CRITICAL HUMANISM: An interview with Ken Plummer

Critical Humanism: A Manifesto for the 21st Century (2021) Polity Press has just been published and here Ken is interviewed about the book. This was published on the Polity Press Blog on 27th September 2021. See

Q: I’ll start by asking you just what you mean by Critical Humanism? 

KP. The words human, humanity and humanism are used in many ways, they are contested ideas. In the West they have come to mean a rather special view of Enlightenment, rational and progressive secular thinking. I see Critical Humanism as a wide-open world project that aims both to critically clarify and re-energise the rich diversity of humanity and humanisms. It aims to learn from the plurality and conflicts over our differences and looks for connections, commonalities, and continuities in what it means to achieve and become human. It fosters a human creativity that collectively struggles to reduce the harm we do to our planet, seeks to enable people to live with differences, and works to make the planet a better place for all. 

Q: Why is this needed? 

KP.  Look everywhere: I fear our planetary world is in a terrible mess. There are many positive things going on of course; but the crises are well known. Here are damaged environments, deep divisions, greedy capitalism, polarizing and growing inequalities, widespread corruption, savage wars and violence, fundamentalist religions brimming with hate, failing states and the spread of authoritarianism, dehumanizing digitalism and surveillance, inhumane responses to refugees and exclusions. The list goes on – all over the world we are living in a deeply troubled world. Call it anti-humanity, a cruel and vicious disconnection from a positive engagement with what it means to be a human creature in a vast pluriversal planet. Earlier arguments about humanism and humanity have often been very divisive, generating their own cruel hostilities to different groups. Humanism has been used to create divisions through colonialism, anti-Semitism, slavery, women’s exclusion and subordination, homophobia and sexual hatred, in religious wars and in its responses to disability. Old humanisms have ironically been engaged in bloody battles over different ways of being human. More recently the term has often come to mean a secular, anti-religion: which is also another way of cutting off some three quarters or more of the world who believe in the many different Gods. 

So we need new wider, more critical ways of thinking about the human, humanity and humanism – a Critical Humanism.  Humanity here is always changing and problematic even as it searches for connections and common grounds. It recognises that humanity and humanism can be a very destructive idea. But carefully used it can become vital and important. We still have much to learn from earlier arguments, even as we remain aware of the harms they can do.  In the end Critical Humanism suggests ‘humanity’ may best be seen as multiple collective projects for grasping the diverse ways to be human, enhancing it, and making valued narratives and imaginations for planetary life to connect and flourish. It suggests ways of bringing us all creatively together to find shared dialogues and a provisional collective politics of humanity. It aims to find a plurality of ways to make the world a better place, a flourishing for all.  

Q That does sound complicated, very ambitious – and a little utopian? It will surely have its many critics. Why did you write it?

I wrote it as a book of hope and warnings. Sure, it will have its many critics from all sides. But difficult as it was to write, I believe it is important to start getting these stories and arguments back on the agenda, out there in the world as a possibility and as a hope. Hope is vital. And what else can there be in these truly terrible times? When I was born in 1946, the world was facing a major challenge of reconstruction after a stunningly horrendous period of atrocity, violence, and war.  The human world had destroyed itself and everything around it. We were then on the brink of full catastrophe. As we are today. But we also had hope and started to build new institutions and ways for a better world.    

Q So what is the core argument of your book?

KP. At its heart, I set out a framework for rethinking and reimagining a humanist project for a 21st century. There are four main concerns. I first show a wide variety of humanisms we have round the world and the issues they raise, extracting key elements needed for what I call a Connective Humanity. This contested humanity nevertheless tries to collectively link all living things across earth and planet, society and worlds, being and communities. It hopes to build a better world. I sketch an agenda. Secondly, I document some of the many ways human beings have mutilated the world we live in. Our actions have deeply damaged the world: not just environmentally as is now clearly seen; but also economically, politically, communicatively. We have for a long while been building human divisions – not just through race, class and gender but also through (dis)abilty, sexuality, religion, age and nation states. We have often done the most terrible, shocking things – atrocities throughout the ages. And yet we do not hold ourselves to account for these devastating atrocities on the earth. And we refuse to see that we still do them. 

This sounds very negative and despairing. But I move beyond this to hope. My third argument looks at the ways many humans across world and millennia also work to build a better world for all. I look at the positive stories and narratives we create and come to share, the values we struggle to collectively hold, the ways in which we create new and positive ways of living and looking after each other. I ask how we come to live well with differences and suggests common grounds for futures. And this means, fourthly, I envision a bold agenda ahead: a politics of humanity that aims to reduce the harm we do, build a generational hope, and create a multiplicity of human projects of worldly care, to make a better world for all. I move from the failings of the world to its potentials for flourishing. 

It is now urgent that humanity, living things and planet ‘ultimately connect’. At the close of the book, I present a Manifesto that charges us with building a connective planetary imagination, a politics of humanity, and a world pedagogy of hope. We haven’t much time to do these things now: ‘the end’, as the doomsayers say, ‘is nigh’. We have already dreamt the impossible dream. Now we must act: to put things more practically together, generation by generation, bit by bit? To creatively build a worldly, environmental, planetary care – of justice, kindness, care, peace? If we only have love? And hope. The work begins. 

Critical Humanism was published in September 2021

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