What is Humanism?


What is Humanism?

 “Humanism encourages us to answer life’s questions for ourselves, without necessarily taking onboard ready made answers passed on by others. It is about facing reality with curiosity and realism, and examining our questions with logic, science, humility, and empathy for all our fellow beings. It is a belief in our potential to find meaning in the one life we have, and to lead happy and satisfying lives in the knowledge that we are contributing to the greater – and fairer – good in this world.”

X’Inhu l-Umaniżmu?

 “L-Umaniżmu jħeġġiġna mwieġbu l-mistoqsijiet tal-ħajja għalina nfusna, mingħajr ma nirrikorru għal tweġibiet lesti li jgħaddilna ħaddieħor. L-idea hi li niffaċċjaw ir-realtà b’kurżità u realiżmu, u neżaminaw il-mistoqsijiet li jkollna permezz tal-loġika, x-xjenza, l-umiltà u l-empatija għal ta’ madwarna. Huwa twemmin fil-potenzjal tagħna li nsibu l-milja fil-ħajja, u li ngħixu ħajja ta’ kuntentizza u sodisfazzjon, bil-konvinzjoni li qed nikkontribwixxu għal dinja aktar ġusta u għall-ġid komuni.”


Learn more about Humanism

IntroducTORY TEXT 

A good starting point provided by the British Humanist Association

Introducing Humanism 

Non-religious approaches to life with Sandi Toksvig

Humanist Lives

Explore what it means to live as a humanist with Alice Roberts

A variety of courses 

Provided by the American Humanist Centre for Education

Delving Deeper – Humanism in Contemporary Philosophy

As a term, humanism means many things in different contexts: apart from its common use to refer to activism-centred secular humanism, humanism is also a philosophical term. Even if we zoom in to humanism as a philosophy, different authors highlight different aspects of it. If we use the definition used by Sartre in “Existentialism is a Humanism”, humanism refers to the idea that humanity is responsible for itself – there is no external entity which can give meaning to our lives – as he puts it: “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.”

With posthumanism and antihumanism on the rise, many philosophers would consider humanism as an outdated philosophy. Indeed, there is lots of fair criticism directed more or less at the lofty definition above: “man” is far from free to define himself  as an individual in the context of cultural and societal constraints. Even as a collective, humanity doesn’t live in a vacuum and by putting ourselves as the focal point of our attention, i.e. without seeing ourselves as part of a vast universe, we have already started suffering serious consequences (climate change, mass extinction, etc).

However the good news is that “much of what the anti-humanists attack does not seem essential to or even characteristic of humanism” [1] because humanism is more of “a messy, incomplete, and possibly evolving tradition” [1] rather than “a static, easily definable notion that exists as an unchangeable entity.” [2] In fact one could argue that maintaining a (self)critical and evolving attitude is at the core of what humanism is all about [3]. Thus our idea is that humanists should be those who, given a particular context of space and time, “are able to sense when a course correction is needed” [1] with a resolve “to question, problematize, and dismantle the status quo and to creatively imagine and actively engage in the practice of alternatives that function subversively” [2]. 




I propose to proceed dialectically: to derive aspects of a coherent humanism from the very tensions among these views.
As a first step, let us stake out a purposefully schematic, preliminary definition of humanism as follows:
Humanism is a moment in the life of culture, a spe- cific intervention that evinces a range of character- istic sensibilities which in turn have come to be associated with a set of enduring practices and institutions where they are nurtured until they are needed.

Thus, humanism is the name we give to a series of famous interventions keyed to moments when this tradition was imperiled by traditionalism (in which the past is reified and made mute), or modernism (which I am using as a term of art to mean an obliviousness to the past in the name of progress). This means that while humanism persists through time, each stage of this unfolding tradition is also closely tied to its historical moment. Because humanism arises as a corrective, humanism may look more like modernism in an era that has begun to worship the trappings of the past, or like traditionalism in an era characterized by infatuation with the new.

Higgins, C. (2014). The humanist moment. Asia Pacific Education Review, 15(1), 29-36. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12564-013-9294-5


To understand humanism as a practice, educators are dispositioned to shift their primary focus from the preservation of the cultural giants of the Western tradition and onto helping their students negotiate
the complexity of the world. “What concerns me,” Said writes, “is humanism as a useable praxis for intellectuals and academics [and I would add teachers and students] who want to know what they are doing, what they are committed to as scholars [educators and learners], and who also want to connect these principles to the world in which they live as citizens.” The power of engaging this kind of humanistic education, I suggest, is not related to its capacity to precipitate what might seem like the impossible destruction of the “neoliberal” agenda. Rather it is its ability to intervene in this and any other historical moment, to question, problematize, and dismantle the status quo and to creatively imagine and actively engage in the practice of alternatives that function subversively.

Chatelier, S. (2017), Beyond the Humanism/Posthumanism Debate: The Educational Implications of Said's Critical, Humane Praxis. Educ Theory, 67: 657-672. https://doi.org/10.1111/edth.12278


… it is possible to be critical of humanism in the name of humanism and … schooled in its abuses by the experience of Euro- centrism and empire, one could fashion a different kind of humanism that was cosmopolitan and text- and-language-bound in ways that absorbed the great lessons of the past… and still remain attuned to the emergent voices and currents of the present, many of them exilic, extraterritorial, and unhoused…

… to understand humanism at all, for us as citizens of this particular republic, is to understand it as democratic, open to all classes and backgrounds, and as a process of unending disclosure, discovery, self-criticism, and liberation. I would go so far as to say that humanism is critique, critique that is directed at the state of affairs in, as well as out of, the university … and that gathers its force and relevance by its democratic, secular, and open character

Said, E. W. (2004). Humanism and democratic criticism. New York: Columbia University Press.

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