Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

The legacy of humanism

The following is my contribution to the book Debating Humanism, edited by Dolan Cummings. Further details are available from the publishers, Imprint Academic.

It is easy to dismiss the legacy of humanism. All too often humanism presents itself in a caricatured form. Often it seems that it can only come alive through reliving its past struggles with religious dogma. Thus most people regard humanism as a secular movement defined by its hostility to religion and its passionate affirmation of atheism. This view is not surprising since many humanists take pride in their secular values and attach great importance to their anti-religious sentiments.

This standpoint is clearly expressed in A Humanist Manifesto written in 1933 and signed by many prominent humanists. Although this manifesto traces the foundation of humanism to the exercise of reason, its main focus is to settle scores with religion. There is little doubt that humanism emerged through a conflict with organised religion. But it is much more than that. It is not a secular cult of man but an open-ended perspective that seeks to grasp the truth through human experience. As Sartre argued, humanism is not a static project but an orientation realised through the exercise of human subjectivity.

Throughout history many progressive thinkers could not resist the temptation of trying to turn humanism into a dogma. Yet one of the most attractive and important dimensions of humanistic thinking was its rejection of the need for a fixed system of ideas. Humanists did not simply reject religion because they had a superior secular faith but because they recognised that the search for the truth required an open-ended orientation to experience. Truth does not exist in stable and fixed form. Its attainment demands a constant commitment to exploration. Nor are there general truths waiting to be revealed. There are truths but they are truths only for a specific moment in time. The relative character of truth, however does not mean that humanism is based on a relativistic epistemology. It does not renounce objectivity; rather it specifies objectivity in relation to the problem it confronts.

Atheism does not constitute a world view. It simply expresses a rejection of God. It reflects an attitude towards one specific issue and not a perspective on the world. Humanism does not merely reject a belief in God but in dogma in all of its forms – secular and religious. The importance of humanism does not lie in what it rejects but in what it upholds. It upholds the importance of human experience as the foundation for knowledge. The understanding that emerges through this experience has provided people with the capacity to change their circumstances and through that process to transform their humanity. It is through the interaction between human thought and social experience that society becomes humanised and learns to move forward. Humanism does not provide answers about future directions, it merely facilitates the process whereby subjectivity can be exercised and develop through learning from new experience. Humanist are continually forced to rework their ideas in line with the new problems and insights thrown up by history. This can be a very exhausting challenge even for the best of us. Often it can distract us from grasping the issues that confront us.

Those who identify with humanism today are deeply concerned with the influence of creationism and of movements variously described as fundamentalist Christian or the religious right. Anxieties about the apparent impact of these movements and the values they espouse informs the deliberations of humanist circles. Yet while attempts to reverse the separation of church and state are always a cause for concern, the real challenge facing humanists does not emanate from organised religion. Probably the most important challenge facing humanism is the growing cultural valuation of misanthropy. There is a powerful mood of disenchantment with humanity and its potential for playing a positive and creative role. And the sources for these influences are more often than not secular rather than religious.

Many influential theories – intelligent design, Gaia theory, chaos theory – self consciously render the human subject marginal. But often critics of religious obscurantism like creationism are oblivious to a more influential tendency to regard human beings as just another species. The influence of environmental determinism is particularly striking. From this standpoint human beings are assigned a minor and undistinguished role in the general scheme of things. And any attempt by people to gain control over their destiny is likely to be undermined by the forces of nature. Moreover the very attempt to control nature is represented as an act of a destructive species which does not know its place in the natural order of things. Instead of celebrating man’s attempt to transform nature, history and civilisation have been recast as a story of environmental destruction. From this standpoint the application of reason, knowledge and science are dismissed as problems because they help intensify the destructive capacity of the human species. ‘Humans are, literally, a species out of control’, notes a misanthropic contribution. From this perspective humanism itself is the problem.

Indeed there is a widespread conviction that it is the development of human civilisation, particularly the advance of science and technology, and the resulting subordination of the natural order to the demands of human society, that is the source of today’s problems of environmental destruction and social disintegration. The perception that it is civilisation that bears responsibility for the perils we face today assigns an undistinguished if not low status to the human species. At times this sentiment expresses a sense of loathing for the human species. Such sentiments are expressed by Earth First when they chant ‘Four Legs Good! Two Legs Bad!’ Indeed people are regularly portrayed as loathsome parasites who threaten the existence of the earth.

As I have written elsewhere the real challenge facing humanism is the low esteem accorded to the status of humanity. The world today is dominated by a widespread disenchantment with the record of humanity’s achievement. There is a manifest lack of confidence in the capacity of people to reason and influence the course of events. The past is frequently represented as a sordid tale of people destroying the planet. The construction of a past that continually highlights human selfishness and destruction helps the current project of dispossessing people of any unique or positive qualities.

The depiction of human activity as itself a threat to the world tends to endow this species with an overwhelmingly negative status. Instead of positive transformation and progress, civilisation is portrayed as a history of environmental vandalism. This misanthropic sentiment was clearly expressed by Michael Meacher, the former New Labour Minister for the Environment when in 2003, he spoke about how ‘we are the virus’ infecting the Earth’s body. His colleague, Labour MP Tony Banks echoed this sentiment in his proposed motion to the House of Commons. It stated that ‘This House... believes that humans represent the most obscene, perverted, cruel, uncivilised and lethal species ever to inhabit the planet and looks forward to the day when the inevitable asteroid slams into the Earth and wipes them out thus giving Nature the opportunity to start again’. Of course such intense loathing for people represents but an extreme variant of contemporary anti-humanism.

The prevailing climate of misanthropy is the product of disillusionment with the consequences of change. The intense scepticism regarding the desirability of change is strongly reflected in a powerful sense of estrangement from a fundamental idea associated with humanism – that of progress. There is no perceptible difference in political attitude towards the question of progress: the nineteenth century model of left-wing enthusiasm and right-wing suspicion no longer has relevance. In the 21st century it is difficult to find any systematic intellectual defence of the idea of progress. On the contrary, the idea of progress is usually indicted for encouraging human arrogance and destructiveness. The attempt to exercise control over our destiny is frequently dismissed as an exercise in Promethean arrogance. Those who search for new solutions and engage in experimentation are castigated for Playing God. Others seek to restrain scientific investigation in case it opens up a Pandora’s Box. Implicitly the condemnation of the idea of progress contains a warning against the aspiration for making or changing history. In a roundabout way the rejection of the ideal of progress constitutes the demand that we accept our Fate.

The current reaction against the idea of progress is one of the most unfortunate consequences of the decline of influence of Enlightenment thinking. Its consequence is to encourage deference to Fate and disengagement from taking responsibility for controlling our future. According to this model change acquires an objectified form so that we have history without a subject. This suppression of the historical subject has important implications for the way we regard people. The downsizing of the role of the subject has as its premise the rejection of the humanist ideal of personhood.

The prevailing sense of diminished subjectivity is underwritten by a distinct code about the workings of human behaviour and personhood. Every culture provides a set of ideas and beliefs about the nature of human beings and what constitutes their personhood. Our ideas about what we can expect from one another, how we handle uncertainty and change, deal with adversity and pain and how we view history are underpinned by the particular account that a culture offers about personhood and the human potential.

The defining feature of the current Western 21st-century version of personhood is its vulnerability. Although society still upholds the ideals of self-determination and autonomy the values associated with them are increasingly overridden by a more dominant message that stresses the quality of human weakness. The model of human vulnerability and powerlessness is transmitted through powerful ideas that call into question people’s capacity to assume a measure of control over their affairs. Social commentators regularly declare that we live in the era of the ‘death of the subject’, ‘the death of the author’, ‘decentred subject’, ‘end of history’ or ‘end of politics’. Such pessimistic accounts of the human potential inform both intellectual and cultural life in the West. They provide cultural legitimation for the downsizing human ambition.

Humanising humanism

It is perverse that twenty-first century society, which relies so much on human ingenuity and science also encourages deference to Fate. At a time of widespread disenchantment with the record of humanity’s achievements, it is important to restore confidence in the capacity of people to reason and influence the course of events. This is a challenge that confronts everyone who upholds a human-centred orientation towards the world. This task may appear as a modest one compared to the grand visions of the past but in our anti-humanist pre-political era its realisation is a precondition for the restoration of a climate hospitable to politics.

The reconstitution of the sense of agency and of historical thinking is the pre-requisite for the reengagement of the public with political life. That requires that we uphold humanity’s past achievements, including standards of excellence and civilised forms of behaviour and values. Far from representing a yearning for the good old days, overcoming our alienation from the legacy of human achievement helps us deal with the issues thrown up by change. It is through drawing on the achievements of the past that we can embrace change with enthusiasm.

Promoting a consistent belief in human potential underpins progressive thought. A human-centred view of the world recognises that people can be destructive and that conflicts of interests can lead to devastating outcomes. However, the negative and sometimes horrific experiences of the past two centuries, up to and including the Holocaust, are not the price of progress, but of the lack of it. Contemporary problems are not the result of applying reason, science and knowledge, but of neglecting them and thwarting the human potential.

The humanist intellectual universe needs to be ambitious but open-ended, prepared to countenance the validity of any idea and ready to yield to new experience. Such a perspective must engage in the process of humanising humanism. Humanising humanism requires that failure and mistakes are incorporated into the way we regard progress and the exercise of rationality. If human agency is assigned an important role in the making of history then factors like culture, subjective perception, conflict, contingency and limited knowledge all play a role in the way we engage with the world. Such influences can confuse, distract and disorient. Nevertheless they provide some of the important experiences from which we learn how to move forward. In a sense progress happens through these experiences in the exercise of subjectivity. Humanising humanism requires that we stop treating human development as a foregone conclusion. What we need is a humanism that is not a dogma but a perspective oriented to learning from what humans do.

When the inclination is to wallow in the dark side of humanity, it is worth emphasising that the legacy of the Enlightenment has provided us with a high standard of moral and ethical responsibility. The twentieth century has witnessed appalling atrocities and relapses into barbarism and genocide. Yet though the scale of degradation experienced in modern society may have been greater than in earlier times, it is only in our era that such events would have been popularly regarded with moral opprobrium. Torture, slavery, the slaughter of defeated enemies – before the modern era such activities were generally considered legitimate and went without question. Autocracy, hierarchy, elitism were considered to be features of a natural order vested with divine authority. It is only with the emergence of modern society, with its concepts of democracy and equality that the possibility of progress and of the improvement of humanity in both material and moral sense arises.

It is ironic that sentiments of moral revulsion against the evils of modern society are often accompanied by a tendency to repudiate the framework of rationality and purposeful intervention in nature and society that make a more truly human society possible. What we need is a more balanced assessment of the state of society, one that rejects the gross exaggeration of problems and recognises what we have achieved. But most important of all we need to understand that whatever the mistakes that we have made we can extract from them lessons that can guide us to move forward. The reconstitution of agency does not require the invention of grand philosophies but the humanising of humanism through empowering personhood.