Philosophers and the Humanities


By exerting their imaginations and their talent for coming up with pesky counterexamples, [philosophers] probe away at the conceptual boundaries of God, free will, morality, etc, and try to determine, by the power of thought experiments alone, just what is and isn’t possible, and what conclusions are the most reasonable.

It’s a different method altogether from that of the other humanists. Say the word ‘justice’, and humanists will scramble toward the ways in which that word has been deployed over the centuries, in a thousand interesting texts. We will soon see quotations from Hugo Grotius, Samuel von Pufendorf, Bernard Mandeville, Montesquieu—and that’s all before we get to the lesser-known thinkers. Contemporary philosophers, on the other hand, are much more likely to skip the history and begin with a formula such as: ‘Principle P is just if and only if _____’, and start sorting through promising ways of filling in the blanks, armed only with their critical minds and literature that goes back no further than a generation. The humanists see our local remarks in the context of a very long conversation, and they do not believe that we can really know what we are talking about without some sense of the long story. Philosophers would rather just skip the long story (TL; DR) and drive straight at the thing itself.

That’s Charlie Huenemann (Utah State), who admits he is “exaggerating—but only a bit” in his contrasting of philosophy and the rest of the humanities, in “Why philosophers should hang out at the humanists’ parties” at Aeon.

He argues that “there is a lot that the humanities and philosophy can offer one another.” For example, “philosophers can learn a lot from the humanists about the importance of context and culture” and humanists can learn from philosophers about how to place “some difficult old book into a philosophical problem space” so that it “pushes us not merely to raise the dead, but to make them sit up and answer for themselves.”

The full essay is here.

Related: “How Philosophers See The Arts And The Rest Of The Humanities” and “A Call for the Humanities to Unite“.

book sculpture by Rachael Ashe

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