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On Humanism (Thinking in Action) [Paperback]

Richard Norman
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

16 Jun 2004 Thinking in Action
humanism /'hju:meniz(e)m/ n. an outlook or system of thought concerned with human rather than divine or supernatural matters.

Albert Einstein, Isaac Asimov, E.M. Forster, Bertrand Russell, and Gloria Steinem all declared themselves humanists. What is humanism and why does it matter? Is there any doctrine every humanist must hold? If it rejects religion, what does it offer in its place? Have the twentieth century's crimes against humanity spelled the end for humanism?

On Humanism is a timely and powerfully argued philosophical defence of humanism. It is also an impassioned plea that we turn to ourselves, not religion, if we want to answer Socrates' age-old question: what is the best kind of life to lead? Although humanism has much in common with science, Richard Norman shows that it is far from a denial of the more mysterious, fragile side of being human. He deals with big questions such as the environment, Darwinism and 'creation science', euthanasia and abortion, and then argues that it is ultimately through the human capacity for art, literature and the imagination that humanism is a powerful alternative to religious belief.

Drawing on a varied range of examples from Aristotle to Primo Levi and the novels of Virginia Woolf and Graham Swift, On Humanism is a lucid and much needed reflection on this much talked about but little understood phenomenon.


Product details

  • Paperback: 184 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge; First Edition edition (16 Jun 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415305233
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415305235
  • Product Dimensions: 1.4 x 12.8 x 19.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 681,478 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

'This outline of the humanist philosophy of life by Richard Norman is first class. It covers the history, philosophy, morality and meaning of humanism with extreme clarity ... a book of great lucidity, considerable thought and grace.' – New Humanist

'Balanced presentations like this are indeed welcome ... This is a good book: a book to make one think. It is enjoyable as such, but it might also be included as a reading for a Philosophy of Religion course.' – Philosophical Investigations

About the Author

Richard Norman is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Kent, UK. His work has been mainly in the areas of ethics and political philosophy.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Is this a statement of something we could call 'humanism'? Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
33 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars There is no god - now what? 18 July 2010
By Sphex
Format:Paperback
Humanism "is an attempt to think about how we should live without religion". With this simple phrase, Richard Norman captures something of the tentative and rational nature of humanism as well as the central fact of its opposition to religion, all of which he explores in greater detail in this splendid book. The clarity of style and straightforward language are in themselves exemplary of an ideal humanism, which avoids fudging an answer out of platitudes or forcing one from a set of inflexible absolutes. Anyone looking for a "definitive set of beliefs" or moral rules will be disappointed: there is no such thing as a humanist doctrine and no equivalent of a divine commander telling us right from wrong.

Does that mean humanism is spineless and without substance? Of course not. As Norman shows again and again, humanism requires both intellectual and moral courage to stand up to the worst aspects of our species. To become a humanist in the first place involves a fundamental rejection of religion, hardly an easy step in most times and places. Norman's "objection to religious belief is not that it is universally harmful but, simply, that it is false." He takes the truth claims of religion seriously (in contrast to Alain de Botton, who recently wrote that the "most boring question to ask about religion" is whether or not it's "true"). In the second chapter he argues that, while science undermines religion, no single bit of science proves that there is no god. For example, Darwinian theory does not refute religious belief: what it does refute is the argument from design. Is that such a victory? Yes it is, and a huge one for science, since we no longer need a divine creator "to explain the intricacies of living things and their apparent design".
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Humanism 20 April 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I found this book an instructive read which covered the topic of Humanism in what I found a constructive and concise way. It put forward the salient features and constructs of this approach to life in a way I found illuminating and would recommend it as a good introduction to the topic.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent New Last Chapter 28 April 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Richard Norman presents a lucid, accessible and compelling case for humanism. He rehearses familiar convincing arguments against religion as truth statement or doctrinal scheme. The exposition of his preferred Darwinian account is however somewhat incomplete. He mentions Gregor Mendel’s work on dominant genes in peas, but does not explain that this counters the challenge to Darwin’s theory of the possible blending of mutations back into host populations. He does not mention W D Hamilton’s work as the source of the ‘selfish gene’ theory, nor explain that this claims to refute altruism as a further challenge to Darwin. He also doesn’t respond to the challenge that there is no empirical verification of Hamilton’s hypothesis that only relatives bearing the same gene in a population demonstrate mutual altruism. He sets out William Paley’s watchmaker argument for a designer creation but surprisingly doesn’t directly confront this with David Hume’s counter argument that it fails to account for dis-functionality in nature.

Norman accepts the Darwinian account in a rather unquestioning way, much as he claims believers accept religion with insufficient challenge. Substantial challenges to Darwin include those of Darwin’s contemporary Richard Owen that the theory does not account for the total evolution of any one species, and the point that since species are defined by reproductive isolation (ie pairs of animals capable of reproducing fertile offspring), then a continuous theory has some difficulty explaining such a clearly discrete change. How does the first mutation to cross the species barrier find a mate for fertile reproduction of the new species? Mutations could be responsive rather than random, selection could be random rather than by a strict logic etc.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The BEST contemporary book on humanism 6 July 2008
By Kerry Walters - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
What a pity that this excellent little book is apparently out of print except for the obscenely over-priced library (I presume) edition. Richard Norman's discussion of humanism is both elegantly written and cogently defended. It is by far the single best recent defense of humanism available. (I might also add that all the other volumes in the series, "Thinking in Action," to which this belongs are also quite good.)

In five accessible but rigorous chapters, Norman provides a short history and definitional clarification of humanism; a defense of the superiority of scientific over religious methodology and first principles; a materialistic (but nonreductionistic) philosophical anthropology; a sketch of a godless morality based on the twin values of care and respect; and an analysis of the meaningful life that focuses on provisionality, particularity, and tragedy.

I foud Norman's chapter on morality to be the strongest in the entire book, with his discussion of science and religion and human nature close runners-up. The final chapter, on the meaning of life within a humanistic context, I found the least satisfying--not because I actually thought Norman's arguments were bad, but because I thought they needed to be fleshed out more fully. I was surprised, for example, given the importance for Norman of "narrative," that there was no discussion of philosopher Richard Rorty's discussions of "edifying narratives."

Still, one book can't do everything, and what Norman's book does is really excellent. It's as elegant a defence of humanism as we're likely to see for quite a while.
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent New Last Chapter 28 April 2014
By Geoff Crocker - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
Richard Norman presents a lucid, accessible and compelling case for humanism. He rehearses familiar convincing arguments against religion as truth statement or doctrinal scheme. The exposition of his preferred Darwinian account is however somewhat incomplete. He mentions Gregor Mendel’s work on dominant genes in peas, but does not explain that this counters the challenge to Darwin’s theory of the possible blending of mutations back into host populations. He does not mention W D Hamilton’s work as the source of the ‘selfish gene’ theory, nor explain that this claims to refute altruism as a further challenge to Darwin. He also doesn’t respond to the challenge that there is no empirical verification of Hamilton’s hypothesis that only relatives bearing the same gene in a population demonstrate mutual altruism. He sets out William Paley’s watchmaker argument for a designer creation but surprisingly doesn’t directly confront this with David Hume’s counter argument that it fails to account for dis-functionality in nature.

Norman accepts the Darwinian account in a rather unquestioning way, much as he claims believers accept religion with insufficient challenge. Substantial challenges to Darwin include those of Darwin’s contemporary Richard Owen that the theory does not account for the total evolution of any one species, and the point that since species are defined by reproductive isolation (ie pairs of animals capable of reproducing fertile offspring), then a continuous theory has some difficulty explaining such a clearly discrete change. How does the first mutation to cross the species barrier find a mate for fertile reproduction of the new species? Mutations could be responsive rather than random, selection could be random rather than by a strict logic etc.

Norman claims that ‘the theory of natural selection is now accepted by all reputable biologists’ (p31, although on page 45 he writes that this same argument is ‘not good enough’). This seems a tautology, and an insufficient foundation for a conclusion, since it ignores the social and political nature of scientific theory advanced by Thomas Kuhn. Although Norman does acknowledge that science is not an absolute authority, he does tend to suppose that it is. He could have included some material on the epistemology of science. As genetics researcher Nick Lane in his review of the Adam Rutherford’s book ‘Creation’ observed ‘we know less than we think’ (Observer 6 April 2013). Some philosophy of science would help here.

Turning to religion, Norman reaches the same conclusion as Roy Porter in his ‘Flesh in the Age of Reason’ that ‘there is no separate soul’ (p72). This however does not exclude the possibility of a temporary holistically integrated soul (a philosophy of ‘prevenience’), and therefore a spiritual dimension to human life. Norman’s review of religion interpreted other than as truth statement but as meta-narrative from meaning in myth is sensitive, generous and laudable. He welcomes the contribution which religious story can offer, as long as religion claims no privilege for its mythology. He does however struggle with a resulting human religion which he criticises for being indeterminate (pp 174, 181, 183, 185). It’s not at all clear why religion should be required to be determinate if its contribution is myth rather than truth statement or doctrine. He doesn’t require science to be determinate.

The last chapter, new to this 2012 edition, is excellent, generous in spirit, and hugely welcome. Norman calls for a dialogue between atheism, humanism and religion. ‘Humanists’ he writes (p186), ‘need to engage with it (the cultural heritage of Christianity) not just as form but as content, to work at understanding what we can learn from it and what it can tell us about the human condition’. He offers brief expositions of John Cottingham’s proposed religious virtues of humility, hope, awe, and thankfulness. This exemplifies the dialogue and interaction Norman is calling for. It is enriching. If we can develop this into wider contexts, it will be a most welcome shift towards a creative synthesis to replace the stale confrontation between secular atheism and the religious tradition.

Geoff Crocker
Author ‘An Enlightened Philosophy – Can an Atheist Believe Anything?’
Editor ‘Atheist Spirituality’
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Required Reading for Humans 14 Jan 2013
By Gardar Johann - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This book should be on the curriculum of every school in the world.
Provides an alternative to outdated ideas of religion.
3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intellectual defence of Humanism 21 Jan 2006
By Kent Stevens - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is a good book that realistically assesses Humanism. It argues strongly against the existence of God. It also shows that life can be meaningful without necessarily believing in the supernatural.
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