I tend to agree largely with what Marcus has over at his blog, but there are a few points where I think I’d like to chime in.
First, I tend to agree with the idea of a “fierce humanities,” the idea of a humanities that specifically is not on the defensive in justification. I’m reminded, though, of a cautionary discussion from one of my seminars recently. Discussing Husserl’s “Origin of Geometry,” and of course Derrida’s Introduction to it, our professor challenged us to consider the extent to which we thought of what we, as graduate students in English, philosophy, comp. lit., and one (I believe) film studies person, as “science.” For Husserl, the idea of science (in this case, approached through the idea of geometry) is not restricted to what we consider as analogous to the STEM fields. Rather, as he writes, “[w]e understand our geometry, available to us through tradition (we have learned it, and so have our teachers), to be a total acquisition of spiritual accomplishments which grows through the continued work of new spiritual acts into new acquisitions” (159).
Recalling that, for Husserl, the “world” as objective space only exists intersubjectively, his further statements take on a profound resonance: “Clearly, then, geometry must have arisen out of a first acquisition, out of first creative activities” (159; italics in original). This “first acquisition,” as a first creative activities, are for him the very ability to transform an intrasubjective thought into an intersubjective reality, a sweeping gesture that has some implications I’m not entirely comfortable with but which indicates the originary gesture of “science(s)” as being the ability to be transmittable or, even more broadly, the creation of the idea of transmittability underlying the communication of knowledge.
To me, and to several other students (to judge from the discussion), this has a profound effect in considering what we do. There is a tendency, mistaken I think, to consider the humanities as being in opposition to the sciences – or, more specifically, to consider the work of the humanities as a corrective or antagonist to the goal of the positivist sciences (positivist sciences being generally what we mean by “science” – I doubt that I could apply for STEM funding because I get to work with the Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Culture). One woman, a student originally from Germany, pointed out that her previous coursework hadn’t been done in a “humanities department” but in a “human sciences” department – a minor, but telling, difference.
Second, and relatedly, I think it has as much to do with the idea of how we consider science and humanities. Rather than attempting to set ourselves up somehow as the reflective side – a conscience, as it were, to the essentially “unreflective” sciences – humanities should consider ourselves as doing nearly the same thing. I don’t mean this only in the broad sense of “creating transmittable knowledge” but in the more specific sense of “creating” (which seems smaller, but really isn’t). Latour’s “compositionism” comes to mind here, as does Deleuze and Guattari’s division of science, the arts, and philosophy not through what they are (exactly) but what they create: science creates relations between functions; arts create ideas; philosophy creates concepts on the plane of immanence.
What I’d stress in either example is the creative/connective impulse between them. Whenever I hear about the necessity of increasing STEM research to create technological innovation, I’m reminded of Ayn Rand’s attacks on “pure” science in Atlas Shrugged – enough of a reason for me to be skeptical in any event. Even more than that, though, is that I believe that humanities departments, and those scientists who do not howl in rage when Latour is mentioned, should be more aggressive not in pointing out some vaguely “humanizing” impulse of the humanities but the interconnectedness of ideas in general. It is in that way that I most closely agree with Marcus’s idea in the post linked to above of moving the benefits of the humanities from an individual to a cultural level, of reflecting on the space for oppositional generation within them as a whole.
Third, and finally: Marcus writes, correctly I think, that we should be careful of trying to “rally around the idea that English classes just make you a better person,” an admittedly difficult position to defend since the Holocaust (and especially since Adorno – in the sense of his commentary on it, not him as a person. Maybe he was a lovely man.)
I would draw a distinction, though, pursuant to conversations with various people, between “better” in a moral sense and “virtuous” in the sense of “stronger” or “more capable of flourishing.” We do, most evidence seems to indicate, learn things by scaffolding knowledge. I use that because it’s a term that is familiar to me, but there are authors (from Garber, in the humanities, to Rizzolati and Sinigaglia in neuroscience) who express it differently. To put it in one of its strongest formulations: perception changes what we know and thus what we notice, according to Ranciere, and thus “what is needed is a theatre without spectators, where those in attendance learn from as opposed to being seduced by images; where they become active participants as opposed to passive voyeurs” (Emancipated Spectator 4). I think that there is no evidence that literature makes you a better person morally – as one senior faculty member memorably put it, belief in the study of humanities leading to better people is dispelled by spending any length of time time among the faculty of any English department – but I do think it can make one more virtuous.