Recently, Stanford comparative literature professor David Palumbo-Liu made a case for why the humanities are indispensible. It’s one in a long history of such justifications, a task that seems as necessary as ever. Yet, as with so many such justifications, Palumbo-Liu’s speaks declaratively. Consider his closing charge—one I saw excerpted frequently and with enthusiasm in the days after he wrote it:
Lowering the bar for the humanities, or even dismissing the humanities as not having anything specific to teach us, is not only abrogating our responsibilities as teachers, but also ignoring the very patent evidence that the humanities are our solace and aid in life, and we need them now more than ever.
That evidence, it turns out, is the continued presence of individuals in humanities courses and degrees, where complex topics get discussed in traditional literary form. The humanities is indispensable, it would seem, because some people still find insight in novels. I’m being flip, but not too much.
In his final book, The Conflict of the Faculties, Immanuel Kant discusses the relationship between the university and the state. Kant makes a distinction between “lower faculties,” those oriented toward theoretical reason and “higher faculties,” those oriented toward practical reason. The higher faculties serve state and mercantile interests, and they are therefore bound to external ends. By contrast, the lower faculties are autonomous activities, separate from the interests of law or business. Kant’s position on this matter influenced Wilhelm von Humboldt’s design for the University of Berlin, an institution which in turn influenced the structure of the modern university, with its separation of professional schools and faculties of arts and sciences.
Here, between the higher and the lower faculties, lies a the trap the humanities often falls into when self-justifying.
On the one hand, humanists want to retain a place in the lower faculties, arguing that their work cannot be probed for predictable value. But then on the other hand, humanists constantly claim to have measurable value propositions. And worse yet, those value propositions are always so vague as to be essentially meaningless: “critical thinking,” “lifelong learning,” “communication,” “cultural perspectives,” and so forth. Palumbo-Liu’s “solace and aid” is a reasonable candidate for this list as well.
This is a troubling move. For one part, it simultaneously embraces the high faculties’ logic of predictable usefulness while also offering relatively weak examples of utility. Worse still, when humanists comport themselves according to the tentatively useful values they espouse, the results tend mostly to service intellectualism anyway (“critical thinking,” for example, mostly takes the form of fashionable censure). “Communication” about “culture” tends toward cryptic self-reference and directs itself at insiders alone. Humanism has professionalized, and the interests it serves most often are its own.
For another part, there’s nothing necessarily humanistic about skills like critical thinking or lifelong learning or communication or even culture or solace. These are qualities to which almost any discipline could reasonably lay claim. Who is to say that linear algebra is any less of a candidate for critical thinking than is Latin? Or that computer science can’t develop an interest in lifelong learning as much as art history can? Or that civil engineering isn’t cultural? Thus, the humanities’ stock self-justifications both embrace the high faculty’s frame of utility, and in so doing they offer responses that don’t really answer the question.
One could simply refuse the challenge entirely. Famously, Stanley Fish did exactly that: “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. … 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.”
A lot of people didn’t like Fish’s answer (a lot of people just don’t like Fish), but at least it was definitive. It held the line. Still, it’s not the sort of argument that works anymore (if it ever did), unless you’re someone like Stanley Fish.
But even if you are, would you want to make such an argument? That the only use your field serves is to serve itself, to reflect on itself, to return its spoils home, like hoarders or profiteers? Does being of use really threaten humanism so that it must insist on being “above” accounting? Is being on the books really the problem? Or is the problem rather that humanists have systematically removed themselves from the domain of human practice itself, mistaking participation for adulteration?
It’s a situation created by a fundamental misunderstanding of what the “lower faculties” are meant to do. The humanities are not meant to run “off the books” as an elbow-patched playground. Instead, they are meant to represent and nurture a populace in the face of the governmental and organizational interests served by the higher faculties. 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. As I’ve argued before, 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.
Admittedly, there are not always obvious worldly correspondences for humanist interests like there are for engineers and lawyers. But the public has its own concerns, and often those would seem to intersect with matters of humanistic interest: “thinking and reflection on the human condition,” to use Palumbo-Liu’s words. But how can one think and reflect on the human condition while assuming either that it must be done apart from those conditions, since to do otherwise would be to be “useful” or “accounted for?” Or, alternately, how can the material for that reflection materialize in isolation from the world in which it exists? The value of the humanities is assumed to be intuitive, unchanging, and hermetic.
The result is the puzzle with which I started: we have something to offer, but only to ourselves or to those who volunteer to join us. To offer something different would either transform the lower into the higher faculties (thus destroying them), or it would offer such a weak and disconnected account of utility so as to reveal its sequestration. It is a Neverland.
There is an inherent conflict among the lower faculties because the state sponsors their practice, whether through governmental or private support. But that conflict is part of the point of the lower faculties, not a structural calamity doomed to undermine them as so many humanists seem to believe. Kant called it a creative conflict, but the philosopher Stephen Palmquist takes things further, interpreting Kant’s levels as circular rather than stacked:
The “highness” of theology, law, and medicine connotes a royal calling, a direct link to the “high officials” of the government. The “lowness” of philosophy, by contrast, connotes a direct link with the general public. There are no professional philosophers. … That is, the academic philosophers is (or should be) like the general public’s spy, strategically positioned at the heart of the university in order to collect information and serve as the public’s most reliable informant. (from “Philosophers in the Public Square”, in Kant and the New Philosophy of Religion)
As Palmquist observes, humanists tend to task themselves with the production of others just like themselves ad infinitum. If we’re being generous, we might admit that some humanists play the role of saboteurs, injecting skepticism into future professionals before sending them off to serve the higher interests. But only a minority earnestly begin their quest outside, among the public, relying on contemporary matters as compass-bearings for their intellectual work.
I understand “public” in much broader terms even than Palmquist. It’s not just citizens, not just human beings, not just living creatures or even natural orders. 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, in Palmquist’s words, “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.