In tough times, of all times, the worth of the humanities needs no justifying. The reason is that it will take many kinds of sustenance to help people through these troubles. Many people will now have to fall back more on inner resources than on outer ones. They are in need of loans, but they are also in need of meanings. The external world is no longer a source of strength. The temper of one's existence will therefore be significantly determined by one's attitude toward circumstance, its cruelties and its caprices. Poor people and hounded people have always known this, but now the middle class is getting its schooling in stoicism. After all, bourgeois life was devised as an insulation against physical and social vulnerabilities, as a system of protections and privileges secured honestly by work; but the insulation is ripping and the protections are vanishing. We are in need of fiscal policy and spiritual policy. And spiritually speaking, literature is a bailout, and so is art, and philosophy, and history, and the rest. These are assets in which we may all hold majority ownership; assets of which we cannot be stripped, except by ourselves.It is interesting to speculate on whether disciplines such as philosophy might benefit from an extended period of economic calamity. I know that job seekers are finding the market even more uncongenial than usual this year, and the standard wisdom is that tough economic times drive students away from the humanities toward more allegedly 'practical' disciplines like business. At the same time though, social turmoil tends to encourage more reflection and more questioning of basic assumption and values (I understand that the era of the Vietnam War, civil rights protests, and the emergence of feminism was a period of strong growth for philosophy enrollments), so perhaps there's a silver lining in all this economic darkness.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
"They are in need of loans, but they are also in need of meanings."
Following up Nathan's link to the New York Times piece on "justifying" the humanities in hard times: Leon Wieseltier often fumbles when he talks philosophy and is often much too precious a writer for my taste. But his recent New Republic column on the same topic is an impassioned defense of the humanities; tough times are when humanities are most needed. A little taste: