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Kloe Fowler took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2015. In this post she writes about ‘Humanism’ as a philosophical keyword.

Professor Richard Dawkins on a London bus displaying the Atheist message. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA

Professor Richard Dawkins on a London bus displaying the Atheist message.
Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA

You may remember, back in 2009, seeing London buses adorned with a message reading ‘there probably is no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’. The campaign was the creation of the British Humanist Association (BHA), a national Humanist group whose campaigners felt that the adverts would be a ‘reassuring antidote’ to religious adverts which ‘threaten eternal damnation’ to passengers.

The word ‘humanist’ preceded the word ‘humanism’ and began life with different connotations to its present day meaning. The word umanista was first employed in fifteenth century Italy as a slang term to describe a university professor of the studia humanitatis – the humanities. However the word ‘humanism’, in roughly the same context we speak of it today, first appeared in the German form humanismus as late as 1808.[1]

To define… humanism briefly, I would say that it is a philosophy of joyous service for the greater good of all humanity in this natural world and advocating the methods of reason, science, and democracy. – Corliss Lamont.[2]

The roots of humanist philosophy lie with the ‘fathers of humanism’. The early fourteenth-century Italian scholar, Francesco Petrarch, is often accredited with being one of the first humanists. Petrarch rejected traditional medieval scholarship in favor of a revival of Classical authors like Aristotle, Plato and Tacitus and, by doing so, Petrarch laid the foundations for a philosophy which would eventually manifest in a formally recognized movement, punctuated by national organizations and institutions.[3]

Desiderius Erasmus's Collectanea Adagiorum (1518) Photograph: Bavarian State Library

Desiderius Erasmus’s Collectanea Adagiorum (1518)
Photograph: Bavarian State Library

Petrarch’s ideas were developed further during the Renaissance. The word ‘Renaissance’ derives from the French term for ‘rebirth’ and it is accepted by most to mean the revival of classical scholarship and learning in Western Europe between 1400 and 1600.[4]  Renaissance humanists were followers of literary, Christian humanism, where the pursuit of self-knowledge was seen as a way of getting closer to God whilst also emphasising the principles of the Holy Trinity, namely the role of Jesus as the human son of God the Father.[5] The popularity of humanism during the Renaissance can be seen in the rising popularity of humanist literature. Desiderius Erasmus, for example, emphasised the importance of Greek scholarship via manuscripts like the Adagia. The Adagia began life in 1500 as a collection of eight-hundred and eighteen Greek proverbs. By the death of Erasmus in 1536, the collection had grown to around four-hundred and fifty-one proverbs.[6]

The eighteenth century witnessed a departure from Christian humanism. The age of Enlightenment was characterised by scientific discovery, which consequently ushered in a new definition of humanism. Eighteenth century humanism became fixated on ideas of rationality, reason and the natural order. Auguste Comte, the ‘father of sociology,’ even attempted to rationalise the twelve-month Gregorian calendar by devising a new thirteen-month calendar with an extra day to worship the dead and a system for leap years. Finally, Comte proposed that each month be named after a Classical graeco-Roman scholar hence, March would become ‘Aristotle’.[7]

The philosophy of ‘Positivism’ was the brainchild of Comte. It stipulated that any attempts to prove truths about the world were futile unless they were based on sense perception or empirical scientific evidence.[8] Over time, Comte combined his Positivist ideals with existing humanist ones and embodied them in the formation of the ‘Religion of Humanity’. The Religion of Humanity was an atheistic religion which aimed to eliminate transcendence and superstition but maintain religious rituals and ethical teaching.

A Positivist Church in Porto Alegre, Brazil (2014) Photograph: the Science University of Iceland

A Positivist Church in Porto Alegre, Brazil (2014)
Photograph: the Science University of Iceland

 “On or about December 1910, human nature changed… all human reactions shifted… and when human relations change, there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics and literature” – Virginia Woolf.[9]

The early disasters of the early twentieth century resulted in widespread pessimism and disillusionment in Europe. People began to identify that humanism had been unable to prevent any of the disasters which had affected them.[10] However, post-war disillusionment was endemic only to wartime and the humanist philosophy made a quick recovery, particularly among the Allied nations. In 1952, in Amsterdam, the humanist movement became formally recognised as the ‘International Humanist and Ethical Union’ (IHEU).

At around the same time, Marxist principles were brought to bear on Humanism. Karl Marx’s early writings, like The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology, concentrated on Marx’s theory of ‘alienation,’ the idea that humans had lost their natural attributes and abilities as a result of living in an artificial, class-based society. In 1953 Nikita Khrushchev espoused these ideas at a party congress and consequently delivered a current of class-conscious ‘Marxist Humanism’ across Western Europe. By 1966, Erich Fromm and several other Marxist and ‘new left wing’ Humanists had outlined their world-view in An International Symposium of Socialist Humanism.

In 1961 Julian Huxley (grandson of ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ Thomas Huxley, and brother of novelist Aldous Huxley), further consolidated the Humanist world-view by compiling works by himself and twenty-five other leading thinkers into a comprehensive volume called The Humanist Frame. Unusually, Huxley was a somewhat fanatical believer of Humanism. He viewed Humanism as a revolutionary, world-unifying philosophy. Huxley says ‘Humanism is seminal. We must learn what it means and then disseminate humanist ideas and finally inject them where possible into practical affairs as a guiding frame’.[11]

“Because humanists believe in the unity of humanity and have faith in the future of man, they have never been fanatics” – Erich Fromm.[12]

As we emerge into the twenty-first century, for the first time in history, mankind has been brought together by worldwide global problems. Issues like international security, the population explosion and the needs of third-world countries have recently begun to be addressed.[13] The international climate of humanitarian humanism has been most recently demonstrated by the global response to the ongoing Ebola epidemic in Western Africa.

However, Humanism has still not acquired the recognition it deserves. Since the millennium, western society has been dogged by the threat of terrorism. The paradoxical rise of religious fundamentalism in the Middle East not only threatens the west with disruption and violence but it also threatens the west with the internal indoctrination of its peoples. Since the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, reports of atrocities committed by the radical Islamic group Islamic State (IS) have appeared daily in British news. Moreover, the UK Foreign Office estimates that around four-hundred Britons have travelled to Syria to fight for IS.

A motif which embodies the contemporary definition of Humanism (2014) Photograph: International Humanist and Ethical Union

A motif which embodies the contemporary definition of Humanism (2014). Photograph: International Humanist and Ethical Union

In light of this threat it seems to me that now is the perfect time for British society to adopt the principles of humanism. The atheist, collectivist and humanitarian qualities of humanism are invaluable to a modern nation tormented by the threat of violence and radicalism. The Atheist Bus campaign was launched six years ago and the BHA has not launched a repeat campaign since. Unfortunately, the marketing department at the BHA seems to be redundant at a time when British society is desperate for the reassurance of a shared, rational belief system.

Whilst writing this post I stumbled upon a motif which was of great interest to me. To my understanding, it perfectly exemplifies our contemporary understanding of the word Humanism. It advocates knowledge, rationalism, human rights, liberty and collectivism and is contextualised by the recent Charlie Hebdo tragedy and cast in front of the universally-recognised humanist logo.

So, I will conclude with a proposal. I propose that the BHA awake from their redundancy and advocate the updated definition of Humanism. I suggest that they renew their campaign and use this motif, combined with public transport, as a vehicle for disseminating humanist ideas. With the help of evolved humanist philosophy, perhaps the East and West will one day be able to reconcile their differences in a rational and humanitarian way.

Further Reading

A. Bullock, The Humanist Tradition in the West (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 1985).

N. Everitt, The Non-Existence of God (London: Routledge, 2004).

E. Fromm (ed) An International Symposium of Socialist Humanism (New York: Anchor Books, 1966).

P. O. Kristeller, Renaissance Thought and the Arts: Collected Essays (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1964).

C. Lamont, The Philosophy of Humanism, Eighth Edition (New York: Humanist Press, 1997).

J. S. Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivism (London: Trubner and Co, 1865).

L. and M. Morain, Humanism as the Next Step (Washington: The Humanist Press, 2012) (Click here to download your free copy from the American Humanist Association)


[1] A. Bullock, The Humanist Tradition in the West (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 1985) p.12.

[2] C. Lamont, The Philosophy of Humanism, Eighth Edition (New York: Humanist Press, 1997) pp.12-13.

[3] R. Morris, ‘Petrarch, the first humanist’ The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/29/style/29iht-conway_ed3__0.html [accessed: 14/02/2015 01:05].

[4] W. R. Estep, Renaissance and Reformation (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1986) p.20.

[5] J. Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism: A Philosophy of Culture for the Church in the World (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2012) p.118.

[6] J. McConica, ‘Erasmus Disiderius, c.1467-1536’ in H. G. Matthew and B. Harrison (eds) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[7] E. Asprem, ‘Positivism and the Religion of Humanity’ Heterodoxology, http://heterodoxology.com/2010/03/08/positivism-and-the-religion-of-humanity/ [accessed: 14/02/2015 01:35].

[8] H. B. Acton, ‘Comte’s Positivism and the Science of Society’ Philosophy, Vol.26, No.99 (1951) pp.291-310.

[9] Bullock, The Humanist Tradition in the West, p.133.

[10] J. Vanheste, Guardians of the Humanist Legacy: T. S. Eliot’s Criterion Network and its relevance to our Postmodern World (Leiden: Brill, 2007). p.3.

[11] J. Huxley (ed)The Humanist Frame (New York: George Allen and Unwin, 1961) pp.11-49.

[12] E. Fromm (ed) Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium (New York: Anchor Books, 1966) p.vii.

[13] H. J. Blackham, Humanism (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1968) pp.22-23.


Hannah Askari took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2015. In this post she writes about ‘Individualism’ as a philosophical keyword.

Image from http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/8940211/in-defence-of-individualism/

Image from http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/8940211/in-defence-of-individualism/

Individualism (a)

‘The habit of being independent and self-reliant; behaviour characterized by the pursuit of one’s own goals without reference to others; free and independent individual action or thought.’[1]

I began my research with a simple Google of ‘individualism.’ It resulted, interestingly, with the discovery of a website titled Individualism. After a few more searches I found that this website has wholeheartedly embraced social media and also has a Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and a Facebook page. The website describes itself, rather paradoxically, as ‘a collective dedicated to celebrating men’s style.’ It’s a place where you (and the rest of the internet world) can find tips and tricks on how to express your individuality aesthetically. For myself, this online faction exemplifies what ‘individualism’ means today in the twenty-first century.

To be ‘individual’ can today often compliment a person with a unique fashion sense or eccentricity; something the website is adhering to. However, ‘individualism’ is still also a word with a range of connotations. It is a political philosophy that puts the individual’s moral worth at its centre. Left-wing commentator, columnist and author Owen Jones complains about the promotion of ‘dog-eat-dog individualism’[2] of contemporary Tories as a replacement for strong working-class values such as community and solidarity. In this sense, to be ‘individual’ is often associated with selfishness, egotism and greed; adjectives that most would agree is not particularly desirable.

Nonetheless, the political and aesthetic ideal of ‘individualism’ actually has a much longer history.

Oscar Wilde, is arguably one of the primary figures when thinking about aesthetic individualism. His flamboyant philosophy justified his colourful persona; which is articulated through fictional characters in his literature and essays. Wilde believed in the value that ‘aesthetics are higher than ethics’[3]; he believed the superior aim in life was to be able to ‘discern the beauty of a thing.’[4] His philosophy was an attack on the old-fashioned Victorian values of altruism. He, and other anti-altruists ‘wanted to create a new moral language and a new kind of ethics’[5]; one which focused on art and the individual. Although Wilde’s philosophy of aestheticism was not totally new or original, it did allow a real distancing from Victorian tradition. Wilde’s provocative interpretations are exemplified in De Profundis in which he writes of Christ that:

People have tried to make him out an ordinary philanthropist, or ranked him as an altruist with the unscientific and sentimental. But he was really neither one nor the other[6]

Ultimately, Wilde puts forward Christ as ‘the most supreme of individualists’[7] and proposes that one should be helpful and charitable to others, not for their benefit but for one’s own self-fulfilment.

Oscar Wilde flamboyancy in picture form. Image from http://www.oscarwildeinamerica.org/features/the-modern-messiah.html

Oscar Wilde: flamboyancy in picture form. Image from http://www.oscarwildeinamerica.org/features/the-modern-messiah.html

Degeneration theorist, Max Nordau, said that Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic individualism was only ‘a purely anti-socialistic, ego-maniacal recklessness and hysterical longing to make a sensation.’[8] Understandably for the conventional Victorian, Wilde was the incarnation of the signs of a troubling modern culture in the 1890s.

In the 1890s, English philosopher G.E. Moore was inspired by Oscar Wilde, and began to compare the importance of altruism and egoism as ethical moralities. He was asking himself questions such as ‘are we selfish?’ and ‘do we love ourselves best?’[9] His 1903 publication Principia Ethica, settles that:

Egoism is undoubtedly superior to altruism as a doctrine of means; in the immense majority of cases the best thing we can do is to aim at securing some good in which we are concerned, since for that very reason we are more likely to secure it.[10]

Principia Ethica is an innovative philosophical enquiry into what it is that constitutes ‘good’. For the forward thinking Bloomsbury Group it became a sort of Bible and laid the philosophical groundwork of their aesthetic principles. For both Moore and those of the Bloomsbury Group, the ethical ‘good’ was embodied by the importance of individual relationships and personal life. Moore furthered Wilde’s belief that detection of beauty ‘is the finest point to which we can arrive,’[11] defining beautiful as ‘that of which the admiring contemplation is good in itself.’[12] For G.E. Moore, it was in the goodness of art and beauty in which one found moral meanings, not in philanthropy and thinking of others.

Individualism (b)

‘The principle or theory that individuals should be allowed to act freely and independently in economic and social matters without collective or state interference.’[13]

Anarchist-feminist Dora Marsden worked for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU ) but became motivated to express her individualism. She was known for her involvement in serious political demonstrations; which eventually led to a formal break from the WSPU. She established her own magazine near the end of 1911: The Freewoman: A Weekly Feminist Review. She wished to advocate a feminism which dealt with more than just suffrage; a ‘third-wave way before her time.

Dora Marsden being arrested for her suffragette activism in Manchester 1909. Image from Greater Manchester Police Museum

Dora Marsden being arrested for her suffragette activism in Manchester 1909. Image from Greater Manchester Police Museum

It was Max Stirner’s The Ego and his Own, which offered a philosophy dedicated to individualism that influenced Marsden even further. Stirner argues self-mastery is only able to exist when the individual is free from all obligations, only then than the individual be sure that they are never used by others for their ends but only by the individual for the individual’s own ends. Stirner believed that a platform concerned with the welfare of groups would ruin those exceptional individuals.

It was this concept of the individual (and the lack of funding) for The Freewoman, which drove Dora Marsden to create The New Freewoman: An Individualist Review; It followed that:

The New Freewoman is not for the advancement of Woman, but for the empowering of individuals—men and women; it is not to set women free, but to demonstrate the fact that “freeing” is the individual’s affair and must be done first-hand[14]

The New Freewoman was a short-lived publication and by January 1914 it had morphed into The Egoist: An Individualist Review. The Egoist became one of the primary magazines of modernism, and was home to a number of influential literary artists, such as Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, T. S. Eliot. Moreover, James Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was printed as a serial in The Egoist.

Marsden’s transformation to Stirnian individualism can actually be seen as a natural development. It all began as a protest against the Pankhursts’ methods and rejected the idea that the women’s movement was dependent on the sacrifice of individualism. Her magazines are a satisfying evidence for her changing and evolving perspective; firstly as a supporter of democratic suffrage and then an advocate of anarchistic individualism.

The transformation of the journal under Marsden's editorship. Image from http://modjourn.org/

The transformation of the journal under Marsden’s editorship. Image from http://modjourn.org/

Nevertheless it was not Dora Marsden who Russell Brand called the ‘icon of individualism.’[15] That instead is Margaret Thatcher, of course! Thatcher is often criticised for having ‘implanted the gene of greed in the British soul’[16], epitomised by the onslaught of the ‘yuppie’ culture. Aspiration became the thirst for a bigger ‘thing’ like a car, or house.

Following Thatcher’s death in 2013 there was a surge of discussion around her infamous quote:

There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.[17]

Thatcher, like many before her, saw individualism as an important aspect of life. Unfortunately her premiership has, and still does, create fierce debate. When David Cameron won the Conservative Party leadership in 2005 he stated that ‘there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.’[18] He wanted to distance himself from the controversy which surrounds Thatcher who is still associated with a selfish and uncaring individualism.

Oscar Wilde once said that individualism ‘seeks to disturb the monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine.’[19] We are closer today than ever before to turning man into a machine and individualism is under threat. How interesting would it be to ‘do’ an Oscar Wilde, a Dora Marsden, even a Margaret Thatcher, let the individual loose and disturb … absolutely everything?

Further reading:

Dixon, T The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain, (Oxford: Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 2008)

Clarke, B. Dora Marsden And Early Modernism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).

Wilde, O. et al., The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Brown, S. L. The Politics Of Individualism (Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1993).

Meiksins Wood, E. Mind and Politics: An Approach to the Meaning of Liberal and Socialist Individualism. (University of California Press, 1972)


Clarke, B. Dora Marsden And Early Modernism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).

Dixon, T. The Invention Of Altruism (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Jones, O. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, (London: Verso, 2011)

Wilde, O. et al, The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)


BBC News

The Guardian

Margaret Thatcher Foundation

Oxford English Dictionary

Modernist Journals Project

The Spectator

The Spectator Archive, 1828-2008


[1] [1] Oed.com, ‘Individualism, N. : Oxford English Dictionary’, 2015, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/94635?redirectedFrom=individualism&.

[2] Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, (London: Verso, 2011) p. 71.

[3] Oscar Wilde et al, The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Vol. 4 p. 204. All sentiments are put forward by Gilbert in ‘The Critic as Artist’ first published in Intentions (1891)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Thomas Dixon, The Invention Of Altruism (Oxford University Press, 2008). p. 322

[6] Oscar Wilde et al. (2000) vol. 2, p. 176.

[7] Wilde et al. p. 176

[8] Max Nordau, Degeneration, (University of Nebraska Press 1993) p. 319. In Thomas Dixon, The Invention of Altruism, p. 333.

[9] Apostles papers given by Moore on 26 Feb. 1898 and 4 Feb. 1899. In Dixon 2008, p. 354

[10] G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, (Cambridge University Press, 1993) p. 216 in Ibid.

[11] Oscar Wilde et al. (2000) p. 204.

[12] G. E. Moore (1993) p. 249

[13] Oed.com, ‘Individualism, N.: Oxford English Dictionary’, 2015, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/94635?redirectedFrom=individualism&.

[14] ‘Views and Comments’, The New Freewoman: An Individualist Review, (July 1st 1913), vol.1 no. 2., p. 25 http://library.brown.edu/pdfs/1303305900625129.pdf

[15] Russell Brand, ‘Russell Brand On Margaret Thatcher’, The Guardian, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/apr/09/russell-brand-margaret-thatcher.

[16] Simon Kelner, ‘Mrs Thatcher implanted the gene of greed in Britain’, The Independent, 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/mrs-thatcher-implanted-the-gene-of-greed-in-britain-8565716.html

[17] Interview for Woman’s Own, 1987. http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689 [last accesses 06/03/2015]

[18] David Cameron, ‘BBC NEWS | UK | UK Politics | In Full: Cameron Victory Speech’, News.Bbc.Co.Uk, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4504722.stm.

[19] Oscar Wilde et al., p. 260


Sebastian Packham took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2015. In this post he writes about ‘Nihilism’ as a philosophical keyword.

The dressOn February 27th, 2015, there began a worldwide debate about the colour of a dress. A picture of the dress in question had appeared on social networking sites the previous day, and divided opinion as to whether it was black and blue, or white and gold. ‘Dressgate’, as the phenomenon was dubbed, evoked distinct reactions from demographics across the globe, including among the more extreme, existential crises stemming from the apparent subjective nature of reality that the picture seemed to illustrate. If we cannot know for certain something as simple as the colour of a dress, then what can we really know about anything at all? Let alone abstract concepts such as morality, religion or the purpose of life. Of course, it would be foolish to assume that such philosophical sentiment was born from a viral picture in the same year that the once mythical hoverboard is set to become a reality, rather its roots date back over two millennia, and in the late eighteenth century formed the basis for the philosophical doctrine that would come to be termed nihilism.

From the Latin nihil, meaning nothing or ‘that which does not exist’, nihilism is the belief that all knowledge is baseless, and as such focuses on the rejection of values and constructs, including morality, religion and the inherent value of systems of government. A true nihilist would, according to Alan Pratt of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.’[1] It may come as no surprise then, that nihilism has presented a profound philosophical problem, acting as the source of plentiful debate since its inception, and that the concept is often associated with deep pessimism, used pejoratively and with negative connotations.

The thinking that underpins nihilist philosophy can be traced back to the skeptics of ancient Greece, the subjectivity with which they imbue the idea of knowledge being summed up by Demosthenes, who held that ‘what he wished to believe, that is what each man believes’.[2] Such thinking was labeled as nihilism at the end of the eighteenth century, and the word’s invention is often credited to either Jacob Obereit, F. Jenisch or Friedrich Schlegel.[3] Becoming popularized through the period’s literature, perhaps most significantly the novel Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev – one of its protagonists being a staunch nihilist, the ideology began to capture the minds of contemporaries, becoming a significant influence on the work and thought of European philosophers, writers, artists and intellectuals.

Nihilism’s focus on the rejection of the various constructs that were conducive to human culture at the time, was attractive to the European revolutionary movements that advocated rearrangement of social structures and the dismantling of existing forms of government. Such movements found a particularly strong voice in Russia as a response to the heavy handed ruling of Tsar Alexander II.[4] The nihilist ideology of the Russian revolutionary anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, is evident in his article for the Deutsche Jahrbücher in 1842, in which he wrote ‘Let us put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unsearchable and eternally creative source of all life –the urge to destroy is also a creative urge’.[5]

Mikhail Bakunin: Russian revolutionary anarchist embodying nihilistic values

Mikhail Bakunin: Russian revolutionary anarchist embodying nihilistic values

As Isaiah Berlin observed, Bakunin is advocating a ‘positive nihilism’, out of which ‘there will arise naturally and spontaneously… a natural, harmonious, just order’.[6] Among supporters of the state, or upholders of the religious authority which the revolutionaries rejected, however, the understanding of nihilism was that it was a philosophy concerned purely with mindless destruction. As such, the state began to actively oppress the activity of nihilist revolutionaries,[7] and nihilism became a blanket term, carrying connotations of subversion and chaos, for anybody involved in underground political or terrorist activity.[8]  Here we can observe two distinct understandings of nihilism developing – nihilism as a radical philosophy with  revolutionary potential, and nihilism as a destructive philosophy geared towards reversing progress. Both perspectives were tackled by Friedrich Nietsche, who in his work Will to Power, described nihilism as ‘a catastrophe…that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong’.[9] Upon such a spread of nihilism, however, he remarked ‘whether [man] becomes a master of this crisis, is a question of his strength. It is possible…’[10] For Nietsche then, nihilism could pave the way either to chaos or to a new moral order, and it is uncertainty as to which path nihilism leads that keeps the topic so divisive and widely debated.

The same way that Russian nihilism had been a reaction to various social ills in the nineteenth century, expressions of nihilism across Britain throughout the last century can also, arguably, be correlated with periods of significant adversity or discontent. The wave of riots that swept the UK in 2011, which saw moral nihilism enacted through mass looting, arson, violence and clashes with police, are often attributed to a plethora of social ills including racism, classism and a feeling of hopelessness as a result of economic downturn and an ever growing divide between the rich and the poor.[11]

A shop front and flats burn after being set alight by rioters in Tottenham, London in 2011

A shop front and flats burn after being set alight by rioters in Tottenham, London in 2011

Let down by society, it is argued, the rioters turned to rejection of moral authority and instead turned to violence and destruction to establish their position. Similarly, it can be argued that the anti-austerity protests the previous year were triggered by those involved, feeling betrayed, rejecting the authority of government and instead seeking to impose their will through violence –[12], effectively adopting Bakunin’s model of revolutionary nihilism.

Rejection of authority: Protesters vandalise a police van at anti-austerity protests in 2010

Rejection of authority: Protesters vandalise a police van at anti-austerity protests in 2010

Similar preconditions, along with the very real prospect of nuclear war have been put forward as causes for the wave of nihilism that swept the UK in the form of the punk subculture. The hedonism, crass behavior and drug abuse of those such as John ‘Sid Vicious’ Beverly of the Sex Pistols[13] acted as a means of rejecting moral authority and implementing a new way of living. Beverly popularized the phrase ‘no future’ (the original title for the single God Save the Queen)[14] during this period, which articulates the nihilistic tendencies of those involved with the subculture.

John ‘Sid Vicious’ Beverly enjoying the hedonism through which nihilism was expressed

John ‘Sid Vicious’ Beverly enjoying the hedonism through which nihilism was expressed

Such theories as to why nihilism has been expressed the way it has across Britain in the last century are not universal however, and with each of the aforementioned movements or incidences there has been a school of thought that places them in the broader context of moral decline. The liberalization of society, such as the prohibition of corporal punishment, it is argued, has restricted the means with which people can be disciplined, leading to a lack of respect for authority. The moral decline argument is often coupled with decline in religious belief, owing largely to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Such an argument perhaps holds most weight with the moral nihilism advocated by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, in which he writes ‘do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward…?’[15] Here, Dawkins is rejecting the notion of absolute morality, and in doing so imbues morality with a new sense of meaning: if there are no moral absolutes and a subject is free to act abhorrently, the choice to act in a way they believe to be good means more than simple obedience to absolute authority.

The varying ways that nihilism has been understood and expressed can act as a means through which we can read the past and to understand the collective minds of the cultures that occupied it. An extreme philosophy, nihilism often picks up a pace in extreme times. Whether you believe it is a reaction to, or a precursor of discontent and social ills, its existence nevertheless demonstrates the extremity of emotion felt at the times it is rife. What relevance though, does the concept of nihilism hold in the present day? Can a philosophy centered around rejection really bring anything to human culture? Does nihilism represent a crisis for humanity, or can we use it as a way to remove absolutes and create our own meaning or ways of living? Is the inception and propagation of nihilism indicative of a desire for progress, or does it highlight moral decline in society? As a nihilist, I’d tell you there’s no way we can really know, but what we can be sure of is that a brief discussion of the concept’s history can help to prepare us for the next time an inanimate objects shakes the foundations of our reality.

Further Reading

Shane Weller, Modernism and Nihilism, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

Karl Löwith, Martin Heidegger and European Nihilism, (New York: Columbia University press, 1995)

Ofelia Schutte, Beyond Nihilism: Nietzsche Without Masks, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984)

Keith Ansell-Pearson, An Introduction to Nietzsche as a Political Thinker: The Perfect Nihilist, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, (New York: Vintage Books, 1968)

Mikhail Bakunin, God and the State, (New York: Dover, 1970)

Peter C Pozefsky, The Nihilist Imagination: Dmitrii Pisarev and the cultural origins of Russian Radicalism (1860-1868), (New York: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2003)


Books and Articles

Karen Leslie Carr, The Banalization of Nihilism: Twentieth Century Responses to Meaninglessness, (New York: State University of New York Press, 1992).

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (London: Bantam Press, 2006).

Michael Gillespie, Nihilism Before Nietzche, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Ronald Hingley, Nihilists: Russian Radicals and Revolutionaries in the Reign of Alexander II, (New York: Delacorte Press, 1969).

Paul Thomas, Karl Marx and the Anarchists Library Editions: Political Science, Volume 60, (London: Routledge, 2009).

Databases and E-Resources

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011





[1] http://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/

[2] http://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/

[3] Karen Leslie Carr, The Banalization of Nihilism: Twentieth Century Responses to Meaninglessness, (New York: State University of New York Press, 1992), p.13.

[4] Ronald Hingley, Nihilists: Russian Radicals and Revolutionaries in the Reign of Alexander II, (New York: Delacorte Press, 1969), p.15.

[5] Paul Thomas, Karl Marx and the Anarchists Library Editions: Political Science, Volume 60, (London: Routledge, 2009), p.289.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Michael Gillespie, Nihilism Before Nietzche, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p.163.

[8] www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14483149 [Accessed 28/2/2015].

[12] http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2036392,00.html [Accessed 28/2/2015].

[13] Michael T. Thornhill, ‘Vicious, Sid (1957–1979)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011 [http://0-www.oxforddnb.com.catalogue.ulrls.lon.ac.uk/view/article/40644, [accessed 1/3/2015].

[14] Ibid.

[15] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (London: Bantam Press, 2006), p.259.


This post by Thomas Dixon is the first in a series on Philosophical Keywords, exploring the changing historical uses, meanings and impacts of philosophical terms which have taken on broader cultural resonance. 

A couple of years ago, travelling on the Central Line to Mile End on the London underground, I started to notice a series of posters and images like the one below – using the familiar imagery of the London tube map to suggest connections being made between people – the red line was now not linking Liverpool Street to Bank but ‘self’ to ‘other’.

'Fellow Feeling' copyright © Michael Landy 2011

‘Fellow Feeling’ copyright © Michael Landy 2011

This struck me as an interesting expression of the philosophy of altruism – the idea that the essence of moral goodness is a devotion not to self (egoism) but to others (altruism). The term ‘altruism’ ultimately derives from the Latin word alter, meaning ‘other’. Intrigued by the artworks on the tube, I searched online to find out more about them. It turned out that they were part of a project called ‘Acts of Kindness’ by the artist Michael Landy who said about the project, ‘I want to find out what makes us human, and what connects us, beyond material things. For me the answer is compassion and kindness.’

There is now a kindness movement, with followers all over the world celebrating the value of what are sometimes referred to as ‘random acts of kindness’ towards others – often strangers. Such acts are also recommended by proponents of ‘positive psychology’ such as the UK organization Action for Happiness. The kindness and happiness movements are quite recent phenomena, and they tend to recommend altruism – doing good to others – on the apparently paradoxical basis that it is good for our own mental health. The ideal of altruism to which these movements appeal, however, has a longer, and quite surprising history.

‘Altruism’ entered the English language in 1852. Before then, there were all sorts of moral virtues, philosophical isms, charitable intentions, and perhaps even random acts of kindness too, but no ‘altruism’. The term had been coined just a year before in French – altruisme – by the pioneering philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte (1798–1857), in his System of Positive Polity (1851-1854). Altruisme was the name Comte gave to the other-regarding social instincts, and he located them physically towards the front of the human brain. ‘Altruism’ was a keyword not just in Comte’s speculative early brain science, but also in the atheistic religion that he founded, with himself as its High Priest – the Religion of Humanity – which was designed as a substitute for Catholicism, complete with its own calendar of secular saints and festivals, and humanistic hymns. The main aim of the Religion of Humanity, along with Comte’s envisaged re-organisation of society (things would be run mainly by bankers and scientists) was to see egoism subordinated to his new ideal of ‘altruism’ throughout the civilized world.

A gallery of some of the secular saints - including men of science and Madame Clotilde de Vaux - in the Comte's Chapel of Humanity in Paris. J.P. Dalbéra WikiCommons/ FlickR.

A gallery of some of the secular saints – including men of art, science and politics and a figure representing Comte’s belief in the moral superiority of women – in Comte’s Chapel of Humanity in Paris. Picture credit:  J.P. Dalbéra WikiCommons/ FlickR.

In the decades following its coinage, ‘altruism’ really took off. It became a fashionable term first among scientific atheists sympathetic to Comte’s ‘Religion of Humanity’. Later, British philanthropists and socialists of various kinds found it a convenient term to express their devotion to all classes of society and even to the whole human race.[1] The word was initially resisted by clergymen as an unnecessary scientific neologism – one pertinently asked whether it was really a ‘sweeter or better word than charity’ – but eventually it was even appropriated by Christians too, most notably the Scottish evangelical Henry Drummond in the 1890s, as nothing less than a synonym for Christian love.[2] Today ‘altruism’ is a modern philosophical keyword of quite wide appeal, and it still retains a flavour of its scientific and its humanistic origins: it is used both as a technical term in evolutionary biology and as an approving term within those systems of secular thought for which devotion to one’s fellow human beings, or to Humanity as a whole, is the foundation of ethics.

It is pretty surprising that Comte’s ‘altruism’ was such a successful neologism in the English-speaking world. The Religion of Humanity, although it had some followers in Britain, was widely mocked by leading British intellectuals, such as the evolutionist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) . Comte had been a respected historian and philosopher of the sciences, but as his career wore on, he became obsessed not only with his new religion, but also with the sacred memory of a married woman – Madame Clotilde de Vaux, to whom he had become spiritually and affectionately devoted before she died. In the British press Comte was ridiculed as eccentric, egotistical, tedious and humourless.

Several British visitors to Auguste Comte’s flat in Paris, including the philosophers Alexander Bain and Herbert Spencer, formed very unfavourable impressions of the man. Indeed, the British reputation of Comte in his later years in some ways foreshadows the very negative reception of ‘Continental’ philosophy in Britain during the twentieth century, as something both foreign and dangerous.[3] In his classic work, On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill described the social and religious system envisaged by Comte as ‘a despotism of society over the individual, surpassing anything contemplated in the political ideal of the most rigid disciplinarian among the ancient philosophers’.[4]

The two figures who probably had the most impact in spreading the use of ‘altruism’ as a term of both science and ethics in Britain in the century and a half since Comte’s death were both popular writers devoted to the theory of evolution and hostile to religion: the philosopher Herbert Spencer (1825–1903), and the scientific atheist Richard Dawkins (born 1941).

Herbert Spencer depicted as 'Philosophy' in Vanity Fair magazine in 1879.

Herbert Spencer depicted as ‘Philosophy’ in Vanity Fair magazine in 1879.

Herbert Spencer was the most famous philosopher of his day. When he was caricatured for Vanity Fair in 1879, the illustration was captioned simply ‘Philosophy’. Spencer was the embodiment of the English philosopher in the mid-Victorian period. He was hugely critical of almost all aspects of Comte’s thought, but borrowed from him the terms ‘sociology’ and ‘altruism’, which he defended as useful coinages.[5] In his book, The Data of Ethics (1879), Spencer gave his own new definition to the term ‘altruism’, using it not to name a kind of moral intention or humanistic ideal, as Comte had done, but to refer to animal behaviour.

Spencer redefined ‘altruism’ to mean ‘all action which, in the normal course of things, benefits others instead of benefiting self.’ Such altruism, Spencer claimed, had been in evidence from the very dawn of life, in the lowest and simplest creatures, and especially in the evolution of the parental instincts which ultimately evolved into social sympathy. In Spencer’s broad defition, ‘acts of automatic altruism’ were to be included along with those with some conscious motivation. The splitting of the simplest single-celled organism, such as an infusorium or a protozoon in an act of reproduction, was also to qualify as an act of ‘physical altruism’.[6]

Cover of The Selfish Gene, (c) Oxford University Press, 1976.

Cover of The Selfish Gene, (c) Oxford University Press, 1976.

Almost exactly a hundred years later, Richard Dawkins shot to fame when his book The Selfish Gene, published in 1976. Whereas Spencer had taught that altruism was inherent in all animals throughout the evolutionary process, Dawkins wrote that those hoping to build a more cooperative society could expect ‘little help from biological nature’. Instead, Dawkins exhorted his readers: ‘Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.’ ‘We, alone on earth,’ Dawkins wrote, ‘can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators’.[7] The story does not end there, however, as Dawkins had second thoughts about altruism and, in his atheistic manifesto The God Delusion (2007), argued that altruism towards non-relatives was a ‘misfiring’ of a hardwired instinct that evolved through ‘kin selection’ to favour organisms who co-operated with close relatives. We used to live in groups mainly comprised of close relatives, the argument goes, and so our kindness and altruism would almost always be favouring our genetic kin. Nowadays we continue to feel pity and show generosity towards those around us, even though they are generally not our close relatives. This is a misfiring – a Darwinian mistake, but Dawkins adds, a ‘blessed’ and ‘precious’ mistake. [8] Now, it seems, Dawkins thinks we are born altruistic.

Dawkins may have changed his ideas about the naturalness of altruism, but in both cases his writings illustrate a general philosophical problem – namely the difficulty of getting by rational argument from an observation about nature to an ethical imperative – making the journey from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. This problem faces anyone trying to construct an ‘evolutionary ethics’. In the case of the quotation from The Selfish Gene, we might ask why not cultivate individualism rather than altruism? And readers of The God Delusion might reasonably wonder why Dawkins considers altruistic urges to constitute a ‘blessed’ and ‘precious’ misfiring rather than an inconvenient and undesirable malfunction. In both cases, Dawkins’s own ethical preference for altruism seems to have been imported without justification into a purportedly scientific discussion.

So, whether we are contemplating works of art on the tube, or reading popular science books, we might at any time find philosophical ideas and assumptions seeping through. Knowing a bit about the philosophical history of our everyday language can help to keep us alert.


[1] Thomas Dixon, The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2008).

[2] Frederic W. Farrar, The Witness of Christ to History (London: Macmillan, 1871), pp. 144–146; see also Dixon, The Invention of Altruism, chapters 3 and 7.

[3] Thomas L. Akehurst, The Cultural Politics of Analytic Philosophy: Britishness and the Spectre of Europe (London: Continuum, 2010), especially chapter 1.

[4] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859), in Collected Works of John Start Mill, 33 vols, ed. John M. Robson et al. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963–1991), vol. 18, p. 227.

[5] Dixon, The Invention of Altruism, pp. 202–206.

[6] Herbert Spencer, The Data of Ethics (London: Williams and Norgate, 1879), pp. 201–202; see also Dixon, The Invention of Altruism, chapter 5.

[7] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, new edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 3, 200–201; original publication 1976.

[8] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006), p. 253.

Further Reading

Helena Cronin, The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Thomas Dixon, The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2008).

Fern Elsdon-Baker, The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin’s Legacy (London: Icon, 2009).

Jules Evans, ‘Set the controls for the heart of happiness’, Philosophy for Life Blog, 19 October 2012.

Martin A. Nowak and Sarah Coakley (eds), Evolution, Games, and God: The Principle of Cooperation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013),

Samir Okasha, ‘Biological Altruism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta.

Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, On Kindness (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2009).