The humanities have a great deal to teach us about the relationship between genius and wisdom.” —Hayden White

American “metahistorian” Hayden White disagrees sharply with those who argue that the humanities have no utility: “The humanities are eminently practical and belong to the practical life, by which I mean the ethical life,” he said. “The humanities have a great deal to teach us about the relationship between genius and wisdom.”

It was a subject that resonated with both men in this 2008 Entitled Opinions conversation on education and the humanities. In the introduction, Robert Harrison had explained that wisdom and genius are the two kinds of “sapientia” in the homo sapiens species: “One is the intelligence that invents, experiments, discovers, calculates and brings about wholesale change through innovation and manipulation of the external world,” he said. “The other is the understanding that gave birth to the gods, the graves of the dead, the laws and scriptures of nations, the memory of poets and the archaeology of scholars.”

I tell my students we’re here to discuss the meaning of life,” Harrison said. But it’s tough to support an education about the meaning of life when “everything else in our society that is dominated by science and technology becomes a wasteland because it’s deprived of meaning.”

Harrison said that there is one element in education that no one mentions: love. “I think most of us have, at a certain point, fallen in love with a book or a way of thinking,” Harrison said. “Desire is so much of a vehicle for the acquisition of learning.” On that point they both concurred.

White continued the thought: “The idea was very common prior to the modern scientification of knowledge that you could only know that which you love, and conversely, you could only love that which you genuinely knew,” he said. “I always tell my graduate students never work on anything you don’t love.”

People who, in their dissertations, begin to feel it’s heavy labor usually don’t last long or become embittered and feel that they have been, in some sense, betrayed by the materials,” he said. “They reach a certain age and they’ve forgotten why they went into this business.”

The past must have a present and a future – and the humanities, for me, are that medium.” —Hayden White

An excerpt from this interview has been published as “We’re Here to Discuss the Meaning of Life” in the April 3, 2019 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education here.


Hayden White, who died in 2018, was a historian and literary theorist. He was a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he taught for many years in the History of Consciousness program, and was also a professor of comparative literature at Stanford University. His many books include Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973), Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (1978), and Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect (1999).