Since we have been talking about the prospect of seeing our funding dwindle to the level of the National Endowment for the Humanities, it’s worth taking a look at how our colleagues in university humanities departments attempt to justify their own preservation. Stanley Fish took up the question in a op-ed in the NY Times dated January 6, 2008. He reviews Anthony Kronman’s answer in Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life:
Kronman … identifies science, technology and careerism as impediments to living a life with meaning. The real enemies, he declares, are “the careerism that distracts from life as a whole” and “the blind acceptance of science and technology that disguise and deny our human condition.” … We must turn to the humanities if we are to “meet the need for meaning in an age of vast but pointless powers,” for only the humanities can help us recover the urgency of “the question of what living is for.”
Fish doesn’t buy it.
If it were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so.
Here is his answer:
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. [emphasis added]
The bold-faced passage is parallel to what I have written about mathematics, although I’m not about to turn this into a positive argument. My purpose is rather to question the power relations concealed in judgments about “larger goods.”
Fish’s article provoked some debate among his colleagues, as might be expected. David Roochnik’s article The Useful Uselessness of the Humanities adds an Aristotelian perspective. The expression “useful uselessness” is associated with Abraham Flexner’s defense of the IAS focus on pure research (much quoted in my book). I also quoted Aristotle on leisure (on p. 71), but I didn’t give the full argument, which is summarized by Roochnik:
most people and cities mistake the source of their own happiness. They devote their best energy to the pursuit of wealth, power, or fame and thereby misconstrue the very meaning of their lives. They are incapable of appreciating the gift of leisure and so they disturb the peace.…By engaging in an activity valuable in and of itself, [philosophers] function as a paradigm of how to use leisure well. As such, they are reminders to ordinary citizens that the too familiar urge to succeed in the city, and thereby to achieve a good whose only value is instrumental, is wrong-headed. humanists thus exhibit a telos of human activity without which there would be nothing for human beings to strive for but more of the same: more power, wealth, or fame, each of which is in principle infinite, that is, without-an-end.
In particular, studying literature or pure mathematics or philosophy helps prevent wars. Aristotle is not the sort of person Congress (or taxpayers) would have in mind to run the NSF or even the National Endowment for the Humanities, but I don’t think his point should be dismissed. And I should explain again that one of the purposes of the book was to remind readers that questions like the one addressed here are the subject of lively and often interesting debates outside the confines of the common room.