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Humanism: An Exchange with Nina Fishman

In an earlier blog post, on the 1st anniversary of Nina Fishman’s death, I referred to a project that Nina and I conceived back in November 2002 to write a collaborative essay on the inadequacy of contemporary humanist defences against religious fundamentalism in the shadow of 9/11. In the end we never wrote the paper, but I’ve recently discovered, in an obscure folder on my hard disk, the notes that we exchanged at the start of the project. On reading them I was struck firstly by the remarkable quality of Nina’s contribution (which beautifully demonstrates her instinct for a historical approach to any problem), and secondly by regret that we didn’t persevere with the project and overcome our differences of approach. I’m therefore publishing both of our contributions here, starting with my notes: 

My First Try
If you believe George Bush, we are already engaged in a war that pits western values against an axis of evil forces led by the Islamic fundamentalists of Al Qaeda. Ignoring for the moment whether or not this is true, an immediate problem arises in defining what ‘western values’ actually are. Bush and Blair offer sound-bite-sized lists of ‘goods’ - democracy, the rule of law, freedom of conscience and of markets - but these do not easily cohere into an ideology that can be taught to children and, if necessary, would bolster a people’s will to defend them to the death.

Al Qaeda suffers from no such lack of focus – it is clear that it is fighting for the values of Salafi/Wahabite fundamentalist Islam, and equally clear that the enemy is the ‘Jewish-Crusader coalition’ that threatens those values. That they define their enemy using religious terminology is an instructive irony because the philosophy that comes closest describing the particular bundle of Western ‘goods’ is actually a wholly secular humanism. This essentially secular nature can be obscured, for example, by the loud proponents of Christian fundamentalism who are currently so influential on the US government, or by the European habit of calling social democracy ‘Christian Democracy’. However if we believe it’s necessary to defend, and even to spread, our common values, it’s crucial that we elaborate them in a more explicit form that stresses their secular nature.

This task could never be easy, but it’s made a hundredfold more difficult by the current state of popular and media culture which has taken a profoundly anti-humanist direction. Though the personal philosophy of most western consumers is still founded on a strong sense of individuality and personal sovereignty, this is beset on all sides by various contradictory anti-humanist critiques. For example:

• Free-Market fundamentalists stress the autonomous nature of markets, and that mere humans neither can (nor should fully) understand them or attempt to control them.

• Religious fundamentalists, whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu or whatever, stress that humanity is sinful and cannot be redeemed in this world, only in the next.

• ‘Deep Green’ activists regard the human species as an aberrant one – a threat to the planet and to all the other species, whose activities must be severely curtailed (even eliminated in some of the most extreme versions).

• Post-modernist intellectuals stress the weakness and fallibility of humankind, the imperfection and unreliability of their communication, the darkness of their motives.

• Cyborg futurists stress the inadequate design of the human body and society and would like to replace its feeble bits with computers and bionic limbs, then fly us all off to colonise Mars.

It’s hard to deny that the Islamists are right to some extent when they identify weakness and decadence in western values - affluence has so diminished the struggle for everyday life in our countries that boredom and anxiety now figure larger than hunger and physical danger for many, perhaps most, people. This leaves them with vague feelings of dissatisfaction that they try to assuage by, for example, thrill-seeking through extreme sports, attempting to discover the sublime in Art, and pursuing various strains of self-improvement and ‘spirituality’ that remain purely personal and lack the force of a truly social ethic. Young people in particular feel this ethical emptiness and seek to fill it by taking up some critical stance – but typically it will be one based on those various anti-humanist positions summarized above.

What’s needed above all now is for someone to tell the secular humanist story with the same vigour and conviction that Al Qaeda tells the backward-looking story of Salafi Islam – with sufficient clarity that people when asked ‘what are you’ could without too much agonising reply ‘a humanist’.

What sort of Humanism?
Humanism is the philosophy that emphasises the importance, authority, powers and achievements of what we used to call the human race, but after Darwin we should call the human species. For the ancient Greeks it meant the study of society, politics and morals as opposed to logic, metaphysics and the cosmos; for the Renaissance it meant the sloughing off of medieval pietism to place humanity to the centre of interest (God remains prime creator but is no longer all-controlling); and since the scientific revolutions of the 19th century it has come to be applied to an atheist or agnostic, and more or less rationalist, philosophy that seeks to ground morality in the material world rather than divine authority. The British Humanist Association for example campaigns for the further secularisation of society and politics, and devises and promotes non-religious alternatives to the ceremonies of birth, adulthood, marriage and death.

This strain of humanism has to a large extent now been absorbed and overtaken by mainstream society and popular culture, but it has also proved to be inadequate in several important respects. Science is no longer held in such unequivocal respect as it was in the late-19th and early 20th centuries. The invention of nuclear weapons, environmental disasters, and a dawning of awareness that it can never totally eradicate diseases (cancer, AIDS, BSE/CJD) all sap any naïve belief in the inevitability of progress through science.

The growing knowledge that humans are not the wholly rational beings portrayed by Enlightenment thinkers, but are prey to hidden emotional and irrational forces has similarly sapped belief in the perfectibility of human nature through good nurture and education. The main defence mechanism that allows modern citizens to cope with these dark realizations is irony - always hovering close to its sibling cynicism - and such irony corrosively devours any wide-eyed homilies in favour of loving thy neighbour. It’s an enormous challenge, as Nietzsche first understood, to develop a humanism that can accept and transcend the knowledge of such limitations (and of course Nietzsche himself has been unfairly tainted by the misappropriation of his optimism for darker ends by the Nazis.)

Another problem for any traditional humanism is that it depends for much of its evidence on the achievements of classical ‘high culture’, whose appreciation was once widening but is now being stunted by a burgeoning but dumbing-down popular culture that’s continually being co-opted to serve market forces. Eminem puts more bums on seats than Shakespeare and that, for a market-fundamentalist, is the end of that. This leads to deep and crucial questions about elitism versus populism and propaganda versus entertainment that one can plausibly argue were, prior to September 11 2001, perhaps the most pressing that western society faced.

It’s possible to find fragments in the most unlikely places that point to what a new humanism might look like. Even a commercial Hollywood movie like the Coen brothers’ ‘Fargo’ can treat both dark and light sides of human society with a humour and wit that permits it to come down in favour of goodness without sounding preachy. Many writers too have found this tone of ‘non-illusioned humanism’: Isaac Babel, Joseph Roth, and supremely Chekhov, who uttered this little manifesto that is not a bad place to start from: "My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom: freedom from force and falseness in whatever form they express themselves”.

Dick Pountain – Wed 13th November 2002

Nina’s First Try

First Thoughts About Secular Humanism

1. Anthropologists concur in the view that groups of people (e.g. tribes) evolve their own moralities/self-images/worldviews. These are adapted to their environment (of course) and also to the particularities of homo sapiens.

2. We have neither the space or the expertise to investigate the variety of these. It is, however, probably worth noting that particular groups have perished because of not being able to adapt (for whatever reason) to exogenous or endogenous shocks. Exogenous: Europeans in the Americas with gunpowder and measles; endogenous: civil wars, feuds. It also worth noting that William H.McNeill observes that it is the ability of groups to recognise the need to and adapt to change which has conditioned their ability to survive.

3. The last epoch making change which peoples in Europe underwent was industrialisation beginning in second half of the 18th century and reaching its zenith ca. 1960, (if by zenith we mean the proportion of the population occupied in manufacturing). This change was epoch making because its necessities transformed the ways of life of the whole population (in a variety of ways). European peoples adapted to industrialisation by evolving and adapting institutions, moralities etc. Social democracy and Christian democracy were powerful means of adapting.

4. Western European Christianity (in contradistinction to the Byzantine orthodox Christianity and the middle east/north african variants), evolved from the 4th-5th century AD with a strong influence from Greco-Roman philosophy, (it is generally Augustine of Hippo, I think, who is credited with the innovation). This combination of Christianity/Greco-Roman philosophy is credited by historians (like Peter Gay and O'Neill) with providing the ground from which the Reformation and the Enlightenment then sprang. These two developments are important because they give rise to: a) the concept of the individual as a (N.B. not the) legitimate centre of consciousness; and b) the concept of reason as the principal determinant of judgement – of all kinds – scientific, aesthetic, political, moral. I think that one can take the development and dissemination of these two concepts as marking the boundaries between pre-modern and modern. (e.g. Kant's critiques of pure and applied reason; Locke's treatise on toleration; Luther's claims for the individual conscience).

5. There was a moment, no doubt, when philosophers and other intellectuals believed that reason would be sufficient glue to bind European peoples together. The early modern state (16th-17th century) was conceived as being of universal application. Early modern rulers and statecraft were hardly place-specific. Quite the contrary. They were part of the European-wide culture which had variants according to religion only. These variants (Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, etc.) can be viewed as non-qualitative, e.g. like the difference between social and Christian democracy.

6. However, the French Revolution showed that it was impossible to keep a European society together with merely the glue of reason. The evolution of modern national cultures begins with the revolutionary wars waged by France, and continued by Napoleon. As philosophers and intellectuals noted from 1789 onwards, it is the irrational elements of nationalism which make it so unpredictable and dangerous. Moreover, there was also a signficant element of nationalism in the American Revolution.

7. The essence of modern nationalism is its assertion that the particular Irish, Polish, French, Italian, Czech, English... way of seeing the world, doing things, justice system etc. is unique and qualitatively different than all others. Whilst in itself this assertion does not necessarily imply conflict with other nationalisms, it is often exclusive and therefore likely to precipitate conflict if not war at some time or other.

8. The events of 1933-45 had such a profound effect on western European societies that their nation-states have qualitatively diluted the nationalist components of their moralities/self-images/worldviews. It is likely that east central European societies will adopt the same course over the next half century.

9. Consequently, over the last half century, due to unforeseen circumstances, western European states have lost the two most potent sources of their moralities/self-images/worldviews – (a) the needs of an industrialised society for discipline, repetitive manual work, manual dexterity, minimum virtually universal levels of technical expertise, collective social organisation counterbalanced by habits of thrift, and respect for individual private property; and (b) the collective sense of unique nationhood with its particular cultural components (which, however, if empirically observed over western Europe as a whole were hardly unique or particular – being more or less evenly distributed). It is an historical accident, but poignant nonetheless, that the May Events in France in 1968 took place just as the national, industrialised conditions of European society were receding.

10. It is not surprising that western European societies have been beset by stress and strain. They have been faced with the need to adapt to qualitatively different and new conditions whose parameters are not yet clear. Nor is it yet clear whether western European societies will succeed in adapting.

11. It is relevant in this situation to re-assert the importance, indeed the centrality, of secular humanism for our morality/self-image/worldview. Though secular humanism certainly adapted well to the conditions of industrialised Europe and more or less co-existed with nationalism, its essential components emerged before either and do not depend upon them continuing.

12. Interestingly enough, the survival of secular humanism in western European societies today probably depends upon the ability of those philosophers/intellectuals/artists/politicians who are articulating it to make it more universal in its appeal. We need to be able to make it applicable to the large variety of societies, ethnicities, economies which exist today. This is not only because of global communications and economies, but also because of the increasing mobility of human beings and their own proclivity to move between states. In this sense, we are living in a world which is more similar to the western Europe of the early modern period, 16th- late 17th century.

13. Important new components of secular humanism need to be developed. This is because the conditions facing homo sapiens in the 21st century are, in the capitalist world, essentially different. These new components are: (a) the importance of situating individual sovereignty and sovereign will within a collective setting; and (b) the importance not merely of capital accumulation for future generations but also the prudent husbanding of natural resources for future generations; and (c) the need to construct a rational, prudent global state. These components are all contained within the earlier corpus of western European thought: (e.g. Kant's essay on perpetual peace). It is not a matter of invention, but rather of adaptation to change. And, of course, the biggest need of all: to adapt the successful modern state from nation to world. The first adaptation took place in the early modern period and then resulted in the nation-state (a concept entirely absent pre-1789).

14. At the individual, subjective level, the need to re-assert the individual's place in and responsibilities to the collective presents an interesting problem for consumerist cultures. In other cultures, e.g. rural Italy, southeast Asia etc., the difficulties are less severe.

15. I have not had time yet to address the problems of elite culture/elite formation and the relation between elite and the collective. I will tackle this next.

Nina Fishman – Sunday 10.11.02


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