Humanly Possible Book Summary - Humanly Possible Book explained in key points
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Humanly Possible summary

Sarah Bakewell

Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Inquiry, and Hope

4.2 (211 ratings)
20 mins

Brief summary

"Humanly Possible" by Sarah Bakewell explores the lives of existentialist thinkers, including Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, and their views on living a meaningful life in an absurd world. It delves into the complexities of ethics and human nature, offering insights for navigating contemporary challenges.

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    Humanly Possible
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    Thinking freely

    In 2017 a young Pakistani named Hamza bin Walayat, who had been living in Britain for some years, applied for asylum to remain in Britain on the grounds that his humanist beliefs could get him killed in Pakistan. In his interviews with the UK’s Home Office, he was asked to define humanism. He did so by talking about the freethinkers of the Enlightenment era, but the assessors were not convinced he was a true convert to whatever this humanism thing was.

    The problem Hamza ran into was that there is no flag or creed or church of humanism. It’s a philosophical stance or choice that can be traced back many hundreds of years. The truth Hamza told was that humanism, like any belief that isn’t officially approved, is indeed punishable in Pakistan, and many other countries. They don’t care whether it’s a “real” religion or not – they only care that it goes against the prescribed rules. Nations and societies with conservative religious leadership may feel threatened by humanism, which suggests that moral behavior doesn’t need scripture – just a conscience.

    Humanism is, at its core, the ability to explore and value the humanness of our species. Humanists believe in freethinking – in asking questions, studying, learning, discovering, and preserving all things related to humanity. And above all, they are filled with the hope that occurs whenever we step back and acknowledge the technological progress, magnificent works of art, and empowering acts of benevolence that humans are capable of.

    You might say it’s no wonder that Hamza was unable to explain humanism to the satisfaction of his assessors. After all, an institution designed to decide who is and isn’t worthy of staying inside an imaginary boundary line between one country and another is inherently not humanist. But his story has a happy ending. The organization Humanists UK stepped in and petitioned the Home Office to reconsider. In the process, they were able to help develop new training for assessors on how to properly interview non-religious asylum-seekers. Soon after, Hamza was elected to the board of trustees of the institution that had helped him find safety in the UK.

    While it’s unlikely that anything short of mentioning Greek philosophers who weren’t even humanists would have convinced Hamza’s assessors, it is still valuable to understand the threads of humanism that have existed for the past 700 years. We can reach this understanding not by describing organized movements – there really weren’t any specific humanist movements – but by learning about the humanists who have shaped our world through art, science, and culture.

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    What is Humanly Possible about?

    Humanly Possible (2023) traces the roots of humanism in literature and science back through history. While telling the stories of the great humanist thinkers, it sheds light on humanity today as well as how we can better relate to our lives and environment through humanist beliefs and pursuits. 

    Humanly Possible Review

    Humanly Possible (2021) explores the extraordinary lives of eight philosophers who shaped the modern world. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • It offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of influential philosophers, revealing their struggles, triumphs, and enduring legacy.
    • Presenting complex ideas in an accessible manner, this book appeals to both philosophy enthusiasts and readers new to the subject.
    • With its engaging storytelling and thought-provoking insights, it manages to make the complex world of philosophy exciting and relevant.

    Who should read Humanly Possible?

    • Anyone interested in the humanities
    • People looking for non-religious alternatives to moral thinking
    • Optimists

    About the Author

    Sarah Bakewell is a creative writing professor and award-winning author of How to Live and At the Existentialist Café. Her work is largely devoted to investigating the great thinkers and intellectual movements that have shaped humanity over time. 

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    Humanly Possible FAQs 

    What is the main message of Humanly Possible?

    In Humanly Possible, Sarah Bakewell explores the history and philosophy of existentialism, shedding light on the key ideas and thinkers.

    How long does it take to read Humanly Possible?

    The reading time for Humanly Possible varies, but it typically takes several hours. The Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Humanly Possible a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Humanly Possible is a thought-provoking read that offers a deep dive into existentialism. It's definitely worth exploring for philosophy enthusiasts.

    Who is the author of Humanly Possible?

    Sarah Bakewell is the author of Humanly Possible.

    What to read after Humanly Possible?

    If you're wondering what to read next after Humanly Possible, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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    • Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
    • The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
    • The Daily Laws by Robert Greene
    • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
    • Ethics by Baruch Spinoza
    • The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith