Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"Humanities" again: Definitional issues

Here's another in the endless stream of declarations* on the state of the humanities. Look at the ways this slippery notion gets defined (loosely speaking) in a single short article:
  • critical thinking, civic and historical knowledge and ethical reasoning
  • languages, literature, the arts, history, cultural studies, philosophy and religion
  • “what it means to be a human being”
  • exploring what’s called “a life worth living”
  • reading the great literary and philosophical works and …
  • coming “to grips with the question of what living is for”.
Wow, let me give that an A+ for sounding ponderous, and an F for a coherent definition.

*As wikipedia puts it, "humanities scholars have decried the dilution of humanities study since Plato and Aristotle debated whether philosophers should or should not receive payment for their teaching services".


Anonymous said...

Are you suggesting that part of the issue for the humanities is that they lack a shared identity?

Anonymous said...
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Mark Louden said...

A big problem with this article was the impression that scholars in the humanities traditionally fail to identify connections between their fields and vocations. Bunk. Take a look at the Web site of virtually any college of liberal arts, arts and sciences, whatever, and you will typically find some kind of "mission statement" identifying the practical utility of a liberal education, at the heart of which the humanities are situated. It is undoubtedly true, though, that at least some individual practitioners of the humanities don't do a good job of laying out the substance and relevance of what they do to non-specialists, especially students in their courses.

Mr. Verb said...

Not doing a good job at it is one thing, but a lot of them are confused themselves (I suspect you see this around you often) and some actively deny that there's any actual value (the Fish contingent).

But really I guess in the end I don't find this existential handwringing valuable for any purposes, and it doesn't help the 'humanities'.