In defense of the humanities

Here is a NY Times article from a month or so ago on how the humanities could and should defend themselves in these tough times.  My students will know that I am always rather reluctant to make the utility arguments (study philosophy so that you can kick ass on the LSAT, or to make yourself more competitive in the job market by being a clearer thinker and writer, etc).  It is not that those claims are false (in fact, they seem true), rather I just think Aristotle was right when he defended philosophical contemplation as highest precisely because it is useless.  The humanities are worth studying because they ask the question of man, one’s life is better ‘intrinsically’ for having engaged the Great Conversation.

Aristotle, NE X.8:  ‘So if among virtuous actions political and military actions are distinguished by nobility and greatness, and these are unleisurely and aim at an end and are not desirable for their own sake, but the activity of reason, which is contemplative, seems both to be superior in serious worth and to aim at no end beyond itself …’

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

18 thoughts on “In defense of the humanities”

  1. What is it, though, about the uselessness of philosophical contemplation that distinguishes it from other, less valuable forms of uselessness?

    And though I agree with you about what makes the humanities worth studying, I don’t see how this entails or requires that such study makes one’s life intrinsically better. Aristotle, it seems to me, is just plainly and obviously wrong: there are plenty of folks who lives are not only both flourishing and unreflective, but which would be jeopardized or worsened with an access of reflection, no? I can’t think of a better source of evidence for this than the Platonic dialogues themselves! Philosophically contemplation is more like a kind of passion or pathology, rather than a necessary condition of the good life. I wish philosophers didn’t feel the need to pretend otherwise. (Though I don’t dispute your sincerity.)


  2. Two senses of ‘pathology’ – (a) the study of disease and (b) an unhealthy or deviant condition. I think Plato signs on to (a) but not (b), or at least signs on to (b) only with an important caveat.

    While philosophy certainly is ‘passion’ in some sense of that word (and we would have to be careful with that in Plato, just as one must be careful with his use of the word ‘erotic’), Plato thinks it ultimately is therapeia – it does not just study diseases (pathology) but it also heals us of disorders that would prevent us from flourishing (health). In this sense, I think Plato is committed to the view that studying philosophy (ie the Good) is a necessary condition for human flourishing.

    Now I will confess that I vacillate on whether I am fully onboard with Plato on this claim, just as I vacillate between being an elitist and also defending common sense. Here is my weak-ass middle ground: I fully reject the claim that ‘ignorance is bliss’, and think persons who lack some degree of reflection and cultural exposure to the arts (music, poetry, literature, philosophy, fine arts, etc) live lives that are impoverished for it. But one need not study Augustine’s theory of time to flourish, but if you never read a great book or just reflect on the beauty of things I think you are worse off for it.

    Now you are right that certain kinds of lives (like Meno’s) are jeopardized by reflection. But, of course, it is precisely these un-reflective lives that Socrates claims are ‘not worth living’! So it is not so obvious to me that Aristotle is wrong, and I suspect that you might be mistaking being ‘content’ with ‘flourishing’ in the case of those many who you think would be harmed by reflection.

    Still, from Plato’s point of view one might say philosophy is pathological (a deviance or a sickness) from the point of view of the world. But here is where I part with Plato for good. The body (world) is good, and its pleasures are good. Man is embodied, fleshy intellect, so the best life for man is a ‘mixed life’. Frankly, Aristotle’s definition of flourishing comes, to my mind, pretty damn close to nailing it.

    Why is philosophical uselessness better than other forms? I suppose here is my answer: human life is a question, and only certain sorts of activities plumb the mysterious depths of that question. Off the top of my head (and in no particular order): philosophical reflection, experience with beauty, the experience of discovery, the experience of love, the feeling of debt and gratitude, the experience of creating things (art or sex), and the feeling of hope.

    Now even if philosophical reflection does not belong on this list, let us keep pretending, Rob! What else do we philosophers have?!


  3. It could be that, for some people, philosophy is deeply rewarding and enriching, while for others it is a pointless waste of intellectual energy. Sort of like studying chess, following sports, making art, or collecting butterflies. There’s no obligation to do it, or to stay away from it.


  4. I won’t insist that everyone study philosophy (though there are days when I think everyone should), but I do think some exposure to the humanities (as I listed above) is necessary for a well-lived and ordered life.
    So Huenemann, would you say the same ‘different strokes for different folks’ with respect to the humanities in general? Can one flourish without investing oneself in something like philosophy, music, the arts, etc etc?


  5. It would be a very unusual person who found no value in any literature, music, or art. But I don’t see how to prove that any such person could not “flourish” (unless we stack the deck with a definition of ‘flourishing’ that requires engagement with the humanities). But what would they enjoy in life? Let’s say the outdoors. They camp, hike, hunt, fish, and have fun. They fall in love, treat others fairly, leave each campsite cleaner than they found it, and die old and smiling. Sounds ok to me.


  6. Yes, those are the kind of folks I have in mind. I personally can’t relate to their seeming lack of any need for the nourishment of philosophy and high culture, just as I can’t relate to how grown adults can believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good god (though I can all-too-well relate to the psychological and existential needs explaining it away), but their existence is (often oppressively) undeniable.


  7. Excuse me for my elitism here: is it that uncommon to find people who have no real value for the arts? (I am using that word in a way that leaves out the postmodern leveled conception). Doesn’t the typical American shuffle between McDonalds and American Idol? Are most Americans virtuous? Have most Americans rendered excellent their intellectual capacities, or have they rather turned them off? Are Americans even capable of greatness, if we are to measure greatness by anything other than the efficiency of technological culture?
    At any rate, if you read my above post, I was not excessively high culture about my view of the ‘humanities’. Rather I leveled that down to an experience with joy, beauty, gratitude, hope, reflection, etc. But I don’t think it ‘stacks the deck’ to say that human flourishing will be the excellent activity of all our uniquely human capacities (basically Aristotle’s view), and that will involve some kind of reflection (formal or informal).

    That said, I can’t believe the two Nz guys are coming to the defense of the Last Man here! How do you two see the monitor while blinking so furiously? Where is the hot-blooded assault on complacency? Now if you fish and ‘have fun’ you can be properly called ‘flourishing’?!?!!? Aristotle has more nerve than you two wankers!


  8. Plenty of Americans enjoy low-brow art and literature and so on. I didn’t appeal to them because I thought you’d say, “Well, they’re engaged with the humanities at some level.” That’s why I singled out someone with really no engagement with art and literature *at all*. I think such people are hard to find.

    I won’t speak for Rob, but my view is that Nz was ridiculously condescending toward “the mob,” and set the bar ridiculously high for rerspectable philosophical engagement. Hey, he needed that, I know. But I don’t picture myself as Zarathustra’s ape. I’m only Huenemann’s donkey.


  9. Actually, I feel my view is quite Nietzschean in spirit, and soundly so:

    In the end, it has to be as it is and has always been: great things are left for the great, abysses for the profound, delicacy and trembling for the subtle, and, all in all, everything rare for those who are rare themselves. (BGE 43)

    For the mediocre, mediocrity is a happiness[…] It would be completely unworthy of a more profound spirit to have any objection to mediocrity as such. Mediocrity is needed before there can be exceptions: it is the condition for a high culture. When an exceptional person treats a mediocre one more delicately than he treats himself and his equals, this is not just courtesy of the heart, — it is his duty. (AC 57)

    This isn’t to say we shouldn’t support efforts to extend to as many as possible the opportunity to engage in the Great Conversation, since there’s no telling from where the next great contributor to it might spring up, but I think it is to assume, in an unabashedly anti-egalitarian spirit, not only that few have any aptitude for it or stand to benefit from engagement with it, but it risks debasement by the vengeful “preachers of equality” who demand maximally massive participation.


  10. First and foremost, I still maintain that you are both wankers.

    As I say above, I vacillate on how elitist I want to be about philosophy and the humanities. I don’t think that one must needs be exposed to high culture and the speculative philosophy. But while I don’t have a particularly esoteric view of philosophy, I don’t have a lot of sympathy with what Rob calls the ‘preachers of egalitarianism’ either. I guess my view of philosophy grows out of my Christian Humanism. Anyone who acts commits themselves to certain beliefs and assumptions about what is good, true and beautiful. Wonder expresses a natural desire to know the really true, good, and beautiful. The humanities, as one of the central locations of wonder-ful inquiries are then useful for everyone since they help combat our disordered beliefs about such things.
    All of that said, I would choose piety over wonder. Better to have both though.


  11. Kleiner- As much as I agree regarding the importance of the humanities, I don’t know if I can sign on to the piety over wonder statement. Job was pious, but before he submitted in wonder to the voice from the whirlwind he was as far away from wisdom as he was from sin. He achieved moral virtue by crossing his ‘t’s and dotting his ‘i’s, not through personal insight. I think one could argue that piety without wonder is a religious manifestation of technological thinking; it mistakes means for ends. Piety without wonder results in the a hollow morality that lacks the personal insight that should demand that one be moral in the first place. Genuine wonder results in humility and respect for the other. But piety without wonder is often self-righteous and attempts to ‘moralize’ (homogenize) the world.


  12. I would think that wonder as a kind of piety is more in the Heideggarian anti-technological spirit Kleiner esteems than piety as something identifiable by propositional content. The latter, and even (if not especially) its emaciation into negative theology, would, I suspect have been dismissed by Heidegger as crypto-technological.


  13. I agree with both Dan and Rob, who both make basically the same Heideggerian point. Thinking is pious for Heidegger in that it is humble and listens and rejects the arrogance and autonomy of technological thinking. That being said, it must be pointed out that Heidegger himself was damn good at opening his ears but in the end pretty lousy at actually hearing anything. Though his thought praises piety, Heidegger himself was strangely impious since he seems to refuse the voice of the Other (a ‘theological’ voice’).

    My off-hand remark at the end of my last post was meant to connect to what Huenemann and Rob had said, to see if I could move in their direction of calling the totally non-reflective man in some sense happy (flourishing). So let me rephrase:
    Best to have someone who has the pious wonder of thought (Heidegger point), but even that person will have to listen and that means, ultimately, finding oneself in a tradition through which the Other can speak. To paraphrase Kierkegaard: it is better to truly believe (in the Heidegger sense) what is false rather than to falsely believe (technological sense) what is true. I take it Heidegger is sniffing at truly believing what is false. Kierkegaard is better, since he truly believes what is true.

    But if we are to agree that most won’t be able to think truly in this sense (and perhaps it would not even be good for them), then better for them to be obedient (pious) to the tradition that does speak even if they only think impiously (in the Heideggerian sense) about that voice. To extend Kierkegaard’s point: it is better to falsely believe what is true rather than to falsely believe what is false (I suspect SK avoids this further distinction because he thinks they are both already worse than those who truly believe).

    To appeal to Plato again: I suppose this latter class of folk basically has the same lot as the producers in Plato’s city in speech. They don’t truly believe anything since they are not wise but rather [merely] just (obedient to their role). But while they falsely believe, thanks to the tradition in which they are reared they falsely believe what is true. They have ‘right opinion’. While they are not flourishing in the complete sense, but are better off than producers in a oligarchic city (since they don’t even have right opinion).


  14. I would like to backtrack to the original post – how to defend humanities in tough times. I think we’ve let this get too complex. My claim:
    It is worth defending the humanities because studying the humanities, even if only in a limited way, enriches the experience of life for those that study them.

    The evidence for my claim is anecdotal, but all the same I think pretty good. The evidence comes from teaching Intro to Philosophy for some 10 years now. The students who enroll in the course, I am sad to say, have typically had almost no prior exposure to literature, fine arts, philosophy, life of reflection, etc. After the course what have I found? Many, perhaps even most, find that the course enriches their understanding of themselves and their experience in the world. What the humanities can do is provide people with a vocabulary with which they can express (to themselves and others) the deeper meaning of experiences they have already been having. Though not universal, I will be bold to say that most find this to be enriching, sometimes even ‘life-changing’ thing. This is because ideas matter, and indeed words matter. Human life is a narrative, and those with richer vocabularies find themselves capable of expressing a deeper story.
    In the name of complete disclosure, I am sure there are some students who hate my classes and find them to be a total waste of time.

    Now, most of these students won’t take more philosophy, and some may not take any more humanities courses in general. Most won’t live the ‘life of the mind’ in some serious way. I don’t kid myself with what the class accomplishes. The point, though, is that humanities are not just for the ‘great’. They can enrich the lives of every human person, even if most of those people have only short and even superficial contact with great works and the life of reflection.


  15. I think the humanities are valuable and especially philosophy. It’s the only education I willingly paid for. I even worked through college to pay for it myself–no loans or $ from parents.

    But… as I say too much, I’m with Montaigne:

    I’d be glad to find someone who could teach us to toss a pike or play the lute without practice, as these men try to make us think and speak well without exercising either our judgment or our tongue.

    In plain truth, our education, its pains and expenses, aim at nothing but to stuff our heads with facts–of judgement, prudence, virtue, no word. And it has succeeded altogether too well. Instead of teaching us prudence and virtue, it gives us their etymology. We learn how to decline Virtue but not to live it. If we don’t know what Prudence is in effect and by experience we know it by jargon and rote.

    In true education, anything that comes to our hand is as good as a book: the prank of a page-boy, the blunder of a servant, a bit of table-talk — they are all part of the curriculum. When he is in company, our lad should have his ear and eye in every corner; for I find that the best chairs are usually sat in by the least capable men, and that high station is seldom accompanied by good sense.

    In any case, the true value in philosophy may not be related to books or the classroom. But books are my only avenue to listen to my favorite dead people… that I know of.


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