6 min read

35. Humanist

Sarah Bakewell's book Humanly Possible, conferences and books
35. Humanist
Photo by 愚木混株 cdd20 / Unsplash

There's a quote from a philosopher whose name I can't remember—I heard the quote in an audiobook and have spent an hour trying and failing to find it—that says something along the lines of "I haven't read many of the books in my library, but those ones I have, I have read very very well".

One book that I have read very very well (or at least listened to very very well—while I have it on ebook I particularly replay the audiobook) is Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. It chronicles the lives of 20th century existentialist and phenomenological philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean Paul Satre, and Simone De Beauvoir. All good and well. But what makes me re-read (or re-listen) to it is Bakewell's attention to the people—messy, contradictory people, be it those European philosophers and even occasionally Bakewell herself.

So I was overjoyed to find that Bakewell had released a book earlier this year on a similar but wider topic: humanists. All I knew about humanists was from occasional Sunday Assembly events a sense that they were live and let live in a way that atheists perhaps weren't. Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Enquiry and Hope showed me that this wasn't wrong, but that the it has a lot more going for it. Throughout history humanism has helped bring forward knowledge and celebration of life in its diversity—one striking motif from the earlier eras are people fervently searching out books. Bakewell's book ambitiously starts at medieval times and ends in the present, showing that generally humanists sided with what turned out to be the right side of history (science, tolerance, championing that all should have access to 'life long learning'—the latter is a phrase that is in fact pertinent in my current work!) albeit with a few wobbles when it came to women and non-whites that perhaps was inevitable given the general group of them being European white men.

And like At the Existentialist Cafe (and her previous book How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer), Bakewell keeps things lively and lived. People are shown for their faults as well as their strengths, we walk with Bakewell when she revisits places, and we together sometimes imagine things that can only be guessed at.

This month in digital government and design

Conferences past, present and future

  • I enjoyed Code for America's Formfest at the start of the month. Highlights included the Aotearoa New Zealand government story of slowly iterating a form builder over 4 years, and appreciated being reminded that Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney’s Forms that Work book splits questions into 4 types: (slot in, gathered, third-party and created). Fingers crossed that most of the videos go onto Youtube late December.
  • In videos from conferences: the videos for the live day of Design System Day are up, as are some from 2023 Service Design in Gov and Lean Agile Scotland.
  • And in upcoming conferences, on November 29th(ish, depending on time zones) will be a 24 hour international design in gov conference. It includes GDS's GOV.UK, who will be giving more after a blogpost about the GOV.UK home page redesign and the notes on how it was done
  • And conferences into 2024: UKEducamp (Friday 12 January 2024, Edinburgh), UKGovcamp (Saturday 25 January 2024, London)—both with free ticketing. UX Scotland and various Agile events are also accepting speaker submissions.
  • I've attended the IXDA's Interactions conference a few times over the years. (Videos of past Interactions conferences are available online). Sadly, the Interaction 24 conference in Sydney has been cancelled. The official notes mentions 'global economic conditions … impacting sponsorship and ticket sales'. Hopefully this is a blip and there is something in 2025. There are also discussions about some different types of event or events in the timeslot that was to be Interaction 24 which I will be keeping an eye out for.


Until next time,