Links for December 31st, 2017

The issue of "making a case for the humanities." — "Instead I wish to address the other question: the reason for studying them in the first place. That question has assumed a paramount importance in the current academic context—in which university officials, deans, provosts, and presidents all are far more likely to know how to construct an HBS case study than to parse a Greek verb, more familiar with flowcharts than syllogisms, more conversant in management speak than the riches of the English language. Hence, the oft-repeated call 'to make the case for the humanities.'"

Donald Davidson's "Swampman" thought experiment.

"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty." Did Burnham really say it?

A modern retelling of the Truth of Silenus, from a University of Cape Town professor.

NPR's Rational Conversation series on Leon Bridges: Neo-soul innovation or "hollow" expression of anodyne nostalgia?

Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson in conversation on religion, mythology, ethics, and epistemology.

"This furor is about nothing intellectual."

Robert Pippin in The Point"There is no new intellectual argument that one can cite that is responsible for the diminution in the enterprise of teaching people what it is to mean and to value. I’m in philosophy -- I can tell you, there’s plenty of materialist, reductionist, eliminitivist philosophy of mind out there, but there’s nobody who’s taken on the canon of classical texts or French literature in the nineteenth century and demonstrated that the attempt by methods of rigorous analysis, textual analysis, interpretive finesse, that those methods have been discredited by a discovery. This furor is about nothing intellectual. The people who are attacking are not really presenting a principled position for which they have arguments; they're presenting small case studies, which they purport to be exciting because they're new and they use new [methods] ... But it also plugs into this anxiety about the legitimacy of autonomous disciplines within the humanities, like art history, or music, or philosophy, or literature, or classics. So I think that we shouldn't be confused by the nature of the dispute. It's a financial dispute fueled by panic—and coming right at the wrong time in the history of the university."

Unlearning bad writing

Aaron Sachs in The American Scholar — "Lopate thinks of himself primarily as a storyteller rather than as a teacher or interpreter or critic or advocate; the literary essay, he insists, “is not a logical proof or a legal brief.” It thrives on internal contradiction and a sense of exploration: “If you know already what all your points are going to be when you sit down to write, the piece is likely to seem dry, dead on arrival.” So much for the disciplined outline. At the same time, though, Lopate acknowledges that “my own essays do always contain an implicit argument and make an attempt to persuade.” To see the potential compatibility of narrative and analysis, of exploration and argumentation—say, in classic nonfiction writers like James Baldwin, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, or Susan Sontag—is perhaps to see new possibilities for combining deep research with gripping, memorable prose."

From St. John's College tutor Matthew Linck's recent piece on the position of mathematics and science among the liberal arts: "The study of mathematical physics is inherently interesting in a number of ways: for its conceptual foundations; for the phenomena it both attends to and brings to light; for the rather mysterious fact that physical phenomena can be captured in mathematical expressions; for the insights it offers into the workings of powerful minds; and for the discernment it engenders concerning the power and the limits of modern natural science." [...]

"Taking up science as part of a liberal education means taking it up as something worth doing as its own end. We don’t need to ask what such study is good for. We only need to see that doing it is good."

Scientism and the future of the humanities

Leon Wieseltier in the New York Times — "And even as technologism, which is not the same as technology, asserts itself over more and more precincts of human life, so too does scientism, which is not the same as science. The notion that the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of the material dimensions, and that nonscientific understandings must be translated into scientific understandings if they are to qualify as knowledge, is increasingly popular inside and outside the university, where the humanities are disparaged as soft and impractical and insufficiently new. The contrary insistence that the glories of art and thought are not evolutionary adaptations, or that the mind is not the brain, or that love is not just biology’s bait for sex, now amounts to a kind of heresy. So, too, does the view that the strongest defense of the humanities lies not in the appeal to their utility — that literature majors may find good jobs, that theaters may economically revitalize neighborhoods — but rather in the appeal to their defiantly nonutilitarian character, so that individuals can know more than how things work, and develop their powers of discernment and judgment, their competence in matters of truth and goodness and beauty, to equip themselves adequately for the choices and the crucibles of private and public life. ... ..."Is all this — is humanism — sentimental? But sentimentality is not always a counterfeit emotion. Sometimes sentiment is warranted by reality. The persistence of humanism through the centuries, in the face of formidable intellectual and social obstacles, has been owed to the truth of its representations of our complexly beating hearts, and to the guidance that it has offered, in its variegated and conflicting versions, for a soulful and sensitive existence. There is nothing soft about the quest for a significant life. And a complacent humanist is a humanist who has not read his books closely, since they teach disquiet and difficulty. In a society rife with theories and practices that flatten and shrink and chill the human subject, the humanist is the dissenter. Never mind the platforms. Our solemn responsibility is for the substance."

The New Humanities

The New Humanities

After the Great American Novel

After the Great American Novel