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The Liberal Arts, the Humanities, and Deep Reading

June 12, 2013

[Updated: 2:25 pm, CST]*

Because of this Brandeis University commencement address given by Leon Wieseltier, I’ve once again been pondering—for several days now—the virtues of the liberal arts and humanities.

The Wieseltier address attempts, briefly but successfully I think, to show how and why the liberal arts matter today. Titled “‘Perhaps Culture is Now the Counterculture’ A Defense of the Humanities,” he captures your attention from the opening paragraph (bolds mine):

“For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work. Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life. Philosophy itself has shrunk under the influence of our weakness for instrumentality – modern American philosophy was in fact one of the causes of that weakness — and generally it, too, prefers to tinker and to tweak.”

And although I’m captivated by the idea of the “digital humanities” and digital history, Wieseltier rightly points out how that idea is something of a contradiction in terms (bolds mine):

“In the digital universe, knowledge is reduced to the status of information. Who will any longer remember that knowledge is to information as art is to kitsch-–that information is the most inferior kind of knowledge, because it is the most external? A great Jewish thinker of the early Middle Ages wondered why God, if He wanted us to know the truth about everything, did not simply tell us the truth about everything. His wise answer was that if we were merely told what we need to know, we would not, strictly speaking, know it. Knowledge can be acquired only over time and only by method. And the devices that we carry like addicts in our hands are disfiguring our mental lives also in other ways: for example, they generate a hitherto unimaginable number of numbers, numbers about everything under the sun, and so they are transforming us into a culture of data, into a cult of data, in which no human activity and no human expression is immune to quantification, in which happiness is a fit subject for economists, in which the ordeals of the human heart are inappropriately translated into mathematical expressions, leaving us with new illusions of clarity and new illusions of control.”

And here Wieseltier begins to approach his argument (bolds mine):

“So there is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction — once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten – between the study of nature and the study of man. As Bernard Williams once remarked, “’humanity’ is a name not merely for a species but also for a quality.” You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history — you are the stewards of that quality. You are the resistance. You have had the effrontery to choose interpretation over calculation, and to recognize that calculation cannot provide an accurate picture, or a profound picture, or a whole picture, of self-interpreting beings such as ourselves; and I commend you for it.”

And the penultimate paragraph that returns to the title/argument (bolds mine):

There is no greater bulwark against the twittering acceleration of American consciousness than the encounter with a work of art, and the experience of a text or an image. You are the representatives, the saving remnants, of that encounter and that experience, and of the serious study of that encounter and that experience – which is to say, you are the counterculture. Perhaps culture is now the counterculture.”

I don’t know much about Wieseltier, but I love this curmudgeonly address. It goes to the heart of the problem of being an intellectual in America today.

To add to his encouragement for great encounters with the best in culture, especially in relation to books, I offer you—somewhat ironically in light of Wieseltier’s arguments about the tyranny of technology and scientism—with a scientific study arguing for the virtues of deep reading. That kind of reading certainly facilitates the creation of humanists—the thoughtful kind that Wieseltier hopes to see in American society. It’s most certainly the kind of engagement that great books promoters hoped to see. To that crowd, great books reading groups were a counterculture that would hopefully/eventually uplift mainstream culture.

But Wieseltier’s address isn’t perfect. The more I think about his either/or characterization of the digital world versus the world of humanistic learning, certain elements are dissatisfying. For instance, he does not seem to be aware that the human-made digital universe can deliver texts that address big ideas, larger meaning, and require deep focus. Sure, the digital world doesn’t deliver the texture of Van Gogh’s work in any satisfactory way. And the digital world has numerous other deficiencies in relation to delivering three-dimensional art (sculpture, music, theater). The digital humanities do some things quite well, and others less so. So Wieseltier’s broad brush underestimates the potential quality out there. And he gives no consideration to the potential novel contributions of the digital world (text punctuated with music, pictures, moving pictures, in-person voice asides).

But I still like his talk a great deal. He addresses the distraction and superficial levels of presentation that are epidemic to the digital world. We need those reminders. And the humanities are, and have been, underappreciated even before the advent of the digital. Intellectuals would do well to remind people of the real, three-dimensional world of the humanities and liberal arts. So there’s value in in Wieseltier’s pointer. The humanities are indeed countercultural, but the digital humanities can be a part of the resistance to tedium, mediocrity, and the cult of mere data. – TL

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*For anyone who visited this post before 2:25 pm CST, I apologize for the changes that have occurred since. The post has been a moving targer. As the day progressed, I grew dissatisfied with my original write-up. I think this is better, but it’s still embryonic. I’m groping to understand why I like the Wieseltier address more than I dislike it’s weaknesses. – TL

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4 Comments
  1. Tim, we can agree that Wieseltier caused both of us to react enough to him to write something (i got a bit in the works), but my reaction is not very kind to him and his argument 🙂

    While I am sympathetic to some of the points Wieseltier is making, the argument he is presenting seems rather shallow. It gives impression of a person complaining that kids these days don’t value what he values (and where i’m guessing a lot his feeling of cultural superiority comes from).

    While he alludes to good arguments against quantification, he does not present a good argument for humanistic knowledge, at least not that I can see. References to Reasons of Philosophers and Quality of Humanity seem only convincing to already converted; they rings empty otherwise.

    His argument makes me think about people lamenting about all that was lost, and much was lost, when kids stopped being able to read Latin and Ancient Greek..

    I very strongly believe that we study things, and it is the primary reason to study things, to learn “how they work.” Humanities have value to because they tell us how human culture and societies work. We try to use that insight to make a more just society.

    Early Modern peripatetics had a deep philosophy and they were on a quest for truth and meanings, yet there was value in the shallow mechanistic understanding of Galileo, Harvey, and Newton. To accept Copernicus (even more so with Kepler) was to give up everything we knew about physics. To accept Newton was to give up everything we knew about causes. All all we got in return was a few equations, but eventually we build new deep philosophies and quest for truth and meaning around them.

    But then, just as I don’t view science as something that is discovered, but as something that is made, I don’t view Culture as something to be discovered or received, but something to be made and remade, so arguments which appeal to tradition don’t really have much sway with me.

    The point that I think we all agree on, is that we should use the humanistic understanding of how technology can shape society and affect people, to try to shape the new technologies themselves.

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  2. I don’t know if he’s complaining that the kids today don’t value what he values. Rather, he wants *more* of them to value the liberal arts and humanities. He certainly seems to appreciate the students at Brandeis!

    I get the feeling that he’s railing against capitalism—the relentless revolution and creative destruction of the system. And he’s upset, like many over the 20th century, about the rise of technocrats and the overvaluation of technology and efficiency. So that’s different than lamenting the loss of languages (which was something of a technical devolution in the academy).

    I’m with you on science and culture being things made. But we want better made stuff, yes?—the best stuff we can make? With that, we must know and understand the crafts and accomplishments of those that went before us—cultural and scientific history, but not really tradition. So truth, meaning, and advancement/progress are linked. And we seem to forget a great deal of mistakes made by past actors in search of the good life, and we therefore make the same errors (e.g. too much epicureanism, too much stoicism, too much religious intolerance, too little of the good values of religion).

    But, to come back to your final point, we want technology that accents and adds something positive too the human condition. But, and Wieseltier forgets this too at times in his address, our excesses in relation to technology are about our faults, not the faults of iPads and smart phones. We seem more than willing, at times, to *let* our technology dictate our days.

    – TL

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  3. I suspect that the disagreement lies at a much deeper level.

    To me talk of learning from the past signifies some kind of essentialist view of history which I don’t share. To learn from the mistakes of the past is to recognize that there is something essential that we share with the past. But i am skeptical if we can know enough about the present or the past to be able to determine if our situations for a solution that worked in one context to work in another. Again, I don’t accept that we know of some essential human or cultural aspects that would allow for the transfer of lessons across time and place.

    For me, history is always a feature of the present, thus can change radically as present-day ideas change. It is our understanding of the present that creates our history as well as truth and meaning. Consequently from my point of view defending one particular view of history (or humanities more broadly) in the face of undeniably changing present is curing the symptoms not the cause. I did not read Wieseltier as arguing against capitalism, but as arguing for the value of certain humanistic inquiry, I might have misread him.

    We want to create a better present. We do so by learning how things work. We do that with our best understanding that we have including ideas from history (but we also should realize that we are likely to fail in predicting most of the consequences of the choices we are making).

    Obviously, I’m not trying to convince you of this, just explain why the arguments by you and Wieseltier don’t resonate with me.

    I commented with a knee jerk reaction to Wieseltier’s talk, Instead, I should have realized that the disagreement is about a fundamental view of humanities that cannot be resolved in a few words in a comment 🙂

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  4. Slywester: Perhaps this account does a better job explaining the relevance of the humanities in relation to the sciences—taking into account your perspective? …On your second paragraph, I’m with you. It explains why every generation must rewrite history in relation to that generation’s contemporary problems/issues. – TL

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