What are the humanities good for? - Macleans.ca

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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