinoza, in view of his naturalism about the human creature). Both belong squarely in the tradition beginning with Plato and Aristotle (including the pre-Socratics) and pre-dating the Christianized doctrines of the middle ages; they are concerned to provide an intelligible general ontology without reliance on Scripture or the human viewpoint. They are certainly not interested in describing what the ordinary human animal thinks, or how he or she thinks it. We might call these non-humanistic philosophers: they resist the humanistic turn in whatever variety it presents itself. Kant is the odd case because of his duality of the phenomenal and the noumenal—the former decidedly human, the latter not human at all. Kant took a kind of half-turn, though historically he triggered a yet sharper turn towards the human: his view is that we can’t know anything about the non-human world, though there is such a thing, while the human world is open to our understanding. Berkeley is an interesting case: at first sight his idealism would appear to put him firmly in the humanist camp, but then we remember his placing of God at the center of all things and the non-human asserts itself. The infinite spirit is not a human spirit, and it is the foundation of the entire universe. Berkeley is a non-humanist wolf in humanist sheep’s clothing. Again, he is someone we moderns find it difficult to digest. We are more comfortable delving into our own nature accompanied by Locke and Hume. We like the humanistic turn, self-centered as we are. We prefer to think of ourselves as the measure of all things—whether by our knowledge or our meanings or our concepts. We think human nature is fantastic.

Where do more recent philosophers fall? Almost all twentieth century philosophers are humanists: Russell, Wittgenstein, the positivists, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Davidson, Quine, Strawson, Dummett, and many others.[2]The anti-humanists are harder to spot, not surprisingly given the humanistic turn, but a few exhibit anti-humanist leanings—I might mention Kripke and Nagel. Kripke opposes the humanistic interpretation of modality, stressing the existence of metaphysical necessity and distinguishing it from the epistemic kind—it stems from objective reality not from our own minds (as with analyticity). Nagel qualifies because of his realism and emphasis on human limitation—in no way is the bat’s mind a version of the human mind, and our concepts are not guaranteed to catch hold of everything real (the View From Nowhere is not a human view). Mysterians (such as Chomsky and myself) are sharply anti-humanist because we reject the idea that reality is designed so as to conform to human modes of thinking. We humans are just tiny specks in reality, not the measure of reality; neither human knowledge nor human language nor human thought are constitutive of the real—the objective world is. These human attributes are merely part of the world. Construed as a general meta-philosophy, the humanistic turn was a mistake, according to mysterians–though there is nothing untoward about studying human nature as such. We do better to revert to Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibniz, and whoever else shares their anti-humanist predilections. In any case the issue has been joined: to be a humanist or not to be a humanist.[3]


Colin McGinn


[1] A problem with the epistemic turn, as exemplified in Descartes, not mentioned in the standard narrative, is that knowledge turned out to be not as unproblematic as we might have hoped. Descartes recognized the problem of skepticism from the start and tried unsuccessfully to solve it, so knowledge can hardly be a solid foundation on which to erect a humanistic philosophy alternative to what had gone before; but further, it became clear that even defining knowledge is difficult, so we don’t even know what knowledge is. If our aim is to find a sound starting point in human nature, knowledge seems like the wrong concept to invoke. In this light we can see why a switch to language might seem appealing; however, the concept of meaning soon revealed itself to be anything but pellucid, so turning to it hardly leads to the Promised Land. And the same can be said of concepts and thoughts. Human nature turns out not to be as transparent as we might have hoped. If obscurity is a count against non-humanistic philosophy, then it applies also to humanistic philosophy.

[2] There is also the humanistic turn with respect to ethics (and politics and aesthetics): instead of finding moral value in the supernatural realm or in the natural order we find it in the human individual; it is imminent not transcendent, an aspect of human nature. Moral humanists would include Nietzsche and Hume as well as many twentieth century ethicists (e.g. Bernard Williams); moral anti-humanists would include Platonists, Kant, and early Moore. In the case of ethics the subject matter at least has a clear connection to human life, so the humanistic turn is more intuitive; but it is far from self-evident that values themselves are part of human nature. In any case, we should include ethics under the grand opposition I am describing.

[3] The same kind of dilemma can also confront the sciences, physics in particular. With positivism physics took a humanistic turn, given that verification is a human attribute; and instrumentalism invites the question “Instrumental for whom?” Einstein’s relativity theory comes perilously close to building the human subject (the “observer”) into physics, and so does quantum theory on some interpretations; at least part of the appeal of these theories is surely their humanistic aura. Newtonian physics, by contrast, was resolutely non-humanist. And isn’t post-modernism really just the final expression of humanism? Even truth is a human construction: the world is nothing but the human world (culture, custom, power relations).

6 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Was it a mere coincidence that at the same time philosophy took a humanistic turn, science (Galileo, Newton etc) took a ‘universal’ (i.e. we are not at the centre) turn? Was there a common factor driving a shift in perspective, with one eye turning in, and the other out?

  2. Javad Heydari
    Javad Heydari says:

    Is it possible to say that Nagel in his book, “The Last Word”, opposes this humanist turn with an emphasis on objectivity versus subjectivism? In other words, isn’t “humanistic” turn the same as “subjective” turn?

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Nagel believes in both subjective and objective facts, so he can’t be accused of a subjective turn or an objective turn. The humanistic turn is subjective in the sense that it turns towards the subject but not in the sense that it interprets everything in the light of what-it’s-like, which would be idealism. The linguistic turn could even be materialist a la Quine.


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