Putting the Humanity back into the Humanities

I think that’s one of the reasons I’m here. Not because I’m some source of great humanity but because doing humanities makes me remember that we academics try to remain as far removed as possibe from the subjects we study. We don’t think of the Ancient Assyrians or Romans or Greeks as people, we think of them as tropes. Everything they do is readily explainable as a result of some phenomenon or belief or other random thing. But that’s not always the case. The same way we act out of a multiplicity of motivations, or even no motivation at all, so did the ancients. And the same is true for the other humanities.

For a while, I’ve answered the question, “why do Humanities?” with the response, “because it keeps us human”. I still believe that. Asking, “why do Humanities?” is like asking “why play baseball?” or “why make music?”. In Aristotelian parlance, it’s a good unto itself. In Kantian terms, it’s an end in itself. In normal human terms, you do it for its own sake, because you enjoy it, because it’s fun. But the question “why do Humanities” often outweighs the question “how should Humanists (by which I mean people who study the Humanities, not people who subscribe to a certain set of beliefs about humanity) do Humanities”. The “how” question is one that we often reserve for scientists whereas the “why” is the implicit domain of the Humanist. But worrying so much about why, we forget how.

It would be like a baseball player focusing so much on explaining why baseball is an important sport and everyone should play it that he forgets that baseball is, in fact, just a sport. The benefit of baseball comes from the fact that it brings others so much joy to participate in, not because it solves the problems of hunger or homelessness or any other crisis.

Likewise, the benefit of the Humanities is that it connects us with other humans. It doesn’t always solve important world problems or tackle disease or the economy or anything like that (although sometimes it can help). In most cases, it’s only restricted to the most elite (which is its own problem). Still, in any case,  it has the ability to bring us great joy, and that should not be shameful.


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