For Stanley Fish, “that’s more than enough in my view to justify the enterprise of humanistic study,” he writes in a follow-up column (in the New York Times) to an earlier one that entertains the question, “Will The Humanities Save Us?” His argument—much like one he outlines in the introduction to his 1989 book, “Doing What Comes Naturally,” where he argues that “theory has no consequences” (14)—is that the study of the humanities (that is, the professional study of the humanities) has no (tenably) extrinsic use, but only intrinsic value. In other words, “To the question ‘of what use are the humanities?’, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. ” What’s more is that, as he puts it, this is “an answer that brings honor to its subject.”

What I take Fish to be suggesting, as the at once explicit and tacit question of these articles is why we should fund the study of the humanities and why should anyone study them professionally, is that, as anti-climatic as it seems, the humanities are worth preserving in themselves. This also goes for (financially) supporting the study of the humanities, specifically, however, avoiding the notion that through studying them we become “well rounded citizens.” In this sense, Fish is saying that studying the humanities anymore persists because the people who devote their lives to the study of the humanities (like Fish) are people, which is to say, they are not agents of some extrinsic goal. An agent of some extrinsic goal would be like a job (or our idea of being a worker with a job) in relation to the idea of retirement (or our idea of not being workers anymore): paradoxically we commit our lives to something, and in effect make it that something, purely for the sake of something that is not it.

The same issue is at stake in an anecdote Zizek recalls in “The Antinomies of Tolerant Reason,” and probably somewhere else given how Zizek writes, where

In the course of the Crusade of King St.Louis, Yves le Breton reported how he once encountered an old woman who wandered down the street with a dish full of fire in her right hand and a bowl full of water in her left hand. Asked why she is doing it, she answered that with the fire she would burn up Paradise until nothing remained of it, and with the water she would put out the fires of Hell until nothing remained of them: “Because I want no one to do good in order to receive the reward of Paradise, or from fear of Hell; but solely out of love for God.”

To Fish the humanities, or those who study and write on them for a living, perform in their very existence the function of the old woman. This is NOT in the sense that they have an agenda to destroy all instrumentality, but that earnestly pursuing the humanities quickly turns itself away from an agenda apart from itself. This is kind of at odds with his equally emphatic insistence that even this is not to be put to extrinsic use (i.e. as inspiration to be better people, or as a standard against which we can hold ourselves). A possible way out is to conceive of the study of the humanities as fundamentally interpretive, but only in the sense that Fish also says that EVERYTHING is interpretive, and that the in studying the humanities we make interpretation its own interpretive end—as opposed to, say, interpreting some data to decide on doing this or that.

On the one hand, it could be viewed in that same sense of a kind of “higher ideal” to which we aspire, while on the other hand I think the Buddha’s notion of “Mindfulness” can help us figure out what this has to do with the rest of our lives.

I think that the former view still fails because, insofar as we’re going along with Fish and saying that EVERYTHING we do is interpretation, the humanities cannot claim to have something not present in other spheres of life/academia. Fish somewhat gets at this when he critiques in the second article the notion that there is something called “critical thinking,” which incidentally is crucial to everything we do and only can be learned within the humanities. He points out that we engage in critical thinking all the time in popular culture, and cites as support some (sloppy) examples of political analysis on television. Some commenters pointed out the weakness of these examples, but none did nor could get rid of the point he is still making: there isn’t anything we’re doing in studying the humanities that we aren’t or can’t be doing at least some of the time elsewhere.

If we take the humanities as Fish invokes them to be where we are studying or getting at what the Buddha taught as Mindfulness, then we can appreciate what people are doing there and how it can/does relate to what they and others are doing elsewhere. Mindfulness (Pali: Sati) is part of what the Buddha taught as the Noble Eightfold Path, and specifically in this sense he referred to it as Right or Whole Mindfulness (Pali: samma-sati). In a nutshell, it is intentional awareness of/in the present moment. As it appears in the literature, mindfulness is basically the practice of “contemplating [body, sensations, perceptions, consciousness and mental dispositions] within [body, sensations, perceptions, consciousness and mental dispositions].” On its face, this asks us to have nothing to do with interpretation or discriminating thought, though the through-going interpretation going on in the humanities, particularly when it leads one to one of those “Wow!” moments, may have more to do with it than it would seem.

I say this because, at its height, the study of literature, philosophy and history is, as Dogen Zenji and later Shunryu Suzuki said, the study of ourselves, which has become blatantly obvious with the rise of French-influenced literary theory. More deeply, the influence there is from Hegel, who would agree that we are studying ourselves (that is, ourselves as Spirit) when we study not just the humanities, but the world in general. Where Hegel does not go, though, is that we study ourselves in order to forget ourselves. Lacan (and, perhaps, Foucault) seemed aware of the vanishing quality of the subject, already anticipated in the vanishing moments of Hegel’s dialectic, such that as we realize the radical emptiness of the Other, its not really being there except for us acting as if it were, we realize something radically empty about what we call our self.

When Fish says that the study of the humanities is worthwhile in itself, and that this is a good thing, he is affirming the basic gesture of (life-) affirmation itself. In this same way, as D.T. Suziki said in his deceptively thin “An Introduction to Zen Buddhism,” (Zen) Buddhism is seeking a higher affirmation—not of some external goal or use, but of something in itself. This becomes instantly relevant to everything else in our lives as we begin to realize how to pursue goals as ends in themselves. As Emerson said, “To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road … is wisdom.” I want to say that the modern study of the humanities seeks this same affirmation, with its same radiating quality, and that scholars like Fish are giving us a better vocabulary for realizing this quality both within and without the humanities.

6 thoughts on “Wow!

  1. “If we take the humanities as Fish invokes them to be where we are studying or getting at what the Buddha taught as Mindfulness
    . . .”

    Help me to parse this clause:

    (1) Does “where” mean “the activities or studies in which”?

    (2)I have a hard time seeing academic interpretative studies as similar to the practice of sammasati, and the qualification “as Fish invokes them to be” doesn’t help me much. How does his invocation shed light on the parallel?

  2. I’m swamped with midterms, so I’m only going to respond to Troy at the moment.

    What unique use do the humanities have for humans besides that they invite us to engage in something for its own sake? Of course they have “something to do with humans,” but aside from being unhelpfully vague saying this also don’t really explain why studying them is not an end in itself. What if the best lesson we have to glean from studying the humanities is not how to construct a Spencerian sonnet, how to call out a logical fallacy, how to deploy a Marxist analysis, or how to identify a verb-phrase and a noun-phrase, but how to do something for its own sake? Seems like a perfectly good use to me, and it doesn’t require that we say studying the humanities is not an end in itself. Maybe the problem is that we typically only accept this as worth something if we can translate it into terms of extrinsic worth.

  3. If I write a sonnet, I create an object that, when read by others, will affect that person. It may affect them emotionally or aesthetically, but they are changed by that experience. It comes back to the human. Finding logical fallacies helps one to think more clearly, and helps the one being called out to think more clearly. This changes both of you, for the better, and makes future arguments better. Arguments are typically used to get something done. So they can and will have an effect on the world. It comes back to the human. If I deploy a Marxist analysis on a text, I can come to understand that text in a different way. I can use that analytical ability to analyze elements of society, culture, and economy, which can make me see things that need to be changed and spur me to action to change them. It comes back to the human. If I can identify a verb phrase and a noun phrase, this allows me to understand better how sentences are constructed. This allows me to then create my own well-constructed sentences. In doing so, I can create texts that are more effective aesthetically or argumentatively. Thus, my sentences will be able to convince others and change their thinking and even behavior. Thus, it comes back to the human. All these things emanate from and are absorbed by the human to inform the human (especially particular human beings). In the end, it all comes back to the human.

  4. Alan,

    I’ll do something you might not like and just chuck that sentence. It wasn’t well written. I’ll still try and address your second question though, which I take to be the more general one anyway.

    I want to see a useful connection between what the Buddha meant by mindfulness and the for-its-own-sake-ness that Fish concludes of the humanities. It is not theoretical exegesis, or what you call “academic interpretive studies,” itself that I want to consider; the point Fish leads me to believe is not an appreciation for (mere) explanation. That leads us to only some incomplete view.

    The point has to do with desire and intention more than knowledge. In this way, I might be slightly off in suggesting mindfulness – maybe “Right Effort” or “Right Intention” is the better connection. I should also say, or perhaps revise what I have said, that I’m not suggesting a shrouded translation of these same Buddhist principles in what Fish is suggesting. What this means for what I’ve tried to say in the original post is simply: at its height studying the humanities, which I think Fish establishes pretty well have no necessary extrinsic use (sorry, Troy, but there is not a person alive or dead who studies the humanities the way other people study science or business textbooks or an instruction manual even), exercises us in letting go of making why we’re doing it about this or that extrinsic use, much in the same way that we cultivate mindfulness.

  5. Sorry, but there are people who do study literature like they study science. I laid some of the groundwork for doing just that in my dissertation, showing how there seems to be fractal distribution of meaningful words in novels. There is a whole bioaesthetics movement that is interested in the relationship between neurobiology and the arts and humanities.

    If the humanities truly have no use, then we should stop wasting our time on them. Certainly we should stop wasting our time with people in the humanities who find the humanities to have no use, value, or meaning. Nihilism like that in the humanities is a recent development, and it does not have to be that way.

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