Monday, June 18, 2018

An Answer To Stanley Fish On The Humanites Not Needing To Sell Themselves


(Here’s what I wrote to my friend who posted it:

...I agree with most of what he says, maybe all of it, except for his ultimate argument that there is no “generalizable benefit” to the study of the liberal arts. I believe that there are human betterments to the study, though something may turn on what he means by “generalizable benefits.”

 The brunt of his argument, that contemplation is its own reward, is wholly unsatisfying as is his claim that there are no external measures for the evaluation of, and external justifications for, the liberal arts. 

But an obvious and main one is the generalizable benefit of the transmission of our culture over its history and of the facts of our historical past. 

Another related to the first lies in the resolution of the disagreement I had with Larry over the benefits of art, (say) literature. Between the ostensible poles of the claim of real world, traceable tangible effects of art and the claim of no effects whatsoever, which claims, it finally became clear, neither of us were making, resolution lay in our agreement that we are affected, enriched, enlarged and on occasion changed by the literature we read and more generally by the art we experience. Given that by and large the taught art and thought is the product of our greatest minds and most creative artists, the best that has ever been written, thought  and created, how can individuals exposed to it not be personally benefited by it in these ways?

Isn’t human flourishing a generalizable benefit?

And, going another step, if every or nearly every individual is so affected and enlarged by some understanding of their culture, some appreciation for, and experience of, the best that has been thought and created, by some understanding of their history and a little of how the world works, then it must follow that on balance societies with more of such individuals than less have a better chance of flourishing.  If more individuals flourish the odds are greater that their society will too. Not inevitably of course but as a matter of likelihood. 

Maybe here lies a key to the hole in Fish’s argument: taken to its absurd ultimate conclusion—that there is no consequence to studying the liberals arts; they’re self justifying; contemplation is its own reward? For at the end of his argument, at its absurd final logical conclusion, we have a claim for a society that can exist without any knowledge of its own history, culture and past thought, with no amplification of the historical rehearsal of the big questions. 

Such a society is unimaginable. And, so, there is a logical fallacy of at the heart of Fish’s argument, namely, I think, the fallacy of composition, of concentrating on the part while ignoring the whole. 

And there’s a real world problem for Fish in tending to diminish, for example, “the lesbian poetry of Texas.” And that is to fail to note how the entire academic infrastructure, in whatever form it takes, bricks and mortar, online courses, whatever, is essential to, a sine qua non for, the transmission of culture, a real world, consequentialist, generalizable benefit to the liberal arts, without which our social life is unimaginable. So, for example, Fish distinguishes between the popularizing of art and the academic study of art, not noting the latter is the predicate for the former....

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