What do the Humanities do in a Crisis (A Response)

What do the humanities do in a crisis? Are they—and the humanists that practice them—useless in the face of great human suffering, or do they still have something to offer humanity?

In a recent post on Medium.com, Hannah Alpert-Abrams takes Agnes Callard’s April 11th New Yorker essay to task for having an excessively ivory-tower view of the humanities. Callard suggests that the humanities are precisely what stands to be lost in such unsettled and disturbing times, the flower of human civilization that must be protected from the battering winds of pandemic. Against this view, Alpert-Abrams argues for an engaged humanities, committed to social justice, active in the public sphere, “fighting” for a better world. The humanists. she admires are busy creating hashtags, setting up twitter handles, establishing emergency funds, and running public health campaigns. All of these are admirable and important activities, but are they the activities that define a person as a “humanist?”

Aristotle, who plays a large role in Callard’s essay, would understand the importance of this question, as would Confucius—my own academic training is in Sinology. Aristotle placed great value on correct definitions, and Confucius famously remarked that his first initiative, were he put in charge of a state would be “to rectify the names.” All humanists know the damage sloppy definitions wreak on our thinking, but definitions are even more important than that. George Steiner observed that when the meaning of words is distorted—think of Orwell’s “Newspeak”—language itself loses credibility. The Nazi’s, who tortured Jean Améry—another prominent figure in Callard’s essay—were masters of this perverse art by which “progress” came to mean “slaughter” and “Jew” ceased to mean “human.” What we do with words is often a foretaste of what we will do to people so we should be careful what we do with words.

Are humanists, then, known to be humanists because they initiate hashtags and twitter handles? Clearly, as a definition that won’t do. Lots of people who aren’t humanists do both. What about establishing emergency funds and running public health campaigns? Humanists certainly can do these things, but I doubt whether most them know how. These are actions that any human might undertake in a crisis, and if Alpert-Abrams’ point is that humanists in a crisis should do what any good human would do, then her point is well-made. But what could humanists do as humanists in our current crisis? How could we make a difference?

Well, what do we do when there isn’t a crisis? We read; we think; we write; we teach. We are experts is what Callard calls “the life of the mind.” I’d rather call it “the life of the spirit” or better yet “the life of the heart.” Chinese makes things easier here. The word “xin 心” means both mind and heart, and the word “wen 文”, “pattern, writing, literature, culture”—it’s notoriously difficult to translate—includes in its scope everything that teaches us to make better use of our hearts and minds.

The life of the heart-mind is not without consequences. If we doubt this, all we need to do is look around. A lack of historical perspective has led many people to speak of this pandemic as the “end of the world.” An inaccurate choice of words has led some people to blame the virus on the Chinese people. Ignorance of geography has led a few of them to take out their fears on East Asians who aren’t even from China. Narrow-minded nationalism has derailed the global vision and cooperation that alone can address a crisis that is itself global. No fields are better-equipped than the humanities to help us overcome these errors and limitations of the heart-mind.

Moreover, pace Callard, they can provide us with the solace and inspiration to deal with these extraordinary times. In the face of Nazi atrocity, Jean Améry found he could no longer believe in “the reality of the world of the mind,” but Józef Czapski, laboring in a Soviet prison camp, found in his memories of Proust joy in “an intellectual undertaking that gave us proof that we were still capable of thinking and reacting to matters of the mind—things then bearing no connection to our present reality.” Having found that joy for himself, he went on to share it— in the form of a series of lectures on Proust’s À la recherche de temps perdu—with some forty of his fellow prisoners.

This is what the humanities can do in a crisis—what we’ve always done: share. Share our passion. Share our curiosity. Share our love for things that are not money or food or medicine or toilet paper. All of those things—except toilet paper—are necessities of material life, but there are necessities of the heart-mind as well. It is the job of the humanities to make us rich in them. So, let’s get on our computers and share what we love. Let’s give Zoom talks, record podcasts, write essays, and craft literature and art. Let’s help ourselves and others to make the most of the moment we’re in, whether it’s a frenetic balancing act or self-imposed solitary confinement. At heart, all of us who love the humanities are professors, regardless of whether we have the job title. Let’s go out and profess what we think, what we feel, and what we love. As Confucius said, “To learn of something, and then to put it into practice at the right time: is this not a joy?”

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