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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Panu Raatikainen
Panu Raatikainen
2 years ago

I am a professional philosopher, but I have studied humanities in large, and I can assure that it is not even close to true about (at least larger parts of), say, history, archaeology, linguistics, anthropology or religious studies either.

It sounds more like a conservative straw man (“postmodernist neomarxism is ruling our universities”, you know) – or, someone has had a really bad, unrepresentative sample.Report

Fkfkfkfj
Fkfkfkfj
2 years ago

French philosopher here. A colleague
told me that exact same sentence to argue that nothing could be done against another colleague teaching racist content. “there is no truth in philosophy, there is nothing we can do”.Report

dmf
dmf
2 years ago

at past & recent talks in the English dept here @ UIowa works/authors seem mostly to be judged by whether or not they are seen as being collaborators with agents/agendas of “neoliberalism” and other enemies of the liberal ars who are seen to be oppressing the kinds of people/movements/ideas that the speakers support (and or identify with) or if they offer (or at least signal a desire for) resistance to them.
I’ll leave it up to the experts to decide if such judgments are “aesthetic” or not…Report

PoliticalPete
PoliticalPete
2 years ago

My first degree was a joint degree, philosophy and religious studies. Admittedly, this was almost eighteen years ago, but back then, the picture he paints of the humanities certainly wasn’t true of religious studies. In recent years, I have also published a little history. I am far from a historian, but have engaged with recent work in the discipline. Once more, the picture Clune paints is unrecognisable in the history papers I’ve read.

….Perhaps I’ve just been lucky….?Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
2 years ago

I regularly teach a team-taught interdisciplinary gen ed course. This picture certainly doesn’t describe any of the colleagues I’ve taught with from English, History, and Theology, many of whom are also cross-listed faculty for Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Latin American Studies, etc. All of them favor an education that includes classic works, even if most also favor widening the canon in various ways. None defend this along the simplistic and uncritical preference-subjectivism about taste prof Clune describes. All of them think the value of a humanities education is at least in part to help students think in deeper and better ways about their lives and about the world they live in.

I’m sure there are some humanities faculty somewhere who at least pretend to believe the sorts of silly things included in prof Clune’s charicature, but I’ve seen no evidence that it is widespread in the humanities.Report

Michael W. Clune
Michael W. Clune
2 years ago

I am the author of the piece in question. For evidence supporting my view of the aversion to judgment in the interpretive humanities, please see my Critical Inquiry piece on the topic, “Judgment and Equality,” Summer 2019, which provides the basis for the CHE piece. Those unfamiliar with the professional discourse in fields like English or Art History should start with this essay, and its extensive documentation of the discomfort with judgment. (One of the writers I deal with most extensively, Paul Moran, is a philosopher.)Report

Nick
Nick
Reply to  Michael W. Clune
2 years ago

Is there a URL where your CI article, or a prior draft thereof, is available for those who don’t have a subscription to CI or access through their institutions? A cursory search on Google yielded no result for me. Thank you.Report

Daniel Weltman
Reply to  Nick
2 years ago
Daniel Weltman
Reply to  Daniel Weltman
2 years ago

Ooops, sorry, that’s just the link to the CI page. It was meant to go to the paper, but I can’t seem to get that URL to work when I copy and paste. Ignore me, I guess! One tip is, if you have a Facebook account, you can join the group “The Philosophical Underclass,” which helps provide papers to people whose institutions lack access.Report

Magnus Solheim
Magnus Solheim
Reply to  Michael W. Clune
1 year ago

It seems telling that you have immediately backed down from a claim about the humanities to a claim about the “interpretive humanities” (a term for which I cannot find any broadly accepted definition, raising questions of whether you are using it in a way that is linguistically gerrymandered).

I also can’t find someone named Paul Moran who is both a philosopher in the sense that academic philosophy uses the term (as opposed to someone who merely calls themselves a philosopher or throws the phrase “philosophy of” around in a way that just means “my opinions about”) and whose research would be relevant to your argument. Perhaps if I find a way around all the paywalls blocking your work I might be able to figure out who you are talking about, but I so far I am skeptical given how often critiques of academic philosophy are based on people who are not representative of philosophy as an academic discipline.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
2 years ago

Does anyone know of a good forum like this where academics from throughout the humanities hang out? It would be lovely to hear from some non-philosophers on this one.Report

Michel
Michel
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
2 years ago

The CHE used to have a forum, but they closed it over the summer. Members set up a new one at thefora dot org.

It’s for anyone and everyone in the academy, but there are lots of humanists there. Very few philosophers, however.Report

Julia
Julia
2 years ago

I was a fellow at an interdisciplinary humanities center a couple of years ago, and it was very interesting to see the difference between theory and practice. There were people from anthropology, history, and English, mostly. When they presented their work, especially the anthropologists, they judged each other’s work by very reasonable criteria, questioned whether arguments worked and claims were supported by the evidence, etc. But when I presented my work on rationality, the claim that there are rules of rationality that universally apply generated a lot of pushback, and I felt like people thought I was almost immoral (but definitely backwards) for saying such a thing. I tried to explain how formal and minimal and content-independent the rational norms were, but I don’t think that helped. I ultimately asked them how they could think this, and also claim that they were teaching students to be better critical thinkers. Some of them saw the tension, but I don’t think very many people were persuaded. I was totally caught off guard, because their own practices didn’t seem to indicate any weird methodological beliefs like that.Report

babygirl
babygirl
Reply to  Julia
2 years ago

Were we at the same institute? I had the exact same experience.

I also found that philosophers generally were regarded with suspicion and hostility. Like we were the backwards uncle at a family gathering or something. People would regularly say things like “Philosophy is the WORST.” I was bewildered by all of this, and never could really make out what the real disagreements were, or even if there were any. I got the feeling (just a feeling) that people thought philosophers were intellectually lazy, like we don’t do the necessary empirical or historical work, and also that we ask annoying questions (I hope that’s true!), and that we generally aren’t “with the program”— there are some basic assumptions of other disciplines that we just don’t share. If there are such unshared assumptions, I imagine they are along the lines that Clune mentions above.Report

Aaron V Garrett
Aaron V Garrett
Reply to  Julia
2 years ago

I think it can happen for a number of different reasons. Some people in the humanities who do “theory” have knee-jerk responses to philosophy and to mentions of reason and rationality due to lots of (often poorly digested) Foucault, Heidegger, etc. I think sometimes they also fear philosophers will point out they don’t know what they are talking about. I think this is becoming less and less the case. Others think philosophers speak in exclusionary code because we use refined or technical terminology which demands some background to use properly and to understand. My colleagues who work in technical areas of philosophy were particularly poorly treated in general humanities center discussions of their work because of this. Others think we make normative evaluations in a primitive and inappropriate way. Years ago when I gave a paper on Hume’s racism at a humanities center workshop one very distinguished humanist thought I should just report the facts, not make critical remarks.

This said, my office is on a floor mainly with folks who work in comparative literature. They are smart and wonderful and open-minded. I learn from them all the time. So in my experience this doesn’t generalize beyond humanities centers. And the last time I was at a humanities center nothing like this happened at all, I got great feedback — although if I worked in technical areas of philosophy I might have had a different experience.Report

Nomen Absconditum
Nomen Absconditum
2 years ago

I suppose most of us here are just reporting our experience, but for whatever it’s worth here’s my interpretation of my own, as someone with an NPhD (a PhD in a Non-Philosophy Humanities Discipline) but who is, for all intents and purposes, a philosopher (having studied in a collaborative program in the history of philosophy, read widely in contemporary philosophy, taught in a philosophy department, etc.): in Non-Philosophy Humanities Disciplines — well, in some of them — one is very likely to bump into the idea that Clune calls the “eschewal of hierarchy,” and the bump is at least somewhat likely to be unpleasant if one’s own expressed views violate that eschewal of hierarchy. By contrast, in philosophy — at least in overwhelmingly analytic philosophy departments — one is unlikely to face much serious blowback when expressing judgments that violate the eschewal of hierarchy; one is just likely to find any such judgment contested in the name of some alternative. Of course, one sometimes encounters something at least resembling the eschewal of hierarchy in philosophy departments, especially in the form of critiques of a focus on canonical figures in the history of philosophy or in objections to the marginalization of certain areas of philosophy. But one is not likely to suffer too much for explicitly holding that, say, Mill was a better philosopher than Butler, or Hume more worth teaching to undergraduates than Shaftesbury (because philosophers less often conflate disagreement with the infliction of suffering). So too, in Non-Philosophy Humanities Disciplines — well, some of them, anyway — one often finds people who offend against the eschewal of hierarchy, either implicitly or explicitly. After all, it’s not as though the eschewal of hierarchy is an easy view to maintain in a coherent form. So many of the same people expressing adherence to it will also show signs of rejecting it. In practice, most philosophers dealing with people from Non-Philosophy Humanities Disciplines will probably discover many people who do in fact draw distinctions of value and few or no people who consistently fail to do so. Hence Clune’s report will look like a caricature. From my own experience, what I can say is that I have encountered something like what Clune describes more than a few times from folks outside of Philosophy, but only very rarely from philosophers.

I doubt that generalizations about specific fields within the humanities, let alone the humanities as a whole, can be very accurate or helpful in any case.Report

Recovering Philosopher
Recovering Philosopher
2 years ago

I’m a little late to the party, but as someone who studied philosophy as an undergrad and is now pursuing a PhD in (non-Anglophone) literary studies, I have a few thoughts here:

1. Most literature professors I know do not hesitate to claim that some books are more worthwhile, better, more excellently executed, etc. than other books. But they also don’t take aesthetic evaluation to be the primary purpose of their research or their teaching. Rather, literary studies today is focused much more on interpretation. (Interpretation, of course, is not disconnected from evaluation and Clune is write to note that syllabus and canon formation are informed by value judgement, but again, I just don’t think I know many literature professors that would deny this).
2. While Justin may take it that most would accept Clune’s counterfactual, Alexander Nehamas’s book on beauty provides compelling account of aesthetic judgement as entirely personal (which is not to say lacking reasons or entirely private) and yet this account allows for an account of personal transformation through engaging with art that is (to my mind at least) much richer than objectivist accounts of aesthetic education (which Clune seems to be defending).
3. I find it somewhat ironic that Clune ends his essay by citing Hume’s essay on taste. The quotation Clune uses is, in Hume’s essay, almost immediately followed by this one: “We choose favourite authors as we choose friends, from a conformity of mood and disposition. Gaiety or emotion, sentiment or reflection—whichever of these most predominates in our make-up gives us a special sympathy with the writer who resembles us.” I’m sympathetic to Clune’s suggestion that we should not do away with the idea of aesthetic judgement, but I a) don’t think that is a widespread as he seems to think and b) don’t think that we need to adopt an objectivist account of aesthetic value in order to do so. The goal of a literature class should be to teach students to be better interpreters and hermeneuts, skills which will allow them to make more refined judgements about works of art. But to think that students ought to walk out of a literature class with specific aesthetic judgement (i.e. those of the professor) seems to me to be just as dogmatic as the “dogmatic equality” Clune rejects.Report

Charles Mathewes
Charles Mathewes
2 years ago

Michèle Lamont’s wonderful book of a decade or so ago, HOW PROFESSORS THINK, is illuminating on the differences between philosophy and other humanities, as well as on the differences among those other humanities. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in these things–it’s a pretty easy read, esp considering she’s a serious sociologist. In fact I wish every faculty member at my school (and all our administrators) would get a copy and discuss it. Her view is broadly consonant with what Clune says in this piece. It’s a good issue to debate, and I’m glad this piece is stirring the pot.Report

Charles Mathewes
Charles Mathewes
2 years ago

On and one last thing, you should probably link this discussion up with your other discussions of philosophy and the humanities; I’m thinking especially of this one: http://dailynous.com/2017/11/27/philosophers-and-the-humanities/
It’s a good discussion to have across time, and multiple provocations.Report