Why Study Humanities? Essay

Why Study Humanities? Essay

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I want to take this occasion to address one of the most prominent criticisms of the humanities today. I am not referring to criticism of more recent vintage, which takes to task the humanities for a supposed excess of political correctness; this complaint we can set aside as the ideologically motivated lament that it surely is. Rather, I’m speaking of the more long-standing critique that takes the humanities to task for its inconsequence, its uselessness. The presumption that underwrites this critique is simple: its claim is that we do not learn anything by attending to the objects of humanities research. These objects – a poem, a film or play, a piece of music, or what have you – do not furnish our minds with information we can use. No special knowledge is required to enjoy these objects, and no useable knowledge is furnished through their study.
For the canonical version of this critique, we have to go back to the ancient Greeks. In one of Plato’s great dialogues, the philosopher Socrates enters into a debate with Ion, a rhapsodist or reciter of poetry, and a great admirer of Homer in particular. At stake in the debate between these two is what the poet (and by extension the rhapsodist) knows, what knowledge they draw on for their art. As Socrates compels Ion to acknowledge, the poet does not know much of any thing at all: early on, he tells Ion, “not from art and knowledge comes your power to speak concerning Homer” (532c). If Ion’s rhapsodizing were an art, Socrates reasons, Ion would be able to speak just as passionately and eloquently on all poets. But Ion can speak authoritatively only about Homer. (“Art” might be understood here as synonymous with “craft,” or a practice with a clearly established set of rules...


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...wn right. Art asks that we make a temporary home in ideas or experiences for which there can be no easy explanations.
I want to suggest that the very ground on which Plato and many since have dismissed the humanities is in another view the basis for the enduring and vital importance of the humanities today. It is worth remembering that problem solving – the activity prized above all others at an institution such as MIT – is made possible only through the prior activity of problem making. Problem making begins with the recognition that there are questions that have yet to be asked, latent possibilities that remain unexplored. And this, ultimately, is where the humanities may have most to offer us. What may seem like the mere multiplication of “uncertainties” and “doubts” might equally serve as a conduit to new thoughts, fresh insights, and creative solutions.

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