Opinion: Humanism Through UNESCO’s Eye

  • post Type / Young Humanists International
  • Date / 3 March 2011

Often Humanism is considered and defined in various ways. Last time, youthspeak made a small research on Humanist education providing organizations throughout the world. During the research, the editor found that UNESCO has also emphasized on promotion of Humanist education. Now concern is; what Humanism means to UNESCO ? Following is the comment by David Pollock to president of Russian Humanist Association on his e-group.

 … I was unaware of it or of the 1951 discussions un UNESCO featuring what it called Humanism. The word „humanism‟ has very many meanings and ours – secular humanism, if you like – is a relatively late one and has barely any purchase in French, Italian or (I guess) many other languages. I believe it was coined in Germany in the 18th century to describe the revival of classical learning in the Renaissance which marked a turn from a God-centred worldview to one concerned with human affairs. It led to the term „the humanities‟ to describe art, literature and suchlike disciplines. Our sense came only in the mid-20th century.

As you say, the UNESCO magazine uses the word in a different, much wider (though related) sense than ours: it is certainly not secular humanism in the sense of re-jecting or opposing religion. What it shares is the Ren-aissance spirit of confidence in the capacity of mankind to improve its lot. The 1951 article says: “What West-ern man has, for four centuries, been calling humanism is the ambition to achieve mastery over himself and the universe by the exercise of his intellect in isolation from the rest of his being.” But the article goes on to make clear that its „new Humanism‟ is wider than this intellectual quest: “After four centuries of striving to dissociate all things by means of analysis, starting with himself, [man] is coming back to a synthetic view of the person, revivified by the soul”.

The first director-general of UNESCO was the (secular) humanist Julian Huxley (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Huxley#Later_career) but his term of office was curtailed – probably because of his humanism. It is just possible – I am speculating without looking into the matter at all – that the 1951 article, by a Frenchman, was a delayed continuation of this rejection of his sort of humanism, reclaiming the word for a wider use. (NB however that even Huxley not long after was promoting what he called religious humanism – non-religious in essence but dressed up with some of the clothes and language of religion.)

Irina Bokova‟s article seems (I have not studied it in detail) to see humanism as essentially a respect for hu-man dignity and respect for diversity, global concern and solidarity. Sanjay Seth in his keynote article starts from something akin to „our‟ humanism (Enlightenment values etc) but still much broader than secular humanism. However, he wants something dif-ferent and wider still: he claims “What has changed is, above all, an environmental crisis that calls into ques-tion the absolute privileging of humans, as well as the sharp distinction between man and nature, that are characteristic of traditional humanism”. I have never seen „absolute privileging of humans‟ in Humanism, though this is a common claim by our opponents: the „human‟ in our „humanism‟ is in contrast with the theo-logical realm.

Seth brings up the criticism of humanism as advancing as universal Reason a Eurocentric approach that justi-fied colonialism: “the Enlightenment heritage – the European conviction in a context and tradition-free Reason – made it possible for Europe to conquer and rule not in the name of a tradition that claimed to be superior to all others, but in the name of something that did not see itself as a tradition at all. This was a knowl-edge which claimed not only to be true, but declared itself to be deduced from nothing less than Reason it-self, rather than being grounded in the ideals and prac-tices of real historical communities.“

He concludes that “a reinterpreted and viable human-ism, will be one in which our moral intuitions regard-ing human commonality and dignity no longer rest upon a questionable anthropocentrism or on dubious claims to a universal Reason. I further suggest that such a reinterpretation will be the product of a dialogue between different civilizations and moral perspectives, rather than a declaration that one moral perspective (that of the modern West) is the correct one.”

This leaves the question of what he is proposing very open: a practical syncretism between conflicting vi-sions brought together under a banner of human dignity and diversity may well serve an international organisa-tion like UNESCO well, but it may be too pragmatic and unsure to be philosophically satisfying.

I wish I had more time to read more of the related arti-cles in the magazine but I am copying this to the EHF network and maybe others will contribute some better comments.

By David Pollock  Date: Sun, Dec 11, 2011 at 6:06 PM

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