The key consequence of seeing the humanities as a world alongside other broadly similar worlds is that the limits of their defensibility becomes apparent, and sermonizing over them becomes harder. If people stopped watching and playing sports, how much would it matter? The question is unanswerable since we can’t imagine a society continuous with ours but lacking sports, even though one such is, I suppose, possible. We do not have the means to adjudicate between that imaginary sportless society and our own actual sports-obsessed society. The same is true for the humanities. If the humanities were to disappear, new social and cultural configurations would then exist. Would this be a loss or gain? There is no way of telling, partly because we can’t picture what a society and culture that follow from ours but lack the humanities would be like at the requisite level of detail, and partly because, even if we could imagine such a society, our judgment between a society with the humanities and one without them couldn’t appeal to the standards like ours that are embedded in the humanities themselves. The humanities would be gone: that’s it.
Of course, those of us in the humanities who love and breathe them, whose institutional (but not just institutional) lives are formed in relation to them, who would like more people to join them and so become more like us, to think and feel and talk like us, who may even find the “meaning of life” articulated from within them, find the prospect of their fading insupportable, heartrending, unimaginable. But that offers no substantive public reason to maintain them, just as it turned out in the end to be no reason to maintain all the more or less similar worlds that have disappeared over the centuries, before and after modernity: the worlds of the aristocratic honor code; the world of older humanisms and the “republic of letters”; the worlds of industrial working-class solidarity; the world of Scholasticism and the trivium; the worlds of old Anglican rural, parochial, and liturgical life, and so on.
Tuesday, March 04, 2014
Republics of letters
At Public Books, Simon During on why we should stop defending the humanities (I have to say, I'm completely with him on this - I wish I had written this piece myself, as it beautifully articulates many of the thoughts I regularly have when I read "plight of the humanities" pieces!):