It is comforting to discover that the United States isn’t the only nation fretting over the future of the humanities.
The April 29 edition of The Australian contains a story by Simon Haines, an English professor in Oz, who offers his thoughts on a speech given a year ago by Australian politician John Armstrong on the humanities’ social utility.
Armstrong’s speech called for a sort of ad fontes for the humanities, so that they might reconnect with the “human” portion of their name. Haines recounts how Armstrong “says the humanities in Australia need to ‘transform themselves into friends of society’ and to be ‘in the service of life’, not just of academics.”
Indicting the humanities’ creep toward ivory-tower obscurantism has become shopworn rhetoric by now — long on sentiment but short on positive programs of reform — but, as Haines represents him, Armstrong appears to take this topos beyond mere boilerplate into an urgent call for change. For him, humanities “in service to life” might just lead his country out of its current economic doldrums. “A return to ‘core concerns’ with notions such as civilisation,” Haines writes, summarizing Armstrong, “would dissolve that false dichotomy of value, between the intrinsic or noble and the instrumental or practical, that bedevils university and government resourcing of the sector.”
“If such ‘important things buried within the disciplines’ could re-emerge,” Haines continues, “our ‘economic anxieties would recede’”.
One can certainly doubt that a humanities retrouvée would necessarily dispel “economic anxiety.” Sentiment in this case, however, leads one to overlook faulty reasoning, attesting as it does to a laudable desire to see some facet — any facet — of existence defy what Thomas Carlyle famously termed “the infernal logic of the cash nexus.”
In rediscovering buried universals one need look no further than the word “humanities” itself. Or so Haines would have it. “True, an intrinsic property is inward or essential” he writes,
while value is conferred from outside, so the phrase is uneasy. Actually the dichotomy of value that concerns Armstrong is already buried in the 14th-century origins of the word, lying in conceptions of esteem on the one hand and of measurable worth on the other. But I took the minister to mean that such works of art are ends in themselves, rather like Kantian persons.”
Haines’s remarks, hair-splitting though they may seem, emphasize the important point that the value the humanities enjoy inheres in the humanities themselves — outright and from the get-go. Ideally, market relations should factor not at all in the esteem they enjoy. They are, as Haines puts it, “ends in themselves.”
Haines thus elevates the humanities to the transcendent ethical position German philosopher Immanuel Kant originally assigned to humanity itself. Market relations ought not therefore have any say in how people esteem the humanities, just as they ought not have any say in how people esteem other people.
Or so the theory goes. As often happens, ideas in practice often stray far from their principles. Such deviations notwithstanding, Haines leaves his reader with the vexed question concerning the proper status of the humanities: “My main worry about the speech was from an advocacy point of view: its use of the word humanities,” he writes:
Carr is not alone in running the term together with creative arts and social sciences. I suspect many vice-chancellors, let alone premiers and other funding agents, have trouble distinguishing them.
“But,” Haines adds, “this is half our trouble and it goes to the heart of the dichotomy.”
“Our two sets of humanities and social sciences colleagues can tap into much more intuitive public senses of value than we can,” he continues,
one utilitarian, quasi-scientific, instrumental, Australian Research Council-friendly; the other deriving from still-powerful romantic notions of genius, of an unmeasurable, spontaneous, quasi-religious wellspring of creative vitality.
“But what about the humanities,” Haines asks, “somewhere in the middle, in some no-man’s-land between the creative and the scientific?”
Haines poses a question that admits of no easy answer, because the humanities as human activity qualitatively different from the exchange of goods and services does not find value in money, but in something far more ephemeral and far less empirical.
Haines points out that cultures in decades past conceived this problem in a manner which attempted to bridge the ephemeral and the empirical. “The Germans have a word for it, of course, as Armstrong doesn’t need me to tell him,” he writes.
Even though the Geisteswissenschaften overlap significantly with our social sciences, we could usefully profess ourselves as scholarly custodians and promulgators of the knowledge or knowing activity of geist, the human spirit, human being in general.
“For some more materialist types that’s all a bit Hegelian,” Haines admits,
but presumably better than friends of civilisation, which would put them in mind of the worst excesses of Kenneth Clark, or Alec Hope’s ‘chatter of learned fools’. Yet the first humanists, in the Renaissance, thought of themselves as scholars of classical civilisation, as opposed to theology and divinity. Hegel’s trick was to merge the two: knowledge of civilisation is knowledge of spirit.
It seems, then, that the humanities emerged from the scientific era only to realize that in terms of their qualitative distinctiveness they’re no closer to an answer than German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel was two centuries ago. And perhaps in this elusiveness the humanities express their peculiar virtues, keeping themselves as fresh and vibrant in 2009 as they were in 1809 — and centuries before.