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.