What are the humanities good for?

Questioning the justification for such fields as literature and philosophy


The February edition of the Journal of Philosophy of Education was recently (as of July 10) made available online. There is an interesting article titled: “The Role of the Humanities in the Modern University: Some Historical and Philosophical Considerations”

Here’s the abstract:

“This article examines the controversial notion of the role and value of the humanities in the contemporary university. It provides a review of the history of the emergence of the humanities in the European universities, arguing that any attempt to justify the presence of the humanities in the modern university in instrumental terms is futile. Through its depiction of the evolution of the humanities as a particular compendium of disciplinary fields, the article demonstrates that the humanities have become a focal point for the exploration of the problems of meaning, significance and truth, which are inherent components of language itself. Through its portrayal of the historical development of the humanities, the article emphasizes the interminable nature of these problems, stressing that the inconclusive quality of these debates is a definitive feature of Modernity itself—the humanities have become the locus for Modernity’s self-awareness. The articulation and extension of this self-awareness is an imperative that eludes the logic of instrumental reason to provide a justificatory category of its own.”

If I have time in the coming days, I will post some thoughts about the article. But for now, I’ll leave the question, what, if anything, justifies the public funding of the humanities?

Here’s an interesting take, made earlier this year, from New York Times blogger, Stanley Fish:

“Teachers of literature and philosophy are competent in a subject, not in a ministry. It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by ‘do’ is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.”

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What are the humanities good for?

  1. Although I agree that the business of the humanities is not to directly save the world or bring revenue, Fish’s assertion that they don’t “bring about effects in the world”, even indirectly, seems short-sighted at the least.

    Philosophy, for one thing, provides a basis to research in other disciplines in the natural and social sciences, in addition to its discussion of concrete, contemporary ethical issues.

    Philosophy and language/literature are also core subjects for most students at the pre-university (i.e. CÉGEPs and community colleges) and first-year university level. Some of the concrete impact of them, as core courses, is to allow practice of critical thinking (that doesn’t happen often in science undergrad courses!) and improve essay-writing skills (useful in all academic fields).

    Moreover, there is certainly a value for humans to locate themselves in a geographical, historical, cultural and ideological context. This is why many humanities-type classes (literature, basic philosophy, geography and history) are part of the whole curriculum (including elementary-high school).

    The impact of these fields of the world is indirect, as the way humans perceive themselves and their place in the world will influence their actions, but I would argue this indirect influence is enormous, as it is almost impossible to neglect any cultural contribution to people’s choices and actions.

  2. Stanley Fish links to his earlier blog entry “Bound For Academic Glory?” where he notes the ritualistic bad language of an education report, apparently written in a style similar to that of the abstract here, in its relentless abstraction and slackening grammar.

    Philippe is right that the issue of effects is misrepresented by Fish. In comments #66 and 67 to “Bound For Academic Glory?” I note some obvious and important effects that Fish eventually glossed over.

    An interesting one concerns “Unclear on American Campus,” The New York Times article by Alan Finder on the chaos in teaching English to foreign students in American graduate schools.

    If “the humanities have become a focal point for the exploration of the problems of meaning, significance and truth, which are inherent components of language itself,” then clearly we have nothing to worry about in terms of potential practical effects.

    However, one might suggest that “meaninglessness, insignificance, and untruthfulness” are equally “components” of language “itself.” That seems to be the point of “The Wings of the Dove,” “The Turn of the Screw,” and especially “The Beast in the Jungle,” all by Henry James.

    Fish puts it in a strange and deceptive way, as to “justification” of the humanities. If we were able–possibly–to understand “The Tint I cannot take–is best–” by Emily Dickinson, we would be able to prevent ourselves from butchering the poem as Harold Bloom did in his “The Western Canon.”

    It would be a satisfying and instrumentally effective move to do so. You might even get the attention of Mr. Fish. But probably not. It’s safer to write in generalities.

    Is “Macbeth” “justified?” If Mr. Fish could understand it, he would have no argument with analysis of the play as having “effects” in the real/unreal world. Even if language were a lie, it would be useful to be able to make it perform up to Macbeth’s standards.

    It seems to be a bit awkward to access the full text of the article.

  3. Clayton wrote: “It seems to be a bit awkward to access the full text of the article.”

    The Journal article I referred to is behind a subscriber wall. I didn’t upload for copyright reasons. Students should be able to access it via their library accounts. If anyone who doesn’t have access to it, and wants to read it, feel free to send me a “personal” email at carsonjerema@gmail.com

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