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The value of humanism

World Humanist Day is celebrated on 21 June, providing an opportunity for humanists and humanist organizations to promote the positive principles of Humanism. Celebration of the day began in the 1980s and support for it has grown ever since. This post explores some of the values of Humanism, specifically truth and realism.

Humanism, as I see it, is a view that believes in secular enlightenment, in the importance of truth, rationality, and objectivity, and in the value and progress of our species. It rejects religion, and affirms, if not the perfectibility of human kind, at least our ability and resourcefulness in finding solutions to the problems that beset us. Some of these problems are old ones; others are new. Some are of our own making; others are not. But, whatever the difficulties, the humanist has faith in our capacity to confront and overcome them by the application of intelligence and hard work.

A central humanist concern is the value of truth, of seeing things as they are. Defending this value has often in the past meant confronting the claims of the church and other religious organizations, but in recent years it has increasingly also meant rebutting postmodernist and deconstructionist attacks on the very idea of truth and on its concomitant values of rationality, objectivity, and impartiality. These values, we are told, are not neutral, but ideologically charged; there is no such thing as objective truth, only greater or lesser degrees of consensus among members of the community.

The slogan “everything is ideological” is less interesting than might appear. It should simply be accepted, but the problem with it is that it gets us nowhere. Once it has been agreed on all sides that to pursue the goals of rationality and objectivity is to promote an ideology, we are left exactly where we were. The slogan gives us no guidance on the question which ideologies we should embrace. The humanist’s claim is not that rationality and objectivity are not ideological, but, agreeing that they are, that they are better ideologies than the alternatives. The justification for that claim can only proceed circularly, in terms of the very values for which we are arguing. But that will be true of any fundamental defense of value. The key argumentative point, for humanists, will be that their opponents can be shown already to adhere to these values, only not consistently.

Yes/No by geralt. Public domain via Pixabay.
Yes/No by geralt. Public domain via Pixabay.

Similarly, the assertions of postmodernists that there is no such thing as objective truth, either in some particular domain (such as the past), or generally, stand in conflict with their own practice, for they regularly make claims to truth themselves. One of the reasons, I believe, why there been such a loss of faith in the idea of objective truth in recent decades is that people have fallen into an old philosophical confusion, that of drawing metaphysical conclusions from epistemological premises. Our knowledge-gathering processes are fallible; we are liable to make mistakes; people disagree, sometimes violently, over many descriptive and normative issues. But it does not follow that there is no fact of the matter about the disputed territory. If I’d earned a pound every time I had read a literary critic or theorist say words to the effect of “The interpretation of this text is disputed, so it can’t have an objective meaning,” I would be rich man by now.

The phenomenon of dispute and disagreement, the making of mistakes, the fallibility of our perceptions and judgments and so on—these things do not import the absence of objectivity in the subject matter in question. In fact, they imply the exact opposite. People don’t argue about anything unless they think there is a fact of the matter. Take economics, for example. Many economic questions are highly contested, but it would be absurd to conclude from this that there are no economic facts, or no facts in the areas of dispute. The reason why there is disagreement in economics is not that there are no relevant facts, but rather that the facts are extremely complicated, so that it’s hard to achieve a perspicuous view of them. The same is true of literary interpretation. Literary works belong to a tradition, and that is essential to their aesthetic status, so that understanding them requires the critic to acquire deep knowledge of the works’ literary and cultural context and background. That is an extremely hard thing to do, partly because our evidence is often very patchy, but also partly, and oppositely, because for many literary works enough evidence of various sorts has survived to make the task of surveying it an enormous one.

Evidence has to be sifted, evaluated. At this point postmodernists wheel out what is often presented as a decisive argument against objectivity: “there is no innocent eye.” We, the interpreters, are thoroughly embedded in our own cultures; we have the interests and prejudices of our age. So how can we view either the present or (in particular) the past objectively? But this argument, if it worked, would also work against scientific—indeed all—knowledge: physicists are physically and culturally embedded in their environment, so how can they acquire objective knowledge of it? I will not try to answer that question in detail now; but there is at any rate a short way with the postmodernist worry, and that is to say that, however they do it, physicists do acquire objective knowledge of the world, notwithstanding the fact that they are embedded in it (and in their own age and culture). We know that, so we also know that the postmodernist argument goes wrong. It is an old (and Nietzschean) mistake to think that perspectivalism implies irrealism; in fact, like the phenomenon of error, it implies realism.

Featured image: Stones by Unsplash. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Adam Gonnerman

    World Humanist Day is June 21 every year. Not June 20.

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