In defence of our noble humanities

Man drawing on clear display board. Credit: iStockPhotoEveryone who has ever studied any ‘humanities’ subject at university will have had the experience.

I can remember it happening to me twice. I was writing a PhD thesis at the time called ‘The Knowledge of Ignorance’ – a title plainly asking for trouble. ‘’Ha!’ said my American mining engineer friend, ‘what is the point of that?’ Another time a computer engineer friend asked me what I was working on. ‘Well,’ says I, ‘it’s about something rather important that happened in Tahiti in 1768 when Bougainville…’ He cut me off. ‘Are you joking? That is so pointless!’

Seriously, I love engineers. I sometimes wonder if a world made up of nothing but engineers could be a mistake. But even they may have been taken aback by the apparent mathematical absurdity of a forecast 8 per cent surgical snip to military expenditure set against the proposed 80 per cent war on the humanities budget of universities.

I have never felt that the customary justification of the humanities degree, that it equips you to blag your way into a better job with a higher salary, is quite strong enough to answer the ‘Just remind me, what exactly is the point of what you are doing, anyway?’-type question. A decent how-to- give-a-good-interview course could be wrapped up in a lot less than three years, I reckon.

Which is why I want to bring in the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

And before the engineers throw up their hands in despair and start saying ‘Ha!’, can I quickly point out that he started off as an engineer and used to recommend to his students that, if they wanted to be good philosophers, they ought to go out and become car mechanics. In keeping with our austere times, he also had a habit of giving away nearly everything he owned or earned.

He came up with his ‘picture theory’ of language in between battles in the First World War when he came across a forensic report of a car accident in Paris. Obviously, he thought, language works like this, by reconstructing a scene with the aid of lots of labels (words) and arrows (‘ostensive definition’). His first work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, is Wittgenstein and the art of car maintenance.

Somewhere down the road, however, he realised that things are not quite this simple (if only). Language is not a perfect ‘mirror’ of ‘everything that is the case’. When I pray, or write a poem, or ask you to pass the salt, or declare war, or campaign for election, or sex-up a report about weapons of mass destruction, is that a mirror of anything? The car manual approach doesn’t really fit. So what we are doing? Is it art, truth, beauty? Whatever it is, this is the stuff that people over on the humanities side of the academy, philosophers, historians, literati, anthropologists, are mostly concerned with most of the time (to be fair, they read car manuals too but it’s not really their strong suit). Wittgenstein came up with three metaphors (in the Philosophical Investigations) to explain what is going on.

Language games. OK, engineers, you have language games too, don’t deny it. Everyone does (especially, for example, politicians). Games have rules. Classicists, historians, students of literature and language and speech acts generally: they are all analysing the rules according to which the games are played. And thus understanding the minds that play them.

Toolbox. You can do things with words (language is ‘performative’). And it is actually quite useful in improving the world (or, to be fair, the exact opposite). The humanists accumulate tools for intellectual DIY. The bigger the toolbox the better.

The city (or cities). We tend to get stuck in our own neighbourhood (or ghetto). The humanities are a satnav system for exploring civilisations across time and space.

I would add a fourth: the Crash. Wittgenstein crashed (he thought). Engineers crash. In the humanities we are always looking at crashes, with the idea it could help to avoid crashing in the future – or at least understand the art of the crash.

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