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Edwin Wilson Manifesto Ch9


Style and Semantics

It is my contention that those who signed "A Humanist Manifesto" in 1933 sought verbal integrity and a semantic change from traditional religious terms in order to clarify their naturalistic approach. However, as is the case with most editorial matters, a great deal of the response to the written word is subjective. Needless to say, there were critics of the style and semantics of the original draft.

Among those who voiced such objections-and perhaps one of the most critical-was Dr. Bruce Swift, then minister of the Universalist church in Buffalo, New York. One must appreciate, however, that Dr. Swift was unaware of the involved process by which the statement was being produced as a reflection and reconciliation of varied viewpoints by the editors, who were working under the pressure of a deadline. Dr. Swift thought his suggested revisions included a needed literary style; I disagree. On April 6, 1933, Swift wrote to Dr. Raymond Bragg:

Thank you for sending me a copy of the Humanist Manifesto. I went over it carefully three or four times with the result that I felt more strongly each time that some of the statements were unnecessarily hazy. If it is for public consumption then the public needs to be considered-and especially that part of it which will not read very far in a document that is not very clear. Again, I wondered at the lack of form and still further at the complete ignoring of literary values. If this statement is likely to become a historic document why should it not be given a better form that [ sic] it has, yea, the best form it can have?

I, therefore, do not wish my name to appear on a document which does not reflect in any adequate measure the ability of the men who drew it, that has too many earmarks of haste.

To make all this clear I have taken the time out of a busy day to re-write the thing. I do not expect this draft to be substituted for yours. It was easier, I found after writing a page of comment and criticism, to lay it aside and to re-write the document itself. I am sending this "rewrite" to you as my comment. It is a first draft and can be mightily improved. I do not send it as an example; I send it as an illustrations commentary in the form of a paraphrase.

You will see that I have omitted point FIFTEEN as a point; it is a summary pointing to a conclusion.

I do hope the document given to the press is a more carefully prepared statement than the one you sent me. Humanists claim to have THOUGHT, and they have, but relly [ sic] this document does not flatter any of the men who have produced it. I am sorry to have to be so brutally frank about it but I should hate to see Humanism set forth in any but the clearest terms and best form.

In 1973, we inquired of Clinton Lee Scott as to what had happened to Dr. Swift. Scott, the 1963 recipient of the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Pioneer Award and superintendent of the Universalist Churches of New England, was always outspoken in his humanist views. He wrote back:

Bruce Swift came to the Universalists I think from Presbyterian background, and became minister of the church in Buffalo in 1927 where he stayed for 10 or 11 years, then went to the Parkside Presbyterian Church, a wealthy congregation. St. Lawrence gave him a DD in 1932.

Swift was older than I, so he must be dead and gone to a Presbyterian heaven.

One can imagine what a difficult editorial problem would have confronted the committee if all of those to whom the confidential draft had been sent had, like Swift, presented en toto their own preferred statements. Consensus is not reached that way.

Spurred by criticisms of style, including those of Bruce Swift, the editors decided to seek expert help. In the later editing, we inserted a statement to the effect that we should not use words for which there was no verifiable referent.

Still, the question of style continued to be at issue. One such controversy arose over the use of the semantic plank. Philosopher E. A. Burtt suggested using it; Professor Robert Morss Lovett suggested dropping it. Dr. Bragg wrote of Burtt’s suggestion in an April 18 letter to Dr. Lovett:

I am enclosing a copy of a revised draft of a Humanist Manifesto. The changes are not in substance, or only slightly so, but in form. Edwin Burtt made one or two helpful suggestions and they have been included.

Could you find time in the next day or two to go over the thing, checking it for the last time. Some of us have been so close to the job for weeks that we are getting stale. Your word on punctuation, construction, etc., would ease our minds. We seem to have done about everything we are capable of.

It ought not to take a great deal of time. We are eager to release it in the near future. You will be interested to see the list of signatures. John Dewey, Harry Bames, Burtt have gone along with us. It would not be surprising if we caused some turmoil in the religious press. Let us hope!

Dr. Lovett, however, suggested dropping the semantic plank. On April 20 he replied:

I have looked over the Humanist Manifesto and made no changes, except scattering a few commas. Except in article 6, I think it rather absurd to instruct people as to how they shall use certain words. These words have a metaphorical value in literature, and I should say it was impossible to use them to symbolize "verifiable scientific knowledge," etc. I think this sentence unfortunately naive, and tending to color the whole document. It will certainly be seized upon for destructive comment. Personally, I cannot give up God in such expressions as "God damn it all!" any more than I can give up liquor.

I resent the must in both cases.

Bragg replied briefly:

I think your suggestion on the Sixth Thesis all to the good. Burtt was responsible for that revision and it went in with only the half hearted support of the drafting committee. I am glad you checked us in such round terms.

So, the semantic clause was dropped, leaving a loophole for the use of theistic language. Dr. Lovett’s remark has always caused me to wonder if profanity is the point of ultimate survival for "God language."

Bragg then wrote to Burtt on April 21:

In line with the suggestions you made in your recent letter to me the content of the Humanist Manifesto was changed. Thesis 6 was made to read: "We assert that the time has passed for theism, deism, modernism and the several varieties of ‘new thought.’ If traditional religious words such as god, salvation and soul are retained at all they must be unambiguously defined and used, without reservation, to symbolize verifiable scientific knowledge and empirically discoverable human values."

Now Robert Morss Lovett in checking the draft is rather scathing in denouncing that statement. I send you a copy of what he has to say. It is really quite funny and I am aware that you know Lovett. In other particulars we followed your suggestions almost to the word. Won’t you comment on this number Six and Lovett’s reaction to it? Could not we let it stand very simply as a flat assertion without ruling out those other possibilities?

Perhaps it will be best for me to include a copy of the Manifesto as we drew it up, the copy prior to Lovett’s check for form, etc. You will realize that there have been some changes in punctuation and a scattered word here and there. Send me your comment soon. We are eager to get it out in the near future.

Dr. Burtt replied on April 26:

Lovett’s comment on the sixth thesis is certainly an illuminating illustration of the impossibility of telling in advance what words are going to mean to anybody. What I had essentially in mind in the modifications I suggested in the fifth and sixth theses was that there are many liberal religionists who still feel that they can give genuine meaning to traditional terms that have been associated with theistic or at least modernistic points of view, but who are yet entirely at one with humanism in what I take to be its decisive emphases, such as unreserved commitment to scientific method, determination of value by intelligent assessment of human experiences of good, and an uncompromising stand on the social and economic problem. It seemed to me important that any such should be welcomed and not repelled by the manifesto. I do not agree entirely with such people, but at the same time I am not committed to an extreme naturalism, and think it would be a great pity for the manifesto to imply more radical doctrines in this direction than is necessary for an unreserved stand on the things that humanism does count vital. That you and your friends agree with this as a general policy I assume from your kindly response to my previous letter.

How would it do to restate the sixth thesis as follows: "We believe that the time has passed for theism, deism, modernism, and the several varieties of new thought. At the same time we welcome religious fellowship with any who interpret the human quest for the highest values in terms which have been associated with these positions (such as God, salvation, soul, and the like), as long as the interpretation is consistent with insistence on scientific method as the only sound guide to truth and on intelligent, democratic criticism of human experiences of good as the only dependable guide to ideals of value." This is somewhat awkward and needs smoothing in detail, but you will see my guiding idea. By the way, the fifteenth thesis also seems to me awkward, especially the second sentence. Can’t someone improve and clarify it a bit? I have no concrete suggestion, but I don’t quite like it. Another minor point-the first sentence of the last paragraph of the manifesto might seem to some readers a bit melodramatic. Would not this be better: "As religious humanists we stand on the above theses."

I appreciate deeply your genial response to my suggestions and shall be eager to see the public reaction to the manifesto when it appears.

On the basis of this important comment by Dr. Burtt, some final changes were made. Dr. Burtt’s interest in Western scientific and religious humanism diminished some years later, following his studies in the Orient and his considerable interest in Buddhism. However, his contribution to the evolution of "A Humanist Manifesto" was substantial, and his views of the movement five years later appear in the first edition of his Types of Religious Philosophy, in which he devotes about forty-five pages to religious humanism as a further development of modernism.


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