Thursday, July 3, 2014

The uselessness of humanity

There is a lot of wisdom and sense in Tal Brewer's essay on the value of the humanities (and the future of higher education, and politics, and economics, and the meaning of life), but I think I disagree with a key part of it. Tal rejects the idea that the humanities are useful because they are beneficial economically or politically, but he also rejects Stanley Fish's view:
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 politics 
I 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.]


  1. I too prefer Fish's way of putting it, paradoxical as it sounds, because it gets to the core of the matter or problem. An education costs money and it is useful only in so far as it gets you a job at the other end. Universities are businesses first and foremost, the stuff about educating independent thinkers is just a line, even in the government owned ones. ROI is king so you can't have people, especially your employees, going around saying what is costly and dear and puts students in debt for most of their natural lives is useless. It's bad advertising. That being the case, dredging up the Greek origins of a word that means leisure doesn't do much. Civilization is regimentation. I mean, Socrates was condemned to death for good reason from the state's point of view. He was rocking the boat, putting ideas in the heads of the youth. Wittgenstein was well aware of these things when he advised Rhees to "Teach then to think. Work against the government." No government is interested in independent thinkers or thinking. There is a program to be followed. I was reading your post, "An idea of a university" the other day and it seems clear to me that such an institution is nigh impossible. I'd really like to see it. The thing is I don't think it would work as a business proposition. Then again, I'm committed to useless nonsense so what do I know?

  2. PS: Prof Hertzberg thinks I'm a pessimist so take no notice of the rant.

  3. Don't mean to come across as glib. That piece of advice to Rhees I quoted, that's some responsibility to lay on a shoulder. How do you teach thinking? Your "An idea of a university" (some commenters remarked that it was heavy on philosophy) reminds me of a proposal I came up with once when pressed, which is really a throwback to how things once were, and that is "Philosophicum". As it existed here where I'm at in the "good" old days. All students at the university had to pass philosophicum before they went on to whatever specialization they wanted to study. I think it's a marvellous idea, especially as we would be rid of the likes Sam Harris as you say, who do not even realize that philosophy is what they're doing. Who even think they're being scientific. I'm reading Mounce's Metaphysics and the End of Philosophy and his history of the idea of "and end to philosophy" and the emergence of scientism is relevant here. Especially now that the world has been saddled with scientific philosophy which to me has the same ring as Marxist history and is as hollow as Wall Street (Bank of Sweden) approved Economics (which ought to rightly be called political economy and not be thought of as a science at all, much less taught as such).

  4. Teach then to think. Work against the government.

    This is great, and I'd forgotten it. But, as you say, it's a tough sell. If academics are respected enough to be trusted to run universities then there is hope, but when the only people given this trust are those from places like Wall Street then it's hard not to be pessimistic.

    I like the idea of the philosophicum requirement. That could really do some good.

  5. I haven’t read either Fish or Brewer, but from what you are saying, it seems they are using the word “usefulness” in two different senses. If that is the case, then is there any real disagreement between them?

    Here is what I gather from what you are describing: Fish seems to be focusing on a negative point, telling people what NOT to expect from the humanities. Talking to a particular audience who has particular expectation and who is used to a particular employment of the word ‘useful,’ Fish is saying that the humanities are not useful in that particular way. Brewer, on the other hand, is pursuing a positive point. He wants to focus on what we CAN and SHOULD expect from the humanities. For this end, he gives the word ‘useful’ in a deeper, richer, less utilitarian, interpretation.

    I’m not sure, but it seems that there is some deep (i.e. concept-reorienting) point in the idea that in order to see the value of the humanities we might need to learn a different language, or to at least recalibrate our concepts, or reshape them in some way. – Does that seem wrong? Does it clash with what you are saying?

    1. Thanks, Reshef. I think this is a helpful way to put it. I basically agree with Tal, but the problem I have with his way of putting things is that I think he only gestures towards the different language or recalibration of concepts that you mention, without making it clear that this is what he is doing. People who understand the value of the humanities probably don't need such a recalibration, and people who do need it probably won't be helped by what he says. It's too vague and metaphorical. That's understandable, but to insist that something is useful (to people who are blind to its usefulness) because it is a means to something that you can only describe in vague and metaphorical terms seems problematic to me. Problematic because I can't tell how aware Tal is that his language is vague and metaphorical (he is probably completely aware of it, come to think of it, but he doesn't acknowledge the point) and because such language seems likely to be ineffective given the audience that needs to be won over. Fish's way of putting a similar idea is not very likely to work either, but perhaps its confident rejection of the terms of the debate offered, or presupposed, by the other side might give them pause.

      I'm pessimistic either way, but conceding the idea that everything must be useful to be worthwhile makes me uncomfortable.

  6. You say: “People who understand the value of the humanities probably don't need such a recalibration, and people who do need it probably won't be helped by what he says.” – But it is seldom either or. First, people who understand the value of the humanities often “forget” it, or at least, they often find it hard to explain it. It is as if they practically know with all their heart something they find difficult to account for reflectively—even to themselves.

    I’m not sure why I am defending Brewer’s point—I haven’t even read him yet. But I sense that he is after something important. At least, his way of putting things opens up useful questions.

    One thing that is often the case is that the value of the humanities is something that can only be discovered when you explore it. That is, it is often not something you can anticipate. Learning a new language, for example, has utilitarian benefits; but there is in principle no way to list in advance what non-utilitarian benefits it might have—how one’s intellectual horizons might expand by reading books in that new language, by meeting another culture, by encountering new linguistic distinctions. And if this is true, then this gives another reason to suspect that even people who in some sense know the value of the humanities still need to discover it each time anew.

    I’m saying this also apropos your claim that Brewer’s language is vague and metaphorical. What I’m wondering is: can you really be completely clear and non-metaphorical when explaining the value of the humanities? For myself, I am rather skeptical. – There is almost an element of riddle here: to say that the humanities are valuable, and even to give the explanation in what ways they are valuable, is something that can only be understood by someone who is already committed to taking the humanities as valuable, or possibly also by someone who was somehow lured into accepting this. (Saying that “Man” is the solution to the Sphinx’s riddle would not solve the problem for someone who insists on taking the original riddle-phrase literally.)

    But I think you are right about one main point: Even if everything I say is true about the difficulties of explaining the value of the humanities, if Brewer takes it upon himself to explain them, he should at least give his audience a strong sense that there is something to explore—perhaps give them a concrete example of how intellectual horizons expand: lure them into the exploratory discussion—“win them over” as you say.

    You say Brewer is he is “probably completely aware” of the fact that his language is metaphorical and vague, but that “he doesn't acknowledge the point.” To acknowledge the point—I think—would be to engage in a meta-discussion, reflecting about his own language, and the need to use language in a special metaphorical and vague way. – How essential do you think such meta-discussion is for the discussion? Can it be avoided?

    1. Well, I'm glad you are defending him because this kind of push-back helps me understand the issue and what I think about it.

      What I’m wondering is: can you really be completely clear and non-metaphorical when explaining the value of the humanities?

      No, I don't think you can. And if Tal said this I might agree with him completely. But not only does he not say it, even in passing (unless I've missed something), he also says things about conversation over dinner and so on that make it sound, if only temporarily, as though the value of the humanities could be easily expressed in terms of obvious pleasures. It's this sailing close to the shores of utilitarianism that bothers me.

  7. Sorry for butting in but it seems to me that Tal's defense is not much of one. I'm not even sure it merits the name of a defense. Sounds more like someone falling on his own sword. E.g.:

    "Yet whatever the truth about the aggregate economic benefits of widespread training in the humanities, the argument falls flat when addressed to the individual students who are entering our colleges and universities, and whose choices of classes and majors play so important a role in determining what we end up teaching. The employment and earnings prospects of humanities majors are, in truth, quite dim when compared to those of students in other majors."

    His defense ends up saying the humanities is a fit study if your aim in life is to marry upwards and entertain, or become a courtesan. Small difference, but reflective of our times, I'm sure. Not everyone is going to reach the heights Chelsea Clinton did, that much is certain. (In Cuba they brag of having the best educated prostitutes in the Americas. Not for long, now, not for long.) The humantities have always been a luxury, the question now is who's going to pay for the services? There are only so many consultancy openings at McKinsey, et al. The rest will have to make do with Walmart or Wackenhut. They might be better off paying for a NY cab medallion. The going rate is $1 million but then you're set for life in a fairly decent profession (until the oil runs out anyway). Things being what they are you might earn the privilege of handing it over to your firstborn. That will come to be seen as an improvement. Start thinking guilds as the lords are returning to their manors. It takes solid connections to even become a court jester these days. Forget meritocracy. It's all about the benjamins. What did James always ask? "What's the cash-value...?" American higher education. The humanities are, as Fish says, useless, if no one is going to pay for it. The boom is over. So you either sign on to the program or play a different game.

    1. His defense ends up saying the humanities is a fit study if your aim in life is to marry upwards and entertain, or become a courtesan.

      Yes, that's the bad part of the article. I don't think it's what he means, but he does seem (at least at times) to say it. Education in the humanities is a public good, but the idea of a public good has become almost unintelligible in the USA. There's certainly little willingness to pay for education at any level, except among people who have children in the education system. So it looks as though the humanities will continue to shrink at public universities and lower prestige private ones.

    2. It seems to me that the idea of a public good has always been in question/contention in the yoosa (much like anywhere else). It's the problem of the commons again. And in that phrase "the problem of the commons" you the framing of the discussion/the spin and if you're sufficiently aware, the spinner. Viz',

      The problem of the commons is more important to our lives and thus more central to economics than a century ago when Katharine Coman led off the first issue of the American Economic Review. As the US and other economies have grown, the carrying capacity of the planet—in regard to natural resources and environmental quality—has become a greater concern, particularly for common-property and open-access resources. The focus of this article is on some important, unsettled problems of the commons. Within the realm of natural resources, there are special challenges associated with renewable resources, which are frequently characterized by open-access. An important example is the degradation of openaccess fisheries. Critical commons problems are also associated with environmental quality. A key contribution of economics has been the development of market-based approaches to environmental protection. These instruments are key to addressing the ultimate commons problem of the twenty-first century-global climate change. (JEL Q15, Q21, Q22, Q25, Q54)

      The market driven solution means private (corporate) ownership. It's an old idea funded by old money. I think the question of origins is important, not because I think there is a causal link but because it gives an idea of what is said and why and by whom. A good read on the public good/private endowment relation.

      Early in the 19th Century, with the Industrial Revolution gathering force in Europe, China’s nearly two-century-long decline was underway. Meanwhile, massive profits from opium enriched the endowments of Harvard and Yale, helped build Princeton and Columbia Universities; launched the fortunes of the Astors, the Delanos (FDR’s grandparents); and bankrolled the Bell Telephone Company, antecedent of AT&T. River of Smoke is the second book in Amitav Ghosh’s planned Ibis trilogy set among the momentous events of the massive 19th-Century opium trade between India and China.

      We're talking about the business of education. That means we're talking about money, fundamentally, not knowledge—we're talking political economy, not science.

      Here's the short and sharp version:

      The humanities are useful in so far as they serve money. Wittgenstein spoke of being at odds with his time (our time), with socialism and fascism. He pursued clarity for its own sake. Who need that?

      You can't argue for the utility of the humanities, not unless you're arguing its use as a weapon (cf., anthropology and Iraq).

    3. Thanks! I've been meaning to read some Ha-Joon Chang.

      As far as I know the commons used to work, because the people who made use of them knew what was at stake, had a sense of community (no doubt not a wholly selfless or simple one), and had a sense of responsibility. Corporations don't have this kind of sense and often seem to discourage it in their employees. And there is very little of it in the USA, at least that I can see. I remember being shocked when a friend of mine in England told me he was going to vote for the Conservative Party because they would lower his taxes. How could anyone not be ashamed to put their own interests above the common good? I was naive, of course. But now many people seem to take pride in thinking that way. Has it always been like this in the US or is that a new trend caused by propaganda? I don't know. Perhaps it's because the US was founded on complaints about taxes. It still shocks me that people here aren't ashamed to be unwilling to pay for schools. There are some really harmful myths swirling around.

      But that has nothing much to do with the humanities. You're right that you can't argue for the usefulness of the humanities, unless you change the meaning of 'usefulness'. And that seems like the kind of John Stuart Mill move that Wittgenstein characterized as developing the absurdities of a misconceived system (Bouwsma's Conversations, p. 60). Perhaps it only seems like that, but it's probably better not to sound like a utilitarian if you can't win the utilitarian game.

    4. Agree with you entirely. the reason I bring in the commons is because what we're talking here is part of that bigger picture. I, like you, find sense in speaking interms of the commons. Fact is though, it's people like us who think the commons make sense who are the problem, according to the most bestest higher institutes of learning etc. We're wasteful and a threat to life liberty and the pursuit of more and more and more happiness. And there's no way our view can be countenanced. Viz., this from dmf (below):

      I get that this is a matter of faith for many folks who do this kind of work but to date these sorts of assertions are without substantial support/basis and considering the enormous resources (time, money, energy, infrastructure, etc) at play/stake one would think that a "research" institution would have put such things to the test, that they haven't is more than telling...

      When I talk about weaponizing the humanties I might as well talk of mentizing it. If it can't be turned into a screenplay or if it doesn't get peope to buy more product it is of no use. If it makes people buy less product and stay at home and turn off the monitor then it's a threat to business: terrrism (sorry, there's no word in French for it). Business talks in terms of utility, and to go along with that, to play that game, means fighting a losing war of attrition because no defense will ever live up to the "standards of usefulness" especially as the goalposts keep moving. Intheir game the house always wins. That's where I think Tal is wrong anf Fish is Right. Tal wants to be allowed in, to at least get a place in the chorus line, while Fish is walking off into the sunset saying I ain't having it. That might be a "losing" proposition but there's a certain dignity to it that has my respect.

      Which is why I said earlier that you either buy in or you play a different game. And if the latter then you/we/the commonality might as well give up talking to the solipsist king because he will not be convinced.

    5. That last bit about the solipsist king is a reference to the OC. And again, Wittgenstein was right in that the problems here are not a matter of fact, or proof, or argument but world-view. E.g. money as it is is a monopoly owned by a few at the expense of the many. (They make it out of nothing and we pay for its use.) That is a fact, but it does not end there because money need not be the property of the few. There's an alternative: a money of the commons. Intstituting that would change the facts. But as things stand: TINA. And any number of Alfred Nobel Memorial Prize of the Bank of Sweden economists and scientists will tell you that because, as Upton Sinclair said, their livelihoods depend on it.

    6. the problems here are not a matter of fact, or proof, or argument but world-view

      Yes, that seems right, although I don't think I had really it seen it this way before. Perhaps one world-view can still embarrass another into some kind of change. It happens on a small scale from time to time. Maybe philosophical critiques of bad theories could have some effect. That feels like something that was tried and did not work, but I also can't quite believe that Thatcherism or whatever we should call it is the future we're stuck with forever.

  8. "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"
    if only the humanities provided some therapeutic relief of (or just self-awareness) of delusional narcissism...

    1. This isn't a passage that I love, so I think I see where the charge of delusional narcissism comes from, but I think it would be OK if he said improve, or even enrich, instead of deepen. It does come across as a kind of sentimental babbling though, even if it is imperfectly expressing something that is true.

    2. I don't see the "true"part, how exactly does this process of improvement/enrichment (apart from perhaps gaining some ability to do more academic humanities style work, a pleasure for some no doubt) supposedly work exactly and where (and in whom) should I be looking for examples of successful cases?

    3. One problem is that he is talking about the humanities and in a sense there is no such thing. There is philosophy and literature and history and so on, but they aren't the same and studying them doesn't do the same things for a person. But I think it's true that studying creative works improves one's ability to think about other creative works, and reading careful observations of human life of the kind you get in some good literature might improve one's own life and relations with others. How exactly it works I can't say. There are arguments out there that literature makes us better people, or can do so at least. Someone who has studied, let's say, history, philosophy, and literature (and who has been a good student) will be more sophisticated than someone who has not, ceteris paribus, partly just by definition of what we count as sophisticated (I realize this is saying laughably little) but partly also, I would expect, in ways that expressed themselves in their behavior. Is the process bound to work? No. Can I prove that it ever works? No. But I believe that it sometimes does. How it (supposedly) does so has been written about by Mitch Green and Martha Nussbaum, among others. But good books are still good even if they don't make people better.

    4. I get that this is a matter of faith for many folks who do this kind of work but to date these sorts of assertions are without substantial support/basis and considering the enormous resources (time, money, energy, infrastructure, etc) at play/stake one would think that a "research" institution would have put such things to the test, that they haven't is more than telling...

    5. Does it show much more than that we can't measure everything? Maybe. If we can't measure the extent to which (or prove that) the humanities are useful, though, then we should not try to defend them by claiming that they are.

    6. well to the degree that we are talking social/interactional-skills than we should be able to roughly map some significant degree of improvement or not pre/post intervention.
      yep people should own their faith-commitments as such, don't you find it telling that we really know so little about teaching/learning?

    7. Yes, to the degree that we're talking about those skills we should be able to map changes. I know that people have tried in connection with literature, but have they even tried with philosophy? I'm not sure. Choosing the right instrument to measure with would surely be tricky.

      I wonder whether we should be talking about such skills, though, or just reading good books. I think that was more Rorty's view, which seems close in spirit to Fish's. Neither position feels quite right to me, but I don't know whether the middle ground is anything but a swamp.

      We do know very little about teaching and learning, and we don't seem to care very much. The Gradgrind model (filling empty vessels with facts) still seems very popular with MOOC-pushers, but I don't know how to articulate what's wrong with it better than Dickens did.

      One thing I would like from education in the humanities is simply for people to become familiar with history, great literature, etc. But there is also Wittgenstein's question to Malcolm: what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any . . . journalist in the use of the DANGEROUS phrases such people use for their own ends?

      How do we improve thinking about important questions of everyday life? How do we improve conscientiousness? And how can we measure such things? I wouldn't know where to begin, and it would feel like a mistake to try to begin. At least to me. Maybe that's a feeling I should try to get over.

  9. Nothing you say makes me want to read what Brewer says. But a question: why is "enrich" better than "deepen"?

    To me "enrich" connotes more on the same level, and "deepen" connotes new dimensions. Does talk of added dimensions also sound sentimental?

  10. Nothing you say makes me want to read what Brewer says

    Perhaps because I've been focusing on the parts I disagree with.

    why is "enrich" better than "deepen"?

    It's only slightly better, but I think the word 'deep' is used too often, sometimes rather thoughtlessly. This reduces its value, to my mind.

  11. If you're interested, there is more discussion of Tal's essay over at Leiter Reports.

  12. Semantics always come into play when making these huge observations. What is 'useful'? Meaning to be in harmony with nature? I am trying not to become a misanthrope but humanity is making it harder and harder. Have you ever seen this classic? - It means life out of balance in some Native American language.

  13. Good point. I suppose 'useful' means something like profitable, which it shouldn't. Which is Tal's point.

    I've never seen that movie, but I guess I should. I have a feeling I saw something like a sequel to it, which I liked. Thanks for the tip.