The role of the humanities in an open society

The philosopher Raymond Geuss speaks clearly and candidly about the individual and social need to cultivate self-knowledge. A wonderful 5-min. video. Your comments are welcome.

4 thoughts on “The role of the humanities in an open society

  1. Hi, Andrew.

    I’m not sure if we can, like Raymond Geuss seems to, take for granted that the pursuit of self-knowledge is an impulse, that it is, strictly, a wish or an urge. Seems to me that it is choice or will, that is, controllable things, rather than impulse, something seemingly, to me, largely outside of our control, that primarily drives us toward the pursuit of self-knowledge. Perhaps it’s a fusion of all three of these things, and, I suspect, other forces, both internal and external, that drives us toward self-knowledge.

    Whether it comes from an impulse or not, is, perhaps, beside the point, but how do we substantiate Geuss’s claim that the pursuit of self-knowledge is “the central legitimating principle of the humanities”? Why do the humanities need a “central legitimating principle” anyway? While I understand that so-called legitimating principles are necessary in order to protect the constantly-under-fire humanities (and yes, let’s do everything we can to protect them), I’m not sure why, in the greater scheme of things, the arts and humanities need to have a value imposed on them from outside.

    One idea that doesn’t get developed in Geuss’s talk, which we can perhaps address here, is how knowledge of the other can result in self-knowledge.

    A side point: what happens to Geuss’s argument after you counter his claim that the Athenians put Socrates to death “because he wouldn’t stop asking questions,” with the historically grounded assertion that he was put on trial for two, admittedly ambiguous, reasons, namely, corrupting the Athenian youth and for his supposed impiety, specifically for “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and for “introducing new deities”? To split hairs even more, didn’t Socrates, by drinking the hemlock, actually carry out his own execution?

  2. Hi John,

    Great comments. Let me try to say what I think Geuss is up to and then I’ll try to distinguish Geuss’s project from my own.

    As a contemporary professional philosopher, Geuss stands uneasily in 2 different traditions. He was trained at Columbia in analytic philosophy, but his interest lies in continental philosophy–specifically in first-generation Frankfurt School Critical Theory.

    Analytic philosophers tend to be concerned with achieving conceptual clarity (what is a horse?) and logical rigor, with making air-tight arguments that are immune to error, and with providing knock-down challenges to their opponents’ arguments. In all these respects, they hew closely to formal logic, mathematics, and science.

    First-generation Critical Theorists, for their part, tended to take seriously 2 different thoughts: 1.) This is NOT the best of all possible worlds. Or: There’s definitely something rotten in Denmark. 2.) The truth is the whole–that is to say, a philosopher must know the broad stretches of land called sociology, economics, psychology, and epistemology. Let’s say that Critical Theorists value prescience and social change. Let’s say further that they think of philosophy in terms of provocation.

    We might say that Geuss tries to marry the clarity and rigor of analytic philosophy with the critical orientation of Critical theory. Not without some difficulty, however, since analytic philosopher is oriented toward providing the best description of a current state of affairs while Critical Theory directs its attention toward challenging those states of affairs.

    Consider Geuss’s talk now. In demeanor and repose, Geuss is an analytic philosopher. But in attitude and focus, he is a Critical Theorist. His thesis–“the impulse toward self-knowledge is the single legitimizing principle of the humanities”–contains both traditions at once.

    All this, then, by way of context.

    I take it you think Geuss’s thesis is dubious on 2 fronts. First, what is the *source* of the pursuit of self-knowledge? Second, is the humanities grounded on a First Principle? (And does it need to be in order to persist in its existence?)

    I’m not sure that self-knowledge stems either from an impulse or from choice. Rather, I think we first ‘take an interest’ in self-knowledge after we’ve been kicked in the teeth. By my lights, we start philosophizing because a world that used to make sense no longer does. Out of the blue, our child passed away or the World Trade Center buildings collapsed or the financial industry imploded. We’re not sure how to go on (call it the problem of nihilism), and we turn to philosophical reflection *out of necessity*. Some people do anyway; most try, ineffectually, to return to their affairs and their routines.

    Now to your 2nd question. Like you, I don’t believe that self-knowledge is the single final end of humanistic inquiry. Unlike you, however, I think the humanities do aim at a finite set of final ends: a sensible model for being in the world (philosophy of life), the common good (public philosophy), and wholeness (speculative philosophy). I think this conception, though not spelled out, leaves plenty of room for poetry and the arts, for history, for sociology, and so on.

    I’m not sure that the humanities will last unless they have some way of understanding themselves more clearly as well as some way of legitimizing their existence in and to society.

    • Hey, Andrew.

      So then, if we “‘take an interest’ in self-knowledge after we’ve been kicked in the teeth,” then it’s largely an external force that dictates the interest? Are we always objects then, pushed around by forces like so much leaf litter in the wind? Are we just a giant knee-jerk reflex, suddenly kicking out in response to a sharp tap on our mind, our body, our being? While I did say that “choice or will, that is, controllable things, rather than impulse, something seemingly, to me, largely outside of our control…, primarily drives us toward the pursuit of self-knowledge,” I also still left it open to include the possibility of it being “a fusion of all three of these things, and, I suspect, other forces, both internal and external, that drives us toward self-knowledge.” So I did briefly mention the power of external forces to also act as a driving force toward self-knowledge. That brief mention does indicate that I still don’t think that external force is what primarily enacts the experience, although it might be a catalyst, because there are always going to be varying responses to that external force. For instance, a person, after having been kicked in the teeth might spit out his or her teeth, spitting the blood-swathed enamel fragments toward the ground, or toward whomever or whatever might have kicked him or her in the teeth; or he or she might let them float around in his or her mouth, only to then swallow them as if they were hard candy bits, something like those infamous jawbreaker confectionaries; or perhaps they might do nothing (while doing absolutely nothing in response, particularly after having been kicked in the teeth might be unlikely, I think that it might be possible) because they might actually like getting kicked in the teeth or for because of many other reasons.

      What I’m getting at is trying to account for those who do not lead a self-reflective life, who dither about in their own malaise, like so much mayonnaise, who are frozen, who, no matter what is thrown at them, barely, if at all, respond, who barely, if at all, register the life that persists all around them, who have barely, if at all, reflected beyond the kind of biologically-determined forces necessary to grow up into an adult (and here I’m suggesting that this is where their interest in self-knowledge might, for myriad reasons, have atrophied or died), to survive, in other words.

      I can imagine a person who doesn’t “start philosophizing because a world that used to make sense no longer does,” a person who starts with the idea that the world doesn’t make sense at all; in other words, I wonder whether we can conclusively say that everyone starts from a place of certainty and then inevitably is faced with life’s uncertainty. Perhaps some start with the idea that the world makes sense and never deviate from that position, or vice-versa, or whatever interpolation, those interpolations interpolating throughout his or her life. There is very little, I think, that we can say with any real certainty about what a child thinks about the world, in contrast to having swum for months in a belly, what a child feels and thinks during and after the physical trauma of having been squeezed through a very small hole into a light-filled and cold world, what that child feels about his- or herself, whether there is any sense of self at all. Once that child has established a sense of identity (and what can we say with any certainty about that, since I would say that a self is, for most, if not all people, and to varying degrees, largely unfixed and unstable?), a self that is distinguished from the first other, namely the mother, if he or she is lucky (I think we can with some certainty say that children that had a greater physical and emotional rapport with their mother tend to be in a more advantageous position), all kinds of things might happen to distinguish that self from other selves, that self regarding the world with varying degrees of certainty, that child growing into a person who, after his or her “child passed away,” doesn’t philosophize, who, after watching the “World Trade Center buildings” collapse, especially after watched a replay of the terrible sequence for the umpteenth time, not philosophize either.

      I think I understand this necessity that you’re describing, since I am constantly reflecting on life kicking me and others in the teeth, reflecting, too, on life wantonly sliding its tongue in my mouth, on life grazing its lips on mine, but I’m not sure it’s a given that everyone is driven by an impulse, or by choice, or will, or some fusion of the three, some ever-varying oscillation of the three, or are externally forced by life’s vicissitudes toward self-reflection, or some ever-shifting combination of all the above, like some some unsolvable, constantly rotating mechanical puzzle, like a infinite-faced and -sided Rubik’s Cube.

      On that last point, that is, that it is the external force which dictates the motion, I think that even if an external force is the catalyst, that it is the individual who still makes the choice about what to do about that force. Though I can imagine one, maybe there isn’t a person who is never driven to self-reflection or maybe there are so few of such persons that they are the exceptions that prove the rule, but I still don’t see how it can be proven that it is universally true that we are “wired” for self-knowledge and that a “feed” from this “internal wiring” naturally extends toward knowledge of the other (Geuss isn’t using this metaphor but it seems apt for what he’s arguing).

      I think I’m unclear about what Geuss means about a “central legitimating principle of the humanities.” And I’m still not convinced that the pursuit of self-knowledge is “the central legitimating principle of the humanities.” I don’t think the humanities need a “central legitimating principle,” whatever that may mean, because, simply, it doesn’t need one, that is, I think we can never prove their intrinsic worth (how can we, since whatever we say is meaningful is always meaningful because we say it is meaningful?). I think we impose intrinsic value on the humanities primarily to protect them from nefarious forces that would undermine or even destroy them (which demonstrates to me, once again, that their intrinsic worth isn’t a universal given).

      I don’t mean to sound dismal at all. Like you, I do think the humanities offer “a sensible model for being in the world (philosophy of life), the common good (public philosophy), and wholeness (speculative philosophy).” But I think that this is one model among many, a model that some, or even many, attribute meaning to, say is meaningful, but a model that isn’t universally regarded as the best model.

      I, too, am “not sure that the humanities will last unless they have some way of understanding themselves more clearly as well as some way of legitimizing their existence in and to society.” Where we differ, perhaps, is in the belief that the drive toward self-knowledge is that legitimizing force, that a drive toward self-knowledge is a universal given, even, whether it is a legitimizing force that we need to legitimize it. Perhaps it isn’t a force we need to legitimize its worth, to ensure its survival. What other things, besides a force, might legitimize it? Is its very existence a kind of self-legitimization?

  3. Pingback: Raymond Geuss on the role of the humanities in an open society « Andrew Taggart

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