Humanism is a group of philosophies and ethical perspectives which emphasize the value and agency of human beings, individually, and collectively, and generally prefers individual thought and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism). The term humanism can be ambiguously diverse, and there has been a persistent confusion between several related uses of the term because different intellectual movements have identified with it over time.[1] In philosophy and social science, humanism refers to a perspective that affirms some notion of a "human nature" (contrasted with anti-humanism). In modern times, many humanist movements have become strongly aligned with secularism, with the term Humanism often used as a byword for non-theistic beliefs about ideas such as meaning and purpose, however early humanists were often religious, such as Ulrich von Hutten who was a strong supporter of Martin Luther and the Reformation.

Before the word was associated with secularism, German historian and philologist Georg Voigt used humanism in 1856 to describe the movement that flourished in the Italian Renaissance to revive classical learning; this definition won wide acceptance.[2] During the Renaissance period in Western Europe, humanist movements attempted to demonstrate the benefit of gaining learning from classical, pre-Christian sources in and of themselves, or for secular ends such as political science and rhetoric. The word "humanist" derives from the 15th-century Italian term umanista describing a teacher or scholar of classical Greek and Latin literature and the ethical philosophy behind it, including the approach to the humanities.[3][4]

During the French Revolution, and soon after in Germany (by the Left Hegelians), humanism began to refer to philosophies and morality centred on human kind, without attention to any notions of the divine. Religious humanism developed as more liberal religious organisations evolved in more humanistic directions. Religious humanism integrates humanist ethical philosophy with the rituals and beliefs of some religions, although religious humanism still centres on human needs, interests, and abilities.[5]

As the ethical movement began using the word in the 1930s, the term "humanism" became increasingly associated with philosophical naturalism, and with secularism and the secularisation of society. The first Humanist Manifesto, formalised at the University of Chicago in 1933,[6] identified secular humanism as an ideology that espouses reason, ethics, and justice, while specifically rejecting supernatural and religious ideas as a basis of morality and decision-making. The International Humanist and Ethical Union and other organisations describe it simply as 'Humanism', capitalised and without qualification.


  • 1^ a b An account of the evolution of the meaning of the word humanism from the point of view of a modern secular humanist can be found in Nicolas Walter's Humanism – What's in the Word (London: Rationalist Press Association, 1997 ISBN 0-301-97001-7). From the same perspective, but somewhat less polemical, can be found in Richard Norman's On Humanism (Thinking in Action) (London: Routledge: 2004). For a historical and philologically oriented view see Vito Giustiniani, "Homo, Humanus, and the Meanings of Humanism" (1985), cited above.
  • 2^ a b As J. A. Symonds remarked, "the word humanism has a German sound and is in fact modern" (See The Renaissance in Italy Vol. 2:71n, 1877). Vito Giustiniani writes that in the German-speaking world "Humanist" while keeping its specific meaning (as scholar of Classical literature) "gave birth to further derivatives, such as humanistisch for those schools which later were to be called humanistische Gymnasien, with Latin and Greek as the main subjects of teaching (1784). Finally, Humanismus was introduced to denote 'classical education in general' (1808) and still later for the epoch and the achievements of the Italian humanists of the fifteenth century (1841). This is to say that 'humanism' for 'classical learning' appeared first in Germany, where it was once and for all sanctioned in this meaning by Georg Voigt (1859)", Vito Giustiniani, "Homo, Humanus, and the Meanings of Humanism", Journal of the History of Ideas 46 (vol. 2, April–June, 1985): 172.
  • 3^ a b c Nicholas Mann (1996). The Origins of Humanism. Cambridge University Press. pp. 1–2. "The term umanista was used, in fifteenth century Italian academic jargon to describe a teacher or student of classical literature and the arts associated with it, including that of rhetoric. The English equivalent 'humanist' makes its appearance in the late sixteenth century with a similar meaning. Only in the nineteenth century, however, and probably for the first time in Germany in 1809, is the attribute transformed into a substantive: humanism, standing for devotion to the literature of ancient Greece and Rome, and the humane values that may be derived from them."
  • 4^ Compact Oxford English dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2007. "humanism n. 2 a Renaissance cultural movement that turned away from medieval scholasticism and revived interest in ancient Greek and Roman thought."
  • 5^ "Genesis of a Humanist Manifesto". Retrieved 2006-05-14.
  • 6^ "Text of Humanist Manifesto I". Retrieved 2011-11-13.
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