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Finngeir Hiorth Humanism

Review of Tony Davies’ Humanism (1997)

Finngeir Hiorth


Davies, Tony (1997) Humanism, Routledge, 11 New Fetter Lane, London EC4P 4EE and 29 West 35th Street, New York, NY 10001, 152 pp., bibliography, index, paperback GBP 6.99, hardback also available.

Anybody who knows anything at all about humanism knows that there are many humanisms. So in The Humanist Alternative, Some Definitions of Humanism, edited by Paul Kurtz, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY and Pemberton Books, London, 1973, 190 pp., we find the following humanisms: ethical humanism, religious humanism, atheistic humanism, heretical humanism, scientific humanism, naturalistic humanism, and just humanism (without any preceding adjective). Not all of these humanisms are different from each other, but on the other side this list of humanism is far from complete.

Davies does not mention Paul Kurtz in his new book, nor does he discuss secular humanism in any detail. Secular humanism is an expression which Paul Kurtz has helped to make well-known, or so one might believe. But in a book which, judged by its title, should be devoted to humanism, the author does not even mention Kurtz.

Other well-known humanists that Davies does not mention are: Corliss Lamont, J. P. van Praag, and M. N. Roy. Davies does mention Harold J. Blackham and his book Humanism, but Davies does not go into any details with regard to Blackham’s contribution to contemporary humanism. Julian Huxley is just mentioned in Davies’ book. F. C. S. Schiller’s book Studies in Humanism, London 1907, is mentioned in the bibliography, but in the text itself Schiller and his ideas are not discussed in spite of the fact that Schiller formulated a profound kind of humanism. There are many other important omissions in this book by Davies.

Davies (b, 1940) is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Birmingham. He is the co-author of Rewriting English, has edited two selections of Milton’s poetry and prose, and has published numerous articles on Milton and Renaissance writing. Davies is primarily a specialist in fiction and poetry. He is not a philosopher, and certainly not an analytic philosopher. He mentions some philosophers in his book, without giving any deeper analysis, however.

On the dust jacket it is claimed that Tony Davies offers students a clear, introductory guide to the complexities of humanism, one of the most contentious and divisive of concepts, outlining an introduction to problems and definitions, the emergence of ‘Man’ in fifteenth century writing and the later philosophes, a critique of the religion of humanity, religious, sexual and political themes of modem life and thought, critical debate between humanism, modernism and antihumanism, and the key figures, from Pico, Erasmus, and Milton to Nietzsche, Heidegger and Foucault, in detail.

This information about the contents of the book is misleading. The book is not “a clear, introductory guide to the complexities of humanism”. Davies on p. 3 mentions “seven distinct sub-definitions of humanism” in the Oxford English Dictionary. According to him these definitions “represent only a fraction of the senses and contexts in which the word has been used”.

This is true enough, but why not quote these definitions and senses and comment upon them? Nothing of the sort happens, nor does Davies propose any definition of his own. Davies has quite a number of quotes in his book. So I believe that he can quote correctly, but I am not convinced that he has understood much about humanism. So why has he been asked to write an introduction to a topic about which he, if judged by this book, knows next to nothing?

There may be other people who judge Davies’ new book more positively, but to me he only adds a new kind of humanism to the earlier humanisms, “hotchpotch humanism”, which is not humanism at all. Those who would like to learn more about hotchpotch humanism should read this book. Other people should rather read other books. Routledge still needs to publish a good book about humanism.


Finngeir Hiorth 24 July 1997

Kirkehaugsveien 3

N-0283 Oslo



Finngeir Hiorth, who was senior lecturer of philosophy at the University of Oslo until his retirement in 1993, has published widely in the fields of philosophy, theory of language and Indonesian studies. He is the author of Introduction to Atheism, Indian Secular Society, 850/8A Shivajinagar, Pune 411 004, India, 1995, 178 pp., bibliography, index, US$ 18.- post free, and of Introduction to Humanism, Indian Secular Society, 1996, 248 pp., US$ 15.- post free. The Indian Secular Society will also publish his Atheism in India. Another publication by Hiorth is Secularism in Sweden, Human-Etisk Forbund, St. Olavsgt. 27, N-0166 Oslo, Norway, 1995, 64 pp. His last publication is Secularism in Germany Oslo Fylkeslag av Human-Etisk Forbund, St. Olavsgt. 27, N-0166 Oslo, Norway, 1997, 44 pp.

“Review of Tony Davies’ Humanism” is copyright © 1997 by Finngeir Hiorth. All rights reserved.

The electronic version is copyright © 1998 Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Finngeir Hiorth. All rights reserved.

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