In his most recent essay for the New York Times, Stanley Fish takes up the much exercised question of whether the study of the humanities can be justified. His answer, predictable for anyone who has followed his work, is “No, and it’s a good thing too.” Of late Fish’s growing irritation with literary and other humanistic disciplines has focused on the fruitless politicization of these disciplines, fruitless because such politicization seeks to change the world in ways that are demonstrably ineffective and that debase the professional status of the humanities in the bargain. Fish is always singular, but to some degree he is one of a large group of cranky elder statesmen who are none too happy with what the literary academy has become in the hands of their academic children and grandchildren. Men—and it is mostly men—like Harold Bloom, Terry Eagleton, and , to a somewhat less cranky degree, Gerald Graff. Fish’s argument in the Times concludes as follows:
Teachers of literature and philosophy are competent in a subject, not in a ministry. It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by “do” is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.
To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said – even when it takes the form of Kronman’s inspiring cadences – diminishes the object of its supposed praise.
Fish followers will recognize the argument Stanley has been flogging for nigh on two decades. The professionalization of any discipline is it’s own justification. And in so many ways this is Fish at his inimitable best. Lucid and engaging, persuasive by the force of well-rendered prose alone. (Full disclosure, I had Stanley in a graduate seminar on Milton at Duke; I was and still am so intimidated that I will only call him “Stanley” in prose I am pretty sure he will never read. Professor Fish, always and forever). And there’s so much I want to agree with in Fish’s continuing obsession with this problem. The idea that literature or the study of literature could best be justified by the way it contributes to the revolution has increasingly struck me as excruciatingly reductive, this despite the fact that I’ve written one book and am nearly finished with another that examines literature from a political perspective.
Still, this is mostly an argument about justification that Fish can make largely because he is no longer a dean or department chair having to make justifications. Perhaps he now resents all the years he had to do all that justifying of something that appeared so obviously to him as the ultimate rendering of “The Good.” Indeed, Stanley Fish the institution needs no further justification. He is his own good.
However, Fish’s argument rests on a faulty assumption. When Fish says “Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance,” and that “The humanities are their own good” one imagines that he lives in a metaphysical bubble. This is because, in fact, performance of any activity always depends in some shape or form on things outside its own performance. When I read a book, that personal and cultural good does not exist in an ether of its own making or its own perpetuation. It is made possible by an economy of other personal and cultural goods and other cultural and personal activities. To read the book I take time away from my kids. I refuse to be with my students for at least a spell. I depend on the destruction of trees or the electronic production of pixels, which means I depend upon an economy of human labor and leisure. I also live within the frame of an inevitable personal economy. If only by the fact that I am one body and not many, I do not participate in other demonstrable cultural and personal goods such as the effort to alleviate hunger or to heal the sick.
Any single one of these, of course, need not be the determinative activity that says my decision to read a book is justified or unjustified. But it does suggest that our activities absolutely never exist in a sphere where their own performance is all that counts. In short, the humanities exist within the world already and therefore have effects by the fact of their performance, even if only to the extent that pursuing them must take place within a human economy of means and ends. To “justify” then is simply to give an account of why this cultural good is worth pursuing in light of the world we live in. In the academy this takes the very obvious shape of places within curricula and claims upon the financial well-being of students and their parents. Why is the time and money necessary for a course in literature (or film or philosophy or history) justified? To say that the humanities are their own good is to imagine a humanities without students; indeed, a discipline without human beings. To imagine it so is, from one perspective, self-indulgent. From another it is to imagine nothing at all since there is no world in which such a humanities could possibly be pursued.
The other limitation of Fish’s argument is that he seems to assume justification is only achieved by a transcendental logic. That is, I must point to a foundational reason that will make the humanities (or the simple reading of my book) justifiable. Because I can’t come up with that foundational reason that is beyond dispute, it must be the case that my activity cannot be justified from a perspective outside itself. This is a fairly common deconstructive form of attack on almost anything. However, as Fish surely well knows, many theories of justified beliefs hardly take this form of transcendental logic. More typically, justification is not a form of transcendental logic, but a pragmatic form of argument, or even a network of stories demonstrating use and consequence. In other words, justification is usually much more like the kinds of arguments you have to make to a dean to justify new expenditures. No transcendent logic will work, but a series of stories demonstrating the connection of my activities with the logic and practice of other activities can be very compelling indeed. This justification is what the performance of my own humanistic endeavors depend upon. Why else would a college care to spend a lot of money to let me read books if I couldn’t justify the expense.
Fish’s persistent sense that there is simply no evidence of the usefulness of the humanities is, in fact, demonstrably false if we see each one of these reasons not as an absolute reason but as a thread in a network of argument, a scene in the story of the humanities.
One small example. This week The Guardian reported on the development of a new form of therapy called bibliotherapy. Reading books actually seems to play a role in helping the psychically damaged or depressed to begin a process of managing and even repairing their emotional problems. Brain studies demonstrate that the reading of poetry enlivens parts of the brain that reading non-fictional prose or watching TV does not. Studies in composition and rhetoric demonstrate the deep connection between reading facility and writing ability. Graduate schools in fields as diverse as Business, psychology, and law, repeatedly cite the study of English as a form of preparation. None of these things are exactly the same thing as talking about the deep meaning—or lack thereof—that can be found in literary works (and who, after all, said that this was the only performance that the discipline of literary studies could pursue). But it’s not quite clear that they are completely separate from these activities and many others. These performances are interpenetrating and mutually reinforcing.
We are not our own performance. We dance together or we die alone.