what are the humanities? (basic points for non-humanists)

(Indianapolis) I am here for a meeting about the public purposes and social impact of the humanities. All the participants will be sophisticated about the humanities as practiced inside and beyond universities. But often I participate in conversations about the social purposes of academia in which I am the only humanist. I find that many professors in the social sciences, natural sciences, and professional disciplines fundamentally mistake what the humanities are about and cannot imagine a plausible public role for humanists. They may suggest, for example, that humanists should write stories that convey the importance of social issues. That is not what humanists do. Here are some very basic points about the humanities that I would want to convey:

First, the humanities are not aesthetic disciplines. Academics who create works of art and literature are not humanists. (Sometimes, creative writers are assigned to teach in English departments, but they are still not humanities professors unless they are also literary critics.) Humanists who study objects of high aesthetic value do not spend their time appreciating or teaching others to appreciate these things. They seek to understand how and why the objects or texts were made and used. A fuller understanding of a work of art can contribute to its enjoyment, but it can also undermine our pleasure by revealing its unsavory origins or purposes. Raising or lowering our appraisal of the object is not the point, except for the rare art historian who crosses over into attribution and connoisseurship.

By the same token, humanists do not write beautifully. Some write better than others, but very little credit is given for the style. I see both good and awful prose in the social sciences and the humanities alike.

It may be true that people tend to enter fields like literary criticism and art history because they enjoy works of beauty. But it is equally likely that people become biologists and mathematicians because they find nature and numbers beautiful. Neither scientists nor humanists get tenure for explaining why they admire the objects they study.

In any case, most humanists do not concern themselves with works that were meant to be beautiful. The humanities include social and political history, the philosophy of mind, religious studies, legal theory, and lots of other disciplines and sub-disciplines not related to the arts.

A great deal of humanistic scholarship is political. Humanists are not unconscious of political themes like power and oppression. Their views and interests vary widely, but if anything, they tend to adopt strongly critical political stances. I think one of the reasons that many humanists are disconnected from American public debates and institutions is that they are so critical they do not know how to engage fruitfully. That attitude may disempower them, but not because they are oblivious to politics.

Nevertheless, some humanists are deeply engaged with laypeople or in public debates. Imagining America is a network for engaged humanists. At Tufts, one of my favorite examples is Project Perseus, the vast compendium of free online classical texts in the original languages and translations. It is public scholarship not only because it serves the public but also because the founder, Gregory Crane, enlists laypeople from all over the world (for instance, Islamic clerical students from the Middle East) to contribute knowledge to the archive.

Humanists need certain kinds of support, but not the kinds familiar to scientists and engineers. In many parts of a university, grant money provides a pretty accurate proxy measure of excellence. For instance, you can’t do most kinds of biology without expensive equipment and staff, so good biologists win grants. But a humanist could produce stellar work for an entire career without getting a single cash award. Still, small amounts of money for travel or release time can buy excellent and influential humanistic work. Libraries and collections still have high value for humanists. And they need to be able to convene.

As a humanist and someone who has written three books in defense of the humanities, I worry that they have become marginal in public life. I could cite many reasons, but an important cause would be the profound positivism of our era. If you strictly separate facts from values and presume that values are matters of opinion, then (1) the disciplines directly concerned with moral argumentation—ethics, theology, jurisprudence—seem senseless, and (2) the best way to understand human beings seems to be to generalize about them statistically. But if you believe that value judgments can be defended rationally, then not only do the explicitly moral disciplines (such as ethics) seem essential, but so do history and literary criticism, because they often analyze cases selected for their unusual political, moral, intellectual, spiritual, or aesthetic importance.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.