restricted access An Atheism that Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought (review)
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Reviewed by
Stefanos Geroulanos. An Atheism that Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010. Print. 423 pp.

Zarathustra's announcement, "God is dead!" offered twentieth century atheisms a formidable vanguard. Western atheism certainly did not originate with Nietzsche's parable; yet philosophers of both atheist and Christian persuasions have since appealed to Zarathustra for atheism's succinct crystallization. For philosophers, as well as historians, literary critics, and theologians familiar with Nietzsche's post-World War II French uptake, God's death also entailed man's (or the centrality of the human's) death. Their mutual demise set the mise en scène for the celebrated clash between structuralism and post-structuralism. "Rather than the death of God—or rather, in the wake of that death and in profound correlation with it," wrote Michel Foucault at the crossroads of that clash, "what Nietzsche's thought heralds is the end of his murderer" (385). This French digestion of Nietzsche made it apparent that the Übermensch signified man's withering, not his triumphant victory. It marked the birth of a "post-human" era. Although Foucault popularized this reading along with other 1960's thinkers such as Claude Levi-Strauss, Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, and Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche's anti-humanism did not originate within this philosophical cadre. Rather, the connection between atheism and anti-humanism only became apparent, as Stefanos Geroulanos [End Page 1164] argues in his recently published An Atheism That Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought, following a generation of inter-war thinkers who first wrested humanism from atheism.

Geroulanos patiently excavates from beneath the 1960s anti-humanists a loosely knit philosophical movement that gave shape to French philosophers' opposition and hatred, congealing in their rejection of humanism. His intellectual history of the second quarter of twentieth-century France re-animates oft-neglected writers like Alexandre Koyré, Alexandre Kojève, and André Malraux, situating them in conversation with more celebrated figures like George Bataille, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the enduring German influence on French thought, Martin Heidegger. Despite their disparate metaphysical commitments and political pursuits, these thinkers advanced a brand of atheism that did not aim to redeem a liberating secular or scientific culture. They positioned themselves against a lineage insisting on the identity between atheism and humanism, exemplified by the materialism of Ludwig Feuerbach or positivism of Auguste Comte. After the First World War, Geroulanos argues, French thinkers committed to atheism became suspicious of secularism's decadent aspirations.

In rejecting humanism, inter-war French thinkers also rejected "man" as the privileged philosophical frame of epistemological problems. Making sure not to wield the charge of humanism as a facile epithet, Geroulanos takes care to clarify the stakes of this rejection. Anti-humanists contended that philosophy should not be accountable to the authority of an image of thought as standing over nature (secured in its Cartesian model and perfected in Kant's transcendental critique of the conditions of experience in reason). "Man" and his epistemological baggage were instead derivative of broader frames of inquiry such as history, Being, and eventually language (51). Geroulanos gives form to this assault on anthropocentrism by identifying the philosophical project motivating it as "anti-foundational realism." It is "realist" because humans find themselves situated within the world alongside others, and "anti-foundational" because human faculties do not furnish their own grounds of knowledge in opposition to the world. The phenomenological thrust of this position is not hidden. Indeed, Geroulanos's book can be read as a history of German phenomenology's migration to France.

The story Geroulanos weaves plumbs the metaphysical depths of French philosophical debates from the mid-1920's through 1950's. He cannot be charged with simplifying their rigor; though nor does he make them entirely accessible. The story begins following Heidegger's perceived defeat of Cassirer at the 1929 Davos conference and the waning influence of Bergson around the same time (48). But Geroulanos does not situate the transition toward anti-humanism as completely internal to the philosophical stakes of these debates. The second chapter invokes intellectuals' antipathy toward the "bourgeois humanism" of the Third Republic as historical lining. Cosmopolitan hopes failed during the period...