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 Cult of Self-Expression

Perhaps nothing has been less fruitful, less artistic, less interesting than the cult of self-expression in the arts. The arts are not and have never been about self-expression. Unfortunately, most people believe that art is almost exclusively about self-expression. But to the extent that an artist or writer believes this, that person is not engaged in an aesthetic enterprise. Their work is anti-artistic, and the degree to which they are engaging in self-expression actually undermines the work as a work of art.

What does it mean to “engage in self-expression”? I’ve seen its most extreme version in creative writing classes with students who would say things like, “I don’t read poetry because I don’t want to be influenced by anyone else in the way I write or what I write about.” The funny thing is that every single poem by every single person who ever said something like this all sounded exactly the same. Somehow, the “self” they were all trying to “express” was identical in nature.

Your pure, unadulterated “self” is pretty much identical to everyone else’s. In other words, you’re not all that interesting or even unique. To become interesting and unique, you have to have experiences with other people, which includes reading a great deal of poetry if you plan to be a poet. Your poetic voice will never emerge by avoiding poetry any more than your actual voice will ever emerge without hearing anyone speak. Your poetic voice can only ever emerge if you immerse yourself in poetry, read poetry obsessively, try to emulate your favorite poets, adopt forms and styles, write in meter and use rhyme, consonance, assonance, and other poetic elements.

The choices forced on you by meter and rhyme, for example, force you to make different choices than what you would have made “naturally.” More often, better and more interesting choices. The choices you would have made without the restrictions of meter and rhyme are your “self-expression,” and most of the time they aren’t as interesting as the forced choices. Now, to what degree can “forced choices” be “self-expression” if they have been imposed from the outside?

If you read about the great artists, you won’t find a lot about their self-expression. What you will find is a great deal about whatever artistic problems they were trying to solve. The Renaissance artists were interested in solving artistic problems around the emergent idea of point perspective. The Impressionists were trying to solve problems with capturing light in different ways. The cubists too were trying to solve artistic problems in trying to capture movement and in trying to render unseen portions as seen in a 2D painting.

Shakespeare wasn’t trying to express himself (thank God!) in his plays, or even in his series of sonnets (there was an artistic problem he was trying to solve in creating a coherent set of sonnets without a narrative holding them together). Shakespeare to varying degrees expressed his society, culture, etc. in his plays, transforming works by Roman playwrights into Elizabethan stories, and sometimes Shakespeare reinforced that world view, and sometimes he challenged that world view, but he always did so through the portrayal of his characters, who spoke with their own voices, who only expressed themselves rather than being avatars for Shakespeare.

Today’s movies are very popular in no small part because the massively collaborative nature of film making makes self-expression nearly impossible. We can always tell when a film has self-expression, because we tend not to like them for being so self-indulgent. And that’s what everyone says about your work when you engage in self-expression: they say that it’s self-indulgent. And self-indulgent work is egotistical and boring.

Of course, much poetry especially is egotistical and boring. Poetry is especially prone to this because there are few market forces working to keep poets honest. Nobody’s paying for poetry anyway, so why not drivel on about your boring self? If nobody is paying, nobody cares, right? But that’s not necessarily true. People are paying–in time. When you write a poem, you are supposed to be trying to communicate with that person. Have you ever had to sit with someone who droned on and on and on about themselves and nothing else? If your poetry reads like that, don’t be surprised if nobody wants to read it. Probably nobody wants to sit with you, either.

I’m certainly not saying I haven’t written poems about myself. I have. Most poets have. But hopefully I’m trying to communicate something to you that goes well beyond self-expression, and in fact has nothing whatsoever to do with self-expression. I’m trying to communicate my experiences in a way that they are universal and universalized in their particularity. My very best poems have been those where I have avoided self-expression entirely. If I have communicated to you beauty, that’s enough. If I have made you think, contemplate, meditate, or want to turn a line or two into a mantra or a koan, all the better. If I have helped you see something you’ve never seen before, or something you have seen before in a new way, I’ve done my job as an artist. But none of those things require self-expression. More, self-expression is the surest way to get in the way of accomplishing these things.

Matt Ridley has recently talked about “ideas having sex.” A true artist’s brain is the bed where these ideas are having sex. For a poet, all of the poems you have read, all of the ideas you have read, all of the facts filling your head are having sex and reproducing in the form of new poems. Your artwork will have the DNA of all the forms, ideas, and so on of everything you have read, experienced, and seen. Self-expression, on the other hand, involves only yourself–and its outcome is sterile and only of interest to the person involved in that self-expression. Art, like sex, is only interesting to others if more than yourself is involved.

The best thing that could happen to the arts would be for everyone to do away with the self-indulgent cult of self-expression. Go out and solve some artistic problems. That’s the one and only way to be any kind of artist at all.

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.

Milton Wilcain’s Intelligence

Milton Wilcain was obviously not a very smart man. Sure, he went to college, eventually receiving a Master’s Degree, and he ran a business employing three hundred people, but we know he was unintelligent nonetheless. Despite these seeming contradictions, we can come to this conclusion because if he had been intelligent, he would have been allowed to keep his money to spend as he wanted and he would have been allowed to live as he wished, without anyone telling him how. Instead, other people took what he owned and used it better than he could have. But Milton was not content at being unintelligent, so he decided to run for the city council.

Milton soon proved that, as dim-witted as he was, clearly he was more intelligent than his opponent, and he was easily elected. As he took his seat on the council, he was certain he could feel his intelligence increasing. He was certain at the very least that he was more intelligent than the rest of the men in the city, save perhaps his fellow council members and the mayor. He did many brilliant things for the city, including figuring out a way to take more money from the lower and middle classes so a brand new Opera House could be built, and managing to keep the potholes down to a mere ten per block.

It soon became clear to Milton, though, that his rise in intelligence was not enough. He was certain he knew very well what the city needed, but since he was not allowed to make many decisions, it soon became apparent that he did not. Milton was at first confused. He was certain he knew more than either the state or federal government what the city needed, since he was living there, but then he remembered that as a private citizen he was obviously unaware of the best way in which to live, so he could possibly be wrong about whether or not he knew how to run a city better than the state, which is why Milton decided once again to try to raise his intelligence.

The run for the state legislature was rougher and closer, but Milton managed to prevail, clearly showing his superior intelligence. He moved with his family to the capitol, and as he neared it, he was certain he could feel his intelligence growing. But it was when he took his seat in the legislature that he became certain his intelligence had become higher than he remembered it. He became certain he was far more intelligent and knew the right and proper things to do than did the city governments and especially the private citizens. He made certain the cities, which were obviously run by a bunch of idiots who had no idea how to run a city let alone make peoples’ lives better, did exactly what he decided they should do, whether he had been in the city or not. After all, as a state legislator, he knew what was best for the people, more than those morons running the cities. They were always asking for unimportant things like tax cuts and more money for roads. Milton had more important things to do for his citizens, such as building a new airport at the capitol and preventing new licenses from being given out so the state’s largest company would not have any competition.

But again it did not take long before Milton came to realize he was not as intelligent as he could be. It was growingly obvious that, since he was not trusted to make the right decisions for his state, there were people more intelligent than he. Otherwise, they would have obviously allowed him to make more decisions about his state, since he lived there and therefore should have known more about it than the federal government. But this was clearly not the case. And Milton decided that he wanted to be more intelligent than he was.

Having won much praise from his fellow party members, he easily won a seat in Congress. With this win, it was apparent that Milton was one of a handful of the smartest men in the state. He could feel his intelligence increasing as he boarded the plane and took his seat. The rapid takeoff gave his mind a jolt of intelligence unlike any it had experienced, and he grew smarter and smarter the closer he came to Washington. Upon landing, he was bewildered at how intelligent he had become. He suddenly knew exactly what everyone needed and how they should run their lives. But it wasn’t until he stepped into the capitol building that he really began to realize how important and brilliant he was compared to the average citizen, who he was certain could not feed, house, or clothe themselves without his legislative assistance, let alone educate their children or make good decisions, especially with their own money. So convinced was Milton of this later conclusion, the first thing he proposed was a tax increase, to make certain more of the citizen’s money was spent properly. He was also convinced that the states, counties, and cities (need we include the ultimate example of mental dullness, the private citizen?) were full of idiots who were completely incapable of making good decisions for their citizens, and he worked to make sure the federal government had more and more power and was more capable of dictating to the local and state governments how they should be run. Milton was one of the country’s most successful federal legislators and was highly praised by his party. After all, he managed to make sure more federal money was spent in his state than in any other, whether it was new bridges linking little-used roads or his fight for a new atomic clock being placed in his state (you can’t be too certain what time it is, after all). In fact, before Milton arrived in Washington, nobody knew there were that many brilliant unknown artists in his state. There were few who had little to show for all they had done and spent. He was Washington’s most successful legislator.

After many years, Milton decided to retire. His pension was large enough to live comfortably on and he was very happy with what he had accomplished. When his term ended, Milton cleared out his office and had everything sent back to his home state, which he hadn’t seen since his last campaign. After the retirement party his comrades had thrown for him, Milton boarded his plane to leave his beloved Washington. But when he did, an amazing thing happened. His remarkable intelligence was beginning to disappear. As he crossed the country, Milton became dumber and dumber until finally, upon landing, he realized that he had become as stupid as he had been before he had embarked on his famous career. We know this because if he had been smart, he would have been allowed to keep his money to spend as he wanted and he would have been allowed to live as he wished, without anyone telling him how.