Dr. Narendra Dabholkar


Prabhakar Nanawaty

Suman Oak

Humanism and Rationalism

(The original article is abridged for better readability – Editor)

It is quite interesting that the word “humanism” came into existence relatively recently. It was used by F. Niethammer to signify a pedagogics which understood education as shaping a higher nature of a human being, as opposed to education understood as philanthropy.

Three applications of the terms “humanism” and “humanist” can be derived from the above i.e.:

(a) to signify an educational style,

(b) to signify a period in history,

(c) to make a distinction between the humanities and the natural sciences.

All these applications have something in common since they somehow refer tohumanitasas something important in the understanding of humanity. They have much more significance than just historical value.

One of the basic facts related to analysing humanism is that the term “humanism” tends to be used both in a descriptive and a valuating mode.

The valuating character of the term “humanism” may be most evident in its application as a name of a period in history. It could not have been otherwise as this period was first named Renaissance (i.e., rebirth). The thinkers of this period supported some views, and opposed others. Namely, they were in favour of freedom, tolerance, importance of day-to-day pleasures of life, autonomy of human values, and considering human affairs independently of theology; they were against social limitations of feudalism, fanaticism, asceticism, treating of human values as heteronomic, and predominance of theology. This was continued in the later history of humanism. Humanism became critical and questioning. The Renaissance clearly positioned the relation between humanism and religion.

Apart from “humanism”, there exists another, related term, namely, “humanitarianism”. Generally, humanitarianism is a programme of helping people in difficult circumstances, such as, for instance, the poor, the sick, prisoners, the handicapped, etc.; sometimes it is extended to embrace animals, too. The relation between humanism and humanitarianism is far from being simple. Full-fledged humanitarianism came into being in the Enlightenment and it doubtless drew upon humanism.

The valuating sense of humanism and the variety of its philosophical locations have borne a multiplicity of its versions. This is evidenced by the application of various adjectives to classify the term “humanism”. One can encounter “real” humanism, “true” humanism, “socialist” humanism, “social” humanism, “scientific” humanism, “integral” humanism, “anthropocentric” humanism, “theo-centric” humanism, “Christian” humanism, “modern” humanism, “intuitive” humanism, “religious” humanism, “open” humanism, and “closed” humanism; this list is unlikely to be exhaustive. These attributes perform various functions.

This results in frequent misunderstandings as it often happens that people discussing humanism shift from the determining function, which consists in indicating that a humanism is an instance of a somehow defined type category, to the modifying function, which amounts to changing the meaning of the noun preceded by a given adjective, as described above. This state of affairs is regrettable but exactly this “logic” of classifying humanism seems inevitable. Not much can be done except issuing a warning to pay due attention to the role of words in discussion.

Thus, we have multiple applications of “humanist terms” and a variety of humanist doctrines. What shall we do in this context? Some try to characterise humanism by enumerating the motives of humanist philosophy, in principle with no reference to tradition.

  • naturalism in metaphysics;
  • evolutionism of the origin and development of the human species;
  • man’s capacity to solve his problems in a scientific manner;
  • free choice within objective limits (thereby, humanism rejects predestination or fatalism);
  • ethics and morality operating solely on the worldly plain;
  • harmony of individual and collective welfare;
  • need of possibly broadest development of arts;
  • democracy, pacifism, and a welfare state on the global scale; general applicability of the scientific method;

Naturalism, scientism, utilitarianism, liberalism, and optimism may be the most characteristic traits of humanism so understood. It is sometimes labeled “secular humanism”; it radically rejects religion; and it is treated by its supporters as a contemporary version of humanism. It certainly seems attractive to many people, especially atheists.

Rationalism makes a strong philosophical basis for humanism as a programme. And this leads us to the notion of rationalism. Reason has been treated as a manufacture of a type of cognition, namely, rational cognition, as reliable and absolute. Plato, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant and Husserl were the main representatives of rationalism in this sense. In this case, reason is not the manufacturer of cognition warranting absolute certainty; it produces knowledge well-grounded in experience and rational in this sense.

  • Rationalism promotes the cult of rational cognition as opposed to irrationalism;
  • it promotes the cult of cognition acquired by natural means as opposed to cognition stemming from supernatural resources;
  • it propagates the cult of intellect as opposed to emotion …
  • Rationalism values such cognition which follows the pattern of mathematics and natural sciences. It rejects cognition referring to revelation, any intuition, clairvoyance, magic prophesies, etc. …
  • Motivation for which rationalism values only such cognition is social motivation.

Scientific cognition may be best characterised by emphasising two postulates it must satisfy. Scientific cognition is constituted by only such thought content which first, can be communicated to another in words taken literally, i.e., without metaphors, similes and other substitutes used to commun-icate thoughts. Second, scientific cognition can be constituted by only such a proposition whose truth or falsity can be in fact verified by anyone in adequate external circumstances. In other words, scientific condition is cognition communicable inter-subjectively and verifiable inter-subjectively. This inter-subjectivity seems to be the characteristic trait of rational cognition. Rationalism which values only rational cognition would thus amount to assigning value only to inter-subjectively communicable and verifiable cognition.

Two attitudes towards irrationalism can be differentiated. One, very optimistic, represented, for instance, by Bertrand Russell, amounts to the belief that it is sufficient to show that a proposition is irrational for a majority of people to reject it. This is not to say that demanding acknowledgement of the postulates of anti-irrationalism (rationalism) should be abandoned. However, it seems necessary to assume that irrationalism still has a long life to live, and in fact may never be eradicated in full.

Doubtless, rationalism is incorporated in this model of humanism. However, a subtle difference must be noted. Rationalism does not take what is rational and what is not rational for granted. On the other hand, secular humanism makes this presumption. Whether all human affairs can be treated by scientific means is debatable. Of course, it would be excellent if the entire programme of humanism were subject to scientific arguments. Yet, for the time being, it is not the case.

Once humanism is approached as a concrete programme of making the world friendly to people, the link between humanism and rationalism becomes evident. According to what has been said before about functions of adjectives in a philosophical context, supplementing philosophical categories with modifiers can be dangerous. Making the world friendly to the human being by rationally solving specific problems on the basis of a single, possibly minimal catalogue of principles derived from the rich humanist tradition.

In conclusion, let me ask a provocative question: Can an irrationalist be humanist? My answer is positive. There seems to be no inevitable contradiction between, for instance, religious beliefs and acceptance of humanism, just as there is no inconsistency when a scientist believes in God. Nonetheless, the analogy with science suggests an important postulate. If we are serious in demanding that humanism be based on rationalism, then a humanist who accepts some irrational beliefs ought to be willing to withhold them. In other words, the programme of humanism can be inspired by religion, for instance, though it ought not to be justified on the grounds of religious faith.

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