It is often the case that when non-academics, or even non-humanities academics, talk about my generic field, they refer to it as “arts”, and mean by this the creative arts, like performing arts, crafts, and corporate accounting. So they justify the funding for the “arts” (or “the yartz”, as a Barry Humpries character calls them) because we are supposed to entertain people and add to cultural life.
Those who know me know this is not what I do. I have been known to sing in the shower, but that is about it. So I was very pleased to see this piece in the Australian Higher Education section recently, by a former head of humanities at the Australian National University, Simon Haines. He discusses how to define the humanities, and comes up with a “quantity/quality” distinction. I am not so keen on that (because, as a humanities scholar, I reject the notion of quality, so I would cause a singularity and make the whole thing get sucked into a black hole of definitions).
What defines the humanities? Well, I think it is history, mainly. The humanities are those disciplines that studied the human aspect of the universe, before the social sciences had a fit of independence. So now they are what is left over after social science, linguistics, psychology, mathematics, and the sciences in general have gone their own way. Great! They’re a trashcan categorial.
Only I think there are positive fields within the humanities that have something definite about them. Philosophy is about metaphysics, epistemology and ethics (what is, what humans know about what is, and what humans think should be done about it). History is about what humans did in the past. Literary studies are about what humans have written, and how that gets received in human society. There is something starting to be a theme here. The humanities are about aspects of humans; it doesn’t matter that not everything about humans is included in the domain. Even religious studies is about what humans think of a particular aspect of human behaviour (ritual and numinal).
But what if, as I think, there is no real distinction to be had between the sciences of the natural and the sciences of the human? What if humans just are natural things themselves? This is, I think, reason to hope that the humanities will continue to generate new sciences. Philosophy of science is my field because I think it tells us about how we know the world; as Paul Griffiths says, that is where the epistemic action is. Epistemology not grounded in real knowledge gathering (done by introspection of the contents of Cambridge academics’ minds) is otiose and misleading. Watching what happens when humans engage the world is far more interesting. One day that, too, will be a science; there are attempts to use the methods of social science in what is called “experimental philosophy” (or X-Phi, a term that makes me throw up in my mouth a little) that suggest this is already happening, as also in cognitive science.
The humanities are the breeding ground for new sciences. Yes, they contribute to the cultural discourse, but if sciences aren’t doing that too, there’s something very wrong. They should be funded the same way fundamental research in sciences is: because you simply can’t tell what will pay off in the future. Sure, you might get Freud. But you might also get cognitive science.