Humanities: Rethink, Redefine, Reform

6,6--17,7 Winter, 2010 (Article Ilona)It’s a tough world out there as a humanities scholar. Facing virtuous doctors, renowned mathematicians, and heroic physicists, we are more than often advised to celebrate the wondrous worlds of Raphael’s Stanze, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, whilst occasionally throwing around a Judith Butler text, alone, without claiming their utility. Studying humanities is a way to enrich your life. It underlines our pursuit of knowledge. Its intrinsic value is so prominent and elitist already that there is no need to associate the humanities with other fields of science. Apparently we are just studying a lifestyle. Thus, humanities scholars need to defend themselves in this polemic academic disunity. And we’ve done so poorly.

In the ongoing debate of Profile 2016 and the humanities departments in universities in general we, as humanities scholars, have the tendency to defend a position in which we establish two dichotomies. The first one is a simple one and emphasizes the differences between the humanities and the hard sciences[1]. The second dichotomy refers to the ongoing debate of how we should defend the value of the humanities with the obligation to ‘choose’ between its intrinsic or its instrumental value. However, a number of recently published articles have pointed out that there is a need of philosophy, literature, language, and history in other fields of science, and even in the U.S. Air Force Academy[2] (“Greater emphasis on humanities means more well-rounded decision making”). And it’s in the argumentation of these new discourses that the humanities scholar is to find a new defense.

In May 2014, The Guardian[3] argued that the humanities are necessary because of the enrichment of art and literature in our lives, but are not essential to democracy and therefore their instrumental value is doubtful: “The arts and humanities cannot claim to be essential to democracy, economic success and social wellbeing. Most people do perfectly well without direct engagement with culture.” However, there is one thing we should not ignore in this article: “At their best they [the arts and humanities] can engage us in a continuous search to understand the human condition.” And where The Guardian fails to elaborate, Azar Nafisi’s The Republic of Imagination picks it up: “I object to the notion that passion and imagination are superfluous, that the humanities have no practical or pragmatic use or relevance and should thus be subservient to other, more “useful” fields. In fact, imaginative knowledge is pragmatic: it helps shape our attitude to the world and our place in it and influences our capacity to make decisions.[4]

So, if we can take humanities into our world of democracy and even as far as the U.S. Air Force Academy, why do we still establish and emphasize the dichotomy between the humanities and the hard sciences? In its most recent issue of De Gids, Netherlands’ longest established literary and cultural magazine, Bert Keizer in his essay on the medical sciences stresses the importance of philosophy of science, but also acknowledges the difficulties of application[5]. In this, there is a glimmer of hope for the humanities scholar. I’m not saying that we should go around saying we can save lives telling medicine students what to do. However, in the possibilities of reforming departments in universities, we should keep in mind the value of humanities, rethinking and redefining it continually.





[1] For example:



[4] The Republic of Imagination, p. 11-12.

[5] “ Waar zijn we in terechtgekomen? Midden in het cartesiaans dualisme. Dat is geen filosofische positie, maar een filosofisch probleem.”Read the full article in Dutch on Blendle:

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