Value of humanities

Over on Huenemaniac, Dr. Huenemann mentioned an essay by Stanley Fish on the topic of “what’s the use of the humanities?” “His surprising answer is that the Humanities are not of any use — their value is not instrumental toward other things, but they are valuable in and of themselves. That’s neat, but I am wary of insulating the Humanities from all practical activities. The Humanities, properly studied, change lives, and complicate them.”
Huenemann added an anecdote:
“Last term I taught a big Humanities class, and one of the assigned readings was by Heidegger. The principal claim we discussed is that today we have forgotten the question of Being, and no other question is as important. One student, in his response, wrote that he thought Heidegger was right that the question of Being is fundamentally important. But the student thought we shouldn’t spend much time thinking about it, because such thinking can only get in the way of progress and advancement. (!!!!!) It would seem that a more thorough education in the Humanities might get folks to recognize that some things are more important than ‘progress.’”

My thoughts:
Of course, Aristotle makes the argument that philosophy/contemplation in particular (though I expect we could expand this to all humanities) are useless (see Book X of the NE). Surprisingly, Aristotle takes that to be an argument in support of their superiority – contemplation is, he thinks, the only activity which we do for its own sake rather than for the sake of something else.
I find myself very attracted to this argument, but it can be mistaken. It might be read to mean that the humanities are, as Huenemann puts it, isolated from practical activities. But I don’t think that at all, and I don’t think Aristotle does either. The contemplative life (humanities) help us to live a life that is well-lived. The best man, Aristotle thinks, has both right feeling but also the ability to think (analyze, judge). In short, the best life is the life of both moral and intellectual virtue. In fact, you cannot have moral virtue without intellectual virtue, phronesis in particular. As it turns out, the moral (practical) life will be, in some manner or another, dependent on the excellence of the intellectual life.
Philosophy departments have a terrible time articulating this in a way that “sells”. That is why we so often fall into the trap of singing the praises of the instrumental value of philosophical study (the value of logic for LSATs, etc). But going the other way, and insisting that philosophy is useless, does not seem to do us much good either.
So I suppose we need to be a bit more careful when we say the humanities lack instrumental value. They don’t “do” anything, so to speak (philosophy does not bake bread). But they are themselves activities which will inform all of our practical activities, judgments, and feelings.
Here is the real problem: though students want to live a happy life (everyone does), they apathetically rush past any thought about what the eudaimonic (happy, excellent) life might look like. They are too busy rushing to fulfill societal idols – money, career, material goods. They have forgetfullness of the worst kind, the kind that Socrates was bent on attacking. That is, they are convinced that they already know what is good when they really do not! Hence the “usefulness” of philosophy seems useless to them. We need Socrates now, more than ever!!!


About Kleiner

Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.
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