Killing “Humanism”: Definition by a Thousand Cuts

It is a — most — provoking — thing,’ Humpty said at last, `when a person doesn’t know a cravat from a belt!’ `I know it’s very ignorant of me,’ Alice said, in so humble a tone that Humpty Dumpty relented.

Preliminary: Of Words in General

Writing in defense of the language he loved and hated, H.L. Mencken wrote in The Smart Set for 1921 that “When two-thirds of the people who use a certain language decide to call it a freight train instead of a goods train, they are ‘right’; then the first is correct usage and the second a dialect.”

He was speaking of one of the minor irritants of usage that separate American and British speakers, “divided by a common language,” into those who love English because it isn’t French and those who value it primarily because it isn’t Spanish.  –The perennial war between Britspeak and Amerispeak shows illiteracy on both sides of the water, however.  About a third of our English words are French derivatives (about 28% Latin), and neither the linguistically recusant hillbillies in Tennessee nor bankers in Fleet Street could give an Anglo-Saxon farmer of the year 1065 the time of day in a language he could understand.  Lingua Anglorum non mortuus est,  but boy has it changed. Shift happens, linguistically speaking.

Modern linguistics was not really influenced by Mencken as such, but the “usage factor” has become a standard measure of what defines a language in practical terms. Living languages “obey” the habits of living speakers, described not prescribed.  If, to turn it around, two-thirds of people no longer know what a goods train is, then maybe it’s time to call it a freight train.

Besides, rightness and wrongness surely don’t hang on idiomatic differences–whether the British cringe when they hear an American saying “gotten” for “got” or “normalcy” for “normality” or “dude” for “bloke.” Whether I’m pissed, pissed off or told to piss off, I know it’s time to go home.  (It’s the syme the ‘ole world ovah.  Now, Nigel: say fævah, favour, father).  We have made so much of these issues for so long now (so bloody long now) that we all know what the other means, more or less.  And the discussion–which might have been infinitely fascinating cocktail chit in the 1920’s, when there really was a smart set, and when we began to encounter each other as hateful cousins in great numbers after a century and a half of virtual separation–is frankly a little boring.

I do agree with Tolkien, though:  American women all talk like they have a clothes peg (sorry, pin) over their nose.

Language is made up of words, and words are the primary agents of change.  Once upon a time nice meant foolish; now it means nice. Egregious meant great, as in wonderful. Awful meant what we now mean by awesome and a guy was always a bad guy—like Guy Fawkes, and now has become the most gender-neutral pronoun in the language–as in, Really, you guys. A knave was just a boy (is it anything now?) and a silly girl wasn’t a giggly maid but a virgin.  To interfere meant to have sex with, now it means interrupting someone in medias res, so to speak. Kill used to mean torture (as in “That joke just kills me”), but now is always used to mean to do away with/someone in.  I’m hot can mean a couple of things.  I’m cool, likewise.  I’m gay probably means only one thing today—because when the winds of change have done their work, old meanings can be swept away entirely.  And all that jazz.

Although not the only mechanism we possess to convey meaning, words are the most efficient because with them we can create nuance and abstraction, write poetry, form concepts, discuss the origins of the universe, fractals, Leibnitz,  and our neighbour’s mysterious parties. And while many meaning-changes or semantic shifts can be explained in terms of processes which diachronic (historical) linguistics can classify (narrowing, elevation, metaphor, antiphrasis metonymy, etc.) other words with a specific history and semantic lode are less susceptible to shift—especially when they are concept-driven or definitional.

For example.  To define capitalism as a process of collectivizing wealth and redistributing it to people on the basis of need would not get us very far in understanding the economic preferences of the Western democracies.  To define prostitution as the practice of absolute chastity before and during marriage would be at least a little confusing.  Classicism does not describe the political system of ancient Greece but its emphasis on balance, order and harmony in architecture and ideas, even though these ideals are (sort of) reflected in the political structures in Greek antiquity. Democratic, until fairly recently, did not describe an architectural style, though “Stalinist” can refer to an aesthetic or a system.  True, some words (but not definitional ones), through a process called “auto-antonymy,” become their complementary opposite (That dress is so bad! = so good, or so hot), but native speakers will know how to flip the meaning from usage and context, with a minimum of intellectual exertion.

Of a Particular Word: Humanism

The unique message of humanism on the current world scene is its commitment to scientific naturalism. Most world views accepted today are spiritual, mystical, or theological in character. They have their origins in ancient pre-urban, nomadic, and agricultural societies of the past, not in the modern industrial or postindustrial global information culture that is emerging. Scientific naturalism enables human beings to construct a coherent world view disentangled from metaphysics or theology and based on the sciences. Humanist Manifesto 2000 (Paul Kurtz)

Over at New Oxonian, I have written several pieces about the difference between movement, meaning organization-based  humanism (secular, new, religious, ethical, neo, and trans-) and wholecloth humanism, on the analogy that these snippets have been selectively cut from the much broader historical phenomenon known simply as humanism.

The snipping is primarily a British and American pastime, just as the founding of organizations to promote a certain understanding of “humanism” (secular, political, and anti-theistic) has primarily unfurled as an Anglo-American project.  Any standard dictionary will attest to the success of this project: normally the first definition given is a movement-humanism definition, with the laudable exception of Webster’s.  –Leave it to the Americans to get something right in the long run, as Churchill once famously remarked.

My contention is that this snipping away has resulted in a technical reductio ad absurdum—a lessening and deadening of the whole concept originally conveyed by the term humanism.  Linguists (Ullmann [1962] being the most famous) have called the process semantic pejoration or weakening–much like defining democracy as “one man one vote” or puritans as early American fundamentalist Christians, 10% true but 90% misleading and thus 100% wrong. The tendency to turn the phenomenon called humanism into one of its multifarious effects or “tendencies” has not only turned humanism into a parody of itself, but the whole process has been done in such an artless way that the term has lost both integrity and valence: Humanism (recall Sartre’s famous quip about “existentialism”) now means so many different things that it has ceased to mean anything at all.

Hardly better is the Humpty-Dumpty insistence by some humanist organizations that humanism is non-theistic, secular, grounded in Enlightenment endorsements of “science” and “reason,” inherently and unarguably aligned with progressive politics and social movements, and committed to global ethics and values, in a circuitous way that embraces the principles of documents like the International Declaration of Human Rights but seems grotesquely ignorant of basic facts about its genesis–for example, that the famous Catholic-Thomistic philosopher Jacques Maritain was one of its principal authors.

This ignorance extends systematically to the role of religion in every progressive social and political movement since the time of the Revolution (including the Revolution), Abolition, women’s rights, civil rights, poverty alleviation, and economic and environmental activism.  In fact, in its anti-theistic fervor, it is difficult to imagine a cause or movement so embarrassingly mistaken about the factors of cultural change as so-called ‘secular’ humanism. It is equally difficult to locate a movement more craven in its lack of serious accomplishments in any of the areas it professes to care about:  Baptists and Quakers did more for free speech. Unitarians more for secularism and education (think, Harvard) and Catholics more for the poor and for building schools and hospitals.  Add the Jews, the African American Church and a few other liberal denominations that the secular humanists never mention and you have roughly a capsule of America.  Humanism was never irrelevant before ”secular humanism” made it irrelevant in marginalizing it from the great social and political ideas of the time in favor of a crabbed and jaundiced view of religion in general.  In a word, “secular humanism” has been disastrous on almost every front, but primarily in robbing humanism of its pedigree as a light in the darkness.

Just off the boat



Basically the history of humanism is a story of cultic emanations from original purposes.  The term itself had some currency in the Renaissance and perhaps its finest early articulation is Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man. Anyone who has read the turgid twentieth century humanist “manifestos” and has not read Pico should be deeply ashamed. But, simply, the denotative meaning  of the term came to be “learning.”

Critics and reformers like Erasmus, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and even an intellectually pretentious monarch like the second Henry Tudor could lay claim to the name as easily as Galileo, Boccaccio, Macchiaveli, Miguel Servetus,  Marsilio Ficino, Petrarch, Montaigne, a significant number of popes (Pius II, Sixtus II and Leo X) and members of the Roman curia.  This humanism was decisively not secular, not atheistic, and not very democratic and progressive.  Its models were largely situated in antiquity and the new “science” of philology.  Its first great victory was Lorenzo Valla’s discovery that the “Donation of Constantine,” thought to confer unlimited powers of government on the bishop of Rome, was a medieval forgery.

But it was rationalistic: The Cambridge History of Philosophy peals,  “Here, one felt no weight of the supernatural pressing on the human mind, demanding homage and allegiance. Humanity—with all its distinct capabilities, talents, worries, problems, possibilities—was the center of interest. It has been said that medieval thinkers philosophized on their knees, but, bolstered by the new studies, they dared to stand up and to rise to full stature.”  I am far from agreeing with the characterisation; but it isn’t all wrong.

It is difficult in our century, on the other side of this linguistic narrowing, to imagine the time when humanism was confident enough to incorporate the religious imagination in its understanding of man, nature and society rather than seeking to exclude it from the picture as a long history of unreason and error to which the human animal was prone prior to the Enlightenment, that magical period when (it’s unhistorically alleged) the human race woke from its long superstitious religious slumber.

The Enlightenment Myth: Humanism and Humeanism

Of course we never really woke up because we were never sound asleep.  The idea that we were comes from epoch-making historiographers (like the flatulent but always amusing Gibbon) of the 18th century who saw the Renaissance as too garish, the middle ages too dark, and everything prior to that except a few classical philosophers as too superstitious.

This jaded Humean perspective (no one had ever been more wrong, more convincing, nor more influential about the origins of monotheism) is what, in dilute form, defined the idea of progress and the various scientific materialisms that climaxed in Darwin and his explanatory template—one that fed social theory, psychology and the sciences for the next century and a half, in various ways,  and one that  substituted know-how for belief-in.

A 2009 article in the Economist suggests,

There has long been a tension between seeking perfection in life or in the afterlife. Optimists in the Enlightenment and the 19th century came to believe that the mass of humanity could one day lead happy and worthy lives here on Earth. Like Madach’s Adam, they were bursting with ideas for how the world might become a better place…. Some thought God would bring about the New Jerusalem, others looked to history or evolution. Some thought people would improve if left to themselves, others thought they should be forced to be free; some believed in the nation, others in the end of nations; some wanted a perfect language, others universal education; some put their hope in science, others in commerce; some had faith in wise legislation, others in anarchy. Intellectual life was teeming with grand ideas. For most people, the question was not whether progress would happen, but how….The idea of progress forms the backdrop to a society. In the extreme, without the possibility of progress of any sort, your gain is someone else’s loss. If human behaviour is unreformable, social policy can only ever be about trying to cage the ape within. Society must in principle be able to move towards its ideals, such as equality and freedom, or they are no more than cant and self-delusion. So it matters if people lose their faith in progress. And it is worth thinking about how to restore it.”[i]

Humanism, however, was not inherently “progressive.” The scientistic form of the idea of progress inherited from the 18th century was inherently uncritical–and still, as scientific naturalism, largely is.

While the reasons for its distrust of “progress” are complex, they extend to the Church’s claim of “continuing revelation” and doctrinal development as part of an organic evolution in Christianity. The history of their era had created in the early humanists a deep distrust of so-called development: “progress” and evolutionary processes were things to be examined, inquired into, deconstructed, not respected.  In fact its earliest achievements were conservative, or at least restorative, and focused on ideas, forms, texts and institutions—especially the Church–that had aged badly and were considered, in various degrees, corrupt.

Only through a generous application of the term generous has humanism been understood as a partisan movement for championing whatever sacred cows happen to be grazing in the trendy pastures of interest groups.  As a “spirit”– long before the term Zeitgeist came to inhabit the intellectual world after Hegel–humanism was a touchstone that could invalidate as easily as it could inspire progressive ideologies—part of the reason for both the late-Marxist and early Heideggeran discomfort with the word and attempts to reform it. In colloquial terms, humanism was nobody’s baby.

In fact, the essential impulses of humanism were somewhat puritanical, as in the original sense, purifying–which is why, in its methods, the humanist approach suited the reformers who saw religion as an inheritance of aggregated errors in text and teaching. They did not form a unified front, however: Humanism was a modality, not a party or a cause. That distinction went to the terms “protestant” and Catholic.”  Its insistence on criticism and the authority of the human intellect was not abstract but concrete:  Neither Calvin nor Montaigne in their different spheres believed in the unaided, untaught or unformed “reason” of the common man–and except for a few romantics like Rousseau (who never met an English Baptist or a North Carolina Methodist), no one in the Enlightenment did either.

Ironically, this skepticism about the “availability” of reason fit perfectly with the Church’s traditional teaching about the fall of man being essentially proved by his mulish stupidity.  It was one of the reasons the Church’s relatively well-educated hierarchy insisted on the authority of a magisterium, a teaching authority over the common man. And who, who has witnessed the American electoral process at work, would say that the Church was wrong?

A Very Little History

Much of “secular” humanism’s complaint about ninnyhammer fundamentalists is simply a remnant of the belief that not everyone enjoys the same capacity to reason—an idea that extends from Aristotle to Bertrand Russell and Avitall Ronnell .  Humanism has always depended on an élite because since the beginning it has placed human intelligence at the center of its vision of the world.  It is at its worst in the definition wars:  a “democratic” movement, an “ethical” worldview, a “progressive” life-stance, a global vision. Whatever contribution the humanist modality has made to these areas of life and interest, they do not add up to whole cloth  humanism. And the various “humanist manifestos” have been little short of thievery in eviscerating the term of its modal power and turning a spirit into slogans, banal aphorisms, and more recently billboards:  You can be good without God.  You don’t need God to be loved.  No God, no problem.  I suppose it would be irrelevant to the proponents of this insipidity that humanism could not have done what it managed to do if it had begun with these proposals.

In fact, the attempts of movement-humanists to flip the meaning of the term has been degenerative, conceptually sloppy, and subversive.  Like many linguistic changes however, the mutually contradictory attempts to redefine and reclaim the term have been based on a wrong understanding of what a limited and informed understanding of humanism might entail.

Although “humanism” is considered nascent in the classical period, it was only descriptively used in an antiquarian sense when Georg Voigt employed it in 1856 to describe the classical learning of the Renaissance.

Much more significant was its use by the “father” of cultural historians, Jacob Burckhardt as a moment (Augenblick) when …

“both sides of human consciousness – the side turned to the world and that turned inward – lay, as it were, beneath a common veil, dreaming or half awake. The veil was woven of faith, childlike prejudices, and illusion; seen through it, world and history appeared in strange hues; man recognized himself only as a member of a race, a nation, a party, a corporation, a family, or in some other general category. It was in Italy that this veil first melted into thin air, and awakened an objective perception and treatment of the state and all things of this world in general; but by its side, and with full power, there also arose the subjective; man becomes a self-aware individual and recognises himself as such.”

That is, humanism was that moment when “humanity” became self-aware—and why, incidentally, the story of Adam becomes vitally important to thinkers like Pico and Madach: as the expulsion from Eden is not seen as a fall of man but as the rise of human responsibility. It paved the way for enormous changes in the university schools of the 17th and 18th century leading finally to Bacon’s Novum Organum and the rejection of tradition (and traditional teachers like Aristotle) as the font of all wisdom.

Without these changes, the Enlightenment would have been a flick in the dark.  But the key point is that humanism did not as such align itself with causes.  It remained, strictly speaking, the property of the philosophers, “literary” men and women (literae humaniores–humane letters—another name for classics), and, as the word became popular, men of science.

Humanism was not the sum of the socially progressive movements that learning made possible; it was the learning and impulse that created cultural balance and platonic “justice” in a systematic and speciesized form.  The early humanists would have declared that learning is the counterweight to all claims of authority and all forms of activism used in favor of (or against) such authority: the Catholic church of their day would have been interchangeable with the “progressive” social and economic regimes of the twentieth century.

As a word, humanism has been associated with everything from anarchy (Prudhomme) to the cult of feeling (Renan) to opposition to organized religion (young Marx and the left Hegelians).  The fabriquet “secular humanism” to mean a humanism stripped of religious affections and committed to the propagation of “democratic values” and ethical ideals is perhaps the most crippled attempt to sell shreds as cloth or own the baby.

It is especially noxious, however as a usurpation of the term that advocates humanism being closely identified with “secularism” and “non-theism.”  Its narrow focus on the practice of science and the use of “reason”–whatever that term is thought to mean–has achieved such hyperbolic and absurd levels that one could be forgiven for wondering why the term humanism (as opposed to atheosecularism, for example) is used at all.

As an historical linguist, I think I know the answer: it’s the desire for prestige-value fueled by what’s known as morphological plasticity—as when Congressmen appeal to the eight lone friends still listening to them as “the American People.”

The effect of the subversion of the idea of humanism by the atheosecularists has been to create a three-headed dog, defined primarily by (a) an American context, specifically identified with native religious yahooism;  (b) the endorsement of the “universal” relevance of certain slogans associated with American political culture—especially “democracy,” “free speech” and “secularism”; and (c) under the banner of “reason,” the imposition of a naturalistic or atheist framework and a superstitious (and unproblematised view) of the Enlightenment, Darwin and his successors, and scientific progress.  If one wanted to use the periphrasis “real lady” for prostitute, this is the linguists’ ideal example.

From this beast, the most avid secular humanists profess to have derived an ethics–applicable, naturally, to the whole world (not in His hands) but unsurprisingly a little sketchy in particulars.

Secular humanist ethics obliges the human-valuer only to believe in the first three principles and act accordingly.  Erasmus, says Dutch cheese.

Linguistically, I am not an “originalist.”  But I do believe that words, like movements, can be subverted–not only by scoundrels in search of respectability but even even by well-intentioned users.

The Duke and the Dauphin: British and French royalty on the Mississippi

There is no apostolic succession of meaning to the word humanism.  Yet there is a recent history of abuse, misappropriation, and a concept that has been subverted by contempt or ignorance of historical meaning. Humanism is not a freight train by any other name. It cannot mean what Humpty wants it to mean and nothing else (“With a name like yours” [he said to Alice] “you might be any shape, almost.”) Humanism is not an Alice.  It is more like an egg.

Some words–noble words,–should enjoy a peaceful life.  They should be left alone to mean what they mean rather than what word-starved men and women want them to mean in the service of private causes.  The use of the term humanism by secular humanists is its use by scoundrels in search of a non-emotive word for unbelief.  But humanism has never been about unbelief, let alone about the sort of unbelief that contemporary secular humanism espouses.  It has always been about belief in a human spirit that rises above even discredited ideas of God and government.

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme

of things not found within recorded time. 

It is not they that have forgot the Night, 

or bid us flee to organized delight, 

in lotus-isles of economic bliss

forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss

(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced, 

bogus seduction of the twice-seduced) – JRR Tolkien


[i] THE best modern parable of progress was, aptly, ahead of its time. In 1861 Imre Madach published “The Tragedy of Man”, a “Paradise Lost” for the industrial age. The verse drama, still a cornerstone of Hungarian literature, describes how Adam is cast out of the Garden with Eve, renounces God and determines to recreate Eden through his own efforts. “My God is me,” he boasts, “whatever I regain is mine by right. This is the source of all my strength and pride.”

Adam gets the chance to see how much of Eden he will “regain”. He starts in Ancient Egypt and travels in time through 11 tableaux, ending in the icebound twilight of humanity. It is a cautionary tale. Adam glories in the Egyptian pyramids, but he discovers that they are built on the misery of slaves. So he rejects slavery and instead advances to Greek democracy. But when the Athenians condemn a hero, much as they condemned Socrates, Adam forsakes democracy and moves on to harmless, worldly pleasure. Sated and miserable in hedonistic Rome, he looks to the chivalry of the knights’ crusader. Yet each new reforming principle crumbles before him. Adam replaces 17th-century Prague’s courtly hypocrisy with the rights of man. When equality curdles into Terror under Robespierre, he embraces individual liberty—which is in turn corrupted on the money-grabbing streets of Georgian London. In the future a scientific Utopia has Michelangelo making chair-legs and Plato herding cows, because art and philosophy have no utility. At the end of time, having encountered the savage man who has no guiding principle except violence, Adam is downcast—and understandably so. Suicidal, he pleads with Lucifer: “Let me see no more of my harsh fate: this useless struggle.”

5 thoughts on “Killing “Humanism”: Definition by a Thousand Cuts

  1. Humanism is neither secular nor religious but it draws from both of the aforementioned; it’s main tool as you have stated is reason.Humanism implies, to a lesser or greater extent, the life of the mind(or spirit if one wants to call it that).

  2. Without these changes, the Enlightenment would have been a flick in the dark. But the key point is that humanism did not as such align itself with causes.

    Fascinating reading – you have more of those essays on humanism waiting in the wings?

    However, with all due respect, I think you’re “protesting a shade too much” in trying to distance “whole cloth” humanism from its supposedly more pedestrian if not genetically deficient cousins who have-“gotten” / got their hands dirty in the rough and tumble of the market place. For one thing, as maybe a minor point as it might be more figurative language than not, to talk of “humanism aligning itself with causes” would seem to qualify as the “sin” of reification as it hardly has any autonomy or agency to be throwing its lot in with any specific causes – more a case of, as you suggested elsewhere, of a toolkit, a “modality”, that various people use to different ends.

    In addition, I would say that the “enormous changes in the university schools of the 17th and 18th century”, among a great many other similar events, bespeaks a fairly effective, powerful and pragmatic movement in itself, and a profound and committed belief in a particular feature or modality of society that was likely to advance the “greatest good for the greatest number” if not the glory of Man and God.

    Much of “secular” humanism’s complaint about ninnyhammer fundamentalists is simply a remnant of the belief that not everyone enjoys the same capacity to reason ….

    That might well be the case to a greater or lesser extent. However, on the nurture side of that coin, one might also argue that for many fundamentalists their brains while children were addled by the nonsense peddled by parents and church. For instance, the evangelical physicist Karl Giberson in several recent articles, one in The Guardian and one in The Huffington Post, raises some cogent questions about the gullibility of evangelicals:

    But in fact their rejection of knowledge amounts to what the evangelical historian Mark A. Noll, in his 1994 book, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” described as an “intellectual disaster.” He called on evangelicals to repent for their neglect of the mind, decrying the abandonment of the intellectual heritage of the Protestant Reformation. “The scandal of the evangelical mind,” he wrote, “is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

    Not sure that it is wise or ethical to leave them to “stew in their own juices”.

    But humanism has never been about unbelief, let alone about the sort of unbelief that contemporary secular humanism espouses. It has always been about belief in a human spirit that rises above even discredited ideas of God and government.

    That I like. However, as I mentioned elsewhere, on the basis of its recourse to the myth of Adam and Eve I would say that your “whole cloth humanism” might more reasonably be called “mythic humanism”. Although it does seem somewhat problematic and akin to the “who watches the watchers” question in that there still is no magic touchstone available – that I know of anyway – to test that belief against, to temper if not forestall the deification of Man, the apotheosis of the collective. Hence, I think, “fear and trembling” …

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