In this corner….The Humanities

July 30, 2008

Since it is practically, if not actually, human nature to learn through opposition, it is no surprise that the Humanities have often been defined by what they are not, most notably, the Sciences–the 800 pound marauder in the other corner of a centuries old fight.

We have to draw the line at centuries, though, and not millenia, because if you go back to too far, no one anywhere drew a line between these two “polar groups” (in the words of C.P. Snow). For most human history the humanities and the sciences were really just the pursuit of knowledge.

But the chasm between scientific pursuits and humanities pursuits is very real, not always, but often. It does not do us any good to think of both science and the humanities as equals in the “pursuit of knowledge” unless we also consider them complementary approaches–One as useless without the other as the other is without the first. Imagine a university without literature, philosophy, and history. It’s not just a nightmarish vision because scientists would have no human context in which to place their work (and would therefore create world dominating robots straightaway) but the quality of life of all of us would be substantially impoverished.

Reading literature, poetry, history–looking at sculpture and painting–enjoying good films–understanding world cultures, these are not things we do as a distraction from our otherwise busy and productive days (well they are, but they are not just that). They are not just pasttimes.They are times. They are important, critical, and productive pursuits in their own right. They don’t just teach us to be human but they also help us understand the world in a human way.

It has been said that the power of visual art is that it teaches us to see the visual patterns in everyday life by exaggerating those patterns. To extend the metaphor to literature, philosophy, et.al, they all exaggerate–model–the patterns of real life and help us to find patterns in the actions and thoughts of others that we might otherwise have failed to see. There is no measurement of this skill–although people have tried–the DSM-IV and the Emotional Quotient exams are two such attempts at measuring the kind of skills or knowledge transmitted by the humanities. Theories of multiple intelligences (of which EQ is a part) are there too.

But as Max Weber famously said of science, that it lacks the tools to evaluate itself, the scientific apparatus of the DSM-IV and EQ exams will forever keep humanity at a distance. The only way to understand humanity is to study it on its own terms through tools that are not understood through dissection but rather through synthesis.

It’s not that the humanities only have intrinsic worth, but neither can they be totally reduced to extrinsic worth.


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