The Humanities - The Heart of the Matter

We all like to make fun of English majors (and humanities students in general) from time to time (which is fine, no one should be exempt from a little mockery every now and then). The usual charge is that odious, unenlightened, ignorant, superficial, condescending question: what is a humanities major good for? Such a question implies that the only real value of an education is instrumental: what kind of job is it going to lead to? But this point of view gets it all backwards: money is good only insofar as it makes your life better and worth living, and living for the sake of money is to confuse the means for the end.

The slightly more respectable charge against the humanities, though still embarrassingly shallow, tends to come from those who espouse scientism, the idea that the only thing that matters is scientific knowledge. The reasoning in this case is that since the humanities do not lead to such knowledge, and the only kind of real knowledge is scientific, the humanities must be ultimately worthless. Now, I am perfectly well aware that, due particularly to the embarrassing intellectual and moral history associated with religious fundamentalism, many people are suspicious of questions of meaning, value, purpose and so on. And there really is something to be said for skepticism and suspicion with regard to these questions, but to deny the value of the humanities in general because one particular subject decided to take over the humanities for a long time, or even because some of its adherents tend to wax mystical and new-agey,  is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. If you wanted to get rid of a cockroach in your house, you wouldn't burn your house down, would you?

In any case, here are a bunch of people you may know and admire (actors, musicians, artists, film-makers, social commentators, documentary makers, writers, etc.) who have a little something to say about the personal and existential importance of the humanities, which is ultimately the heart of the matter...




"The sciences are the 'how,' and the humanities are the 'why.' -George Lucas.

With some reservations, I like that quote a lot.

Despite how much I like him, someone like Richard Dawkins might object and say that either why-questions are reducible to how-questions, or that why-questions are just silly questions. Of course, if you ask him WHY he thinks this, he would either tell you how the brain processes information (which is scientific, but irrelevant), or he would lead you to a question-begging infinite regress: if you ask him why that's a silly question, he would have to say, by his own reasoning: that's a silly question. But why is that a silly question? That's a silly question. But why is that a silly question? That's a silly question... The lesson, of course, is that at least some why questions are perfectly legitimate and meaningful, but if so, we're right back to having to agree that there must be some kind of value to the humanities...

And yes, sometimes there really can be reasonable disagreements about the difference between the humanities and social sciences, but still... :)


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