Why Study Humanities? Essay

2523 words - 11 pages

I want to take this occasion to address one of the most prominent criticisms of the humanities today. I am not referring to criticism of more recent vintage, which takes to task the humanities for a supposed excess of political correctness; this complaint we can set aside as the ideologically motivated lament that it surely is. Rather, I’m speaking of the more long-standing critique that takes the humanities to task for its inconsequence, its uselessness. The presumption that underwrites this critique is simple: its claim is that we do not learn anything by attending to the objects of humanities research. These objects – a poem, a film or play, a piece of music, or what have you – do ...view middle of the document...

Not only is the skill of the poet or rhapsodist not an art, according to Socrates; it is also not founded in any determinate knowledge. Homer writes about the charioteer, for instance, but does not possess knowledge equivalent to that of the charioteer himself; he writes about medicine and medical practitioners, but if we happen to break our leg chances are good that we will not entrust the care of our injury to a poet! There are, quite simply, no facts uniquely at the poet’s disposal – at least, none that wouldn’t be better picked up from others.
Socrates does grant that the poet’s skill is in some respects a wondrous thing. But in establishing that this skill comes neither from art nor knowledge, Plato identifies what in his view is the essential irrationality of poetic thinking. Poetry does not produce knowledge because it does not originate in rational thought. In a famous passage, Socrates tells us that “lyric poets are not in their senses when they make these lovely lyric poems…the poet is a light and winged thing, and holy, and never able to compose until he has become inspired, and is beside himself and reason is no longer in him” (534a-b). This critique of the poets is sharper still in the 10th Book of Plato’s Republic, where Socrates famously gives his reasons for wishing to expel poets from the ideal city-state. In this book, Socrates insists that the irrationality of the poets is a scandalous offense to the rational pursuit of truth. They represent a distraction from the business of truth-seeking, and something of a dangerous one at that.
I come before you neither to bury nor to praise the illustrious Plato. And I believe that it’s important to take such criticisms seriously. Indeed I can assure you that, as a professor of the humanities at MIT, it is virtually impossible not to do so. It seems that the humanities is often called upon to justify its existence, and at no times more so than in moments of financial crisis; here at MIT, at this temple dedicated to the great and noble end of problem-solving, we are no exception. But what kind of justification can we produce for a kind of knowledge that is not quite knowledge, that does not solve real-world problems? Even if we are not prepared to go quite so far as Plato did, and denounce the poet for actively obstructing the search for truth, we may still need to answer to the charge that the objects of humanities research – I’ll follow Plato in taking poetry as the paradigmatic example – teach us nothing. We need to ask then: what does the poet, or what does the humanist, know?
I now want to turn to two poems of the British Romantic period that offer perspectives on this very question. We will recognize that in neither case is an unequivocally affirmative answer provided to the question of what the poet knows. Indeed, both poems would seem to confirm the premises of Plato’s criticism, inasmuch as they give expression to a type of knowledge that can barely be...

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