I've long thought that philosophy's classification within the humanities was an uncomfortable one. Many philosophers have told me that they don't think other humanists understand the aims of their work. And I often find that I can convey the significance of my research more readily to scientists and social scientists than to my supposed humanistic cohort.
Philosophy is an intellectually diverse discipline, with many different strands within it. But much of what philosophers do doesn't seem to fit with how the humanities are perceived, even by academic humanists. Consider this statement of what the humanities are from 4humanities.org:
The Humanities are academic disciplines that seek to understand and interpret the human experience, from individuals to entire cultures, engaging in the discovery, preservation, and communication of the past and present record to enable a deeper understanding of contemporary society.
Question: For how many philosophers does this accurately describe their work, either as teachers or as scholars?
No doubt historians of philosophy would see much of this as faithful to their intellectual enterprise. But I'm guessing few logicians would claim to be trying to "understand and interpret the human experience." Are most philosophers of mind, science, metaphysics, etc., hoping to "enable a deeper understanding of contemporary society"? I doubt it. Those working in moral and political philosophy (critically rather primarily historically, I mean) may be trying to preserve certain traditions or ideas, but they also may hope to upend various traditions or ideas via their critique. For instance, it's hard for me to imagine Peter Singer seeing this quotation as a fair description of his intellectual orientation. The National Endowment for the Humanities denies funding to "projects that seek to promote a particular political, religious, or ideological point of view." Does that mean that ethicists, political philosophers, and philosophers of religion aren't humanists?
So depicted, the tasks of the humanities are descriptive and interpretive: to help us know the human and use that knowledge to illuminate our present condition. But so much of philosophy is critical problem solving, which fits ill with this depiction of the humanities. Vain though it may be, philosophers seem to want to guide our thought and self-understanding, not just present sophisticated interpretations of that thought or self-understanding to the wider world. Granted, I'm echoing a rather exalted picture of philosophy as 'queen of the sciences.' I don't think philosophy has the royal road to truth, but as a discipline, it's closer to the sciences (and the social sciences) in wanting to weigh in on what's true instead of cataloguing the panoply of human culture and belief.
Characterizations of the humanities as primarily descriptive, 'preservationist,' and backward-looking don't seem to capture what many philosophers are pursuing through their intellectual practices. Granted, philosophy probably does teach some of the cognitive skills associated with the humanities:
- "to deal critically and logically with subjective, complex, imperfect information"
- "to weigh evidence skeptically, and consider more than one side of every question"
- "to reason about being human and to ask questions about our world"
- "to think creatively"
- "build skills in writing and critical reading"
Perhaps the common focus on these skills of inquiry is enough to earn philosophy its place within the humanities?
Pragmatically, being classified within the humanities is not obviously to our discipline's benefit in the present institutional climate. (Is there some way we could get reclassified as a STEM discipline?) The title of this post was a teaser: I don't know if a divorce from the humanities would be good for philosophy. But I feel confident that this is a relationship that's already a bit rocky, and there's the very real risk that our fellow humanists have already written us out of the humanistic ambit.