The problem with Humanities

June 17, 2011 at 2:36 am (Arts and languages, Logic and philosophy, Natural sciences, Personal experiences)

I remember when I was in my early teenage years, I was quite fond of thinking about (or attempting to think about) various philosophical questions on my own: the nature of the universe, the development of civilization, the underlying logic of society, and so on. At some point, when I was 14 or so, I started to study philosophy and literature seriously as an academic discipline and devoted a lot of time to it. This was a stupid blunder, and it cost me quite a few years. Today, at the age of 18, I understand essentially very little beyond what I had understood when I was 14. I did learn about a few principles about economics and a few mathematical truths during this time, but all of it I could have gotten without a pursuit of the humanities.

What I got from the humanities was entirely confusion. I learnt a massive array of terminology that contained very little depth. I was almost contaminated by the sense that philosophy is a puzzle to be solved with the aid of old white men, rather than a series of natural and essential questions that all men ought to think about. My thoughts were compartmentalized in meaningless and arbitrary ways by meaningless and arbitrary definitions: ethics, modernism, stoicism, deontology, and so on. All of these definitions are quite useful when you are communicating with people that are equally confused with you; all of these definitions are completely useless when what you are trying to do is to think.

It is my firm belief, for instance, that no man could live on an island alone for a number of years and still believe that the words ethics and morality have any independent meaning. That is because these are social terms. They are created and regurgitated as a social ritual, and their appeal is emotional, not rational. But the study of humanities – to understand our existence and the structure of our society – ought to be a personal matter. That is why I advocate the study of humanities as a hobby, rather than as a discipline.

Humanities as a discipline is corrupted for quite a number of reasons, not the least of which is the manner of which “research” is conducted. In Anglophone countries, the problem began about four or five decades ago, when the humanities academia began to assert itself as a separate profession from the social sciences and the natural sciences. Not only was there the belief that one can specialize in the humanities, it was also thought that one can do so while ignoring everything that is studied in the sciences. These are quite ridiculous beliefs when one thinks of this issue today, but they were deeply ingrained in the humanities academia of that time and even today.

How can one speak of the role of the public sphere when one does not understand the nature of public goods? How can one point to economically conservative working-class people as a sign of false consciousness when one does not understand the nature of the prevalent state-interventionist policies today? How can one claim to understand the nature of mental illness without any understanding of neuroscience? And how can one attempt to solve the “mind-body problem” when one does not understand how the neural system functions? These are questions that those in the humanities dare not face. Isolation and ignorance have made the humanities hollow, and they have compensated for this by muddling their terminology even further, and by telling us that there is no objective truth in anything.

In literature, we are first told that there is no context and then that there is no text. In cultural theory, we are told that objectivity is a social construct. In critical linguistics, we are told that semantic meaning does not exist. Finally, Richard Rorty goes one step further and tell us that there is no actual meaning in the aforementioned philosophical arguments either: the “intentional obfuscation” of these arguments serve to make their understanding impossible and thus prevent their “contextualization” by bourgeois ideology!

The intentional obfuscation in humanities is so widely prevalent that outsiders can no longer tell the difference between humanities research and the nonsensical drivel of madmen. The Sokal affair tells us that insiders can do no better in this regard: In 1996, a prominent humanities journal published a hoax article written by a physics professor to mock cultural theorists, which argued that quantum gravity was a social construct, and which was contained obvious jokes such as this one:

Just as liberal feminists are frequently content with a minimal agenda of legal and social equality for women and ‘pro-choice’, so liberal (and even some socialist) mathematicians are often content to work within the hegemonic Zermelo-Fraenkel framework (which, reflecting its nineteenth-century liberal origins, already incorporates the axiom of equality) supplemented only by the axiom of choice.

One might criticize me for being unfair in labeling the entirety of humanities as empty based on some of its worst representatives. True – quite a few philosophers, generally those from the analytic tradition, have realized such problems and attempted to repair the crucial link between the humanities and the sciences. Quine and his students David Lewis and Saul Kripke are perhaps the best examples in this category. But today, the vast majority of theoretical work that is done in anthropology, art, literature, history, and the philosophy of science has absolutely no resemblance to reality. One only needs to read this letter (and John Cochrane’s response to it) to see how utterly detached the humanities is from the real world today.

Even the analytic tradition is quickly becoming eroded; the students that become philosophy majors and graduate students today have, in general, no training in the physical sciences, in mathematical logic or in economic reasoning. One illustrative example of such deficiency occurred in my philosophy of language class (which had a fair number of graduate students). One day the lecturer wrote down the statement “Gold is gold” (i.e. the substance gold is gold-colored) as an example of what might possibly be an a priori  truth, and began the discussion. The entire class quickly descended into chaos; it turns out that nobody really understood how color is produced and perceived. Some tried to argue that colors are a social construct. Others said that there is no way of knowing what color actually looks like; for all we know, your idea of “gold” might be black to me! Finally, someone in the corner exclaimed: “But white gold is white!”

The problem with humanities is that it has become social. When one conducts research in the humanities today, one is no longer searching solely for fundamental truths; one is establishing an identity and forming relationships. Such is the way that one is introduced to the humanities, and such is the way that humanities academia have learned to think. For instance, when one begins to study philosophy as a discipline today, one immediately begins to identify philosophers and concepts by their attributes, to classify and categorize them by their positions and their school of thought. Descartes was a rationalist; Russell was a descriptivist; Kant was an idealist; Marx was an materialist, so on and so forth.

We are presented with bits and pieces of concepts, each uniquely prepared for our leisurely consumption, almost as chapters in a novel: the Allegory of the Cave, the ontological argument, the Master-Slave dialectic, the Chinese room, and so on.  The purpose of all this is to introduce students to the jargon of the academia (and to give it the appearance of profundity), but none of it really matters to your ability to think and reason. As students we did not know this, and as lecturers we pass on the tradition. I have seen far too many lecturers and professors – all very intelligent men – who are crushed under the weight of their own jargon, who had little understanding of their very own words, and who did not seem the least bit concerned about this fact!

This problem is certainly not exclusive to the humanities. I’ve mentioned previously Grothendieck’s similar observation about mathematics. But the problem is exacerbated in the Humanities, for there is less of a need to state what you mean or to prove your statements when one uses purely verbal reasoning. In economics, even though we know far too much about the history of our ideas and the private lives of other academics than what is needed, and even though arbitrary categories and identities – Keynesian and monetarist and Austrian – continue to plague our profession, we generally have a sense of what construes an academic argument and what does not; we have a sense of what can be logically justified and what has been empirically proven, and so on. All this can be attributed to the fact that we (generally) hold ourselves to the standard of mathematical and logical reasoning, and the humanities do not.

Certainly, I am not saying that we ought to forgo all history and definitions and proceed philosophizing out of empty air. History, classification and definitions serve as a way to communicate, to debate and to facilitate thinking. But they are not a substitute for thinking. The confusion between facilitating thought and thinking is the root of many of the problems with humanities today. For instance, one can certainly classify philosophical arguments about means and ends into two categories, deontology and consequentialism. The next logical step is: which is correct? And following that, why can’t most people see that the false arguments clearly cannot be justified? But instead, we are often treated in philosophy with a series of thesis-antithesis-synthesis nonsense: “Such and such were deontologists and said such things; and here are consequentialists who said opposing things. Now, which of these arguments have more virtue? Justify your answer in four pages, double-spaced.”

If humanities were to recover as a discipline, then it needs to stop treating itself as a discipline. It needs to stop pretending that it can exist outside the realm of the sciences. It needs to hold itself to the same standard of clear prose, disprovable statements, and logical reasoning that serious academics have adapted. And most importantly, those in the humanities ought to understand that their role is to seek out fundamental truths about society and the world, and liberate themselves from the rules and norms of their profession that confines them to learning and regurgitating meaningless jargon.


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