The Importance of the Humanities

A GREAT Nicholas Kristof column today gets at the value of the humanities, especially philosophy, in a pragmatic, hyper-digital and neoliberal age.

He writes, near the top:170px-Nietzsche-munch

I wouldn’t want everybody to be an art or literature major, but the world would be poorer — figuratively, anyway — if we were all coding software or running companies. We also want musicians to awaken our souls, writers to lead us into fictional lands, and philosophers to help us exercise our minds and engage the world.

Kristof focuses on the value of three 20th century philosophers: Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, and Peter Singer. The thinking of one of those three is central to my upcomin book. “So let me push back at the idea that the humanities are obscure, arcane and irrelevant,” he writes near the end. “These three philosophers influence the way I think about politics, immigration, inequality; they even affect what I eat.”

Humanities majors typically make up a major part of the audience for the arts and books. When these numbers decline, a whole ecology withers.

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  1. Neil McGowan says

    Without wanting to filch your audience, Norman Lebrecht’s new site today has a discussion about what makes a good advert for a symphony concert.

    Norman himself is sceptical about this ad, but I am not (and I say so, on his site). It encourages people to engage directly with the arts on an emotional and personal level, and not to be frightened of doing so. It strips away all the crap about what to wear, when you should applaud, what Brahms had for breakfast etc, and gets to the heart of it – the music itself, and how we feel when we hear this music.

    I could accept Kristof’s article (with which I agree in basis) more readily in practice if he’d quoted thinkers to whom I feel closer? I’ve never come across Peter Singer’s work at all. Isaiah Berlin is too remote from our own time to have much relevant to say about how we relate to the Arts today – and I would feel happier if this cheerful quotation from Berlin was the conclusion of some essay or work of thought – rather than merely “an epigram once spoken by a famous man”.

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