Understand Humanism: Teach Yourself

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Most chapters offer a roughly chronological survey of key thinkers from different periods — the Ancients, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and contemporary; the latter over three chapters. This is well worn territory but the survey is generally interesting and sometimes sparkles. There is a review o This book follows the format of the Teach Yourself series, which makes it pretty disjointed in places but nevertheless does helpfully capture and highlight key points throughout.

There is a review of possible Humanist approaches to ten important issues before a final attempt to sum up the findings.

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Feynman famously advocated that the best way to learn is to teach others. That tests your learning brilliantly. So what can I tell you about Humanism after reading this? Well from memory, there is no single definition of Humanism, even if strident voices of Humanists and the enemies of Humanism alike demand that there ought to be, and Humanists are so diverse that there is no easy way to demonstrate what essential requirement defines one.

Arguably, Humanism views the world through human eyes, in preference to alternative perspectives, such as materialism or religious faith, in which humans are subordinate to some higher, or at least different, focus of concern. However, it is not clear to me if this means anything useful once it is dissected.

Renaissance Humanists appealed to ancient thinkers for their models but what they did not suggest was that those ancients were Humanists. In any case, the label Humanist was only applied to the Renaissance itself in the 19th Century. Renaissance "Humanists" would not have recognised or accepted this label at all in modern terms. Indeed, it may be that the only defining attribute of Renaissance Humanists was their fascination with Greek and Roman culture.

Modern Humanists often also appeal to ancient sources but these are as likely to be Christian sources or even Islamic sources as to be Greek philosophers or Roman writers. Because there are indeed Islamic and Christian Humanists and it is not the case that Humanism is necessarily or even especially atheist. In any case, while there are now organized Humanist associations around the world, and efforts to offer Humanist services such as for funerals and weddings , they do not speak for all Humanists, and their claims to define what is Humanism can be challenged.

So the best I can tell you is that Humanism is a value system that not only appeals to people of diverse and often opposing beliefs, but that also offers the possibility of some shared values across the divides, as for example between atheists and religious believers — an idea that may be anathema to some atheists and to some religious believers.

So there possibly is a core attribute that defines Humanism, which is far more narrow than the claims often heard, but I am not convinced that this Introduction manages to draw this out from the noisy background. Where is Sophocles when we need him?

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That last point introduces my objections to this introduction. Because of its brevity, the author tries to pull off some sweeping assertions that ought to be challenged. For example, he dismisses Marx in an airy manner.


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In his discussion of Darwin and Natural Selection, he presents weak arguments and misses stronger ones. For example, he seems unable to think of the difference between individual behaviour and social behaviour, leaving him unable to account for the evolution of language.

The idea that language must be taught so there must be a first teacher to start humanity off is actually absurd. In his enthusiasm for incorporating Christianity into the Humanist fold, he makes too many concessions to Christian arguments that I find weak. His survey is necessarily selective and brief, but he seems to me to omit major topics that matter.

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I think he ought to have acknowledged and addressed the dominant ideology of our day, which is neoliberalism, and questioned the extent to which the freedom of the individual is asserted at the expense of collective action and social responsibility. The fact that I disagree with a lot of its content does not mean I dislike this book.

It is brief and succinct and it is a useful survey of interesting material. I have to accept that other readers can also be critical and not rely on this as their entire education. Still, I am disappointed by its limitations.

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Understand Humanism: Teach Yourself Understand Humanism: Teach Yourself
Understand Humanism: Teach Yourself Understand Humanism: Teach Yourself
Understand Humanism: Teach Yourself Understand Humanism: Teach Yourself
Understand Humanism: Teach Yourself Understand Humanism: Teach Yourself
Understand Humanism: Teach Yourself Understand Humanism: Teach Yourself
Understand Humanism: Teach Yourself Understand Humanism: Teach Yourself
Understand Humanism: Teach Yourself Understand Humanism: Teach Yourself

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