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You Might be an Intellectual Part 2 -- Humanism Examined
By Travis Hardin Nov 2005
Originally published in NorbaMensa, the newsletter of North Alabama Mensa

My thoughtful Mensa friend Jimmy McWilliams was unsatisfied with a quotation in my September article defining an "intellectual". So this month’s effort will be toward clarifying intellect, not defining the doer; toward showing that anyone not anti-intellectual is intellectual, especially not just artists, movie-makers, and writers exchanging repartee over martinis. Intellectualism is simply "systematic use of the intellect". It’ll be just a sketch, but I’d like to address again the monumental importance of intellect.

People distinguish themselves and organize their world by their major beliefs about what is true and what is good, along continua like these: Liberal vs. conservative; naturalism vs. anti (or super) naturalism; rationalism vs. faith; humanism vs. traditionalism; intellectualism vs. folk-wisdom. Use your own poles but without intellect there’s no way to talk about these bedrock concepts. Without intellect (free intellect) those beliefs are decided for you by raw power.

There is much correspondence among the first terms above; liberalism, naturalism, rationalism, humanism, and intellectualism. You can be intellectual without having a liberal bone in your body, but intellect usually leans toward liberalism - a vision of society that is composed of individuals, with their liberty as the primary social good. Their liberty is to be defended in such rights as those that free political institutions, religious practice, and artistic and intellectual expression1. If you’re somewhere in that constellation, there’s a naming problem. Other people won’t allow you to call yourself an intellectual. Philosopher Daniel Dennett’s "bright" a few years ago didn’t catch on. Critics asked, "Does that mean everybody else is dim?" How does such a person describe himself? A little reading prompts the question, "What’s inaccurate about calling those related beliefs humanism?"

The term humanism was invented in 1808 by German educator F. J. Niethammer to describe the study of the Greek and Latin classics, "the revival of which had been one of the distinguishing features of the Italian Renaissance, later spreading to the rest of Europe as the "New Learning". Part of the attraction of classical studies was the fact that they are Man-centered rather than God-centered...studying the works of man..." (The Humanities)2.

The use of the term has been widened in several ways:

(1) To mean doctrines that take human experience as the starting point for man’s knowledge. "Thus the critical, rational methods of scientific enquiry, which Newton had applied...and which the philosophies of the Enlightenment sought to extend to the systematic study of man and society, produced a secular humanism. This was powerfully reinforced by the advancement of the 19th century and the growing secularization of Western society3."

(2) The belief that the scientific method is the sole source of knowledge, and that it alone can and will provide a comprehensive, rational explanation of the universe and human life can be called scientific humanism4.

(3) A broader humanism, not identified with the secular, and similar to Christian Humanism5, is a view that is not systematic, but consists of certain shared assumptions: (1) The belief that human beings have potential value in themselves, and the respect for this is the basis of all other human values and rights; this value is based on the possibility to create and communicate, which, once liberated, enable men and women to exercise a degree of freedom of choice and action; (2) the rejection of system that [a] Denies any meaning to human life; [b] Treats him as a depraved creature who can only be saved by divine grace; [c] Reductionism (behaviorism); or [d] Regards people as having no more value than being expendable raw material for use by politcal or economic systems6.

Jesus of the Gospels preached religious humanism in most of those senses. "Love thy neighbor as thyself" was the second of his two greatest commandments. He taught that all people, foreigners included, are neighbors for that purpose, and that one should treat others as one wants to be treated. Conservative Christianity, that which humanism is not a part of, seems to follow a more severe tradition, and respects the authority of God through Moses in all matters of truth, morality, and aspiration (as I understand it). How far they wish to turn back the clock - to before all New Learning, before just a part of it, or back to Leviticus - I don’t know.

The torch of learning and the spirit of inquiry carried by humanism, and its attendant liberalism and intellectualism, is an obstacle to turning the clock back at all. Humanists are not just those sweatered middle-agers who meet in each others’ living rooms every month to rip religion. Europe as well as the US has a humanistic tradition in place. It is our tradition to lose.

The large scientific and medical research apparatus - governments and universities - uses strictly the New Learning in the interest of human betterment, though sometimes it’s limited only to American betterment. Psychotherapy and psychiatry are humanist. Our universities and public educational entities are still humanist. As a small example, a UA-Huntsville philosophy professor could write in a manuscript on epistemology: "Liberal inquiry aims to free us from superstition, parochialism, blind custom, dumb habit, and unreflected living by cultivating our ability to identify the truth..."

So the grand sweep of Western civilization, starting with Greek intellectuals, their being rediscovered in the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment which spawned interest in knowledge and better human conditions, which inspired the idea of self-government, which inspired the intellectuals, deists, and scientists of America to establish the first secular republic in the world (based on wanting to avoid religious wars7), is under attack by fundamentalist religious warriors inside that government. So, my friend, that little matter is what I mean when I say intellectualism is important.


1. Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought, 1988, ""Liberalism" by Bullock (below) and

Steve Reilly, Lecturer in Politics and Government, University of Kent at Canterbury

2. Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought, 1988, "Humanism" by Alan (Lord) Bullock, Fellow and Founding Master of St Catherine’s College, Oxford; formerly Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

3. Bullock, "humanism"

4. Bullock, "humanism"

5. <>

6. Bullock, "humanism"

7. "The Faith of the Framers" THE WEEK, June 10, 2005

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Last updated April 19 2016