Leah Libresco and I have been flanking James Croft and other Humanists to clarify the often vague discussion surrounding Humanism and its values. Though occasionally a bit frustrating, my conversation with James and a few others has really helped me get a better handle on the topic.
James wrote a response yesterday, and he helpfully clarifies that Humanism is better understood as a tradition, rather than a single philosophy. This helps, but I can’t shake my concerns about its vagueness, and I don’t quite understand why Humanism is a helpful label over and above social or political convenience (and I’m happy to leave it at that).
I pressed James about the importance of Humanism, and he certainly isn’t modest about it (he went so far as to call it the most generative tradition in philosophy; I was skeptical). But he argued that without Humanism, you couldn’t understand much of philosophy, like Kant (incidentally, these conversations have also persuaded me to write a post explaining my Kant-appreciation since it seems to come up so much. I promise to share soon). But it’s hard for me not to read this claim as saying “Humanism, as a broad tradition, includes important philosophers that you should know about.” It seems what’s doing the legwork of Humanism is really just the important philosophers that fall under this rather-broad label.
But if we’re going to call the tradition of Humanism important and generative, what we need to be showing is that the common thread that connects all the independent philosophy is having some impact, rather than just the independent philosophy. We can’t just say “Mills is important, so Humanism is important” or “we need to understand Mills to understand [whatever], so we need Humanism to understand [whatever].” Instead, it should be something like “[Whatever thing] connects the work of Mills to Sartre/Singer/Russell/whoever else, and [that thing] is important” or “[That thing] is necessary to understand [whatever].” In the former case, Humanism is just an irrelevant post-hoc label; in the latter case it’s doing some work.
I’m going to be at this really interesting conference in Chapel Hill for the next two days. From the site:
This conference brings together a number of researchers who are currently working on topics such as: the role of mindreading in understanding (both linguistic and nonlinguistic), varieties and impairments of intersubjective engagement, and the nature of emotions and their role in interpersonal communication as well as in the genesis of moral discourse (both in ontogeny and in phylogeny). These topics lie at the intersection of several fields: philosophy, psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience. Their discussion could benefit from productive interdisciplinary exchange – to which we hope to contribute with this conference.
So I actually wasn’t a huge fan of Susan Jacoby’s essay published in The New York Times on Sunday, “The Blessing of Atheism.” Personally, I’ve never found comfort during tragedy in knowing that I don’t need to worry about free will or the problem of evil. Usually, I’m busy worrying about the fact that I live in a purposeless universe, can be the random victim of tragedy at any time myself, and will experience exactly nothing when I die. But to each their own.
What does atheism have to offer when “a loved one [is] losing his mind to Alzheimer’s,” and so on? I don’t see how atheism qua atheism (as the philosophers say) has anything at all to offer, though particular atheists, just like particular religious believers, can certainly offer a lot in the way of care, compassion, physical and emotional assistance.
Did I mention that I wrote a thing? Guys I wrote a thing maybe go read it and validate me please.
Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.