Back to article index


In this essay I want to develop a comparison between the 'Letter on Humanism' (1946-7) by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and the book Homocentrisme (1937) by the French Cubist painter, Albert Gleizes.

Both writers are critical of 'humanism' as it is generally understood. Heidegger, responding to a Frenchman who has asked him 'How can we restore meaning to the word "Humanism?"' replies 'I wonder whether that is necessary' (p.219) [1] but he makes it clear that this isn't because he is rejecting 'humanity'. Quite the contrary, his complaint is that 'the highest determinations of the essence of man in humanism still do not realise the proper dignity of man.' (p.233)

[1]  Heidegger quotes taken from Basic Writings, ed David Farrell Krell, Routledge, 1993, unless otherwise stated.

Gleizes claims that the changes that took place at the beginning of the century in his own field - painting -were the result of a deep dissatisfaction with the existing - humanist - idea of how human experience could be embodied in art: 

'one thing is certain, and it cannot be denied, despite the opposition of those who are incapable of understanding anything.  It is this: that, well before the problem of Man had begun to appear to be urgent, it had already been posed by the Cubist painters, and they did it by tackling, resolutely, and with a serious desire to resolve it, the mystery of "form"' (p.8). 

And he concludes that the Man to be recovered wasn't 

'the HUMANIST, the man who was put forward at the time of the Renaissance.  Great as the Humanist may have been, we, in our time, represent the last stages of the normal process of his degeneration.  The man whom we need now is the man who, through a process that is traditional in nature, experiences himself as a process of growth, the man who has set off along the way of a living expansion, real on all the different levels of his existence, complete, and conscious of his completeness, the HOMOCENTRIST of the mediaeval, religious centuries' (p.13). [2]

[2]   Gleizes quotes from Homocentrisme (Moly Sabata, Sablons 1937) unless otherwise stated. My translation (unpublished)

Gleizes's complaint is that the Humanist put all his faith in the appearances of the world outside himself: 

'Senses on the one hand, observation on the other.  And that is Humanism in a nutshell.  It separates Man away from the world which surrounds him.  Man is reduced to the senses.  The surrounding world exists outside him.  The only thing he can do if he wishes to know it is to observe it, through his senses.  To reason is given the job of untangling the knot of all the complicated relations which are found to exist between the different observations.' (p.43).

Hence the emergence of an art which created the illusion of a three dimensional space and, following the example of classical Greek art, peopled it with exceptionally beautiful human beings and landscapes: 

'A thesis which fits in to our present day idea of progress. One which is incapable of making the distinction between experience and observation.  Which sees in Man only his external appearance, which looks at this external appearance only from the most flattering angle.  The criteria which these guides [3] give for evaluating Man seem to me no different from those which would more appropriately be held by a gym-master.  The Spirit escapes them.  Their judgement goes no further than the level of the anatomy, it is the muscle that sets the tone for all the rest' (p. 31).

[3]   Gleizes is referring to the guides of a major exhibition of Italian art in Paris held under the title From Cimabue to Titian. The guides explained the exhibition as the history of a progress from the 'Byzantine' immobility of Cimabue's 'Virgin with Angels' to the accurate understanding of anatomy in Titian's Venus. Gleizes argues that by contrast the Cimabue was a work of observation and the senses put to the service of a constructive intelligence, while in the Titian, the intelligence was put to the service of the senses, indeed to sensuality, the senses in erotic mode. In the first (Cimabue) the lower part of the human hierarchy is at the service of the higher, in the second (Titian), the higher is at the service of the lower.

This was the idea of 'form' - the identification of form and external appearance - that was challenged by Cubism, resulting in the twentieth century taken as a whole (and Gleizes would be the first to admit it) in the apparently complete collapse of any sense of Form. But the same, or a parallel, phenomenon can be seen in other human activities, notably in the physical sciences which again were given an impetus in the Renaissance fascination with the form of things, identified with their eternal appearance (which includes the external appearances that can be seen when you cut the thing open) but in the nineteenth century was becoming very nebulous as the particle and the wave disputed with each other which constituted the 'essence' of perceived nature.

Gleizes argued that the solution was not to be found in external appearances but in Man himself who needed to be recovered as 

'a WHOLE, organised in a hierarchy, whose body and senses are natural tools which enable him to create himself, which are able to engage the interest of his intellectual memory and, thus, to prepare the way for the Intelligence of what he can BE' (p.8).

The non-italics are my own, stressing what the hierarchy is - body and senses; intellectual memory; Intelligence - all three of which might be called functions of subjective experience if Gleizes did not insist on their 'objective' character - objective experience as against subjective opinion. They correspond to the traditional Greek division - senses (aisthesis); soul (psyche); spirit (nous) - found in Plato and taken up by the early Christian Fathers, corresponding to the experienced hierarchy of space (senses); time (memory); Eternity (Intelligence/spirit) and, since they are all functions of experience and therefore of consciousness, they had little to do with the duality of Body (assumed to be in and of itself inert matter, like a machine) and Soul (in the Latin sense of anima - assumed to be an animating principle like the current of electricity that sets the machine going).