The value of the humanities [From 2010]


The old question of the humanities’ relation to humanity continues to bedevil, bewilder, and bemuse. Intellectuals like Stanley Fish perform mental acrobatics to justify their life-pursuits.[1] Do art and the humanities tend to ennoble? Does immersion in them make moral, elevated, broad-minded, and empathetic? Does it give one a greater appreciation of “life’s meaning,” or greater understanding of other minds and cultures, or greater capacities for public-spirited and informed citizenship? Does it give one the mental habits and resources with which to live well and resist modern dehumanization? What, in the end, is the humanities’ value at all?


Or are the naysayers right that this sphere of study and creation is not only economically unproductive but also elitist, solipsistic, socially disengaging, and in general useless, even harmful? Given the age in which we live, it seems that a clear and forceful statement of the value of the humanities—if indeed we decide they have value—is in order.


That creating and studying humanistic works need not make humane is shown by the caliber of so many people who create and study these works. “Humanistic” intellectuals are perfectly capable not only of being cultural decadents, contemptible narcissists, and personally immoral obscenities (pedophiles, sadists, abusers of women, whatever you want), but also of being enthusiastic fascists, Nazis, and semi-Eichmannian bureaucrats. The scholarship of Zeev Sternhell, for example, shows how the ideological seeds of fascism germinated in the fecund soil of alienated turn-of-the-century European intellectual culture.[2] George Steiner’s thoughts are worth quoting at length:


The simple yet appalling fact is that we have very little solid evidence that literary studies do very much to enrich or stabilize moral perception, that they humanize. We have little proof that a tradition of literary studies in fact makes a man more humane. What is worse—a certain body of evidence points the other way. When barbarism came to twentieth-century Europe, the arts faculties offered very little moral resistance, and this is not a trivial or local accident. In a disturbing number of cases the literary imagination gave servile or ecstatic welcome to political bestiality. That bestiality was at times enforced and refined by individuals educated in the culture of traditional humanism. Knowledge of Goethe, a delight in the poetry of Rilke, seemed no bar to personal and institutionalized sadism… It is at least conceivable [not only that the humanities don’t humanize, but that] the focusing of consciousness on a written text, which is the substance of our training and pursuit, diminishes the sharpness and readiness of our actual moral response. Because we are trained to give psychological and moral credence to the imaginary, to the character in a play or a novel, to the condition of spirit we gather from a poem, we may find it more difficult to identify with the real world… Thus there may be a covert, betraying link between the cultivation of aesthetic response and the potential of personal inhumanity.[3]


One can’t help thinking of Hannibal Lecter reveling in Bach’s Goldberg Variations as he kills and cannibalizes his victims.


It is significant, however, that such juxtapositions seem strikingly incongruous. Great artistic and philosophical works have an intrinsically elevated character, in the sense of embodying and speaking to our higher capacities: reason, spirituality, existential wonder, empathy (thus the genre of tragedy, for example), creativity guided by standards of beauty and human resonance, and the quest for understanding. Whatever the “usefulness” of art and the humanities, their being a manifestation and confirmation of such high values and capacities already justifies them. Humans are perpetually drawn to them, from the cave-paintings of Cro-Magnon man to the poetry of postmodern man. They are the creative facets of the human spirit at play, self-constrained only by rules of logic, proportion, harmony, expressive power, and fidelity to experience. It is a magnificent fact that art and the humanities hold a magnetic attraction for people in all times and of all ages: we’re fascinated by them, whether the six-year-old fantasy-conducting a Beethoven symphony or the sixty-year-old writing a commentary on the philosophy of Spinoza. And if the creation and appreciation of such works is, so to speak, justified in itself, so is the study and analysis of them. For that is a humanistic, creative act as well, an expressing of our higher powers, a contribution to the thoughtful assimilating of experience, an oblique contribution to the object of analysis itself (to its meaning for others). This whole humanistic and artistic sphere of life—together with the academic study of it—does not need a justification outside itself; it is justified as long as it moves us, grips us, captures our imagination and is not creatively barren or a parody of itself, as it can be in the hands of mediocrities.


The reason it seems as though art and the humanities should have a morally uplifting effect is that they intrinsically affirm humanity. Their pursuit of beauty and truth is a pursuit of what is good and noble, what inspires and serves as an ornament to life, what raises one’s vision from crass self-advantage to a more disinterested and universal plane of experience. We are drawn out of ourselves and called to join a community of minds. Indeed, one of the foundations of art is empathy, implicit identification with the feelings and thoughts of others; it is largely this that moves us, whether in a piece of music or a poem or a painting. Thus there is a kind of inherent moral quality to art, or at least good art—even to negative works like, say, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. But a huge proportion of art and philosophy—surely the best of it—is more positive, moral, and “humanistic” in spirit than absurdist or thoroughly nihilistic, and in such cases the connection between morality and the humanities is especially clear. It strikes us as particularly obscene that admirers of Goethe should have become Nazis.


On the other hand, art also exists in tension with humanity, as the passage quoted from George Steiner shows. While the aesthetic may have moral overtones, it is perfectly possible to sacrifice morality in the creation and appreciation of art. In themselves, the ethical and the aesthetic are two very different things. Kierkegaard, for example, illustrates this with his famous story of Johannes the Seducer, whose aesthetic approach to life disregards morality. A lived philosophy of aestheticism, in fact, can be pure decadence, pure moral and psychological rot; see Thomas Mann’s story “Death in Venice,” or consider an aesthete like Oscar Wilde (whose life, however, was not without some tragic dignity—unlike that of his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, and most other such refined hedonists). The production of art even has an ironic similarity to capitalist production: humans and nature are objectified and subordinated to a “higher” principle, whether beauty and profundity in art or profit and capital accumulation in capitalism. Some film directors are notorious for treating actors cruelly in the attempt to produce a more compelling work of art, and performance artists sometimes integrate violence into their routines. Doubtless such art is rarely good, consisting of mere provocation; but it is the reductio ad absurdum of the aesthetic stance, inasmuch as the ethical-for-its-own-sake is obliterated.


From this perspective, there is nothing inconsistent about artists and most types of humanistic intellectuals (except maybe ethicists) being morally objectionable in some way. Art and the humanities constitute a separate sphere of life, a separate set of values, from ethical treatment of others, even if particular works—the large majority—do embody and proceed from an ethical vision that is properly moral. Indeed, the humanities don’t give values at all; they reflect values, as science does, and can be used in the service of any agenda. They don’t in themselves give meaning to life or make us appreciate life’s value; they don’t necessarily make their partaker wise or compassionate or broad-minded. They have no necessary utilitarian justification. All depends on how one “takes them up.” The most that can be said is that using art and the humanities in a morally and intellectually elevated way, to improve oneself and the world, is more consistent with their spirit than not being improved by them would be. They are most fully realized when one remakes oneself in the light of the values they embody, namely human connection, exaltation of the imagination, and insatiable hunger for truth. One honors and personifies art and philosophy by treating oneself as a work of art and philosophy.


Thus, if you approach art and the humanities with the right attitude, they can be all the things stated in the first paragraph above, and that does give them a myriad of utilitarian justifications. A good system of education would approach these works from a humanistic standpoint, not only as valuable in themselves (aesthetically, philosophically, etc.) but as important components of the good life—as means for us to make ourselves more valuable. Their study, and the study of good scholarly analyses of them, should make us more thoughtful and empathetic, more informed about the world and better able to act intelligently on that information, more adept at “critical thinking” about people and society, more open to alternative viewpoints, more well-rounded and able to appreciate the “more complexly valuable” experiences we have access to,[4] and, yes, more moral and concerned for others. Reading good literature and literary criticism is not only a pleasure in itself but can foster deeper understanding of ourselves and others; reading moral philosophers and their commentators can and should make us more thoughtful about how we act and interpret our actions; listening to and studying great music can invigorate, can sharpen the appetite for life and cultivate acute sensibilities; studying history can teach innumerable lessons about our own society, where it’s headed, and how best to change it. None of this is automatic; it requires good teachers, an educational system that prioritizes humane learning, and an open and interested attitude on the part of students.


Incidentally, these reflections on what the humanities can be also provide some criteria for great art, philosophy, historical writing, and critical commentary. The distinction can be conceptualized as between decadence and vitality. The literary criticism of Georg Lukács elaborates on this in detail,[5] but to an extent it is intuitive. What is healthy, and what isn’t? What stimulates to action and exalted achievement, and what enervates or alienates or seems comically pretentious? (Much of “avant-garde” art falls under the latter category.) What induces a feeling of brotherhood with humanity, and what fills with contempt or existential nausea? What integrates, is ambitious and comprehensive, and what fragments, is overly specialized or parochial? What contributes to realistic understanding, rationally and clearly placing things in proper relations to each other, and what mystifies or obfuscates? Despite what formalists and postmodernists and l’art pour l’art advocates might think, considerations of morality and “healthiness” and truth—considerations of content—cannot be irrelevant to judging the value of a work of art (although of course art should never be subordinated to ideology or moralism).[6] While it’s true that art and the humanities in a sense constitute their own separate sphere of experience with its own standards, on a deeper level they are integrated into life, society, and personality, and cannot or should not be divorced from their context. The Goethean and Marxian attention to the whole is the noblest, truest, healthiest, and most moral—most humanistic—approach to living, to art, and to analysis.


Whether any of this justifies the enormous academic apparatus of the humanities is an open question, which I’m inclined to answer in the negative. Most scholarship and criticism is forgettable, and most teaching is of middling value to the student, who is not well served by the anti-humanistic, pro-status quo priorities of the educational establishment. Nevertheless, when done well, humanistic teaching can open the student’s mind to new and more adequate ways of viewing the world, and it can even contribute to such things as democracy, civic engagement, and other populist values our society pretends to uphold. In particular, if their spirit is properly imbibed, the humanities can instill a healthy and moral disgust with capitalism, consumerism, arbitrary authority, irrational thinking, war, and all things inhumane. At their heart, art and the humanities are essentially moral, the very jewel of human creativity and moral awareness.


[1] See Fish’s articles “Will the Humanities Save Us?” and “The Uses of the Humanities, Part Two,” New York Times, January 6 and 13, 2008.

[2] Zeev Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[3] George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998 (1967)), 60, 61.

[4] Barton Swaim, “Book Review: ‘The Value of the Humanities’ by Helen Small,” Wall Street Journal, February 14, 2014.

[5] See, e.g., his Realism in Our Time: Literature and the Class Struggle (New York: Harper & Row, 1964).

[6] Even the postmodernist decadent Susan Sontag recognized the value of this Marxian-humanistic perspective late in her life, when she to some extent repudiated the formalist sins of her youth. See my Notes of an Underground Humanist, 432, 433.