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Humanities

I strongly believe in the specificity of the humanities as a field of research with its own unique aims and methods different from those of the social and natural sciences. While this may be a minority view in the current academic climate, by and large I agree with the original theoreticians of Geisteswissenschaften and their successors (from Heinrich Rickert and Wilhelm Dilthey to Hans-Georg Gadamer) that the central focus of humanities research must be on the project of understanding human culture in its full and inescapable historicity, more than on the development of explanatory theories modelled after the natural sciences and aspiring to universal laws independent of historical change. Of course this does not mean that social scientific and naturalist methods can or should have no place in the humanities - on the contrary, they can be extremely useful and should be absolutely welcome. Nevertheless, in my opinion they do not form the heart and centre of what the humanities are and should be all about. Whatever in human culture can be explained in terms of social dynamics or cognitive mechanisms (to give just two examples) should by all means be explained in those terms; but the great prestige of explanatory approaches in current society and academic culture should not make us lose sight of the fact that humanities research offers knowledge and understanding of an entirely different kind.

 

The quest for understanding (Verstehen) proper to the humanities requires methods and skills of its own, because they are all about studying topics that in some manner are intrinsically meaningful for human beings. They have value directly in and for themselves and are not just "useful" indirectly, in terms of extrinsic (political, social, or economic) ends or purposes. The humanities as I see them are ultimately concerned with quality (see the equally elusive qualia central to consciousness studies), which means that their modus operandi cannot be reduced to methods based on quantification alone. This makes me sceptical about comprehensive research programs that seek to integrate the humanities in a larger framework modelled on the natural sciences, such as biological or cognitive evolution. The interior logics of understanding and explaining (Erklären and Verstehen) are ultimately incommensurable, which means that they share no common measure but are both sui generis. Given the economic and societal dominance of natural science in the current climate, I worry that in actual practice, humanities methods today risk being forced to fit naturalist straight-jackets and lose their specificity as a result.

Scholars in the humanities should insist on that specificity. Summing up my argument: their concern is with topics of study that (1) are, or at least have the potential to be, meaningful to human beings in and for themselves; because (2) they are experienced as possessing some kind of quality - difficult as it may be to catch or define - that refuses to be quantified, commodified, or explained in terms of something other than itself; and that (3) are historical and therefore contingent products of human culture. This last point means that in the humanities, at least as I see them, our concern is not primarily with patterns and regularities but with the unique and irreplaceable. In their efforts to understand, scholars in the humanities may use each and every method available to them, and often enough these will involve explanations of some kind or another; however, the goal as I see it is not to reach some final conclusion, some future moment of agreement that "now we understand completely," everything has been explained and therefore our work is done. On the contrary, as finite human beings with finite human minds but an infinite capacity of imagination, we are trying to grasp products of human consciousness and creative ingenuity that are likewise finite and unique but have infinite complexity and depth as well. Just as there is no such thing as the final and decisive interpretation of a Beethoven symphony or a Thomas Mann novel or a painting by Picasso, there is no such thing as final and decisive understanding in the humanities. That is not their weakness, but their strength. However, just as there are good and bad interpretations of a piece of music, in actual humanities research we encounter the entire spectrum between utter misunderstandings, mediocre or superficial ways of understanding, to deep and impressive understandings that give us knowledge and insight of superior quality.

Is such knowledge useful to society? Not directly, or just rarely so, in my opinion - but in fact, it has something much better to offer! Rather than being useful for practical ends, our work can be meaningful to human beings - and it seems to me that exactly this is what we need most urgently in a society dominated by inherently meaningless pursuits and occupations. The classic nineteenth-century vogue of humanities research was related to the ideal of Bildung: the assumption was that a healthy society needed responsible citizens well educated in its basic values. Those values were not primarily economic or ideological, but had to do with "higher" goals to which human beings should aspire and that were believed to be ingrained in history and culture. Those original values and ideals may no longer be ours (at least not necessarily, and some of them we may even reject today), but a society without any common values or ideals at all is in deep trouble - it is bound to disintegrate socially, and its citizens will become an easy prey for demagogues and other manipulators of human consciousness. For this reason alone, I believe that a revival of the humanities is of crucial importance to the health of society. It is not the business of the humanities to tell people what specific ideals or values they should embrace, but it is their business to show that there are such things as ideals and values. A peculiar characteristic of the humanities is that such demonstrations do not lend themselves to abstract argumentation - to actually find out what the humanities are all about, what they have to offer, you need to practice them. You need to actually sit down and study a specific literary text in depth, or a work of art, a piece of music, a philosophical treatise, a religious argument, a spiritual practice, and so on. In doing so, you train yourself in the art of understanding. The knowledge that is gained in such practice comes only after such work because it comes through it - hence what makes the humanities so valuable cannot really be explained in advance to those who have no experience of it. 

Precisely this type of practice is the foundation of all my work, and this is what I mean when I advocate an "empirical" bottom-up approach to the study of culture. General theoretical perspectives can have an important role to play, but can also easily blind us to anything that does not fit our prior assumptions, so I believe they should better not be the starting point of our projects. All work of lasting quality in the humanities has its basis in studying primary sources, closely and with the kind of deep concentration that allows their contents to speak to our minds while stimulating our intellect and our imagination.