Lecture on The Critical Humanist in Sociology (VI Congreso Andaluz de Sociologiá, Cadiz)


Ken Plummer

First Presented at the , University of Cadiz, November 2012

NOTE: The full Manifesto in English can be found at kenplummer.wordpress.com


Overview of Lecture

The lecture will necessarily be shorter and will use power points.

In the lecture I will briefly highlight just five issues:


  1. Why the need for a Manifesto, its nature and the link between sociology and humanism?
  2. Why Critical Humanism? What are the problems with humanism?
  3. Politics and ethics: what are the normative baselines/ principles of a critical humanist sociology and how can they be understood and developed?

Conclusion: I may end with some signs of a research agenda notably the development of a sociology of suffering and a sociology of flourishing lives. .


General Framework of Manifesto
Note: This is the Framework Outline of the Manifesto and lacks the detail.


  1. Prologue: A very human animal in an all too human world
    the sociology-humanist paradox
  2. On the Human Search for Meaning
  3. On Sociology
  4. The Challenge of Humanism
    The Human, The Humane, The Humanitarian, The Humanities
  5. Righting the Troubles with Humanism
    The Enlightenment and The Myth of Universal Man
  6. On Critical Humanism
    human subjectivity, experience and creativity
    material worlds of inequalities
  7. The Human Condition: Obdurate Features of the Human World
    A cascade of continuous and ceaseless creativities, communications, complexities, contingencies, changes, contradictions and conflicts
  8. On Human Potentials, Capabilities and Rights
    Human Capabilities – Martha Nussbaum; Self Actualization -Abraham Maslow
  9. The Challenge of Plural Worlds, Ethnocentrism and Cosmopolitanism
    Dialogue and Cosmopolitanism
  10. On Becoming Human: The Process of Humanization
    Recognition, Respect, Role taking, Empathy, Sympathy, Compassion, Generosity, Care, Kindness
  11. A Sociology of the People:  Being Practical and Pursuing the Wise Society
    about all the people, by all the people, and for all the people
  12. We are the Story Telling Animals
  13. The Politics and ethics of Humanism: Living a Better Life and Making a Better World
    (Justice and Virtue stances in philosophy
    Common grounds
    One should treat others as one would like to be treated oneself
    Global care, justice, human dignity, rights, amelioration
    global pragmatism
    Global flourishing lives for all
  14. Dark Hope and Dreaming Ahead in Perpetually Troubled Timers: Key Directions For a Future Humanistic Agenda
    War, economic crises, neo liberalism, capitalism, criminality, lawlessness, abject poverty, de-secularization, violence, gender, environment, population, democratic failure

Miserablist, misanthropic, melancholic/
hope/ outlines of a better world / Dreaming forward

A Sociology of suffering
A sociology of ‘good lives’
A sociology of ‘human capabilties’

The Humanitarian State
Real Utopias





Where do we come from? What are we doing? Where are we going? Painting by Gaugin


Humanism has figured in a wide range of religious, political and academic movements. As such it has been identified with atheism, capitalism, classicism, communism, democracy, egalitarianism, populism, nationalism, positivism, pragmatism, relativism, science, scientism, socialism, statism, symbolic interactionism, and supernaturalism, including versions of ancient paganisms, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and Mohammedanism. It has also been rationalized as being opposed to each of these. It has served as an ingredient in movement against each. And these terms do not at all suggest all of humanism’s ideological and social associations’ Alfred McLung Lee Socoiology for Whom? 1978


Humanistic sociology is not a difficult idea to define. For the humanistic sociologist, sociology is the study of how to make a better world. The key commitment is that people matter.  William Du Bois & R. Dean Wright: ‘What is Humanistic Sociology?’  American Sociologists Winter 2002 Vol  33 No 4 p5-36

From section 4

………The hall-mark of humanist thought is that it places the human being at heart of its analysis: it puts our species to the forefront of our critical thinking. Human actions, creativities, moralities, ways of being, talking, feeling, suffering, joys, passions and so forth have to lie at the core of its concerns. People are what matter. They are not all that matter; and it may be at times that we also have to remind ourselves of our huge insignificance in the grander scheme of things. We are indeed only a little animal and a little species with a short time on this planet. But as a distinctively little animal, we surely ought to try to make sense of ourselves.  And this is the challenge of the human – and humanism……..

……..Humanism can be initially clarified by linking it to four major ideas: The Human, the Humane, the Humanities and finally the Humanitarian…….


From section 5

…….Some humanisms, then, have a very narrow version of the human. Critical Humanism identifies these narrow problems and challenges any simple unitary vision of the human…..


From section 7:

……….Within Critical Humanism, it is probably best to see the so-called ‘Human Condition’ as a flow of troubling conundrums, ambiguities and puzzles: as a precarious plurality of changing existential predicaments. Human beings dwell in a cascade of continuous and ceaseless creativities, communications, complexities, contingencies, changes, contradictions and conflicts. That is our lot. And with this, human life requires necessarily living with ambivalence. The path to a good life and a good world is riddled with perpetual problems and dangers. It is usually neither fair nor easy. Get used to it, as they say!  …………


From section 9


Now the blindness in human beings … is the blindness with which we are all inflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves. We are practical beings, each of us with limited functions and duties to perform… William James On a certain blindness in human beings


‘Plurality is the condition of human action since we are all the same, that is, human in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives or will live’. Hannah Arendt The Human Condition, 1958: Chicago my italics

…………….At the heart of human social life is plurality and difference. We live, as the great philosopher and psychologist William James never tired of reminding us, in a plural universe. Living with this difference is one of the greatest challenges of human life. There exists a real humanistic universalism of differences. Human beings and their differences should be treated as a key subject for the human studies. There are perpetual conflicts about these differences, they are the source of much human suffering and they are not likely to go away. But they can be reduced.


Pluralism is foiled by the problem of ethnocentrism ‘in which one’s own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it.” W.G. Sumner’s famous term has quietly become one of the most influential of modern times, and grasps an idea so vital in appreciating one of humanity’s key predicaments. We live in our own worlds; it is often very hard to grasp the world’s of others – and that they are not the same as ours. We are plagued by parochialism, provincialism and post colonialism. And usually we do not even see this, let alone try to move beyond them.


We can find this problem everywhere and sociological humanism suggests three key strategies as central in overcoming it. Personally, we empathy; interpersonally, we need dialogue; across societies, we need cosmopolitanism. Empathy and Dialogue demands understanding of the other and seeks to break down monologue. It can bring sympathy and a care and reciprocity for the other, however different they may seem. Cosmopolitanism becomes a social form or structure which stresses the recognition of these differences of others as being crucial to what counts as being human…….


From section 10


The core challenge is for the infant child to become aware of others – to empathise, even sympathise with them. They grow into what Adam Smith (in his Theory of Moral Sentiments) saw as the ‘circle of others’. We move outwards from our our parents to an ever expanding social world. And this requires a complex process containing many elements including:


  1. Communication, in which ideas are sent from one person to another
  2. Language, which becomes a critical tool for this communication
  3. Recognition (and identification), where we come to acknowledge and identify who we are and how we are different from each other
  4. Respect, where we honour such differences of ‘others’
  5. Role taking and reflexivity, where we come to see the world from the viewpoint of specific others and are able to see ourselves through the eyes of these others, and eventually the wider community too
  6. Dialogue, where communication is always seen as entailing at least two and is never a simple monologue
  7. Empathy, where we come to appreciate the others points of view
  8. Sympathy, where we develop concern to feel the others point of view
  9. Compassion, where our empathy and sympathy leads us to want to do something for the others
  10. Generosity, Care & Kindness, which are key forms of human actions which help the others


Humanistic sociology needs to understand this complex process of communication, dialogue and empathy, placing it at the heart of human social relationships and indeed social life. So much failed social life can be seen as a breakdown of this process. Often through a skewing of power relations so much communication becomes impossible or at least one sided. People are spoken to: there is no reflexivity, no dialogue, no empathy. This is broken down human life. (The works of many sociologists, theologians, philosophers like Hanna Arendt. Martin Buber, Mikhail Bakhtin, Seyla Benhabib, Arthur Frank, Paulo Freiere, JurgenHabermas, George Herbert Mead, and Paul Riceour and many others can all help us to build a deeper understanding of how we become human).


From section 11


‘How different things would be … if the social sciences at the time of their systematic formation in the nineteenth century had taken the arts in the same degree they took the physical science as models’

Robert Nisbet, Sociology as an Art Form, 1976.


A Humanistic Sociology should be  about all the people, by all the people and for all the people. It has to be about all the people because even if the focus is on just one individual, this individual has to be seen as part of a historical sweep of humanity and also part of the seven billion alive today. Their uniqueness can be studied and celebrated in a world of differences. It has to be by all the people in the sense that all the people can speak – any methods are suitable that allow us to get close to human experiences: those that negate this may be fine for other reasons but they are not humanistic. And finally it has to be ultimately for all the people: to make their worlds a better place for them and subsequent generations, a task that has to include living with their differences………..

……..the humanistic sociologist has before them a wondrous archive of human social life. Of archival documents (historical, personal, all kinds) and artefacts (‘stuff’: personal possessions, archeological ‘finds’, consumer objects); of art (painting, sculptures) and  autobiographies and life stories; of diaries, documentary films and documents of all kinds (eg blogs, web sites, club magazines); of fiction (novels, television drama (e.g. soaps) and films; of letters, maps and texts of all kinds. Above all it has everyday people going about their everyday lives across the world waiting to be engaged in telling about their lives. ……


Section 12


We need stories in order to live Joan Didion


……….At the heart of the humanistic sociological enterprise is story telling. We are the only animals living on planet earth to have the capability for telling, appreciating and living stories, as Aristotle indicates in his Poetics. Other animals can surely communicate: but they do not seem capable of telling and writing stories to transmit across cultures and generations. We are, then, the story-narrating animals ceaselessly creating stories and dwelling in story telling societies. As we humans tell our stories, listen to the stories of others, and story our lives, our tales come to haunt, shape and transform our social worlds. We really need our stories in order to live. They are key companions through our lives: we invent, travel and die with them. They have consequences. So careful the tales we tell…….


Section  13



‘Dreaming ahead’  Ernst Bloch: The Principle of Hope (1938-47)


First humanist rule: Proclaim the natural dignity and inherent equality of all human beings in all places and in all circumstances. Rodrigue Tremblay: The Code for Global Ethics: Toward a Humanist Civilization, 2009

Principles: Common Threads and their troubles


  1. The principles of global empathy and dialogue: understanding how people make sense of others in their different social worlds. The human world cannot live with monologue alone but needs dialogue. Some key areas of action and discussion include the nature of the ‘other’, of hidden and silenced voices, of multiculturalism, of the importance of recognition, the sociology of tolerance, the norm of reciprocity, the rise of the Empathic Civilization, and the role of dialogic ethics and the development of Cosmopolitanism. Our values here lead us to want to foster the ability to live with our differences and help shape an Empathic, Cosmopolitan Society.

We live in the minds of others without knowing it Charles Cooley


  1. The principles of global care and kindness: understanding the ways in which people look after each other – even love each other – in the world. The human world cannot live with perpetual cruelty, violence, war and hatred. Ultimately such negative values will lead to the nihilation of the human species. Some key areas for action and discussion here include the ethics of care, the rise of the compassionate temperament and the humanitarian society, the importance of love and kindness in human lives, and even the way we look after our environment. It wants to foster kindness for others over self-interest to help shape a Caring Society.


  1. The principles of global justice: understanding fairness and how equalities and inequalities shape human life. The human world cannot live with its raging poverty, brutality, competition and stark inequalities – for these lead to damaged and wasted lives. Some key areas of action and discussion here will focus on how human freedoms are restricted by intersecting social divisions across class, gender, ethnicity, health, age, sexualities and nationhood; how we can bring about a society with more social justice, redistribution, equalities and freedom – for all, not just the elite few. It wants to foster economic redistribution and interpersonal equality and respect to help shape a Just Society.


  1. The principles of global rights and human dignity: understanding the rise and role of human rights debates and their significance in what it means to be a human being with human dignity. The human world cannot live by simply banishing huge swathes of people as worth nothing and condemning them to wasted lives. Some key areas for discussion here include the problem of human dignity and what it means, of modernity and universality of rights, the variety and differentiations of human rights (e.g civil, religious, intimate), international agencies for rights and social movements for rights. It wants to foster human rights and dignity helping to shape a truly ‘Human’ Society – with human rights and dignity for people.


  1. The principles of global flourishing lives for all: understanding human capabilities and the social conditions under which they can flourish. The human world cannot condemn so many people to lives that are ‘wretched’, ‘damaged’ and lacking in any kind of ‘quality’. Some key areas for action and discussion centre on what is meant by human well-being, ‘happiness’ ; what is  meant by the good life and the wasted life; what are human capabilities and potentials; and what might be a ‘virtuous’ life.  What are the good traits of humanity, which need to be cherished and valued, and what social conditions will bring this about?  It wants to take seriously what it would mean to have a good life for all and help shape a Flourishing Society.


  1. The principles of global amelioration and social hope: understanding the ways in which people have made better worlds in the past and how they can in the present and the future.  The human world cannot live in despair, pessimism, gloom and a sense of uselessness. It must not succumb to negativism and pessimism. It needs a sense of hope and working for a better world. Some key areas for action and discussion centre on the tools of amelioration and change, the  maps of utopias – past, present, real and imagined, and the problem of balancing optimism with pessimism into a realistic appraisal of future worlds. The principle of hope lead us to consider the idea of real utopias and the strategies to achieve them. It wants to help shape a Progressive Society.


  1. The principle of global pragmatism: understanding that the world does not work through grand abstract theories, philosophies and plans but through small scale, local, practical, contingent, contradictory, and endlessly pluralistic practical actions. The human world cannot live with grand designs, grand rulers and despots, or authoritarian systems of any kind which trample on the human. They simply do not work for the majority for the people who live ordinary everyday practical lives doing ordinary everyday practical actions. Some key areas for action and discussion are the significance of local grounded politics and research; the value of ethnography and documentary methods which bring us into closer contact with other realities and worlds; a move from abstractions to details. It wants to create a practical Grounded and Practical World – grounded in people’s every day lives.


In Sum:


  1. Understand others
  2. Be Kind
  3. Seek Justice
  4. Foster Human Rights and Dignity
  5. Encourage Lives to Flourish
  6. Be Positive and Work for Better Worlds For All
  7. Stay Grounded and Be Practical






Section 14


I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.

Antonio Gramsci  Letter from Prison (19 December 1929)


What we can do is…make life a little less terrible and a little less unjust in every generation. A good deal can be achieved in this way. Karl Popper, 1949



……..The days of the big dreams of the utopias are over. We have seen too much damage come from this. We need instead a down to earth pragmatism of empathy, justice, kindness and care. We have to think small in a big way. We can end on one more of William James comments:


I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of pride. William James: Letters; and also cited in Biography” by Robert D Richardson   2006/7   p384.


Jeffrey C. Alexander  Trauma: A Social Theory Polity (2012)
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958), Chicago.
Ronald C Arnett Communication Ethics Literacy: Dialogue and Difference  2—9 Sage
Seyla Benhabib, Dignity in Adversity: Human Rights in Troubled Times (2012) Polity;
Peter Berger  Invitation to Sociology 1963 Middlesex: Penguin Books;
Richard J. Bernstein The Pragmatic Turn Polity [2010)
Ernest Bloch The Principle of Hope ( 3 Volumes:1938-470: Blackwell, 1986;
T.S. Bruyn The Human Perspective in Sociology, (1966) Prentice Hall, New Jersey;

William James The Heart of William James edited by Robert Richardson (2010). Harvard.

C Wright Mills The Sociological Imagination,1961 Oxford university Press

Alfred McLung Lee Toward a Humanist Sociology (1973) New Jersey: Prentice Hall
Martha Nussbaum Cultivating Humanity, 1997: Harvard
——Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach 2011 Harvard

Ken Plummer Documents of Life -2: An Invitation to a Critical Humanism (2001) Sage.
Ken Plummer Sociology: The Basics (2010) Routledge.

Jeremy Rifkin The Empathic Civilization 2009 Polity;

Michael J Sandel  Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do?  2009: Penguin;

Andrew Sayers, Why Things Matter to People Cambridge: 2011
Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of Recognition Palgrave 2004
Amytra Sen The Idea of Justice [2009] Allen Lane;
Michael Slote, The Ethics of Care and Sympathy: [2007] Routledge;
Christian Smith, What is a Person: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up. 2010. Chicago;

Rodrigues Tremblay: The Code for Global Ethics: Toward a Humanist Civilization  2009 Victoria, BC; Trafford
Eric Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias 2010 Verso

Iain Wilkinson Suffering: A Sociological Introduction 2005 Polity;



“What is each person able to do and to be?” Martha Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: 2011.

Human capabilities entail:


1.Life.  Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living

2.Bodily Health.  Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; being adequately nourished; being able to have adequate shelter

3.Bodily Integrity.  Being able to move freely from place to place; having one’s bodily boundaries treated as sovereign i.e..being able to be secure against assault, including sexual assault, marital rape, and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.

4.Senses, imagination, and thought.  Being able to use the senses; being able to imagine, to think, and to reason – and to do these things in a “truly human” way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training; being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing expressive works and events of one’s own choice (religious, literary, musical etc.); being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech and freedom of religious exercise; being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid non-necessary  pain.

5.Emotions.  Being able to have attachments to things and persons outside ourselves; being able to love those who love and care for us; being able to grieve at their absence; in general being able to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger; not having one’s emotional development blighted by overwhelming fear or anxiety, or by traumatic events of abuse or neglect..  (Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development.

6.Practical reason.  Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s own life.  (This entails protection for the liberty of conscience.)

7.Affiliation.  (a) Being able to live for and in relation to others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; being able to imagine the situation of another and to have compassion for the situation; having the  capability for both justice and friendship.  (Protecting this capability means, once again, protecting institutions that constitute such forms of affiliation, and also protecting institutions that constitute such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedoms of  assembly and political speech.)  (b)  Having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others.  (This entails provisions of nondiscrimination.on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, caste, ethnicity, or national origin)

8.Other species.  Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature

9.Play.  Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.

10.Control over one’s environment.  (a) Political: being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the rights of political participation, free speech, and freedom of association (b) Material: being able to hold property (both land and movable goods); having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. In work, being able to work as a human being, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.     (sources: Adapted from Sex and Social Justice. 1999: 41-2; Women and Human Development ,2000. p78-80.1.  Creating Capabilities, 2011: Ch 2)

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