“Faux the Humanities?”

“Faux the Humanities?”
When the (Lack of) Value in Literature
Overtakes the (Lack of) Quality in Literature

A lot of talk going around (this is only one of the latest examples) about the demise of the humanities etcetera.

But I suspect it has something to do with mistaking the past-present-future value of literature for the present quality (which includes quantity) of literature.

Here are three quotations I’ve been pondering lately concerning this subject. No analysis to provide just yet (though that may come later), for there is plenty to ponder:

The first is from Karl Popper (1902–1994):

I admire the mediæval cathedrals as much as anybody, and I am perfectly prepared to recognize the greatness and uniqueness of mediæval craftsmanship. But I believe that æstheticism must never be used as an argument against humanitarianism.

(“Preface to the Second Edition” (1950), The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2013, 2020), (ch. 11, n. 61), pp. 663–64)

The next is from Noam Chomsky (b. 1928), on how one can’t draw conclusions from literature:

James Peck: You once said, “It is not unlikely that literature will forever give far deeper insight into what is sometimes called ‘the full human person’ than any modes of scientific inquiry may hope to do.”

Noam Chomsky: That’s perfectly true and I believe that. I would go on to say it’s not only not unlikely, but it’s almost certain. But still, if I want to understand, let’s say, the nature of China and its revolution, I ought to be cautious about literary renditions. Look, there’s no question that as a child, when I read about China, this influenced my attitudes—Rickshaw Boy, for example. That had a powerful effect when I read it. It was so long ago I don’t remember a thing about it, except the impact. And I don’t doubt that, for me, personally, like anybody, lots of my perceptions were heightened and attitudes changed by literature over a broad range—Hebrew literature, Russian literature, and so on. But ultimately, you have to face the world as it is on the basis of other sources of evidence that you can evaluate. Literature can heighten your imagination and insight and understanding, but it surely doesn’t provide the evidence that you need to draw conclusions and substantiate conclusions.

(“Interview [with James Peck],” The Chomsky Reader, ed. Peck, (New York: Pantheon, 1987), p. 4)

The last is from Iain McGilchrist (b. 1953):

I readily accept that there is no cast-iron certainty here, but there isn’t any anywhere. So let’s get over it. There are, however, degrees of truth, some of them very great, and carrying increasing conviction with experience. Though truth is always my personal judgment, it is not just possible, but necessary, that my judgment should take into account your and many others. It is far from random, but it is, rather, informed by experiment, perception, reason, intuition and imagination. That doesn’t make it less reliable than being informed by a single source, such as reason, might have done, but more reliable. Acquiring a degree of judgment that can make these elements intelligently cohere is—or used to be—the whole purpose of education. It [p. 398] is why we study the humanities. What history and classics and literature tell us is not to be found in the sciences anywhere. Nowadays we seem to have forgotten this crucial insight, on which the future of our civilisation nonetheless hangs. Judgment used to be the foundation of the idea of reasonableness—a concept you may remember, but which we are in danger of losing, if we have not already done so, in a mechanised, bureaucratic society. The popular reaction to this has been only to intensify the mechanistic vision: no longer seeing complex, unique individuals but only representatives of groups, no longer open to appropriately nuanced, but simple ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ positions, and shouting more and more loudly. Reasonableness is as far from unbridled emotion as it is from rote rationality, on the worst excesses of which it acts as a much-needed brake.

(The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World, (London: Perspectiva Press, 2021), (II, x), pp. 397–98)