More, Not Less, Humanities

humanities tee

Nicholas Kristof wrote an oped today arguing for the importance of the humanities in our lives. Clear and to the point. He begins.

What use could the humanities be in a digital age? University students focusing on the humanities may end up, at least in their parents’ nightmares, as dog-walkers for those majoring in computer science. But, for me, the humanities are not only relevant but also give us a toolbox to think seriously about ourselves and the world. I wouldn’t want everybody to be an art or literature major, but the world would be poorer — figuratively, anyway — if we were all coding software or running companies. We also want musicians to awaken our souls, writers to lead us into fictional lands, and philosophers to help us exercise our minds and engage the world. Skeptics may see philosophy as the most irrelevant and self-indulgent of the humanities, but the way I understand the world is shaped by three philosophers in particular.

His three guiding thinkers are Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls and Peter Singer. A wonderful choice. I won’t repeat what he says about them here; you can go to the column to find out. What he didn’t say is that everyone of us has such guiding philosophers, but mostly we do not know or care about them. Humanities would make us more aware that we live by rules and institutions that were shaped by philosophers going back to ancient times. Unlike the personal choices Kristof makes, we have little or no choice but to be influenced by them every day.

Here’s just a few. You should recognize them and understand exactly how they influence your life. The list would be very long, but here are three who matter. RenĂ© Descartes is the first. Descartes’s thinking was instrumental in creating modern science. He thought we could become knowledgeable about the secrets of the world by looking at its parts as isolated components of the system we call reality. He created the notion of objective reality-a world out there that inquiring human subjects could get to know by examining it. Nice and clean. Without Descartes or someone like him, we would not have the vast array of technology that characterizes our present culture. Interesting that Kristof chose Berlin for the reason that he argued that the world was not so clean-cut, and we could not rely merely on the findings of science when we have to make decisions, big and small.

My second choice would be Adam Smith, a Scottish philosopher, who founded the field of classic economics. He was the one who came up with the notion of the invisible hand that would guide an economy to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. He thought that if every person making and consuming goods would act in his or her best interests, that hand would maximize the output. His ideas still live in the form of the free market that is at the base of the US economy and many other’s. Before he discovered economics, Smith was a moral philosopher. It was there he first came up with the invisible hand theory, but with one critical difference. He argued that it was empathy, rather than self-interest, that would produce the desired collective outcome. Kristof’s second choice was John Rawls, an American philosopher, whose work aimed at replacing the basically amoral Smithian model of the market with an alternate morally fair way of making collective decisions.

My third would be the unknown author of Genesis, perhaps not a philosopher, but a great story teller whose writings have given us some of the key ideas that persist until today. Genesis was not written, as some argue by Moses, and probably was the result of an oral tradition that was ultimately put into written form. Genesis has given us all sorts of notions that have had a great influence on life, ancient and modern. Original sin, the creation story, and more, but the one I have in mind is the the line about God giving man dominion over the Earth which has been interpreted as the right to use the Earth as we see fit. I came across this in my early days as an environmental researcher in an essay by Lynn White in which he argued that this part of the creation story was a root cause of the then growing environmental damages showing up in the US and elsewhere. There is obviously more to this than Genesis, but it was a plausible argument. Add Smith’s notion of (human) self interest and you have an incendiary mix.

Kristof’s third choice was Peter Singer, another American philosopher, who has argued strongly that humans have no rights to harm other creatures. He is a leading figure arguing for animal rights. One might wonder if the Biblical story tellers had a different tales about creation, we would need such philosophers to argue for non-human species.

These three issue areas are not something that can or should be left up to professional philosophers to determine what’s right or what to do for us. It’s our job, but without some knowledge of where they came from, that is, the humanities, we can only stand by and watch others fight our battles for us.

|