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


Unknown said...

i hear this too. 'oh, you're a photographer.... umm, WHY?' 'oh, you majored in 'philosophy'? i bet there's a good buck in that racket!'
funny. I don't ask people, 'oh, you're a lawyer?! why the heck would you want to practice law?!'
this is not an 'answer problem', as you put it, but rather a question problem!

vipull said...

Economics is classified under the broad umbrella of humanities. And as dismal as science as it is, they do give out Nobels for it. And literature. But I have serious reservations if there is anything worth distributing prizes in contributions of Lacan, Derridas, Kristeva ... from what little I have read of them. Maybe Bri can do a blog on economics of Lit. Theory, who gives money to do what in this field. That should atleast be worthy of serious "useful" scholarship.

B.R. said...

Ouch, Turco, ouch.
We need the Humanities the way we need other disciplines. What do you mean by 'useful scholarship?'
One of your favorites, Umberto Eco deals as much [especially recently] with 'high culture' as he does with interpretations of 'popular culture' and 'popular artistic inclinations.'
You mention Lacan, Kristeva, and Derrida and while you might not agree with their work, their contributions need to be given some measure of attention. The Humanities are necessary and they just have to be/exist. They do not need to be explained. I don't ask you why you opted to become a mechanical engineer. You felt, I reckon, that you could apply your talents and natural proclivities the best way by being in a field like that. Just like some of us have chosen to call home the Humanities.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like "Turco" has an issue with french philosophy, hmmm?

B.R. said...

Right, I think he does. I don't blame him when it comes to certain things. This is, yet again, a question of moderation. While some Lacan and Kristeva is problematic, some other things are useful.
Turco might be mostly reacting to Sokal's Fashionable Nonsense, a title he gave me a while back and which, actually, parodies Kristeva quite effectively.

Anonymous said...

Turco writes:
"I have serious reservations if there is anything worth distributing prizes in contributions of Lacan, Derridas, Kristeva ... from what little I have read of them."
these French theorists are not Nobel laureates, [neither could they ever be, by that's my bias speaking.' so, i would say to Turco to learn to compartmentalize his reactions to literature a bit better. yes, there are some unsavory plume-havers out there but there are also names like James, Frost, Marques, Borges, .....
and as for Fish' bit, i fully agree with his: "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."

Anonymous said...

"Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance."
The relevance, actually I should say the importance of the Humanities is primary. That there are people out there who feel a need to question it, well, that's the relevantly dangerous thing here. The Humanities need to be fostered now more than ever.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Turco made me laugh today. His "Maybe Bri can do a blog on economics of Lit. Theory, who gives money to do what in this field" comment was a smart/cheeky reaction to the Fish post.
your good engineer buddy, Turco, made my morning!
no, i don't agree with what he's saying. he just happened to make me laugh.

vipull said...

Dave, sorry if I gave an impression that I thought that the french philosophers are Nobel laureates. I am aware of the fact that they are not. The point I wanted to make is - Humanities does have fields worth appreciating (economics, maybe history even), but Lit. theory is "probably" not one of them, atleast going by what this engineer has read about it.
I have a simple classification for stuff that I read - fiction and non-fiction. Fiction I read for entertainment. Non-fiction, for .. well better understanding the way stuff works.
The pleasure of literature is in reading a good story, why does one have to analyze something to death when you can just ask the author what exactly it is that he means. And if you are going to start entire academic departments for that ... to what end?
Engineers build machines based on theoretical structure that scientists generate. And scientists use those machine to further refine their theories. This might be a bit too simple but does capture the spirit of "doing science".
Does literature and theory of literature have some kind of similar understanding? I am asking this question because I don't know the answer, not because I am trying to be a cheeky monkey.

Anonymous said...

Since it looks like people are taking side here, I'm on 'team Turco.'
The guy simply wants to understand what the relationship between theory and lit. is and since I'm also from a non-Humanities field, some elucidation would be great. Thanks, Turco.

Anonymous said...

What is a man if his most profitable employment was to eat and sleep? Nothing more than an animal.
Or something like that. My paraphrasing is a tad awkward but hopefully the point comes across...?

Dimitri said...

I wonder how many of those who question the 'use' of the humanities have followed through with questioning the 'use' of other endeavors, including science. Although I value the pursuit of knowledge using rigorous methods and scientific humility (tentativeness of truth), I find artistic expression, emotive rhetoric, collective effervescence, and cultural fads to be a major source of intellectual stimulation and of research ideas. My question "what do you set out to do when you write?" was not one of ridicule but of genuine inquiry.

To divide disciplines into 'hard' and 'soft' is to miss the main premise of science: all knowledge is uncertain. As long as you can make an experimentally falsifiable explanatory hypothesis, it's science. Economics can be good science. John Nash and Jon von Neumann used economics to start new branches of mathematics. Neuroscience leaves little in humanities outside the reach of its inquiry. Humanities are us, our brains, they are cingulate cortex talking to cingulate cortex.

The boundary between humanities and 'hard' disciplines is an illusion (unless you are a robot following written procedures). This boundary is the product of dualistic thinking (soul vs. flesh, reason vs. emotion, good vs. evil) -- damn Zoroaster, damn Descartes and Hegel -- it's hard to shake them off, but we'll have to eventually.

I have observed that there is a strong correlation in individuals between scientific achievement and deep engagement in questions of the human condition, philosophy, motivation and emotion, society, and free artistic expression.

I disagree with Steven Pinker's belief that art, music, literature are artifacts of sexual selection, the proverbial 'peacock's tail' whose only function is to get chicks (okay, hens). Pinker comes from 'inhumane' computational sciences. Thinkers who are closely related to 'wet' empirical neuroscience are beginning to understand how emotion and conscious reasoning are inseparable (e.g. see Antonio Damasio's work). Art, emotion, and verse are but expressions of mutual limbic regulation and serves as communication device of vast subconscious processes of the limbic system. Love and relationships are stable regulatory networks that establish themselves with little consultation from your conscious self.

Perhaps the answer is that the use of sciences and other vocations is simply to create a context and a disciplined bloodline for the humanities -- free exploration of possibilities? Humanities are not for something, but everything else is for them. Perhaps it's just that the technical types feel left out burdened by the illusion of perpetual intellectual discipline? :-)

Anonymous said...

1) I would have to agree more with Kronman that Fish. Where Fish claims there is no real effect from literature . . . my response is "Huh"!? "Can he be serious"? There will always be cause and effect. That is fundamental. To say that something someone writes won't have an impact on a reader is just odd!! Where as Kronman gives a lot of external power to literature . . . my response is "maybe not to the extent he claims . . . but yes . . . there is power in the written word for good and ill".
2) The "justification" argument Fish proposes is a bit lacking . . . okay . . . a lot lacking :) If he thinks one can live in a world without it . . . well . . . he might want to take up residence on another planet. There is purpose in all things . . . therefore . . . justification in all things. Justification doesn't diminish a thing . . . it helps to make the thing more understandable. The same reason why some things are valued and not valued. Yet . . . not everyone will value or disvalue (is that a word?) the same things. Here lies an argument for humanities. Simply . . . because people differ in their appropriation of value . . . we all need to have a greater understanding of why this is so. People are screaming for peace in the world . . . well . . . how do they think it is going to come about without basic understanding and acceptance of people's similarities and differences? The ability to build a great bridge may help traffic flow and life convenience . . . but it isn't going to help me understand why extremist Muslims think the way they do and why they want to kill me. Which understanding will create a safer and better quality of life? Yep . . . that's right!
3) A person responded to all of this by attacking the reading and study of literature. He claimed there was no point in reading a text and answering the question: "What does it mean"? ... But this is what I think: What you read will mean whatever it means to you. There is importance in that. Sorry to sound so Kantian . . . but . . . it is true. All we engage in . . . including literature . . . is naturally filtered through our own perceptions and life experiences. It is only logical for that to be the case. ...
4) Reverting to my Schiller and Schlegel . . . all of this argument comes down to . . . balance. That between sense and reason. No matter how much either side of the argument postures . . . both are needed in some kind of balance for a society (global or otherwise) to function.
I really like the statement by Nietzsche (through the voice of Socrates) in " The Birth of Tragedy": "What is not intelligible to me is not necessarily unintelligent". He furthers with: "Perhaps there is a realm of wisdom from which the logician is exiled? Perhaps art is even a necessary correlative of, and supplement for science"?