Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Would philosophy be better off divorcing the humanities?

We've had lots of discussion here about the place of philosophy within education and the place of the humanities within higher education. I'd like to focus for a bit on the place of philosophy within the humanities.

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.


  1. Great post Michael.

    I think that the 4humanities description of what the humanities are isn't even accurate about the humanities! How sad it would be if art, literature, history, etc. were about human experience. How reductive and self-absorbed. But this is probably how many humanists in our generation think of what they do because whole swaths of humanistic disciplines have become trivial exercises in the superficial. The description at 4humanities is apt for that. It depicts the humanities as speculative social theory.

    In that sense, I do think that philosophy is not part of the humanities and we should distance ourselves from them as much as possible in order to make clear exactly what we are not. The humanities have been blowing themselves up for thirty years - it's best for us to stand back.

    On the other hand, we are in fact part of the humanities if we understand those disciplines as they ought to be understood: as disciplines that make us human and humane. They make a human life worth living - they allow us to flourish as the kinds of things we are. That is worth fighting for. But the humanities at present are not. I wish I could join my colleagues in "saving the humanities" but they are the only ones who can do that and they have to start with themselves.

    Philosophy will be fine on its own.

  2. Becko - Thanks. This reminds me of the kerfuffle about the NEH's "Enduring Questions" grants. What offended so many philosophers about these grants was the implied supposition that humanists had given up on the 'Enduring Questions' when of course philosophy hadn't! So having a grant program to support lit scholars, historians, etc. to do what philosophy never stopped doing was understandably offensive. It's as if the NEH finally discovered the very questions that philosophy was founded upon. I share your hope that if philosophy stays the course and isn't tempted toward "trivial exercises in the superficial" that it will survive and flourish.

  3. Nice post Michael, with which I agree.

    Becko: I've never found the sort of definition of the humanities that you offer ("disciplines that make us human and humane") to be plausible or useful. Can you say more about what you think it means? I can't see any way of cashing it out that doesn't end up capturing lots of non-humanities disciplines. Why is, say, the study of chemistry not something that makes us human, and allows us to flourish, just as much as the study of, say, history? It seems like you've already disavowed - and rightly, I think - the response that history studies humans and chemistry doesn't. Another idea that I think some people have in mind is that science is cold and inhuman(e), but anyone who knows any scientists knows that they are no more likely to be cold and inhuman(e) than historians or classicists.

  4. Gazza, good points, good questions!

    First, I don't see a clear line between the humanities (properly conceived) and the sciences. That line has been drawn only very recently (relatively speaking).

    Second, I do think that the humanities without science is a terrible thing and amounts to an unforgivable ignorance. But science without humanities - particularly history - is positively dangerous. There is something about history - real history, with depth and care - that gives us a sense of context and humility like nothing else. Don't get me wrong. There is another, also very important, kind of humility that physics and biology, etc. can and do give us. But it's different from the sense of human hubris and human tenacity that history can give us. There is a special role as well for art and literature and the study of foreign languages and cultures that does this as well in a way that the sciences do not. This is not to say that we don't also, in addition, need that kind of humility. But it is a different kind.

    Folks at this blog know how skeptical I am of the notion of interdisciplinarity because it is too often used by administrators to dismantle disciplines and deprofessionalize higher education. But, if we really took interdisciplinarity seriously, we would still have intellectual historians and they would work in physics departments, biology departments, chemistry departments, etc. But that is a pipe dream. We don't even have intellectual historians in history departments any more....

  5. I agree with Becko that this definition doesn't really work for any of the humanities. The picture gets a little better if we focus on the first half (understanding could arguably include debates over what the correct understanding is, for instance). But my graduate student friends in humanities disciplines like literature, theology, and history would definitely disagree that the humanities are about popularizing, preserving, etc. They are about asking deep questions about human nature and taking the works their discipline looks at as their starting point for examining those questions.

    I wonder if there might be an analytic/continental divide in how we view this issue? Continental philosophers tend to look at questions that seem more in line with what many humanities scholars look at - what it means to love, be in community, live justly, etc. - whereas analytic philosophers are less interested in those kinds of questions as a general rule. I still think their work is often tied to human nature and those things that make us uniquely human. Logic, metaphysics, philosophy of science seem to be different approaches to reason and what it means to be rational, at some level. The connection isn't always obvious, but I do think they tell us a great deal about the human experience, or at least what it is that humans experience.

    For me, though, the most natural distinction between humanities, social science, and hard [laboratory] science is in the thing we study. Laboratory sciences run empirical studies on the material world, the physical world, the cosmos, whatever we want to call it, and follow the scientific method to prove or disprove experiments. Social science tends to do the same thing but starts with experiments involving individual humans or societies. Humanities on the other hand start with the writings and other produced artifacts of humans and study them , and then use them as a way to examine either the work or what the work was trying to get at. I'd say most of modern philosophy (setting aside x-phi) falls most clearly in that camp than any of the others. But it's not a perfect match, and for some areas of philosophy it's more imperfect than for others.

  6. I find that philosophy is the subject of polymaths. You can't think about anything without regarding both the sciences/STEM and the humanities (along with the many other less persistent section of academic disciplines). Thus, I don't regard philosophy as part of the humanities, or any other division of study. It is the eventual culmination of continued study. It is not so much apart as beyond the common thread of academic study. The human mind is such a complex thing that studying it (and the various attributes associated with it, especially wisdom) can only be successfully carried out it the practitioner is aware of the scientific and human environments around them.
    I disagree with Becko in that we should distance philosophy from humanities. We should maintain just as close of ties with STEM though.
    The humanities are not easily defined it would seem. This seems fitting. Nor is it easy to define humans. I think that as time goes by the difference between the sciences and humanities will cease to matter. If you study history in depth enough, there is nothing you will miss (except maybe the rest of your life, it could take some time). Philosophy is the opposite of this. It is what you take from everything to make something.

  7. To tack on to what I said after new reading:
    This is the basic premise of what Badiou writes in the first section of the Introduction to "Being and Event," as I read it. Philosophy is the guiding discipline for the premises the other disciplines use. It is thus that philosophy no longer has such huge differences, but rather more subtle ones. As we expand in science, the "wiggle-room" of philosophy gets smaller.

  8. If philosophy is truly concerned with 'solving problems' (among other things, of course) the suggestion that it should retreat into an even smaller 'silo' of thinking than the current divisions between 'humanities' and 'science' etc. would seem to be utterly counterproductive.
    I have a degree that is called a 'Diploma of Engineering', and a Ph.D. Both are in 'Architecture'. My specialty of 'design methodology' led me to write a book on building economics, another on time management for designers, and one (plus many papers) on the evaluation of planning arguments and its place in the design, planning and policy-making discourse (whose outcome, arguably, will be recommendations and decisions that will have to be implemented by politicians, managers, and engineers. I consider these connections to be of great importance. Of course, given the current 'silo' divisions, I have never received research support for my work that is decisively 'between all the chairs'. Publishers can't decide which of their departments my book proposals should be routed to. I guess I have to be 'philosophical' about that. But the 'divorce' of these perspectives from each other looks to me like a serious problem. One that, however can't be resolved by means of 'definitions' (finis meaning border or 'end', so I was taught in early humanities education...) that put each of these interests into separate silos ... or mental prisons? And whose fault are these strange misconceptions? If I were a 'real' philosopher I'd consider it part of my responsibility to make sure, like an engineer, that these different pillars of human society are properly connected and braced to hold up our civilization.
    Thorbjoern Mann


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