Humanities Have No Important Issues

A seminar in Stockholm tomorrow will treat the question, “What are the most important unanswered questions in the humanities and social sciences?”. In my opinion, the most important ones are “How can peace, prosperity and democracy be established in countries where they are lacking?”. And historian Arne Jarrick (whom I met last week at Alan Sokal’s talk) agrees. In yesterday’s Dagens Nyheter he’s quoted as saying (and I translate),

To build a bridge you need technological knowledge. To bomb the bridge you need technological knowledge. But to understand why the bridge was bombed and how to save societies where such things have happened, you need other kinds of science.

Now, what kinds of science is he referring to? Perhaps he means history. But very few historians work with such issues. In fact, almost all research that aims to help build peace, prosperity and democracy is conducted within the Faculty of Social Science. Not the Faculty of Humanities. Let’s be honest: we’re looking at political science, national economics, foreign aid studies and conflict studies. Not cinema studies or Russian lang & lit or bloody archaeology.

So in my opinion, the seminar’s question doesn’t apply to the humanities. We have no important issues. We have only fun ones. The choice of what questions archaeology should pursue, for instance, is not dictated by societal importance. We pursue lines of inquiry that we find fun or trendy or likely to get funded because someone with money deludes themself into seeing them as important. Whether I study the Iron Age in one part of the country or the Bronze Age in another is not important in any reasonable sense of the word. But I try to keep my output fun for those who take an interest in such things. I certainly wouldn’t bother if I wasn’t having fun.


12 thoughts on “Humanities Have No Important Issues

  1. We have no important issues. We have only fun ones.

    Well, to quote/paraphrase Mikael Rickfors: “Doing what you have to is doing what you want”. We choose our “musts”, and we choose what we regard as important. What lights a fire of passioned interest in one person will bore another to death.

    Who says it is objectively less “important” to do and document a Bronze Age site than to, say, sequence the genome of a microorganism? My work happens to be closer to the latter, and having the sequence might be a small piece of a puzzle which ultimately results in a cure for some disease, thus adding another fraction of a year to the average human life span. However, I wouldn’t therefore call that kind of science more important than understanding our prehistory, which instead can enrich the lives we have, even if they aren’t prolonged.

    For those directly involved in the research, both kinds of science can of course be just as stimulating and fun, but that fact might more belong in the previous thread on the meaning of life…


  2. By “national economy” you presumably mean “economics”.

    I think there are some very important questions in humanities. If we ever managaed to get a good theory of history that would be enormous progress. Sadly, the previous major attempt, marxism, did not work out so well.

    Personnaly I think the distinction between humanities and social sciences is drawn in a strange way. I would easily include history in the social sciences and the same with linguistics. (I would even count linguistics as an honorary natural science for that matter.)


  3. I’m almost a political scientist (I defend my diss in a few months and start a full time TT job in the fall). From my perspective, before we can get to answering your important question (which there are many, many people working on), we need to develop a firm understanding of human behavior. Without this, we are putting the cart before the horse.

    The unfortunate part, I think, is that we are still in the very early stages of developing this systematic understanding of human behavior. Thus, the answers to your question that come from current work are often tenuous, partial, or simply wrong. Why is this?

    I think this is the case because we have not build the base knowledge, yet, to be able to fully provide an answer to that very complex question. Think about it this way: Finding a cure to cancer is important. But research scientists attempting to find this cure could not do so without the very good understanding of cell behavior that medical science has developed over the past centuries.

    We are nowhere near that level of understanding when it come to humans.

    I think, part of the reason we haven’t been able to move further in our understanding of humans is that so much of political science (and I assume other social sciences) doesn’t seem to truly grasp what it means to actually be human. This is where I think there can be a connection made between the social sciences and humanities.

    Never in all the science fiction that I have read, have I read about such strange aliens as the ones I often see in political science and economics work. Yet, when picking up a fine piece of literature, there they are, people, real people!

    How to turn this into rigorous scientific inquire is a more difficult question, of course.


  4. Thinker, of course there’s lots of natural science that has little importance outside the confines of the various subdisciplines. My point is that the humanities are entirely composed of such fun but unimportant stuff.

    Jr, thanks for the correction. One of my Swenglish slips!

    As for a grand theory of history, I think it’s impossible to arrive at. Chaotic systems.


  5. Martin, let me clarify: I simply think things which add quality of life may well be regarded as “important”. Research in the humanities can do this, also for others than those who do the research.

    While there may be humanities research I personally don’t find interesting or which I even think is ridiculous or a waste of time, I wouldn’t make a blanket statement like yours: “We have no important issues.”


  6. Memory and the ordering of experience are important. Major national policy decisions are determined after relevant experience has been examined. The fact that policy-makers sometimes ignore history or draw the wrong conclusion does not make this process less important. The US muddle in Iraq involved a debate between those who argued from the Vietnam experience and those who claimed history was at an end. The bad choices made are themselves history and should inform future decisions.

    As for your Iron Age studies: the manner in which societies react to technology, environmental change, and meeting other societies contains lessons for humanity. The accretion of tiny bits of data should, in time, give larger pieces of evidence.

    But I think if you really believed that archeaology has only entertainment value, you wouldn’t be so dismissive of fun activities at museums.


  7. It may be true that the accretion of tiny bits of data serves some useful purpose. But that’s not the rationale given for a single research project in the humanities.

    I’m all for fun activities in museums. Such as archaeological activities in archaeological ones.


  8. Martin: “It may be true that the accretion of tiny bits of data serves some useful purpose. But that’s not the rationale given for a single research project in the humanities.”
    You are so completely mistaken that I think there must be some failure to communicate here. The gathering of data and the discovery of new areas of data to mine account for most of the research grants in history given out in North America anyway. Lately this has included grants (which may or not be classified as research) for projects involving digitization of data so that it may be more accurately assessed. I do not expect the situation to be much different in Europe.

    BTW, you seem given to Grand Pronouncements lately. I left off questioning that evolution-of-society bit in your rape piece since there were other, more important, issues involved, but I noticed other readers gently tried to point out a few holes in the concept.


  9. In Western Europe, a research design in the humanities along the lines of “gathering data and discovering new areas of data to mine and digitization of data so that it may be more accurately assessed” will never get funded. If that is your real mission, you need to hide it behind a smoke screen of references to contemporary sociology. A major reason that I work with many small grants instead of a few big ones is that I refuse to produce such smoke screens.

    The bit about Darwinian selection pressure on cultures was just a brief mention in a post about war rape. But I’m sure we can agree that a culture that institutionalises daily games of Russian roulette for all adult males will soon become extinct. Institutionalising child rape is just a slower way of accomplishing the same thing.

    I’m glad you keep coming back for more Grand Pronouncements!


  10. I cannot comment on Western European academic mechanisms. I still suspect you are overstating the case. It seems to me that every grant you have mentioned on this blog that you have received falls in the category of accretion of small bits of data. I don’t know what you mean by “contemporary sociology”. I understand and agree with many of your diatribes on certain aspects of scholarship but I do not think they reflect the general state of thinking in most branches. Even literary areas of scholarship (which were the most prone to post-structuralism — or whatever you want to call it, “modern mysticism” perhaps) are leaving that nonsense.

    Your comment equating Russian roulette and child rape is just silly.


  11. Well, I think that one of the dumbest distinctions is that which exists between social sciences and humanities – its just a desperate attempt by sociologists to appear more objective. For me, there are only two main differences: those that study humans and those that do not.

    If everyone said “let’s study peace and conflict” that would be just as stupid as if all natural scientists were to say “let’s att just do research on stuff that’s useful”. you never really know what will be useful and insightful in the long run. The most esoteric notions can turn out to have extremely real consequences, and the “practical” research can end up being totally useless.

    There is no algoritm to decide beforehand what research is useful and what isn’t.

    Economists have created beautiful models of economic behaviour, but lately they have begun to realize more and more that these models are based on fundamentally flawed perceptions of human behaviour and institutional changes. They are now actually learning from anthropological research from other cultures, as well as historical research and even theoretical treatises on the relation between structure and agency.

    So together with a healthy dose of responsibility we must have a lot of humility as well. That “pie in the sky” research might just lead to something valuable. Which is not to say that there should be no ongoing criticism – there should be lots!
    Always test, always challenge, always question.


  12. ArchÅsa: I do not agree that the distinction between social sciences and humanities is superficial. The case seems rather that many scholars in the humanities dabble in social and behavioural sciences. ‘Pure’ humanities research has no mission to make the world a better place, only to increase knowledge about the object of its study. Making the world a better place is done in one’s spare time. “Humanior” was not originally comparative in relation to aims and methods, but to the disciplines which examined non-human matters (physics, theology, mathematics &c.).

    It is most peculiar how Scandinavian languages have bestowed so many possible meanings to the concept of “humanism”: in Swedish it can mean (i) a scholar in humanities; (ii) a person with exclusively materialist outlook, or (iii) a person of high moral and charitable standing. These rarely overlap, and there is in reality even a conflict between the two former, since secular humanists tend to more orientated towards data computation than source studies and philology.

    / Mattias


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