Friday, 15 October 2010

The Real Crisis of the Humanities

There is a problem discussing the idea of a "crisis" of the humanities and this is not merely because of the tired nature of the phrase. It is also due to the way in which such "crisis" tends to get understood. Primarily, when discussing this notion, philosophers and cultural theorists have in mind a problem with some tendency or other within the humanities itself. So, to take the classic case, Husserl, the thinker of "crisis" par excellence in his late unfinished work The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology presents the nature of the "crisis" that produced such phenomena as Nazism as residing in the spread of a false form of objectivism that ensured the true spirit of scientificity was lost.

Husserl's specific form of analysis has not been followed but the type of it has tended to spread. Other classic forms of analysis that take "crisis" to reside in some deep general cultural tendency include the late, fairly awful work of Lukacs The Destruction of Reason and Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment. At least the analysis of Adorno and Horkheimer, following a certain Heideggerian root, takes the problem of their title to reside in the spread of an instrumental form of rationality, a notion that does make a lot of sense. All the same there is much about their analysis that is rightly contentious.

At present the split within philosophy between analytic and "Continental" philosophers has furthered the tendency to produce analyses that tend to take the diagnosed cultural malaise to have a more proximate cause than any of the above mentioned classic works of cultural analysis. On the analytic side, in particular, there has been for some time now a stress that the difference in philosophical approach is indicative of something very deep. It has been elevated by many to a difference between those who really believe in the "values" underpinning humanistic study as such and those (engaged in an "assault on reason") who do not. The suggestion then spontaneously emerges that the reason why policy makers and politicians can engage in cuts of the humanities is due to the way humanistic study has made itself ridiculous.

The latest manifestation of such thinking can be seen in the attitude of Brian Leiter to being challenged for publishing, on his blog, a fairly childish spoof of Derrida that some others were foolish enough to assume was an accurate finding of a manuscript. I blogged about this a couple of days ago and those interested will find, under the comments section at the close of the posting, a reply from Leiter that shows he was considerably irritated by my response but, not only does it show this, but it also reveals the reasoning behind his original posting well. As he says in this comment, the rise of such figures as Derrida, may well be the reason why there is a "crisis" in the humanities. In other words, it is due to certain kinds of philosophy and literary theory that managers, policy makers and politicians think it is alright to close humanities departments, slash budgets and generally make it difficult for such study to continue.

When such reasoning is put in such bold form its transparent absurdity really becomes apparent. It should be pretty obvious to anyone that the real "crisis" in the humanities is not one that is based on the rise or dispersal of any specific philosophy or literary theory but is rather due to a managerial culture that has little time for the activities of philosophers and cultural theorists. The fact is that these figures will see little to choose between the works of Leiter and the works of Derrida as neither of them produce anything they can see as needed. This is due to the emphasis on education having an intrinsically vocational character as it should contribute primarily to the core activities of wealth creation. This emphatic dismissal of the general point of humanistic study is the real crisis of the humanities and it does no one any service to muddle the situation by suggesting it has anything to do with one's favourite hated theory or thinker. It has nothing to do with any such theories or thinkers but with a hostility to philosophy as such and a hostility to the kinds of theorising that occur in the humanities as such. In response it would be useful if those of us in the humanities could think of ways of uniting in reply rather than giving our opponents an easier time through manifesting all the tendencies that cause us to appear divided. The attack on Middlesex earlier this year was an attack on a "Continental" dept, one that takes the work of figures such as Derrida very seriously whereas the attack on King's College London was an attack on some very analytic figures. In both cases philosophers generally responded by defending the subject. Let's try and keep that spirit rather than fostering division and suggesting that it is primarily philosophers themselves who have created the situation in which philosophy is under attack.


David Roden said...

Leiter's 'spoof' was too sad to be bad.

MattJB138 said...

Good post gary. I especially like your characteristicly succinct yet insightful formulation of the crisis as the "emphasis on education having an intrinsically vocational character." It is very easy to be tempted to say "No, it's just these particular branches of philosophy, or the humanities that have no value!" in order to try to make philosophy to conform an ever more constrictive notion of education so that it could be saved, but in the same motion it would be destroyed. Highlighting the problem in the way you did, and encouraging the defence of the philosophy and the humanities shows the attitude that needs to be had

Gary Banham said...

Thanks Matt: good to have a supportive response! I understand your comment David but retain the view that the original spoof is characteristic of an attitude that was never a good one and that, in the current climate, it is right to discourage in favour of directing fire where it really belongs.

Timmo said...

It's disappointing to see the humanities under attack. While I'm relatively safe in a science department, a friend of mine studying philosophy asked whether there were going to be any philosophy departments left when he finished his Ph.D. To make matters worse, there'a recent NY Times piece: Do College Need French Departments?

All by itself, the question is pretty shocking. It gets worse when you read Martha Nussbaum's statement the humanities are important for a "healthy business culture." Apparently, the contribution of the humanities to life and to our general culture is not really all that valuable in itself and can't stand on its own. I don't suppose Martha Nussbaum went into philosophy because she wanted to encourage a "healthy business culture" -- I'm sure she studies philosophy because its exhilarating. Why are intellectuals so eager to pander business, to show that they too have an important role in capitalism? Is it such a strange idea that the university has a mission which is not subordinate to business?

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for your comment Timmo and for the link to the NYT discussion which I will now do a posting on. I agree very much that we need a defence of humanities which is not grounded on their simple adaptation to the needs of capital.