17 February, 2014Issue 24.3PhilosophyPolitics & SocietyThe ArtsThe Humanities Debate

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What are Justifications For?

Gabriel Roberts

Helen Small
The Value of the Humanities
Oxford University Press, 2013
216 pages
ISBN 978-0-19-968386-4

In the latest book on the humanities debate, Helen Small, Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford, examines the most commonly proffered reasons for why the study of the humanities should matter. In contrast to other writers on the topic, such as Stefan Collini and Jonathan Bate, she adopts a more detached perspective, pursuing the ambitious project of improving “the way we argue now”, both as academics justifying the humanities and as a society debating the humanities’ worth. The book reflects a shift in the debate, away from the anxious criticism of government policy and towards a more philosophical reflection on the rhetoric and the arguments involved.

Small adopts a taxonomic approach, distinguishing five lines of argument which have been marshalled in the humanities’ defense: i) that they do a distinctive kind of work; ii) that they fulfil some sort of social use; iii) that they promote individual or collective happiness; iv) that they are necessary for an effective democracy; and v) that they are valuable “for their own sake”. The taxonomy is neither exhaustive (the economic value of the humanities, though acknowledged, is largely left to one side) nor definitive (the chapters on use and happiness overlap). But it organises the analytic work of showing that there are multiple distinct ways in which the humanities can be said to have public value, different senses of the word ‘value’, and different contexts in which they hold good.

The Value of the Humanities also has an historical dimension. The chapters on the humanities’ distinctive work and intrinsic value touch on nineteenth-century figures, such as T.H. Huxley and John Ruskin, as well as twentieth century ones, such as F.R. Leavis, C.P. Snow, and the physicist Alan Sokal; the chapters on use and happiness include studies of Matthew Arnold and J.S. Mill; while the chapter on the democratic argument sets a shorter historical focal length. Nevertheless, a considerable portion of the book is devoted to the English nineteenth century—Small’s own period of specialisation—which commentators, including Howard Hotson, have identified as the origin of many current beliefs about the value of the study of the humanities and the first period in which older notions of the value of the contemplative life were systematically challenged by modern technology and economics.

Each chapter provides a critical history of one of the fives lines of argument and draws from it general maxims about how the argument can be better phrased. In the first, Small bemoans the academic stereotypes which have arisen in attempts to identify the humanities’ distinctive work and locates a particular problem in the readiness of commentators to switch between descriptions of the common intellectual habits of the humanities’ practitioners (which she terms “ethos”) and their individual psychologies (which she terms “character”). On the argument that the humanities are useful, she follows Matthew Arnold in stating that notions of use may be more productively applied to the lower stages of education than to tertiary education or research, which are valuable in less tangible ways. She offers a similar qualification to the argument from happiness, accepting J.S. Mill’s contention that a higher level of education brings more complex cultural experiences within reach, but warning against his narrowly intellectual conception of the higher pleasures.

In the later chapters, her caution rises. Commenting on the democratic argument, she accepts that the humanities may promote civic virtues and criticise the actions (and especially the rhetoric) of government, but doubts that they are better equipped to perform these tasks than other academic disciplines. Excessive emphasis on this aspect of their value may, moreover, promote a guardianship model of democracy, in which an educated minority hold the government to account in the interests of the less educated majority. Similarly, in the final chapter, she distinguishes the indefensible claim that the objects of humanistic study are valuable for their intrinsic properties from the more plausible claim that they are valuable for their own sake, meaning that they are objects of value in their own right, but that their value does not reside in properties which they possess in isolation from the world.

As well as offering criticism and history, Small also aims at justification. No argument is individually clinching, she believes, and all require qualification, but together they comprise a pluralistic defense of the humanities. Only a defense of this kind will answer the different salient forms of opposition, such as economic utilitarianism, exclusive empiricism and narrowly quantitative estimations of human happiness. There is no single justification for the humanities, only different, partially overlapping justifications to be deployed against each of the different threats.

As a commentary the book is largely successful: nuanced, deft, and careful of the most obvious pitfalls. As a justification, it is more problematic. In the first place, Small remains agnostic about whether the humanities’ justifiability has changed over time and whether some fields are more justifiable than others. Her silence on these points is understandable; it prevents her claims from dating too quickly and allows her to avoid the potential difficulty of criticising the humanities while writing in their defense. But this rhetorical victory comes at a strategic cost. It makes her account less useful than it might be as a guide to decisions about how to make the humanities more justifiable, how to respond to fluctuations in the humanities’ funding, and how to manage the changes currently occurring within them.

It also risks giving the impression that the current plight of the humanities has entirely exogenous causes and that justification, without any element of reformation, is the best means to secure their future. It is hard to see this as a tenable position, especially when so many commentators have described how the humanities have been damaged by external pressures (think of the standard criticism of the requirement that research should have demonstrable ‘impact’). There is a danger of a downward spiral in which each damaging change to the humanities is answered by a statement of their value in their damaged state, rather than by a statement of what they might achieve if reformed and placed under favourable conditions.

There is also the question of who the justification is meant for. Small touches on the point in passing, first where she notes that advocating the humanities’ public value can lead to neglect of their private worth and secondly where she follows Bernard Williams in warning that societies may find themselves in trouble if their public expressions of value drift too far from their members’ private sentiments and intuitions about value. Yet, for the most part, she conceives of justification as an address by humanities academics to politicians and senior university administrators, rather than to other interested groups, such as taxpayers, voters, alumni and the humanities academics themselves.

The last group is especially important because the reasons assembled by Small for the humanities’ value—that they are distinctive and useful, promote happiness and democracy, and are valuable for their own sake—are unlikely to feature prominently among the reasons that motivate people to study the humanities, which are likely to be more subjective, contingent, and prudent. The distinction matters because without it there is a tendency for the reasons which feature in external assessments of the humanities to be treated as the only reasons in which justifications of the study of them can be phrased. Where this happens, practitioners of the humanities may come to feel that the reasons which motivate them in their studies are inadequate, irrelevant, or selfish insofar as they differ from the reasons which feature in external assessment of the humanities’ public value. Where these feelings occur, they will be enervating to the study of the humanities and will not, crucially, be assuaged by further protestations of the humanities’ public value. What is needed, then, and what future work might profitably consider, is a way of justifying the humanities which demonstrates their entitlement to public funding while retaining a grip on the internal reasons which actually make the humanities happen.

Gabriel Roberts is reading for a D.Phil in English Literature at Worcester College, Oxford. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Oxonian Review.