that the humanities are their own reward, and that they can be justified only in terms of the special pleasure they afford their initiates, and that humanities professors should be pleased to admit their uselessness since this is tantamount to insisting on the autonomous and intrinsic value of their pursuits.He doesn't reject it outright, but he does reject it:
The humanities really can be pleasurable, they really are intrinsically rewarding, and it would be a serious mistake to turn to them solely because of their usefulness. Yet in my view, Fish takes insufficient care to distinguish between the truth that the humanities are not to be used and the falsehood—I want to say, the slander—that they are useless. To say they are useless is to say they bring nothing of value to our lives beyond the transient pleasure of engaging in them. But this is surely wrong.Here we get into what I am coming to think of as Wittgenstein territory, that is, the distinction between the animal and the ritual, which can also be thought of as the distinction between the pragmatic and the ethical, the trivial and the significant, the scientific and the transcendent, the factual and the valuable, the worldly and the unworldly. Attributing this distinction to Wittgenstein is not really important, but the distinction itself (which is also, in various forms, in Schopenhauer, Kant, and Plato, among others) is. It's closely related, also, to Mill's distinction between lower and higher pleasures.
Not wanting to accept Fish's claim that the humanities are useless, Tal says things like this about the value of the humanities:
they deepen virtually all of the activities of those who permit their psyches to be reshaped by sustained engagement in them. They deepen friendships; they deepen neighborly social relations; they deepen loves and marriages and parent-child relations, walks in the woods, idle musings, creative and expressive activity, and contemplation of the creative and expressive products of others.
The main opportunities for exercising the sort of understanding inspired by close reading of Marcel Proust and James Joyce seem to lie not in the political forum but at the café, or over the dinner table, or perhaps in the bedroom (where it greatly multiplies the menu of available pathologies!).
The humanities are, more accurately, a gateway to and instigator of a lifelong activity of free self-cultivation. The changes they provoke in us are not always for the happier, or the more remunerative, or the more civically engaged, but when things go passably well, these changes are for the deeper, the more reflective, and the more thoughtful. The humanities connect our lives with a human vocation that is different in kind from, and potentially more meaningful than, commerce or politicsI don't know what 'deepen' means, and suspect both that it has no clear meaning and that things very different from the study of the humanities can do whatever deepening is just as well. Sex, for instance, might deepen love, and the sincere love of God might deepen a walk in the woods. Wanting to improve, or pathologize, one's sex life is not a good reason to read Joyce. Nor, really, is wanting to improve one's conversations over dinner. Not that sex and conversation are unimportant, but these benefits of reading good books carefully seem no more relevant than the alleged economic and political benefits that Tal rightly looks past. The third passage I've quoted seems better, but again we have the idea of depth, which I can't understand as anything but enrichment, which in turn means little more to me than improvement. Books don't make us more thoughtful than business problems and opportunities, for instance, do. They make us thoughtful in a different way. This way is better (or deeper, if you prefer) but saying so is a rather empty endorsement. Metaphorical language about gateways and cultivation obscures this emptiness but does not remove it. These passages all come from the part of Tal's essay before he has fleshed out his argument, though, so no wonder it seems a little thin at this point. Let's move on.
Here's something like the heart of the last part of the essay:
The ideal teacher of philosophy is not someone whose opinions are to be accepted, but someone whose form of thought is worth emulating. The Socrates we know is a dramatic persona Plato puts forward as worthy of emulation. I believe that such emulation consists in serious-minded lifelong engagement (engagement “unto death,” as Plato wishes to make clear in the Phaedo and Crito) in the activity of self-articulation, which is to say, the activity of bringing oneself into a more determinate form by bringing oneself into words. Here “articulation” is meant in both of its common senses: We give a more fine-toothed and determinate shape to our views about important matters (i.e., give them greater articulation) by bringing them into the space of words (i.e., by articulating them).No doubt much could be said about this idea (and Charles Taylor has said much of it, as Tal acknowledges), but it seems at least roughly right. But is bringing oneself into more determinate form useful? That doesn't seem the right word. It is not thereby useless, but that slightly shocking way of putting its non-usefulness helps, I think, to make the point that the value of the humanities and of growing up in the way they help us to do is utterly different from the kind of value recognized by people whose minds are wholly of the world, wholly practical. This, I take it, is Fish's point. The study and practice of the humanities is work in being human or grown-up. The humanity that they help us acquire is not good because it is useful, but it is certainly good. That they help us acquire something good is Tal's point, and I suppose I agree with it. But I prefer Fish's way of putting it.
[Hat-tip to the Daily Nous.]