In defense of the universal

Image: Lucio Fontana


Author's introduction to the newly edited book


the universal

This book[I] is the last part of a trilogy dedicated to the idea of ​​humanity. Like the previous two, it is entirely autonomous.

In 2010, I published Our humanity: from Aristotle to the neurosciences.[ii][iii] In it I proposed a critical history of the philosophical definitions of man in four great stages, all four with a scientific obverse and a moral reverse. The first moment of this story, Aristotle's man, the “animal endowed with reason”, is linked to the invention of the natural sciences. But this same man was able to justify the slavery and subjection of women: because, if all human beings have the same essence, they are not all equally suited to that essence.

This was the practical reverse side of Aristotelian man. The second moment of this journey, Descartes' man brings together in its essence the subject and object of the scientific revolution of the classical age: mathematical physics. But this same man was able to justify the reduction of all living beings to brute matter. This was the practical reverse side of Cartesian man. Third moment: in the XNUMXth century the man of the human sciences was a torn being and awareness of him was necessarily deluded.

Practical reverse: all criticisms of law, individual freedoms and representative democracy were justified. The scientific revolution annulled the preceding revolution. Under the gaze of the new life sciences, since the turn of the XNUMXst century – the fourth moment, the current one – man has once again become a natural being. Neurosciences promise to reunite you through your brain and your genes. But the condition for fulfilling this promise is to dissolve man and transform him into a thinking machine or a sentient animal. Posthumanism and animalism are, therefore, the inevitable reverse side of this “neuronal man”.

Three contemporary utopias[iv] takes up the reflection at this point and examines these last two ideologies and the images of man associated with them. It is not possible to understand them except in their symmetrical desire to overcome the humanism of the Enlightenment. Posthumanists are not content with the humanistic development of medicine: they want an improving medicine that triumphs over old age and death. Anti-speciesists are not satisfied with the humanist struggle to improve the living conditions of farmed animals: they want to abolish breeding and “free animals”. While the ancient wisdom affirmed that we were neither gods nor animals, the contemporary representation dreams of making the human being an immortal god whose intelligence dominates nature thanks to technology, or, on the contrary, a sensitive being equal to the others, but guilty of subjugation. from others.

In both cases, what is wanted is to go beyond the limits of humanity. To the post-humanist utopia, I opposed the need to overcome diseases on a planetary scale and aim at the immortality of humanity itself. To the anti-speciesist utopia, I contrasted the differentiated duties that we have in relation to animals. And to all the delusions that invite us to cross natural borders – those that separate the natural from the artificial, man from the animal, or one species from another –, I opposed a humanist utopia that would free us from the artificial borders that separate human beings from human beings: a cosmopolitanism that ignores nations or generations and aims at global justice.

This In defense of universal examines the assumption implicit in the two preceding books: the defense of humanism. It presents itself in three theses: humanity is an ethical community; humanity has intrinsic value and is the source of all value; all human beings have identical worth. Hence the inviolability of the human body and person, as well as the respect due to human works: history, knowledge, techniques and arts.

This idea of ​​humanity and humanism is linked to others that are called “reason”, “science”, “equality”, “morality”, “philosophy” (as I understand it), as well as to the one that encompasses them: the universal. These are the ideas of the “Lights”. They are in crisis. This book has a modest object, therefore, for there is nothing more banal than the universal. But it has an ambitious objective, because the universal goes wrong – both in reality and in ideas, which sometimes reflect it, sometimes determine it.

We are today faced with a paradox. We have never been so aware of forming a unique humanity. The extraordinary progress of means of transport and communication, especially after the emergence of the Internet and the development of social networks, strengthens this horizontal awareness of global humanity day by day. Never has a tsunami or a massacre on the other side of the world seemed so close to us. Never has suffering humanity seemed so close to humanity spared from suffering. Never before have individuals all over the world perceived themselves to be so similar emotionally and intellectually.

Added to this affective proximity of human beings is a common concern that unites all of humanity. We know that we are exposed to the same planetary risks: epidemics, global warming, nuclear disasters, depletion of natural resources, species extinction, global economic crises, etc. And yet, at the same time that it seems to impose itself on our conscience, the unity of humanity goes backwards in collective representations. All over the world we see the same identity setbacks: new nationalisms, new xenophobias, new religious radicalisms, new communitarian demands, etc.

At one point, the European Union seemed on the verge of realizing the dream of eighteenth-century philosophers, from Leibniz and the abbot of Saint-Pierre to Condorcet and Kant, but it got bogged down in its own bureaucracy, suffered the ravages of the financialization of the economy and faced the rejection of peoples, who feel threatened by the community formed by themselves. Human beings know that they are similar, but they only want to live with beings identical to them. Even if you have to invent identities and incessantly reinvent differences.

It would be easy to relate the two phenomena. Peoples, societies, communities, feeling crushed by the historical pressure of a globalized humanity, tend to define themselves by small differences. Afraid of disappearing into a uniformizing totality, they take refuge in others. Behind the universal, they fear the uniform. This negative explanation is pertinent in part. But while it is valid for economic and cultural globalization, it does not apply to the crisis of humanist morals. Because this moral universal, far from imposing uniformity, can be the best guarantee of cultural diversity, in the same way that secularism is the condition for religious freedom. The moral crisis is deeper. Should we see in this the source of the crisis of ideas?

It's the same here. In the social, political or philosophical field, every day a thousand “new” ideas from other eras flourish around the notion of identity. On the “right”, it replaces the notions of order and unity. From one corner of the world to the other, and in the eastern and western extremes of Europe, the “rights of man off the ground” are criticized in the name of imaginary national identities that are compared to supposedly threatening others. In chorus with Joseph de Maistre, what is said is: “There is no man in the world. I met the French, Italians, Russians [...] but the man, I say that I never met in my life”.

On the “left”, identity tends to supplant equality. Against the universalist illusions, one no longer says with Sartre: “I don't see the man, I only see the bourgeois, the workers, the intellectuals”,[v] but new identities of gender, sexual orientation or even race and religion are invoked,[vi] drawn from “feminist” theories queer” or “decolonial”. Countless social or cultural conflicts are particularized and ethnicized in this way.[vii] And the old criticism returns: deep down, the universal is just the “right of the strongest”. It is sometimes compared to patriarchy (all men, but not women), sometimes to “whiteness” (all men, but only white males), Eurocentrism (all men, but only Europeans), or the anthropocentrism (all men but not animals) etc.

In short, the universal is never truly universal. Or, when it is, it is too much: it erases particularities, differences, “nations”, “cultures”, “ethnicities”, “religions of the dominated” and even “races” – because today the notion of universal it comes from the dustbin of history to which “crimes against humanity” have relegated it. It is true that the propagation force of these criticisms owes much to conceptual weakness and the impotence of the universal. He seems to have lost the emancipatory virtues of which he was a messenger in the past.

This is the ambition of this book: to give back to universalist ideas all their critical and mobilizing power. What matters today is to re-appropriate the ideas of the Enlightenment, to substantiate for our time those ideas depreciated by our own time – which, however, needs them more than ever. Put these devalued concepts on a solid foundation. North continues in the same place. The compass failed.

If the universal is a concept that has lost political force, what about humanism? No thinker who cultivates originality (mandatory in modern thought) dares to declare himself a humanist: is there anything more mushy, more old-fashioned, more silly? Is this not the opinion most shared by those with no particular convictions?

The dominant French philosophy of the second half of the twentieth century made humanism its main adversary. A letter about the humanism, by Heidegger, so influential in France, had its revenge: humanism would be the friendly disguise of an era of “forgetfulness of being” marked by the triumph of a “techno-scientific” view of nature born in the classical age that reduces it to computable data and, consequently, to an available, usable and destructible matter. The so-called authentic Marxism, that of Althusser, did the rest: humanism would be the belief in an illusory unity of humanity beyond the fundamental distinctions that structure history and society: class affiliations.

Today, with anti-speciesism, what is said is the opposite: humanism is the belief in the moral unity of humanity on this side of belonging to the broader community of all sentient beings. The criticism is the same as always: humanism presents itself as a universal morality, but in fact it is a particular morality. In the past it was too comprehensive, in the present it is too narrow. The humanist was a "whining moralist" who believed in the absolute worth of humanity: he was silly and good. Today he is an anthropocentrist who ignores the intrinsic value of other suffering beings: he is foolish and evil.

But if humanism is weak, it is above all because it is based on a weak idea: the idea of ​​humanity.

Is it a moral weakness? In a sense, yes. Humanity is not the best measure of morals. On the one hand, humanism defends the idea that we have basic duties towards those who are “like us”: same family, same nation, same religion, same “race”, same struggle, etc. (However, if we recognized that we have duties also towards all human beings, this restrictive morality should not affect the humanist ideal.) On the other hand, it holds that we have duties towards all sentient beings who are “like us”, without distinction of human beings in particular. (However, if we recognize that the duties that bind us to human beings take precedence over others, this extensive morality should not affect the humanist ideal.) Therefore, the moral weakness of the concept of humanity is not enough to place humanism fundamentally at risk. question.

It is necessary to go further. Humanity appears to be a weak concept in its philosophical and scientific foundations.

The philosophical weakness of the concept of humanity is due, in the first place, to the considerable influence of conceptually fragile “postmodern” by-products of conceptually strong philosophies of the last century. There are currents inspired more or less distantly by the Heideggerian idea of ​​“destruction of metaphysics” or, in Derrida's euphemism, of “deconstruction”. Under the latter designation, the campus Americans and part of the world social sciences dedicated themselves to relativize, that is, to historically recontextualize, to reinterpret, to criticize all philosophical concepts that were inherited “from” metaphysics and that were considered totalizing and, therefore, totalitarian: “God ”, the “subject”, the “substance”, the "reason” and, consequently, the “man” – in the two senses of the term: human being and masculine, supposing that the former is just a disguise of the latter.

Which resulted, today, in the militant idea that all conceptual distinctions are socially constructed and there are none that cannot and should not be deconstructed. As is the case, in particular, with all supposed “Western” dualisms: nature/culture, man/woman, heterosexual/homosexual and, therefore, human/animal or even human/non-human: these are leveling, standardizing assumptions. , despotic and therefore stigmatizing for minorities, the colonized, women, homosexuals, subordinates, animals, etc. When you say “man”, you mean “dominant western white male”. Where in the past unequivocal, normative and normalizing conceptual oppositions prevailed, it is necessary to establish a continuum healthy and liberating.

This deconstruction of “man” seemed to be confirmed by the death certificate issued by an entirely different philosophical current. It wasn't just metaphysics that died in the 1960s-1970s; philosophy in general and man in particular also died. At least it was by the phrase "the death of man" that Michel Foucault's "archaeology of the human sciences" was summarized, because he wrote in The words and things: “Man is an invention whose recent date the archeology of our thought easily shows. And, perhaps, the near end.”[viii]

It was about man as the focal object of the so-called human sciences. And Foucault added: “We do not yet know either the form or the promise” of the “event of which we can at most foresee the possibility” that will witness the end of the human sciences; however, he suspected that it “would be related to the growing omnipotence of the object language”, since “man perishes as the being of language shines brighter and brighter on our horizon”.[ix]

On this last point, Foucault was wrong. If we are clearly witnessing the death of the idea of ​​man since the turn of the XNUMXst century, it is not as a result of the development of a prolific human science, to the detriment of the others; it is not the result of internal phagocytosis but of external absorption; it is the outcome of the prodigious development of life sciences and their various relationships in a new paradigm, the cognitive paradigm.

The weakness of the concept of humanity is also epistemological. The generalization of naturalist methods and theories in the human sciences seems to jeopardize the definition of the human.[X] The frontiers of humanity, between robots and animals, are increasingly uncertain: they don't say that there is a continuum, simple differences of degree, where ruptures or binary oppositions were postulated before?

On the one hand, the methodological reductionism of the neurosciences and the cognitive model seem to impose the idea of ​​continuity between man and machine: the latter serves as a model of intelligibility for the brain, which in turn serves as a model of realizability for robots" smart”. But these models, although useful to clarify the poorly distinguished notion of intelligence, seem incapable of explaining the phenomena of consciousness: the horizon of continuity seems to move away while we, for our part, believe we are approaching it.

On the other hand, evolutionary biology, primatology, ethology, paleoanthropology, evolutionary psychology, etc., are methodologically based on the postulate of continuity, in all fields, between the human species and other living species. But could it not be concluded from this that “the sciences demonstrate that there continuity between man and animal.

This conclusion is illegitimate. The new naturalistic paradigm studies the human being "while be alive" or "while animal subject to the laws of evolution”. Therefore, it is absurd to maintain that theories that are based on this paradigm can demonstrate a thesis that serves as their principle. To do neuroscience, evolutionary biology or human ethology, we have to consider man as a living being that can be explained in the same way as others – therefore, we have to adopt a so-called “continuist” position. (Likewise, to do ethnology, historical linguistics, or psychoanalysis, we have to adopt the “discontinuist” position, according to which there are “peculiarities of man.”)

If we study the human being as an animal, it is not surprising that he appears as an animal, since the marker “while” filters the relevant predicates according to the previously adopted methodological and epistemological guidelines. In other words, continuism cannot be the result, it is the initial hypothesis.

The epistemological weakness of the concept of humanity is, deep down, more apparent than real. It is the result of a dominant paradigm shift in human sciences. It is not a "scientific truth". Perhaps it is related to the systematic desire to exclude all theological prejudice from knowledge and to break with the image of a Man made in the likeness of God, located at the center of Creation, radically different from all artificial beings and all other living beings. But it is also the philosophical assumption of a time rebellious to definitions and categories. It is not a “philosophical truth”.


These political, moral, philosophical and scientific weaknesses in the idea of ​​humanity are perhaps just symptoms of a deeper evil. The universal, and therefore humanism, seem to have lost all historical justification.

The Age of Enlightenment proclaimed “the rights of man”. In this there was a part of the individualist ideology of subjective rights, characteristic of Europe and the United States of the eighteenth century, and a part of a concrete universalist project of emancipation of humanity through the conquest of individual freedoms.[xi] But these “declarations” were not based on a statement, as if everyone could state that men are born and remain free and equal (even “in rights”), since what was observed was precisely the opposite: they are born and remain unequal. , in fact and in law.[xii]

The meaning of these declarations was performative: the objective was to establish a community capable of realizing this equality of rights. However, this idea of ​​equality still lacked something to serve as a foundation: this role was played in the XNUMXth century by the Supreme Being, father and creator of all human beings – a secularization of the universalism of original Christianity that the Christian religion could not incarnate in France because it was linked to the absolute monarchy “of divine right”: “The National Assembly recognizes and declares, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of Man and of the Citizen”.[xiii]

This “supreme Being” was replaced, without any damage, by its avatar: the idea of ​​nature, as attested by the Declaration of 1789 when it defined “the natural, inalienable and sacred rights of Man”. All men are “by nature” equal, despite the fact that each of us can verify the opposite.

However, these two ideas, that of an equal supreme Being and that of an equalizing nature from which all human beings are born, have become fragile in our post-modernity. People who have “abandoned” religion do not believe in either one or the other. And those who didn't abandon it, or embrace it back, tend to see in their God the guarantee of their particularity, attested by the absolute truth of the sacred texts in which they believe. Thus, for the sake of universality, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, inspired by the feeling that civilization had overcome barbarism, does not rely on either God or nature.

But this legitimate will to universality deprives it precisely of a universalizable foundation that it is no longer possible to find. The effectiveness of the proclamation can no longer depend on its principles. That is its constitutive weakness. And since it can no longer count on the constituent force of a source that is armed with the sword of the Law, its effects vary according to the evolution of international relations and the resulting fragile legal order.

There is no way not to surrender to the evidence. If it is so easy to criticize humanist universalism philosophically, or ridicule it, it is because, despite its apparent generosity, or perhaps because of it, its ideas no longer hold up to anything. It cannot rest on a theistic belief: because if God exists, he is the source of all value.

Perhaps he made all men equal, or perhaps not; and men only have value if they recognize it or if they respect its commandments: hence the interreligious conflicts. Universalism cannot be based on a naturalistic view: compared to nature, the human species has as much value as any other species of mammal or insect; or perhaps it is worth even less, if it is, as people prefer to describe it today, the biggest predator and the biggest cause of ecosystem imbalances. And it would be counterintuitive to maintain that “Nature made all men equal”. We can all see that this is not the case.

Are universalist theses useless, or at least lacking in conceptual consistency? Enlightenment humanism believed itself grounded – but it was West-centered: that was its conceptual fragility and the internal contradiction for which it still pays today. In this moment of globalized humanity, humanism could be universalist, but it is precarious, because it has no transcendent justification. Trying to give it a philosophical, purely rational foundation again is the ambition of this book.

Universalist humanism, in the strict sense that we will give to the term, consists, as we have already said, of three theses.

Humanity is an ethical community: this is the universalist thesis proper. It is opposed to relativism according to which there cannot be valid and recognized morals for all communities. Part I will show the possibility of universalism, refuting relativism.

Humanity is the only source of value. This is the humanist thesis proper. It is opposed to the idea that humanity's value comes from other beings (God, Nature), or that nothing, not even humanity, has value (nihilism). Part II will be devoted to the universalist rivals of humanism.

These first two parts are critical. The capital point remains. If humanism is not a Western particularism and is not based on God, Nature or anything else, what is the basis for the idea of ​​the value of humanity and the equality of all human beings? It is these two questions that Part III will try to answer.

* Francis Wolff He is professor of philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Author, among other books, of Thinking with the Ancients (unesp).



Francis Wolff. In defense of the universal: to found humanism. Translation: Mariana Echalar. São Paulo, Unesp, 2021, 270 pages.



[I] I warmly thank André Comte-Sponville and Bernard Sève, faithful, frank and reliable friends, whose rigorous reading allowed me to significantly improve this text.

[ii] Published by Editora Unesp in 2013. [NE]

[iii] /10/2021   15:12:41

[iv] Published by Editora Unesp in 2018. [NE]

[v] Sartre, “Jean-Paul Sartre répond”, p.92-3.

[vi] We see more and more in the social sciences (and not only in North American universities) exclusive studies dedicated to subjugated “minorities” (Black Studies, African-American Studies, Gender studies, Feminist Studies, Jewish Studies, Islamic Studies etc.), with a theoretical and militant program that came to replace cross-sectional studies (history, anthropology, sociology, philosophy).

[vii] See, for example, Amselle, L'ethnicisation de la France.

[viii] Foucault, Words and things, p.398.

[ix] Ibid., p.397.

[X] Wolff, Notre Humanite, p.123-5.

[xi] Cf. further, Part I, chap. 2, p.43.

[xii] We distinguish between equality "of rights" accorded to all men or all citizens by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and equality "in law" (as distinguished from equality "in fact"), that is, that which is recognized by a system of norms. In simpler terms: “de facto” is what it is, “de jure” is what it should be.

[xiii] a fortiori, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776) refers to “God”, the “Creator” and “Divine Providence”. On these historical or genealogical questions, cf. further, Part II, p.69.

See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Impasses and solutions for the political momentjose dirceu 12/06/2024 By JOSÉ DIRCEU: The development program must be the basis of a political commitment from the democratic front
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario
  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • Hélio Pellegrino, 100 years oldHelio Pellegrino 14/06/2024 By FERNANDA CANAVÊZ & FERNANDA PACHECO-FERREIRA: In the vast elaboration of the psychoanalyst and writer, there is still an aspect little explored: the class struggle in psychoanalysis
  • Volodymyr Zelensky's trapstar wars 15/06/2024 By HUGO DIONÍSIO: Whether Zelensky gets his glass full – the US entry into the war – or his glass half full – Europe’s entry into the war – either solution is devastating for our lives
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table
  • PEC-65: independence or patrimonialism in the Central Bank?Campos Neto Trojan Horse 17/06/2024 By PEDRO PAULO ZAHLUTH BASTOS: What Roberto Campos Neto proposes is the constitutional amendment of free lunch for the future elite of the Central Bank