14 September, 2007

Humanism and the virtue of anxiety

[17.01.08: This post could be taken as a response to Kugelmass' riposte to Stanley Fish's reply to Anthony Kronman's expression of defeat in the face of nearly everything—a riposte, it might be added, that will not be written for almost four months. Fish says the same again. Kugelmass says the same again. Mark Liberman weighs in. 02.11.08: Kugelmass again, on a related subject. nihil sub sole novum, etc.]

Last year, at dinner with a spitzer of art-history graduates, I suggested—perhaps that is too polite a word—that art-history, and in fact the rest of the humanities, were useless disciplines. (I was bored!) Sure enough, it was a rock broke in a byke, and the graduates swarmed up angrily in defense of their occupation—they attacked a sterile ‘world without art’, said they were learning about ‘humanity’—one even used the word ‘redemptive’. The problem with these responses was that I was not proposing a world without art, not even a world without art-history. I was merely observing that art-history served no particular function, unlike, for instance, cancer research. Whether that uselessness is grounds for termination is another question. I posed the problem out loud to a tableful of graduates—but really, as you no doubt already suspect, I was posing it to myself. I wanted a good answer to the question—I hoped they might have some idea. And so I was disappointed with the whobub of inarticulate responses.

Now it is obvious that, when one attacks, or seems to be attacking, another’s professional work, and moreover the basis of her values, that person will get angry. But I heard too the note of anxiety. Frankly I can’t imagine the same heated outquarks from a party of scientists. The point of their work would be transparently obvious to them, and would require only a patronising lecture, like C. P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’, to communicate. There might be contempt in their voices, but not likely anxiety.

This episode seemed to me a microcosm of the last fifty years in humanist academia—and more broadly of the entire history of humanism, from the Greeks onward. What is the point of studying literature and history? As I began to think again about the issue, other questions crowded in on me, each clamouring for attention. They may be answered, or may to an extent have already been answered, on these pages. But the most general question of all was: For what should we be fundamentally striving?


The humanist’s traditional defence of his discipline is that it cultivates virtue. This is what the proto-humanist Gorgias says to Socrates, although he later comes a-cropper when he admits that his students can go on to use their rhetorical training for evil.

The more subtle modern reflex of this idea is that studying the humanities cultivates self-awareness and self-knowledge. Distinction is made between a kind of learning that tells us facts, and a kind of learning that changes who we are—a study that informs and thus transforms us. The terms differ—one speaks of useful as opposed to liberal knowledge, another of information and understanding—but the core idea is common. This distinction was first clearly formulated by the Victorians, although its roots are in the German notion of Bildung, ‘cultivation of the self’. As Bill Readings observes, Bildung was at the heart of the German university-project in the early nineteenth century; and so it is only natural that Cardinal Newman, who provided the first major modern formulation of an ideal university in England, should put Liberal Knowledge—that is to say, humanist learning—at the heart of the university enterprise. But where the Germans explicitly associated Bildung with classical arete (virtue), Newman explicitly dissociates them:
To open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, eloquent expression, is an object as intelligible. . . as the cultivation of virtue, while, at the same time, it is absolutely distinct from it.
On the other hand, Matthew Arnold, that apostle of late Victorian paedagogy, reassociates humanist learning with virtue, which he calls our ‘sense for conduct’. He describes ‘specialist’ scientific knowledge, rather clumsily, as:
knowledge not put for us into relation with our sense for conduct, our sense for beauty, and touched with emotion by being so put; not thus put for us, and therefore, to the majority of mankind, after a certain while, unsatisfying, wearying.
He goes on to argue that if faced with the choice between natural science and ‘humane letters’, the ‘great majority of mankind’ would be better to choose the latter for study: ‘Letters will call out their being at more points, will make them live more’. This core distinction remained very common in the twentieth century. Robert Hutchins, the controversial president of the University of Chicago in the 1940s, asserts that ‘the aim of education is not to gain more and more detailed knowledge of the world but to understand the world and ourselves in it’. Hutchins again, ten years earlier: ‘if the aim of education is the communication of useful information, we may as well abandon the enterprise at once’—and ‘the primary object of institutions with this aim will be the cultivation of the intellectual virtues’—and ‘Education is the deliberate attempt to form human character in terms of an ideal’. Allan Bloom: ‘the impression that our general populace is better educated depends on. . . a fudging of the distinction between liberal and technical education’. Mortimer Adler calls for a ‘philosophy as everybody’s business’—a ‘humanistic and philosophical learning of the generalist, learning which belongs to everybody and should be the common culture in which everybody participates’. So, too, Frank Leavis, insistent that the ‘creation of the human world’ is prior to scientific knowledge, and keen to make the university ‘a centre of human consciousness: perception, knowledge, judgment and responsibility’. And so on, through the whole canon of modern cultural conservatism. R. S. Crane, who pushes this line back to Vives and Philip Sidney, observes:
The great defect of all these attempts to define the humanities in terms of the lofty ends they may be made to serve is their persistent vagueness about the means by which these ends are to be accomplished in the everyday affairs of education.
This is true—though I go further. It is not just that these texts are vague about the way humanist learning leads to ‘cultivation’ or ‘consciousnesss’: the problem is with ‘cultivation’, under all its many names, itself. It is intangible, immensurable, indefinable—a secular sort of tao or holy spirit. It is just what ‘we all know’ to be important—for who would want to lack, or be thought to lack, understanding, or judgement, or sagacity, or taste, or responsibility, or flexibility, or a sense for conduct and for beauty?

One cannot help but feel that these are words made up by humanists to defend their discipline, catchphrases that sound significant but in fact conceal only an emptiness, and an anxiety. In modern academia, another such word is ‘excellence’. Newman writes that the object of Liberal Education is ‘nothing more or less than intellectual Excellence’. R. S. Crane, after criticizing woolly accounts of the humanist project, concludes that the humanities are simply those studies having as their objects ‘those human achievements, like Newtonian or modern physics, the American Constitution, or Shakespearean tragedy, to which we agree in attributing that kind of unprecedented excellence that calls forth wonder as well as admiration’. Excellence becomes a catch-all word denoting superiority in any discipline; and Readings devotes a hilarious chapter—probably his best—to the use of this word in today's academy, as an empty currency of general value, equivalent to 'Total Quality Management' in the business world.

A witty young skolastikos sold his books when short of money. He then wrote to his father, 'Congratulate me, father, I am already making money from my studies!' — Philogelos, fourth century AD.
Imagine three brothers going off to university—Alfred to read Business and Finance, Bertrand to read Biochemistry, and Gerald to read Literature. After eight years they reunite in the family home over sherry, and compare notes. Alfred drives up in his Ferrari, fresh from a holiday in the Bahamas. Bertrand waxes lyrical about the tremendous progress his department is making towards the manipulation of enzymes, with important repercussions for various problems in contemporary medicine. And Gerald. . . well, Gerald says proudly that, despite his own penury and the lack of professional and/or governmental interest in his research, he is at least more human than his two brothers—or perhaps he will say, more modestly, that he has a better grasp of the ‘human condition’—or else simply that his ‘intellectual virtues’ have been thoroughly ‘cultivated’. Alfred and Bertrand will just laugh in his face! And they’ll both have whiter teeth in those broad grins, to boot.


Is it possible to rescue some aspect of character as a defence of humanism? As a defence I think not. Still, we must talk about character. When I was at university, I met students in all disciplines, and I noticed a pronounced—though not a precise—divide of character, between those in the sciences and those in the humanities. My library experiences aside, I found I could talk comfortably with the latter, but not with the former. This was not merely because I knew more about Shakespeare than about the Casimir effect: it was moreover because the humanists wanted to talk about their work. They did not see their studies as a 'job', whereas the scientists did. For the scientists, what they learnt was merely the means to an end, and after five o'clock they preferred to wind down over a pint and talk about the football results. When, therefore, I tried to talk to one about zero-point energy, the discussion went nowhere. But the humanists—well, more of the humanists—continued thinking about their studies after hours, and were happy to discuss them. Some even believed that what they were reading had relevance to their life.

Whether or not humanist studies do have relevance and importance outside of humanist studies is a significant question; but it is also significant whether or not a person has that attitude. Sometimes it is the existence of a belief, not its accuracy, that we want to evaluate. And so if humanists do not have a better character than non-humanists—if, in other words, they are no more virtuous, no more 'cultivated'—they do at least have a different character. That has been the case in my experience; and I hasten to add that it is a statistical, not a categorical, generalisation.

Humanists may be less brilliant, and certainly will be less rich, than their non-humanist brothers at university, but I warm more to their character. I don't think that their character is shaped by their choice of subject, but rather the reverse—they have chosen the humanities because of who they are. One of the best things about humanists—about the best humanists—is their anxiety. Upon reflection I began to admire the inarticulacy of the art-history graduates in their attempt to justify themselves, or rather, I admired what it revealed about their character. Those who are not anxious, reason; those who are anxious, attempt to persuade. The attempt to persuade—rhetoric—is at the heart of the humanist enterprise, and thus, so is anxiety. You can read the texts of the Snow-Leavis controversy and conclude that Snow had better arguments than Leavis—I think it is a difficult matter—but powerfully clear to me is Leavis's superior character. Snow is smug and self-assured—a 'smiling, jovial face' in Roger Kimball's words—where Leavis is impassioned and righteous (if not self-righteous), but also rude, unsettled, even anxious behind his rhetorical thunder.

Now, while some will regard anxiety as a failure of character, I regard it as a strength. It is, I would say, a more authentic, a more emotionally-realised form of the erotetic questioning, and especially self-questioning, that has been at the heart of philosophy since Socrates. The humanist who is anxious is better than the humanist who (like the scientist, or anyway the ideal scientist) questions dispassionately, because his emotions are better integrated with his reason, his intellectual quest. He is, we might say, more whole. Unashamedly, it is an aesthetic criterion. To me, dissatisfaction and unease are better signs than any other that I will like a person.

What I would like to have done with the art-history graduates is make their anxiety more explicit. One of the problems with academia, present and past, is that it tries to bury anxieties in a nest of imposed truths, for instance that of the Great Books, on which I intend to write a post soon. Such an attempt is, naturally, unavoidable in any institutional setting. Nevertheless, there is at least an inherent level of resistance, however small, among those characters drawn to the humanities; less present, I think, in those who pursue science or business. And character is so much more important than brains.


This does not yet offer us a reason to study the humanities, nor a reason to support the existence of humanist disciplines. After all, my preference for intellectually anxious characters cannot be an objective criterion upon which to build an argument! I am certainly not arguing that the humanities are superior to the sciences because the character of those who pursue them is a better one. I am not even saying that humanist characters are better at all.

But I do think that one argument for the support of the humanities, and for the pursuit of humanistic disciplines by those who are instinctively drawn towards them, is simply that their existence allows likeminded persons—specifically, those of a similarly anxious character—to meet and interact at a common level. I support liberal arts programs for the same reason that I support Alcoholics Anonymous, or BDSM clubs, or the Esperanto Society. It goes back to the problem of camaraderie, dismissed so lightly. And it is one reason I blog: not purely for the pleasure of writing, for the pleasure of the text—though there is that, undoubtedly—not even to put my thoughts in order; but for the opportunity to mingle with the likeminded, to feel not alone, and best of all, to be challenged where my convictions are strongest. They are not strongest on this matter, but then—that is the nature of the problem.

This is not my only response to that problem. But to my earlier question—For what should we be fundamentally striving?—the answer 'camaraderie' is not a bad one. Not an answer, certainly, to be ashamed of.

Update: Caressing the lovely face of the humanities, with The Nonist.


Mencius Moldbug said...

The trouble, Conrad, is that you write about humanism as if it actually still existed.

Of course, you're a living demonstration that it does. And a coelacanth is a living demonstration that fish have legs. The good Lord has constructed these exceptions for our instruction. Is He wasting His time?

I mean, is Bildung even a normal word in modern German? Or does it have the ancient, fusty ring of character in English?

I'll bet if you did a Lexis-Nexis search in the NYT on the last 10 years, nine out of ten uses of character would be in the travel section. Bolinas, Bali and Bucharest have character. People have educations.

There are many fine things and many fine people in the world of official higher education that inherited the earth after 1945. But it's a different world. The pre-1914 belle epoque was not restored. Perhaps it couldn't have been restored. Perhaps it could have been, but it wasn't. And drawing analogies between the Second Liberal Age and the First, even unconsciously, is like confusing the Principate with the Roman Republic. While the former liked nothing better than to cultivate this confusion, history has not concurred.

The anxiety of humanism, in my opinion, comes from a very simple source: the question "who pays me to do this? And why?"

My own personal experience is that whatever one's line of work, it pays to occasionally consider this matter. You don't have to be obsessed with it. But it is unwise to ignore it blithely and chronically.

As of this writing, you can still go to the Northern Rock homepage, and find the following message:

"Looking for a loan? You've got it with a low rate unsecured loan. A Northern Rock unsecured loan is a simple way to get a project going or consolidate your debts. You may want to use your loan to spend on something you’ve wanted for a long time. A home improvement, a holiday or a new car for instance."

Sayonara, Northern Rock! As a Yank I knew you not at all, but you had a cool name and a nice logo. Let's hope someone pays back some of them unsecured loans.

The salient facts about humanism post 1945 are that (a) there are many, many more humanists than there used to be, and (b) this change is not unrelated to political developments.

Is this a gift, or a loan? If the latter, is it secured, or unsecured? Why are there so many humanists? When does the loan mature, and what is its rate?

In 1914 the question did not exist.
A humanist was either an aristocrat, or a professional serving a largely aristocratic market. He may not have been without financial anxieties, but he was in the Bildung industry and he knew it. (The edifice of belle epoque humanism might even be described as a sort of Bildung society.)

I have various opinions on the post-1945 humanities boom. This is not the place to go into them. But whatever is the point of "casting pseudo-light on non-problems" (as Kingsley Amis so memorably put it), can we really be expected to believe that our benevolent masters have any interest at all in aristocratic Bildung?

I mean, if they do, why stop with the humanities? Why not send us for riding and ski lessons? Surely, alpine climbing and polar exploration contribute at least as much to Bildung as the study of painting and novels? And what about tennis? How, in 2007, are so many young Britons growing up without even the most basic knowledge of how to serve overhand, let alone volley at the net or hit against the lob?

In other words: either all this humanistic largeness and largess is mere swag for the new ruling class, or it has some actual Social Utility.

If the former, couldn't it simply be handed out in packets, and we new aristocrats could take it and spend it on old books and dainty, tea-drinking salons, without any of this officious nonsense?

If the latter, we are left with the same anxiety that we started with. Perhaps this anxiety has something to do that, while it's not so easy to identify the Social Utility of art history (unless you deploy the usual boilerplate, Auden's Ogre in spades, which I can't believe really sells anyone these days), its political usefulness is perhaps easier to discern.

John Cowan said...

Newman of course has it exactly backward, as all that magnificent pileup of verbs and abstract nouns is most precisely ἀρετή, which is most precisely the excellence you claim has become empty in our time; but it has not; it has returned to the generality of the Greek original after a long time wandering in the swamp of morality, thanks to silly buggers Socrates and Plato, who recklessly identified the ἀρετή of the Good with ἀρετή in general ... and so the Latins called it virtus, or man-ness, and the English virtue, and identified it with morality alone. The Italians kept, thanks I guess to their version of the Renaissance, something closer to the original sense; one of them asked me the other day, "But in English virtue refers only to morality, no?" with the tone of long-extinguished but still residual unbelief at such folly.

But if you want to see the ἀρετή of boxing, you watch Muhammad Ali (on video only nowadays, poor man), and if you want the ἀρετή of comedy, you go to the works of Gilbert, our homegrown Aristophanes as Edith Hamliton so rightly called him. And so on throughout the human roundabout.

And so if the humanist wants to say that his studies cultivate ἀρετή (which is what Gorgias meant, though Plato wilfully distorted his meaning), then he is right, and the scientists too (always excepting the ones who go into it for money, or worldly glory, or some such irrelevant motive, which unfortunately is quite a few), and the athletic coaches understand it perhaps best of all, pathetic as that is.

And of course it's quite right that ἀρετή is excellence, and it's Quality too, see Pirsig.

Mengzi Moldbug: For aristocrats old and new, I give you GKC's Father Brown tale about the Twelve True Fishers:

The waiter stood staring a few seconds, while there deepened on every face at table a strange shame which is wholly the product of our time. It is the combination of modern humanitarianism with the horrible modern abyss between the souls of the rich and poor. A genuine historic aristocrat would have thrown things at the waiter, beginning with empty bottles, and very probably ending with money. A genuine democrat would have asked him, with comrade-like clearness of speech, what the devil he was doing. But these modern plutocrats could not bear a poor man near to them, either as a slave or as a friend. That something had gone wrong with the servants was merely a dull, hot embarrassment. They did not want to be brutal, and they dreaded the need to be benevolent. They wanted the thing, whatever it was, to be over. It was over. The waiter, after standing for some seconds rigid, like a cataleptic, turned round and ran madly out of the room.

Mencius Moldbug said...


Well said, or at least cited. But in the future we'll just use robot waiters.

As for the poor, they can be captured, like beasts, and stored in giant sealed barracks in which they play Second Life all day, every day, for the rest of their lives.

So everyone is happy. And the problem is solved.

Gawain said...

There, of course, remains the question of camaraderie (so beautifully italicized for us by M. Conradius) and why one finds so little of it in the humanities. I wanted to say "these days", but checked myself. One would like to know whether it is a fact of life, or an illusion -- and artifact of the historical record -- that former humanists were back-slapping socialites with political ambitions (to be the head advisor to, say, or the court poet to or some such thing) while modern humanists tend to be introverted shrimp, happy to be locked up in their cubicles alone with their books --largely because they feel unstable within a few feet of actual flesh and blood.

One also has to wonder whether the internet is actually NOT a place to meet like minded humanists, since camaraderie-minded humanists could not possibly spend this much time in front of computer screens, engaging cold machinery, while remaining themselves carefully hidden behind cryptonyms and avatars.

Really, gents, if this is going to work then one needs to improve this internet thing, perhaps with the help of Second Life and Wee, so that us, humanists, can engage in a spot of discus throwing and wrestling, too. (Not to mention a little bout of out-on-town later in the evening, possibly including some ladies; or young boys, if you prefer).

Which is why, O venerable Mengzi, one would like to have some tennis training; though why tennis? Why not return to the earlier, and more real thing -- fencing?

xensen said...

But why not do the humanities? You have said that other fields pay better, but the rich may be unhappy. You have said that science can have practical applications, but little of life is practical. If art has a reason to exist why not art history? If literature is worthy, why should literary criticism be unworthy? Tell me again, why do the humanities require defending?

Gawain said...

hello Xensen

this is a pseudo-debate: nobody here thinks they need defending!

xensen said...

But I am pseudo-debating!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Mencius: I never tire of your delightful digressions, especially when they are in fact digressions; however, I'm not quite smart enough to understand how this one bears out on my own arguments.

"a sort of Bildung society"


John: you make a very good point about arete, and I was unwise to forget this, especially after reading Schleiermacher and various others on translation, who explicitly discuss this point. (Newman, actually, is referring to moral virtue, not arete.) I still think, however, that arete (or 'excellence', etc.) is a poor criterion for evaluating the benefits of humanism: as you say, if science and athletics also produce arete, then the word is simply not very useful.

Gawain: "camaraderie-minded humanists could not possibly spend this much time in front of computer screens"

Well, the evidence says otherwise, don't it? There may not be as many of us as I would like, but there is something.


He's got you there, Mencius. I did fencing for a year--sabre--and enjoyed it. I should have kept it up, as I've no natural aptitude for tennis or football. There's also hunting of course.

"Second Life"

I'd never heard of this, but a superficial glance at Wiki makes it sound suspicious similar to a non-utopian version of Better than Life. Talk about the Spectacle! Nozick would be turning in his grave.

Xensen: "You have said that other fields pay better, but the rich may be unhappy. You have said that science can have practical applications, but little of life is practical."

The rich may be unhappy, but not because they are rich; the poor, on the contrary, may well be unhappy because they are poor. Being rich is simply better than being poor. And whether or not 'little of life is practical', I think it evident that saving lives is more practical than studying Chaucer, if the word 'practical' is to have any meaning.

"Tell me again, why do the humanities require defending?"

Because of buggers like me and C. P. Snow. I'm sorry, incidentally, if you really think all this is 'pseudo-debating'. We may all be humanists of one kind or another--our minds may already be made up on the matter--but the issues, I think, bear thought. Like I say, it is better to be anxious than complacent.

Gawain said...

fencing vs tennis:
same strokes, better results

time in front of screen:
yes, would we not rather be doing this in a pub somewhere? whats the closest destination which suits us all? dont tell me its XXXX London!

Mencius Moldbug said...


Of course I must apologize, especially after such gentle chiding, for hijacking your comments section. I'm afraid my behavior is all too typical of the typical Marxist approach, in which everything must always be political.

Let me put it a bit more concretely, though. I think humanists feel a sense of anxiety because they sense intuitively, if not rationally, that something is wrong with humanism as it exists today, now, in 2007.

The distance from sensing this anxiety, to agreeing with me that what's wrong is that the great Western tradition of humanism has been hijacked as a pretext for Party training, assigned an absurd importance in the lives of tens of millions of people who don't actually give a tinker's damn about it, and inflated to fifteen times its natural size with political hacks and careerists, is considerable.

And I'm sure there are many other perfectly reasonable interpretations. But when it sees someone take the first step - ie, realizing that there's a problem - on this long journey, my libertarian Leninism cannot resist its urge to emulate Google Maps and spew out comprehensive directions to the destination. Or at least my version of that destination.

Another way to make the same point is that, faced with this awesome machine, it's almost impossible to
recover a picture of what humanism would be without it.

For example, I've always disliked the practice of training young people to be humanists in their late teens and early 20s. Even with very intelligent and truly curious students, the practice has a strong tendency to degenerate into a kind of puzzle-solving, in which concepts and ideals are thrown around mechanically without any real personal sense of connection.

Of course, this is exacerbated by all of the problems mentioned above. But I wonder if, even without these problems, the aims of Bildung wouldn't be better satisfied by a world in which people simply lived their lives in their teens and twenties, and were introduced to the great books in their thirties, when the permanent human questions have actually developed some real resonance.

Certainly many young people are capable of engaging with, say, Montaigne, Flaubert or Chekhov, with genuine human sensitivity. But most are not, and I am not sure this rare talent correlates with mere raw intelligence, which is much easier to select for. So the whole enterprise becomes diluted.

One way to indict the result is to say that Western intellectual culture of the early 21st century seems optimized primarily for its ability to seduce undergraduates - a nontrivial problem, certainly, but one whose pointfulness is unclear.

As for fencing: definitely. I still regret never having studied fencing. If in a hundred years, young men and women of quality can have any self-respect without the ability to fence, ride and shoot, my subversive mission will definitely have failed. Which is not to say that they shouldn't be able to defend against the lob, of course, but first things first.

jmorrison said...

I would think the reason for a Humanist's anxiety would be self evident- Humanists have chosen purely subjective ground to build their castles on. Beautiful ground though it is, not the most solid. If they are honest they know all valuations in (and of) their realm are strictly opinion.

Scientists can afford to be confident behind their bulwarks of repeatable results.

Humanists must meanwhile fence the nights away in pubs, alternating the foil and the pint, generation after generation, in their attempts to simultaneously form and defend ever more complex descriptions of the color grey.

That's and anxious business.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Gawain: "fencing vs tennis: same strokes, better results."

Wow, that must be a mean game of tennis you play!

jmorrison: "Humanists must meanwhile fence the nights away in pubs, alternating the foil and the pint, generation after generation, in their attempts to simultaneously form and defend ever more complex descriptions of the color grey. That's an anxious business."

It sure is! The Futurist architect Antonio Sant'Elia wrote that "every generation will have to build its own city"; it still seems the most perfect humanist ideal. Only we are rebuilding with the materials of the old city.

Mencius: Hijack away, though here at least you will meet some resistance to universal politicization.

"an absurd importance in the lives of tens of millions of people who don't actually give a tinker's damn about it"

Now this we can certainly agree on. You cite Nock's 'remnant'; I could cite Leavis' 'educated minority'. And I do want to address it at greater length in another post.

"I've always disliked the practice of training young people to be humanists in their late teens and early 20s"

I knew you for a closet Platonist. Plato:

"At twenty years of age, a selection must be made of the more promising disciples, with whom a new epoch of education will begin. The sciences which they have hitherto learned in fragments will now be brought into relation with each other and with true being; for the power of combining them is the test of speculative and dialectical ability. And afterwards at thirty a further selection shall be made of those who are able to withdraw from the world of sense into the abstraction of ideas. . . let us take every possible care that young persons do not study philosophy too early. For a young man is a sort of puppy who only plays with an argument; and is reasoned into and out of his opinions every day; he soon begins to believe nothing, and brings himself and philosophy into discredit. . . At fifty let him return to the end of all things, and have his eyes uplifted to the idea of good, and order his life after that pattern; if necessary, taking his turn at the helm of State, and training up others to be his successors."

Again, I'd like to address this issue at more length later.

"ability to seduce undergraduates"

Yes, indeed, and moreover undergraduates who are still operating at a sub-high school level, like those whose work I encountered in Arizona.

Gawain said...

In the interest of simplifying things: is it possible that humanities are like porcelain collecting (and every other object of non-sexual love): a kind of a trick for selecting among all the possible people in the universe with whom we could associate the few we prefer to associate with. As such it does not have a universal purpose (thank you, Mencius) but a particular one, its social function has nothing to do with the society at large but with our society, us, the few, the proud, the Humanists. Seen in this light, it would indeed come down to being a tool for camaraderie.

Gawain said...

C: about fencing: sabre is good (certainly better than the ridiculous foil); but there is something to be said for the bamboo sword, also. the sword itself is ridiculously puny -- why would anyone want to use two hands to wield an object which weighs less than two pounds? -- but the practice requires you to wear armor, and that is a real thing, and the clang of the (ridiculous, bamboo) swords against your (magnificent) armor gives one a most exhilarating experience.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Gawain: yes, that is an excellent summary or restatement of (part of) what I'm trying to argue.

On fencing: you're talking about Kendo, yes? I've never done it, though I have seen matches. I feel ambivalent about the voluble grunting.

John Cowan said...

Saith Gawain:

"camaraderie-minded humanists could not possibly spend this much time in front of computer screens, engaging cold machinery, while remaining themselves carefully hidden behind cryptonyms and avatars"

Well, first of all, humanists notoriously are the first to adopt new technologies. They were using the fountain pen when practical men of affairs" were still sharpening their quills.

My name, of course, is not a cryptonym, and I am not an avatar.

John Cowan said...

Conrad: remember that what you met in Arizona is the result of the collision of universal education with residence in the world's largest Third World country (I mean the U.S. as a whole, not Arizona particularly).

xensen said...

"I'm sorry, incidentally, if you really think all this is 'pseudo-debating'. We may all be humanists of one kind or another--our minds may already be made up on the matter--but the issues, I think, bear thought. Like I say, it is better to be anxious than complacent."


If you look back, you will see that it was actually Gawain, not me, who characterized the argument as a pseudo debate. I merely went along with him.

I don't know why I might come across as complacent. I insist that "Why not do the humanities?" is a perfectly logical response to the question you pose. This is in the tradition of Buddhism, Beckett, and many others.

Mencius Moldbug said...


Have you ever considered the possibility that the world, as a whole, is just one big Third World country? Call it Planet Three...

Gawain said...

Hello John:

"My name, of course, is not a cryptonym, and I am not an avatar."

I have noted these facts. My remarks obviously do not refer to you. But my profuse apologies if you have had any reason to assume otherwise and be offended. Then again, perhaps I have been less lucky then you? My online camaraderie does not live up to my real life camaraderie. Alas. The problems are not just human, either. They are also technological: I don't know about you, but i prefer talking to typing.

But who knows, if this thing here keeps going, I might change my opinion.


the grunts, or ki-ai, are of course ridiculous, but they feel quite exhilarating, i assure you, especially when combined with a simultaneous knock out.

In general:

Humanities (did someone just say "discussion of novels"?) is a great way to talk about other things, namely life (with a kind of plausible deniability which is certainly very valuable); or just talk; but it does seem to me sometimes that some of the ways in which these conversations are sometimes made in the academia are not exactly the most inspiring or life- relevant.

of course, the case is a lot more serious with professional philosophy which has almost entirely become life-irrelevant.

but this is Lao Mengzi's department, is it not, the abolition of the academia? i better not tresspass.

Lao Meng-zi:

"who pays me to do this? And why?"

in my case, nobody. all blissful carelessness here. can't really see the point of all this anxiety.

chris miller said...

Yes, camaraderie among art and literature lovers is a fine thing -- who could possibly object to that ?

But some more controversial issues would be:

1. what sort of educational rite-of-passage should be purchased and then inflicted on smart young people ?

2. who should exercise control over public art museums ?

-- and this is where I would question which (or any) of our current professional humanists should be involved.

Regarding the first question -- I think you have to begin with some idea of culture -- as a specific tradition worth cultivating - and then hire those who can enable/encourage others to get immersed in it -- and this
may be only a small subset of our contemporary humanists.

(but even then -- I think about Chinese literature, where the most compelling and important books ("Three Kingdoms", "Journey to the West", "Dream of Red Chamber", "Water Margins") were
categorically excluded from traditional education -- so maybe it's really best to let curious kids discover this stuff on their own)

Regarding the second - there is no way that art historians should have anything to do with art museums since their discipline has nothing to do with taste. Nothing.
(and their continued mis-management of American museums continues to
prove it)

Regarding some of the historical apologies for the humanities -- I can only say that, in my limited experience, fine character has nothing to do with the knowledge of literature -- and everything to do with one's parents.

And... I'm kind of leaning, at least today, towards the imperial Chinese system: i.e. qualification for careers in management begin with some incredibly difficult, week-long examination, that depends upon the memorization of lots of poetry and philosophy and skill in penmanship -- creating a class of people who can compose variations on classical themes in complex poetic structures at the drop of a hat. What fun to invite
such people over for a party -- especially if they had also mastered a musical instrument or two !

John Cowan said...

I hasten to add that I am not offended in the least; I was simply pointing out the dangers of overgeneralizing.

What the waiter is trying to say is that the silver service has been stolen. A robot would have to be unreasonably clever to figure that out. See "The Queer Feet" for the whole story. Favorite bit:

"Stand still," he said, in a hacking whisper. "I don't want to threaten you, but--"

"I do want to threaten you," said Father Brown, in a voice like a rolling drum, "I want to threaten you with the worm that dieth not, and the fire that is not quenched."

"You're a rum sort of cloak-room clerk," said the other.

"I am a priest, Monsieur Flambeau," said Brown, "and I am ready to hear your confession." The other stood gasping for a few moments, and then staggered back into a chair.

1904 said...

I love when Mencius talks about what it was like before 1914.

And Conrad, please do a post about The Great Books. Please. I long for that.

Mencius is right. You ARE a living demonstration. And the good Lord neither makes mistakes nor wastes His time.

Gawain said...

Chris, mon ami:

"Regarding the second - there is no way that art historians should have anything to do with art museums since their discipline has nothing to do with taste. Nothing."

You have seen my production on "The closet aesthetics of the Titian Attribution wars"? Art historians have tastes and preferences, and exercise them in their field, they just lie about them.

I like the concept of the examination system you propose. Makes sure people have something to talk about -- something other than last night's Desperate Housewives (or whatever is on these days). (Having something to talk about at work the next day is given as the single most important reason to watch TV).

Now, speaking of "Gazing towards eastern hills with nostalgia..."

Conrad H. Roth said...

1904: thanks. I will. Actually I wrote something about the Great Books a year and a half ago, but it was dull, and I deleted it.

Xensen: I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply that you were complacent. However, "Why not do the humanities?" is really the question I'm addressing in the first place. Why not do the humanities? Because there are (it might be argued, and I think is evidently sensed by many professional humanists) more worthwhile and productive ways to spend one's time.


"some of the ways in which these conversations are sometimes made in the academia are not exactly the most inspiring or life- relevant."

We can agree there; and I suspect a majority of us here will agree too, to some extent. Much fashionable humanist-academia simply ignores the anxiety by plunging headlong into the abstract and 'non-life-relevant'. Which is not as much fun as hitting each other with bamboo sticks. Presumably.

As for the wider relationship of academia to humanism, that too must wait for another post.

Chris: "fine character has nothing to do with the knowledge of literature -- and everything to do with one's parents."

Yes, I agree--which is why I wrote in the post that "I don't think that their character is shaped by their choice of subject, but rather the reverse—they have chosen the humanities because of who they are."

Again, you bring up institutional issues which I must endeavour to resolve, or at least address, in the future.

Michael said...

The difficulty of maintaining in the present day and age that a humanistic education develops character is that we cannot agree what "character" is or even whether there is such a thing.

Past ages had no such difficulty. The classical education as delineated in the classical age by Quintilian was intended to produce a gentleman, in the strict old-fashioned sense of the word, i.e., not merely a person of polished manners but someone to whom, as a member of the leading class of society, polished manners came as a matter of course. The liberal arts were so called as being befitting of a free man - free, that is, as distinguished both by legal status, from the unfree, and free as distinguished by the possession of independent means from those who, though legally free, were not free from the need to toil for their livings. The right of such a person to be what he was, was not then politically or philosophically questioned - he was obviously born to be leader of society and was to be prepared as such.

To this the rise of Christianity added its own baggage - education was now to prepare one to be a Christian gentleman - but for most of early modern history, this made no essential difference. The British public schools, following a curriculum not greatly different from the one prescribed by Quintilian, prepared many generations of young men to govern the British empire just as Quintilian had prepared Pliny the Younger and the grandnephews of Domitian to govern the Roman empire.

These circumstances, though, have ceased to obtain. The old educational institutions have nonetheless persisted, and may even have preserved some vestigial habits of the Christian gentleman here and there. However, for the most part they are inhabited and run by people who are neither gentlemen nor Christians and this has led to a sort of crisis of the spirit. Most, I suspect, of today's students and teachers of humane letters in fact reject the idea of the Christian gentleman, but cling to the notion that they should enjoy his elite status. Bereft of roots in traditional order, they are an elite in search of a society (hence their arrogance) - and if they can't find one, they will make one (hence their addiction to utopianism and 'gnosticism' in the Voeglinian sense).

liminalcriminal said...

In a delightfully obvious way, the original post and the growing body of successive comments enacts the attenuation of the humanist anxiety addressed (the imperiled value of intellectual discourse). Even if "there is no longer any temple of the Sun" (Debord) there is still the half-embarrassed, lively chatter of those who remember, disparagingly but with a sort of sullen nostalgia, the stages of the temple's dissolution-- and in waxing lyrical, learned, and derisive, the humanist snakeblood still pulses and pays intellectual recompense (a hoary notion, yes, but an ever-renewable fact of comraderie).

The pleasure of the text is actually the pleasure of indulgent, communal exegesis, and the cycles of cummunication that surround an artifact of study self-justify as they potentiate acts of wit and truth-- this is less art for art's sake than talk for fun's sake (fun encompassing the effete and self-referential intellectual rapture of the enlightened subject). The humanist project is or should be not understanding but the shadowy improvisational farce of dismantling authoritative aesthetic narratives through perversely local readings whose narrowness implicitly critiques the big dour picture (the object of imbecilic, adequating modernists).

The almost obligatory anxiety felt or staged by contemporary humanists derives less from any inherent vocational contradictions than from a disingenuous assimilation of otherness (the otherness of a ravaged world whose depredations, the story goes, make theoretical talk about them ethically odious). I just reread the original post and recognize the, at best, tangentiality of these remarks-- so I'll try to be more topical.

Humanism exists so long as its lexicon is mobilized pursuasively (that is, its language used as means of elucidation, not surveyed as outmoded slag-heap of inert ideas-- not anthropologically sterilized). Humanism is broadly understood as the study of artifacts AS humanly forged objects-- and while the operative concepts undergo academic mutation, the project roars on.

It's silly to think about humanness in a hypostatized way, as a quality that occurs in variable intensities across a spectrum of more or less human agents. Even so, we can say that the humanist often estranges himself to his own humanity through study and that a symptom of this estrangement might be Gerald's (chimerical sense of self-evolution and discovery).

This is only getting more desultory it seems. Well, I like your take on comraderie as plausible aim of humanities discourse-- understanding of comraderie in this way should be proportionate to a relief of the voncational anxiety of those vexed art students. Might be a genuine means to relief-- certainly in practice, maybe in theory. Still, however facile, it's probably best to understand collective intellectual work as fundamentally striving, period. Airily divorced from explicit or grandiose ends-- and so distanced from the acquisitive logic of capitalism and the legion vanities of self-improvement-- critical work sheds the imputation of valuelessness by abjuring the codes and metrics of goal-oriented enterprise and inaugurating a fun inquisitive counterzone where "just being there together is enough."

chris miller said...

O.K. -- if we ingore the institutonal issues (i.e. the social issues) -- and just focus on whether literature, art etc is usefull/useless to oneself, then...

What is all this anxiety all about ?

If engaging the arts is an enjoyable pastime -- why be anxious about doing it? What's wrong with pursuing a harmless pleasure ?

And if it's not enjoyable -- maybe the anxious person should find something else they'd rather do.

Gawain said...


your remarks are remarkable; i was raised in a kind of deep-freeze of Eastern Europe and therefore am a sort of mastodon -- the sort that occasionally fall out complete with hair and lice out of a melting glacier; my teachers wanted to shape my character; much of my education consisted in the contemplation of worthy virtues; i was taught that what made us, and what we aspired to, different from those who occupied us and what they aspired to, was something profoundly western and greek -- the idea of a virtuous man; indirectly, my teachers assumed that our ally, the west -- namely NATO with its liberal democracies and open markets -- stood for these things;

thus fully formed i had then the West as it now is sprung upon me at the age of 16 -- and did not recognize it. this is it? i said to myself. this is it?

(the experience was akin to sexual initiation -- oh, come on, this cannot be it, can it?)

i wonder, might i trouble you to write me at to_mson(at)yahoo(dot)com as I would hate to lose access to your precious wisdom in the manner usual of these drive-by comments; and as there does not appear to be a blog at which i could follow further on your musings.


"Which is not as much fun as hitting each other with bamboo sticks. Presumably."

i assume that stands as a metaphor for any conversation which has real life applications. such conversations can occasionally have the satisfaction which one more commonly associates with the pain and pleasure of combat -- but whose essence is not combat. academic combat over whether line 177, fourth word should read "hatching" or "hutching", though it stimulates the adrenaline, does not make for a great philosophy of life. but i dont think we disagree at all.


"what is the anxiety about?"

I think Mengzi put it right: people wondering why they are paid to do this. but they don't need to ask the question. i know a fellow who is a dog-catcher. he loves his job and every day he blesses himself for being paid to do it. i would do it for free, he says, if no one paid me. which is kind of what we do on our blogs, isn't it?


OK, this is comment 29. how long can we keep this ball up in the air? can we make it last till comment 100? last - without losing interest?

Gawain said...

oh, come on, somebody kick the ball.

xensen said...

>There are (it might be argued, and I think is evidently sensed by many professional humanists) more worthwhile and productive ways to spend one's time.

You have, I think, a rather Victorian notion of what constitutes worth and productivity. Any life has by its nature value -- worth does not have to be accumulated one act at a time as a miser hoards wealth. This is the essence of the ecological worldview. The Buddha said that one should first do no harm -- a scholar's penury may cause less harm than a businessman's wealth. If your livelihood does not increase suffering and results from right intent then you are practicing right livelihood (more precisely, according to the Buddha's teaching, from right understanding proceeds right thought, from right thought proceeds right speech, from right speech proceeds right action, from right action proceeds right livelihood).

I repeat that there is no reason not to study the humanities, or anything else for that matter. There is no one correct way to live a life. You appear to be trying to judge value from a life's outward manifestations, and therefore you are stuck on appearances, on the kind of calculation that suggests that if a scientist finds a cure that results in saving ten lives, then his live is worth ten of others. Perhaps one of those lives is that of a humanist, another a monk's. I submit each of those lives has not just one unit of value but the same infinite value as all of the lives collectively.

Of course, if what you are really after is an argument that will justify more funding for the department, then my arguments won't help, it's true, and you might have to resort the kind of cost/benefit analyses that are persuasive to those who control the purses.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Michael: "The difficulty of maintaining in the present day and age that a humanistic education develops character is that we cannot agree what "character" is or even whether there is such a thing."

I maintain that a humanistic milieu selects for character. And I don't think 'character' needs to be anything metaphysical, nor that it requires strict definition or particular philosophical argumentation. If you'd prefer I could use the word 'personality', or 'disposition', or even, conceivably, 'behaviour'.

"Most, I suspect, of today's students and teachers of humane letters in fact reject the idea of the Christian gentleman, but cling to the notion that they should enjoy his elite status."

This I agree with, broadly. I think Mencius would too: and I think he would say that the old idea really vanished in 1914. (If you read Quiller-Couch from just before this time you can quite clearly see the old tone beginning to promote slightly different values.) But going back to your earlier point, I don't think one has to be articulating the nobility of the 'Christian gentleman' to talk about character--though I think the conservative writers I cite generally do have something similar in mind--which is at the heart of the problem with their arguments.

liminalcriminal: "the humanist snakeblood still pulses and pays intellectual recompense"

I'm delighted you think so, though I hope it is not snake-oil.

"Humanism exists so long as its lexicon is mobilized pursuasively"

I think we can agree on this, and from what I can tell, you like me disapprove of the current move in the academic humanities towards the 'disingenuous assimilation of otherness'. As for the 'shadowy improvisational farce of dismantling authoritative aesthetic narratives through perversely local readings', this sounds like the sort of nihilist formalism that I have some sympathy with.

"It's silly to think about humanness in a hypostatized way"

Well, that's my criticism of all those conservative critics. The problem with wanting a humanism 'divorced from explicit or grandiose ends' is that human beings are not (in general) motivated to act in such a way. People--and not just capitalists--want ends, results. That is the root of humanist anxiety, and calling for 'purposelessness', however noble, merely denies that the problem exists.

Chris and Xensen: "If engaging the arts is an enjoyable pastime -- why be anxious about doing it? What's wrong with pursuing a harmless pleasure?"

You're both asking this question, and interestingly, you are both amateur (by which I mean, not academic) humanists. When I say that I am not yet addressing institutional issues, I am referring to specifics: the problem itself is completely bound up with professional activity within an institution. I'm not talking about the enjoyment of hobbyists, which is much less problematic--I'm talking about those who have devoted their professional energies to this, and wonder if they might be doing something more productive, less intellectually pointless (and possibly shallow), and (though this is a much less important point) more remunerative. Count yourselves lucky that you can't identify with this!

"You have, I think, a rather Victorian notion of what constitutes worth and productivity. Any life has by its nature value."

So says the Buddhist, maybe. Sadly we are not Buddhists. We are, in fact, at heart, much more Victorian than Buddhist. The voice of our fathers and fathers' fathers is still at the back of our minds--the voice of conscience. Pure jouissance is not quite enough for most of us, and pure 'harmlessness' will seem to most of us like a pretty poor criterion of worth. Of course there are value-systems in which this is not a problem (eg. Buddhism, nihilism, etc.): but I am addressing the value-systems of those for whom this is a problem--in this sense I am just the 'messenger', although I share the problem myself.

"There is no one correct way to live a life."

Of course this is true. But that doesn't mean that some ways are not more correct--more rewarding--than others. The fact is, I know several people who have quit professional humanist studies because they thought there wasn't any point or virtue in it, even if they continued to enjoy 'amateur humanities' (ie. reading etc.) in their spare time.

Gawain: "academic combat over whether line 177, fourth word should read "hatching" or "hutching""

Yes, and I suspect that the more humanism is like this, and the less it is like bamboo combat, the more humanists will feel the anxiety of professional worth. Having said that, pedantry is not in and of itself a bad thing: one of my favourite examples is the tooth-and-claw arguments between stuffy Victorian philologists. So long as there's some moxie in it--some moxie which is not simply the mediaeval hounding by the authorities of those who step out of line, as described in this essay, recently linked by Mencius.

xensen said...

Suppose you love someone romantically -- a woman, let's say. Do you parcel out your love, setting it in scales and weighing it out against little blocks, one that says "improved character," another that says "better self-understanding"? Or do you simply love her, without inhibition? Now suppose her name is The Humanities.

Michael said...

Thanks to Conrad for his response to my comment, and also to Gawain for his flattering remarks. Gawain's reaction as an Eastern European on discovering what the West has become reminds me very much of Andrei Navrozov's.

Camaraderie is as good a reason as any for the study of humanism, but it will not sustain the social and economic expectations of university-level study, nor the careers of professionals. Maybe this is just as well. There is a great modern tendency to confuse education with training, and universities with superior vocational schools.

The humanists of the early Renaissance, for example Petrarch, Boccaccio, Cosimo and Lorenzo di Medici, Politian, Pico, or Aldus Manutius, were not "professionals," and the universities of their time did not have a place for their studies. For camaraderie these people formed learned societies, "academies" properly so called, distinct and separate from the universities. They conferred no degrees, had no paid staff, and derived their social status from the eminence of their members, rather than conferring social status by extending membership to persons previously humble and obscure.

Perhaps a revival of such institutions offers the best hope for the survival of humanism. It has often seemed to me that the study of classical literature and philosophy lost something vital when it was absorbed into the curriculum of the universities.

The friends of Lorenzo the Magnificent read the classics for their content, in which they were passionately interested. They were fascinated by the world of antiquity, strange in many of its aspects, but familiar in exhibiting that human nature which is immutable by time or distance; more advanced in some aspects than their own society, in others more primitive and barbaric. Once these works became the province of the university, the gerund-grinders took over. The seeds of humanism's decline were planted then.

Raminagrobis said...

Great discussion.

There’s a basic contradiction (which, I think, some of the commenters have already remarked upon) between the idea of the inherent nobility of humanistic study (with all the notions of gratuitousness and elitism and camaraderie that go with it), and the idea that it’s something universal (humanitas as something ‘held in common’ of benefit to all). It’s pretty difficult to square these two ideas – hence the anxiety.

I’m thinking the root of all this anxiety can be found in the transition from the ancient conception of the liberal arts to the Renaissance retooling of it – with a tension between the conception of liberal study as a gift economy (knowledge as gratuitous: ‘scientia donum dei est, unde vendi non potest’) and the emerging reality of the commodification of knowledge: knowledge is still a gift from God, but it can be bought and sold. The liberal studies market was moving into conformity with the money form of value, and the ‘exchange value’ of learning was driving out its ‘use value’. The fiction of the gratuity of liberal studies persisted of course, and the patronage system stood as a bulwark against market forces. Natalie Zemon Davis mentions in her study of gifts in early modern culture that in 1536 it was still the official line in the University of Paris statutes that the doctors could not legally be paid for teaching. They were being paid, of course, but it suited them to maintain the fiction. And the book market, despite the best attempts of the likes of Erasmus and his circle, who dedicated books back and forth to each other under the guise of ‘gifts’, was being driven by market forces – after all, how could the humanistic disciplines be truly universal and at the same time reserved for a cultured elite? When the value (‘virtue’, or ‘character’) of a man is no longer a matter of innate nobility but instead a matter of how much humanitas he has acquired, cultural elitism (or ‘camaraderie’ as you delicately call it), in the new world of social mobility, is just the privileging of accumulation of another sort of capital. So the foundations – and the actual point - of all this humanistic study are lost, and we have to appeal to completely outmoded notions like virtus to justify to ourselves just why we need to have the education of a Christian prince.

Actually, I’ve just realized that while I was typing, Michael up there ^^^ already said much of this better than I could.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Well, I'm delighted to have beaten my own 32-comment record, and with excellent discussion too.

Xensen: I do love someone romantically, and it is even a woman. However, if I spent my whole life--or even a large part of my life--stroking her lovely face, I might have reason to worry I was not spending my time as well as I should be.

Michael and Rami: To a degree this goes back to what Chris said about the elite of Imperial China, the 'class of people who can compose variations on classical themes in complex poetic structures at the drop of a hat'. The Renaissance humanists were drilled in a school such as Guarino's to have the requisite humanist abilities (including, notably, fluency in Latin) for court life and professional (secretarial and artistic) work.

The conflict between nobility and universality mentioned by Rami are I think realised in all those conservative prescriptions that humanism ennobles all. This especially seems to be the old American (democratic republicanist) ideal. Leavis is particularly interesting on this, as he equivocates between advocating an 'educated public' ("there will be possibilities of education, and of real participation in the cultural heritage, at many levels") and promoting elitism (as he refers disparagingly to "the assumption that a high intellectual standard can be attained by more than a small minority").

Again, though, we are moving headlong onto the topic of the function and significance of the universities as opposed to other types of humanist programmes, which I want to address later.

I haven't read NZD, but I find the explicit association of Renaissance humanist practices with capitalist accumulation potentially an interesting one. What you and Michael agree on (as you are aware) is that an essentially aristocratic ethos and society has given way to an essentially bourgeois one. (I don't like talking like a Marxist, but there you go.) And we all agree that this reluctant devolution is what motivates the pronouncements of all the conservative authorities ('cultural elitists') I cite. BUT I don't think that what I call 'camaraderie' is the same as this 'cultural elitism'--it is less ideologically pregnant, less indebted to prior assumptions about 'character' as a metaphysical notion--it is simply the warmth of exchange and friendship among those who have similar personalities and interests, and equally applicable (unlike the Arnoldians' theory) to trainspotting anoraks as to cultural humanists.

chris miller said...

But Is anxiety a virtue ?

As the awareness of a change that needs to be made -- yes, of course.

One should be anxious -- and then make the change. (so perhaps that spitzer of anxious art historians should then find another occupation or profession or both )

And maybe one should always be at least a little anxious about one's occupation -- since the world of work is continually -- and it seems -- ever more rapidly changing.

But the humanities -- considered as the European secular tradition of literature and the arts - and considered as a set of professions rather than of current career opportunities - has a scope so broad (encompassing so many religious as well as non-western traditions) -- that one should be far more anxious about practicing any profession outside of it (other than those professions whose assertions are subject to strict, empirical verification -- like aeronautical engineering - or selling widgets)

Conrad H. Roth said...

"And maybe one should always be at least a little anxious about one's occupation -- since the world of work is continually -- and it seems -- ever more rapidly changing."

Yes, as are the Humanities. Change always needs to be made--nothing is perfect, and no laurels should be rested upon.

Lori Witzel said...

What a juicy post! What a wild ride of comments!

I really will come back and read more thoroughly...I promise...but skimming without my reading glasses leaves me little recourse except to drive by a bit of Mencius' remarks.

Fencing: Enjoyed it (tried it a couple of years ago) until my knees started hollering. It was fun to find that age and guile can win out over youth and speed.

Riding: Fond memories of hoof-clatter, chuffing and foggy horse-breath on a chilly morning riding through a worn trail, but Western saddle please. The only kind of posting I care to do is on a blog.

Shooting: Despite living in Texas, only did so once. And I found that a 12-gauge shotgun is just the thing to slaughter old hot water heaters tossed into a junk heap on a friend's ranchland. (Said ranch is now an upscale subdivision, and I smile every time I think about those water heaters.)

Humanities: Why? Because it's fun and pleasurable. Utility? Seems beside the point to me, but I'm not as well read as all y'all are here in Conrad's comments-kitchen.


achilles3 said...

As a 29 year old goof ball educator I'll start by saying that I feel compeled to comment for two main reasons:
1. I have thought of this notion as well.
2. I haven't the reading experience (subject wise) to drop any names and I thought I would humor you.

As a veteren English teacher (public high school mostly) I have a real passion for the humanaties. I love to read and write. Period.

BUT what is starting to annoy the shit out of me is that many middle of the road (or just plain crappy)teachers take the assumed "play" inhearant in the humanaties as license to just say "Well this is how I do it and since there is no right or wrong way please allow me to do "it" this really stupid way"

They think (or at least they pretend for their own ends) that there exist no "better (or best) ways/processes"...that there are just ways and they are all equal. Again I'm speaking about a certain college educated group who isn't reading (much less writing) blogs (or comments) like these.

This huge job-having college degree holding "middle" is uninterested in 99% of this conversation and I find that, in using the two groups we are talking about (roughly the humanists and the scientists)that far and away it's the "middle" humanists that grate on my nerves to hear in discussion.

These people know just enough to seem a part of the conversation but are not interested enough in actually reading (or REALLY listening) to become, genuinely, a solid part.

There are holes in my set up but its 5:49 AM in Seoul, Korea (where I teach ESL @ a small University) and i'm passing out so I'll make a quick assertion.

I teach English and love to read and write but the older I get the more I feel like a math and science guy because at least they have rules and ubderstood foundations that even the "middle" crowd respects.

sry abt da spelin 2

peace & keep up the goodwork:-)

MW said...

Ha! I've just won a bet. I knew you'd hit 40 comments on this one.

Conrad H. Roth said...

MW: How much did you win?

Lori and achilles3, thanks.

"Humanities: Why? Because it's fun and pleasurable. Utility? Seems beside the point to me, but I'm not..."

... but you're not an academic. Amateurs (in the good sense), as I said to Xensen and Chris, have it easy. No anxiety.

MW said...

You, in particular, will love this.
A bottle of tequila.
In fact, fairly good tequila.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Wow! And who said the humanities were good for nothing?

weight loss said...

I like to do this occasionally too, strike up an argument out of boredom, especially of this sort! I would have argued that if humans had no desire for the arts and humanities, oh what an efficient world we would live in. If creative genius was transfered to technical genius, we would be generation ahead of ourselves now.