Humanism as a Conscious Presence in the World

What is humanism and how to understand it in relation to our daily lives? For some, it means rational behavior according to certain moral patterns. For others, it comes down to absolute fidelity to inviolable principles and priorities. Yet another recognizes that it is an investment in human development and it is a free action – without borders. However, it may be worth finding a certain foundation in the multitude of these interpretations that could combine different positions on this subject.

The concept of humanism (from Latin humanus – human) was introduced in the 19th century as a way of thinking shaped by the thinkers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, who based their worldview on references to classical literature and knowledge of foreign languages. In their intellectual attitude, respect for the achievements of ancient thinkers and models of ancient culture played a significant role. The Renaissance has shaped a way of thinking about the world in which man occupies a central place (as opposed to, for example, the Middle Ages, where God was the main point of reference for human thinking).

Over the subsequent epochs, until today, the concept of humanism has increasingly expressed and analyzed more deeply all the factors and circumstances that shape man, broaden their horizons of thinking, experiencing the world, at the same time creating a culture in which human development and concern for their well-being are fundamental values.

What Do We Think About the Concept of Humanism?

When we ask people today: How they understand the concept of humanism and what values they associate with it, the most common answers are:

  • respect for another human;
  • care for the development of man and broadening their thought and ideological horizons;
  • integration of thoughts – emotions, spirit and body striving for a holistic understanding of the human being;
  • concern for interpersonal relations, based on loyalty, mutual trust and respect;
  • an ever deeper awareness of the role and importance of communication and dialog as elements
  • building our bonds;
  • openness to what is different, unknown motivated by the desire to know and curiosity;
  • taking into account the rationale and needs of the minority by the majority;
  • increasing awareness and sensitivity of the stronger toward the weaker ones (seniors, children, animals, etc.)

And probably many other characteristics and behaviors could be mentioned here, which only proves that the concept of humanism is still alive and remains in the constant process of shaping and clarifying in the social dialog as well as in our consciousness.

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Two Modern Interpretations of Humanism

One of those contemporary thinkers who paved the way for the 20th-century reflection on the concept of humanism and recalled it in the context of the great transformations defining the 20th century was the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980). The proof of his mindfulness and the need to remind others of the meaning of the term was a conference organized by him on October 29, 1945, in Paris, and finalized in the form of a paper published a year later entitled Existentialism is a Humanism. It is worth returning to this text because Sartre explains his understanding of the dual meaning of the term humanism in a very accessible way. He writes in the text mentioned above:

Actually, the word “humanism” has two very different meanings. By “humanism” we might mean a theory that takes man as an end and as the supreme value… This means:… I… as a man, I should consider myself responsible for, and honored by, what certain other men have achieved. This presupposes that we can assign a value to man based on the most admirable deeds of certain men.

Sartre considers this first interpretation of humanism absurd and disagrees with it, because, in his judgment, it removes agency and, consequently, responsibility from man, transferring them to other people. In short: I cannot do much and do not mean much, because it is other people who define me and without them I am nobody. Sartre considers this understanding of humanism to be conformism, moral dishonesty and mere convenience.

In opposition to this statement, he presents his interpretation of humanism, which can be read as an extremely valuable ethical guide for modern man. In Existentialism is a Humanism, he further writes:

But there is another meaning to the word “humanism”…: man is always outside of himself, and it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that man is realized; and, on the other hand, it is in pursuing transcendent goals that he can exist.

What is the novelty of his interpretation?

Globe, World
What is humanism? Photo: Nothing Ahead / Pexels

Humanism Is Action and Involvement

It is not without reason that many describe Sartre not only as a philosopher of freedom but also as a philosopher of responsibility. These two values decisively define his worldview. He makes modern man aware that they do not have to, and even: They should not be a passive observer of other people’s actions and changes that they experiences from the world around them, but each of us has the power and the ability to act.

From the point of view of ethics, humanism, in its interpretation, means putting into the hands of man not only the freedom of choice, the freedom to make choices and to decide, but also the responsibility for all our activities. Thus, the humanist dares to create themselves and to influence the surrounding reality in a conscious and understanding way (Sartre uses the term “projection” after Martin Heidegger). As he writes: There is always a risk of “getting lost,” that is, of making mistakes, but this is human and natural, after all. The key, however, is then to bear the consequences and take responsibility for them.

In this context, it is worth asking oneself: How many times have I been indifferent to someone’s harm, difficulties, weaknesses, being able to change something?  How often do I withdraw from an action, afraid to make a specific decision, and conveniently “push” it into the hands of other people because I am afraid of making a mistake or taking responsibility for my choice? Sartre would describe such behavior as “an escape from humanity,” which is the core of what makes us human.

Humanism Is an Awareness of Other People’s Needs

What Sartre suggests to modern man is the conviction that humanism is about involvement in their existence, but by creating the world outside. Being a humanist is bringing out the best of yourself and giving it to the world and other people. Being a humanist is becoming more and more aware of oneself and other people: Their needs, desires and dreams. Yuval Noah Harari (b. 1976), an Israeli historian, author of several bestsellers, writes in Homo Deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow that

humanism thus sees life as a gradual process of inner change, leading from ignorance to enlightenment by means of experiences.

His conviction seems to fit well with Sartre’s intentions. When he writes in Existentialism… that

man is nothing other than what he makes of himself… that man first exists, that is, that man primarily exists – that man is, before all else, something that projects itself into a future, and is conscious of doing so,

we have the process of change mentioned by Harari before our eyes. However, what is characteristic of Sartre’s views, and what seems particularly important to modern man, is the sense of responsibility that I do not act for myself. Everything I do is reflected in the reality around me. So a humanist is aware of his correlation with the outside world and their influence on its shape.

When we say that man chooses himself, not only do we mean that each of us must choose himself, but also that in choosing himself, he is choosing for all men… Our responsibility thus might be greater than we might have supposed, because it concerns all mankind

– Sartre adds.

May these words remain a message to the contemporary man who often forgets they are part of a larger whole. The French existentialist clearly emphasizes that at the heart of humanism lies the profound awareness that, by making any choice, I am setting an example to other people who may want to imitate me. From here comes responsibility in the spirit of humanism – not only for oneself but also for other people.

Only a holistic approach to understanding man and their place in the universe should be the basis of humanism for the 21st century.

Translation: Marcin Smolik

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Published by

Magdalena Kozak


Deals with contemporary philosophy, mainly French, in the current of existentialism, philosophy of dialogue and relations, and phenomenology. Privately, passionate about Mediterranean vibes, crime stories – preferably Scandinavian and a lover of animals and long walks. In the surrounding world, unfortunately, less and less surprised.

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