What Humanism Is
Versions of Humanism
(C) 1637 Rationalism
(P) 1649 Arminianism
(C) 1671 Empiricism
(P) 1750 Romanticism
(C) 1807 Dialecticism
(P) 1846 Subjectivism
What Humanism Is
Modern Humanism (aka simply "humanism", except where it needs to be distinguished from other phenomena that may be known by the same name) is a cognitive frame arising from tension between the attitudes of Causality and Personhood.
Causality, it is believed, governs all that occurs, and can be understood through mathematical study.
Personhood implies the "dignity", "rights" (French droits de l'homme) and "worth" (German Wurte) of each self.
There was a kind of humanism in Renaissance Scholasticism, but it was constrained within a cogniframe that expressed man's subjection to God. Modern humanism, whatever theological vocabulary it uses, basically sees man as autonomous; in this cogniframe, a self may be subject to a consensus of other selves, but no standard binds selves as a whole.
When the Declaration of Independence says that all men are "created" equal, or the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen invokes "the supreme being", these are concessions to tradition; there is no real belief in a creator before whom man as a whole could be in the wrong; such a suggestion would be regarded almost as an oxymoron.
By about 1600 CE, Western thinkers were itching to detach themselves from Scholasticism. This state of affairs was manifest, for instance, in the plays produced by William Shakespeare.
"Personality, in our sense, is a Shakespearean invention."
Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998).
The declaration of independence from God seemed to become plausible when a new idol arose, Causality. This began to be revered following the achievements of Nicolaus Copernicus (in his 1543 On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) and Johann Kepler (in his 1600 The Harmony of the World) in the application of mathematics to celestial mechanics (astronomy). With such strongholds of mystery falling, it was easy to suppose that there were no limits, that ultimately such science could tell us all we need to know in order to control our world.
But after a while personality-orientated thinking reacted against Causality, becoming dominant in some versions of Humanism. These asserted the reality of human choice but were unable to integate this in a coherent worldview, so that as often as Personhood rebelled, Causality relentlessly re-imposed itself. Thus began the oscillation between the two idols that has enabled Humanism to dominate thought in the West, and increasingly elsewhere, to this day. Whenever one pole of this structure prevailed in a continental culture, its inherent inadequacy generated tensions that led to a reversal where the other pole gained dominance.
Humanism has recently dominated world culture. Since about 1800 CE, mainland Europeans have generally been Personalistic and Britons Causalistic, with America more divided.
This may now be breaking down owing to the exhaustion of belief in Causality, but if so I cannot say what will follow. See the last section of this page.
Versions of Humanism
Some of these could fairly be called "schools of thought", but others include authors too disparate for that.
The shortness of my notes on various authors, and their failure to reflect recent developments, arise from haste and ignorance. My aim is only to convey an overall pattern, but maybe I will add more detail later.
I have probably misclassified some authors. In such matters there is often dispute even among specialists, but feel free to correct me if you see any obvious errors or omissions.
For each worldview I give:
* whether it is Causalist (C), Personalist (P) or neither (-).
* the year of the earliest known creed in which it was expressed.
* a name. (Most of these are familiar among humanists. Some were invented by proponents, others by opponents or commentators. A few I have improvised.)
Then I describe:
* the circumstances in which it arose. (These do not amount to a causal explanation, which would be impossible. Such a development is not predetermined by its circumstances; it is an outcome of free choices responding to those circumstances.)
* its main characteristics.
* its pioneer and other chief proponents, their contributions and their differences. In some cases I divide them into subgroups representing significant variants, which sometimes amount to creeds.
(C) 1637 Rationalism
In keeping with the mathematical basis mentioned above, Rationalism held that to obtain knowledge regarding the human mind and God we could (or even must) disregard all experience. Its chief voices were mostly mainland Europeans.
1637. Rene Descartes pioneered it in Discourse on Method with his cogito ergo sum ("I think therefore I am"). He espoused Interactive Dualism, that mind and matter are separate substances that interact with each other.
1673. Baruch Spinoza espoused Monism, that there is only one substance, which he called "God" and "Nature", most fully in his posthumous Ethics.
1714. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, in Monadology, espoused Parallel Dualism, that mind and matter are separate substances but that neither affects the other, their harmony being pre-ordained by God.
(P) 1649 Arminianism
The dominance of Causalism inevitably eventually invoked a Personalist reaction reasserting human spontaneity. This accomodated itself to its environement by taking Christianoid forms, some of which persist to this day.
1609. Jacobus Arminius (d.1609) propounded its gist but gave it no coherent form.
1910. The Remonstrants pioneered it in their Remonstrance.
1649. George Fox founded "Quakerism", as described in his posthumous Journal.
1675. Philipp Spener founded "Pietism" with Pia Desideria ("Earnest Desire for Reform of the True Evangelical Church").
1740. John Wesley founded "Methodism" along Pietist lines, as described in his Journals.
(C) 1671 Empiricism
Causality became even more attractive when experimental natural science, whose method had been much improved (above all by Francis Bacon in his 1620 New Method of the Sciences and Galileo Galilei in his 1650 Dialogues on Two New Chief World Systems), began its seemingly all-conquering career of engineering achievements which continues to this day. This extension of the new science from celestial to terrestrial matters prompted a shift from mere reason to experience as the basic source of knowledge.
Classical Empiricism. Its early advocates were mainly Britons, but during the 18th century it also displaced Rationalism in mainland European Causalism. It was encouraged when Isaac Newton (especially in his 1687 Principia) was thought to have brought natural science to something like perfection.
1671. John Locke pioneered it in Essay concerning Human Understanding (unpublished until 1688, but already containing the key statements). "There is nothing in the intellect that has not been in sensation."
1710. George Berkeley, based on its principles, argued for Idealism, the opinion that ideas are the only reality, in The Principles of Human Knowledge.
1739. David Hume developed it, holding that knowledge is only from deduction and induction. Hume called his Treatise of Human Nature "an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects", thus claiming to reduce personhood to causality, and that into an association of ideas.
1830. August Comte pioneered its Positivist form in Course of Positive Philosophy.
1843. John Stuart Mill gave it perhaps its most complete form in System of Logic.
Logical Empiricism (Neo-Empiricism, The Analytical School). Empiricism was encouraged by Charles Darwin's 1859 The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection which claimed to explain the emergence of higher forms of life, and reinvigorated, in what became known as its "linguistic turn", when it incorporated, as an "ideal" (i.e. perfect) language to replace the inadequate everyday (natural, ordinary) language, the kind of formal logic pioneered by Gottlob Frege in his 1879 Concept Script (Begriffsschrift) and 1884 The Foundations of Arithmetic. It was also stimulated by Ivan Pavlov's theory of conditioned reflexes, pioneered in his 1903 Experimental Psychology and Psychopathology of Animals and propagated in the West by John B. Watson in his 1914 Behavior. And it was reinforced against Dialeticism by Alfred Tarski's 1933 The Concept of Truth in Formalised Languages.
1905. Bertrand Russell pioneered it in Logical Atomism.
1922. Ludwig Wittgenstein (early period) consolidated it in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
1934. Rudolf Carnap expounded its Logical Positivist form in The Logical Syntax of Language. Carnap was a member of the Vienna Circle formed by Maurice Schlick, who founded Logical Positivism.
1935 A. J. Ayer championed Logical Positivism in England with Language, Truth and Logic.
1972. B. F. Skinner eleucidated its political implications in Beyond Freedom and Dignity.
Speech Act Theory (Ordinary Language Philosophy) arose among empiricists who recognised that the "ideal language propositions" advocated by Logical Empicists (and by some later Pragmaticists) were unrealistic.
1953. Ludwig Wittgenstein (late period) pioneered it in Philosophical Investigations.
1962. John L. Austin consolidated it in How to do Things with Words.
1969. John Searle elaborated it in Speech Acts.
(P) 1750 Romanticism
The continuing dominance of Causalism led to a Personalist resurgence, this time propounded not only by Christianoids though still generally using the word "God", usually in a Unitarian-Deist or Pantheist sense. (These share the attractive feature of facilitating self-righteousness by not requiring a confession of Defection.) These authors accepted Empiricism's determinism but supposed they could nonetheless carve out, or presume, a place for human freedom.
Some of these authors are Romantic only in a broad and cognitive sense, but I know no word that would better convey what they all share. What I call the Mystical variant is closer to "Romanticism" in its more familiar, narrower and expressive, sense, as students of poetry will infer from the inclusion of Coleridge in that group.
1750. Jean-Jacques Rousseau pioneered it in Discourse on the Sciences and Arts. "Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains".
1764. Thomas Reid pioneered its "Direct Realist" (or "Commonsense Realist") form in An Inquiry Into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, holding that we experience the world directly without needing to construct it speculatively from the data of sensation. For some decades this view prevailed in Scotland and the USA.
I think Reid himself was a Scholastic, but I place him here because his influence was on Humanists such as the Founding Fathers.
1784. Immanuel Kant pioneered it, trying in Critique of Pure Reason to reconcile the Rationalist and Empiricist versions of Causalism, in his 1788 Critique of Practical Reason to give due place to personhood alongside causality, and in his 1790 Critique of Judgment to unify them.
1794. Johann Gottlieb Fichte propounded what he called "Transcendental Idealism", seeing causality as a manifestation of personhood, pedantically in Wissenschaftslehre ("Science-Lore") and eloquently in his 1800 Vocation of Man.
1799. Friedrich Schleiermacher propounded a Pantheist form of it in Speeches on Religion to its Cultured Despisers.
1800. F.W.J. Schelling in System of Transcendental Idealism seemed to be trying to enhance Ficht's thinking rather than countering it, but by the time of his 1809 Human Freedom was clearly moving in a Pantheist direction, and later said this was always the real meaning of his thinking.
1817. Samuel T. Coleridge popularised it in England, extensively paraphrasing Schelling in Biographia Literaria.
1836. Ralph Waldo Emerson propounded it in the form of "Transcendentalism", starting with his Nature.
Arthur Schopenhauer is sometimes mentioned here, but I list him under Yoga, outside Humanism altogether. (Other European authors also drew on Yoga, but Schopenhauer espoused it in all but name.)
Neo-Kantianism. Late in the 19th century there was a "Back to Kant" reaction in Germany Europe against the dominant Dialecticism. Some later authors can conveniently be listed here.
1871. Hermann Cohen pioneered it in Kant's Theory of Experience.
1883. Wilhelm Dilthey promoted it in Introduction to the Human Sciences.
1900. Edmund Husserl (early period) explored possible developments in Logical Investigations.
1905. Max Weber explored the role of values in human life in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and other titles.
1935. Edmund Husserl (late period), after his Subjectivist middle period, made a final attempt to overcome the Humanist dilemma in The Crisis of European Sciences.
1959. Ludwig von Mises explored the logical consequences of the postulate that selves make choices in Human Action.
1961. Thomas Szasz in The Myth of Mental Illness.
(C) 1807 Dialecticism
Romanticism sought space for personhood against a background of causality. Dialecticism agreed with the need to find that space, but recognising that the totalitarian claims of causality allowed no space for personhood alongside causality, tried to incorporate it within causality.
1807. G.W.F. Hegel pioneered Dialecticism, in an Idealist form that became known as "Absolute Idealism", in Phenomenology of Spirit. His Encyclopedia is his definitive ontological work.
1893. F.H. Bradley championed a variant of it in England in Appearance and Reality.
1848. Karl Marx pioneered it in Manifesto of the Communist Party (with coauthor Friedrich Engels).
1921. Georg Lukacs pioneered a less narrowly materialist form of it in History and Class-Consciousness.
1960. Jean-Paul Sartre (late period) tried to reconcile it with his earlier Existentialism in Theory of Practical Ensembles (aka "Critique of Dialectical Reason", though it only claimed to be the first volume thereof).
Frankfurt Schoolery. Much of the Dialecticist thinking of the later 20th century reflected a creed emanating from (and mainly propounded by authors connected with) the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. Some of its adherents, no more modest than they should be, call themselves "critical theorists", but they are known as the Frankfurt School.
1937. Max Horkheimer pioneered it in Traditional and Critical Theory.
1944. Theodor Adorno developed it in Dialectic of Enlightenment with Horkheimer.
1964. Herbert Marcuse popularised it in Anglophonia with One-Dimensional Man.
1968. Jurgen Habermas refined and broadened it, tentatively in Knowledge and Human Interests and more fully in his 1981 The Theory of Communicative Action.
(P) 1846 Subjectivism
Disgusted with Causalism while accepting its premise, exposing Dialecticism's "freedom" as varnished necessity, but dissatisfied with Romanticism, Personalism started trying to conjure up purpose from within experience.
Irrationalism infers from causality that all our efforts will in fact come to nothing, but tries to make this a springboard for purpose.
This kind of Subjectivism corresponds to what is sometimes called "existentialism", but I prefer to restrict that word to creeds similar to Sartre's.
1846. Soren Kierkegaard pioneered it in Concluding Unscientific Postscript. ("Subjectivity is truth.")
1883. Friedrich Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra pioneered an aggressive form of it.
1913. Edmund Husserl (middle period) in Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomonology and a Phenomenological Philosophy pioneered a form of it that he called "Transcendental Phenomenology".
1927. Martin Heidegger in Being and Time urges to to "live towards death".
1944. Jean-Paul Sartre (early period) in Being and Nothingness tells us that "man is a futile self-sacrifice" but recommends authenticity, by which he means to do as you wish. His creed became known as Existentialism.
1960. Hans-Georg Gadamer explored it in Truth and Method.
Structuralism seeks meaning in the fact, explained by Ferdinand Saussure in his 1911 Course in General Linguistics, that understanding a word involves recognising its relation to adjacent (sibling) words. Accordingly it postulated that all meaning arises from birurcation.
1949. Claude Levi-Strauss pioneered it in The Elementary Structures of Kinship.
1962. Jacques Derrida in Introduction to Husserl's "The Origin of Geometry", and more fully in his famous 1967 trilogy, pioneered Deconstruction, a method which he claimed revealed the inherent contradiction in every attempt to say anything worth saying. Including his own.
1968. Roland Barthes (late period) pioneered a creed known as post-structuralism in The Death of the Author.
After centuries under the shadow of Causality, some Western thinkers (mainly Anglophones) have begun to see through that idol's pretentions. Previous advocates of Personhood had acknowledged Causality's sway while seeking to evade its implications; this new kind of thinker denies that sway.
The development in the 1920's of Quantum Mechanics encouraged this dethroning of Causality, in spite of the quip of that theory's most famous pioneer Albert Einstein that "God does not play dice".
Kurt Godel's 1931 Incompleteness Theorem had a similar effect by giving a formal proof of what many had always felt, that it is nonsensical for you to tell me that all our actions are "caused". This point was expounded by John Lucas (briefly in his 1959 Minds, Machines and Godel and more fully in his 1970 The Freedom of the Will).
These explorations do not amount to a revival of any previous cogniframe. But whether they express a new iteration of the Personhood attitude or a new attitude, and into what cogniframe they fit, are not clear to me, so what I give here is just a list of some significant thinkers of this type.
1889. Henri Bergson was (as far as I know) the first such thinker, in Time and Free Will and more fully in Creative Evolution (1906).
1891. C.S. Peirce championed spontaneity in The Architecture of Theories (1891) and The Doctrine of Necessity (1892) where he says that "by supposing the rigid exactitude of causation to yield ... we gain room to insert mind into our scheme".
Peirce attached much weight to the "cenopythagorean" triad of Spontaneity, Dependence and Mediation; I see that Andrew Robinson of Exeter U. interprets the Trinity in cenopythagorean terms in God and the World of Signs (2010).
Peirce was (until recently at least) best known for his "Pragmatic Principle" that beliefs are just habits of action, which he initially called "Pragmatism" and later "Pragmaticism", first published in How to Make our Ideas Clear (1878).
Peirce left no comprehensive statement of his creed, which must be inferred (Peirced together?) from shorter items. In addition to those already mentioned, I suggest What Pragmatism Is (1905).
1907. William James in Pragmatism popularised elements of Peirce's thinking and developed them in his own way.
1929. A.N. Whitehead in Process and Reality incorporated quantum mechanics in his ontology, which became known as Process Philosophy.
1937. Talcott Parsons developed an anthropology based on Process philosophy, starting with The Structure of Social Action and most fully in his 1978 A Paradigm of the Human Condition.
1946. Charles Hartshorne pioneered a Christianoid version of Whitehead's concept of God, known as Open Theism, in The Divine Relativity.
Back to The Major Cogniframes.