What Use Are the Humanities?

Stanley Fish:

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)

Ian Bogost:

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.

Beyond the Elbow-Patched Playground: Part 1: The Humanities in Public

Other blog posts by Stanley Fish on the humanities:


7 thoughts on “What Use Are the Humanities?

  1. Stanley Fish is a strange and interesting thinker. I find it questionable that to justify things that are goods in themselves is necessarily to instrumentalize them in a way that diminishes them. Why aren’t instruments themselves considered honorable? Sure, there are many justifications that instrumentalize in a way that diminishes, as in justifying a beautiful painting as a doorstop or kindling–such justifications surely diminish the painting and do not do it justice. But justifying the painting as providing a locus of reflection and a revelation (however imperfect or partial) of beauty, truth and goodness… does this diminish the painting? Surely not, because that (among other things perhaps) is what it was meant for.

    I do appreciate the related language of “means vs. ends,” as in certain criticisms of “treating human persons as means rather than as ends,” but it seems to me that criticism applies to reductive means to disordered ends (e.g. persons as mere raw material for organs, profit, power, recognition/fame, etc.) and not to comprehensive means to their true ends (e.g. persons as citizens for the common good of the polity, or as husbands for marital union, etc.). It seems to me that humans (and other goods) have ends (i.e. goals, purposes) beyond themselves (and not merely in themselves) such that they could be understood as (comprehensive, non-reductive) means to those ends, while retaining a kind of goodness in themselves precisely because they are meant for something more. Something similar might be said for the humanities. To say that humanities do not require or are even threatened by justification seems not necessarily the case and a bit arrogant, though well-intentioned.

  2. No to Fish. A thousand times YES to Bogost!

    Upon reading the title of this blog post, my immediate thought was, “I have great use for the humanities; I have little use for the professional arbiters of the humanities.” Bogost’s comment pleasantly surprised me.

    (and well said, Albert)

  3. In general, I use the humanities (or better, the humanities have been necessary) for living and loving.

    In particular, some examples would be listening well, thinking about things I hear, eating, drinking, laughing, writing blog comments, working, being persistent, exercising discipline, apologizing, driving, picking my battles, saying things to others, shopping, praying, imagining, making decisions, staying up late, going to bed early, going to this meeting, saying no to that meeting, etc. etc.

    Apart from the humanities, my life would be very different and worse. And I’m willing to bet everyone else’s lives would be worse as well.

    • Albert,

      I’m going to push even further. You provided several examples of how the humanities have been necessary for your living and loving, but I’m still unclear about the process. Take one of those examples and flesh it out. I’ll use an example from my own life. G. K. Chestserton’s short essay “A Piece of Chalk” helped me to develop a positive rather than negative formulation of chastity. Before that essay I always viewed chastity as the absence of something, namely sexual intercourse. As soon as I realized that chastity is really about the presence of something, namely the whiteness of purity, I found this ostensibly archaic virtue attractive and motivational. Here’s the excerpt that changed it all for me:

      But as I sat scrawling these silly figures on the brown paper, it began to dawn on me, to my great disgust, that I had left one chalk, and that a most exquisite and essential chalk, behind. I searched all my pockets, but I could not find any white chalk. Now, those who are acquainted with all the philosophy (nay, religion) which is typified in the art of drawing on brown paper, know that white is positive and essential. I cannot avoid remarking here upon a moral significance. One of the wise and awful truths which this brown-paper art reveals, is this, that white is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality, of real Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel, or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen.

      Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc. In a word, God paints in many colours; but he never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white. In a sense our age has realised this fact, and expressed it in our sullen costume. For if it were really true that white was a blank and colourless thing, negative and non-committal, then white would be used instead of black and grey for the funereal dress of this pessimistic period. Which is not the case.

      I look forward to hearing how the humanities has helped you to pick your battles, stay up late, or go to a meeting.

  4. Sure, I’ll write something off the top of my head though I’ll have to abridge the description for space/time constraints. Over the course of many, many years, I’ve read a number of helpful resources on marriage and sexual difference. A very good, albeit controversial, volume on these issues is Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem. In particular, they focus on the issue of authority and sexuality, laying out a few principles and many examples to help us conform our actions to God’s created teleology summarized by the notion of biblical headship of the husband over his wife. Of course, this is a very controversial understanding in a post-Christian society, which has led me to extended reflection on the use of authority in the New Testament. The apostle Paul was wise in laying out an example of not always using his authority; for example, he tells Philemon he could command him to give Onesimus his freedom, but he won’t. Why is this? Reflection on this question, as well as the innumerable ways in which we’re all under authority in most of our institutional relations (not just marriage and church), one realizes that there’s only so much commanding sinners can take. If we were not sinful–that is, if we loved fully–we would be joyfully obedient rather than resentful, sullen, rebellious. As we become sanctified in all our relations, joyful obedience will grow out of trust and love, but it’s a process. This is why picking your battles is a loving thing to do in marriage between sinners, particularly within the context of an understanding of biblical headship.

    Honest persuasion (as opposed to manipulation) and compromise is always the first option when it comes to authoritative leadership and it characterizes good leaders, but sometimes authority must be exercised (and this is true in any living community). If a husband (or pastor or parent) demands obedience, the relationship may suffer, though he is within his rights and responsibilities to do so (i.e. a wife/child/member should joyfully obey) and his wife is morally culpable if she does not. But depending on how much trust and love is built up in the relationship, the husband should regard such a move as a *nuclear* option because of its potential for destroy the relationship (by creating bitterness in a disobedient wife), and so a wise and loving man will only override the will of his wife in situations of great importance (e.g. where to go to church) and very infrequently (e.g. once every few years).

    So, pick your battles. Hopefully, battles like this are <0.1% of one's marriage, and 99.9% of it is discussion, persuasion, and mutual compromise all in the context of a wife submitting to her husband and the husband really loving his wife as Christ loves the Church, putting her joy above his own (or better, finding his joy in her own -John Piper) and generally building a relationship where the wife trusts him deeply. But, there will come admittedly dreadful times where the husband's nature as head of the family will require him to exercise that authority for the good of his wife and family even against the will of his wife, and he will be held accountable for passivity if he does not. Fortunately, as a marriage grows stronger over the years, such moments will likely dwindle.

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