Campaign for the Humanities

Passionate about research in THE HUMANITIES

Five Minutes for the Humanities

A view from Philip Getz, Senior Editor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Palgrave Macmillan

... about Humanities in times of COVID-19 and in all other times. 

Since 1959, the Humanities has been on the defensive. CP Snow’s lament at the lack of scientific knowledge among the intellectual class of Britain in that year caused a gradual decline in the primacy of the Humanities as a mark of intellectual life in the second half of the twentieth century. This decline has continued in virtually every sector of intellectual society. From the contraction of the trade publishing industry to the drying up of Humanities budgets at colleges and universities throughout the world, it would seem that the sciences have displaced the Humanities as the avenue of intellectual progress, rendering the study of philosophy, religion, literature, and history irrelevant to the destiny of our species.

But it is not so. As Jerome Kagan, who taught developmental psychology at Harvard for several decades, writes, humanists “remind the society of its contradictions, articulate salient emotional states, detect changing cultural premises, confront their culture’s deepest moral dilemmas, and document the unpredictable events that punctuate a life or historical era.” As I write these words the entire world is battling the COVID-19 pandemic. While medical doctors and manufacturers are working day and night to ensure that patients’ bodies are cared for, how are populations learning to cope? Journalists and writers are crafting the information through affective language, musicians and artists are sharing their work in free online platforms to bring joy and comfort to millions. 
Without the Humanities it is easy to forget what our lives are actually about, the stories we tell ourselves and the philosophies by which we choose to live. Perhaps most importantly, it helps us to appreciate the uncertainty that pervades so much of human life. Science is about the search for certainty. A scientist in a lab tries to identify a particular feature or fact, however small or large, about the natural world. By contrast, so much of the Humanities is about basking in the uncertainty of life and existence, and the dialectical struggle between competing truths. 

Take philosophy for instance. One of the great achievements in philosophical discourse is the identification of a paradox. It is no coincidence that the most esteemed philosophers are immortalized in the names of the paradoxes they discovered—Zeno, Russell—rather than their solutions. One might say that the study of religion, with its deep historical and theoretical disputes, is, in fact, the study of competing improvables regarding the nature of existence. The Talmud recounts a story:
For three years, there was a dispute [actually, many disputes] between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel, the former asserting, “The law is according to our view, and the latter asserting, “The law is according to our view.” Then a voice issued from heaven announcing, “The teachings of both are the words of the living God…”

It is a recognition of the tension of ideas that holds our societies together. A work of literature that has one interpretation is not literature at all. It is in the multiple dimensions and variety of ways to assess a character and plotline that literature consists. And it is the fact that these disagreements often go unresolved, allowing them to be suspended in the collective mind from generation to generation of readers, that grants a great work of literature its timelessness. 

At Palgrave, our books never go out of print. One meaning to this is that we never consider ideas to be obsolete. It is a recognition of the fact that value needn’t be temporal. That while the conversation evolves and sharpens, all of our books and their authors are part of that moving and ever-evolving body – to use a scientific metaphor.