Whither the humanities?

Humanities professors are always worrying that the public doesn’t appreciate them.  This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is a generally sensible argument against the strategy of defending the humanities because of their “usefulness” for inculcating communication skills or even broad-mindedness and empathy.  The author, Stanley Fish, rightly rebukes historians taking it upon themselves to tell the public how to vote, and his skepticism to the claim that immersion in literature makes one a better person is refreshing.  There is an admirable honesty in his conclusion that the humanities must be defended as valuable in themselves but that he has no idea how to “sell” this to the wider public.

Oddly, Professor Fish doesn’t address the usual conservative claim that the humanities are dying because they have become politicized.  At the very least, the Leftist orthodoxy in academia keeps it from making the most emotionally powerful defenses of the humanities that it might have made.  One of these, I think the most powerful, is the argument from piety.  It would be natural, would it not, for a people to invest some resources into the careful preservation and transmission of its higher culture, its collective memory, its myths, its narratives, the wisdom of its most revered sages, the highest expressions of its collective soul?  This would be a natural role for a people’s literature professors and historians, but it is certainly not one that today’s humanities scholars would be willing to assume, or even willing to pretend to assume for the sake of funding.  Today, all scholarship, to be considered legitimate, must assume a position of hostility toward its subject (at least, if its subject is a part of Western civilization, and not an oppressed minority).  But really, if white, Christian England was wicked and ignorant, why should we invest resources and time into studying English literature?  The other argument I could imagine would be unashamed elitism–that there is a known canon of objectively superior (but rather inaccessible) works that must be studied and transmitted.  But again, if the whole point is to deconstruct the follies of the past, one wonders what the point is.  Why bother about things that we know are wrong?

I’m not convinced that the humanities really are suffering eclipse from the “STEM” subjects, anyway.  Measured in terms of external funding, I’m sure the sciences appear stronger, but this is an obviously inappropriate metric.  Science needs funds to build and operate experiments; literature and philosophy have no comparable material needs.  In terms of number of students taking a course in their departments, I expect the humanities as a whole does well, thanks to general education requirements if nothing else.  Probably more students take a course in the English department than in the Physics department except at colleges that cater mainly to engineers.

However, when it comes to influence outside of academia, the dominance of the politicized departments (a continuum within which the humanities exists) over the sciences is obvious.  People may say that science is the only source of real knowledge (an idea they got from positivist philosophers, not scientists, by the way), but which of the following random collection has had the biggest effect on the public consciousness:  renomalization group theory, Bose-Einstein condensation, cardinal numbers, category theory, or microaggressions?  The last is an utterly puerile idea but has affected the thought and interactions of modern men more than any idea in the history of chemistry save perhaps the existence of atoms.  Or how about this one:  which unobserved object has more greatly affected modern men’s idea of their place in the cosmos:  the theory of dark matter or the theory of invisible knapsacks?  Even science departments are having to adjust their admissions and hiring policies to accommodate these nonsense ideas coming out of the humanities, social science, and “studies” departments.

Well, you may say, that’s not a fair comparison, because humanities and social science ideas are “actionable” in a way that STEM isn’t.  The existence of invisible knapsacks inspires action, but dark matter isn’t something we need to do anything about.  Indeed, this is an intrinsic structural advantage that the politicized subjects have, but it is an advantage nonetheless.  Critical theory, not computer science, is the road to influence, that is, the road to power.

Speaking for myself, I lament the oversized influence of the non-STEM sector of the university.

Speculation on hostile elites and clerical celibacy

It’s not true that the Jews are uniquely smart, hostile to Western civilization, and fanatically Leftist; Indian immigrants are just the same.  Two priestly peoples, with thousands of years of natural selection for intelligence and ideological zealotry.  What’s remarkable is how hapless the European races are in comparison, since these outsiders clearly show that our societies are also structured to reward this combination.

There have been “solar” peoples where warriors ruled, where being smart and self-righteous would do little to help one climb in status.  But we are a clerical people, a dogmatic people, and that has advantages, because truth matters and such a people is better disposed to develop science.  Such peoples are prone to ideological fixations and handsomely reward those at the front of a craze.  For us, the pursuit of conspicuous holiness has been deliberately detached from reproductive success.  It is amusing to wonder how much different the Western personality might have been if we hadn’t had so many monasteries and for good measure forced our priests to be celibate.  It worked well for us for a time.  The trouble is that if one then allows a foreign priestly people to join the competition for status and power, they will quickly make mincemeat of the locals.

Book review: Scholastic Metaphysics

Scholastic Metaphysics: a Contemporary Introduction
by Edward Feser (2014)

This is a very useful introduction to scholastic metaphysics, especially for those who want to use Thomism for more than just theology.  What makes it “contemporary” (besides 2014 being not that long ago) is Professor Feser’s effort to relate scholastic positions to discussions in contemporary analytic philosophy on powers, causality, and mereology.  In each case, modern philosophers are being pushed back toward scholastic positions as their more ontologically-sparse Humean positions prove unable to make sense of the power of natural science.  It is bizarre, in retrospect, that philosophers have tied themselves into such knots denying such obvious things as that objects have powers (active potencies).  Yet the failure of the attempt to do away with them has been instructive.  Potencies really are funny things–they can’t be reduced to present structure–and yet it seems that we need them with all of their weirdness.  The resurrection of final causes in modern philosophy also proves instructive.  While Feser prefers the old language, I found the phrase “physical intentionality” from modern philosophers very useful in clarifying what it could mean to say that an inanimate object acts teleologically.

The book has a wonderful section on hylemorphism, laying out the full radical holism of the Thomist position.  We are all familiar with atomism, the idea that constituent parts ground the existence of their wholes, and that the parts therefore enjoy some sort of ontological priority.  To use scholastic language, the atoms (however conceived) are substances, while their wholes are mere accidental assemblages.  A more moderate position, what one might call “modularism”, is that substances could be composed of substances, with no ontological priority.  Thomists do not see this as meaningfully different from atomism; for them, an assemblage of substances cannot be a substance.  Instead, only the whole substance exists, and the constituent atoms exist only virtually, as potencies of the substance describing how it will respond to splitting.  That is–if I understand correctly–if I probe a substance with something that responds to single atoms–a high-energy photon, say, to take “atom” in its modern meaning–then of course it will register (e.g. scatter off) a single atom, but that doesn’t mean that the atom was really there beforehand or that the substance was actually always made up of them.

I am actually open to this sort of revisionism and have considered similar ideas myself but am uncomfortable applying it for parts larger than molecules.  Are cells real?  Organs?  Do citizens of a nation exist virtually?  Thomists would certainly say no to the last case.  People are substances, and their groups are only accidental.  Likewise, Feser insists that human artifacts like computers have merely accidental forms.  He may be right, but I think the criterion for identifying real substances must be made more rigorous, because nations and computers clearly do perform actions (government acts, algorithms) distinct to themselves as wholes.

The Thomist alternative would be compelling if atomism and modularism can be shown to be false.  The argument from Oderberg against atomism doesn’t work.  The idea is that water, for instance, cannot be made of hydrogen and oxygen because water lacks the properties that flow essentially from hydrogen and oxygen.  But an atomist would not say that water is made of hydrogen and oxygen.  He would say that hydrogen and oxygen properties are emergent phenomena in aggregates of hydrogen and oxygen atoms or molecules, that water is made of water molecules, and water molecules are made of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, etc.  I would say that atomism is still viable, but readers will probably be surprised to realize that radically different ideas are viable too.

The book’s introduction carries the very good news that Dr. Feser is planning a follow-up book on the philosophy of nature.  This is a crucial field, since we can’t be confident in our grasp of metaphysical concepts unless we’re sure we know how to use them, and Dr. Feser is one of the most qualified contemporary scholastics for the job.

Dr. Feser is himself a Thomist and clearly sides with the Angelic Doctor when he relates intra-scholastic disputes.  As someone who generally takes the side of Duns Scotus where he disagrees with Aquinas, I appreciated that Feser explains some Scotist and Suarezian positions well enough for readers to know what they are.  I address some of these intra-scholastic disputes below.  Although Feser often makes good points, my Scotist sympathies remain largely intact, so I urge readers who identify Thomism with Catholic orthodoxy not to read further.

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