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Towards a Humanist turn | UNESCO

Galo Ocampo Crucifixion (1984) Oil on canvas, 152 x 213 cm. Lopez Museum Collection
#BangonSugBohol #ProjectBohol A very good article to read in light of the plight of our kababayan and the destruction of cultural treasures due to #earthquakePH
Instead of looking for the universal in biological nature, a recent humanist turn in the social sciences and humanities is focusing on what all human beings around the globe share, without neglecting their differences. And instead of thinking that a universal humanist culture has to be invented or imposed on other cultures, the new approach believes that universal ideas and values are already present in all cultures. It also acknowledges that people everywhere on the planet are sharing dehumanizing experiences – which should encourage us to consider what it means to live a humane and dignified life.
In the 1960s social movements all around the globe started to modify their agendas. Instead of looking for universal solutions — which were increasingly identified with totalitarian ambitions — they began to pay more attention to the recognition of cultural, ethnic and sexual differences and identities. The student protests were perhaps the most emblematic sign of a profound reassessment of the role that culture plays in human life that was also being played out in theoretical debates and in politics throughout the 1960s and 70s. Simultaneously, intellectual and academic debates began to be interested more in culture and initiated what today is widely recognized as a ‘cultural turn’ in the social sciences and humanities.1 
This ‘cultural turn’ strengthened and propagated a number of values, including cultural pluralism and an awareness that, in our modern world, it is important to reflect upon the coexistence of distinct cultures and forms of life, while at the same time resisting the temptation to reduce this plurality once more to an artificial, abstract unity dominated by one set of interests. And this provides us with a glimpse of the critical potential of the ‘cultural turn’. In contrast to the idea that all human cultures are being propelled towards the same evolutional end-goal (telos) — an idea that was promulgated by the influential ‘modernization theories’ in the first decades after World War II — the cultural turn rescues the idea that processes of civilization and culture – and their results – do not follow a logical, predetermined path.

But, however important the cultural turn may have been, I also believe that culturalism has given rise to a climate of cultural relativism that is not only dangerous but also incorrect. The errors in these positions, though evident, have been ignored for a long time. One of the most obvious is that different cultures are incommensurable and cannot be reconciled, while in fact they share many affinities and similarities.

The work of the German anthropologist, Christoph Antweiler, gives a spectacular account of how many ‘norms, values and ideals’ different cultures share2. Antweiler suggests that we often do not see these similarities because we do not want to. However, he also suggests that if only we looked for similarities we would find them. With the right attitude, Antweiler tells us, we are able to see formulations of human rights not only in the ‘West’ but also in Confucianism, Buddhism and Islam. Antweiler’s main argument is that the idea of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ — put forward by Samuel Huntington, and which proposes that different cultures are profoundly incommensurable — is wrong.
Antweiler’s ideas seem to have hit a nerve. We can already see signs that culturalism is losing its energy. Many authors feel the need to look for normative tendencies across cultures, not so much to deny the reality of cultural differences, as to oppose cultural relativism. The question then is: with what can we identify, as human beings, beyond the cultural and national differences that separate us? Many are looking for a new orientation in some form of humanism. They seem to think that the simple fact of being human grants us a new form of global solidarity. However, I do not believe that this shared humanity is sufficient; it is too abstract. 
Instead, we must engage in a dialogue between cultures to discuss what it means to live a dignified life as a human being. It is within and through culture that we learn how to perceive ourselves as human beings. By studying and comparing different cultures we can see just how much they share. The ‘humanist turn’ and the ‘cultural turn’ must complement one another. This means that humanism must be intercultural and involve dialogue.

Lessons from traditional humanism
All cultures and civilizations have humanist traditions. But the ‘humanist turn’ is not a return to traditional forms of humanism. One of the problems with traditional forms of humanism is that they are inspired by historical experiences that are no longer ours. The humanism that accompanied the European Renaissance, for instance, cannot be detached from ambitions to challenge the authority of the Church. 
Another problem is that many traditional forms of humanism are overly linked to naturalism. Again, the humanism of the European Renaissance could be quoted as an example. It was interested in discovering the ‘nature of Man’ in accordance with the ‘nature of the universe’. This tradition of naturalism is still very much alive today in various scientific ideas that tend to reduce the human condition to biology. In contrast to naturalism, a new humanism needs to understand that we become human in and through culture.

But it would be equally mistaken simply to forget about the traditional forms of humanism that can be found in the legacies of many different cultures. It is in these traditions that we can find clear evidence for the fact that human beings share, and have always shared, very important ideas about what it means to be human. But learning from other traditions of humanism does not only mean to reaffirm what we already know. In his book on Humanism in East Asian Confucianism3 Professor Chun-chieh Huang explains brilliantly that East Asian Confucianism was very much concerned with the harmonious relationship between human beings and the social and natural world that they are a part of. One cannot help thinking that a strong sense of ‘world harmony’ such as this could guide us through the ecological and social disasters accompanying the modern destruction of the natural world as well as the devastations of our social worlds. Questions like this have to be discussed within an intercultural perspective. And I am convinced that the social sciences and humanities provide excellent spaces in which this kind of intercultural dialogue among different traditions of humanism can be cultivated.
Shared experiences of dehumanization
An idea expressed by Erich Fromm,4 among others, supports the possibility of a common humanist understanding, despite differences. Humanism is always a consequence of experiences of alienation. It is an outcry from people who feel that the conditions for living a humanely dignified life are withering away. In a world like ours, individual experiences may vary greatly. In our global, modern world, chances are unevenly distributed, and economic, political and military powers are unevenly concentrated. However, it is also a world in which certain experiences of alienation seem to transcend these differences. We are all suffering from the destruction of our natural environment; we are all living in societies where social relations suffer from a growing sense of mistrust. Those who are better off may try to compensate for the lack of satisfying social relations through consumption, while those who do not have the means experience a desperate longing for consumption. In most parts of the world people are exposed to old and new forms of violence and injustice. Political and economic institutions behave in ways that people can hardly identify with. 
Again, despite considerable local and social differences, the experiences of human beings under these dehumanizing conditions tend to be very similar all over the planet. And this must surely be something we can learn from, if we compare contemporary cultures on a global scale. J. M. Coetzee’s South Africa5 resembles Rubem Fonseca’s Brazil6; Octavio Paz’7 critique of modernity is similar to that found in the writing of Theodor W. Adorno8. Comparative research in the social sciences and humanities could extend our understanding of the dehumanization that people all over the planet are suffering.
Humanism in everyday life
By the same token, the ‘humanist turn’ should not be seen as an endeavour confined to academic or intellectual circles alone. Some time ago, the German historian, Jörn Rüsen,  explained that humanism has to have ‘practical’ ambitions as well: “The idea of humanism must always be put into social contexts in order to make it plausible and give it its place in real life”.9 What Rüsen expresses here seems to me to be of fundamental importance. It is only if humanism comes to constitute a central influence on the ways we think and act in everyday life that it can hope to begin to foster a humanist culture that is not only theoretical and abstract. It is my contention that this ‘translation’ of humanist ideas and values into everyday political, social and economic practices represents above all a task for political and economic institutions. But again, the social sciences and humanities can play an important role. At least a part of their endeavour should be dedicated to the cultivation and promulgation of a humanist culture beyond the ivory tower. 
To sum up, the current humanist turn that is starting to appear in many academic and non-academic arenas, seems to be motivated by the need to move beyond the awareness of cultural differences and to look for that which all human beings share, without neglecting the differences. Instead of looking for the universal in biological nature, or thinking that a universal humanist culture has to be invented or imposed on other cultures, the current humanist turn presupposes that universal ideas and values are already present in all different cultures. At the same time, the new humanism seems to recognize that global modernity needs normative orientations that all human beings can agree upon. And last but not least, it is a result of common experiences of alienation that global modernity has provoked in different parts of the world. The most important task, however, is to translate the ideas and values into everyday practices.
Oliver Kozlarek is professor of political and social philosophy at the Institute for Philosophical Research, Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolas de Hidalgo (Mexico). He was a member of the research project on ‘Humanism in the Age of Globalization’ from 2007 to 2009. Since 2010 he has also been director of the research project ‘Modernity, Critique and Humanism’ in Mexico. He is currently co-editor of a major book series on Intercultural Humanism. His books include: Humanismo en la epoca de la globalizacion: Desafios y horizontes (2009) (with Jörn Rüsen), Octavio Paz: Humanism and Critique (2009).
1. Doris Bachmann-Medick, Cultural Turns.
Neuorientierungen in den Kulturwissenschaften,
Rowohlt Verlag: 2006.
2. Christoph Antweiler: Mensch und Weltkultur [Man
and World Culture], Transcript Verlag, 2010.
3. Chun-chien Huang, Humanism in East Asian
Confucian Contexts, Transcript Verlag, 2010.
4. Erich Fromm (1900-1980), German-born
American humanist psychoanalyst, and author of
Escape from Freedom, 1941; The Art of Loving, 1956;
The Sane Society, 1955.
5. J.M Coetzee, South African writer, Nobel Prize in
Literature, 2003
6. Rubem Fonseca, Brazilian born writer
7. Octavio Paz (1914-1998), Mexican writer and
essayist, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1990
8. Theodor W. Adorno (1903 – 1969), German-born
sociologist, philosopher and musicologist
9. JoÅNrn Rüsen/Henner Laass (eds.), Humanism in
Intercultural Perspective. Experiences and
Expectations, Transcript Verlag, 2010.
Reproduced from the UNESCO Courier
64th year

2011 – No. 4 
The UNESCO Courier is published quarterly in seven languages by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
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