The Difficulty of Defending the Humanities

There is a kind of embarrassing silence if one tries to state why philosophy, or the Humanities more generally, have intrinsic value – that is, value beyond the merely instrumental, like getting you into law school. One generally fumbles around in vague generalities that convince no one, speaking of the clarity of analytical thinking, the advantages of critical reflection, or the enjoyments of intellectual thought. But these phrases sound hollow, often even to those who utter them.

Generic and Specific Defences

I think this inability to make a convincing rhetorical case persists for two reasons (amongst others). First, there is no general benefit or insight that the Humanities provide; there are only thousands of individual projects and questions. There is very little that unifies a history of women in Iran with the question of whether there are material objects, for example. Correspondingly, any general attempt to defend the Humanities has to be contrived, and descend to vague generalities or pretentious-sounding truisms.

This persists even if we focus on philosophy alone. Philosophy provides many particular enjoyments and insights. However, philosophy quickly breaks down into a series of subfields and subquestions, and the value of philosophy consists in the answers, approaches, and views found with respect to each of these. Neither is it the case that there is a homogenous “procedure” – some cognitive set of strategies – that is the same across all of philosophy, and which one might point to when one searches for its value. The only general answer that one give in this respect is simply that philosophers’ strategy is to think, and that again sounds bland and uninformative. (One might try to narrow this answer down by adding further modifiers – perhaps philosophers consider a priori subjects. But these modifiers, if they add anything, don’t add much. Also, there should be a moratorium on describing philosophy as being “critical” in some way.)

Still, a clever defence of philosophy might get around this first issue by focussing not on some generic account of philosophy, but instead by explaining the value of philosophy through particular, representative show cases. On this approach, we would reject the unhelpfully broad question “why is philosophy / why are the Humanities valuable?”; instead, we would look at the particular cases in which humanistic thought has value. (I will switch back and forth between “philosophy” and “Humanities”, though it’s really the former I know best.)

Seeing the World Intellectually

But here we get to the second and more fundamental point. Even where we turn to concrete debates, the intrinsic value of philosophy partially consists in a way of seeing the world that transcends the particular arguments and positions. When Jeff McMahan argues, for example, that animal predators in the wild might require human intervention because of the suffering they cause to other animals, he sees the world in a particular way. This view is formed by a thicket of background assumptions from moral philosophy – e.g., the fact/value distinction, the “impartial” point of view, or assumptions about the status of animals.

Other philosophers will not necessarily share McMahan’s conclusions, or his argument. However, most will find at least a problem worth taking seriously in McMahan’s piece. They, in turn will respond in a particular vocabulary, with particular argumentative strategies, in a particular form. There is, then, a set of intellectually perceiving the world that most philosophers will share with McMahan, one which persists across various substantive disagreements.

A quick look at the reader’s comments on McMahan’s piece tells you that the general public does not generally share this view of the world. Most, it seems, do not even get why McMahan thinks there is a problem in the first place. Cataloguing the various ways in which they misunderstand, and talk past, McMahan’s piece would be beside the point. (I suspect that the misunderstanding also goes the other way round – philosophers are pretty bad at reading the reactions of non-philosophers for what they are, without translating them back into their framework.)

Non-philosophers simple do not share a certain intellectual sensibility, a way of seeing the world through a philosophical lens. The problem with such sensibilities is that you cannot convey them to those that do not already have them. Imagine that you had some additional sense – you could sense magnetic fields, for example. You might well be able to explain the instrumental usefulness of this additional sense. But you cannot explain the “what it’s like” to have that additional sense to those that do not have it. You are reduced to babbling vague generalities.

The central metaphor I am aiming for then is this: Philosophy is more than just a body of arguments and famous thinkers. It is also, and crucially, a particular way of seeing the world. This means that it cannot easily be conveyed to those that do not see the world in the same way. This is not to make the elitist point that it is a superior type of sensibility, but rather that thinking philosophically – or more broadly, humanistically – is a valuable way of seeing the world, one which many will find fulfilling, and which a diverse society has an interest in providing a home for. (The value of this sensibility ultimately rests, I assume, with the things that it allows us to see – its products, not the process, in other words. But we can put such deeper questions why precisely we should value it aside.)

Of course, the visual metaphor has some clear limits, and should not be carried too far. For one, philosophy is cognitively accessible in that it can be taught and gained – you can learn the philosophical way of seeing the world. Furthermore, philosophical “seeing” is not purely passive, like sense perception: it is also, importantly, an activity, often a collective one. The important insight of the metaphor, however, is that the nature of philosophy, and by extension its value, cannot be conveyed easily.

Upshots and Implications

One upshot of this is that social trust becomes crucial. When you decide to learn an intellectual subject, you must trust those that have already gained the relevant skill that learning it is worth it. In that sense, learning a subject in the Humanities is unlike becoming a baker or a lawyer, where you can have some sense of “what it’s like” to be one, even if you’re currently not one.

This is important to the wider context in which we try to defend philosophy’s value. Any such attempt will always be hampered if it is addressed to an audience which does not share the relevant sensibility already. The situation is very dire, however, if the audience does not share that sensibility and does not have the necessary social trust in its defenders.

That, I think, might be part of the reason why defenders of the Humanities often have a difficult stand. It is not only that they have to convey the value of a complex, subtle sensibility that, by itself, cannot be transvalued into the coin of usefulness, or informatively defended in the short forms of the grant application, the talk show, or the congressional debate. It is also that they increasingly face opponents who do not trust the self-description of the Humanities as a valuable enterprise.

It’s one thing if you need to explain why you need to spend time and money to go a Star Trek convention (we can assume that this is a valuable endeavour the value of which is unclear to those not initiated); it’s quite another if you have to defend it to someone else who thinks you’re an useless nerd who wastes their time away.

Where the responsibility for that break in trust lies is an open and difficult question. It might have to do with general sociological forces which drive the university, or at least its Humanities side, apart from the rest of society. It might be that the relentless neoliberal assault to reduce everything down to its use value makes any defence not phrased in those terms suspect. On the flipside, the difficult conveyability of intellectual thought also encourages elitism and haughtiness in defenders of the Humanities: why give money to those who stumble around defending themselves, and seem to look down on us?

Whatever the causes, I think the story I’ve told captures at least some of the dynamics of defending the Humanities. (There are likely many other reasons.) Like an aesthetic sensibility or a special form of sense perception, the nature of the Humanities cannot easily be conveyed. This makes it more convenient to fall back on the language of extrinsic value – to defend the Humanities in terms of the career opportunities it offers to its students, its contributions to democratic society, its ability to make people “think creatively”, make our history “come alive”, and so on. Of course, arguments from extrinsic value are an important part of defending the Humanities – although, as I hope to argue in a future piece, an excessively instrumental defence has some implications few of its users will want to stomach.

Still, we should not give up on defending the intrinsic value of the Humanities yet. If what I have argued so far is correct, however, then the moment the philosopher is publicly asked “why philosophy?”, it might already be too late. The defence of philosophy requires us to teach philosophy widely, to give many people a sense, however vague, of what it means to see the world in a philosophical light. With such an audience, defending philosophy is still not obvious; but at least it is feasible.

Speaking generally, it seems to me that the best defence of the Humanities is to bring about a world in which they need not be defended in the first place: where its nature and value are understood by the majority, even if not pursued by them. On this picture, the defence of humanistic thinking does not primarily happen in speeches and articles, those forms of defence professors know best. Rather, it happens much more widely, in a variety of cultural, social and educational forums. The role of school curricula, for example, becomes much more important, as this is a form of socialisation almost everyone experiences.

Exploring how precisely we could ensure the necessary trust and shared experience for defending philosophy and other subjects is a story for another day. I also expect that defending the various subdisciplines in the Humanities will require different strategies and approaches: language subjects, for example, are very differently located to philosophy; and even within philosophy, metaphysics is very differently situated from, say, political philosophy. Still, one upshot is clear: defending humanistic thought is a difficult and wide-ranging task, one for which there are no easy shortcuts, and which requires much more than broad and vague rhetoric.

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