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  • Published: 26 March 2024
  • ISBN: 9781529924626
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 464
  • RRP: $30.00

Humanly Possible

The great humanist experiment in living

Seven hundred years of heroic humanists (and their enemies), from the acclaimed author of How to Live and At The Existentialist Café

The bestselling, prizewinning author of How to Live and At the Existentialist Café explores the great tradition of humanist writers, thinkers, scientists and artists, all trying to understand what it means to be truly human.


'I can't imagine a better history' PHILIP PULLMAN * 'Fascinating, moving, funny' OLIVER BURKEMAN

If you are reading this, you may already be a humanist. Even if you don't know it.

Do you love literature and the arts? Do you have a strong moral compass despite not being formally religious? Do you simply believe that individual lives are more important than grand political visions? If any of these apply, you are part of a long tradition of humanist thought.

In Humanly Possible Sarah Bakewell asks what humanism is and why it has flourished for so long. By introducing us to the adventurous lives and ideas of famous humanists through 700 years of history, she shows how the humanist values that helped steer us through dark times in the past are just as urgently needed in our world today.

‘An epic, spine-tingling and persuasive work of history’ Daily Telegraph

‘As she romps through the centuries, readers will feel assured that they are in the company of a gifted guide’ The Economist

  • Published: 26 March 2024
  • ISBN: 9781529924626
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 464
  • RRP: $30.00

About the author

Sarah Bakewell

Sarah Bakewell had a wandering childhood in Europe, Australia and England. After studying at the University of Essex, she wrote fiction and worked in bookshops before becoming Curator of early printed books at the Wellcome Institute Library for the History of Medicine in London. She curated an exhibition with Marina Warner for the Science Museum and catalogues rare book collections for the National Trust. She is the author of The Smart;The English Dane: From King of Iceland to Tasmanian Convict, and the bestselling biography How to Live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer. www.sarahbakewell.com

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Praise for Humanly Possible

Fascinating . . . wonderfully learned, gracefully written, and simply enjoyable

Kirkus (starred review)

NBCC Award winner Bakewell (How to Live) brilliantly tracks the development of humanism over seven centuries of intellectual history... Erudite and accessible, Bakewell's survey pulls together diverse historical threads without sacrificing the up-close details that give this work its spark. Even those who already consider themselves humanists will be enlightened

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Sarah Bakewell's books are always a joyous education . . . She combines a keen intellect with a lightness of touch and one always feels that she delights in sharing what she has learned. That delight is contagious. . . . the world looked different when I finished this book

ROBIN INCE, author of The Infinite Monkey Cage / The Importance of Being Interested

Engagingly written as well as richly informative . . . every thinker, every book, every movement is located lightly and precisely in relation to its past and its influence on the present day. I can't imagine a better history of humanism, nor one that is so vividly persuasive. Bakewell is a wonderful writer


I've long admired Sarah Bakewell's extraordinary talent for breathing life into philosophy, making vivid the historical circumstances that give birth to new ideas. And this book is her best yet - a fascinating, moving, funny, sometimes harrowing and ultimately uplifting account of humanity's struggle to understand and fully inhabit the state of being human

OLIVER BURKEMAN, author of Four Thousand Weeks

As in her previous books on Montaigne and the Existentialists, Bakewell manages to transform raw material into prose that is light and clear . . . she carefully selects only the most interesting and revealing details . . . Bakewell exemplifies the thirst for life and learning of humanism at its best

Julian Baggini, Literary Review

A story of spiritual and intellectual triumph... An epic, spine-tingling and persuasive work of history

Simon Ings, Daily Telegraph

In this exhilarating handbook Sarah Bakewell explains that a humanist philosopher is one who puts the whole living person at the centre of things . . . Bakewell finishes this bracing book by urging us to draw inspiration from these earlier men and women as we try hard to live bravely and humanly in what sometimes seems like an aridly abstract and loveless world

Kathryn Hughes, Sunday Times

Bakewell crafts a history of humanism that's absorbing and accessible, as well as educational. Tracing its evolution, she celebrates its values and makes a persuasive argument as to why they're still needed today

Radio Times

Impressively comprehensive... A highly engaging work

Hannah Beckerman, Observer

A book of big and bold ideas... Bakewell is wide-ranging, witty and compassionate

Wall Street Journal

Humanly Possible skilfully combines philosophy, history and biography. She is scholarly yet accessible, and portrays people and ideas with vitality and without anachronism, making them affecting and alive

Jane O'Grady, Guardian

Lively. . . [Bakewell's] new book is filled with her characteristic wit and clarity; she manages to wrangle seven centuries of humanist thought into a brisk narrative, resisting the traps of windy abstraction and glib oversimplification. . . She puts her entire self into this book, linking philosophical reflections with vibrant anecdotes. She delights in the paradoxical and the particular, reminding us that every human being contains multitudes

Jennifer Szalai, New York Times

A book of big and bold ideas, Humanly Possible is humane in approach and, more important, readable and worth reading. . . Bakewell is wide-ranging, witty and compassionate

Wall Street Journal

Bakewell brings her signature blend of wit and philosophical sophistication to the complex, sometimes contentious 700-year history of humanist thought . . . Bakewell is no stranger to the art of applying sophisticated philosophical thinking to the urgent business of daily life . . . for her, the essence of humanism lies not in grand ideas but the idiosyncrasies of individual experience

Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times

Bakewell has a contagious enthusiasm for many of these likeable figures . . . a jolly and readable skate through a large swathe of philosophical thought and practical endeavour

Philip Hensher, Spectator

As she romps through the centuries, readers will feel assured that they are in the company of a gifted guide

The Economist

A lifelong humanist, Bakewell traces the chequered but irresistible development of her convictions from the Renaissance to the present... [A] spirited book

Michael Ledger-Lomas, History Today

An expansive tour of European humanism... Bakewell brings out sharply how much contrarian courage it took to stand up for secularism... These dangers are not a thing of the past... Humanism is not just a hard-won victory, as Sarah Bakewell documents, but a fragile one, threatened by theocracy and neo-facism, by politicians for whom the point of education is entirely economic, and by movements that aspire to leave humanity behind

Kieran Setiya, Times Literary Supplement

A spine-tingling, seamless account of 700 years of humanist thought

Daily Telegraph, *Summer Reads of 2023*