Why they are called the humanities
13 October 2014 3 Comments
Well, the study of humans seems fairly hopeless. Doesn’t it? I mean first of all, knowing what humans are is the domain of physiology. Isn’t it? Humans are giant amoebas. Vast colonies of smaller organisms and microbes collaborating to achieve one thing—to continue. You know—to survive, to beat off competitors and to reproduce, hence to survive, etc. The current collective is only of value if it procreates; it’s the simplest of evolutionary principles. This iteration is insignificant; only replication counts.
So, what’s to study? If all we are, are self-replicating biomechanical devices, engendered by the quadrillionth roll of the carbon-based slime dice, the only thing to pin down are the genomic odds of any one of us happening. Of course we might want to study ways to make humans better at surviving the odds, sacrificing ourselves in the interest of assuring that there are children and children’s children. Logically, we should have as many children as we can produce, preferably of superior quality. Our off-spring will have to compete against all competitors for our available resources after all. Then we should bury our own future in the economic compost to contribute to the resources for our children, who must be competitive in an arena with neighbor children, so they can do the same for their more competitive children. – Oh, wait…we do that now!
Anyone who sees this existence as other than a seriously grim reality would, I believe, be someone who would neatly fit this definition, which is not humanity at all. This reality would be ours with all of our humanity stripped away, and that is not who we are. But it is all too much who we are becoming.
The study of the humanities is the study of who we have been able to become, well beyond the biomechanics of evolution. Yet, there is a close tie in the humanities to the physical human as well. The humanities appeal through our senses beyond food, fighting and sex. Free-marketeers, however, have certainly seen the economic advantage of mimicking the humanities to tap into these basic impulses, and this has not been lost on the purveyors of the humanities themselves. The arts use the visual and auditory to catch our attention and stimulate responses unnecessary for and not contributing to our continued existence, yet we come back to them over and over—Mona Lisa—Beethoven’s 5th—Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet. Literature pulls us out of our reproductive cycling by using our sensory imaginations not just as a preparation for the hunt, but being transported into an alternative existence—Morrison’s Beloved—Homer’s Ulysses. And for what? None of these assure our great-grandchildren’s fecund existence.
The humanities help us build a context for who we are, as a species, as a people, as an individual. Among the humanities, history seems to hold a unique place. All that we have been is who we have become, and this story is what history tells us. Even how our history is presented—Euripides or Doris Kearns Goodwin—informs our minds eye, human voices sounding human voices from the past.
With a foot in two boats, philosophy has, for millennia, achieved something that the sciences have not yet satisfactorily achieved—seeing outside the solidity of the mundane. It is in this contested frontera between the lands of theoretical physics (a form of math) and religious exegesis, in this transcendent reality that philosophy carries us into an existence beyond all else, genuinely room into which to move as only humans can.
The arts, literature, history and philosophy are only unimportant if our world has not humanity, if humans are competitive rather than compassionate animals, if we are self-serving rather than self-aware beings. Who we are as humans cannot be gleaned from gathering food, fighting off raiders and producing children. An amoeba does that. We must see a much broader horizon, glimpse distant, misty peaks, be stirred by the striving songs of others, and to care and wonder why. The sciences may seek the answers, while the humanities will ask the questions for which there may be no answers.
If the humanities are allowed to dim into obscurity, how will we even know what we have lost? If that which lets us be human is gone, what will it mean to be human? Yet the sad truth is that we are not choosing to shed our humanity; we are offered new clothes which will let us appear as emperors of our domains, and we are allowing that, even inviting it. In whose interest is it that we discredit the humanities and embrace the sciences? Who benefits if we don’t ask why? How will we be served by diluting the uniqueness of ourselves in the engineered seas of progress? How will we know how best to move forward? And what is the price of our wealth, after all?