215. The primary value of the humanities for me

Martha Nussbaum, in her book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton, 2011), observes that 

“The humanities and the arts are being cut away, in both primary/secondary and college/university education, in virtually every nation of the world. Seen by policy-makers as useless frills, at a time when nations must cut away all useless things in order to stay competitive in the global market, they are rapidly losing their place in curricula, and also in the minds and hearts of parents and children. Indeed, what we might call the humanistic aspects of science and social science – the imaginative, creative aspect, and the aspect of rigorous critical thought – are also losing ground as nations prefer to pursue short-term profit by the cultivation of the useful and highly applied skills suited to profit making.” (2)

Martha Nussbaum

And a quick survey of the web reveals plenty of articles addressing the decline of the humanities: “As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry” (New York Times, 2013), “The Humanities are in Crisis” (The Atlantic, 2018), “The Humanities as We Know Them Are Doomed. Now What?” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2018), “Can the ‘Crisis in the Humanities’ Be Solved?” (The Harvard Crimson, 2019), “What do the Humanities do in a Crisis?” (The New Yorker, 2020), “The Great Recession strangled the humanities. Will coronavirus deal the last blow?” (The Daily Princetonian, 2020), and “The Humanities are Dead” (Newsweek, 2021). Of course, there are plenty of institutions and walks of life in which the humanities are doing just fine and even thriving. But they are declining in many areas and I, like so many others, find this alarming.

In a recent conversation about this decline I was asked, after my 35 years of studying the humanities, what I think the primary value of the humanities is. To be sure, there are many values from which to choose. For example, Poul Holm, Arne Jarrick, and Dominic Scott, in their Humanities World Report 2015 (pp. 12-13), offer this helpful list:

Intrinsic value: humanities research has a value in and of itself. Even if it leads to other benefits (as listed below), it should also be pursued for its own sake.

Social value: the humanities benefit society in a number of ways. They help create tolerance and understanding between citizens, thereby leading to social cohesion. They aid decision-making, especially on the complex ethical issues that confront society as a whole. In addition, they can benefit society by challenging established positions (see also ‘critical thinking’ below).

Cultural heritage: the humanities enable citizens to understand, preserve and sometimes challenge their national heritage and culture.

Economic value: there are direct economic benefits from humanities research, for example in publishing, media, tourism and, of course, the training humanities scholars provide to their students, who go into the job market across a wide range of professions.

Contribution to other disciplines: humanities research feeds into other fields, most obviously the social sciences, but also into medicine, computer science and engineering/design.

Innovation: the humanities deal with questions of motivation, organisation and action, which are essential components of creativity and entrepreneurship, and so the humanities promote a culture of innovation.

Critical thinking: it is of the essence of the humanities to develop critical thinking. This is epitomised by the Socratic tradition in philosophy, but by no means confined to that discipline.

Personal and spiritual development: humanities research can enhance one’s personal and spiritual wellbeing through the study of different texts and traditions – religious, philosophical or spiritual.

Aesthetic appreciation: literary research, art history and musicology promote aesthetic discrimination, enhancing the appreciation and enjoyment of artistic works.”

But my answer, while certainly resonating with some of these values, is a bit different and comes in response to disturbing tendencies which, rather than revealing our shared humanity through new perspectives that cultivate virtues of intelligence, sympathy, and imagination, attempt to shut down such virtues and perspectives and leave us more and more isolated. Such trends encourage what I refer to as the dehumanities: those subtle and not so subtle ways of actively undermining humanity in ourselves and others. The widespread ideologies and actions of racism, sexism, homophobia, fundamentalism, terrorism, polarization, demonization, and bullying are just some of the ways the dehumanities encourage us to see how little we have in common with others. When taken to an extreme, they lead some to proclaim we have nothing in common with others. Jean-Paul Sartre once described an evil perspective on the world as follows:

“I want to be a monster, a hurricane, all that is human is alien to me. I transgress all the laws established by man, I trample every value under foot, nothing of what is can define or limit me; yet I exist, I shall be the icy breath which will annihilate all life” (quoted in Georges Bataille, Literature and Evil, p. 178).

Jean-Paul Satre (1905-1980)

The phrase “all that is human is alien to me” might serve as a chilling slogan for the ideal of the dehumanities. According to this view our so-called meaningful connections we establish with others are actually distortions of our inescapable isolation: we cannot see through the eyes of others and discover any shared humanity.

However, some forms of dehumanization even deny there is a plurality of unique individuals in the first place. In The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), Hannah Arendt observes that a despot seeks “Total domination, which strives to organize the infinite plurality and differentiations of human beings as if all of humanity were just one individual is possible only if each and every person can be reduced to a never-changing identity of reactions, so that each of these bundles of reaction can be exchanged at random for any other” (438). Thus certain radically evil tactics attempt to convince us that our so-called unique perspectives and actions are distortions of a reality in which we are all just dispensable extensions of one individual.

Nazi Nuremberg Rally

The existence of these dehumanizing agendas, from bullying in the schoolyard to genocide, is certainly discouraging. But we can draw inspiration from the great Ernst Cassirer who, in his classic book The Logic of the Humanities, observed that ““cosmos,” an objective order and determination, is present wherever individual persons relate themselves to and participate in a “common world.”” He points out that in the humanities a cosmos is not an order that exists completely independent of humans. Rather, it is a partially constructed world of culture which hopes to create a “bond between individual and the whole” which assures he will “not be enclosed within the waywardness of his own ego.” The humanities are always “building up a common world of thought and feeling, a world of humanity which pretends to be a κοινὸν κόσμον [common cosmos] instead of being an individual dream or an individual freak and fancy.” Unfortunately, this cosmos lives under the constant threat of decay: “Symbolic expressions have a much more unsteady and inconstant character than natural objects. Much more than the material and physical things of our common surroundings, they are liable to change and decay….Language, art, religion – all this in a continual flux.” And so Cassirer declares “It is for history to revivify these symbols, to restore them to a new life and to render them legible and understandable again.”

Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945)

I suppose that the humanities, for me, find their primary importance in allowing us to engage in this revivification in order to reduce the evil of the dehumanities. In doing so, we can hope to prevent the powerful, yet fragile, cosmos of our shared humanity from devolving into isolation and chaos.

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