Friday, May 21, 2010

Julian Huxley revisited (2)

I recall a certain fuzziness and eclecticism in Huxley's thought. This might be an English thing, but it's Huxley in any case. At least Huxley had a breadth of knowledge and cultural reference that made him far less provincial than many prominent secular humanists today. The fuzziness is evident even from the title of one of Huxley's books, Religion Without Revelation. The religious language used by figures such as Dewey and Huxley, who entered the fray on behalf of "humanism" rather than "atheism", has not always been acceptable to others in this camp.

Doing a Google search on Huxley in connection with certain keywords, I note that opposition to his ideas comes from Christian anti-humanists and anti-Darwinists, replete with misrepresentations of Huxley and evolutionary theory, sometimes with imputations of Nazi-like association with eugenics. Well, Huxley was interested in eugenics, but he unequivocally opposed Nazi racial theories and racialism generally. Huxley's writings show a breadth of sympathy for the plight of all of humanity, in the best liberal spirit, a far cry from the farrago of character assassination one finds in the aforementioned screeds.

Huxley's liberalism made him the perfect candidate for assuming leadership of the fledgling UNESCO. His political position was broad and vague enough for him to assume a position abstractly dedicated to cultural and social inclusiveness. It is also revealing how the position of liberals of his day were influenced by the social democratic or socialist tenor of the time, incorporating such social consciousness into their view of liberal democracy.

Huxley's presence in the postwar era is marked by an affirmation of individual liberty and freedom of thought (combined with social responsibility) in opposition to the twin horrors of Nazism and Stalinism. The only Marxism Huxley knew was the Soviet variant, and so any coincidental similarities between some of his statements and the views of dissident Marxists were unknown to him. In a future post I will delve into his comments on Marxism and materialism. Interestingly, Huxley was no reductionist. He distinguished cultural from biological evolution, for example. His broad evolutionary perspective, and his social analyses, however, do not coalesce into a sufficiently elaborated, structured, and concrete socio-historical framework. There is no discussion of imperialism, for example, something which should have been on the mind of an Englishman at that time. And there is no class analysis beyond the general recognition of social stratification.

This critique is, not surprisingly, absent from criticisms of Huxley from within the humanist camp. Here is one assessment:

"Evolutionary Humanism Revisited: The Continuing Relevance of Julian Huxley" by Timothy J. Madigan

On Huxley's role in UNESCO, see:

Introduction: Visions and Revisions. Defining UNESCO’s scientific culture, 1945–1965 by Patrick Petitjean

(To be continued . . .)

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