Menu Close


“Humanism”, an idol of the marketplace?

ficion poet.

Asked what was presently vexing him, the bard’s troubled Hamlet replies “words, words, words”.

Here as elsewhere, there is method to the disgruntled Prince of Denmark’s feigned madness.

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare’s Romeo elsewhere muses. But many human beings, fools for words that we are, would never think to smell it.

One of philosophy’s many callings has always been to disambiguate ambiguous words. French thinker Jacques Ranciere notes that its very vocation is shaped by the extraordinary promises, and confusions, hidden in words like “truth”, “justice”, “utopia”, or “the good”.

Francis Bacon, a direct contemporary of the bard’s, opined that many of philosophy’s ancestral problems were verbal disputes. They reflect how much we are the dupes of our language—called by accepted words and cliches to propose things and processes that may not exist, or confuse things and processes that do.

In a characteristically poetic turn of phrase, Bacon called these linguistic problems “idols of the marketplace”. For language, like money, circulates about the place everywhere.

David Hume, one of Lord Verulam’s many admirers, would soon make similar observations about philosophers’ diverting and dividing themselves on merely verbal disputes. In the twentieth century, several of Hume’s and Bacon’s British legatees, albeit guided by the Austrian Wittgenstein, would do powerful analytic work showing how many conundrums philosophers have wracked their brains about reflect potential lures in our languages’ “surface grammars”.

“That action is right”, for instance, looks on the surface like “the wine is liquid”. But things are seldom so simple in cultural and political life as in degustation. And philosophers continue to debate about whether there are moral realities like “goodness” or “rightness”, outside of our talk about them.

One word which is often used today, often amidst much smoke but little light, is “humanism”.

One is for it or against it. One blames many of the problems of the modern world on it. One identifies it with science, with modernity, with political liberalism. One blames the French philosopher René Descartes, or the German philosopher Hegel. One thinks it code for atheism, or the Icarean promise or threat of infinite economic growth. One sees it writ large in Apple Corporation’s so-slick advertising campaigns. One ties it to the causes of the shoah or the camps, or conversely with the emergent possibility that we will never have to physically die …

It is just as if “humanism” were indeed all things to all men, or at least everything bad.

Whether we always can agree on what it meant and means is another question.

One contemporary pay-off of studying the history of ideas is that this apparently antiquarian pursuit can also help to analytically disambiguate polemically charged terms which still circulate in today’s “ideas marketplace”.

This way, it can help us make sure we are not tilting at windmills, or unnecessarily targeting folk we actually agree with, when we come out “for” or “against” something like “humanism”.

The term emerged in the Italian renaissance, associated with august, today-half-forgotten names like Petrarch, Bruni, Manetti, Pico and Ficino. But “humanism”, in contrast to today’s use, initially did not so much designate a worldview.

It named a challenge to prevailing conceptions of education, as institutionalised in many of the great universities of Europe. Humanism designated a pedagogical program, that of the studia humanitatis, not a philosophical or theological doctrine.

The program was shaped by the recovery of many classical Greek and Roman manuscripts: manuscripts of philosophy, but also and especially, of literature, rhetoric, history and poetry.

But many, indeed all, of the renaissance humanists, remained Christians–to start with our disambiguation. None were atheists, in a first of many contrasts with today’s meanings.

Nor were these figures much interested in what we would call the natural sciences, and they called natural philosophy: long a very subordinate part of university curricula, lying far beneath law and theology.

Of all the founders of the natural sciences, which came later, perhaps only Bacon—eulogised by contemporaries as “the tenth muse”, encompassing the whole choir—was a “renaissance man”, although Galileo wrote dialogues.

The humanist ideal, this “renaissance man”, was the widely-accomplished human being, at home alike in the study or the library and the town square, contributing to the civic as well as the cultural life of his city.

“Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtle; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend,” Bacon rattles off a program in his “Of Studies”.

The essay itself reflects one discipline not widely taught today, which was at the heart of the humanistic renaissance of the early modern age: that of rhetoric, the art of polished speaking and writing, animated by a vital sense of the richness and power of language as a vehicle of communication, but also inspiration, exhortation, reproval, and art.

A certain scepticism indeed was at work amongst the old humanists about forms of education wholly cut off from, and unable to speak to, wider human interests, because restricted to cloistered, closeted elites. This is one feature that does unite the humanists with their successors in the ages of scientific revolution and advancement.

Reflecting this criticism of “men of the chair”, the humanists were fascinated with intellectual biographies, like the oft-translated Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers. Socrates, Seneca, and Cicero were their favourites, men of action as well as thought, deeds as much as words.

Likewise, they rated the Stoics and even the Epicureans for their ethics, packaged in literary letters, meditations, and exhortations, over the treatises of “the philosopher” Aristotle. After reading the latter’s Ethics, Petrarch complained, “I do not feel myself better”, as against better informed.

The later renaissance man Erasmus, grumpier still, claimed that “after reading the scholastics I am left indifferent with regard to true virtue and more incited to anger.”

None of this has much to do with Apple commercials, and visions of suave young executives scanning their mobile phones, facetiming their gorgeous young families, as they gaze out over dawn breaking on (say) Abu Dhabi airport.

It has nothing to do with the dreams of some people today—although they are, I believe, called “transhumanists"—of a technologically-induced immortality.

Nor does it really have much to do with René Descartes’ iconic attempt to find a certain basis for all knowledge in the infamous, indubitable cogito sum (I think, [thus] I am), or the other line always cited in criticism of the French philosopher and scientific pioneer, that we should on this new Archimedean basis, "become masters and possessors of nature.”

The ancient poets and philosophers dear to the humanists to a man all condemned what they called hybris, the excessive attempts of human beings to make Gods of themselves, and forget the ways that we belong to a larger order of gods and nature. The ancient Greek tragedies stage, again and again, the humbling and punishment of heroes and heroines who “take things too far”, through pride, arrogance, error or blindness.

Humanism in the original sense has next to nothing to do with Hegel either, while we are at it. Hegel is a much later German thinker whose conception of human history as a single march or progress of a collective Geist towards absolute knowledge and a kind of species deification is completely foreign to humanism as an educational program.

“Man is a sacred thing to man,” the Stoic (“il nostri”) Seneca summed up something more like the humanists’ animating ethos, which they knew how to accommodate to contemporary Christian conceptions of charity, and of our having been created in the image of the JudaeoChristian God.

But Seneca also wrote the tragedies that most inspired that renaissance idol Shakespeare, littering the stage with bodies and bathing it in blood, in the kind of clear-sighted appreciation being a denizen of Nero’s Rome gave him of human beings’ continuing (wholly ungodlike) propensities to violence, hatred, and other catastrophes.

Today, students raised in the studia humanitatis, doing arts degrees, will in many places have nothing like this sense of “humanism”.

Their sense of it will be somewhat closer to Descartes, Hegel or the Apple Commercials: an “idol of the marketplace” whose visage bears utopian, Promethean promises of unbounded technological plenty, but whose clay feet, as we know, stamp out continuing structural injustices in the global order, resource depletion, and the depredation of the natural world.

These students will thus associate “humanism” with both the natural sciences and the almost utopian hopes that were in the 19th century widely invested in these same sciences: “scientism”, “positivism”, later “futurism” …

They may associate “humanism” with forms of regnant economism which are based on a world-historically narrow sense of the human being as a calculating, pleasure-maximising, preference-ordering consumer-investor. But this is a sense of humanity that would have turned Petrarch’s stomach and provoked the Olympian laughter of a Cosimo de Medici, albeit he was a banker.

Many will associate “humanism” with forms of atheism, associated with the progress of the sciences, in a break which was really only widely accomplished after Darwin—albeit with rumblings of discontent in the 17th and 18th centuries as the new earth and life sciences emerged, coupled with modern forms of biblical criticism with humanistic precedents.

But many of these students, and many instructors in the humanities, still for all that hold onto many classically humanist values to this day, although they may not be comfortable calling them by that name.

They value learning as a part of a good life, as well as a source of pleasure in itself. They love their subject matter, and love conveying its complexities, inspiration and excellences to their students, albeit in increasingly large classes in ever-shorter-time scales. They see the continuing need to keep forms of non-instrumental, non-vocational education alive in a generous and good society. They understand the precious value of a set of reflective, critical disciplines given over to the study of society, human beings and their languages, and the preservation of our rich cultural inheritance, in a world increasingly given over to the sound-bite, twitter-feed, and 24-hour news cycle.

They appreciate the balance that such studia humanitatis, today’s literature, cultural studies, sociology, and so on … can and should set against merely educating students to work, by educating them also as reflective, thoughtful, critical human beings who do not just contribute to the economy.

If many of them call such a commitment to the humanities “anti-humanism,” as they do, then I for one, with Romeo and the bard, am happy to scent the sweetness of the rose.

But if, recalling the older meaning of “humanism”, we recall also that and how humanism in its original sense has very little to do with what many of us today agree are the world’s problems, or just the problems in today’s education, then the agreement might become more cordial.

For we will have been, as it seems, in furious agreement, dupes again of “words, words, words”, and a loss of a sense of this loaded word’s history; one which has made of “humanism” an idol of the marketplace, in both Bacon’s sense and the wider sense of the world today.

Yet using a bit of the history of ideas, seemingly so recondite (even scholastic!), will have helped us not only to recover the past.

It will also have given us a better sense of what really is up for dispute today.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 135,300 academics and researchers from 4,191 institutions.

Register now