Fanaticism as de-humanization

Bert van den Brink, Utrecht University, spoke under above title during Castrum Peregrini Central European Time kick-off workshop of FIT – ‘Fanaticism Indicator Test’

Do not quote or reproduce without written consent of the author: bert.vandenbrink[at]

I was asked to give a philosophical reflection on fanaticism. Fanaticism has never been a topic in my research but it does interest me a great deal. What I have to say here is no more than just a beginning of a reflection on the subject. I hope to say something about i) the history of the term, ii) what I will call fanaticism as de-humanization and iii) the question as to what to do with the fanatic once we have the power to confront him.

i. historical development of the term[1]

The latin ‘fanaticus’ comes to us from the latin ‘fas’ or ‘fes’, which designated – in Roman times — religious act, and ‘fanum’, which designates sanctuary. The religious acts in question do not designate an action in accordance with religious orthodoxy, however. On the contrary, the fanatic engages in cults concerning non-roman Gods. In early Christianity and in the Middle Ages, we see a similar use. The term fanatic now designates those who engage in non-Christian religious practice and worship. So a first and original meaning of fanaticism may be said to be religious action outside the trusted frameworks of the dominant religion.

A second meaning focuses on the nature of religious inspiration; the fanatic has been grasped by a special, immediate form of inspiration or enthusiasm. The immediacy of the experience is given with a claim to access to the divine that is not mediated by official religious institutions. For our purposes the most interesting thing here is probably not the claim as to how to come to knowledge of God or the divine, but rather that the fanatic has this experience outside of mediating institutions. Fanatics are outside of shared institutions and are, therefore, different and uncontrollable.

During the Reformation in Christianity the new Protestant groups are the fanatics, again they are characterized by inner conviction, enthusiasm and a rejection of the dominant institutional forms of mediation between human being and the divine. It is not until the period of the Enlightenment that a remarkable conceptual change occurs: an attack not on those who reject religious orthodoxy but religious orthodoxy itself. Catholic faith especially, with its trust in wonders and the Church as embodiment as the Kingdom of Heaven on earth appears as superstition, as nonsense upon stilts. A defense of religious orthodoxy can now be called fanaticism since it seems to do exactly what fanatics had always done: engage in practices and claim access to a special form of knowledge that remains hidden to those who use their common reasoning abilities as backed up by society’s or the church’s institutions. For understandable reasons, Protestantism, the first attack on Catholic orthodoxy, was seen as less fanatical, especially since it did not reject the idea that political organization can and should be informed by reason rather than by the truth of a particular faith.

Where Enlightenment-thinkers associate fanaticism with intolerance and domination in the exercise of political power the term ‘fanaticism’ itself takes on a political meaning. This meaning we can trace through the French Revolution, where both the ancién regime and the Catholic Church were seen as fanatical. Of course, it wasn’t long before the defenders of the revolutionary ideas were themselves seen as fanatical in their application of the ideals of freedom, equality and solidarity to social and political practice. What all these uses have in common is not so much that the designated ‘fanatics’ are outside of the center of power – for they most definitely were not – but rather that they seem not to respect limits defined by human reasoning abilities. The fanatic now is not the one who is outside of dominant religious practice but who is outside of the realm of human reason. At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, a couple of decades after the French Revolution, Hegel describes both religious and political fanaticism as “fury of destruction.” The fanatic is unable to grasp the complex institutional and dispositional requirements of freedom and equality in a constitutional state. The fanatic is motivated by a blind passion that will not be tamed by stabilizing social structures and the use of reason.

Inside or outside of reason, that is the modern question about fanaticism. And of course, reason is vulnerable. So those who want to go beyond respect for institutional and dispositional requirements of freedom can seek to go beyond reason. In one of the most quoted passages of Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler propagates exactly that: “Die Zukunft einer Bewegung wird bedingt durch den Fanatismus, ja die Unduldsamkeit, mit der ihre Anhänger sie als die allein wichtige vertreten und anderen Gebilden ähnlicher Art gegenüber durchsetzen.” “The future of a movement is conditioned by the fanaticism, yes, the intolerance, with which its adherents uphold it as the sole correct movement, and push it past other formations of a similar sort.” Not the correctness of a movement and its goals but the ruthless fanaticism with which its goals are upheld determines its future.

So let us sum up: historically, fanaticism has designated immediate religious inspiration and enthusiasm, conviction without doubt, uncontrollable by reason, activity outside of accepted institutions and social forms, intolerance and the will the destruct what is inspired and organized in ways that clash with the fanaticism in question. Its early meaning is ‘outside of accepted religion’ its modern meaning is rather ‘outside of reason’. Fanaticism is a term that is mostly used to describe others but there are examples – from horrible sources – that show us that self-description as fanatical is a possibility.

ii. Fanaticism as de-humanization

The true fanatic is not willing, and may not be able to limit his action in light of the wishes, opinions, actions, and rights of others. Justified by his special inspiration and enthusiasm and his privileged access to truth, he is not responsive to the good reasons that may exist to, indeed, constrain his actions. He is, in a way, outside of the law. The fanatic is not able to take the insights, needs and interests of others seriously. Reaching own goals is more important to him than insights, needs and interests that stand in the way of such goals. At the base of all of this there is what I want to call a de-humanization of the fanatic and his other. The fanatic is less human than he could be and de-humanizes his others exactly because he steps outside of, goes beyond the laws of human connectedness. The fanatic treats neither himself nor his other as human.

In light of what I have said so far you may suspect that at the heart of this connectedness stands the human ability to reason together; to exchange reasons about an issue that interests or divides us in order to reach a certain conclusion that we somehow share and accept as something that can guide our actions. Yet, as important as the human capacity to reason with others about situations is, I think that it is not what makes us human in a morally interesting way. We can reason about horrible ends and reasoning itself does not obligate us to take into account the insights, needs and interests of all. There has to be something more basic that makes us human.

I will try to bring out what does make us human in a relevant sense here and I will label this, with a term coined by German philosopher Axel Honneth, empathic involvedness. With this I refer to a disposition for action that enables people to empathize with, feel for, the situation of others. The core of my argument is that the fanatic has lost this ability; his inspiration and enthusiasm for a single goal have blinded him to the very humanity of others, making it easy for him to ignore their needs, interests and claims. Empathetic involvedness is a necessary condition of reasoning practices that include all affected by a certain constellation. It is a matter of acknowledging their existence as human beings with distinct needs, interests and standpoints. It is an involvedness that is given before reasoning starts, so to say, it is a deep assumption about others being human and thus worthy of their status of reasoner, rights-bearer etc.

Maybe I can explain what the vague sounding term of empathetic connectedness stands for by introducing you to a perhaps silly but nonetheless interesting philosophical argument by Stanley Cavell. Cavell engages with skeptical philosophers who argue that it is impossible to know whether another human being is in pain. Skeptics in philosophy have made an enormous issue out of this. Some of them go so far as to claim that the circumstance that I cannot know with certainty that another is in pain leads to doubts about the existence of other minds than my own. Against this philosophical argument (you may want to say: illness ) Cavell develops an argument that I understand as an argument about humanity.

With his intellectual doubts as to the possibility of knowledge of the pain of others the skeptic treats human behavior and human speech as independent of the mind. The skeptic says: “You seem to be in pain, you say you are in pain, but how can I know that you are in pain. Can I feel your pain the way that you feel it? Which theory of knowledge can help me reach certain knowledge of what your behavior and words suggests, i.e. that you are in pain?”

Cavell’s answer is that there is no theory of knowledge that can help us here simply because certainty of knowledge is neither possible here, nor very important. When I say that I am in pain, or that I know that I am in pain, I express an experience that is relevant to both of us. The way you are supposed to react is not: “but I have no way of ascertaining that you are indeed in pain,” but rather: “you are in pain.”  And you don’t say this because you want to express that you have certain knowledge about my state of mind and body, but because you express your sympathy, because you feel for me, acknowledge my state, perhaps want to help me.

In this point about acknowledgment we find the crux of this argument: Your pain makes a claim upon me; it connects us as vulnerable, sentient beings, as beings who are sufficiently alike to acknowledge each other as belonging to the same group, as sufficiently equal to make claims on each other. Our empathic involvedness makes us human in our relation because we acknowledge a certain mutual dependence and the right to make claims on one another.

I would claim that our sense of humanity consists in our ability to relate to others in terms of empathic connectedness; to acknowledge their existence as human beings. This forms of acknowledgement precedes our recognizing each other as persons, as concrete human beings with specific traits, roles, and expectations. As a person with such traits I can make claims with respect to the way that others should treat me and I should treat these others. But making claims is more than exchanging reasons; the exchange of reasons, the cognitive process of testing these reasons etc. is preceded by a very basic form of mutual acknowledgement that I would call empathic involvedness.

My claim is that fanaticism affects negatively this sense of empathic involvedness. The inspiration, enthusiasm, the immunity to the power of reason, the breaking with shared patterns of expectation and institutional constraints – they are all indicative of a basic disposition to act that is not constrained by an openness to the needs, interests and most basic moral claims of others over the fanatic. The fanatic is severely hindered in acknowledging the experience of others as expressed in their claims, their reasons, their pain, their bodily movements. The fanatic is not empathically involved with them.

I am not claiming that the fanatic is totally unable to act from empathetic involvedness; the fanatic need not be inhuman, a monster, a demon. To use Hannah Arendt’s term we could speak of the banality of fanaticism. In his involvement with evil the fanatic has left his humanity behind, and has become insensitive to that of others, by treating others as objects, not as human beings, and doing so in the name of an obsession, an ideology, a set of prescripts that does not turn him into a monster, but into a human being who in a way betrays his own humanity. Fanaticism, like evil, is not a solid state, that can never be changed. The fanatic has a choice, he can do or could have done otherwise. The fact that the fanatic does what he does despite his capacity for empathic involvedness makes him all the more frightening. On the other hand, the fact that there is a choice may also contain a glimmer of hope: the fanatic can change, can retreat from his obsession, can re-humanize himself and others by opening up to what I have called empathic involvedness with others.

iii What to do with the fanatic?

This finally raises the question as to how to relate to the fanatic. Since he dehumanizes himself and his other – us – we may treat him as less than human as well. That of course conjures up a problem: do we want to dehumanize ourselves in dealing with fanaticism? Here perhaps our best advice is to be taken from the saying that you shouldn’t argue with a stupid person since he’ll bring you down to his level and than beat you with experience. So don’t argue with a fanatic cause he’ll bring you down to his level and beat you with fanaticism there. The better way to react is not through face-to-face argument but through institutions that have been shaped in light of the requirement of empathic involvedness. Legal and political institutions in sufficiently decent states have been informed by that requirement and thus enable anyone who faces them to answer questions about his presumed fanaticism with good or not so good reasons. Good examples of course are the trials against war criminals in Nuremberg, Israel and many other places and – on a different issue and scale – trials against Islamist terrorists today. Sometimes, of course, we try to prevent fanaticism through schooling etc. There too, I’d say, the first step should be taken from an empathic involvement that is directed at making comparisons, offering alternatives, making people see different sides to stories etc. And then sometimes of course, there is war against fanatics. Here, reasoning with fanaticism stops and turns into a fight. But here too there is a difference between a justified war and one that is not. I can not decide here what makes a war against fanaticism justified but I do suspect that apart from the quality of its goals that question would have to be answered in terms of an empathic involvedness with the faith of all those affected by that war. Taking empathic involvedness seriously does not in any way imply that there cannot be a hard answer to fanaticism. But it does imply that those who are fighting fanaticism are themselves bound to a requirement of minimal empathic involvedness even with their enemies who are, after all, human beings.

[1] I have benefitted from Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, J. Ritter and others, Basel: Schabe, 1971-2007.