Home |  Current Issue |  Links |  Conferences/Events |  Archives
About the Journal |  Submit |  Subscribe

Search Janus Head               

Making Friends with Rex: Metaphysics and the Epistemology of New Humanist Anthropology

Caley Michael Orr
University of Colorada, Boulder

Rex Olson (1999) has suggested that in my article “In Defense of Humanism: Pragmatism, Intention and Faith” (Orr, 1999) I have “suppress[ed] the text of [my] logic in order to mean what [I] say.” This is to suggest that a preexisting metaphysical ideology, in which I have “blind faith,” has influenced my use of pragmatic logic to argue for humanistic ideals such as a concrete self and objective world. Olson argues that it is only through a deconstructive metaphysical rupture that we become fully conscious of such ideals in the first place: “The ideals held by traditional humanism -- an intentional knowing subject, clear, univocal meaning, an objective world in which one acts -- can only appear possible the moment they are realized as being under erasure.” Through deconstruction’s rupture, according to Olson, such a metaphysical construct becomes clear to us by revealing the reliance on a potentially arbitrary transcendental signified to which all components of the system defer. In humanism’s case, the postulates of concreteness and objectivity point to a signified “self” or “subject” and a “world” with which it interacts. The implication is that pragmatic humanism as I have framed it relies on a circular argument in which it “proves” the metaphysical axioms upon which it is founded -- of course a polemical no-no in any philosophical argument.

Olson touches on my point regarding faith in a metaphysic in the sense that I do postulate certain things, and these postulates are necessary components in decision making which is integral to the pragmatic program. However, I would hardly call this faith blind. Rather, such faith is important in allowing us to act on certain propositions that my be too imperative about which to remain skeptical. Pragmatic humanism is interested in how humans use axioms and how acting on particular propositions works better for understanding one another and the world around us, as well as for making epistemological (true/false), moral (good/evil) and ethical (right/wrong) decisions. There are certain axioms such as that of an intentional Self from which we construct programs of action that are eminently useful in communication and ethical concerns, and in explicating the material pragmatic consequences of acting on beliefs. A pragmatic approach holds that the most useful application of critical theory is in revealing and explicating programs of actions.

Robbins, Cowan-Barbetti and Barbetti (1999) link my article to Edler’s (1999) on Alfred Baeumler and Heidegger in their editorial introduction saying that I “provide a possible alternative to the potential paralysis at the end of metaphysics” (202). This is an accurate assessment of New Humanism, for the ultimate goal is to examine actions throughout the history of humanity that have been useful in unveiling meaning, enhancing the coherence of experience, and, most importantly, making moral and ethical decisions. My Jamesian metaphysical musings regarding the concrete existence of the Self are an attempt to provide a theoretical framework and an epistemological test to help us validate and give “metameaning” to the endeavor. Richard Rorty has argued that metaphysical language only muddles the project, but as a pragmatist I believe that at the very least such theory provides patterns with which to assess out experiential approach to the pragmatic consequences of acting on particular beliefs, even if it falls short of a true metaphysical ground. Belief in an intentional and concrete Self may allow us to hear the voices behind the works we critique and take them more seriously as the initiators of actions of which we are examining the pragmatic consequences.

While I advocate a more epistemological and metaphysical pragmatism than such pragmatic thinkers as Rorty, who would do away with such talk entirely, I am also more sympathetic to the aims of continental philosophers such as Derrida and Foucault than perhaps came across in my “Defense.” However, the ideas of ideological theorists such as Bakhtin, Althusser and Foucault may be more useful than other post-structuralist thought, as they are concerned with the material (pragmatic) consequences of acting on ideologies as programs of actions. Rorty (1982) has argued that Nietzsche and his postmodern discipline Foucault were essentially pragmatists in the tradition of James and Dewey, but that Nietzsche/Foucault represent the pessimistic side of James’/Dewey’s perspective. Nietzsche represents a crucial break in Western metaphysics by initiating its deconstruction and replacing it with his infamous will to power. In the same vein, James argues against a pure correspondence theory of truth, although, as an epistemological realist he posits reality ab initio, thus providing meaning by assuming a ground upon which we can discuss issues of utility and the experiential consequences of acting on beliefs, rather than deferring to notions of individual power.

It is my regret that I did not come across as more sympathetic to the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss , as a pragmatic humanism is only feasible as a brand of anthropology that also allows for ethical decision making. In this endeavor, it is in some agreement with post-structuralist and hermeneutic thought in that it advocates doing away with much of philosophy in favor of drawing on evidence of the traditional idea of the “human condition” from anthropology and other sciences as well as literature and the arts. While humans are vastly diverse in our beliefs, values and worldviews, we are also inextricably linked by our similarities. The characteristics of our common humanity evident in our biology and sociocultural ecology limit the extent to which we can differ, and it is important to examine what may embody a “human nature” that is malleable enough to account for the diversity we see. Considering the common thread while studying its many manifestations may allow us to avoid what I see as the postmodern paradox in which both absolute cultural relativism and totalitarianism are logical consequences of the predominant philosophical attitudes of our time. On the one hand, I refuse to allow relativism to excuse such practices as female circumcision and ethnic cleansing, yet also fear the “Brave New World” which is an eminently practical society but certainly how few would care to live. The celebration of polyglot and the multiplicity of humanity expressed by such journals as Janus Head is a beautiful ideal. New Humanism embraces this ideal, but also operates on the notion that certain beliefs work better for humans, and refuses to sacrifice our ability to make epistemological and moral decisions.


Olson, R. (1999) Toward an in-defensible humanism: A reply to Caley Orr. Janus Head, 2(1).

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

Robbins, B. D., Cowan-Barbetti, C., & Barbetti, V. (1999) Editorial: The tower of Babel: Shadow of the Interdisciplinary. Janus Head, 1(3), 192-204.

Rorty, R. (1982) Consequences of pragmatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.