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 . . . diminishes the object of its supposed praise.
– Will the Humanities Save Us? (New York Times, Jan. 6, 2008)
The humanities are meant to be populist rather than statist. They shouldn’t stand “against usefulness,” but rather “toward the world.” And here, despite their name, the humanities have generally failed . . . humanists bear active disdain for actual humans, whom they often perceive to be ignorant suckers, willing interpellees too far outside the “honorable” inner sanctum of Fishy humanism to be capable of the reflection the humanities claims to offer them. Humanist intellectuals like to think of themselves as secular saviors working tirelessly in the shadows. But too often, they’re just vampires who can’t remember the warmth of daylight . . . .
The humanities should orient toward the world at large, toward things of all kinds and at all scales. The subject matter for the humanities is not just the letters and arts themselves, but every other worldly practice as well. Any humanistic discipline can orient itself toward the world fruitfully, but most choose to orient inward instead, toward themselves only.
Humanists can be private educators and public spies. But the latter role is far too rare, because humanist intellectuals do not see themselves as practitioners of daily life. Their disparagement comes largely from their own isolation within the institutions that reproduce them, a fate many humanists despise out of one side of their mouths while endorsing it with the other. The humanist corner of the university becomes . . . “just a safe haven for half-witted thinkers to make a comfortable living.”
The humanities needs more courage and more contact with the world. It needs to extend the practice of humanism into that world, rather than to invite the world in for tea and talk of novels, only to pat itself on the collective back for having injected some small measure of abstract critical thinking into the otherwise empty puppets of industry. As far as indispensability goes, we are not meant to be superheroes nor wizards, but secret agents among the citizens, among the scrap metal, among the coriander, among the parking meters. We earn respect by calling in worldly secrets, by making them public. The worldly spy is the opposite of the elbow-patched humanist, the one never out of place no matter the place. The traveler at home everywhere, with the luxury to look.
Other blog posts by Stanley Fish on the humanities:
- The Uses of the Humanities, Part Two (Jan. 13, 2008)
- The Last Professor (Jan. 18, 2009)
- The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives (Oct. 11, 2010)
- The Crisis of the Humanities: Part Two (Oct. 18, 2010)
- Mark Bauerlein, “Oh, the Humanities!” (The Weekly Standard)