HUMANISM AND RATIONALISM

 

Jan Woleński

HUMANISM AND RATIONALISM

The present analysis will pertain to the notions mentioned in its title and to their application. It will set off according to the classical analytic procedure, i.e., by making chiefly terminological definitions. After all, to act in such a way so as to prevent verbal misunderstandings is one of the requirements of being rational. Much more space will be devoted to humanism than rationalism. Referring to history is duly relevant in the case of the issue in question as it regards ideas with a long tradition. No projecting definitions would be applicable here. Even relatively brief descriptions by necessity have to leave out certain intuitions. Let us consider, for instance, the following definition of humanism:

In general, any philosophy highlighting the welfare and dignity of man, viewing man’s cognitive capacity with optimism. In a narrow sense, an intellectual movement originating in the Renaissance, accompanying the renewal of study on the literature of ancient Greece and Rome, favouring rediscovered relations between man and nature and forgotten affirmation of the pleasure of life — aspects, as it seemed to humanists, lost in the darkness of the Middle Ages. In this Renaissance sense, humanism was fully congruent with religious faith; humanists would claim that God has sent us to the world to pursue things they considered important. Later, the term started to be applied to social and political anti-religious movements. Finally, in the 20th century, “humanism” began to be assigned (as it still is today) pejorative meaning. In postmodernist and feminist circles, the term is used as accusation put forth against such philosophies as that of Sartre, i.e., such that assume the possibility of the existence of an autonomous, rational, unitary “I”, and disregard, unlike the above mentioned innovators, the inevitable fragmentation, mosaic nature and historical conditioning of the nature of one’s personality and motivations.

This definition may incorporate a number of traits characteristic of humanism; yet, as it will be demonstrated below, it does not encode everything worth saying.

It is quite interesting that the word “humanism” (or, to be more specific, its German equivalent and prototype, Humanismus) came into existence relatively recently. It was used by F. Niethammer to signify a pedagogics which understood education as shaping a higher nature of a human being, as opposed to education understood as philanthropy. The term was new but the notion was not. Paideia in the Greek sense or humanitas in the Roman provided points of reference. The notion of humanitas was popularised by Cicero and Varro as one referring to the shaping of a human being as a human being, mainly by cultivating what later on was termed artes liberales (i.e., liberated arts), e.g., rhetoric. In this way, the human being was treated as distinct from animals. In 1859, G. Voigt used the word Humanismus to refer to the period of Renaissance.

Three applications of the terms “humanism” and “humanist” can be derived from the above presented comments, i.e.: (a) to signify an educational style, (b) to signify a period in history, (c) to make a distinction between the humanities and the natural sciences. All these applications have something in common since they somehow refer to humanitas as something important in the understanding of humanity. They have much more significance than just historical value. After all, even today we speak of secondary schools teaching the sciences or the humanities, or describe so respectively termed courses in particular schools. Philosophers of science still tend to regard the division of knowledge into the natural sciences and the humanities as fundamental and giving rise to weighty methodological problems.

But what do humanism as an educational style, humanism as a period in history, and the humanities have in common? The common denominator is their specific attitude to human affairs. One cannot go into detail here considering this special aspect, which F. Znaniecki named the human factor, as it is highly controversial what it consists in. Intuition may give the following solution: human affairs seen at the humanist angle appear different than seen from the perspective of nature.

One of the basic facts related to analysing humanism is that the term “humanism” tends to be used both in a descriptive and a valuating mode. When considering paideia or humanitas, the Renaissance or the distinction between the humanities and the sciences, one may aim at reporting certain facts from the history of pedagogics, history of the world, or methodology of sciences. Nonetheless, humanism has always been connected with valuation. When Cicero and Varro commended humanitas, they must have done it with the conviction that this type of education was appropriate for human beings, or at least better than education deprived of humanist elements. When Petrarch and his successors postulated studia humanitatis, they made a clear distinction between these studies and theology, both in descriptive and valuating terms. They did not stipulate that theology be entirely rejected, but they opposed limiting of education to divine issues alone. When we say today that the humanities ought to be taught at polytechnics, or that natural historians should have humanist interests, we follow that very tradition. The valuating element is also apparent in such juxtaposition as “anthropology of culture vs. anthropology of nature”, “humanist psychiatry vs. medical psychiatry”, or “humanist psychology vs. physiological psychology”. Neither is this element alien to the general category of the humanities as opposed to the natural sciences. This is a very delicate matter due to the persistent grumbling that the humanities are neither as good nor as well-developed as the natural sciences. Nevertheless, many philosophers consider the humaniora to be no worse than the natural sciences; most philosophers consider them to be simply different, which makes global comparison of their status with that of the natural sciences pointless. The opinion that the humanities are indispensable for reaching the gist of human affairs is quite widespread and it has a clearly valuating tone.

The valuating character of the term “humanism” may be most evident in its application as a name of a period in history. It could not have been otherwise as this period was first named Renaissance (i.e., rebirth). The thinkers of this period supported some views, and opposed others. Namely, they were in favour of freedom, tolerance, importance of day-to-day pleasures of life, autonomy of human values, and considering human affairs independently of theology; they were against social limitations of feudalism, fanaticism, asceticism, treating of human values as heteronomic, and predominance of theology. This was continued in the later history of humanism. Humanism became critical and questioning. The Renaissance clearly positioned the relation between humanism and religion. In the above quoted passage, Blackburn mentions that Renaissance humanism was not inconsistent with religion. Certainly, a number of Renaissance humanists were deeply religious people. Nevertheless, a question arises whether this congruence of humanism with religion pertained to official, institutional orthodoxy, or rather to a very broad and general, for instance, deist worldview. Its further historical development supports the conclusion that humanist tendencies turned against institutional churches, mainly the Roman Catholic Church, and were fought by those churches. But the question of the relation between religion and humanism is not that simple (see Appendix at the end of this paper).

Apart from “humanism”, there exists another, related term, namely, “humanitarianism”. Generally, humanitarianism is a programme of helping people in difficult circumstances, such as, for instance, the poor, the sick, prisoners, the handicapped, etc.; sometimes it is extended to embrace animals, too. It may be justified with general postulates, such as the principle of respect for life in the case of A. Schweitzer. The relation between humanism and humanitarianism is far from being simple. Ancient humanists were not humanitarianists as the project of humanitas was addressed to nobles only. The first criticism of slavery came from the stoics who were no more humanist than other Greek philosophers, and probably much less than, for instance, the Epicureans. The Gospels and the doctrine of St. Francis of Assisi are certainly humanitarian but hardly humanist. Finally, the Renaissance humanists were humanitarianist in relation to their general ideas rather than to any specific understanding of problems of extending help to others, for instance, the poor. Full-fledged humanitarianism came into being in the Enlightenment and it doubtless drew upon humanism. This mainly refers to the so-called humanitarianist school of penal law (C. Beccaria and others), which effected, among others, abandonment of torture as a legal means of obtaining (as no one called it coercion) of testimony in penal suits and initiated abolitionism of death penalty. This success needs to be continually recalled, especially in view of strong criticism against the Enlightenment filed by many, among others, the Catholic and postmodernist circles. It is astonishing that great achievements of this period in civilising law are seldom pronounced. Even today humanitarianism is not always humanist. The humanitarianism of Schweitzer was humanist as it was a general programme, but that of Mother Teresa of Calcutta is not as she propagates numerous theses difficult to combine with humanism, such as, for instance, with respect to birth control.

The term “humanism” is also put to use in order to perform identification or self-identification of philosophical trends or their parts. This is the case of labelling so the thinking of Protagoras with his idea of man being the measure of all things, or the theses of Socrates with his confession of being able to learn nothing from stones (alluding to the early Greek philosophy of nature). The label of humanism has been applied to the “religion of mankind” of A. Comte. W. James and, in particular, F.C. Schiller claimed that pragmaticism was humanism as it considered human cognition as basically human. Such a general definition by force of which a philosophy is a humanism only because it deals with the human being will not be accepted today. Even pure philosophical anthropologists, such as J.P. Sartre or A. Camus, did not reduce their ideas to humanism, but rather emphasised that humanism was a trait or element of their doctrines. Today, this is a general practice.

The valuating sense of humanism and the variety of its philosophical locations have borne a multiplicity of its versions. This is evidenced by the application of various adjectives to classify the term “humanism”. One can encounter “real” humanism, “true” humanism, “socialist” humanism, “social” humanism, “scientific” humanism, “integral” humanism, “anthropocentric” humanism, “theocentric” humanism, “Christian” humanism, “modern” humanism, “intuitive” humanism, “religious” humanism, “open” humanism, and “closed” humanism; this list is unlikely to be exhaustive. These attributes perform various functions. Suppose someone wanted to write a philosophical dictionary entry on humanism. The author might differentiate between theocentric and anthropocentric humanism to point out that there are such concepts of humanism in philosophical circulation. This would be a descriptive intention. Suppose now we had to do with a religious philosopher who valued humanism but found out that only secular humanism was the right one. It would not be surprising if the philosopher undertook to demonstrate that true humanism could only be religious humanism as human values must have supernatural origin. And so irreligious humanism (i.e., anthropocentric humanism, secular humanism, etc.) must be false as it contradicts what constitutes real humanitas. Such argumentation leads to the use of adjectives “true” and “false” in front of the noun “humanism” as modifiers. Thus, a negative adjective, i.e., “false”, deprives the noun of its original meaning: false humanism is not humanism, just as false gold is not gold, a false friend is not a friend, etc.; a positive adjective, i.e., “true”, seems to confirm the noun, just like true gold is simply gold. Looking at the above supplied list of adjectives classifying the word “humanism”, one must notice that most of them can perform the modifying function. This results in frequent misunderstandings as it often happens that people discussing humanism shift from the determining function, which consists in indicating that a humanism is an instance of a somehow defined type category, to the modifying function, which amounts to changing the meaning of the noun preceded by a given adjective, as described above. This state of affairs is regrettable but exactly this “logic” of classifying humanism seems inevitable. Not much can be done except issuing a warning to pay due attention to the role of words in discussion.

The multiplicity of humanisms also results in raising mutual accusations that one humanism or another is not really humanism. Sartre was accused by both Marxists and Catholics that his philosophy of man was not real humanism. In response, he wrote a special essay in which he was trying to prove that existentialism is humanism as it embraces a man who transcends himself. Thus, controversies arising around the issue of humanism conceive new types of humanism. This is not an exceptional situation known to philosophy; however, the place of humanism remains unique.

Humanism tends to be highly valued but it also happens to be criticised. Recently, as it has been noted in the quotation from Blackburn, feminists and postmodernists have been targeting humanism. Let me omit criticism on their part and refer to other two instances from the recent past. The first comes from M. Heidegger. Heidegger considered the question whether the notion of humanism was really necessary. Eventually he did not provide a definite answer, although the tone of his reasoning inclined towards a negative reply. According to Heidegger, traditional ontology had not been able to properly embrace the phenomenon of human existence and human dignity. The way of reasoning applied by Heidegger in Being and Nothingness opposed humanism because of this imperfection. This does not imply that this reasoning is in favour of anti-humanity and barbarianism, or that it attacks human dignity. Heidegger stated that he opposed humanism precisely because this worldview did not elevate human dignity high enough. Heidegger’s arguments are vague enough to be understood unequivocally. His supporters who at the same time support humanism will certainly find a way to show that Heidegger’s thinking provides for the most true humanism. Others, who remember the Nazi past of the Freiburg rector, will take Heidegger’s attack against humanism to be a sign of his unceasing sympathy for totalitarianism. But we need not worry here about how Heidegger ought to be interpreted.

Another criticism of humanism came from father J.M. Bocheński. Bocheński considered humanism to be the most wide-spread contemporary superstition, and he assigned it the following sense:

Each man with no exception is an entity significantly, essentially different from other creatures, and in particular animals. Man lives in nature but does not belong to nature. He is something elevated above everything else; in many cases, he is something sacred.

Such an opinion is unjustified from a scientific point of view, which suffices to reject it. Bocheñski accepts certain forms of humanism which are not superstition. Acceptable is intuitive humanism, according to which direct self-cognition confirms our belief than we are more perfect than nature. No more of superstition is religious humanism, amounting to a belief in our superiority to the rest of nature because it is given by God. Both these humanisms, i.e., intuitive humanism and religious humanism, are justified if one subscribes to certain beliefs, but they cannot draw upon scientific arguments. Therefore, humanism is always non-scientific, and if it puts on a scientific cloak it turns into superstition. Tow aspects of this criticism seem interesting: first, that naturalism rules out humanism; second, that an eminent Catholic philosopher deems religious humanism to be non-scientific.

Thus, we have multiple applications of “humanist terms” and a variety of humanist doctrines. What shall we do in this context? Some try to characterise humanism by enumerating the motives of humanist philosophy, in principle with no reference to tradition. This was what C. Lamont did in his monograph on humanism. Lamont extracted ten main theses of humanism, which included the acceptance of: (I) naturalism in metaphysics; (II) evolutionism of the origin and development of the human species; (III) man’s capacity to solve his problems in a scientific manner; (IV) free choice within objective limits (thereby, humanism rejects predestination or fatalism); (V) ethics and morality operating solely on the worldly plain; (VI) eudaimonism consisting in the harmony of individual and collective welfare; (VII) need of possibly broadest development of arts; (VIII) democracy, pacifism, and a welfare state on the global scale; (IX) scientism, i.e., general applicability of the scientific method; (X) criticism. Naturalism, scientism, utilitarianism, liberalism, and optimism may be the most characteristic traits of humanism so understood. It is sometimes labelled “secular humanism”; it radically rejects religion; and it is treated by its supporters as a contemporary version of humanism. It certainly seems attractive to many people, especially atheists. I personally share most of Lamont’s convictions. Nevertheless, I think this description of humanism is too beautiful to be adequate. The question that arises immediately is, of course: From what viewpoint should it be adequate? If someone wants to understand humanism along these lines, they are free to do so; thus, their understanding is accurate. I am not able to provide a general definition of adequacy in this context. I can only say that much: An adequate description of humanism is a description that satisfies two criteria, i.e.: (a) efficiency in discussions on humanism, both among humanists only and between humanists and their critics; (b) capacity to become the basis of humanism as an action programme. The latter criterion is of great significance. It seems some differentiation should be made between humanism as a theory of the world and humanism as a programme. I agree that one seldom obtains without the other; yet, the theory and the programme can operate independently. If I were to say which of the two is the more important, I would choose the programme. This is attested by history. Ideas of the great Renaissance humanists appear to draw the interests of historians of that period only. On the other hand, the humanist programme is known to almost anyone. I should perhaps say now how I understand this programme. Let me put it that way: Humanism as a programme consists in making the world friendly to the human being. I am fully aware of the fact that this is not an accurate definition. Fortunately enough, the long tradition of the humanist thought enables a more specific explanation. The world is friendly to the human being if it is tolerant, allows for a sufficient degree of freedom, provides for making use of simple life pleasures, does not rule out the hope for other’s help in misfortune, etc. The humanist programme is of course subject to historical variance; for instance, humanism today cannot be indifferent to environmental problems.

Rationalism makes a strong philosophical basis for humanism as a programme. And this leads us to the notion of rationalism. To simplify things, let me skip the history of this category and limit myself to referring to two attitudes to reason in the history of philosophy. Reason has been treated as a manufacture of a type of cognition, namely, rational cognition, as reliable and absolute. Plato, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant and Husserl were the main representatives of rationalism in this sense. Yet when I say that one diet is rational and another is not, I am not using the adjective “rational” in the above specified sense of the word. What I have in mind is that given principles of nutrition are reasonable in view of a certain objective. In this case, reason is not the manufacturer of cognition warranting absolute certainty; it produces knowledge well-grounded in experience and rational in this sense.

The best description of rationalism in its latter sense was provided by K. Ajdukiewicz. Let me quote a long passage from his introduction to philosophy:

Rationalism promotes the cult of rational cognition as opposed to irrationalism; it promotes the cult of cognition acquired by natural means as opposed to cognition stemming from supernatural resources; it propagates the cult of intellect as opposed to emotion … Rationalism values such cognition which follows the pattern of mathematics and natural sciences. It rejects cognition referring to revelation, any intuition, clairvoyance, magic prophesies, etc. … Scientific cognition may be best characterised by emphasising two postulates it must satisfy. Scientific cognition is constituted by only such thought content which first, can be communicated to another in words taken literally, i.e., without metaphors, similes and other substitutes used to communicate thoughts. Second, scientific cognition can be constituted by only such a proposition whose truth or falsity can be in fact verified by anyone in adequate external circumstances. In other words, scientific condition is cognition communicable intersubjectively and verifiable intersubjectively … This intersubjectivity seems to be the characteristic trait of rational cognition. Rationalism which values only rational cognition would thus amount to assigning value only to intersubjectively communicable and verifiable cognition. Motivation for which rationalism values only such cognition is social motivation. Rationalism claims that one shall be entitled to propagate one’s beliefs and demand that they be generally acknowledged if a belief can be precisely verbalised and if anyone can (at least in principle) verify its truth or falsity. What is at stake is first, protection of societies against being dominated by unintelligible platitude which can still have strong emotional repercussions and thereby affect the behaviour of individuals and whole social groups, and second, prevention of uncritical acceptance of ideas propagated by their supporters with the full force of deep belief but unverifiable by others and thus at least potentially false. Thus, what is at stake is protection of society against nonsense and deceit … However, rational cognition pays a high price for its intersubjectivity. It becomes schematic, abstract, and it loses its intimate contact with the object … Rational cognition is often accused of this schematicity, abstraction, and lack of intimate contact with objects on the part of opponents of the rationalist view. They acknowledge its significance in practice, in action; yet, they refuse it the fullness characteristic of cognition acquired by direct contact with objects and impossible to be verbalised intersubjectively. They demand that this cognition impossible to verbalise be paid at least equal respect as is due to rational cognition … Opponents of rationalism are called irrationalists … These have been mainly mystics … Mystics are people who experience odd things called mystic ecstasy. When experiencing it, they feel revelation through which (and not by means of reasoning or conscientious observation) they become subjectively certain, mainly of the existence of a god; they experience as if first-hand, direct communion with a god, they receive from him guidance, warnings and orders. People experiencing similar things will not be talked out of the certainly acquired in ecstasy … They will not be persuaded that if they cannot justify their thesis in a manner accessible to anyone they should refrain from propagating this thesis. Therefore it will be pointless for rationalists to convince a mystic and discourage him from fulfilling the apostolic mission. Nonetheless, a rationalist voice is a wholesome social response, an act of society’s self-defence against the threat of being dominated by uncontrollable factors which can include both a saint proclaiming revelation and a madman propagating products of his ill consciousness or a cheat intending to attract believers in some ideas and notions for his mean, egoistic goals. Better to consume reliable though scarce nourishment of reason than to afford, out of fear of overlooking the voice of the Truth, to eat any uncontrolled food which may well be poison rather than wholesome and beneficial nutrition.

Two attitudes towards irrationalism can be differentiated. One, very optimistic, represented, for instance, by B. Russell, amounts to the belief that it is sufficient to show that a proposition is irrational for a majority of people to reject it. Ajdukiewicz must not have shared this optimism if he pointed out that a mystic will not be convinced. This is not to say that demanding acknowledgement of the postulates of anti-irrationalism should be abandoned. However, it seems necessary to assume that irrationalism still has a long life to live, and in fact may never be eradicated in full.

Lamont places humanism in the context of scientism, naturalism, and several other very broad concepts. Doubtless, anti-irrationalism is incorporated in this model of humanism. Yet reading Ajdukiewicz, one finds that a number of elements of Lamont’s definition can be justified on the grounds of anti-irrationalism. However, a subtle difference must be noted. Anti-irrationalism does not take what is rational and what is not rational for granted. On the other hand, secular humanism makes this presumption. Whether all human affairs can be treated by scientific means is debatable. Of course, it would be excellent if the entire programme of humanism were subject to scientific arguments. Yet, for the time being, it is not the case. Scientific arguments need to be applied to matters pertinent to humanism. Critics of humanism should be called upon to try and use scientific arguments as well. Nonetheless, let me repeat, it is uncertain whether scientific arguments can resolve each dispute in which a humanist is to take a stance. Naturalism in axiology can be supported, but not everyone can be expected to agree on a naturalist concept of value. Each scientific discourse is intersubjective but does it obtain vice versa? Ajdukiewicz’s opinion in this regard was not equivocal. He considered science to be a pattern for rational cognition; but this does not imply that each instance of intersubjective cognition is scientific. It seems a dividing line should be drawn between intersubjective verifiability and intersubjective communicability. Both of them are characteristic of scientific cognition; however, the latter is also characteristic of non-scientific and yet still rational discourse. In axiological matters we need to accept the existence of beliefs which are non-verifiable, as assessments and norms often tend to be non-verifiable. Nonetheless, one should always demand that argumentation in axiological matters be intersubjectively communicable, based on examples, aware of implications of a given solution, etc. In a nutshell, the minimal postulate of anti-irrationalism consists in a demand to use intersubjective language.

Once we accept this minimal postulate, we can, for instance, refuse to discuss Sartre’s humanism as his understanding of man’s transcending himself does not receive fully intersubjective expression: it is intelligible only in his language and cannot be communicated without metaphors. Similarly in the case of Heidegger’s criticism of humanism, the idea that “work will liberate us” as a basis of a humanist proposition, and many other true humanisms. This is not to say that such issues must not be discussed if one enjoys similar discussions; yet, we should make a request: Please do not corrupt humanism with debates on human being transcending himself, existing as Desein or Truth-that-will-liberate-us. Humanism developed as a concrete programme of treating human affairs — let it remain just that.

Once humanism is approached along the lines stipulated above, i.e., as a concrete programme of making the world friendly to people, the link between humanism and anti-irrationalism becomes evident. According to what has been said before about functions of adjectives in a philosophical context, supplementing philosophical categories with modifiers can be dangerous. Yet, I cannot resist a terminological temptation. By analogy to situational ethics, I would like to stipulate a situational humanism, i.e., making the world friendly to the human being by rationally solving specific problems on the basis of a single, possibly minimal catalogue of principles derived from the rich humanist tradition.

In conclusion, let me ask a provocative question: Can an irrationalist be humanist? My answer is positive. There seems to be no inevitable contradiction between, for instance, religious beliefs and acceptance of humanism, just as there is no inconsistency when a scientist believes in God. Nonetheless, the analogy with science suggests an important postulate. If we are serious in demanding that humanism be based on anti-irrationalism, then a humanist who accepts some irrational beliefs ought to be willing to withhold them. In other words, the programme of humanism can be inspired by religion, for instance, though it ought not to be justified on the grounds of religious faith. This is not a novel approach as the Renaissance humanists seem to have seen this problem alike. What should be done, though, if two different humanisms are confronted, for instance, a humanism regarding euthanasia as accordant with a humanist approach to human affairs, and the other deeming it not to be? Well, in such a case both of the propagators of the two humanisms should be entitled to call themselves humanist as anyway a consensus would be impossible to reach in such a dispute. This is when anti-irrationalism intervenes to stipulate that in such a case at least differences be clearly stated, records of divergencies be made, and arbitrage be sought. Should someone refuse this, his humanism would be apparent since it would be irrational.

Appendix. Several aspects of my theses arose some criticism. Most opposed was the opinion accepting a possibility of a religious person being humanist; in particular, regarding Schweitzer as humanist was questioned. I would like to explain that it is not my goal to combine humanism with religion. On the contrary, I postulate that they be separate; this, however, does not have to imply that religious people cannot be humanist. I understand the motivation of secular humanism which is based on a strong belief that a humanist should be atheist. This motivation must be historical heritage as history has proven too well that humanist ideas have been fought by churches. But so has science, and yet this has not prevented some scientists from being religious. I have been rather astonished to find a considerable amount of dogmatism in secular humanists. I think this is mainly why the accusation is made of secular humanism being a new religion. Neither is it the case that I stipulate an all-encompassing understanding of humanism to include both a type of pedagogics, a certain period in history, and humanist sciences. There was a point in my article where I discussed various applications of “humanist terms” (i.e., such as “humanism”, “humanist”, “humanitarianism”, etc.), and nowhere did I postulate a notion embracing all these applications. Situational humanism is understood as a programme, and thus, its name can designate neither a period in history nor humanist sciences.

 

source: http://humanizm.free.ngo.pl/wolenskiang.htm

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