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What Is Humanism?

If you’re into the rational pursuit of love and truth, you just might be a humanist.

Humanism is the belief in the capacity of our species to be rational and kind, and in our ability to see ourselves and each other as the infinitely complex and miraculously improbable organisms we all are without anticipation of eternal punishment or reward. Humanistic psychology is an approach that prioritizes a holistic understanding of an individual and seeks to aid them in living an authentic, meaningful life. It emerged out of the convergence of two philosophical disciplines: phenomenology and existentialism (Buhler, 1971).

Let’s dig into some of the primary components of humanism a little more.

  • ​Responsibility. Personal autonomy and responsibility are vital components of humanism. Rather than deferring to the dictum of a religious organization or the opinion of some other authority, the onus is on you to decide for yourself what it means to be a good person and how to live a life worth living. We also have the responsibility to use our intellect and reason to seek truth and dismiss what we identify as delusion.

  • Meaning-making. Humans are remarkable in our ability to create meaning. And we can leverage this ability to cope with the pain that existence inevitably brings all of us. It allows us to say, “my suffering is real and there will undoubtedly be more of it in the future, but here is where I find beauty.” Or in our grief say, “I have incurred a great and permanent loss, but this pain is worth it because they meant so much to me.”

  • Ethics. Humanist ethics are born from a recognition of the importance of our bonds with other people and our interdependence on each other and the world around us. They are based on a reverence for the human spirit and faith in the human capacity for reason and honest inquiry.

Humanistic Psychology: Phenomenology​

The primary tenet of phenomenology, particularly when applied to psychology, is that the whole of subjective human experience is more important than its parts. In other words, to try to understand ourselves solely in terms of mechanisms or according to various theoretical frameworks is a little like trying to describe the colors of the Grand Canyon at sunset by talking about wavelengths of light and what happens when photons hit your retina. The mechanisms of color vision are really fascinating and knowing how it works can certainly be useful, but it doesn’t actually help you to understand the most important part, which is what it’s like to experience the colors of the Grand Canyon at sunset.

Humanistic Psychology: Existentialism

The question of “what shall I do about it” is one of the primary concerns of existentialism. Existentialism is a little like phenomenology in that for both disciplines the reality and primacy of the human experience is a central theme, but existentialism places a particular emphasis on action, on how you should respond to existence. Existentialism also stresses the importance of the context in which a person exists. Martin Heidegger, a 20th-century existential-phenomenological philosopher, termed this notion being-in-the-world, by which he meant that an individual and the world in which they live are inextricably linked. We’ll get back to the idea of being-in-the-world a little later on.

The convergence of these two schools of thought produced the basic questions from which humanistic psychology proceeds (Schneider & Längle, 2000):

  1. What does it mean to be fully human? And

  2. How can you use your understanding of what it means to be human to live a good life?

In Sum

Humanism is an approach to life—a framework to guide our behavior—that prioritizes understanding yourself, your reality, and those around you through inquiry, reason, and experience, with the aim of living a meaningful life and being fully human. A humanist perspective grants an individual the autonomy to purposefully move through the world in search of beauty and connection, and the responsibility to honestly and compassionately accept reality as it really is. In essence, a humanist is anyone who is curious, open-minded and has a compelling belief in the goodness and potential of humanity.


  • Buhler, C. (1971). Basic theoretical concepts of humanistic psychology. American Psychologist, 26(4), 378–386.

  • Schneider, K. & Längle, A. (2015). Introduction: The Renewal Of Humanism In Psychotherapy- A Roundtable Discussion. in The Handbook Of Humanist Psychology (Vol 2), pp. 368-433.

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