Fishing for a non-justification for the humanities

Last week, I drew attention to Stanley Fish’s piece, ‘Will the humanities save us?’. After receiving nearly 500 comments, Fish has now posted a follow up, ‘The Uses of the Humanities, Part Two’, wherein he writes:

I don’t [teach humanities] because it inspires me to do other things, like change my religion, or go out and work for the poor. If I had to say, I’d say that I do it because I get something like an athletic satisfaction from the experience of trying to figure out how a remarkable verbal feat has been achieved. The satisfaction is partly self-satisfaction – it is like solving a puzzle – but the greater satisfaction is the opportunity to marvel at what a few people are able to do with the language we all use. “Isn’t that amazing?,” I often say to my students. “Don’t you wish you could write a line like that?” …

Of the justifications for humanistic study offered in the comments, two seemed to me to have some force. The first is that taking courses in literature, philosophy and history provides training in critical thinking. I confess that I have always thought that “critical thinking” is an empty phrase, a slogan that a humanist has recourse to when someone asks what good is what you do and he or she has nothing to say. What’s the distinction, I have more than occasionally asked, between critical thinking and just thinking? Isn’t the adjective superfluous? And what exactly would “uncritical thinking” be? But now that I have read the often impassioned responses to my column, I have a better understanding of what critical thinking is …

The second justification for studying the humanities that in my view has some force speaks to those of us who have been trapped in conversations with people who, after “How about those Bears?” (the equivalent of “hello” in Chicago), can think of nothing to say. EM observes that “being exposed to great ideas from variety of fields . . . and learning how to think critically all make for a more interesting and informed person” and that “lots of people want interesting and informed people as their friends, lovers and employees.” Amen. Count me as one of those who would welcome an increase in the number of those who can be relied on to enliven a dinner party rather than kill it (although I have seen dinner parties killed by the most erudite and sophisticated person at the table). But it won’t do as a defense society will take seriously to say, Let’s support the humanities so that Stanley Fish and his friends have more people to talk to.

While I share Anthony Thiselton’s criticism that Fish’s reader-response theory is ‘unsuccessful in [its] attempt to ground his context relative literary theory in an adequate or convincing philosophy of language’ (New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 515), I like what Fish is trying to fight for – and fight against – here: the integrity of the humanities in an age in which everything is valued via an appeal to pragmatics.

In not a few places, Forsyth was properly scathing against the exaltation of pragmatics. In his The Soul of Prayer, for example, he reminds us that at the end of the day that which is truly the most practical is that which contributes to the end for which creation and humanity were made. (p. 33). Also, in his The Principle of Authority, Forsyth describes the ‘appetite for success, for numbers, for effect, [that] grows as it feeds upon the democratic philosophy of Pragmatism, with its note of American business and efficient bustle’. Such an environment poses particularly difficult challenges for the Christian preacher: ‘A harder time than ever would seem to be awaiting the conscientious preacher in a popular body as the Caravaggio - Narcissus (1598-99), Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, RomePragmatist definition of truth comes to prevail, that it is what “works.” Our truth does work, no doubt, but in very large orbits; and not always in time, within one life, to let us make up our minds about its results with that certainty which alone enables it to “work.” The vice of Pragmatism, so understood, is that, where absolute truth, or any faith, is concerned, we must begin with a belief in the absoluteness of it before we can set it to work with its native might. We must begin working with that conviction of its absoluteness which its working is supposed to provide. We must begin producing with the product in our hands. We cannot make an absolute truth work in which we do not yet believe. The world can only be converted by a Church which believes that in Christ the world has already been won’. (pp. 341-2)

Forsyth rightly here steers our attention from ‘pragmatics’ to ‘ends’. And if Forsyth is right (and who dares to question him!), then the question we are left with – and which Fish may be pushing for, though he’s less than clear – is what is ‘the end for which creation and humanity were made’? It seems to me that anything that encourages the flourishing of such an end already has its justification. And if such an end is the glory of God in the wedding of his Son to his Son’s Bride, then the humanities – like all other human activity – are only finally justified as they serve that end. Here the humanities are no more privileged than the sciences, or football. In the interim, of course, even those activities which seem to negate such an end (like Chelsea losing the Premiership this year) might still in fact serve the end for which God created the world.

On this note, I like Jonathan Edwards:

The end, the ultimate end of the creation of God was to provide a spouse for His Son, Jesus Christ, that might enjoy Him, and on whom He might pour forth His love. Heaven and earth were created in order that the Son of God might communicate His love to His spouse and bring that bride into the very family life of the Trinity’. (Works 18, Misc. no. 710).

‘God created the world for his Son, that he might prepare a spouse or bride for him to bestow his love upon; so that the mutual joys between this bride and bridegroom are the end of creation’. (Works 13, p. 372; Misc. no. 271).

‘This spouse of the Son of God, the bride, the Lamb’s wife, the completeness of him who filleth all in all, that for which all the universe was made. Heaven and earth were created that the Son of God might be complete in a spouse’. (Works 13, Misc. no. 103).

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