Literature, Politics

Nicholas Kristof’s defense of the humanities

Well, the defenses of the humanities just keep on coming…  Nicholas Kristof writes in his column today about how his understanding of the world was influenced by three philosophers: Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, and Peter Singer.

Kristof’s comments remind me that I’ve been meaning to return to something I mentioned, but never developed, in one of this blog’s earlier defenses of the humanities: could it be that there are certain subject matters that belong uniquely to the humanities? That is, even if someone were not persuaded that the humanities could be a valuable way of learning about the empirical world, might it not still be the case that the humanities are important because they alone address certain extremely important subjects — such as the meanings of things, and questions about what we should do?

This defense, which requires further thought than I’ll give it here, might not cover all of what is done in the humanities. It might offer a better defense of certain aspects of philosophy, theology, and literature than of other parts of the humanities. But I’m beginning to suspect that this might be one of the most persuasive defenses of the humanities available. There may be questions that profoundly concern us, and whose investigation is by definition a province of the humanities rather than the sciences. In other words, if a field of science attempts to address these questions, it must either fail to address what it claims to be addressing (as natural scientists so often do when they try to answer questions in moral philosophy), or it must stop doing science and start engaging in the humanities.

The fact that I almost entirely neglected this defense of the humanities in my initial thoughts indicates (for me at least) the value of trying to state defenses of the humanities explicitly, no matter how obvious they may seem to practitioners working on the inside.


2 thoughts on “Nicholas Kristof’s defense of the humanities

  1. Pingback: Two books on the public value of the humanities | Against the Logicians

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