8.0435 Rs: On the Meaning of Humanist (5/161)

Fri, 31 Mar 1995 04:48:28 EST

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 8, No. 0435. Friday, 31 Mar 1995.

(1) Date: Tue, 28 Mar 1995 13:45:14 -0500 (65 lines)
From: sjd@ebt.com (Steven J. DeRose)
Subject: Re: 8.0423 On the meaning of HUMANIST (1/28)

(2) Date: Tue, 28 Mar 1995 06:20:48 -0600 (CST) (9 lines)
From: REBECCA WINTERS <rwinters@comp.uark.edu>
Subject: Re: 8.0423 On the meaning of HUMANIST (1/28)

(3) Date: Tue, 28 Mar 1995 08:10:44 -0500 (57 lines)
From: mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca (Willard McCarty)
Subject: the meaning of "Humanist"

(4) Date: 28 Mar 1995 17:01:49 -0600 (CST) (8 lines)
Subject: Re: 8.0423 On the meaning of HUMANIST (1/28)

(5) Date: Wed, 29 Mar 1995 12:59:20 -0100 (22 lines)
From: kfguest@la.shizuoka.ac.jp (Michael Guest)
Subject: Re: 8.0423 On the meaning of HUMANIST (1/28)

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Tue, 28 Mar 1995 13:45:14 -0500
From: sjd@ebt.com (Steven J. DeRose)
Subject: Re: 8.0423 On the meaning of HUMANIST (1/28)

>From: Alexander Bisset <Alexander@bisset.demon.co.uk>
>Subject: The label "Humanist"
>I understand HUMANISM to be the view that morality is an attitude of mind and
>stems from within the individual and not from man-made rules of some mystical
>supreme being for whom we hold no belief.
>Humanism is a philosophy. A way of viewing the world, seeing humans as being
>responsible for their own destiny and rejecting the idea that a mystical
>being that some choose to call god (note the lower case) in some fashion
>controls our actions.

That is one meaning of the word "Humanist", but as with most words in human
languages (especially the important ones!), there are other meanings. The
meaning relevant to this list is summarized nicely by the American Heritage
Dictionary as "A classical scholar" and "A student of the liberal arts".

At least from my point of view, an uncritical committment to atheism as the
base premise for one's philosophy makes a poor mix with such scholarship,
which requires a more open mind. While there are list members who are
humanists in Mr. Bisset's sense, there are also many who are not. Certainly
the theologians on this list would have some problem with making that sense
of humanism a tacit assumption, as would a goodly share of the philosophers
(who might also wish to call that point of view a 'worldview' rather than a
'philosophy', but that's another lexical issue). I think it fair to assert
that the question whether it is possible to define a consistent ethical
philosophy without recourse to some form of supreme authority is still
vigorously debated, as it has been since long before the dialog with

But in any case, the question is moot for this list, as that sense of
"humanist" is not the one of interest. Best wishes in finding the list you

>Since this appears to be the purpose of this list perhaps you could explain
>how the word humanist could have such wildly different uses. It would appear
>that this would be an excellent place to ask such a question.

Indeed that is a question of some interest here. The phenomenon is called
"polysemy", and is remarkable only for its ubiquity. In general, the more
common a word is, the more meanings it has. Opening a dictionary at random
reveals this quickly. One of the many processes that operates to create
polysemy is extension of a word's meaning to related areas: two communities
may choose different related meanings to extend to. In this case, one
meaning extends 'human' to 'human as opposed to immortal', while the other
extends 'human' to 'the works of humans' (such as literature); both then
add "-ist" to indicate a student of the notion in question. Both are
reasonable but unrelated extensions of meaning, presumably made by people
with different interests.

Another process is phonological neutralization, whereby distinct words come
to be pronounced similarly or identically, and eventually become one "word"
with two "meanings". In pre-literate settings certain techniques must be
used to reconstruct such cases, because no distinction of spelling remains
as evidence. This process is probably not in operation for the present
case. Many other factors also exist, and operate to produce other cases of

Steve DeRose

(2) --------------------------------------------------------------25----
Date: Tue, 28 Mar 1995 06:20:48 -0600 (CST)
From: REBECCA WINTERS <rwinters@comp.uark.edu>
Subject: Re: 8.0423 On the meaning of HUMANIST (1/28)

In response to Alexander's message, I too was confused as to the purpose
of this list. I am an athiest looking for interesting philosophical
discussions and for intelligent people to correspond with.
(3) --------------------------------------------------------------79----
Date: Tue, 28 Mar 1995 08:10:44 -0500
From: mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca (Willard McCarty)
Subject: the meaning of "Humanist"

Alexander Bisset asks "how the word humanist could have such wildly
different uses" as to be applied both to humanism and to this online group.
Perhaps I may be permitted to answer.

When I set up Humanist in May 1987, my purpose was primarily to establish a
voice for those who "supported" humanities computing at universities
throughout the world. The scope of the group quickly enlarged to include the
practitioners and administrators of humanities computing, in fact anyone who
was interested enough to submit a biographical statement and then learn to
cope with the volumes of mail that followed. The name of the thing seemed
very important, so I devoted considerable thought to it. The constraints,
however, were -- and still are -- severe: 8 characters. In my mind, those 8
characters had to constitute an English word, not an acronym, so that the
name would communicate something close to our mark immediately, with minimal
need for decoding. First impressions, and all that.

"Humanist" was the best I could do. Please understand that at the time the
idea of an online group to discuss humanism per se would have been more than
just mildly exotic. Not so now. Nearly 8 years after Humanist began, it is
now common to find electronic seminars devoted to topics in the humanities.
Then, I suspect, most people seeing the name would have said to themselves,
"What the devil? Humanists using Bitnet?" The main subject, or set of
subjects, would have been more or less obvious. In fact, as far as I can
recall, Mr. Bisset is the first to raise his question.

As it has turned out, however, the suggestion of humanism is not entirely
misleading. In a broad sense, it is "Devotion to those studies which promote
human culture" (OED s.v. 4), with the emphasis on rational, analytical
understanding. Amidst the wash of technical information and practical
questions on Humanist has always been a persistent concern with the human,
scholarly implications of the technology, the philosophical component, if
you will, of technological practice. I have always been particularly fond of
the term "liberal arts", used primarily in the U.S. instead of "humanities".
These the OED, speaking still in its 19th century voice about an older
sense, defines as "the distinctive epithet of those 'arts' or 'sciences'...
that were considered 'worthy of a free man'; opposed to servile or
mechanical" (s.v. 1). Translating this definition into the modern idiom, as
"studies worthy of a liberated human being", seems to me not a bad goal for
those of us who use the computer as a means of understanding our cultural

Perhaps Mr. Bisset's question indicates that we need to raise our level of
discussion, to readjust the balance of the technical and the philosophical
better to serve that goal. The interesting thing to me about Humanist is the
interpenetration of theory and practice, without either of which the seminar
would be something else entirely.


Willard McCarty, Centre for Computing in the Humanities (Toronto)
(416) 978-3974 voice (416) 978-6519 fax mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca

(4) --------------------------------------------------------------21----
Date: 28 Mar 1995 17:01:49 -0600 (CST)
Subject: Re: 8.0423 On the meaning of HUMANIST (1/28)

Read the major works of the late medieval period and the Renaissance;
if you still fail to see the link between theism or Christianity and
using the label 'humanist' discussion will then be appropriate, though
contemporary usage probably follows your claims . . . . James McSwain
(5) --------------------------------------------------------------39----
Date: Wed, 29 Mar 1995 12:59:20 -0100
From: kfguest@la.shizuoka.ac.jp (Michael Guest)
Subject: Re: 8.0423 On the meaning of HUMANIST (1/28)

At 3:40 AM 95.3.28 -0500, Alexander Bisset wrote:
>Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 8, No. 0423. Tuesday, 28 Mar 1995.

>I subscribed to this list in the belief that I would find a home on the net
>with fellow humans who believe that to be moral and a good citizen DOES NOT
>require the belief in a supreme being.

I wouldn't have thought that to subscribe to Humanist interests necessarily
excluded the possibility of belief in a divine being. I am not surprised
that Alexander's requirement's were not met: his seems to be a quirky and
individualistic definition of the word humanism to say the least, with his
stated "fluency in weirdo" smacking equally of a naive brand of
anti-intellectualism. But I can't understand, anyway, why he would sign off
and *then* ask the list a question.

Michael Guest