A Way Philosophy Differs from the Other Humanities, or a Caricature of the Humanities?

Professors of the humanities make judgments about value. Art historians, literary scholars, musicologists, and classicists say to our students: These works are powerful, beautiful, surprising, strange, insightful. They are more worth your time and attention than others… Yet such judgment violates the principle of equality. So humanists have to pretend we’re not doing it.

Chiharu Shiota, “The Key in the Hand” (detail)

Those are the words of Michael Clune, a professor in the Department of English at Case Western Reserve University, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education (update: courtesy of Evan Goldstein, editor of The Chronicle Review,  the link has been changed so that it is no longer paywalled). He complains that humanities professors have gone for an “eschewal of hierarchy”:

Who am I to say that one book is better than another? Why should I tell you what you should read? Everyone’s taste is equal. No one’s judgment is any better or worse than anyone else’s. Thus, in a curious development, progressive English professors have come to join populist Fox News pundits in railing against the elitism of aesthetic judgment.

The first question to ask of this is whether Clune’s characterization of the humanities is accurate. (Since not all of the humanities take as their objects of study works that are judged primarily on their aesthetic merits I take Clune to be making a point about qualitative evaluation in the humanities more broadly, not just aesthetic judgments; besides, he talks about value judgments more broadly throughout the piece.)

It certainly is not an accurate characterization of philosophy. In philosophy, we make judgments about the quality of philosophical ideas, arguments, and works all the time (see this recent post, for example), judging them not just by the standards of validity and soundness, but also by appeals to originality and creativity, philosophical usefulness, responsiveness to existing literature, and even on the basis of whether they are fun to think about. If anything, some aspects of today’s philosophical world may be characterized by an overenthusiasm for the powers of judgment (which may manifest itself in for example, arrogance or dismissiveness in conversations, or a penchant for precise rankings of the very complicated).

It would be useful to hear from those in or very familiar with non-philosophy humanities disciplines to see if they agree with Clune that they are accurately characterized by reticence of judgment. I am somewhat skeptical, and wonder if what is really going on is the overturning of some traditional forms of evaluation and the introduction of new ones, along with an overarching pluralism incompatible with all-things-considered qualitative judgments—but I am hardly an expert here. (I understand that philosophers have said things similar to what Clune is saying about other disciplines in the humanities, and that it fits with some of the narratives of higher education one finds in the popular press, but seriously if you are not in or working closely with people in those disciplines, or well-acquainted with the work in them, please don’t bother commenting just to repeat the “conventional wisdom.”)

Echoing one of the familiar arguments against moral relativism—that, contrary to what students tend to believe, to justify toleration for others it seems we must reject relativism—Clune offers another reason to reject the “eschewal of hierarchy”:

Professors’ commitment to equality [in capacity for judgment] actually undermines their politics. Many professors believe they are trying to contest that intrusion of markets into every sphere of life that goes by the name “neoliberalism.” In my experience, the professors most strident about refusing value judgments are also most committed to resisting neoliberalism. But they can’t have it both ways. 

That this type of argument is standard in introductory moral philosophy courses suggests, again, that philosophy professors do not fit in the picture of the humanities he is giving us.

Clune thinks that it’s the job of professors to help students develop as persons, and to do that requires a rejection of the “dogmatic equality” he thinks is commonly professed in the humanities:

Dogmatic equality tells us: There’s nothing wrong with your taste. If you prefer a steady diet of young adult novels or reality TV shows, so what? No one has the authority to make you feel bad about your desires, to make you think you should want something else. Such statements sound unobjectionable, even admirable. But if the academy assimilates this view—as it largely has over the past three decades—then a possibility central to humanistic education has been lost. The prospect that you might be transformed, that you might discover new modes of thought, perception, and desire, has been foreclosed.

Most of those reading that passage will agree with the conditional statement laid out across its last two sentences, but question the affirmation of the antecedent shoehorned into it. Discovering new modes of thought, perception, curiosity, and evaluation are exactly what most philosophers explicitly take themselves to be helping their students do. Early on in one of my introductory level courses, I address the “who’s to say?” response students sometimes give to philosophical questions. “We’re to say,” I tell them, “using the tools available to us to come to the judgments we think are better justified than the alternatives.” And then we talk about some of those tools. This is not unique to me, I’m sure.

So, if Clune is correct in his assessment of the humanities, it seems that this is a way philosophy doesn’t fit in with the rest of the humanities. And that difference may be instructive in various ways, ranging from teaching to engaging in interdisciplinary work to applying for grants, etc. But Clune may not be correct, and instead may have given us a caricature of the other humanities. As the humanities are struggling for recognition and support, repeating unsubstantiated declinist narratives advanced by opponents of the academy would be irresponsible, not to mention unlikely to succeed as a way of defending the “professional judgment” of experts in the humanities. Readers?

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