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philosophy and practice

Being a humanist — day and night

Kees Waaldijk, a member of CYC-NET's Board of Governors, was Senior Teacher at the Hogeschool de Horst in Holland, a training college for care workers. This address was given in a seminar on youth care for Czech and Slovakian care workers, at Bratislava.


The humanist went to bed but could not fall asleep easily, as is the case with many humanists nowadays. He was not so much worrying about situations in the world as about his own identity.

Who am I, calling myself a humanist? In other words: What does humanism mean in our time?

Is humanism a philosophy of life arising from deep respect for human cultural creations? No, that sounds nice, but would be too elitist. What would be the implications of such a definition for millions of good people not sharing or participating in so-called higher cultural creativity?

Is humanism – asks our still-awake humanist – the basic world orientation of people shaking off the burden of mythological world-interpretation, of religious authority – Bible, Church and Pope – putting man and human values above all other focus of orientation? No, that sounds very emancipated, but too arrogant towards many concerned and decent believers loving their fellow men.

And furthermore: humanism conceived as non-religiosity would put me – the nearly asleep humanist – in the company of a crowd of very antihumane atheists. Should the essence of humanism than perhaps be seen in the human rationality defined by Descartes? No, that would be too 'cold' and it would ignore the deep crisis of European science and rationality so thoroughly analysed – among others – by two Moravia-born thinkers, Edmund Husserl (1) and Jan Patocka (2).

But what about humanism as a deep-rooted confidence in the goodness, in the perfection, at least in the perfectibility of man? Our humanist felt attracted by this definition, but had hesitations nevertheless. Can one have his confidence after Auschwitz and after Stalin's prisons and camps?

So let us look for the essence of humanism in the inalienable right and capacity of man to develop and actualize himself as an individual. This would at least legitimize humanistic psychology as the most authentic starting point for understanding human behaviour. But here, too, hesitation was felt by our (now almost sleeping) humanist. Individual self-development as the very essence of humanism would imply the cruel negation of the far-reaching delimitation of man by outer and inner circumstances, a delimitation so convincingly described by Marx and Freud.

Individual self-actualization is a seductive concept, but it might be music too nice for people in imprisonment or slavery.
So our humanist was far from falling asleep. On the whole, his education prepared him quite well for the crisis of religion. But a deep identity crisis of humanism was too much for him. The end of humanism and the threatening death of humane man connected with that, was for him not a "fröhliche Wissenschaft", a cheerful knowledge as Friedrich Nietzsche had called the death of God a century before.

So he continued to be awake and to worry. To his mind came a sentence (perhaps a quote): Man is responsible for man.
Not a very reassuring thought, especially when expanded: Every man is responsible for every man. At least when coming within his horizon. It reminded him of the difficult thought of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (3): Man meeting man can never be sure not to be responsible, even not to be in debt with regard to this fellow man. Being answerable for one's fellow man and for that reason being in debt with regard to him might be a fundamental dimension of being humane, of being a humanist.

Sleep overcame him and he had a nice dream. About values. The very word "values" he loved already. It sounded so solemn and elevated.

To his mind came small groups of words. So did for instance: respect; modesty; tolerance; acceptance; and, honesty; sincerity; authenticity; fairness. Another cluster: concern; solidarity; compassion; love; warmth. Again another group of words (values?) came to his mind's eye: openness; receptivity; interest; curiosity.

A following cluster was: availability; readiness; loyalty; faithfulness; fidelity.

Then came: strength; courage; nerve; spirit. enthusiasm; hopefulness; optimism.

And finally: responsibility; liability; accountability.

In his dream our humanist enjoyed all these marvelous value concepts. He experienced them all as nice, important and in mutual harmony. But also as a little bit vague, diffuse, abstract and therefore as not committing him very much, not resulting in concrete obligations. He had – in his dream – the feeling that these values, so formulated, could easily be forgotten in complex and confusing situations.

That gave our humanist in the back of his mind, in his nice dream, a certain uneasiness. But his dream was a nice one, nevertheless. And his long sleep strengthened his inner forces.


After several hours he awoke and started his day, working, meeting different people.

(By the way: being a humanist is not a profession. As a matter of fact he was a social worker, working with young people and their families in trouble.)

Here are some of his remarkable moments and encounters: Talking with one of his new clients in the entrance hall of a railway station he was confronted with a surprising question: "Who, after all, are you yourself?" For two seconds several possible answers flashed through his mind. For instance:

I am mister so and so, of that agency.

My name is Johnson and I am prepared to help and support you.

That is not important now.

But our humanist, a little to his own surprise, gave a different answer: "I am Peter and I feel quite uneasy now."

A long conversation began.

Has that to do with humanism?

Not much later in that same conversation the youngster said: "You told me that you would like to develop regular contact with me, at least for the next few months. But, tell me, what kind of contact are you aiming at?"

And through the mind of our social worker/humanist passed in a brief moment:

A contact as good as possible.

A cooperative contact so that I can help you.

I really feel sympathy for you.

But in fact he said: "You confuse me. I hope we can do something together. It is up to the two of us what our contact will be like."

And in the conversation that followed, he expressed to his surprise more concern and .... more irritation than he had felt toward this boy up till now. They did not find a name for their contact, but they became a little bit closer nevertheless.

Two weeks later, our social worker/humanist sat with this same boy at the river bank. They talked about problems and — most of the time — about motorbikes. The youngster was more reserved than usual. But all of a sudden he asked:

"Peter, tell me now, how do you look at me? Do you see me just as another case? Or as a dirty thief? Or again as an incomprehensible immigrant child? Or as a hopeless case? Or perhaps as an interesting example of early adolescent ego-weakness?"

Our humanist friend was really embarrassed. The boy asked his questions with a lot of distrust. And at the same time the humanist's own mind was a chaotic mixture of half a dozen unfinished different diagnoses. The only thing he said, after a long silence was:

"More than anything else, for me you are just Stephan."

To his astonishment the boy started crying and shouted angrily: "You are trying to help me, but you forget my parents and the other kids. You even have an aversion for them."

Within one second our humanist heard himself saying: "Why not go visit them now?"

And so they went.

The visit was quite a shock for our humanist/social worker. Not for any terrible things discovered, nor for any vehement conflicts. Mostly because the people were much nicer and kinder than he expected. And because he realized that he had harboured a very negative image of this family. He heard a lot about the childhood of his client, not included in the files, but in particular some nice things. And one story which confronted him — our care worker — accorded amazingly with some of his own childhood experiences. He spoke about this a couple of weeks later with Stephan.

After this visit nothing spectacular changed. But sometimes the boy would ask the social worker to do something very practical for his parents, or for a younger brother; for instance related to money or housing.

In-between our humanist realized how much more concrete, encompassing and committed his responsibility for this boy became.

Several weeks later Peter and Stephan had a different conversation.

Stephan started: "We spoke so often of finding — with your help — my way in society. But what kind of society are you talking about?" And Stephan added a vivid picture of many bad things he had seen in his part of the city; and also of the glimpses he caught of the life of the rich and more fiercely of the disdain toward the group to which he belonged. They had a long discussion about these topics and Peter expressed — more strongly than he usually did — his own criticism and even despair with regard to their community at present. He even told Stephan to his own surprise about his political concerns, sympathies and ... activities. And in the back of his mind was a principle he came upon in studying Jan Amos Komensky (4):

"Bringing up children without dreaming of and fighting for a better world is a lie."

So far these were some of the encounters and reflections of our social worker/humanist.

One night he was again reflecting on being a social worker and at the same time a humanist: "I am sure about being a social worker, but how to be a real humanist? Perhaps I am becoming one".

Humanism has to do not only with autonomy and being accountable for one's deeds. It also implies preparedness to accept responsibility for people. Not only for people we choose ourselves or who are assigned to us, but also for people who cross our way unexpectedly.

Humanism also implies responsibility for the society we represent in a certain way to children, to newcomers and to people in marginal status.

At last our humanist fell asleep. Did he have a nice dream? Or a nightmare?


(1) Husserl, Edmund. Die Krisis der europaischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentalePhänomenologie. Felix Meiner Verlag. Hamburg 1977. (Urspr.1936).

(2) Patocka, Jan. Philosophy and Selected Writings. University of Chicago Press, 1989. (Esp. Warsaw Lecture, 1971).

(3) Levinas, Emmanuel. Autrement qu'être ou au delà de l'essence. Nijhof 1986. (Or/1974).

(4) Comenius, Jan Amos. Gewalt sei fern den Dingen. Ein Auswahl aus seinen Schriften. Salzer Verlag, Heilbronn 1971, and Patocka, Jan. Die Philosophie der Erziehung des J.A. Comenius. SchOning, Paderborn.


"States shall protect the child from economic exploitation and work that may interfere with education or be harmful to health and well-being. States shall protect children from the illegal use of drugs and involvement in drug production or trafficking."
— From the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child

This feature: Waaldijk, K. (1992) Being a humanist, day and night. FICE Bulletin. Spring. No. 6 pp. 8-11