[Humanist] 27.951 humanities

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Apr 7 13:00:52 CEST 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 951.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (52)
        Subject: no humanities or the wrong questions?

  [2]   From:    Manfred Thaller <manfred.thaller at uni-koeln.de>            (84)
        Subject: Re:  27.947 humanities to what end? & Re: [Humanist] 27.948
                social dynamics of the new

        Date: Sun, 06 Apr 2014 10:51:37 -0400
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: no humanities or the wrong questions?

I agree with Chris Meister's suggestion wholeheartedly, in Humanist 
27.947, about turning away from the complaints voiced on behalf of the 
humanities toward positives. The via negativa can be a powerful road to 
travel, but in this case I wonder about travelling it as much and as 
determinedly as we seem to do. Declining enrolments are a very real 
problem in the U.S. at least, and I don't mean to suggest otherwise. 
Imagining no humanities surely leads to a dystopic vision, and that can 
be useful. But what argument comes out of it that will persuade the 
watchers of CNN and its kind?

Allow me to quote from the Columbia University historian Jacques 
Barzun's "The Misbehavioral Sciences: A Truce to the Nonsense on Both 
Sides", published in Richard Threulsen and John Kobler, eds., Adventures 
of the Mind (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1959) -- which is downloadable from 
the Internet Archive. Barzun wrote to his American audience -- NB in 
1959 -- that "This debate is not new, nor is it limited to the United 
States. It is going strong throughout the western world and particularly 
in England." Barzun notes the raging debate and the arguments heard then 
(and now); "And yet", he writes,

> all those good reasons why science is not enough, why the humanities
> are indispensable, do not seem to stick. Everybody applauds the
> speeches--the liberal arts are liberally praised--but the moment a
> satellite appears in the sky or a rocket fails to go off, the fair
> words are forgotten. Nothing but science and engineering seems to
> matter. Could it be that in our so-called better moments we are only
> hypocrites? Who is supposed to be fooled by the rhetoric which the
> businessman echoes from the commencement speech—is it the speaker or
> the audience? Or are they both being fooled by a set of ideas and
> phrases that do not breed conviction because they have never been
> seriously meant?  (pp. 18-19)

Barzun observes,

> the humanities have existed in an unbroken tradition for 3000 years;
> there should be nothing left about them to define, advocate or
> challenge. But if there is nothing, why do we keep asking what the
> humanities are for and what their place is--as if it lay in our power
> to choose whether to save or kill them? (p. 19)

He concludes,

> The conflict between the "practical" sciences and the "superfluous"
> humanities is not a real conflict to those who know the realities
> they are talking about. Rather, it is a conflict with the thoughtless
> about the meaning of utility.  (p. 26)

To me the last 10 words of that quotation are what we need -- and what 
the scientists doing curiosity-motivated research need as well, since 
they are also afflicted. We need to be asking, what needs doing for 
which the humanities -- or better, the liberal arts, properly understood 
-- would be useful *in the proper sense of that word*?


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Research Group in Digital
Humanities, University of Western Sydney

        Date: Mon, 07 Apr 2014 08:29:38 +0200
        From: Manfred Thaller <manfred.thaller at uni-koeln.de>
        Subject: Re:  27.947 humanities to what end? & Re: [Humanist] 27.948 social dynamics of the new
        In-Reply-To: <20140406095341.B3DD0627D at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear Christoph, Dear Willard,
I think you look at two sides of the same coin. (Being a virtual one, it 
may have more than two.)

Christoph writes:
> In my practical experience (that is, as
> past HoD of Humanities departments competing with other disciplines for
> attention and funds within and beyond two universities) the single
> biggest "PR handicap" is that most of our disciplines invest next to no
> effort into defining their future purpose.
I think that is connected to what I usually refer to as the "lack of  an 
implicit communicable vision of the Humanities". 

There are many areas of the hard sciences who have absolutely no 
practical value within any realistic planning period. Nevertheless, 
there is an absolute consensus in the public and in the political arena, 
that they have to be supported and funded at a rather high level.

Example 1: Fusion research. Uncounted billions have been spent since the 
forties to find a viable way of producing energy out of controlled 
nuclear fusion. That has resulted in fusion being under control not only 
for microseconds, but up to the milisecond range. If a specific approach 
in the hard sciences has been supported for half a century with that as 
a result, we can be rather sure, that it will lead to nothing - until 
somebody has a totally new approach, which will scarcely come out of 
trying to repeat the old aproaches with more ressources.
Nevertheless, there is the vision of "the final solution of mankind's 
problems with energy".  Who would be so niggardly to prevent pursuing so 
noble a goal?

Example 2: Radioastronomy. How can a research policy, that allegedly 
insists on a short term profitability of research fund that? Will we 
have startups who serve the expanding market of create-your-own-universe 
tool-sets within the next five years?
No, but there IS the noble goal of "uncovering the last secrets of the 
universe". Who would be so niggardly to prevent pursuing so noble a goal?

Example 3: Research in particle physics has been eminently practical and 
changing our world. As CERN employed Tim Berners-Lee for sometime. 
Otherwise ...
However, there is the vision of "solving the mystery of matter". Who 
would be so niggardly to prevent pursuing so noble a goal?

These visions are not usually pronounced all that frequently, but they 
ARE shared by society today. And, before I am misunderstood: I am as 
intrigued by them, as anybody and would NOT propose to stop supporting 
them. I would like to point out however, that the prosaic, 
business-admin lead policies, which are allegedly based on prosaic 
notions of profitability have actually a strong undercurrent of very 
romantic notions.

The Humanities HAD such a vision until ca. 1950, though it has very 
rarely been made explicit. Nation building and defining national 
identities since ca. 1780 could not have worked without Humanists 
uncovering the big treasures of national literatures, the noble 
character of national histories, the wonderful heritage of ancient 
times.  Of course, this had to be taken very serious. So, even if it 
took totally incomprehensible studies of the "long tailed g" in the 
charters of a local count - that was as necessary a contribution to the 
creation of identity as the equally incomprehensible output of physics 
were for the understandign of the universe.
So the study of literature, history and the heritage was absolutely 
necessary to understand your own place in a world of competing nations. 
Who would be so niggardly to prevent pursuing so noble a goal?

I am afraid, as long as the Humanities do not agree - implicitly or 
explicitly - upon a vision of such magnitude again, it will remain 
extremely simple to treat them niggardly.

To avoid two misunderstandings:
If the price to be paid for the eventual disappearance of nationalism is 
the disappearance of the Humanities, I am tempted.

And: I am NOT speaking about Martha Nussbaum's "Not For Profit: Why 
Democracy Needs the Humanities".
This is a wonderful statement, why the Humanities should be taught at 
the gymnasium / college level. I cannot derive any reason from it, 
however, why we should undertake Humanities' research.

Enters Willard:
> In fact anxieties that the
> historical literature tells us were commonplace in the 1960s-1980s,
> expressed as the fear of being replaced, scholarship being mechanized and so
> on, I have heard uttered by highly intelligent people this year.
Could it possibly be, that such Humanists themselves are unconsciously 
aware, that they are missing a vision, which should be followed by 
whatsoever means it takes? "The way is the goal" is a wonderful notion, 
if the long term goal has at least an outline. The saying is supposedly 
derived from Gandhi, who could NOT describe what he had in mind for 
article 123, clause (c)  of the constitution of India, but who most 
certainly had a  long term vision, what she should become. Given that, 
what is there beyond the next bend of the way, is, indeed, irrelevant.

Kind regards,

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