Summer 2009

Humans & humanists

Harriet Ritvo

“When I use a word,” says Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, “it means just what I choose it to mean– neither more nor less.” Alice demurs on several grounds, appealing first to contrary popular consensus–“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’”–and then to the essential limits of language: “The question is . . . whether you can make words mean so many different things.” Neither of Alice’s objections fazes Dumpty, who countertheorizes that “the question is . . . which is to be master,” then illustrates the practical benefits of his approach with a brilliant interpretation of “Jabberwocky,” a poem whose vocabulary Alice had previously found impenetrable.1 There is, of course, much to be said on both sides of this debate. Many people have, like Dumpty, recognized the power of vocabulary and made similar attempts to control definitional borders. If, again like Dumpty, they have neglected to acknowledge the alternative viewpoints represented by Alice and her ilk, they have usually found this easier said than done.

The term human has in recent years been the site of such contestation and struggle among humanist scholars, whose self-categorization may seem to beg such questions. Previously, although humanism itself has often been controversial, a fair amount of consensus existed among practitioners and critics about its denotation. This consensus has been notably durable. In the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the first three senses of human distinguish “mankind” from animals, from “mere objects or events,” and from “God or superhuman beings.” All three of these senses emerged before 1600, and none has yet been labeled obsolete.2 The OED’s definition of humanist is much more restricted, focusing on divisions among learned men, rather than among orders of creation. Its senses refer to the various subcategories of scholarship that humanists have chosen to explore; none of these senses has yet been labeled obsolete either.3

In 1976, the cultural critic Raymond Williams included humanity (as representing “a complex group of words, including human, humane, humanism, humanist, [and] humanitarian”) in Keywords, his compendium of brief essays on common terms, the senses of which had altered or splintered as a result of cultural and political pressures that emerged during and after World War II. But a crude statistical calculation suggests that Williams did not consider this word or group of words as among the most problematic or interesting in his collection: he allotted it only three pages. Words whose evolution he considered particularly compelling or important–class, culture, democracy, masses, nature, realism, socialist, and structural–commanded, in comparison, five pages or more. In his discussion, Williams took the limits of the human for granted, emphasizing instead the shades of moral connotation that distinguish human from humane, and the shades of intellectual connotation that distinguish the specialties of some “humanists” from those of others.4 Keywords included no entry for animal, beast, or monster–or for machine, god, or deity, for that matter–and no such entries are planned for an updated version of the book currently under preparation. These editorial decisions may suggest that, in the view of many humanists, the boundaries between humanity and its abutting categories remain relatively unproblematic.5

.  .  .


  • 1Lewis Carroll [Charles Lutwidge Dodgson], Through the Looking Glass, in The Annotated Alice, ed. Martin Gardner (1865; New York: Bramhall House, 1960), 269–272.
  • 2Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “human.”
  • 3Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “humanist.”
  • 4Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 11–13, 148–151.
  • 5Author’s personal communication with Jonathan Arac.
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