Skip main navigation
We use cookies to give you a better experience, if that’s ok you can close this message and carry on browsing. For more info read our cookies policy.
We use cookies to give you a better experience. Carry on browsing if you're happy with this, or read our cookies policy for more information.

'Humanism': a history of the word

It is important to recognise that the humanist approach to life is not a purely modern phenomenon. Humanist thinking can be found throughout human history. Before we reveal some of humanism’s diverse manifestations, Andrew Copson here introduces us to the history of the word ‘humanism’.

The first use of the noun ‘humanist’ in English in print appears to be in 1589. It was a borrowing from the recent Italian word umanista and it referred for many years… to a student of ancient languages or more widely to sophisticated academics of any subjects other than theology. There was no use of the word ‘humanism’ to partner this use of ‘humanist’ but, if there had been, it would have denoted simply the study of ancient languages and culture. As the decades passed, and the ‘humanists’ of the sixteenth century receded into history, they were increasingly seen as being not just students of pre‐Christian cultures but advocates for those cultures. By the dawn of the nineteenth century, ‘humanist’ denoted not just a student of the humanities – especially the culture of the ancient European world – but a holder of the view that this curriculum was best guaranteed to develop the human being personally, intellectually, culturally, and socially.

The first appearances of the noun ‘humanism’ in English in print were in the nineteenth century and were both translations of the recent German coinage humanismus. In Germany this word had been and was still deployed with a range of meanings in a wide variety of social and intellectual debates. On its entry into English it carried two separate and distinct meanings. On the one hand, in historical works like those of Jacob Burckhardt and JA Symonds, it was applied retrospectively to the revival of classical learning in the European Renaissance and the tradition of thought ignited by that revival. Its second meaning referred to a more contemporary attitude of mind… Throughout the nineteenth century the content of this latter ‘humanism’, the holders of which attitude were now also called ‘humanists’, was far from systematized, and the word often referred generically to a range of attitudes to life that were non‐religious, non‐theistic, or non‐Christian. The term was mostly used positively but could also be disparaging. The British prime minister WE Gladstone used ‘humanism’ dismissively to denote positivism and the philosophy of Auguste Comte, and it was not with approval that the Dublin Review referred to ‘heathen‐minded humanists’.

Within academia the use of ‘humanism’ to refer to the Renaissance movement (often: ‘Renaissance humanism’) persisted and still persists; outside academia, it was the second meaning of ‘humanism’ and ‘humanist’ that prevailed in the twentieth century. By the start of that century the words were being used primarily to denote approaches to life – and the takers of those approaches – that were distinguished by the valuing of human beings and human culture in contrast with valuing gods and religion, and by affirming the effectiveness of human reason applied to evidence in contrast with theism, theological speculation, and revelation. At this time the meaning of ‘humanism’, though clarified as non‐theistic and non‐religious, was still broad. It was only in the early and mid‐twentieth century that men and women began deliberately systematizing and giving form to this ‘humanism’ in books, journals, speeches, and in the publications and agendas of what became humanist organizations. In doing so, they affirmed that the beliefs and values captured by this use of the noun ‘humanism’ were not merely the novel and particular products of Europe but had antecedents and analogues in cultures all over the world and throughout history, and they gave ‘humanism’ the meaning it has today.

Connections can obviously be drawn between older definitions of ‘humanist’ and ‘humanism’ and its more contemporary definition (in particular, the value the Renaissance humanists placed on the study of human beings and human life). However, it is important to recognise that when we study the history of human thought, we are unlikely to find many examples of the word ‘humanism’ used before the twentieth century in the same way as it might be used today.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK

Contact FutureLearn for Support