06 July 2008

McClay's Contribution

I noted yesterday the views of Anthony Kronman on the role of the humanities in the university, and Stanley Fish's response.

This came to my attention due to an article by Wilfred McClay in The Wilson Quarterly.

McClay digs into the issue in a Socratic manner. What do we mean by "the humanities," anyway?

Some can answer (the NIH does officially answer) with a list of the sorts of inquiries that count as "the humanities." Socrates's interrogatees used to similarly list acts that they considered courageous or virtuous. But, as Socrates would tell them, this is NOT the same as defining their essence, as saying what courage or virtue IS.

McClay's answer? The humanities are those branches of knowledge that "seek to grasp human things in human terms, without converting or reducing them to something else: not to physical laws, mechanical systems, biological drives, psychological disorders, social structures, and so on. The humanities attempt to understand the human condition from the inside, as it were, treating the human person as subject as well as object, agent as well as acted-upon."

The problem, in his view, with the contemporary state of the huanities is that they have abandoned their anti-reductionist mission. Literary scholars interpret Dickens or Proust through the abstract propositions of Marx or Freud.

The genuine holistic project still survives, not in universities, but "among the intelligent general readers and devoted secondary school teachers scattered across the land."

That's a good point, and I would say a Jamesian one. I'll leave the matter there. I hope all my readers have enjoyed their holiday weekend.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.