the political/religious thesis behind ‘humanist’ philosophy

and the school that produced Post-Humanism

Previous | Non-Fiction List HOME | Next


HUMANISM is a commonly applied and widely misunderstood term, originally emerging from the dynamic paradigm-changing influence of the European Renaissance. Descartes, and the many others who helped to shape the first appearance of the humanist movement, saw for the first time the human being as not only central in its universe, but also the figure having the potential power to define and control it as well. When it returned in the 19th century, mainly in the form that is now referred to as ‘liberal humanism’, it was responsible for supporting the whole romantic movement which placed such an emphasis on individual passion, and even parts of the modernist movement which although essentially reacting against romanticism, shared (perhaps unintentionally) many of the main characteristics of liberal humanism. The intention of this paper is to discuss in more detail the number of contrasting appearances of ‘humanism’ and what is today referred to as ‘post-humanism’. This is the development upon humanism which allowed it to become the ‘humanities’ of today, a form of classification many of us accept unquestionably without knowing its true origin.


Today, as it will be made clear, a ‘humanist’ is a word used to refer to someone who bases his or her conception of reality or truth on human experience and bases values on human nature, rejecting the superstitions of a supernatural reality existing above our own. The word humanism was actually a term originally invented by a German educationalist, F. J. Niethammer, in 1808 to describe the study of the Greek and Latin classics, literae humaniores, 'humane letters', the revival of which had been one of the distinguishing features of the Italian Renaissance, later spreading to the rest of Europe as 'the New Learning'. The actual use of the term has since been widened, as will be expanded upon in this article, to signify theories or doctrines, however varied their conclusions may be, which take human experience as the starting point for man’s knowledge of himself and the work of God. After early ‘Christian Humanism’, a new movement began which was based on the critical, rational methods of scientific enquiry which Newton had applied so successfully to the natural order and which the philosophies of the Enlightenment sought to extend to the systematic study of man and society. As a result, a period was brought in which is now referred to as secular humanism—a variation upon the original conception, directed from the time of Voltaire (1694-1778) and Hume (1711-1776), against the dogmatic claims of orthodox Christianity which was currently guiding the way people interpreted reality. This form of humanism emerged from the advancement of the scientific method as the sole source of knowledge. It was based on the understanding that the natural and human sciences alone can (and in time, will) provide a comprehensive, rational explanation of the universe and human life, replacing the incomplete and misleading earlier accounts offered by myth and religion.


In general, then, the different forms of humanism can be viewed as broad tendencies, a dimension of thought and belief within which are found very different views held together not by a unified structure but by certain shared assumptions. The two most important of these are: (i) The belief that human beings have a potential value in themselves and that it is respect for this which is the source of all other human values and rights, and (ii) the rejection of any system of thought which (a) despairs of Man and denies any meaning to human life (such as nihilism) or (b) treats him/her as a depraved, worthless creature who can only be saved by divine grace (such as Calvinism) or (c) is deterministic or reductionist in its view of human consciousness, or (d) regards men and women as having no value as anything more than expendable raw material for use or exploitation by political or economic systems (Bullock, Stallybrass & Trobley, 1988: 396).



The origins of humanism can actually be traced back to the early fourteenth century. As we will see, rather than representing a sudden shift away from the Medieval period, it represents a movement in which the old and the new are held together, and was in fact sometimes interpreted as being ‘pagan’ in that it supported the study of the ‘false gods’ of Ancient Greek and Roman culture. In the sixteenth century, the word “humanist” was coined to signify one who taught or worked in the studia humanitatis (Latin for ‘the Humanities’)—that is as mentioned above grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and moral philosophy, as distinguished from fields less concerned with the moral and imaginative aspects and activities of man, such as mathematics, natural philosophy and theology (Abrams, 1981: 76). The ‘humanism’ that issued out of the Italian Renaissance carried within it a constant danger of paganism, i.e. the intellectual and moral values of Greek and Latin literature, it goes without saying, were not those of Christianity. For a Protestant such as Luther—Protestantism was certainly a movement in religion which was to influence the suppression of humanism-as if Greek and Latin were not bad enough-Hebrew, the language of the Jews-was also considered to obscure the central Biblical message rather than help clarify it. The main reason for the Protestant antagonism towards the humanists is because of their adoption of Aristotle and Plato. There is a direct link, here, between science and religion. This took place because Protestantism became an important geo-political factor in distinguishing the northern European powers from the southern European empires. It involved a specific attitude to the metaphysical systems underpinning rationalism and most notably neo-Platonism, and generated its own specific attitudes with regard to inter-sexual relations that had very little to do with courtly romance. Ironically, in England, humanism was actually to bring with it important educational reform based on the introduction of German cultural ideals into English thought during a period of active reform of English education following the introduction of universal manhood suffrage with the Second Reform Bill of 1867.


Although there may have been some conflict with Luther and Protestantism, a difference between the humanists of the Renaissance and those of later movements was that they remained during the early year pious Christians. This is why this movement was sometimes referred to as ‘Christian Humanity’, preceding secular humanism as introduced above (Abrams, 1981: 76). It must not be forgotten, of course, that the only reason the humanists actually had access to texts in these ancient languages was thanks to the work of monks who worked consistently through ancient history to continually rewrite volumes of the texts in order to save them from the ravages of time—the monasteries, of course, did not have access to the printing press which was to be invented during the Renaissance by Gutenburg. Although they may have been pious Christians, they tended to value the things in this world rather than glorifying the world hereafter, which was a general characteristic of the humanist movement in general.



After its appearance in the Renaissance, developments in liberal politics, the study of English literature, industrialization and other important forms of technological determinism were to see a change in this form of individualism in the 19th century, particularly Great Britain; liberal politics and political philosophy had a number of influences on what became instituted as ‘liberal humanism’ (particularly thanks to the efforts of the ‘Leavisites’—a group of academics cum social activists who worked behind a literary journal who were to turn the study of English literature into a powerful form of strengthening cultural identity). According to Abrams (1981: 7) the Victorian era saw many proponents of humanism which became the natural expression of current political and epistemological ideals; the example used by Abrams is of Matthew Arnold who was a proponent of humanism in the Victorian period: “Many of Arnold’s leading ideas are adaptations of the tenets of the older humanism—his view, for example, that culture is a perfection ‘of our humanity proper, as distinguished from our animality,’ and consists of ‘a harmonious expansion of all the powers which make the beauty and worth of human nature’” (Abrams, 1981: 77).


Another important example of humanistic approaches embedded in 19th century thought which connected this new ‘liberal’ form of humanism with Renaissance philosophy, was the writing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818. Here liberal humanism is involved with the power that humans have to equal God—leading to disastrous results in Frankenstein. According Feury & Mansfield (2000: 11) this important novel’s purpose has been “to use the construction of artificial life as a way of creating an otherness that threatens the human with its sense of consistent and continuous identity and essence, and with its self-image as the highest and most circumspect possible form of subjectivity.” The general idea, therefore, has been to question the idea of what it actually means to be human, a subject which has had an increasing amount of significance in recent years as new forms of technology and treatment involving ethical and moral issues about, for example, when humanity stops and machines start as devices begin to take over the function of nerve tissue, or the uncomfortable argument involved with whether or not a foetus from which stem cells can be harvested are actually human or not, functioning to create increasing forms of anxiety and uncertainty in occidental culture. In this regard, it has been suggested that departments of ‘the humanities’ in higher education are “part of the ideological apparatus of the modern capitalist state” (Eagleton, 1983: 200).


Humanism itself, then, came to be applied to the view of humanity, the general values, and the educational ideas common to many Renaissance humanists, as well as to later writers in the same tradition. Before we move on to a more detailed study of these particular developments, I’d like to present a few explanations related to the political movements which were to influence it. Liberal political philosophy explores the foundations of the principles most commonly associated with liberal politics: freedom, toleration, individual rights, constitutional democracy and the rule of law. Liberals hold that political organizations are justified by the contribution they make to the interests of individuals, interests which can be understood apart from the idea of society and politics. The challenge for political philosophy is to design a social framework that provides this security and predictability, but represents at the same time a safe and reasonable compromise among the disparate demands of individuals. The deepest commitment of liberal political philosophy is to individualism as a fundamental proposition about value; it is thanks to developments in individualism that liberal philosophy has a connection to humanism. In the nineteenth century, philosophical liberalism is represented, first, in the utilitarian theories of Bentham and J. S. Mill, and later in the ‘Idealism’ of T. H. Green. It is clear, then, that an element of liberal individualism involves an insistence on the rights of individual reason. This involves not just freedom of thought, conscience or discussion, but a deeper demand about justification in politics: the demand that rules and institutions of social life must be justified at the tribunal of each individual’s reason. Liberals accord intrinsic value to people as individuals, and attach particular importance to each individual’s capacity to organize a life on their own terms.



The ‘Leavisites’ introduced above soon became attached to the liberal humanist movement because of their progressive political beliefs and their devotion to English literature as a means of ‘drycleaning the soul’. This group was defined by “its rigid adherence to a very specific canon of English texts, its concentration on the ‘close reading’ of texts, its faith in the ‘vitality’ of language as an indication of the well-being of a culture, and its resolute antagonism to industrial society and the culture it produced” (Fuery & Mansfield, 2000: 12). The study of English, then, was to learn from the English texts that represented their expression of essentially humanistic aims, i.e. studying English literature became the means by which people attained what used to be achievable during the Renaissance by studying ‘ancient’ literature. According to Fuery & Mansfield (2000: 14), language was considered the ‘lifeblood’ of a given culture where the debasement of its language could reflect and contribute to the degradation of the lives of its citizens. Basically this meant—at least according to Eagleton (1983: 207-8), that studying literature according to the rules instituted by liberal humanism will really make you a better person. This almost transcendent belief in the power of literature upon the individual was very important in structuring the views of the Leavisites and all the people they influenced thanks to their literary journal.


The value of studying literature, especially since the post-humanist movement which has questioned many of the abstract and no longer applicable laws of liberal humanism, provides the student with a basic set of useful critical skills which he or she can use not only to make sense of literature, but also his/her environment and/or the reality which they are surrounded by (and which they create in the constant process of daily existence). According to Eagleton (1983: 200-201), the ‘very meaning of higher education’ involves the fact that they make use of this set of critical skills to “interrogate the authority by which they [the values] are transmitted.” The ‘usefulness’ of literature in this sense, however, is indeed a problem which romanticism fought against, ‘evoking as it does paper-clips and hairdryers’ (1983: 208). Eagleton again provides us with his historical explanation: “The Romantic opposition to the utilitarian ideology of Capitalism has made ‘use’ an unusable word: for the aesthetes, the glory of art is its utter uselessness” (ibid.). Liberal humanist criticism is not wrong, however, to use literature, but it is wrong for the movement to attempt to convince itself otherwise; utility, from the philosophical, cultural or political perspective, is an obvious facet that makes literature a useful area of study. Liberal humanist critics, then, want to achieve through their studies far more than just the interpretation of literature or its historical account. They wish to discuss literature in ways which will “deepen, enrich and extend our lives” (Eagleton, 1983: 210). This belief is one shared with most socialist and feminist critics, although this second group of critics wishes to point out how such ‘deepening’ and ‘enriching’ can result in social change, i.e. the transformation of a society divided by class and gender. This is a particular example of the taboo subject of ‘utility’ which flaws the argumentation of traditional liberal humanists. The acceptance of the ultimate utility of some forms of art in removing the hierarchical divisions of contemporary occidental society has led to the development of what is today referred to as the new humanities, discourse or cultural studies where the active cultural side to the realisation of literature is included in part of its study. Eagleton has entitled this as a new form of ‘rhetoric’, although ‘discourse theory’ or ‘cultural studies’ are variations upon similar ideals, i.e. that in order to use literature as an epistemological way of discovering the world, many different perspectives can be taken and the student can pick and choose between them, ultimately meaning that as ‘humanists’ the individual has the choice him or herself about which methods to apply (they just have to know how to apply these methods). Eagleton describes this phenomenon as follows:


"Discourses, sign-systems and signifying practices of all kinds, from film and television to fiction and the languages of natural science, produce effects, shape forms of consciousness and unconsciousness, which are closely related to the maintenance or transformation of our existing systems of power. They are thus closely related to what it means to be a person. Indeed ‘ideology’ can be taken to indicate no more than this connection – the link or nexus between discourses and power”

(Eagleton, 1983: 210)


Important developments within other fields have also influenced enormously the ‘ideological’ or ‘ethical’ apparatus that forms together the study of English literature in whichever form it might take. Developments within fields such as anthropology, resulting in the often multi-discursive field of Cultural Anthropology, has also influenced recent developments within the field including intercultural perspectives, just as the development of ‘discourse theory’ or ‘cultural studies’ (related to literature) was to influence the development of Cultural Anthropology itself in its early days at the beginning of the twentieth century. In his field manual on Cultural Anthropology, Howard was to develop a perspective on fieldwork which realised in a different sense the whole notion of humanism, moving it from the desk of the distant intellectual to the dynamic environment of the fieldworker:


"Fieldwork, then, may not only increase the researcher’s awareness of the realities of poverty and the difficulties of bringing about change, but also can bring home more imperatively the desperate need for change. Unlike the humanism of the distant intellectual, the humanism of the anthropologist who has done fieldwork is grounded in practical experience and an awareness of concrete situations.”

(Howard, 1993: 48)



With the influence of academia, political philosophy and interculturality aside, economic realism was also to provide the thinkers who defined this terminology with more tools to use to define terminology such as the field of liberal humanism. Developments in the Marxist belief system and Capitalism in general were also influential. Eagleton, who was to take a Marxist perspective on developments within his field, provides particularly convincing arguments to explain the influence of capitalism, suggesting that the impotence of liberal humanism was ultimately a symptom of its essentially ‘contradictory relationship’ to modern Capitalism:


"The impotence of liberal humanism is a symptom of its essentially contradictory relationship to modern capitalism… Who is concerned with the uniqueness of the individual, the perishable truths of the human condition or the sensuous textures of lived experience in the Foreign Office or the boardroom of Standard Oil? Capitalism’s reverential hat-tipping to the arts is obvious hypocrisy, except when it can hang them on its walls as a sound investment. Yet capitalist states have continued to direct funds into higher education humanities departments, and though such departments are usually the first in line for savage cutting when capitalism enters on one of its periodic crises, it is doubtful that it is only hypocrisy, a fear of appearing in its true philistine colours, which compels this grudging support.”

(Eagleton, 1983: 199-200)


Ultimately, Eagleton suggests that the whole notion of ‘individualism’ is one based on a hierarchical Capitalist value system rather than on a set of abstract ethical or moral goals which were used during the sixteenth century Renaissance humanism to help provide its believers with a set of rules which they could use to provide their lives with meaning. Here, this most certainly isn’t the case: “The ‘unique individual’ is indeed important when it comes to defending the business entrepreneur’s right to make comes to defending the business entrepreneur’s right to make profit while throwing men and women out of work; the individual must at all costs have the ‘right to choose’, provided this means the right to buy one’s child an expensive private education while other children are deprived of their school meals, rather than the rights of women to decide whether to have children in the first place” (Eagleton, 1983: 200).


It is clear, in any case, that a political awareness of the environments in which a given literature is written can provide one today with a far more powerful understanding of the factors that went into a work’s creation, just as universal archetypes became the set of mapping tools used by Renaissance scholars to make sense of humanist texts in the sixteenth century. If there is no appreciation of politics, both in an abstract and a dynamic, practical sense, the liberal humanist response becomes highly weak indeed; unfortunately many liberal humanists still believe in the transformative power of literature alone in its own context; here, at least according to Eagleton (1983: 207) this transformative power is ‘grossly overestimated’, especially when one “considers it in isolation from any determining social context, and can formulate what it means by a ‘better person’ only in the most narrow and abstract of terms.”



Liberal Humanism is generally considered to have been followed by a movement which took place in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, a movement referred to by many as the ‘New Humanities’. It is a difficult movement to make decisions about resolutely because of the fact that it is very much alive in many universities today, particularly in the United States. We can be sure, however, about its historical origins. The movement took place under the guidance of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, writers and literary critics, in the period generally dated between 1910 and 1930. Both Babbitt and More argued for a return to a primarily humanistic education, as well as a set of moral, political and literary views today seen as conservative, but based on classical literature from Ancient Greece and from the Renaissance Humanism movement itself. Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) was an American critic and professor at Harvard, born in Ohio; together with More their version of humanism fiercely criticized Romanticism, “stressing the value of reason and restraint” (Drabble, 2000: 56). Romanticism was a profound transformation of artistic styles and cultural attitudes specifically towards the artist and society; the artist became a profound figure who thanks to his (or less often, her) unique talent was able to transcend any societally imposed rules and create his (or her) works of ultimate genius, stamping a unique sense of individuality upon the world. It is a difficult movement to apply labels to, however, because the Romantic temperament itself resisted any impulse towards definition, favouring as it did the ambiguous, the genius and the eternal. Babbit’s work Rousseau & Romanticism (1919), which condemned this movement provides an insight into both ways to apply the New Humanities and understand the reason for the movement against it. Interestingly enough, T. S. Eliot, the poet whose work was ultimately to outlive Babbit’s, began as Babbit’s student and disciple but later criticized his work as being in some ways “inadequate as an alternative to religion,” describing it as a by-product of Protestant theology (Drabble, 2000: 56) even though Eliot’s work was to have many ‘Romantic’ features – an anomaly in its nostalgia and sense of alienation (see particularly his masterwork The Wasteland).


Surprisingly, Feury & Mansfield consider that the term ‘The New Humanities' was actually an Australian invention, and that it didn't appear until a conference in Canberra in 1991 (2000: xi). Because it was merely a theoretical term to which no one has made ultimate decisions, there are still ambiguities as to its origin, although it does seem fairly clear that Babbit’s school that ended in 1933 was specifically directed to a new development, if conservative, of clearly humanist ideals, but whether or not he applied this particular name remains a moot point. The most important realization of this school, however, was that human behaviour “is either determined or mediated by the collective history of human practices” (Feury & Mansfield, 2000: xiv) meaning that although it believed primarily in the power of the individual, the influences which mediate between the individual and his or her culture are inextricable bound epistemologically to cultural forms, such as the novel—an important area of ‘cultural’ study within the field of literature.



New Humanism, however, was quickly brought into question and became one of the forms against which the post-structuralist theoretical movement would react against, creating what is generally known as Post-Humanism. The primary theme behind the Post-Humanist movement involved the questioning and deconstruction of ‘grand narratives’ which defined cultural development without people’s apparent awareness; in this regard Lyotard is well known for his contribution. According to Sangari, these grand narratives stretched from “emancipation, beginning with the French Revolution and culminating in Marxism” (Sangari: 147). According to Foucault—himself an important figure who stood against the humanist movement—suggested that there is no such thing is a universal “human essence” of any kind; behaviour, ethics, discourses and societies can—and all do—change over time. For Foucault, the very idea of the ‘human’ was an accidental mutation in a complex history of ideas that survived—and repeated itself a number of times—for specific (and contrasting) sociopolitical purposes. The post-humanist movement can be seen as a shift away from the universalizing and totalizing drive usually attributed to modernity, a drive against which the post-modernist movement is considered to have developed. It is for this reason that post-humanism is sometimes associated with postmodernism. One of the strongest and most influential attacks on humanism was the movement known as ‘deconstruction’, under the authorship of the well-known French philosopher—Jacques Derrida—emphasizing the instability and volatility of language and “the contingent quality of the meanings ascribed to it” (Feury & Mansfield, 2000: 4), just as Roland Barthes was to mount a persuasive argument against the ‘realist’ movement associated with the humanism of the 19th century as well as the new humanism of the first half of the 20th century.


Different movements within the period in which ‘post-modernism’ supposedly took place, generally considered to be the second two thirds of the twentieth century, have reacted in surprisingly contrasting ways to what can be seen as forms of humanism. This is especially true of writing that grew out of either intercultural influence on occidental writing or post-colonial writings or theoreticians. Appiah, for example, comments upon the essentially humanistic desire of post-colonial writers to “maintain a powerful engagement with the concern to avoid cruelty and pain while nevertheless recognizing the contingency of that concern” while still rejecting the master-narratives of modernism (Appiah, 1995: 123). Said, well known for his writings on Orientalisms which question the epistemological pre-assumptions of occidental culture towards the ‘mystical’ East, has also commented upon the potential dangers and rewards of humanism in a post-colonial sense. He argues in his work The World, The Text and The Critic that humanism sustains its coherence not by criticism or by intellectual discipline, but “by the unexamined prestige of culture (as in France),” which refers more or less to colonial cultural arrogance, “or by science (as in the Anglo-Saxon world)” which ultimately eliminates completely “any possibility of admitting that the ‘Orient’ as such is a constituted object” (Said, 1984: 275). This has essentially produced colonial cultures which are self-validating and hermetic, reducing the chance considerably of truly ‘humane’ intercultural understanding resulting precisely in the creation of what Said refers to as Orientalisms glorifying the occidental creation of Eastern culture and essentially validating the ‘paternal’ abuse of Eastern culture.


Ambiguity, however, exists around the borders of when New Humanism stops and postmodernism (and by extension, post-humanism) begins. Hutcheon, for example, suggests that the paradigm in which postmodernism is implicated is so wide to include (among other things) Capitalism, Patriarchy and “that paradoxical liberal humanism which asserts both the individual subject and something generally called ‘human nature’—often figured as a set of universal and eternal, human and humane values” (Hutcheon & Natoli, 1993: x). There are, however, a clear set of recent developments which have brought more than ever before basically accepted ideals of humanism into question, changing forever the way people look at texts and ultimately interact with, mediate and interpret their world. The ‘Cyborg Politics’ of Donna Haraway, for example, sees us as “occupying an unstable and shifting zone that overlaps with nature at one end and technology at the other” (Feury & Mansfield, 2000: 16). 'Queer Theory', in contrast, "refuses to acknowledge any prefixed 'natural' limits for our desire and, consequently, our subjectivity" (ibid.).


In current teaching practice, despite theoretical developments to the contrary, essentially humanistic goals are returning to the field of ‘cultural studies’ or its many variations within which ‘literature’ and its theory can be taught in the universities of today. Although on the surface they may deny “humanism” or “the humanities” as valid categories, according to Geurin, Labor et. al. “they strive for what they call ‘social reason’, which often strongly resembles (humanist) democratic ideals” (1999: 242). The weaknesses of the current developments of post-humanism-represented most commonly in fields such as 'cultural studies'-are what defines it; the boundaries of the notion of culture itself which remain in constant flux. The realm of culture as opposed to the realm of the individual has also been a problematic area of determination; there are no realms of truth to which we can appeal because everything is ‘constructed’ in a religious, scientific or psychological sense. Although humanism has weaknesses, the field has much to provide if it is not seen as the only means of understanding the world and our place in it.



I hope that in this discussion, I’ve been able to make clear how complex the role of humanism has been in defining fields involved with the study of literature, but also how important it has been both in a positive and a negative sense, i.e. during the Renaissance it is thanks to humanism that people were able to break loose from the confines of religion, and the individual became the means around which new knowledge could be created and instituted, whereas during the twentieth century it has been the postmodern reaction against it which has produced the most fascinating and enlightening theory. We can see humanism in many different ways, as a historical event, a cultural episteme, a paradigm upon which radical cultural change has been brought about and an artistic tool used by individuals to make sense of their world and their role in it.


It is interesting to note that at a recent conference in New Orleans,[1] I witnessed a presentation involved with a unit given at an American university called the ‘Humanities Base’ which was attempting to institute a recent text by Doris Lessing known as The Fifth Child into its structure. The Humanities Base is a programme at the University of Dayton for First Year Students (‘Freshmen’) which functions to explore the way the question “What does it mean to be human?” can be answered, encompassing in its entirety all the subjects which traditional humanism includes: English, History, Philosophy and Religious Studies. Attempts are made to identify common features of the human condition, essential elements of the human condition, and those aspects of human knowledge that may jeopardize our fundamental humanity. In these regards, The Fifth Child-a horror novel that has a couple bearing a 'monster'-is an appropriate inclusion, although the simplicity of its argumentation suggests that the 'programme' is a rather nave reappropriation of theoretical goals dating back to the early days of liberal humanism. Whether or not this is a characteristic common to a general movement is far too complex for the frame of this brief discussion, but it in any case provides interesting food for thought and helps us to make sense of the knowledge base we’ve already built up in this regard.


[1] The First International Doris Lessing Conference, April 1-4 2004, New Orleans (USA).





May 2008 Nachtschimmen Music-Theatre-Language Night Shades, Ghent (Belgium)*
Send mail to zachar@nachtschimmen.eu with questions or comments about this website.

September 27 2013.



Major Writings