Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Stanley Fish Tackles the Humanities: Will They Save Us?
Stanley Fish contributed a thought-provoking piece on the 'use' of the Humanities.
I have often heard questions like, 'so, Humanities, eh? What do they DO, exactly?' My good friend, Dimitri, himself an engineer, tends to ask me questions of this kind. Almost unequivocally I answer with a question first, 'what do you mean DO? Contextualize 'do' first.' And as I do so, I have a 'je ne comprend pas' look stamped on my face. Since when is an entire field up for questioning?!
I understand that in our times things tend to be viewed as reified commodities and that most people have a need to quantify the actual 'value' of something. But then one treads on strange interpretation territories, i.e., how one defines 'value' might not correspond with others' takes.
I was happy to read Stanley Fish's bit on the Humanities and how he explores its 'use' rhetorically. Here are two chosen paragraphs from the post:
'Teachers of literature and philosophy are competent in a subject, not in a ministry. It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by “do” is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.
To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said – even when it takes the form of Kronman’s inspiring cadences – diminishes the object of its supposed praise.'
Indeed, this is not an answer problem, but rather a question problem. And, as noted, 'justification...confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance.
What do you think?
Read the full blog by Fish here.
graph per ny times