Huxley's Problematic Philosophy

Sir Julian Huxley (1887 - 1975) was the first director general of UNESCO (1946-48). He certainly was not an uncontroversial one; indeed, his philosophical justification for the work and mission of UNESCO came under considerable criticism following the 1946 publication of his “UNESCO: Its Purpose and Its Philosophy”.

That UNESCO philosophy, Huxley wrote, could not be based on any competing system represented at the UN by the member states. There was no room, he maintained, for religious ideology, be it Christian, Islamic, Buddhist or otherwise.

Nor could UNESCO base its philosophy on any political ideology such as communism or capitalism; finally, it could not base its outlook on any philosophical system, such as existentialism, determinism or rationalism.

“Accordingly”, he concluded, UNESCO’s “outlook must, it seems, be based on some form of humanism.” And not just any kind of humanism: “It must also be a scientific humanism, in the sense that the application of science provides most of the material basis for human culture, and also that the practice and the understanding of science need to be integrated with that of other human activities” (Huxley, 1946:7).

It is, of course, a much-debated point in philosophy as to whether or not there is any possibility of a “value-free” approach to philosophy or science itself. Huxley here underscores the point: despite his claim that no one philosophical ideology can inform UNESCO, he clearly celebrates this positivist approach and champions a philosophical view that was (and still is at UNESCO) quite in vogue in the 1940s: the scientific foundationalist view.

It is not hard to see why a number of commentators at the time considered this manoeuvre to be something of a philosophical coup in UNESCO. But the criticisms did not deter Huxley from promoting the positivist foundation for UNESCO, a task that would be continued by his successors, including Jamie Torres Bodet and WHO’s first director general, Brock Chisholm (more on these contributions to come).

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