Perceptions of Humanism

Dan Davis

I greatly enjoyed the dialogue between historian Yuval Noah Harari and philosopher A. P. Norman (“The Meaning and Legacy of Humanism,” FI, April/May 2018). Who would have thought that a debate over the definition of a single word could be so interesting and thought-provoking? Apparently the definition of humanism varies not only according to personal perception but also according to academic discipline.

Harari defines humanism as “a worldview that sanctifies humanity and sees humanity as the ultimate source of authority.” He suggests that secular humanism is a small subset within that category that may not sanctify humanity at all but instead views authority as “inherent in science.”

According to Harari, most historians regard humanism as a belief that morality and ethics are determined by humans rather than mythical beings, a concept with historical and philosophical antecedents dating back to the fourth century bce (Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things”). He maintains that this concept is broad enough to encompass an assertion that “humanity is the ultimate source of authority and that serving the needs of humanity and perfecting humanity are the ultimate aims or ‘the supreme good.’” The shadow side of such an assertion is its potential use as a supporting argument for evils such as Nazism and Stalinism.

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