The Humanities: A Few Words about Survival
It is widely accepted that the humanities today are in a desperate situation, or already dead. This is a brief essay about why they will live forever.
In a time of much uncertainty, many students (parents) have turned to business and STEM for employment and security. Enrollment for philosophy, history, et al. has “collapsed,” while universities and the state do little. The UK aims to become a “science and technology superpower” by 2030, while the U.S. and China now “fight for global leadership” in science and technology. None of this is new. An early Cold War surge in STEM support and interest, brought a massive fall in humanities degrees during the 1970s. Thus, it may help to know why these subjects will not only survive, but endure.
The three most powerful individuals of the 20th century never lived to see it. Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin could hardly have imagined the forms of wealth, revolution, and science that have emerged in their names. Nor, in darker tones, the realities of collapse, totalitarianism, and genocide.
Smith, Marx, and Darwin were not kings or military commanders. Nor were they political leaders, spiritual authorities, or charismatic prophets. They were intellectuals. Their field of effort and the origin of the influence they exerted were in the realm of ideas. The systems of thought they articulated, in the hands of followers, detractors, demagogues, reformers, radicals, and many others, proved the substance of transformation. It is impossible to talk about or comprehend the rise of modern economics and the capitalist system—a system that profoundly altered the nature of the world—without calling upon Adam Smith. Marx wished to destroy this system and release a more equitable future, yet his thought became the inspiration for revolutions and wars that swept away entire societies and ended the lives of many millions of people. As for Darwin, his ideas were key to redefining the universe of living things and their relation to human beings, while enfeebling forever the explanatory power that religion had commanded for so many centuries.
The conflicts and debates that led to these developments are far from over. If the past two centuries have revealed anything, it is that engagements over fundamental ideas—those that are elemental to liberalism, autocracy, to changes in the norms and organization of society—have gone raging on, with no prospect of an end. The battle over free markets and government power can hardly be called settled. The collapse of the Soviet Union hasn’t deleted state control from the globe or ensured the future of democracy. Modern biology hasn’t eliminated anti-science or forced fundamentalism into the shadows. The confrontations waged over these and other primary matters have an unyielding history to them that continues to be lived on a daily basis. No group, nation, or party has won the battle of ideas.
Contemporary society, in short, has been built over time from the materials of thought. This means not only grand theories or visions of progress, but ideas about freedom, justice, equality, race, education, the nation-state, and more. Employed in the context of institutions and political decision-making, such concepts are often called by other names—policies, principles, schemes, plans—but they all come back to basic, underlying philosophies about the nature of society and how it should work. Ideas, therefore, are not mere mental substance. Operating through leaders, the public, interest groups, communication media, and individuals, they are the determining substance of the modern world, and for that reason charged with emotion.
This understanding is far from new. Writing in the 1850s, Victor Hugo put it in striking terms: On résiste à l’invasion des armées; on ne résiste past à l’invasion des idées - “One can resist the invasion of armies, never the invasion of ideas.” A few decades later, the infinitely quotable historian, John Dalberg-Acton (Lord Acton) remarked: “The great object, in trying to understand history, political, religious, literary or scientific is to get behind men and to grasp ideas. Ideas have a radiation and development, an ancestry and posterity of their own…” Then, too, John Maynard Keynes: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else.” Writing in the interwar years, Keynes can be forgiven for noting only two types of thinkers. In truth, a greater taxonomy has delivered us to the present.
In considering Smith, Marx, and Darwin, we can say they were all progeny of the Enlightenment. At base, they all shared ideas about truth as secular, society as changeable, and science as progressive. The Enlightenment was a critical era of separation from what had gone before. It was when, in the words of Jonathan Israel, one of the period’s most assiduous scholars, everything known became available for questioning, and in many cases, rejection, reform, or replacement. Not every received view was attacked; not all forms of privilege were challenged. Nonetheless, a great number of the most fundamental concepts about the nature of human beings and social reality were indeed contested, placed in doubt, and then, over time, supplanted.
Yet, thought and act at the time and in the next century were not universally progressive by any stretch of the imagination. Advances in favor of liberal values did not foreclose the continuing vigor nor reactionary response of their opposite. Neither did they themselves reject or prevent the growth of certain countering ideas. This, too, has been a key aspect. Intellectual leaders who argued for freedom, tolerance, and the individual were often unready to extend these values to women or the lower classes. They found reason to aggressively oppose slavery in words even while providing the rationale for it through the concept of race, as a scientific category, and racial hierarchy, as a natural ranking of innate mental and physical abilities. Colonial empires continued the enslavement of millions well into the 19th century. Western governments, moreover, imposed their will over entire peoples and continents well into the 20th. How to explain this, and its unbroken legacy to the present?
The Enlightenment created both the measure of its success and possibilities for failure. The march to progress, in other words, has taken many backward and ugly turns. Many today question whether such progress has even taken place. How to define it, after all, in what terms? Such is no less urgent to answer today as in 1918 or 1945. Ideas, as Lord Acton perceived, do have a life and dynamism that transcends any single era or interpretation. In the hands of successive generations, they are altered and reshaped, stripped of unwanted material or color, stretched to extremes, made to support acts and decisions that their creators would have hated and feared.
Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” mentioned only once in a book of 800+ pages, was twisted into the notion that markets have an innate, near-supernatural power to self-correct and must never be touched or toyed with lest they unleash economic evils. It is a concept that has served certain views over time yet could not have been predicted from any open-minded reading of Wealth of Nations. Marx, in his own day, is reputed to have said, “I am not a Marxist.” As some scholars have commented, if not for Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, whose versions of communism would make him tremble with despair, Karl Marx might be less well-known than Rosa Luxemburg. With Darwin, exploitive misinterpretations of his theory, natural selection, have impacted domains as disparate as geopolitics, early education, and literary criticism.
The 20th century, for reasons that emphasize world conflicts, the Cold War, artistic movements, and more, has been called the age of “ideological struggle.” Was the 19th century, with its own revolutions (political, industrial, cultural), imperial rivalries, belief in national destiny, and racial “science,” any less so? And what of today? What of the ideas that have impelled global terrorism, that have torn and embittered western democracies, that have aided the worldwide rise of strongman, re-mythified the powers of technology, and failed to deal with the climate threat?
It would be exceedingly foolish, in other words, to believe that the power of ideas has diminished in any way. The current century will continue to see conflicts, bright and dark, in the realm of guiding thought—in ideas that are the conscience behind national, institutional, and personal decisions. In the end, therefore, the humanities may shrink, even retreat for a time. But their death would mean society no longer has any interest in itself, in the world, in humanity, in the future.
Note: This essay is adapted from the introduction to The Shape of the New, which I co-authored with Daniel Chirot.
Photo by Cine Insomnia