On the roots and future of “humanism”

Marcus Tullius Cicero (Public Domain).

Humanitas (Latin) — human nature, civilization, kindness.

Are you a humanist? What does that mean? The American Humanist Association defines humanism as a progressiv and naturalistisch Weltanschauung that “affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity.” To affirm means that you “state as a fact” or “assert strongly or offer emotional support,” and responsibility implies both your “duty” and “opportunity to act independently and make decisions without authorization.” You are capable by “having the ability, fitness, or quality necessary to do or achieve a specified thing,” but to add to the “greater good of humanity” demands an acknowledgement and concern not only for “the other” but also for all of humanity.

As it turns out, concern for the other isn’t unique to humans or our ethical philosophies. Bonobos sometimes aid injured bonobos, and vampire bats commonly regurgitate blood to share with their unlucky or sick roost mates. Kin selection and altruism “allow an individual to increase the success of its genes by helping relatives that share those genes” (Wikipedia). But humans have a long history of extending this concern to those outside their own family or tribe. “For two centuries one word has symbolized the battle against extremism” according to Bill Cooke (New Humanist, 2008), but people have been humanists for millennia. Cicero explained it thusly:

“If fate had given you authority over Africans or Spaniards or Gauls, wild and barbarous nations, you would still owe it to your humanitas to be concerned about their comforts, their needs and their safety.“ — Cicero

Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer (Public Domain).

After the Protestant Reformation, Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer — a German and Lutheran theologian involved in the Atheism Dispute (1798–1800) in Germany — actually coined the term humanism, which he derived from the Latin humanitas.

Niethammer’s complaint about the humanism of his time was “that only man’s mind be educated and trained; that no time be wasted on bodily exercise; and that mental exercise concentrate entirely on spiritual matters, on the sacred ideas that are alone of enduring, eternal value; that no consideration be given to material objects of the visible, transitory world, etc.” He sought to unite humanism with the Enlightenment philanthropinism of Locke and Rousseau, which emphasized more “practical” concerns over say learning Latin or Greek.

Martin Heidegger (Public Domain).

Many years later, Martin Heidegger — another German and member of the Nazi Party starting in 1933 who is “widely acknowledged to be one of the most original and important philosophers of the 20th century” — published The Letter on Humanism (1946) in response to a conference and lecture by Jean-Paul Sartre titled Existentialism Is a Humanism. Heidegger rejected Sartre’s view that “existence precedes essence” and saw humanism as the “endeavor to render man free for — and to find dignity in — his humanity.” He believed that we were “endowed” with this essence and that philosophy could help us rediscover it. Modern humanists may or may not reject Heidegger’s metaphysics, but many of them — like the world’s leading expert on ants — would have us extend our concern to other species and the biosphere itself.

“Exalted we are, risen to be the mind of the biosphere without a doubt, our spirits uniquely capable of awe and ever more breathtaking leaps of imagination. But we are still part of Earth’s fauna and flora, bound to it by emotion, physiology, and, not least, deep history…There is no predestination, no unfathomed mystery of life. Demons and gods do not vie for our allegiance. Instead, we are self-made, independent, alone, and fragile, a biological species adapted to live in a biological world. What counts for long-term survival is intelligent self-understanding, based upon a greater independence of thought than that tolerated today even in most advanced democratic societies.”
E.O Wilson

E.O. Wilson. By Jim Harrison — PLoS.

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Wilhelm Kühner

Wilhelm Kühner

Pruning the “tangled thicket” of Kühner (Keener) Genealogie in Amerika and reflecting on its relevance to current events.