Jörn Rüsen, Post-humanism and Human Nature

Jörn Rüsen in 2008. Source: Wikipedia

Between the 7th and 9th of May, the historian and philosopher of history Jörn Rüsen visited the University of Luxembourg. During this time, he met with students to talk about his work and held a public lecture titled End of Man – Do Historical Studies lose their anthropological fundaments? The main topic of Rüsen’s lecture was the question if post-humanism threatens to eradicate those traditional assumptions about human nature that are indispensable for the practice of the humanities. In the following blogpost I outline and challenge some of the points Jörn Rüsen made during his lecture.

Jörn Rüsen is one of the most well known German historians concerned with the theory of history. Starting with his dissertation about the German historian Johann Gustav Droysen in 1966, Rüsen spent his career studying the theoretical and practical aspects of historiography.

To an outsider the thought that the humanities lose their anthropological foundations may seem peculiar. The human subject is one of the few elements that brings coherence to an area in which research topics can be overwhelmingly diverse. Everything from the development of ancient geometry to the usage of conditional sentences by children could potentially be an appropriate research topic. The common element between the different disciplines of the humanities is that their research is either concerned with human activities or the products of those activities such as written texts, art, technology, and so on. The human aspect of this research is often taken for granted. We assume that it is unproblematic because we are familiar with the central features of humans from everyday life. Humans eat, think, love, get angry and make jokes. However, are some of these features more important than others? One property believed to be an essential aspect of human nature is their ability to think in a rational manner. That is why Aristotle defined humans as a kind of animal possessing rationality.1 According to him, being an animal and being rational are properties that are universal among humans. Post-humanism claims not only to reshape this and other conceptions of what it means to be human, but also to radically transform our understanding of human nature.

Post-humanism is the latest newcomer in a group of intellectual movements Rüsen calls ‘post-isms’. The members of this group are well-known. They include post-modern, post-structuralist, post-constructivist, post-national, post-colonial and other intellectual movements with the prefix ‘post’. The common feature of these intellectual movements is their self-definition through the rejection of other intellectual movements such as modernism, structuralism, constructivism, nationalism, colonialism, and so on. Rejection provides the basis for new theoretical approaches to familiar topics and the criticism of widespread beliefs about those topics. Post-modernists for example criticize the belief that human societies and culture progresses toward a fixed goal called modernity.

Post-humanism separates itself from other post-isms by questioning the most fundamental assumption of the humanities, the existence of a human subject identified by its human nature.2 What does this mean? The target here is not everything human, but specific beliefs and theories about human nature, postulated by concrete people in the past. What post-humanism challenges is a very specific view of human nature that in the past served as the foundation of the humanities. What is this ‘humanistic’ perspective on humankind? Unfortunately, the proponents of post-humanism are not very explicit about this point. According to the post-humanist reconstruction of humanism, humans are conscious beings, potentially rational and the agents of their own life. This agency is one of the primary objects of traditional research in the humanities. Reconstruct the reasons behind somebody’s decisions and you will understand his or her actions. Mental agency defines the relations between humans and their environment. In contrast to nature, humans are active, because they possess the ability to set their own goals and are motivated by their own desires. Post-humanism challenges these assumptions by emphasizing the interactions, entanglement and intersection between human and non-human entities, nature, animals and technology.

In his lecture one of Jörn Rüsen’s main targets of criticism was Rosi Braidotti book “The Posthuman”. In this book, she outlines a version of humanism that is inextricably connected with some of the darkest moments in human history:

“For me it is impossible, both intellectually and ethically, to disengage the positive elements of Humanism from their problematic counterparts: individualism breeds egotism and self-centredness; self-determination can turn to arrogance and domination; and science is not free from its own dogmatic tendencies.”3

Because of this entangelment between the postive and negative aspects of humanism Braidotti thinks that the humanist project has to be abondened completely. Rüsen argues that Braidotti’s analysis throws out the baby with the bathwater. In his opinion some anthropological assumptions are necessary to make research in the humanities possible and to maintain the ethical framework that keeps our society together. He proposes an alternative version of humanism, which is historicist, individualistic, universal, and from a political view focused on human rights.4 According to Rüsen the existence of universal patterns of behaviour found in anthropology provides a good reason to think that there is one common human nature. His favourite example of an activity that exists in all cultures at all times is the desire to tell stories.

To conclude, I want to briefly hint at two problems with Rüsen’s overall argument. Rüsen’s claim that human nature is of central importance for the humanities is controversial to say the least. Why should research concerning human subjects be impossible without a clear-cut definition of human nature that emphasises homogeneity instead of diversity? Some characterisation of humans cannot be avoided if we want to conduct research. However, we do not have to assume that humans at a specific time and place have certain contingent features, or claim that all humans have a set of essential features, which constitutes human nature. Beyond the humanities we can also find similar positions in disciplines such as biology and psychology, where disagreement on what makes humans human persists.5 The second problematic point in Rüsen’s statements concerns the connection between universals established by anthropology and our views on ethics.6 Our ethical assumptions should not be based on anthropological or any other empirical work. Ethics is concerned with how we should act, not how we actually acted in the past or currently act.

  1. Aristotle writes in the Nicomachean Ethics, “For living is obviously shared even by plants, while what we are looking for is something special to a human being. We should therefore rule out the life of nourishment and growth. Next would be some sort of sentient life, but this again is clearly shared by the horse, the ox, indeed by every animal. What remains is a life, concerned in some way with action, of the element that possesses reason.” Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. p. 1097b-1098a.
  2. The various and sometimes contradicting meanings of the term post-humanism become apparent on the Wikipedia page for post-humanism where at least seven different definitions of the term can be found.
  3. Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Cambridge, UK Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013. p. 30.
  4. Rüsen, Jörn. Perspektiven Der Humanität. Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld 2010. pp. 273-315.
  5. Hannon, Elizabeth, and Tim Lewens, eds. Why We Disagree about Human Nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  6. Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Humen Nature. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. p. 141.

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