How the Humanities Will Save the World




AT A DINNER GATHERING not long ago, some friends and colleagues were discussing ways to tackle intractable social problems: entrenched inequality, persistant discrimination, nihilistic extremists, cultural malaise, political gridlock. Among the baby-boomers at the table, all of them professors in the humanities, there seemed to be some general agreement that what was needed was heightened political activism: more changing of hearts and minds. From across the table, at a distance of a generation or two, I volunteered that a better solution would be to redouble our own professional efforts — deeper study of the humanities in high school and college.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my suggestion was initially greeted with skepticism, if not derision. “Paul thinks that better ninth-grade English classes will change the world,” mocked one colleague. It became clear, however, that this response was rooted in a confusion over what I had meant by education in the humanities. Similarly, when we read in the press about the so-called “decline of the humanities,” we are rarely treated to an adequate account of what the humanities do, exactly.

By “education in the humanities,” I had meant raising questions of value through attention to historical practices and events, to works of fine art, different cultural traditions and realities, and the cultivation of a capacity to explain or make intelligible what we are doing in the name of leading a provisionally freer life. To me, all this is as fundamental to a flourishing society as the eradication of poverty, the pursuit of scientific knowledge, the achievement of fundamental political rights, and the provision of housing and healthcare. Without education in the humanities we might well act altruistically, or reflexively hold certain political values, but we would not be articulating or justifying such values and, hence, would not make explicit reasons for organizing our lives accordingly.

Admittedly, it can sometimes seem difficult to see what all this has to do with reading fiction in high school or college. Yet, this conversation came to mind as I was reading two recently published books, How to Do Things with Fictions by Joshua Landy and The Lives of the Novel by Thomas Pavel. Neither title contibutes explicitly to the growing literature on the supposed “crisis” of the humanities. Rather, both are simply superb contributions to long-standing schools of literary scholarship: reader response theory in the case of Landy (who builds on the work of figures like Wolfgang Iser and I.A. Richards), and the reflective history of the novel in the case of Pavel (who draws from Georg Lukács, Erich Auerbach, Ian Watt, and Franco Moretti, among others). Since both books offer the chance to reflect on what the humanities do, from within, let me first clear a path through some familiar issues before commenting on these works.

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First, while there is still general agreement that high-school and college students ought to be familiar with at least a few well-known literary texts (the Bible, Shakespeare, Huck Finn or a novel by Toni Morrison), there is not much clarity about the reasons for this agreement. At the same time, we often hear that degrees in business or in new technologies should take priority — though, this belief typically expresses financial exigencies rather than any new intellectual evidence that somehow makes the humanities obsolete.

Moreover, there is tremendous suspicion — at least, in American society — that what makes a text a work of art is nothing more than some ideological prejudice: Eurocentrism, say, or political correctness. A related worry is that any provisional canon — the very notion that certain works call for heightened attention and a special place in the practice of education — is fundamentally anti-democratic or somehow elitist. Behind this view lie broader historical trends, which mirror the slow collapse of ancient motives for humanistic study. After all, most of us no longer fully justify the attention we devote to Shakespeare or the novel with the belief that at least some people must be experts in such things — the way that the study of Latin, Greek, and the Bible were once thought essential to an authoritative, coherent transmission of a society’s history and culture.

To the extent, then, that we still work together to interpret a canon of works — from Greek tragedies to Hollywood films to Christian paintings to Japanese manga — we do so under the assumption that these works exert a special claim on our attention, and not because of any value they may have as bearers of cultural heritage. With the exception of a few people working in certain British institutions, for instance, none of us really defends the teaching and reading of Shakespeare in the name of anything particularly English. This presses the real question: If our investment in the humanities is no longer justified by the transmission of cultural prejudices or traditions, then what is the source of this investment?

One clue lies in debates over that very question; the arguments we have over the very nature of humanistic study are themselves instructive. They remind us that mere appeals to tradition, instrinsic values, or timeless truths, cannot stand as uncontested reasons for carrying on with reading Plato or Don Quixote. By the same token, they cannot serve as uncontested reasons for deciding a whole host of matters we tend to think important, such as responding to the actions of one’s children, or determining how to apply a law, or regulating the use of force by the police. There are limits to the extent to which any objective fact or truth can orient our practices, tell us what to actually do with one another. As Kant and others pointed out long ago, there is a practical autonomy to interpretive considerations — a freedom reflected in the organization of our schools, where humanistic inquiry is set apart from scientific pursuit. To the extent that value-questions are unavoidable and scientifically unresolvable, the humanities cannot simply go away.

Not everyone would agree that reading a literary work or interpreting a film is a genuine normative problem — akin to, say, applying a legal statute to a concrete circumstance. For many, artworks are nothing more than evidence concerning the values and practices of some human beings at a certain point in place and time. All we can do, they might say, is study or interpret that evidence: we can make suggestions about why Hamlet did or said something in light of what we now know about, say, religious beliefs in 16th-century England, but it would be naive to debate the meaning of Hamlet’s words and actions “first-personally” from our subjective point of view. For some, the notion that artworks require us to interpret and adjudicate the actions of a character in a text should take a backseat to explaining why, in light of past beliefs and pratices, so-and-so did such-and-such.

Now, one obvious problem with this view is that it fails to reflect on the first-personal interpretive work going on in historicist accounts themselves. The bigger problem, however, is that this whole approach does nothing to explain or interpret what we really want to understand when we read Shakespeare or any other literary work.

What we really need to understand, I wager, are not just past reasons for Hamlet’s actions — as if the signifiance of human actions were discoverable only in the circumstances in which they occured. We want to understand what Hamlet himself might have to say about his reasons. After all, Hamlet cannot take himself out of the equation when confronted with his predicament: he cannot merely appeal to historical facts or contextual evidence as reasons for what he does, as if he were merely pulled by forces beyond his control. As a practical matter, Hamlet has to interpret his world, make value judgments, and act, all in the first-person.

Shakespeare’s play, while it might be illuminated by historicist scholarship, continues to compel our interest in that it presses such first-personal, first-order value questions. After all, the hard work of grappling with interpretive questions is a matter of practice, of what we do and say with one another. That’s what the humanities do, and what they draw our attention to.

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All of this takes me to Landy and Pavel’s compellingly argued and elegantly written books. Rather than offer rejoinders to specific scholarly claims they make, I simply want to highlight the distinctiveness of the humanities work in which they are engaged, and why it matters to specialists and non-specialists alike.

“Telling readers to mine fictions for instruction,” writes Landy in How to Do Things with Fictions, “is a surefire way to put their actual benefits out of reach. This “meaning-mongering,” he points out, blinds us to what works of fiction are doing by asking us to look fruitlessly for what they are (allegedly) saying. So what, then, do fictions do?

Landy begins by observing that there have been scores of answers to this over the centuries. He groups the proponents of these answers into three branches: “exemplary” (those who see fiction as providing moral examples), “affective” (those who focus on what fiction does to, or for, our emotions), and “cognitive” (those who see fiction as granting us access to a kind of knowledge, or self-knowledge, only available there). While sympathetic to certain aspects of each group, Landy wants to introduce a fourth possibility, which he calls “formative fictions”: “texts whose function is to fine-tune our mental capacities.” Formative fictions “present themselves as spiritual exercises (whether sacred or profane), spaces for prolonged and active encounters that serve, over time, to hone our abilities and thus, in the end, to help us become who we are.”

Some of Landy’s formulations are ambiguous. In light of what, exactly, are such “needs” identified? Of individual “pre-capacities” (to use his own term)? Of historically changing social worlds? At times, he comes close to John Dewey in seeing the experience of encountering artworks as awakening a need, as if such “experiences” could be considered analytically, irrespective of historical context. At other times, Landy speaks of “meeting the demands of life,” invoking Aristotelian eudaimonia and arête. But what — in our complex, “habit-forming,” capitalist, consumer-driven world — does Aristotelian “excellence” or “virtue” or “flourishing” even look like, and how would it gain notice or articulation? Given that Landy also wants to eschew the neo-Aristolelian moral theories of Martha Nussbaum and others, does this mean that he has another neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics in mind?

Instead of pursuing these questions, however, I want to return to the issue of humanistic education. For Landy is surely right to insist that the practice of reading is formative and not merely instructive or informational, just as he is right to say that we stand in need of such formation if we are to be capable of anything like self-expressive words and deeds. Yet he does not always articulate the connection between our need for “formative fiction” and modern humanistic education. Tellingly, he opens his book with an anecdote about a student of his at Stanford. When the student tries to “locate the meaning” in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, he responds by telling her how to read “formative fictions.” In fact, How to Do Things with Fiction offers an overall account of what it is to read such texts so that, presumably, students can proceed with greater methodological clarity about the enterprise of studying literature. In addition to very interesting interpretations of Plato, St. Mark, Mallarmé, and Beckett, it is clear that Landy also wants to present a true “message” about reading that can be delivered to a student before she picks up a text. “If you stand in need of skill X, you really should be spending time with book Y,” he writes. But then how does arming students with the right “literary theory” or “method” differ from the “message-mongering” Landy decries?

I raise this question in order to get into focus the difficulty of the problem Landy is tackling: How are we to be educated (“formed,” in Landy’s terms) if not through the independent imparting of messages, theories, or bits of useful information? And what does grappling with literary works, in a way irreducible to any such “message-transmission,” have to do with a possible answer?

These are the questions with which I began. They go to the heart of the modern humanities’ role in making the world a better place. I want to agree with Landy that the value of humanistic inquiry lies in its formative character, something other than the transmission of scientific discoveries, theories, vocational skills, moral lessons, or traditional values. But (to gently critique Landy) what we are doing when we teach cannot be a matter of just articulating the right “method” for that doing. Whatever we learn by reflecting on literary texts in our teaching is the direct outcome of those very same activities. The distinctiveness of humanistic education is that they are constantly transforming ways in which, over time, we express new self-conceptions, make value-judgments, and overcome prior understandings of ourselves and our world in favor of new ones. Education in the humanities is a social practice that develops over time, and not just (as Landy suggests) “radically isolating” “spiritual exercises” that “always work on one soul at a time.” If there is a spiritual exericise to humanistic education, it lies in our interdependence, in holding each other to account, in trying to get better at justifying our actions and interpretations to one another.

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In this endeavor, we are often reminded that the most powerful teachers are, in the end, our very best students. Pavel certainly belongs in this company, and I learned more from the fruits of his erudition and study in The Lives of the Novel than I can express in this short space. Here, I want only to consider Pavel’s achievement from the perspective of the question at hand — the distinctiveness of humanistic education — by way of recommending his book.

First, Pavel is not interested in defining the novel as a “genre” with a set of common features, or as the expression of some unifying concept in light of which the novel’s history might be explained. Rather, he sees the novel as an enduring and distinctive artistic practice which generates new forms in the same way that, to be Wittgensteinian, new members of a family distinguish themselves only in light of one another. New novels thus leave behind a distinctive history which we can reflectively “tell” and better explain. “The history of the novel does not consist in great writers relentlessly pushing the novel forward,” writes Pavel, but in the way innovations investigate, or more explicitly realize, earlier conventions.

Accordingly, Pavel follows recent scholarship in extending the history of the novel back from its putative origins in the 18th century or Cervantes (see Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel) to consider its development beginning with ancient Greek works, and in areas beyond Europe. His point is not make a chronological or geographical correction to Watt’s study, but to show that we cannot understand the novel unless we appreciate the autonomy of its development over different historical eras: “while literary and, more generally, artistic genres are linked to the social and intellectual life of their time, they also enjoy a qualified autonomy.”

Pavel’s suggestion is that while novels always reflect their historical conditions, the practice of novel writing is not just the sign of some other social reality or event (say, the industrial revolution). Thinking about the novel cannot just be a matter of tracking transformations in social-historical worlds. And yet, in speaking of a “qualified” autonomy, Pavel is also suggesting that the composition of novels is a historical practice tied to the development of ideals and norms in particular societies.

The bar Pavel sets for himself is thus admirably (and, rightly) quite high. A reflective history of the novel must aspire to be like a reflective history of religion or philosophy: it must “go back” in history far enough to show that novels are not just the product of one particular era, but must also be narratively coherent or “historical” enough to illuminate significant transformations in the way we have come to understand ourselves, our values, and our world. Pavel’s Lives of the Novel is part of what I have been calling “humanistic education”: our collective attempts at clarifying the challenges of reconciling ourselves to our social world; our shared history, our values, passions, and actions.

Following Lukàcs (but with greater detail and scope), Pavel suggests that the history of the novel tracks the relations “between human beings as individuals” and the “ideals and norms that guide their lives, the passions that drive them, and the action they take.” Novels, in other words, are formal presentations of the relation between individuals and the moral world they inhabit. The reflective history of the novel that Pavel so generously offers aims to make sense of developments in those presentations.

While some of us will continue to debate the particular merits of Pavel’s contribution alongside those of his predecessors — Lukàcs, Auerbach, and others — the debate itself should remind all of us of why we are all collectively better off when we continue to read or teach literature, reflect on the relation between art and history, and try to get better at articulating what we value and why.

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Paul Kottman teaches at the New School for Social Research.


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