Saturday, January 21, 2012

Paul Nizan on humanism & other matters

Paul Nizan (7 February 1905 – 23 May 1940) was an eminent French writer, an erstwhile Communist, who left the party as a reaction to the Soviet-Nazi pact and died fighting the Germans.

I first became aware of Nizan via his philosophical work The Watchdogs: Philosophers and the Established Order, translated by Paul Fittingoff (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972; original publication, 1960).  Here is a relevant excerpt:

The Philosopher's Mission by Paul Nizan / Misio de la Filozofo (my Esperanto translation)

Here Nizan distinguishes between two types of philosophy, which he judges differently. He accepts strictly technical philosophers, particularly in philosophy of science, as they are, making no ideological demands upon them. But those who make broader assertions about human existence have proven themselves philosophically bankrupt, and those bourgeois philosophers are roundly condemned.

Nizan was also a prize-winning novelist. His last novel The Conspiracy, translated by Quintin Hoare, with an Afterword by Jean-Paul Sartre, and Appendix by Walter Benjamin (translated into English for the first time) has just been published in English by Verso.

Translations of some of Nizan's essays can be found at the Marxists Internet Archive.

Now I want to call your attention to Nizan's 1935 essay "On Humanism". The term "humanism" applies to several historical periods and schools of thought, and in even in English one must be attentive to the vagaries of the term. But "humanism" has a special meaning and basis of contention in French intellectual culture, known to Americans only through the unfortunate importation of postmodernism. If one were to think solely of the American humanist movement, Nizan's reference to "humanism" would be meaningless. The French reference to "humanism" reflects a traditionalist bourgeois culture that came under attack from multiple directions in the 20th century. Its attackers and defenders came from both right and left.

To get more of an idea of this background, follow the links on my web page:

Badiou and the Bankruptcy of Fashionable French Philosophy

. . . and on my "Studies in a Dying Culture" blog:

Bergson, apostle of reactionary irrationalism

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