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
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
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
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.
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
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.