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