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The western humanist tradition 

The western humanist tradition
The western humanist tradition

Stan van Hooft

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date: 17 October 2017

Western humanism is not a single strand of thought. Indeed, so various is the use of the term ‘Humanism’, that it is almost impossible to give a single and unequivocal definition of it. It first came to prominence in the Renaissance of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries when it was discovered that ancient philosophers and writers could be as inspirational and informative as to the values by which to live as could the sacred texts of established religion. The study of the ‘humanities’ inaugurated at that time still undergirds the traditional idea of the university as a seat of higher learning. Today, however, the term is often associated with a militant form of secularism that utterly rejects religion, mysticism, and the sacred. [1, 2] Secular humanists of this stripe can be found arguing against religious instruction in schools, and defending science against creationists and other religious dogmatists. However, not all forms of modern humanism are polemical in this way. There are also forms of psychology and psychotherapy that describe themselves as ‘humanistic’. Describing itself as a ‘third force’ in psychology alongside behaviourism and psychoanalysis, humanistic psychology fully acknowledges individual autonomy and the pursuit of self-actualization in the lives of all individuals. Such an acknowledgement also marks the discourses of the ‘medical humanities’, which are sensitive to the existential and personal attributes of clinical patients. Nor was humanistic psychology unaware of the significance of spirituality. Some of its practitioners, such as Abraham Maslow (1908–1970), were instrumental in developing the field of ‘transpersonal psychology’, which ‘is concerned with the study of humanity’s highest potential, and with the recognition, understanding, and realization of unitive, spiritual, and transcendent states of consciousness.’ The aim of this chapter is not to describe any of these humanistic movements in detail. Nor is it to provide a detailed narrative in the history of ideas which would explain their emergence. Rather, it is to explore certain themes in the Western philosophical tradition upon which humanism in its many forms has drawn. This, in turn, will reveal that some of these themes offer considerable potential for a humanistic spirituality.

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