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The Nature of the Humanities

  • René van Woudenberg

In this paper I aim to state the nature of the humanities, contrasting them with the natural sciences. I argue that, compared with the natural sciences, the humanities have their own objects, their own aims, and their own methods.

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1 See for example Nussbaum, Martha, Not for Profit. Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), chapter one.

2 All of these points are covered by Conn, Steven, ‘How the Crisis of the Humanities is Like the Greek Economy’, in The Chronicle of Higher Education (2015).

3 I signal the fact that I abstain from contrasting the humanities with the social sciences, as that would require dealing with a lot of additional complexities. But I record my conviction that the humanities don't subsume under the social sciences. This is not to deny, of course, that fruitful cooperation is possible, as in social-economic history, linguistics and reception aesthetics, to mention just three examples.

4 Essentialism has been out of favour for quite a while. Among philosophers, however, the view has found able defenders. One early example is Plantinga, Alvin, The Nature of Necessity (Oxford: Clarendon, 1974), chapter V. Plantinga distinguishes between ‘the essence’ of a thing, and ‘essential properties’ of a thing, and couches both in terms of possible worlds. E is an essential property of X, provided X has E in every world in which X exists. But E is an essence of X, provided E is an essential property of X and nothing other than X has E. Diverging from Plantinga, I use ‘essence’ in the way he uses ‘essential property’. I have no interest in arguing that the essence of the humanities consists of a set of properties such that no non-humanities field of study has even one of the properties of that set.

5 See Landau, Russ Shafer, The Fundamentals of Ethics, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University, 2012) for a helpful presentation of ethics as a normative discipline. Bod's impressive history of the humanities doesn't cover ethics, philosophy and theology. The motivation is that he only aims to deal with the ‘empirical’, ‘observation-based’ humanities. (See Bod, Rens, A New History of the Humanities: The Search for Principles and Patterns from Antiquity to Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 2 ) Given this motivation one may be surprised that Bod extensively deals with logic. But one shouldn't. Logic is traditionally conceived of as a normative discipline. Mill, John Stuart, A System of Logic, 8th ed. (London: Longman, 1970 [1843]), 67 said ‘Logic … is the science of the operations of the understanding which are subservient to the estimation of evidence: both the process itself of advancing from known truths to unknown, and all other operations in so far as auxiliary to this.’ The ‘science of the operations of the understanding’ has often been based in observations about how people actually reason and estimate evidence.

6 I use ‘humanistic’ as the adjective that is derived from the substantive ‘humanities’ – in the same way that the adjective ‘scientific’ is derived from the substantive ‘science’. There is no implication of my use of ‘humanistic’ to ‘(secular) humanism’ as a worldview; there is a relation of my use with the 14th–16th century scholarly movement of which Erasmus was one of the most shining exemplars.

7 The complex relations between these is a major topic of Anscombe, Elizabeth, Intention (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1957), as well as of Austin, J.L., ‘Three Ways of Spilling Ink’, Philosophical Papers (Oxford: Clarendon, 1970), 272–87.

8 It is one thing to say that sentences have meaning. It is quite another thing to give an account of sentence meaning, i.e. an explanation of what it is that a sentence has when it has meaning. One impressive but not widely discussed account is Alston, P., Illocutionary Acts and Sentence Meaning (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), part II.

9 J.L. Austin has pointed out in his characteristic way numerous pitfalls that surround the notion ‘the meaning of a word’; see Austin, J.L., ‘The Meaning of a Word’, Philosophical Papers (Oxford: Clarendon, 1970), 5575 .

10 Grice, Paul, Studies in the Way of Words (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), 117137 .

11 Austin, J.L., How to Do Things with Words, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975). A full-blown exposition of this theory is William P. Alston, Illocutionary Acts and Sentence Meaning, part I.

12 Freud, Sigmund, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 1. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1915 [1973]), 50110 .

13 Girard discusses works by Proust, Standhal, Flaubert, Cervantes, and Dostoyevski. See Girard, René, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1965).

14 Dilthey, Wilhelm, Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften (Leipzig: Duncker & Humbolt, 1833), 7988 .

15 I am assuming that value properties are non-natural properties. A strong case for the thesis that value properties are non-natural is made by Cuneo, Terence & Shafer-Landau, Russ, ‘The moral fixed points: new directions for moral nonnaturalism’, Philosophical Studies 171 (2014), 399443 .

16 See Anscombe, Elizabeth, Intention, 1957 ; Sehon, Scott, Teleological Realism: Mind, Agency, and Explanation (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2005).

17 MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985), 187 .

18 Haack, Susan, Defending Science – Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism (Amherst: Prometheus, 2007), 93122 .

19 The classic exposition of the DN-model is Hempel, Carl G, Philosophy of the Natural Sciences (Englewood-Cliffs: Prentice Hall.Hempel, 1966), chapter five.

20 It has been argued that the conditions mentioned by Hempel and Oppenheim are not sufficient, as their account faces counterexamples involving irrelevant factors, symmetry, and prediction. See Ladyman, James, Understanding Philosophy of Science (London/New York: Routledge, 2002), 202–6.

21 Here I accord with Swinburne who argued that, given some of the problems mentioned in the previous footnote, Hempel's account of explanation must be modified so as to involve a notion of ‘law of nature’ according to which a law of nature states that events of a certain kind physically necessitate (or make probable) events of a certain other kind. On Swinburne's modified Hempelian account an explanation retains the concept of causation – it doesn't analyze it away in radically other terms. See Swinburne, Richard, The Existence of God 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991), 2931 .

22 Bod, A New history of the Humanities (2013).

23 See Apel, Karl-Otto, Understanding and Explanation (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1984), 19 , 32, 182, 184.

24 Moreover, the technological sciences, Apel says, embody the interest of manipulative interaction.

25 James, William, ‘The Will to Believe’, in James, William, The Will to Believe and other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Dover, 1897 [1956]), 17 .

26 That science aims at truth is by no means uncontroversial. Bas van Fraassen, C., The Scientific Image (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980) has famously argued that science's goal is empirical adequacy. It must be noted, though, that what Van Fraassen denies is that when it comes to what is unobservable truth is science's goal. When it comes to what is observable he does seem to adopt truth as the goal of science. An argument for truth as goal is van Woudenberg, René, ‘Truths that Science Cannot Touch’, Philosophia Reformata 76 (2011), 169186 . A clear-headed criticism of the idea that truth is not the goal of science is Goldman, Alvin, Knowledge in a Social World (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999), chapter eight.

27 Saying that the humanities aim at propositional truth is not saying that this is their only aim. Other aims that the humanities can and do have include: the development of certain sensibilities, the nourishing of the intellect, learning to cope with certain kinds of complexities. See for this Audi, Robert, ‘The Place of the Humanities in Public Education’, The Nebraska Humanist 5 (1982), 3743 .

28 Especially when it comes to interpreting works of literature and works of art, it has been claimed that it is wrong, futile, mis-conceived to seek for the true meaning of a work, or ‘the true interpretation’ of it. An older but still good critical discussion of such claims is Hirsch, Eli D., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967). Advocates of these claims often confuse ‘the truth of a statement’ with ‘the reasons we may have for thinking that a statement is true’. For a discussion of why this is a confusion, see Van Woudenberg, René, ‘True Qualifiers for Qualified Truths’, The Review of Metaphysics 68 (2014), 336 . Many of these claims are directly due to the pervasive influence of ‘postmodern’ ideas about truth in the humanities. A trenchant but fair critique of these ideas is Alvin Goldman, Knowledge in a Social World, chapter one (‘Epistemology and Postmodern Resistance’).

29 Mill, A System of Logic, 545.

30 For example Losee, John, A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), chapter ten.

31 A much more elaborated version of this model is offered by de Jong, Willem R. & Betti, Arianna, ‘The Classical Model of Science: a millennia-old model of scientific rationality’, Synthese 174 (2010), 185203 .

32 This is very roughly based on Losee, A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, 54–63.

33 See Bod, A New History of the Humanities (2013).

34 A state of the art work on this is Payne, Thomas, Describing Morphosyntax. A Guide for Field Linguists (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

35 See Thisselton, Anthony C., Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009); Porter, Stanley E. & Robinson, Jason C., Hermeneutics. An Introduction to Interpretative Theory (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011); Zimmerman, Jens, Hermeneutics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); these books cover interpretational methods in literary studies, biblical exegesis, and law.

36 In the area of art history and art theory, see Alleva, Anne D’, Methods and Theories of Art History (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2003); Hatt, Michael & Klonk, Charlotte, Art History: A Critical Introduction to Its Methods (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006); Iversen, Margaret & Melville, Stephen W., Writing Art History. Disciplinary Departures (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). For cultural humanistic studies, see Bachmann-Medick, Doris, Cultural Turns: Neuorientierungen in der Kulturwissenschaften (Berlin: De Gruyter: Bachmann-Medick, 2011); and Bal, Mieke, Traveling Concepts in the Humanities (Toronto: University of Toronto Press., 2002). For history, see Gallie, W.B., Philosophy & the Historical Understanding, Second Edition (New York: Schocken. Gallie, 1968); and Lorenz, Chris, Constructing the Past (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008). Gallie's crucial claim is that much historical understanding must take the form of a narrative, a story – and he does a lot of work to explicate what a historical story is.

37 See for instance Reid, Thomas, Essays on the Intellectual Power, ed. Brookes, Derek (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002 [1785]), essays VI, VII, and VIII.

38 Audi, Robert, ‘Ethical Reflectionism’, The Monist 76 (1993), 295315 .

39 Sidgwick, Henry, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981 [1907]).

40 This paper, hence, is one long argument against scientism, the view that only the natural sciences can give us knowledge. Advocates of some form of scientism include logical positivists, Alex Rosenberg, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Maarten Boudry. For a critical evaluation of scientism see Van Woudenberg, René, ‘An Epistemological Critique of Scientism’, in de Ridder, Jeroen, Peels, Rik & van Woudenberg, René (eds), Scientism: Prospects and Perils (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

41 For comments on an earlier version of this paper, as well as for discussion and advice, I am indebted  to Arjen van Amerongen, Valentin Arts, Lieke Asma, Robert Audi, Wout Bisschop, Karel Davids, Marcus Duewell, Hans van Eyghen, Stephen Grimm, Naomi Kloosterboer, Kees van der Kooi, Katja Kwastek, Michael Lynch, Rutger van Oeveren, Rik Peels, Jeroen de Ridder, Emanuel Rutten, Lourens de Vries, Lies Wesseling, and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Work on the paper was made possible by a grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation (the grant is titled ‘The Epistemic Responsibilities of the University’). The views expressed in this paper are those of the author, and don't necessarily coincide with those of the Foundation.

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