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.

On Boredom and the Arts

I believe that artistic production, including literary production, is a spontaneous order. That means artistic production is an epistemic ecosystem–it creates knowledge. Artists all attempt to solve artistic/aesthetic problems within the artistic ecosystem and create artistic knowledge as a consequence. The one objection–which isn’t a small objection–is what regulates this process?

In the system of trade–properly called the catallaxy, but more commonly mis-labeled the economy (which is a complex system that includes the spontaneous orders of money and technological innovation)–it is profit and loss that (primarily) regulates the order. It is reputation which regulates the scientific order. In technology, it’s simply “does it work?” But what may it be in the arts?

I want to suggest that it’s a combination of boredom and interest. “Boredom” is one of the self-correcting aspects of the artistic order. Enough people get bored, and nobody listens/reads/views the work any more. A work that continues to stimulate people to producing more work–that maintains “interest”–continues to be heard/read/viewed.

Of course, this regulatory process is a slower one than you find happening in the catallaxy, technology, or even the sciences. But speed is no objection. Scientific ideas can lie untapped for decades or longer. Reputations of long-dead scientists can rise and fall. The fact that a poet may have little influence on several generations of poets, then be re-discovered and influence later poets doesn’t mean the process isn’t a spontaneous order.

In fact, we would expect a power law of influence/boredom if it is a spontaneous order. We would expect a few poets to have longevity, or even to be rediscovered long after they were seemingly forgotten, while we would expect the overwhelming majority of poets to be mostly unread in the lifetimes of the poets and for pretty much the entirety of the time anyone anywhere will read poetry. And there will be a medium number of poets with a moderate amount of influence. It’s entirely possible for a poet to have immediate influence and no long-term influence, except through the influence they had on the more important poets they influenced.

The fact is that most art produced by most artists is boring. Most works are uninteresting, uninspired, and uninspiring. They don’t help us see things in a new way or remind of of aspects of being we have forgotten and keep forgetting (Kundera). Or, they may help us see something in a new way that then becomes so widely adopted and “obvious” that the work becomes cliched after the fact and people lose interest. I would think, as an artist, there would have to be fewer worse fates than that–to show the world something that’s so obvious once you’ve shown it to them that its truth is from that point obvious and your work becomes kitsch.

Regardless, such is the rise and fall of artistic influence, of the discovery and promulgation of artistic problems and solutions. No matter what the reason, the worst sin you can commit as an artist is to be boring. Whether or not your work remains boring, though, only time will tell. The same is true of interest–if you create it, you’re golden, while if you lose it, you’re lost. And how do you create interest? By solving artistic problems–and in solving them, creating new ones.

The Devil Speaks That Which Cannot Be Spoken

I think everyone should read Mikhail Bolgakov’s The Master and Margarita — a Soviet-era Faust story. In chapter 1 an editor, Berlioz, and a poet, Bezdomny (the poet’s pseudonym, which is itself telling, since he is writing for an approved literary journal) are discussing the non-existence of Jesus when the Devil appears. The chapter is full of interesting things, but the thing I want to bring out in particular would seem to have nothing to do with theology, even if it starts off with a theological point– a point made immediately after a discussion of the weaknesses of the rational proofs of God’s existence.

The Devil/unknown man/stranger asks: “But this is the question that disturbs me—if there is no God, then who, one wonders, rules the life of man and keeps the world in order?”

‘Man rules himself,’ said Bezdomny angrily in answer to such an obviously absurd question.

‘I beg your pardon,’ retorted the stranger quietly, ‘but to rule one must have a precise plan worked out for some reasonable period ahead. Allow me to enquire how man can control his own affairs when he is not only incapable of compiling a plan for some laughably short term, such as, say, a thousand years, but cannot even predict what will happen to him tomorrow?’

‘In fact,’ here the stranger turned to Berlioz, ‘imagine what would happen if you, for instance, were to start organizing others and yourself, and you developed a taste for it—then suddenly you got . . . he, he . . .’ at this the foreigner smiled sweetly, as though the thought of a heart attack gave him pleasure. . . . ‘Yes, a heart attack,’ he repeated the word sonorously, grinning like a cat, ‘and that’s the end of you as an organizer! No one’s fate except your own interests you any longer. Your relations start lying to you. Sensing that something is amiss you rush to a specialist, then to a charlatan, and even perhaps to a fortune-teller. Each of them is as useless as the other, as you know perfectly well. And it all ends in tragedy: the man who thought he was in charge is suddenly reduced to lying prone and motionless in a wooden box and his fellow men, realising that there is no more sense to be had of him, incinerate him.

‘Sometimes it can be even worse: a man decides to go to Kislovodsk,’—here the stranger stared at Berlioz—‘a trivial matter you may think, but he cannot because for no good reason he suddenly jumps up and falls under a tram! You’re not going to tell me that he arranged to do that himself? Wouldn’t it be nearer the truth to say that someone quite different was directing his fate?’

In this seeming theological discussion of whether or not man is the master of his own fate — or if it is rather God directing all — we have the Devil arguing against the very possibility of economic planning. Note that the Devil specifically uses the terms “plan” and “organizer” — the very things socialists believed, at the time (1938), were possible. Note too that the argument isn’t about whether any particular person can rule him/herself, but rather whether or not man, as a collective, can rule, plan, and organize himself.

But the Devil points out something: in order to plan such that man rules man, man would have to be able to predict with perfect precision everything that will happen, including accidents. Mere accidents throw off the plan, meaning man cannot rule.

More than that, he points out that for all of the rhetoric about organizing for the collective good, all the altruistic organizer has to have happen is a heart attack for him to suddenly become quite concerned about his own personal well-being and to then ignore all of his efforts for his fellow man. More, under stress, the Devil points out that man will not only make rational choices — the doctor — but will even make increasingly irrational choices in order to save his own life. Thus, man is not ruled by reason alone — nor will he ever be. And no man will work for man as a collective when his own individual life is at stake. The fact of self-preservation belies the dream of self-sacrifice for the collective –or of the possibility of the pure rule of reason.

One can imagine the publishing atmosphere in the Soviet Union in 1938, when this novel was finished. Bulgakov had been publishing (not without controversy) for years, and he no doubt expected this novel to be published as well. He thus puts all approved and appropriate views into the mouths of Berlioz and Bezdomny, while criticizing the very foundations on which Soviet rule was made though the mouth of the Devil. The Devil, of course, is the most evil of all evil; the Devil doesn’t even exist, and is proof of the irrationality of man the Soviet Man was overcoming. To put these ideas into the mouth of the Devil was, therefore, safe. One could criticize the ideas on which Soviet central planning was based so long as that criticism was out of the mouth of an irrationally-based, nonexistent metaphor for evil. And more, the Devil is the adversary of God — and if the Adversary is enunciating anti-communist ideas, does that not make him the adversary of the communists? — and does that not suggest Communism has replaced/become God?

Ah, the wonders of literature! The wonders of metaphor — compact or extended! One can say so much, and say so many dangerous things, and pretend innocence of it all. Especially in satire. Just give the Devil the words, and you can communicate them with plausible deniability. If you see the Devil appear in a work of literature, be on the lookout for him to speak what cannot be spoken.


Noam Chomsky has argued that humans have a deep grammar from which our languages emerge. Steven Pinker’s work tends to confirm this insight.

In Moral Minds, Marc Hauser has argued that there is likely a deep grammar of morality. I would tend to agree. There is a deep sense of “unfairness” in a lot of species, including humans. Humans also have a set of moral universals–prohibitions on murder, incest, theft, etc.–with cultural variations and individual subjective interpretations within those cultural expressions of those universals.

Music is also considered to have a grammar out of which the various musical expressions emerge.

Stories also have a grammar, and one could argue that each sentence is in fact a miniature story. Meaning, stories follow the grammar of language at scales of greater complexity.

Let’s go deeper. As it turns out, proteins also have a grammar. And if peptides do, certainly genes and the DNA itself do.

Do cultures have a grammar? Economies? Technological innovation? It would be odd if they didn’t.

Altruistic Racist Warriors vs. Selfish Tolerant Pacifists

In the Vol. 318, 26 Oct. 2007 issue of Science there is a fascinating article on pg. 636-640 titled “The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War” by Jung-Kyoo Choi and Samuel Bowles, with an accompanying review article on pg. 581-2 by Holly Arrow titled “The Sharp End of Altruism.”

Using computer simulations, Choi and Bowles show that if you create beings with the following traits: either altruistic (A) or non-altruistic (N) and either tolerant (T) or parochial, or anti-stranger (P), you end up with two stable populations, depending on the conditions. Under peacetime conditions, you get “a society of selfish but tolerant freetraders” (Arrow, 581), but under wartime conditions, you get “a warrior society in which people help one another but are hostile to outsiders” (581). The other two combinations — selfless, tolerant people and selfish racists — seem to be unstable combinations, though more stable under peacetime conditions than under times of war. The researchers observe that one doesn’t even need war to be that common for the PA combination to quickly dominate.

These conclusions make a lot of evolutionary sense. Without making the mistake of thinking of behavior as simply a choice between P and T genes, as behavior is more complex than that from both a genetic point of view and from a social point of view, by treating them as overarching behaviors that can be selected, we can see, nonetheless, that certain behaviors are more adaptive than others. Part of this has to do with territorialism. All land vertebrates are territorial to varying degrees. This allows individuals and groups to have enough food and water to continue to live. Protecting territory protects food. So we should expect species to protect their territory — which they do. Now, if a species is going to protect its territory, it must confront those who wish to intrude on or take that territory. Various rituals have evolved that allow many confrontations to end without violence. But sometimes that breaks down. And more, in chimpanzees, we see an outright preference for attacking and killing members of other groups when the balance is in favor of the attacking group. This assumption was used by the researchers, and it led to the creation of a preference for racist altruists — those that will sacrifice to protect family and tribe, but who hate and will attack those not in the tribe. Tolerant groups are less likely to attack first, meaning the racist groups are more likely to both attack first, killing the tolerant people of other groups. The end result is that the human race has evolved to be racist altruists.

Now, the fact that we evolved to be racist altruists who love war in no way excuses such behavior. But it seems that this combination is the most stable one under conditions of periodic war. The other combination is predominant under periods of peace: the TN individual. These people are tolerant of others and are willing to engage in interactions with people from different groups, yet are selfish. This is the paring most associated with Americans — and it is no doubt because America’s isolation from the rest of the world, keeping us out of constant wars, encourages the development of TN behavior. Does this mean PA is completely replaced? The authors don’t say, but let me expand on their research a little with some thoughts on my own. It seems likely that wars may have resulted in natural selection for genetic PA’s, though behavior, being complex, can still have other kinds of attributes built on it by society. So in the U.S., for example, while people may be more likely to be genetic PA’s, we have adopted the TN meme, and use it more often than we do the AP genetic tendencies we’re born with. But as the Japanese learned in WWII, it is not difficult to awaken the “sleeping dragon” of PA behavior latent in people.

It seems, though, that so long as there are wars, the PA genes-memes will continue to dominate. However, the bad news for many of the peace activists on the Left who are TA’s is that peace will not produce more of them. Rather, it appears that it will be more likely to produce more TN’s — people who are more and more likely to believe in and engage in free market economics. My guess is that Ayn Rand would be one of the few not surprised by this outcome.

Fortune Favors the Bold; Markets Favor the Meek

I stole the above headline from EconLog. I’ve been thinking a lot about this headline separate from the actual contents that follow it on EconLog.

The first thing I would like to note is that it is true. This is how the meek have inherited the earth — through the free market system. The markets favor those who are easy to get along with. If you want a job, just show the potential employer that you are a “team player,” meaning, you will do anything he wants when he wants it. The more social you are this way and the more submissive, the more likely you are to get the job. Now, this can all be a facade just to get your foot in the door so you can then be bold and shoot up in the company — but it can’t be a complete facade. You still have to continue to act meek and to play all the games necessary to succeed. And there’s no getting out of the game. In every job and potential job there is a game. The most one can hope for is to be involved in the occasional rule change.

Here’s another way to word the headline: “Fortune favors the idealist; markets favor the pragmatists.” In this case I am referring to social pragmatists. One can be a social pragmatist and still ignore physical reality. Those who go along to get along, who try to fit into whatever the social milieu of the company or organization is, are social pragmatists. Those who may think there is right and wrong, and that one should always come down on the right, and those who may think there are better ways of doing things than the boss, are typically advised to keep their mouths shut — you may win, in which case you become the hero; but you may lose everything you worked for as well.

If this all sounds pessimistic, well, it is pessimistic in a sense. But it’s not necessarily bad. The vast majority of people are “the meek” and are social pragmatists — and thus the free market favors them. This is why people are generally better off in a free market system. But at the same time, I am coming to understand the objections to the market by Nietzsche on precisely this issue. Nietzsche, of course, did not favor the meek. He favored the bold — and good fortune. I can thus understand where his objection to the free market system comes from. This does not mean, of course, that I agree with Nietzsche (with whom I agree more often than not) in his opposition to free markets — but that disagreement would only occur if we are to understand Nietzsche’s objections to the free market as objections in the sense most people mean it by, and not in the way Nietzsche means it when he attacks something: as a way to strengthen it. If we understand Nietzsche’s opposition this way, we then have to ask: is this disfavoring of the bold by the markets harmful to the markets?

It certainly suggests that it is harmful to the bold, for economics tells us that if the markets do not favor something, it will soon cease being offered. And where would that place the free market system? Can it truly exist without the bold?

Of course, if fortune favors the bold, we shall perhaps never be rid of the bold, as we shall never be rid of fortune. But where’s fortune when you need it? My own boldness keeps getting in the way of my success in the market — how ironic, then, that I continue to support it. What can I say, I’m just not selfish enough to want to do away with it for my own sake, and thus harm so many millions of meek. And what does that say about myself? Am I bold or meek? Or boldly meek? Or meekly bold? Or maybe I’m just so stupid as to not know when to stop fighting for what is right. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to pay the bills.

And yet, there is no market process without the bold. More, there is no wealth without the bold. While the market best distributes inventions/creations and wealth, it’s the bold, the creators and inventors, who create all the wealth in the world. The meek maintain, and they gain from the bold through the market, but without the bold constantly inventing the future, we would all live in nothing but abject poverty at best. And there wouldn’t be many of us around to live that way.

The Economic Pie Metaphor

Too many people think of the economy as being a pie. If the economy is a pie, then the socialists are right that it is unfair that the rich have more, because they had to take it from someone else. This would mean that every economic transaction would result in one person being better off, the other person being worse off. But the pie metaphor is simply incorrect. Economies grow, and it is the element of growth that is completely ignored in the pie metaphor.

In a true economic exchange, party A has something of value (object 1) to party B. Now, if party B wants to get object 1 from party A, they have to offer something to party A that is more valuable to party A than object 1 is to them. Naturally, party B will choose something that is also of less value to him than is object 1. As a result, party A will get something of more value to him than was object 1, and party B will get object 1, which he considered to be more valuable than what he exchanged for it. This economic exchange boils down to : “If you do something good for me, I’ll do something good for you.” Both parties are better off after the exchange. Wealthy people in a free market are wealthy precisely because they engage in more of these exchanges than do other people. They dedicate more of their time to making economic exchanges.

One problem I oftentimes see when people make anti-economic arguments is an objection to certain kinds of exchange. There is the assumption that they know more than the two engaging in the economic exchange what has what value. The assumption is that things have an inherent value, making economic exchanges absurd. This would mean that you are either exchanging things of equal value, in which case nobody is better or worse off, or something of high value is exchanged for something of low value, in which case someone is better off. The assumption here, then, is that the rich are good at tricking people into exchanging something of high value for something of low value. But things do not have inherent values — we give things value. And it is arrogant of someone to decide that they know better if something is of value to you or not. Such people are elitists — those who favor free markets are in this case the true egalitarian thinkers.

The pie metaphor implies another kind of exchange: “Unless you do something good for me, I’ll do something bad to you.” This is the kind of exchange government engage in — and those who support government intervention do recognize this, only they assume that all exchanges are like the government’s form of exchange. The presumption then is that since all exchanges are of this sort, we might as well put the government in charge of them. This kind of exchange has the effect of enforcing the pie metaphor, since inevitably one is exchanging something of more value for something of less — this results in “negative growth”. If we balance out growth with negative growth, we end up with a non-growing economy, and then we do indeed have a pie that gets divided up.

Fortunately the U.S. economy is not quite in that situation. Thus, the rich get richer by making everyone else better off as well. A free market economy is not a pie–it is not a zero sum game–rather, it is a positive sum game. That’s the only way we could have created the incredible amount of wealth we see in the world out of a world where aboject poverty dominated almost all of human history.