“And your relevance is…?” (HUMANITIES TODAY)

It is only through imagination that men become aware of what the world might be; without it, ‘progress’ would become mechanical and trivial.(Bertrand Russel)

This question, “And your relevance is…?”, has become a common thread in the life of a scholar coming from the Humanities field. As the author of last week’s post rightly highlighted, the Humanities are faced today with the challenge of justifying their existence, first and foremost in front of the policy-makers. In the context of harder economic times, the question: “And your point is?” has become compulsory for any grant application, and it is even the case that entire disciplines are threatened with extinction and departments closed down.

There have been two common reactions among the scholars: the strive to find an appropriate answer to the question, or to completely ignore it (either due to ignorance, or by considering it futile). However, the question would be who are these policy-makers, is the general public really in need of a more in depth view of our disciplines, and more importantly can there be any appropriate answer? I think not.

Firstly, as a recent research by the New College of the Humanities showed, “60% of the UK’s leaders have humanities, arts or social science degrees” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2012/jan/11/defend-humanities-graduates). I would say that even in the case of other countries, a significant number of top level politicians fit in the same category. From this point of view, things start to appear in a new light: at least some of the policy-makers are already familiar with the Humanities. In the same time, for example in the case of Archaeology, there is definitely no lack of public interest.

The problems I think start when one needs to establish the frame of reference for this “justification”: if what is deemed as “socially relevant” or with social impact is quantified in terms of material things/results, then this is very far from the purpose of these disciplines. I am afraid the question comes out of a world-view very different from the one in which Humanities work, so there can be no “appropriate” answer from the Humanities that will fit in it. Therefore, by trying to answer the question inside the parameters set by the expectations of the stake-holders betrays the very essence of our disciplines. To quote Nicholas Davey, in a recent collection of papers on the public value of the Humanities, It is a poor view of research activity that defines it solely in terms of advancing knowledge in a specialism” (http://www.bloomsburyacademic.com/view/PublicValueHumanities_9781849662451/chapter-ba-9781849662451-chapter-0024.xml;jsessionid=C11B4E9A33ADBDDA86ACE3CD6A9CB91A).

Of course I do not advocate for a retreat in the Parnassus of science, and I do believe that the Humanities are in a major need of self-evaluation, but from a different point of view. What I do think is needed is a reconsideration within the disciplines themselves of what their value/point is. It seems that there is very little interest left in reflective approaches on what it means to be human, on values, virtues and things related. And these are the fundamentals of what makes us and our disciplines. It would be as futile to answer the question “Why is poetry needed or opera” (see for example a well reasoned argument on a related topic: http://www.contributors.ro/dezbatere/despre-secularism-cu-calm-%C8%99i-voie-buna/). It is obvious that even by asking it, one has failed to grasp its very essence. However, we are responsible for establishing inside these disciplines what it is that we are aiming to do. As a consequence of the inter-disciplinary approaches, deconstructivism and relativistic stances, the disciplines (or at least some) seem to have split in sometimes contradictory approaches: from almost positivist based ones to those that are looking “from within” the subject of the research. But there seems to be no dialogue between these various branches, no common ground, and no evaluation of the narratives created, in terms of: What deeper question are we trying to answer? Why? Should we even bother anymore about looking for the Truth? (and I do not mean it here as a single, prescriptive way of doing research, but in the way of a quality pertaining to the essence of the world around/within)

What the Humanities can do in this context of General crisis (and not just at an economic level) is try to re-evaluate the notion of evidence and proof, to re-phrase the question in terms of “What does relevance mean?”. By following the spirit of Bertrand Russel’s quote, “Will this make us happier?”. Our goal is to meditate on the sense of our experiences, not to provide facts and figures. And I think this might be a way of starting to explore the notion of value, which is too often missing from the broader dialogue, and from the societies we live in.

*the title of this post was inspired by the title of Chris Gosden‘s article, part of the already mentioned “The Public value of the Humanities” collection, ed. by J. Bate (2011)

by Alexandra Ion, finishing a PhD in Theoretical Archaeology at the University of Bucharest
This post is part of the weekly series: HUMANITIES TODAY- a series of provocative and interesting posts from people within the academia or the educational sector


3 thoughts on ““And your relevance is…?” (HUMANITIES TODAY)

  1. Thanks for this, Alexandra. Definitely thought-provoking. What follows is a roundabout rumination on the distinction between the sciences and the humanities: I wonder if people perceive the humanities’ irrelevance because they hold a mistaken view of this distinction.

    Coming from within the humanities myself (biblical studies), I wrestle with these questions too—not least because I still have a very crude understanding of what it is that science means. I may be way off base here, so please enlighten me where I misrepresent science: but, a basic question I have is, when someone says “science,” do they refer to (1) the counting and reckoning of facts and figures (i.e. concrete, quantifiable elements); (2) the claims, hypotheses, and theories based on this counting and reckoning; or (3) a combination of the two?

    I guess there’s a part of me that wants to break down some of the hard and fast distinctions that people perceive between the sciences and the humanities. Inasmuch as science entails either (2) or (3) from above, it shares with the humanities an interest in meaning, broadly conceived. In other words, both disciplines share the aim of elucidating the meaningful elements of existence.

    I suppose my gripe (as I’ve shared with Vlad recently) is that, at least in public perception, science boasts a more authoritative position because its perceived basis in (1) (counting and reckoning quantifiable elements) confers upon it a sense of concreteness and tangibility. It deals with real stuff. The humanities—to continue this illustration of public perception—has its head in the clouds.

    But as soon as science moves away from its facts and figures, as soon as it makes a claim about anything—even if it is simply a “logical” claim outlining a causal relation between two quantifiable elements—does it not step its foot in a world shared with the humanities? The question of meaning—ranging from questions of semiotics, e.g., how we perceive relations between elements, to ethics and aesthetics, e.g., how we evaluate what is good and bad—is never definitively answered, but it is eternally contemplated. Its designated place may be the “humanities,” but shouldn’t people also recognize that science deals with these questions too? In fact—and I fear that my bias toward the humanities may be showing here, if it hasn’t already been—isn’t the humanities more transparent, more “honest,” than the sciences inasmuch as it holds its hands up and says, “Here’s an idea, a theory, but I might be wrong—let’s discuss it some more.” Science, to my view, is just as fraught with the destabilizing presence of assumptions and perspectival differences as the humanities is. Perhaps the value of the humanities lies, in part, not only in confessing these “problems” but in actively seeking them out and in entertaining ways of negotiating with them.

    1. Thank you Jonathan for your comment! Not only that I fully agree with what you have said, but I also think it is a very good overview of some problems pertaining to the construction of knowledge. Of course due to the briefness of this post some things got simplified. In the same time, even though I talked just about the Humanities and their situation, I did not mean to imply that the question:”What is your relevance?” comes from the sciences area- it rather comes from the business area (e.g.: some area of science can be as futile for these decision-makers, as the Humanities). In this respect, I agree with your point that there is a shared common ground of the Humanities and the so called hard sciences (and it is often that the public perception of what sciences are is as misplaced and mistaken as the one regarding the Humanities- I think it is the legacy of the positivist heritage, the one which views the results of Science in terms of hard evidence; in this line of thought, I recommend the movie Proof, 2005, where the center-stage is occupied by what it is a definite proof of some truth).

      Also, I agree that there is a difference too and I rather like your last phrase:
      ” Perhaps the value of the humanities lies, in part, not only in confessing these “problems” but in actively seeking them out and in entertaining ways of negotiating with them”. Sometimes it can be hard (or at least for me) to pinpoint where exactly lies the difference and the boundary. Nicholas Davey, the philosopher I quoted, was saying that the difference would be that for example Philosophy will always question the basis and instruments of its analysis and come back to them, while other sciences will never do that. I am not sure this would be a strong argument, but in the end, any good scientific research (either from the Humanities, or from the sciences) asks questions that move beyond the mere case-studies involved, questions regarding the world we live in and how should our experience be understood. Maybe the Humanities stress more the way we experience these connections and the sense of our experiences.

      To this I might add just that I feel that even these discussions are perceived differently by people coming from various academic backgrounds, and it is hard to prove their relevance even within the Humanities:
      I mean that somebody with a background in Biblical studies (like you), or my inclination towards certain approaches that are based on the inclination that Values and Truth exist and that we should aim for them, are often met with skepticism by those more in favour of relativistic approaches (who do not really see the point of a discussion on the topic, as there should not be talked about value or truth outside of the subject who is making the claim).

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