What Value Do the Humanities Have?

Stanley Fish has yet another piece on the value of the humanities. Fish argues that we shouldn’t defend the humanities on any sort of utilitarian argument–that by having students take humanities classes, they will learn how to think, how to write, to become better people, etc.–but rather that we should argue that they have an inherent value in and of themselves. He points out that if we justify the humanities in relation to something else, we are playing by another game’s rules, and we’re not likely to do well by doing so.

While I think Fish is a little too apt to reject any sort of justification of the humanities in the creation of well-rounded humans (perhaps because he’s being a bit elitist himself in his definition of what constitutes the humanities), and while I think he doesn’t actually understand the real value of the digital humanities (something to which I contributed in my dissertation in a chapter titled Introduction to the Fractal Distribution of Words in a Text back in 2004), I do think there is something to his Oakeschottian defense of the humanities. And I think that he would have made an even stronger argument had he understood the spontaneous orders argument underlying Oakeschott’s point.

Science is not justified by its contribution to the creation of technology nor to the improvement of health care. I would go farther and say that science has made almost no contribution to the creation of technology, and has rather come along most of the time to explain the technological advances being made. That’s certainly what happened with the steam engine–the science of thermodynamics was developed to explain the working of the engine; the engine wasn’t invented after we understood thermodynamics. While that may be changing with biotechnology, the overwhelming majority of science throughout the overwhelming majority of the history of science has worked this way. Science is self-justified. We learned why the steam engine works because of curiosity, not to make a steam engine.

The same is true of math. Developments in math have come about because people wanted to solve mathematical problems. That is all. The fact that some math has proven useful to understanding some aspect of the world have been fortunate, but there’s a lot of math out there that has no correlation in the real world.

Math and science are two different spontaneous orders. That is, they are epistemic ecosystems. Mathematical developments are made for their own sake, not for the sake of anything else–not even science. Yet, some of those developments in math have proven useful in understanding the world insofar as they are integrated with science. Equally, scientific investigations are designed to help someone learn something they are curious about, and literally for no other reason. Sometimes those discoveries lead to a practical advancement, but very few people are doing science to make technological breakthroughs. Those who are primarily interested in solving technological problems are working in their own spontaneous order. They may draw on the work of scientists, but often they are doing nothing of the sort.

The humanities–as well as the arts–are similarly epistemic ecosystems. People participate in them not for any “practical” purpose, but because they want to solve some sort of problem, to discover or create new knowledge (or, in the arts, to solve an artistic problem). While it’s theoretically possible for someone like Steve Jobs to take a calligraphy course and be inspired to offer different fonts on his word processor on his computers, I don’t think anyone can truly justify the teaching of calligraphy on the off chance that something like that is ever going to happen.

If we take a broader view of the arts and humanities and include TV and film, visual rhetoric, communications, etc., we can perhaps begin to understand the degree to which the arts and humanities touch literally everyone on earth. Few may read Dante’s Divine Comedy, but reading and understanding it can help one to understand the degree to which those ideas have permeated Western culture and even world culture, permeated our stories and the ways in which we think. That is something which I find worth knowing, but which others may not. And that’s okay. But it should be okay among those who don’t find it personally worthwhile for me to do so. A little less dismissive snobbery from both camps might be in order.

The fact is the humanities help us to understand our social world. Those who enjoy TV and film ought to be among the first to defend the study of works of great literature and the visual arts, because TV and film are always drawing on the past great stories that have lasted for decades, centuries, and even millennia, and they are always drawing on the visuals created over that same period of time. Most of our common cliches were first coined by people like Shakespeare. There are pop songs that directly reference Romeo and Juliet. How many songs in recent years have referenced Nietzsche’s dictum that whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger?

The humanities are self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. Science is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. The free market is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. Math is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. Technological innovation is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. The arts are self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. So is philosophy, religion, philanthropy, democracy, the social sciences, and any number of other spontaneous orders. They are justified by people simply being interested in doing those things.

Of course, the reason people want to justify what they do is because they need to pay the bills. How do we get people to pay us to do what we love doing? Often we have to argue that there is some value beyond our own interest and the interest of a handful of others. The sciences, the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, and math, among others, are luxuries only those with leisure time can dedicate themselves to creating. At the same time, the universality of things like storytelling suggests there is a necessary element to some of these things.

We spend way too much time and energy in storytelling–myth-making, gossiping, reading novels and poems, listening to songs, watching TV, watching movies, etc.–for it to just be a luxury. There has to be some kind of selective advantage for humans to do something so energy-intensive so often. I do believe we need to spend some time and energy learning why this is. Of course, that too is a self-justifying argument. We don’t have to know these things to keep telling and enjoying stories. But we might want to know it for the sake of knowing it–and if knowing that happens to help justify some money being freed up for the humanities, all the better.

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