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Toward An In-Defensible Humanism: Reply to Caley Orr

Rex Olson
Duquesne University

In his article, “In Defense of Humanism: Pragmatism, Intention, and Faith,” Caley Orr (1999) strives to resurrect traditional humanism from the ashes of a post-structuralist incendiary. This argument is surely worth making, since in the past humanists have summarily dismissed post-structuralists without having seriously read them. Orr, at least, means to give post-structuralists a fair hearing: which is to say his argument does well to provide a survey of such post-structuralists as Derrida, Lacan, Cixous, and Irigaray, tracing their thought back to Saussure’s structuralist linguistics. With this, there can be no quarrel; the intellectual history of this movement has long been well documented. But to the extent a survey of post-structuralism can be instructive as an introduction to the field, it also risks the perception of being propped up as a “straw man,” especially when the aim is to mount a counter-offensive in the name of Humanism. Such risk occurs on two levels: first, in emphasizing what is a common “anti-humanist”sentiment among these thinkers, a survey not only overlooks their critical differences but fails to offer sufficient understanding of the complexity of their thought as a mode of critical engagement with other thinkers. Most post-structuralists, while demanding a return to language in order that it signify, provide an alternative reading of a thinker’s text at those places where thought takes leave of language in the form of intentional meaning. Second, a survey as such betrays Orr’s bias to an enlightened humanist position even before the argument is ever made on pragmatic grounds. As a rhetorical strategy it announces a commitment to be “fair” and “objective” in its treatment, despite the expression of that desire in a discourse which disrupts that very possibility. The move itself, ironically, threatens to enter the very solipsistic space Orr claims befalls Derrida and other post-structuralist thinkers.

Orr’s clearly articulated position argues that “the concept of a concrete self is seen to have survived the relativistic onslaught of structuralist and deconstructuralist criticism” when one judges the purchase of these theories against the logic of Jamesian pragmatism. Accordingly, the competing propositions that the concept of Self is illusory -- a post-structuralist contention --or that the Self is an actual concrete entity -- the cornerstone of humanism -- can be reduced to the latter on the ground that “the conscious being acts as if a concrete self exists by performing all of the actions that necessarily require the positing of a self” (279). In other words, the post-structuralist claim provides little or no real pragmatic consequences; it simply fails to be meaningful in a worldly way or “seems to forget the true purpose of language: to communicate” (279-80).

It is here, at this pragmatic site, that Orr reveals a blind faith in the logic of his text to suppress the text of his logic in order to mean what he says. The issue dividing humanists and post-structuralists is the extent to which the “true purpose of language” can be achieved. Orr chooses to posit a metaphysically pragmatic foundation for humanism than to read the text that could grant a “real” possibility for his defense of humanism. The ideals held by traditional humanism--an intentional knowing subject, clear, univocal meaning, an objective world in which one acts--can only appear to be possible the moment they are realized as being under erasure. Just as deconstruction reveals the positing of a concrete subject as illusory, so too it does not deny the right of that concrete subject to exist. The presence of the subject is neither entirely illusory nor wholly concrete, but rather finds itself as a de-centered being in the space between and cannot be for itself any other way. Consequently, it is not enough to dismiss the notion of a concrete subject as illusory simply because it fails to meet the criterion of decisive action as imposed by pragmatic logic. The task is to submit to the text as a reader with the “same” kind of rigor that requires someone like Derrida to write it. It is to read rather than “think,” to discover “true” pragmatic action in the moment of undecidability. This moment is immanent in the face of every meaningful decision. There is no being outside it; hence, no-thing can be cut off or separated from anything else, and any project that decides otherwise can only meet with a tragic end. Such is the fate of Orr’s all-too-well-conceived project. For the decision to “think” pragmatically means that Orr unknowingly slays the promise of a “New Humanism,” foreclosing on the very text, the very site from which any notion of a viable defense might arise.


Orr, C. (1999) In defense of humanism: Pragmatism, intention, and faith. Janus Head, 1(3), 277-292.

Caley Orr's Response