Comments on the “Guest-post: The challenges faced by the Humanities in the contemporary world”

Following the guest-post of this week, we got some interesting comments that managed not just to express some different views on the topic, but they also opened some new lines of inquiry. Therefore, as people do not usually come back to read any further comments, and I do think these are worth reading, I choose to paste here 2 of the comments: A question and the answer (coming from the author of the post):

Steven Specht says: February 18, 2013 at 10:58 pm: “Very interesting post. I would pose these questions: What is the purpose of art and music in society? Should we train artists only in so far as they can support themselves (i.e., vocationally)? If you have a good job (like a STEM job) and lots of money; is your life complete without the arts?”

The Anonymous author says February 20, 2013 at 1:05 pm 
“I agree with Alexandra that in order to answer those questions one should decide what his/her reference points are as well as the framework through which one wishes to tackle such questions. I am afraid that I do not find my own approach scholarly.

The questions: ‘what do you want to know’ or ‘what do you want to do with what you know’ are essential for any discipline, even more in the case of Humanities & Arts. For me these fields are meant to generate a kind of knowledge about humans that STEM cannot produce: one based on virtues and values!  What Grafton said: “Humanities are not innovative in their nature; they are preserving what has been done so far” could be read as us not being able to produce more in terms of the values and virtues that were produced centuries ago. We can only identify, recover, reconstruct and use a knowledge that we have lost or ignored. The risk is that of perceiving only the Humanities’ antiquarian dimension (as a collection of antique artifacts or ideas), which renders them as rather useless in comparison to the STEM fields. Nevertheless, I do believe that making use of the knowledge they consist of should and could make us better as human beings.

As far as art and music are concerned, I prefer to look at them as necessary means of knowledge whose purpose is to serve some universally shared values and emotions: beauty, love, happiness etc. Dostoyevsky had the main character from “The Idiot”, prince Myshkin say that “Beauty will save the world”. I think that those who look at it from an aesthetic point of view (which is culturally/socially constructed) would disagree. However, I think that by ‘beauty’ he meant ‘wisdom’ (in its transcendental dimension). Of course, the arts should enchant our senses, but there is more to them than just emotion.

We know that Einstein had a deep passion for music and that he was a proficient violinist. His music pursuits only complemented his world view regarding the purpose of science as well as its limits. At the same time, we also know that his contemporaries, Hitler and Goebbels listened to Wagner and Beethoven and yet they were murderers. Indeed, in this case music had no ‘positive’ effect on their behavior. My personal opinion is that they were looking for ‘emotions’ in the music instead of trying to learn something more about the world through this art. The kind of knowledge that Arts & Humanities produce has at its basis virtues and values. In the end, everything we know today from institutions, politics to economic and technological progress is historically and culturally conditioned. In my opinion the sciences and the humanities do not contradict themselves but complete each other: it only depends on what we want to know. Here is a very nice example of how two people, with very different cultural and academic backgrounds share the same interests and questions about the human existence (from different positions, of course): http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/04/27/when-einstein-met-tagore/

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2 thoughts on “Comments on the “Guest-post: The challenges faced by the Humanities in the contemporary world”

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