Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Nussbaum's Not for Profit: Episode 1

First, I'd like to thank Martha Nussbaum for putting her considerable rhetorical skill, argumentative ability, and professional reputation behind Not for Profit. This is the book that I suspect academic humanists have waited a long time for: a spirited, lucid, and accessible defense of their profession that directly confronts the challenges the humanities have faced over the past few decades, particularly at the higher education level. It is thus a worthy successor to her earlier book, Cultivating Humanity.

Since ISW is a philosophy teaching blog, I'd like to focus on two concerns that relate to the responsibilities of philosophers as humanistic educators. The first is philosophy's relationship to other humanities disciplines; the second, philosophy's reputation not for building human knowledge, but for destroying it.

Reading Not for Profit, I kept thinking about how often I feel compelled to defend philosophy, but how rarely I feel compelled to defend the humanities. Indeed, I occasionally forget that philosophy is typically classified with the humanities disciplines. In some respects, this reflects what I would call a mild estrangement between academic philosophy, especially as practiced in the English-speaking world, and the other humanities disciplines.  This is a familiar point that I need not belabor (for some earlier discussion, see Menand on the humanities and philosophy's relation to other disciplines) But suffice to say that in my experience, Anglo-American philosophers often see eye to eye more with their colleagues in the natural or social sciences than with those in literature, history, or the arts. With the humanities imperiled by the instrumentalist or economic growth-based approach to education whose limitations Nussbaum so vigorously criticizes, it's natural for humanities disciplines to turn against one another in the fight for scarce resources. (Nussbaum's report of a religious studies department being told that, unlike philosophy, religious studies is not "core", exemplifies this potential antagonism. [pp. 123-24]) Shall we teach students composition or foreign languages or critical thinking? Will students study Plato, Proust, or Picasso? Such questions imply that the humanities are merely a collection of disciplines with disparate aims, as if the study of Plato, Proust, an Picasso do not serve some definable 'humanistic' aim.

Not for Profit thus leads me to conclude that the humanities — or more exactly, its practitioners — need to develop, articulate, and defend a shared vision of what the humanities are for. Nussbaum has, in my estimation, done much of this work for us, ably highlighting how democratic societies and the individuals that inhabit them flourish only when their 'technical' education is complemented by a 'civic' education. Roughly speaking, Nussbaum powerfully reminds us, in the spirit of Socrates and Aristotle, that an education that helps us achieve our ends is useless if our ends are not worth achieving or if we lack any capacity to rationally and imaginatively appraise those ends. What good is the 'American dream,' Nussbaum writes, for people with limited, imaginatively cramped dreams? (p. 137)

For humanists, we need to show greater solidarity in defending and promoting this vision. I'm thinking of solidarity both in horizontal and vertical terms. Horizontally, we philosophers working at the higher education level need to collaborate more with historians, literary theorists, and the like in other departments, showing how the humanities are indispensable, and despite our differing disciplinary methodologies and predilections, we are nevertheless allies in a common cause of humanistic education. Vertically, we need to show greater solidarity with humanities educators at the K-12 level, coming to their aid when foreign language and music programs are put on the chopping block. And we need to collaborate with the informal mechanisms of humanities education — museums, libraries, granting agencies, arts organizations, and the like — so that humanities education does not become equated with *academic* humanities education.

Now my second concern, which is more internal to philosophy as such: Philosophy's role in civic education is (unsurprisingly) most prominent in what Nussbaum sees as the development of a capacity for argument. And I share with her the belief that absent some facility for argument, students are left too easily influenced, too susceptible to the claims of authority, and hamstrung in their ability to critically engage their own beliefs and the beliefs of others. And philosophy is distinctive among humanities disciplines in highlighting the common logic of arguments and making the development of a capacity for argument an explicit aim of its pedagogy. It's thus hard to imagine any version of humanities education oriented toward what Nussbaum calls "Socratic values" that does not include philosophy and yet expects to produce a democratic citizen: "active, critical, curious, capable of resisting authority and peer pressure." (p. 72)

The underside of this is that philosophy seems often to result not in improvements in students' beliefs, values, or understanding, but a kind of skepticism, bordering on nihilism. As we've discussed here at ISW before, students learning moral philosophy too often leave their studies as moderately sophisticated moral relativists. Many of my students report that philosophy is skepticism for its own sake, a set of intellectual tools to demonstrate the folly or inadequacy of various systems of belief, and as Mike once observed, it seems common for students to leave philosophy with the impression that it's all questions, no answers.  I once had a teacher tell me that philosophy is "the machete of academic disciplines." An apt metaphor in some respects: Philosophy tries to cut big ideas down to size, uproot them, and then see which of them can withstand scrutiny. Yet whatever a machete's virtue at clearing the landscape, it doesn't plant seeds that lead to new growth.

My worry, then — and note that this is no criticism of Nussbaum — is that philosophy's penchant for relentless criticism too often succeeds too well in engendering skepticism in students. Democracies need skepticism, but wither from cynicism. And my suspicion is that we philosophers produce more cynics than skeptics — more reflexive, knowingly dismissive postmodern cynics with a contempt for the patient, probing search for the truth than thoughtful, humble inquirers who use argument as a tool to gain understanding and wisdom instead of the 'upper hand' in rhetorical exchanges.

So I fear that philosophy educators too often create clever citizens instead of wise ones. And this makes philosophy's role in the civic education Nussbaum defends regrettably narrow: the skeptical 'not so fast!' discipline that destroys knowledge without putting something in its place. Future discussions of how philosophy serves the humanistic ends of a democratic society should, in my estimation, think carefully about how philosophy can be constructive, instead of merely destructive.


  1. I recently had a conversation with a graduate student in which I suggested that they had provided a technically adequate response to an objection without addressing the central concern that motivated the objection, and it was the latter that was really wanted.

    I wonder whether we would do better with our undergraduates if we talked not only about technical objections such as counter examples or counter intuitive consequences or consistency problems but also about the insights that motivate the objections and ways that these insights might be accommodated.

  2. Thanks for initiating this discussion! Your response to Nussbaum's book has made me think a bit more about philosophy's relation to the academy.

    There have been many discussions about whether professional philosophy has become too insular. I wouldn't want to stop philosophers from pursuing narrow questions in all the depth they want, but at the same time I wonder if some Ph.D programs might to develop broad-based programs in which philosophers study to become proponents of humanistic (or liberal arts) learning. It certainly would meet a sector of employment need for generalists in the humanities. Moreover, it would be helpful to have more people trained to synthesize the knowledge coming from specialized disciplines.

  3. One suggestion for the philosophy classroom is that we should not merely focus on objections to theories, but also explore their strengths. In the past, when I was just starting out as a graduate assistant as instructor of record, I'd give a theory (say, utilitarianism), explain it, then offer numerous objections and counterexamples.

    However, if we note the strengths of theories and positions, including those we ultimately disagree with, this can help undermine some of the cynicism and skepticism. As it becomes apparent that all views have objections which can be raised against them, but some also have significant strengths, it then becomes the job of the instructor to help students learn how to weigh reasons on either side in order to come to a conclusion about whether or not they will accept the view. If we want to avoid producing cynics or skeptics, one thing we can do is model constructive philosophizing in this and many other ways.

  4. Michael
    Thanks for starting the ball rolling with such a thoughtful posting.

    I want to follow up on one of the concerns that Michael raises. There seems to be a problem; even though the study of the humanities is a necessary condition for the creation and sustainability of a democratic society it is not a sufficient condition. It would seem that we could study the humanities and still not have democratic societies. Plato argued against the establishment of democracies. Many of the Nazi leadership were well versed in the humanities, but I doubt that we want to emulate them. We need to remember that ‘the humanities’ is not a homogenetic, harmonious field of study where there is an agreed upon set of norms and values that define what counts as being part of the study of the humanities, or what the goals of studying them are.

    This problem is captured in the following quote from Michael:

    “Not for Profit thus leads me to conclude that the humanities — or more exactly, its practitioners — need to develop, articulate, and defend a shared vision of what the humanities are for.”

    The very idea of developing, articulating, and defending a shared vision presents us with the important question of who creates this vision? Now as Michael points out, this can be understood as a discussion between the various disciplines that make up the humanities as well as within specific disciplines themselves. But it is also important to realize that this discussion is going to have to include a dialogue between those who support the humanities and those who do not and this is going to be problematic. What shared vision would a Sarah Palin and a Richard Dawkins create? Furthermore, who would come to the table? Would a Sarah Palin even sit down with a Richard Dawkins if they were charged with developing a shared vision? At one level Nussbaum simply seems to be ‘preaching to the choir.’ Will anyone who is not already committed to the value of studying the humanities even read her book? My fear is that those who do not share the positive view so clearly and cogently articulated by Nussbaum on the importance of studying the humanities and who are, in many instances, those responsible for developing and implementing educational, not to mention governmental, policy (remember Leiter’s ‘Texas Taliban’ references over on Leiter Reports), are not going to read this book. They will ignore it as an example of that which they are trying to eliminate, or at least discredit. After all, if profit maximization is going to be the primary filtering value through which those that are in decision-making positions interpret the other norms and values that define our culture, then it is clear that those who are in charge of establishing policy are going to be compelled to eliminate ‘wasteful’ educational offerings to reduce costs and improve efficiencies and it does seem as if the humanities fall into this ‘expendable’ category. After all, students, as well as administrators, might ask (and some already are), how does studying Plato or Proust make better accountants? Or, isn’t a society made up of citizens following the tenets of Socrates self-defeating - if everyone is questioning everyone else and everything, we will get nothing done and our social institutions will fail, or so our decision-makers might argue. (Shameless self-promotion - I will argue against this trend from a business perspective in my posting on 9/2.)

    In conclusion, there seems to be a motivational issue that needs to be addressed by those who value the humanities and want to see them play a foundational role in the education of our citizenry. We have to find a way to bring divergent viewpoints, including those who are hostile to the humanities, into sharper focus to determine if grounds for conceptual compromise are possible. I am not convinced that we can accomplish this. After all, it is not as if this is a new problem.

  5. Mike and perceive: You're both right. There's a tendency to cut down views or theories without giving them their due or by crediting them with important insights. I've become very conscious of this, especially when I teach moral theory. I always introduce the theories first by pointing out their advantages: how they account for certain central moral phenomena, how they seem to reflect how we reason about moral questions, etc. In my more advanced courses, I use Mark Timmons' criteria for theory adequacy (in his book Moral Theory) not only to help students develop objections to the theories, but also to help them see what can be said in favor of the various theories. I think this makes their evaluation of the theories more holistic and sends the message that a single objection to a theory is not fatal and doesn't mean we should reject it out of hand. I also think this helps dispel some of the cynicism I mentioned in my post. When students see the theories as efforts to systematize some moral data, efforts that succeed on some measures but perhaps not as well as others, then they're less likely to dismiss the whole enterprise as misguided. Their curiosity or interest is sustained, even as they see how intricate constructing a comprehensive moral perspective turns out to be. I also try to emphasize that ethics seems to be an area not where we have very little truth to work with, but in some ways, an abundance of truth to work with. The philosophical challenge is less to identify anything that matters morally speaking, but figuring how to adjudicate disagreement, systematize our judgments, and so on.

    John: I appreciate your worries. In Nussbaum's defense, she is responding to a picture of education which doesn't see the humanities as necessary for the health of a democratic society. So it makes perfect sense to argue for the necessity of the humanities for the health of a democractic society, even if (as you observe) there is no necessary connection between humanistic knowledge and a society's being democratic.

    As for your point about who articulates or controls this vision of the humanities: One thing I took from Nussbaum's book is that we humanists have not done well (and perhaps we philosophers are particularly to blame in this regard) in articulating the centrality of the humanities for a democracy. We have let others define the purposes of democratic education, to our detriment and the detriment of our students and our society. You're certainly correct that how the humanities are fashioned will inevitably require academics' engagement with other political actors. And I share your skepticism, that some of these actors will simply be unimpressed by Nussbaum's message and be unmoved by the suggestion that our democracy needs the humanities more than ever. (This raises questions in my head about whether these actors are 'democrats' in any deep sense, but I'll leave that aside.) But I don't think we should worry about convincing the dogmatic and unreasonable. Is it worth hoping that efforts to defend and articulate a more forceful vision of humanistic education will move some reasonable, non-dogmatic actors and better secure the place of humanities education in our culture? I don't think that's a totally unreasonable hope.

  6. Michael
    First, let me say, that I am in agreement with much that Nussbaum argues for. However, she seems to assume that which needs to be demonstrated, namely that there is a necessary connection between studying the humanities and the creation and sustainability of democratic societies. I am not convinced that there is a necessary connection between the two.

    Just as a thought experiment: think of the world depicted in the movie The Invention of Lying. The society appears to be democratic but without much of the literature or art that would constitute our humanities.

    I think it is easier to demonstrate that there is a necessary connection between economic development and the eliminate of poverty and the creation of democratic institutions where we see traditionally autocratic and even totalitarian states becoming more democratic as they move towards market based economies where the basic needs of people are increasingly being met. There are capitalistic theories that are socialistic (free-market socialism) and even welfare based (welfare capitalism). I believe that if we want democratic societies we need to eliminate poverty and that doing so does not require a knowledge of the humanities. What it does require is a Rousseauean economic baseline below which no one is allowed to fall. I happen to think, and will argue in my post on 9/2 that the study of the humanities plays an important role in improving economic performance that leads to democratic institutions. So, I think there is more of an indirect link between the humanities and democracy then I think Nussbaum would accept. That does not mean that her criticisms of those who would eliminate, or diminish the role that the study of the humanities should play in our educational system are wrong. I do not think she is wrong here. We need the study of the humanities to maximize profit and that maximizing profit will create improve economic opportunities and benefits for all. (This, of course presupposes a certain understanding of certain controversial issues that are well beyond the scope of this blog.)

    Question: how do respond to those who might ague that philosophy is not part of the humanities?

  7. John, not to be the niggling philosopher here, but perhaps some clarification of terms would be worthwhile. You express doubt about a
    "necessary connection between studying the humanities and the creation and sustainability of democratic societies." But I think Nussbaum is not defending the claim that one can't have a democratic society (i.e., one with democratic governance) where citizens do not study the humanities. Her claim is (and note that I tried to be careful in my earlier comments with my wording) is that the humanities are necessary for the health of a democracy. The former claim (I agree with you) is false. Is the latter claim true?

    Second, you speak of "studying the humanities" and observe that the Nazi leadership was well-versed in the humanities. Here I would argue that what Nussbaum is defending is not simply an education in the humanities, but a humanistic education. A humanistic education takes the humanities as part of its subject matter, but also has distinctively humanistic aims and methods: the cultivation of sympathy, the capacity for moral reasoning, an ability to self-interrogate, etc. And while I'm no expert in the education that, say, Goebbels received, my guess is that while he may have studied the humanities, his wasn't a humanistic education!

    So this is the plausible claim I believe Nussbaum means to defend:
    A humanistic education is necessary for the long-term health of democratic societies.

    A side note: One topic I hope we might explore in this reading group is what pedagogically distinguishes humanistic education from 'mere' education in the humanities.

  8. Thanks for this. I can see how our challenges are nested here. Philosophers need to do a better job in communicating what we do and its value to our fellow humanists and humanists need to do this with the other liberal arts and the liberal arts needs to do this with the larger university and college systems, and so on and so on.

    I am constantly puzzling over why our fellow humanists appear either wary or hostile to philosophy (this is not anecdotal: we do terribly in getting grants from the ACLS, NEH, etc.). But I was reading a piece by William Cronon from The American Scholar (67 (4): 1998) and a little sentence brought me up short and made me think I understood a part of what makes us appear so alien to our colleagues:

    "The ability to recognize true rigor is one of the most important achievements in any education, but it is worthless, even dangerous, if it is not placed in the service of some larger vision that also renders it humane."

    That larger vision need not be some short-term, instrumentalized vision. Indeed, the vision Cronon mentions is simply, truth. But I think that sometimes we come across as using truth in the service of rigor and not the other way around. I certainly like the notion that the larger vision renders rigor more humane. We're not going to meet eye to eye with our colleagues on methodology or approaches. But if we can find some larger vision perhaps it can render us all humane enough to work together more effectively.

  9. The idea that the Humanities need to present a more unified front against “education for economic growth” arguments is an interesting one. It would need to be an argument against reducing ethical thinking to cost-benefit analysis. This occurs in settings other than education, of course, and is quite pervasive. Can you find a single question about morality in the torture memos, for example? All the reasoning coming out of the Department of Defense was about the value of the information derived or the cost to troops in the field, and so on.

    While I do see the relation between the skills one derives from education in the Humanities and democracy in terms close to those used by Professor Nussbaum, I have some concerns that I think we might be able to hash out here. My first concern is over the question of how humanizing are the effects of education in the Humanities? This is a question associated with George Steiner (and the novels of John Gardner), and it continues to bother me. First, we must wonder about the paths carved by such members of the Humanities as Martin Heidegger in philosophy, Ezra Pound in poetry, and Carl Schmitt in legal theory. A second concern is somewhat related, and that is why a tradition of education in the Humanities has not created a bulwark against the encroachment of education for economic growth. What does education in the Humanities need to be defended in a country where this orientation to critical thinking, empathy, and political participation is a tradition? What are the inherent weaknesses of this form of education that are so exploitable by economic growth and reductionism?

    Finally, at least in the early chapters of Professor Nussbaum’s important book, it occurs to me there is a missing political dimension that might be cast in terms of developmental democracy. That is, in addition to defending the Humanities as integral to democratic thinking and living, shouldn’t we include education in democratic action? The skills of the democratic citizen – reading on public issues, public speaking, organizing, and effective and nonviolent dissent -- need to be taught and practiced. While this can be conceived in terms of old-fashioned civics, it strikes me (again following Steiner) that the empathy taught in literature classes has no direction to go beyond the page without education in democratic practices.

    Thanks so much for creating this wonderful forum! Chris Robinson


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