Nicolas Kristof’s recent New York Times column, “Don’t Dismiss the Humanities,” raised a topic of frequent discussion for one who has spent over 40 years studying philosophy. Kristof asks: “What use could the humanities be in a digital age?” And he answers the question immediately:
University students focusing on the humanities may end up, at least in their parents’ nightmares, as dog-walkers for those majoring in computer science. But, for me, the humanities are not only relevant but also give us a toolbox to think seriously about ourselves and the world.
I wouldn’t want everybody to be an art or literature major, but the world would be poorer — figuratively, anyway — if we were all coding software or running companies. We also want musicians to awaken our souls, writers to lead us into fictional lands, and philosophers to help us exercise our minds and engage the world.
Kristof notes that “Skeptics may see philosophy as the most irrelevant and self-indulgent of the humanities, but the way I understand the world is shaped by three philosophers in particular.” Those philosophers are:
Isaiah Berlin, from whom he learned that the world is nuanced and complex, but that this shouldn’t paralyze us so much that we fail to act. We should not become like those pilloried by Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” We have doubts, yet we must act. As Berlin put it: “Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood.”
John Rawls who wrote the most celebrated work of ethical and political theory in the twentieth century, A Theory of Justice. In it Rawls argues for what he calls “justice as fairness,” which reconciles the competing values of liberty and equality. Rawls invites us to choose our moral principles from behind an impartial “veil of ignorance,” which prevents us from knowing anything about who will be in society. From this “original position” Rawls thought that self-interested individuals would choose a fair system. If we don’t know whether we’ll be rich or poor, black or white, male or female, we are apt to favor a system that distributes the wealth of society quite equally.
And finally Peter Singer, who has argued that we should treat non-human animals much better than we now do. He has also argued that we have an obligation to share our wealth with people around the world.
So let me push back at the idea that the humanities are obscure, arcane and irrelevant. These three philosophers influence the way I think about politics, immigration, inequality; they even affect what I eat.
It’s also worth pointing out that these three philosophers are recent ones. To adapt to a changing world, we need new software for our cellphones; we also need new ideas. The same goes for literature, for architecture, languages and theology.
Our world is enriched when coders and marketers dazzle us with smartphones and tablets, but, by themselves, they are just slabs. It is the music, essays, entertainment and provocations that they access, spawned by the humanities, that animate them — and us.
So, yes, the humanities are still relevant in the 21st century — every bit as relevant as an iPhone.
As one who has taught both computer science and philosophy majors during my career, I must say that I unhesitatingly advised students with aptitude in both subjects to major in computer science. Unless one is independently wealthy, it is too risky for a student to major in philosophy in the USA. (I would guess this holds around the world as well.) Moreover one can major in computer science, engineering, or related fields and still be informed by philosophy. So I will continue to tell my students not to major in philosophy, unless some new social and economic system arises in which persons can make a good living while philosophizing.
Of course this is a different issue than whether philosophy or the other humanities are worthwhile. Of course they are! We are not fully human unless we know something of philosophy, literature, history, music, religion and art. Surely the world needs informed people who can engage in rational discourse, in Socratic dialogue. Surely we need more people to admit, like Socrates, how much they don’t know.
Most of all, as Kristof notes, we need new ideas. And as I’ve told my students for years, ideas are important—they are not something confined to the ivory tower. Ideas incite revolution and war, they move people to sacrifice themselves, they change science and technology. Ideas change the world. And ideas come from the most unlikely of places, including the humanities. For ultimately the humanities are outgrowths of the human condition, of our need to understand truth, beauty, goodness justice, meaning and more. The study of the humanities paves the way for making us more humane.