These days the defense of the products and output of the humanities – literature, criticism, the academic study of the arts and letters, etc. – is not an easy task. At least it is not an easy task if one’s position is doubly, or even triply-conditioned: First, a defense would have to be of critical thinking in reading and writing, verbal skills, in a forward sense that engages with a changing, technologically driven world, asserting the value of generalist skills in thinking in a world that prizes technical specialization as the key to wealth and success. Second, however, it would have to be a defense of a “traditional” conception of the humanities as a realm of close reason – but without saying that it was better how we “used to do it” and that arts, literature, and criticism should return to how they were when the critic was in college, because by and large it wasn’t so great then. Third, it would be no defense at all of the humanities in their current academic incarnation, because they aren’t very much about critical thinking, teaching it to students or deploying it in its production; no defense of the current humanities academy, while at the same time urging that its reform does not mean a project in reaction and nostalgia.
The task of defending the humanities is difficult not merely because its academic guardians have by and large failed or given up on the intellectual underpinnings, however. A big part of the problem is that the collapse of the disciplines in their traditional sense has convinced many that the basic problem of the humanities is not that they are badly taught, but that they do not, or no longer, speak to the ‘truths’ of the world. One economist friend who shares my love of Stendhal remarked to me that it is not that Stendhal is not revelatory of the “world”; it is, rather that literature, as revelatory of human nature and the human world is anecdotal and personal, whereas today we have social science and data. The taste for story, narrative, and literature remain, but merely as taste, not truth. Indeed, he might have continued, we could probably come up with good evidence that our undeniable taste for story and narrative is the product of a biological wiring that seeks to impose order on the world in the form of a narrative; how, then, are we to see Julien and Mathilde as “revelatory,” given that they, too, are narrative par excellence? The same for criticism and the genres of thinking associated with the academic disciplines of the humanities that seek to explicate and interpret; one might as well return to Freud.
This is not, note, the customary criticism of the “useless” humanities that these are disciplines that don’t produce an obvious rate of return. This new dismissal of the humanities is distinct from the problem of trying to see their value in commercial life. After all, as Tyler Cowen pointed out in one of his finest early books, the most vibrant pursuits of the humanities – pace the prejudices of many humanities professors – are often the product of the most vibrant commercial societies. Why? Apart from having a society rich enough to support so complex a division of labor in a strictly material sense, I suppose it’s the relation of sense and sensibility. So much of a vibrant commercial life seems on the surface to consist of “sense” – doing the accounting and figuring the rate of return. Yet the stuff for sale, from ephemeral fashion to the design of the great public infrastructure, is actually “sensibility.”
The role of the humanities in this kind of vibrantly commercial society, one which celebrates the high arts and the low arts, high culture and pop culture, is to bring to bear sense upon sensibility, to provide the tools by which to analyze sensibility. Part of which is culture for its own sake, but part of which serves, intentionally or collaterally, to more effectively sell sensibility. Making sense of sensibility seems to me the fundamental task of the humanities; for one to care about that task, really care, one has to think that sensibility is something more than merely ephemeral and contingent taste. Something more than exogenous preference, if you like. One of the biggest problems today, in other words, is that we simply don’t much believe that the analysis of sensibility says very much, not merely because the humanities disciplines aren’t very good at their own traditional tools, but instead because there isn’t much at bottom to say about preference and taste. Curation and categorization? Sure. Analysis? Not really.
There are two different currents here. One is the humanities as disciplines giving up on delivering answers and, in their academic emanations, coming very close to giving up on reason as such. Apart from anything else, it is a position that leaves academic departments ill-equipped to accomplish the proposition on which universities sell these departments, the ability to teach broad analytic and thinking skills to undergraduates, both as a practical life skill and as a public good.
The other is partly an independent phenomenon and partly a move to fill a disciplinary vacuum created by the humanities’ academic collapse. It is, unsurprisingly, the rise and rise of social science as a claim to empirical explanation of human nature, on the one hand. And rationalist economics, on the other, providing a deductive structure that applies an elegant (in one sense) and brutalist (in another) reductivism that strips human motivation down to a simple machine that takes the raw materials of desires and runs it through, first, a narrow rational choice modeling, finally to be polished up and modified a bit by a little behavioral economics to adjust for “real” human beings. It’s as though the way to explain human beings is to put together a model that mimics the behavior of a human being and tweak until it can’t be distinguished from the human being: a Turing Test for social science modeling. Or maybe a Turing Test for being human. It’s only the humanities that gave up on the search for truths about human beings in the world. The economists and the geeks of social science never gave up the search, and they (and we) seem to have concluded that the answers are located in purely technical subjects through purely technical thinking. Or at least we behave that way.
It is possible, of course, that this turns out to be true. Human psychology explained by increasingly ramified forms of behaviorism. I doubt it – I think, rather, that one of these days we will conclude that our current reductionist forms of explaining human beings are too reductionist, and that today’s austere and “on the surface” behaviorism turns out to be as mistaken as the baroque multiplication of psychological entities that characterized Freud and psychoanalysis. But leave that aside; the consequences for the humanities of turning to purely technical subjects for human understanding are grave. To start with, the new social scientists and economists, working within the deliberately flat and barren propositions internal to their disciplines, strongly bounded rationality, have no larger frame of intellectual history in which to situate themselves, as part of the history of ideas, as something which is not entire of itself. There’s a name for the temptation to which it gives rise, one we learned in classes in literature and classics: hubris.
It means, for another thing, that the humanities as disciplines, while they might still (barely) be a way of teaching certain forms of reasoning, don’t provide “content” in the intellectual reproduction of commercial culture – at least, not at the fundamental level, at the level of science and applied science. They are not part of the production of new knowledge. Success and advance for society lie in the innovations of technical and applied sciences alone – and the humanities lose a place in the production of these innovations, and become relegated to the status of mere items of consumption. Literature, the arts, criticism, the essay – their social significance lies solely in their role as entertainment. Entertainment is what one does in one’s free time, for fun. It is dispensable, and the humanities, too, their raw materials and their analytic products, likewise are dispensable. We didn’t use to think this about the humanities, its products, disciplines, and academic efforts. But that’s where we are now: fantastically produced and expensive, but their deliverances no longer can claim to reveal anything very important about the world. That role has been ceded to STEM; and, well, The Rest is Noise.