The Times of India has a Times View/ Counterview section in the paper every day. Most times one feels that the contributors are being intentionally dense; but today’s question was an interesting one- it was about the relevance of “humanities”/ liberal arts education. The “Times View” says – No, its very relevant-

Humanities have always been at the receiving end. Liberal arts studies which include history, political science, cultural studies, literature have either been dismissed as elitist self-indulgences, or as is the case in India, a worthless (read non-profitable) pursuit. In the post-industrial society, it has always had to justify its existence. Engineering, medicine and management disciplines usually corner the lion’s share of university funds. The humanities make do with the crumbs, except in a few elite universities, which are an exception to this fact.

The calls for the humanities to justify their relevance are growing louder as the world finds its fortunes declining. It’s being argued that we need more scientists, engineers and doctors to fuel our collective progress. The privileging of some streams of studies over the others is a flawed approach to human development. The liberal arts equip us with the faculty for critical thought, and an understanding of collective human behaviour and social systems. The importance of such understanding cannot be overstated in a globalised world.

and the “Counterview” says its irrelevant-

Many graduates of, say, English literature or philosophy, to name some of the more common majors, are so busy debating the fine points of Shakespeare or Kant that they have little idea of how to solve real-world problems. Those tasks are left to the scientists and engineers, who are able to constantly innovate to solve problems. In this scenario, wouldn’t it be better for everyone concerned from the universities to the students if students were taught skills that might actually help them get a job one day?

I have to agree with the first position – “collective” irks me, however. “Arts” is where intellectuals flourish; while the world may be filled with the wrong kind of intellectuals, the fact remains that every society needs thinkers, artists, writers and the most important of them all – philosophers. Else, society will decay. The “sciences” can tell you “how”; only the “arts” can tell you “why.”

The last two paragraphs of the first chapter of Peikoff’s “The Ominous Parallels” are as follows-

“[The Nazi] death camps,” notes a writer in The New York Times, “were conceived, built and often administered by Ph.D.’s.”

What had those Ph.D.’s been taught to think in their schools and universities—and where did such ideas come from?

He then goes on to blame three philosophers – Plato, Kant, and Hegel – for Nazism. Their influence is still alive today – Plato’s philosophical idealism and his totalitarian communist Republic; Kant’s banishment of reason, the upholding of faith and basing his ethical theory on “duty,” Hegel’s mad scribblings (more than one person has suggested this; Schopenhauer for one, and then Jung), sanction to the State, and historicism that then influenced Marx. Who will refute them if there are no intellectuals well versed in philosophy or history?

The “humanities” are not useless. They seem so because their effect spans centuries – that’s why the wanton disregard for a subject as important as philosophy, and the refusal to look back at events that are half-a-century old forgetting Santayana’s maxim – “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”

As far as the 20th-21st centuries are concerned, we are slowly but steadily moving in the direction of totalitarianism – the evils of socialism and fascism have been forgotten, the field of ethics is being ruled by utilitarians and moralists, and politics by pragmatists. The all-powerful Welfare State is becoming common place, and logic has been given the go by. And there is no hope on the horizon. I can only quote Mises here-

From time to time I entertained the hope that my writings would bear practical fruit and show the way for policy. I have always looked for evidence of a change in ideology. But I never actually deceived myself; my theories explain, but cannot slow the decline of a great civilization. I set out to be a reformer, but only became the historian of decline.

At a time when good intellectuals are in short supply, we have debates over whether the system that contributes towards their creation is relevant or not.

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  • undercover Indian  On March 4, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    But why do “collective” irk you even while you think that “Society” need thinkers, artists, writers and the most important of them all – philosophers . Is society not a collective?

    “Arts” is where intellectuals flourish

    I thought inlellectuals have something to do with intellect which is synonymous with reason, mind etc. Whereas art has more to do with senses , emotions

    The “sciences” can tell you “how”; only the “arts” can tell you “why.”

    Why do you say “only” art tells us “Why”! Science also tells us why. Laws of gravity tell us “why” things fall down. Science tells us “why” sun comes up in east and goes down in west. A poet watching the sun set, write a “beautiful” poem, but what “why” does the poem answers? A painter watching same phenomenon creates a paitning, but which “why” is he trying to explain? Was Kabir, the mystical poet an intellectual or a philosopher or an artist?

    • Aristotle The Geek  On March 4, 2009 at 1:26 pm

      # “But why do “collective” irk you”
      “Collective” irks me because of what it signifies – “the common good” – “collective progress,” for example; there is no such thing. When I speak of “society,” I refer to a groups of individuals. That is the difference.

      # “I thought intellectuals have something to do with intellect which is synonymous with reason, mind etc. Whereas art has more to do with senses, emotions.”
      That is correct in a literal sense. But “intellectuals” refers to thinkers – philosophers, historians, writers. That is what “liberal arts” and “humanities” is all about. Philosophers, historians etc are not artists, they are intellectuals.

      # “Why do you say “only” art tells us “Why”! Science also tells us why.”
      “Science” tells us “how” things work; arts tells us “why” we should care about “science.” “Science” tells us “how” our body functions. Its “arts” that tells us “why” we should bother to live at all.

      Art, in the literal sense, is about music and painting and literature and films – that is the subject matter of the fifth branch of philosophy – aesthetics. Its aesthetics that tells us “why” we should paint at all, and what we gain out of it.

      # “Was Kabir, the mystical poet an intellectual or a philosopher or an artist?”
      Kabir was a mystic. A poet, yes. A philosopher, you could say that; even mysticism is a philosophy – one that says that faith is everything.

  • you12  On March 4, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    If you don’t believe in common good then whats your view on Charity? The philosophical and moral debate whether charity actually serves any purpose.

    Notions like “Give and you’ll get more” type of thinking.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On March 5, 2009 at 1:23 am

      The political concept of “the common good”, “collective progress” etc refers to placing the society on a higher pedestal as compared to the individual. That s why I hate such terms. Even society is a dangerous term; I however use it to represent a group of individuals.

      As for charity, it is a individual action and I am neither for it or against it. If you have excess money after having satisfied your needs, you could donate it or use it for any charitable purpose. I have never been in such a situation, ever.

      There are cases where charity serves some purpose – scholarships for those who have the aptitude but not the funds for a particular kind of education that “you” favor, for example. If I were, say, in a charitable mood, I would probably set up an endowment to sponsor students who study economics and philosophy with a pro-freedom bias; I won’t pay for someone who intends to study/ follow Keynes or Kant. Such an action would be moral because:
      a) you are not sacrificing your needs to indulge in charity. This is the worst action that anyone can do.
      b) you are helping people educate themselves in a manner that will benefit your world view.
      Other than this, I don’t see why charity is either moral or immoral. Its the reasons behind charity and how you engage in it that is subject to ethics.

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