Are the Humanities Useful? The Problem is in the Question

In this interview with Peter Unger, in which we essentially learn that philosophy is not useful, there are larger implications that can, and maybe should, be considered.

One could say the humanities in general are pointless or without use if you judge “use” as the ability to constantly churn out “new” ground breaking material that physically improves humanity, but the humanities are all about people. People are not simply objects, but subjects that change with contemplation and their environment. The humanities look at the mind, the contemplative and internal nature of the subject, and work to understand and/or change that aspect of human life and potentially improve it. The sort of use around which Unger and others have focused their value judgments is limited if it does not take this aspect of being human into account.

What I mean to say here, is that changing human constructs about reality and society in order to improve the life of groups and individuals is a beneficial, and it is something that the humanities, including philosophical inquiry, are more likely to do than geology or astrophysics.

If you read the interview, you will see that Unger limits his criticism to the problem with analytic philosophy as something that claims to answer empirical questions. If areas of philosophy are indeed attempting to make scientific claims without the empirical scientific method, then Unger has a justified complaint. But my main problem is with Unger’s focus on the “usefulness” of philosophy. This is a dangerous foundation for criticism and judgment because material use is only a limited understanding of what people need to live happy healthy lives. This notion of usefulness puts all of the humanities under scrutiny not just analytic philosophy; a sort of scrutiny that is not concerned with intellectual accuracy, mental health, and social stability, so much as monetary waste.

If institutions focus on Unger’s foundation of “use”, which they already do, then funding to the humanities, and therefore the physical and mental resources to continue such research, will be cut or limited in an attempt to seem financially responsible. Managing resources such that the most important areas are supported simply makes sense for survival, and if you are convinced that resources are being wasted on an area that offers nearly no benefit, you will cut that supply. It just makes sense. Who could blame them?

Well, so what if the humanities have less funding? What is the USE of paying people to read old books and argue about abstracts that we have argued about for centuries? They mostly talk among themselves, those academics, and they write for expensive journals that people outside of the field do not have access to. They write in unreadable prose, and they do not attempt to help PEOPLE. They just congratulate their own circle and make unnecessary busy work with research and writing while monetary, spacial, and human resources support them, and to what end?

That is a good question, and it seems to have little trouble with the actual content or existence of the humanities and more to do with with the structure and use that is made of the various departments that share the larger umbrella labeled “humanities.” To address it I think we must 1) change our constructs and the way we talk about the value of the humanities and 2) analyze and update the academic system to improve the academic community, the non-academic community, interdisciplinary approaches, and even the individual lives of the men and women constantly researching and writing and talking about important, though unappreciated, areas of study. The structure of the academy is what is wasteful in that it is not giving back to the public and is instead isolated with little growth.

Many departments are looking for ways to innovate, but the humanities should be use to change and ambiguity. It is what we work on all day and all night. We as academics studying history, philosophy, literature, classics, or social sciences are constantly immersed in the understanding of flux, contingency, and more importantly in-depth and thorough analysis and problem solving. We can improve our lives and the communities that support us. We can improve our departmental social and academic structures and constructs. We can construct other values and important ways of being that bring out our various and complex benefits. We can start by avoiding the easy and narrow-minded constructed sense of  value in our use of the word “useful.”


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