This is the first part of a two-part essay about the humanities. Part 1 discusses some current ideas about the role of the humanities in the university and the world. Part 2 addresses the trend of the "digital humanities" in light of these observations.

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.

Read Part 2, on the Digital Humanities
published August 23, 2011


  1. dmf

    I agree with all that you say here but would stress that the failing of the humanities at large is their teaching about rather than a teaching how. There has been some underlying fantasy that by merely being exposed to various, often vicarious, phenomena that one will somehow become more capable of responding to the like in some new and more humane way, but this is clearly not so.

    We don’t need new and improved ways of seeking refuge/solace from the world (pace dear Santayana) but new ways of ameliorating our increasingly desperate lives together. Enough with the otherworldly neoplatonist social climbing!

  2. Ian Bogost


    As you know already, I’m a big proponent of philosophical and humanistic practice (of making things) in addition to (not instead of!) thinking/reading/writing about things. That said, I wonder if it’s possible to move to the “how” without first embracing the great outdoors. Otherwise we end up teaching how to be humanists—a project not without merit, but without merit as our only project. More on this in part 2.

  3. dmf

    Ian, to the degree that reading/writing/reflecting help us to develop greater response-abilities to off the page matters/objects than I’m all for them, just rejecting them as a replacement for, against the subliming of grammar. I’m not familiar enough with your work to know how literally to take “great outdoors” if this is akin to my off-the-page (out of your head so to speak, as Alva would say: but one would be hard put to practice such doings without engaging the extra-human world as Dreyfus and others have pointed out. That said I don’t think that humanism is a bad starting place and would be better than what we are currently getting from the academic humanities. Do you read any Richard Sennett?

  4. Christian

    The political idea of the human has changed, and more and more humanists (and people who’ve been hired to replace humanists) think they can do what they do without being political. Milquetoast retreats into mortgage studies are encouraged by the contemporary university as much as launching into the empiricist gulf of the social sciences.

    Who universities hire now bears heavily on your questions, but the provocation is well taken. I hope the second part discusses your approach to humanism more, how you respond to your own provocations.

  5. dmf

    my reply is in moderation but I asked about Sennett, here is his talk on craft in programming and society, and connecting head and hand:

  6. Tim Morton

    Perhaps a slight adjustment to the “linear algebra as critical thinking” could be to acknowledge that recently in Nature several physicists have asserted that you can’t learn whatever that is in physics and that they do value it:

    “We should proclaim not only our love for the humanities as educated people, but their crucial role in our lives as professional scientists. I learned to think critically, analyse deeply and write clearly in my university humanities courses, not in my science courses. I found humanities the most valuable subjects in school.”

    Gregory Petsko, â??Save University Arts from the Bean Counters,â? Nature 468.1003 (published online, December 22, 2010), doi:10.1038/4681003a.

  7. m

    Ian, really interesting and much needed piece – I cannot but agree with most of your points.

    I was wondering, while reading, if you’re not actually just calling for the French model of the intellectual. As a Spaniard, I’ve been educated to think that the French are wrong by definition, but the presence of ‘humanists’ in their public debates is actually quite important, and I think they play a role similar to that you’re arguing about here.

    So, are the French right?

  8. Clifton Caleb Jewett

    In class the other day, when I told my professor what I was interested in, she said I must be a fan of yours, and it is certainly true.

    “Indispensable” always seems hyperbolic to me with reference to Ecclesiastes, so I see our society as a composite of many honorable parts and I’m tiring of the idea that any part is a “keystone species” of some sort. If a part was removed, something would have to grow to fill the gap, but it might get the job done in weirdly different ways and even grow to surpass what it replaced.

    Your discourse here is incredibly similar to the character Joseph Knecht’s speech in Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi. When Knecht steps down as Game Master, he sees himself escaping an ivory tower, a Neverland. Of course, ill-equipped for his new home, he soon ends up drowning. The benefits of institutional inertia should not be taken for granted, especially when trying to tear down the institution.

    It is interesting that you would draw attention to the occupation of spy, as I’ve recently been drawing inspiration from the (biblical) Caleb I’m named after. The role of the humanist could be to see attainable collaborative goals generally thought impossible, and to build public support for practical means of achieving those goals.

  9. Ian Bogost


    I’m not sure if the university at large encourages this, or just doesn’t encourage otherwise. A subtle distinction, but an important one.

    I fear part 2 may not answer your questions about my own practice, but perhaps that’s something I can add at another time (part 3?) Certainly since the now-infamous Turtlenecked Hairshirt essay I’ve considered writing more on this topic, perhaps even a small Zero-sized pamphlet, and this might be some of that work in progress.


    Good cite. I actually think the sciences are a lot like the humanities in some ways, but I also think that the thing that the overall culture of the sciences and engineering disciplines do want the to think about themselves. That’s why it’s even more important that humanists get outside themselves. All that said, I still think “critical thinking” is hogwash 🙂


    Good point, you might be on to something. I wonder though, is that the French system at work, or French society more generally?

    @Clifton Caleb Jewett

    Interesting connections, thanks for sharing them. I agree that indispensability is an overstated comfort. Perhaps instead we ought to desire contingency, because it keeps us constantly on our toes.

  10. Anonymous

    What contributes to the French situation is probably worth a book, but one speculation: a factor that may draw professors into the world is that they seem less strictly split, culturally and in terms of writing practice, from their non-professor peers. When you go down the list of 20th-century French philosophers, a good number are professors (Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida), but a good number are not (de Beauvoir, Guattari, Sartre).

    The writing they chose to do seems to reflect that blurred boundary. Sartre wrote philosophy books that professors took seriously, despite his lack of an academic post. Derrida and Foucault wrote newspaper op-eds and engaged in public discussions on topics of current interest, not as support for a larger theoretical project, but out of (apparently) a genuine desire to engage “mundane” topics as citizens.

  11. m

    I think @anonynous’ speculation is very good. I’d add some others, to try to explain the French:

    – the French Revolution was guided by ‘humanists’ and ‘scientists’, and its footprint can still be felt in the French way of organizing culture.

    – France has (or had, I am not sure if it’s still in place), a really interesting and relatively old-fashioned primary and secondary educational system, in which the distinction between humanities and sciences was not so much blurred as ignored: one learnt math and latin, physics and literature, until very late in the teens. That contributes to a general need, from the public, of humanists that engage with the world, since they are used to that way of engaging with the world already from their primary education (again, this is a speculation).

    So I’d say it’s the French culture that feeds the system, but it’s a bit of a chicken and egg question. More interestingly (to me, but also for Ian’s point, maybe):

    – why do French intellectuals only ‘produce’ novels (or films, occasionally)? Are there any new intellectuals exploring other media (if production is an important way of understanding, as Ian suggests and I agree with).

    – isn’t the question of the humanities/sciences better asked on the primary/secondary education, rather that universities? (or, shouldn’t we ask it there too?)

  12. Mark N.

    On the primary/secondary-education point, the U.S. is somewhat like that, with no formal specialization before university (unlike, say, the German system). There is some de-facto specialization, because in the last 2-3 years of high school, students have a little bit of choice, so some choose differently than others. But the core requirements are required of everyone (algebra, geometry, trigonometry, english, physics, world history, american history, etc.). Even for the electives, mixing science/humanities is common; for my last-year electives, I took an extra math course, computer science, and art history. But that doesn’t seem to have produced the same effect as in France; while kids are completely unspecialized up through age 15-16, and still mostly unspecialized at age 18, by 22 the science/humanities split is very strong.

  13. m

    @ Mark – right, so maybe that proves that my speculation is wrong, and that primary/secondary educations might only play a smaller role?

  14. David Palumbo-Liu

    Dear Ian–You very selectively quote from a small part of a blog that announces itself at the start as actually an off-the-cuff email, and imagine what was an inspired riff (heartfelt to be sure) is actually a comprehensive philosophical position. For the purposes of your argument you reduce all I have to say to simply recommending “Reading a novel.” That’s your characterization, not mine. Put that way this equates to decoding a set of linguistic signs for semantic content. That is not what I (or any literary scholar) would call an intelligent, critical, analytical reading of a complex verbal formation/performance (i.e., a novel, poem, play). These are two different operations which you, for your purposes, confuse. But I won’t debate your tin ear to language or nuance or even sense here. What I do want to bring up is that if you had simply looked me up (or heavens, even emailed me) before using my blog to leverage your argument, you would see I have done considerable work to argue that the humanities practical/impractical divide is stupid and that even the “humanities are actually useful” argument is weak and out of date. Let me enumerate: (1) A simple Google search would have pulled up a conference I co-organized at Stanford that brought together some of the best minds in Silicon Valley (including Google’s Marissa Mayer, TED Talk founder June Cohen, Google’s “Philosopher in Residence” Damon Horowitz, LinkedIn’s Konstantin Guernicke) to talk about how humanities PhDs contribute incredible skills of mind, creativity, innovation. Mike Moritz, who helped fund Google in the first place, spoke eloquently of the fact that critical thinking is certainly not specific to the humanities, but that humanists had, as far as he could tell, remarkable powers of telling stories, of conveying information, of persuasion, of being able to bring creative ideas across to others. Here is a link, which I hope your readers will look at: (2) You could have found out that on August 31, via the Chronicle of HE, I will be doing a live talk with Cathy Davidson, whose work in HASTAC and whose book, “Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Change the Way We Live, Work and Learn,” you surely know. We will be joined by Howard Rheingold, award-winning author of several books on virtual communities, and Anne Balsamo, director of learning at the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California. Hence your characterization of me via a caricature of other people’s positions on the humanities is off-base and ill-informed.


  15. Clifton Caleb Jewett

    Contingency indeed. Game design (and much else) is about creating contingencies to overcome, and game design itself relies on overcoming contingency. As Kojima says: “If it gets to the point were I’m able to create anything I want, I’ll probably stop making videogames.” All value can be seen as surplus-value, and all jouissance can be seen as objet petit a. But a game with a limited end-game (redundant, I know), or a game where success is guaranteed is not only awful, but perhaps not a game at all. Many theists have intuited this as the reason for free-will and why God would create something imperfect. The athiest feels no need for gods but can certainly see that an MMO consisting of a “you win” screen would fall flat.

    In some ways, I feel philosophy collapses and synthesizes that which is teased out into depth and complexity by seduction. It has an effect similar to fiscal austerity – it allows us to get along with less or innovate out of challenge, resource-scarcity, and/or increasingly inhospitable realities.

  16. Ian Bogost

    @David Palumbo-Liu

    Thanks for your response. I don’t blame you for being affronted , although I really only meant the excerpt of your post to be a catalyst.

    As for my “tin ear to nuance,” I’ll give you the barb because I certainly took my own shot. Yet, I admitted I was being flip for rhetorical purposes, at least. Actually I didn’t say “reading a novel,” but you know, details right? Nuance. As for the “most literary scholars” bit, is this where I’m supposed to point out that I have a comparative literature PhD and am therefore “of the fold,” that I know the secret handshake, that I’ve read my Derrida, that I recognize the clever apophasis (Greek! Rhetoric!) in your opening salvo here? Ok, fine, well played. But I’m still not sure I didn’t capture the gist of your opinion and how it was received and transmitted, which is just as important. I know what you meant when you said “reading,” I just don’t think it’s enough to satisfy the call of the lower faculties. It’s too great a temptation. It’s an indulgence, and we must always strive to move outward from it rather than to reinforce it as a satisfactory end.

    I should mention that I am familiar with the two events you suggest as counter-points. It’s clear that you are far more engaged with these questions than most, but I wonder if the BiblioTech project isn’t a great example of the sorts of conflicts I’m discussing here. I worry about the warm embrace of silicon valley, although I suppose things are complicated on that front at Stanford. This is precisely where this business of worldly spying comes into play.

    As for Cathy’s book, she’s a friend and I admire her, but I haven’t read her book yet (I’ve got it, I’m about to start). So I will look forward to your conversation with her. I think you and I agree on many things and disagree still on others, and those disagreements might be productive. I hope we’ll keep talking.

  17. camicia rossa

    Actually, that Bibliotech conference was a horrible sham and a failure. The Google position amounted to, “Sure, we’d be willing to hire you in spite of being humanities PhDs” alongside explanations of how humanities PhDs could make themselves more appealing to tech companies, and not vice verse.

  18. David Palumbo-Liu

    First, Camicia. I take your point but the remarks of a couple of industry people does not make BT a “sham.” And you fail to point out the really fine remarks by people like Damon Horowitz, Vivek Ranadive, June Cohen. If you missed those, everything is up on YouTube and iTunes. All in all I think BT was a success in these terms: first, it brought some very smart, creative, thoughtful people together who would never ever want to speak to each other except with suspicion and even hostility, due at least in part to mutual and in many cases silly demonizing. I don’t think we can if we want to stereotype people and classes of people then we at least have to test the legitimacy of such prejudices first. And I think we got a much better sense of where we agree and disagree and where our priorities meet and separate, and that was the second success of BT, if only read negatively.

    I felt as disappointed as you by some of the non-response, and I trust you did hear me say several times, both at the morning session and in the afternoon, that industry was being challenged to think more inventively about the humanities and not just pay them lip service. Having heard people say how much they valued the humanities, I asked point blank what kinds of jobs might they imagine for humanists–that do not exist now. Nothing. That was a valuable lesson for me–it means that the kinds of collaborative research and teaching and career-creation we need will have to be tested out and launched in universities–industry has very little tolerance for or bottom-line interest in that kind of experimentation.

    If you would like to speak in person or on email about this I would be pleased to. We are developing BT at Stanford and would be interested in your input. But please don’t cast aspersions on me and my co-organizer, a graduate student who worked incredibly hard, and against the nay-saying of many on both sides. We did not expect marvels to emerge, we wanted to start a conversation and learn what the best next steps were to take. I believe we very much succeeded in that respect.

    Ian–well my feathers are unruffled a bit because, if nothing else, I owe a fellow comp lit person that. But I would rather not have let a small phrase or two characterize my beliefs to the massive readership of the WSJ, which of course all my best friends read avidly. Don’t get me wrong, I do mean everything I said, and I would be happy to engage with you in a more meaningful and sustained manner on these issues.

    I have read and admired Cathy’s book (we met years and years ago on a panel we shared with Sylvia Molloy and Michael Berubé on the personal and scholarship). I find myself sympathetic in this regard: I think that it is not a matter of better or worse, higher or lower, but difference, and seeing the varied values of humanities and sciences, so to speak.

    I do believe the humanities (and I should have been more specific, literature) produce and sustain a particular way of knowing and thinking about the world. This is something people (if you accept that nomination) find important to them that is qualitatively different from other ways of knowing the world.

    I won’t debate better or worse. An engineer friend of mine said he had seen nothing as beautiful as a certain math formula; another, an attorney for the World Bank, said the same to me about Arrow’s rational choice theory (btw since you have looked me up, you’ll see I published a special issue of the journal I edit, “Occasion,” on RCT and the Humanities, and Ken contributed to that).

    It is just that literary studies as been reduced to a bad parody: trot out the old platitudes (I am with you in my rejection of that). Though I know you think my blog was a repetition of same, it was not meant to be. Rather, in a nutshell, I wanted to say that if there is a “crisis” in the humanities it is a professional, academic, institutional crisis of resources, values, priorities, But it is not “in crisis” in terms of its basic value and the ways it is appreciated by people in the real world.

    If we still disagree, let’s hash it out. Btw, the thing with Cathy et al will be like IM–I have never done a gig like this, and can hardly type. Should be fun.



  19. Ian Bogost


    Thanks for your continued replies. As I hinted in my last comment, I’m not sure we’re advancing totally incompatible, black and white positions. We agree about the institutional crisis (see the second part of this essay for my thoughts on why the so-called “digital humanities” are hindering rather than helping). That said, I’m not sure the basic values you see in the world around humanistic materials are the same ones that motivate me. I don’t think we’ve ever done a good job thinking about our basic value to the world, let alone carrying it out. To me, the fact that ordinary people still appreciate art and literature isn’t much salve, and doesn’t add up to the evidence of non-crisis you think it does.

    In any case, I am glad to have made a connection with you and will look forward to further conversations. In addition to next week’s discussion about Cathy’s book… where will that be hosted exactly?

  20. quincyscott

    I think that this dilemma is mostly an American phenomenon. Europe, India, Japan, all have a pretty strong tradition of real world humanism. A poet can be a laborer, rather than some ivory tower bohemian. In America, there has always been a stronger split. Everything here has a price tag, and the less a monetary value something has, the more its utility is questioned. Folks in the working class view the humanities with a great deal of skepticism–it is seen as the preoccupation of bums who are living off their parents’ trust fund. There is an anti-intellectualism in American life that is as old as apple pie.