What is Critical Humanism?

On Critical humanism (from page 20-1)

In the preface to his classic study of Orientalism, Edward Said writes that “…humanism is the only – I would go so far as saying the final – resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history…”. As will become clear, my arguments in this book are based on a humanist position that places the well being of the historical, embodied human struggling for a better world at the heart of its analysis: it puts our species to the forefront of critical thinking. Humanism is the world philosophy that considers what it means to be a human being across the globe. It sees that the world we live in is a human world: it is created through human beings, organized and disorganized by human beings, and ultimately transformed by human beings. It is people doing things together that make states, economies, institutions happen. It is people together who change the world and make it a better or lesser place. It is people that matter. They are most certainly not all that matter; and it may be we also at times have to remind ourselves of our huge insignificance in the much grander scheme of things. We are indeed only a little animal and a little species with a short time on this planet in a colossal pluriverse. But as a distinctively little animal (born immature, big brained and bipedal), we try to make sense of ourselves. It is indeed partially what makes us human to do so. And humanistic research starts with the people around the world living their daily lives of difference. At the core of our concerns lies the talk, feelings, actions, bodies, vulnerabilities, creativities, moralities, sufferings, joys, and passions of people as they share communities and social worlds, create human bonds, and confront the everyday constraints of history and a material world of inequalities and exclusions.

All this brings ideas of the ‘Human’, ‘Humane’, ‘Humanities’, ‘Humanitarian’ and ‘Humanity’ to the fore. It can indeed even be claimed that although humanism has a long genealogy, the very idea of Humanity itself, with “ deep and tangled roots”, is an idea that was constructed and fitted for the twentieth century. Growing out of an awareness of ‘crimes against humanity’ (first in the genocide in Turkey of some million Armenians; latter in the slaughters of the second world war) the very idea of humanity has increasingly seeped into world consciousness during the twentieth century . And humanism is also always interested in its opposite form, dehumanization: the multiple and major social processes which degrade and rob humans of their humanities, the anti-human.

Humanism simply suggests a multiplicity of ways of being human. It comes in an endless array of varieties. Almost every belief system can be linked with humanism, from Catholicism to communism, from Buddhism to pragmatism, from Ubuntu in Africa to Ren in Confucianism. Critical humanism embraces this multiplicity, but also puts it under scrutiny. Challenging any simple unitary view, it is critical of all claims that human beings can be understood ‘transcendentally’ and taken out of the contexts of time (history) and space (geography) of which they are always a part. For critical humanists, our ‘human being’ is most emphatically not a free-floating universal individual: rather ‘it’ is always stuffed full of the culture and the historical moment, always in process and changing. Human beings ‘nest’ themselves in webs of contexts, relationships. To talk otherwise is to engage in the ‘myth of the universal man’.

And of course this is also true of our sexualities. Recent critical sexualities studies have made it very clear that there is really no such thing as a universal fixed sexual or gendered being. Sex for human beings is about many things: it is drenched in language, symbols and metaphor and never mere biology. It can never, should never, be simply reduced to one thing only (as so much contemporary thinking likes to do).

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