Not For Profit

by Harry on September 29, 2010

Over at In Socrates’ Wake (a blog about teaching in philosophy, to which I’ve recently started contributing) we’ve been running a seminar on Martha Nussbaum’s new book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (UK ). I’ll write a more substantial review here shortly, but it’s well worth reading my ISW colleagues’ takes on it (and the book itself, which I recommend highly—on the back cover no less). Here are the posts so far, in chronological order: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8.

{ 30 comments }

1

dsquared 09.29.10 at 2:03 pm

two points, after reading the posts but not the book:

1. Still not clear why or whether this is specifically an issue for Democracies. Could translated versions be titled “Why Socialism With Chinese Characteristics Needs The Humanities”, or “Why Islamism Needs The Humanities”? All sorts of societies, from monarchies to tribal cultures, have seen some sort of value in non-instrumental learning and in having citizens with a deeper understand of the particular values of that kind of society.

2. In your own last post, you make the point that the vision of humanities education set out doesn’t really resemble humanities education as done in universities now, but the frame is still that this sort of learning has to happen in universities rather than, say, working mens’ libraries or internet cafes. Is there any discussion of autodidacts in the book?

(also, my perennial point about philosophy of education – as with linguistics, which you note isn’t really a humanity, most of what’s done in philosophy of education looks like methodology and social science to me …)

2

Ingrid 09.29.10 at 5:48 pm

dsquared:
“most of what’s done in philosophy of education looks like methodology and social science to me …”
perhaps that’s because you have an enlightened view of the social sciences?
(just joking)
No seriously, I also think philosophy belongs as much to the humanities as it does to the social sciences as it does to the natural sciences: where it is most usefully categorised depends on what the philosophizing is about. In the Netherlands, academic philosophy has in the past long been labelled the ‘interfaculty’, signaling that it was part of all faculties, or perhaps above or in between all faculties: I like that approach much, much more (and I think it is much more truthful) than saying that philosophy is merely part of the humanities.

3

burritoboy 09.29.10 at 6:08 pm

I guess I have somewhat of a different take on this question than Nussbaum – though I agree with Nussbaum in her points.

What argument I would make differently from her would center around a criticism of the social sciences and natural sciences (as well as things like business education and engineering). This is especially true of the social sciences. We all know, in practically, that the leading social science is economics – not only has economics aggressively colonized the other social sciences, it’s the basis for all business education and has significant effects elsewhere in the academy (law and economics, health management, public policy, etc).

And we now know, empirically, that the primary economics theory structure of recent times (neoneoclassicism) was, at best, highly flawed and was prone to making extremely wild claims to knowledge that it simply never had. As someone trained in philosophy, once I began looking at the base claims of neoneoclassicism, I literally started laughing. Their foundations were entirely nonsensical and self-contradictory (attempt an examination of Hayek’s epistemology, for instance).

Further, economists themselves were largely unable to identify the extreme leaps in logic and wild claims that neoneoclassicism was making (some were able to do so, but very few whose arguments had no effect within the field). Even those economists who opposed neoneoclassicism were (generally) not able to see the basic logical flaws in that theory. Essentially, all of economics simply does not have the analytical tools to engage in any serious self-analysis or criticism.

Thus, in a practical sense, the most important of the social sciences is simply too shallow to do the work we need from it. It is instead actually philosophy that I would (boldly and wildly) claim that can provide a better foundation to economics than the economists have any realistic hope of doing in any kind of near-term.

It’s true that I’m not claiming similar status for the other disciplines usually called the humanities, so Nussbaum’s argument is broader than mine.

4

Ingrid Robeyns 09.29.10 at 6:12 pm

I have a question for anyone who has read Nussbaum’s book or the discussion over at In Socrates’ Wake: are there any other books recently published that have analysed the value of the non-(directly) economically valuable academic disciplines? I’m interested both in the teaching perspective as well as the research perspective. I would especially be interested in books that focus on other countries than the USA and India (Nussbaum’s case studies). Also, relatedly: has anyone recently written a good (philosophical/theoretical) book on why we need universities in the first place, or (more narrowly) whether their services/products could be considered ‘public goods’ or else creating lots of positive externalities?

5

Tim Wilkinson 09.29.10 at 6:15 pm

In the Netherlands, academic philosophy has in the past long been labelled the ‘interfaculty’, signaling that it was part of all faculties, or perhaps above or in between all faculties: I like that approach much, much more (and I think it is much more truthful) than saying that philosophy is merely part of the humanities.

seconded

6

Anderson 09.29.10 at 6:40 pm

I’m sympathetic to the idea of course, but a philosopher’s book about why the humanities are so necessary is only a little less ironic than Aristotle’s discovery that — surprise! — contemplation is the highest form of human existence.

She sets herself up for the counter-subtitle: “Why Democracy Needs Martha Nussbaum.”

7

Matt 09.29.10 at 6:43 pm

Ingrid- it’s been a long time since I read it but Nussbaum’s earlier book _Cultivating Humanity_ addresses your second question to some degree, though not in a very formal way (and not only that question.) I remember liking the book a lot, though it was quite a while ago that I read it.

8

bjk 09.29.10 at 8:18 pm

Cspan recently had MN on for a few hours and one of the callers asked her to defend the value of the humanities. After five minutes of saying that the core should include everything ever written anywhere, she grudgingly at the end admitted that maybe her students could use more Sophocles and Shakespeare and that her 1L students did not have the habit of reading and, yet worse, the trends were all going in the wrong direction. Well, at least the eventually spit it out. Better than nothing.

9

LFC 09.29.10 at 10:25 pm

HB: In your post on Nussbaum’s book at ISW, you write (I’m paraphrasing) that the social sciences and natural sciences produce knowledge that benefits society, whereas the humanities do not and therefore must justify themselves with reference primarily to the ‘teaching function’. I think this is too broad a statement: a good deal of work in the social sciences does not have any direct or applied benefit to society, or (to put in less charged terms) any practical application. (Ditto perhaps for the natural sciences, though I will leave that to people more qualified to speak about them.)

In other words, some social science is ‘humanistic’ or at least historical in orientation, and it is questionable to suggest that only the humanities contribute to the health of democracy; I think portions of what one might call (not disparagingly) ‘soft’ social science also do this. Thus I disagree somewhat with burritoboy’s statement @3 that economics has ‘colonized’ the other social sciences. Not completely, and especially not when it comes to undergraduate education, on which a lot of Nussbaum’s argument (presumably) focuses.

10

Tim Wilkinson 09.29.10 at 11:19 pm

Anderson @6 whatever it may be, it’s not ironic, surely?

11

Anderson 09.29.10 at 11:47 pm

Tim, the words convey a putatively objective determination, which the hearer may be pardoned for suspecting to be subjective in fact.

I think that these opposites make the statements ironic, though not in the textbook sense of “words whose literal and figurative senses are opposites.”

12

Anderson 09.29.10 at 11:50 pm

… Ah yes, Lit 101 is coming back to me. Wikipedia:

Dramatic irony is a disparity of expression and awareness: when words and actions possess a significance that the listener or audience understands, but the speaker or character does not.

Aristotle and Nussbaum may be sincere, but we can still be amused at how conveniently the ratiocinative process has worked out for them.

… Bummer, really: are the humanities the only field that can question its own value?

13

Davis X. Machina 09.30.10 at 12:27 am

They may need them, but democracies are in the process of ceasing to pay for them.

In 20 years you won’t be able to take a humanities first degree at a land-grant university in the US, except for possibly six or seven Ann Arbor-Austin-Madisons. Such things will be the province of a few dozen top-tier private universities, and a few score private colleges. The rest of private post-secondary will be gone, out of business.

Consider the relative density of music conservatories today — there’ll be that much left of the traditional humanities infrastructure in a generation.

They don’t ‘foster public-private partnerships’. They don’t act as ‘incubators of entrepreneurship’. They don’t attract significant corporate sponsorship.

Look at your high schools — it’s all STEM, all the time, when it isn’t flat-out vocational training. As the twig is bent so grows the tree.

Not saying it’s a good thing, just the coming thing.

14

Harry 09.30.10 at 1:47 am

LFC — fair enough. Nussbaum doesn’t give a definition of the humanities (and I certainly couldn’t), but she clearly understands it very broadly to include lots of what is normally included under social science.

Daniel – I think the posts focus on traditional higher ed just because that is where the posters work (and sort of what the site is about), but Nussbaum talks quite a bit about both schools (right down to elementary) and other places/institutions (choirs, for example). But her focus is very much on children/very young adults, and no, there’s not really discussion either of autodidacts or of adult institutions in which learning is a crucial part (working men’s clubs, political parties and trade unions as they used to be, etc). I’ll be sure to think about them as I think further about this.

And I agree that non-instrumental learning has value in all kinds of (not completely dysfunctional) societies. Nussbaum’s focus is on democracy for audience reasons primarily (I assume).

15

Tim Wilkinson 09.30.10 at 2:12 am

Anderson – Yes, that’s what I thought you meant.

16

Tim Wilkinson 09.30.10 at 2:39 am

Sorry, irritatingly archly gnomic – I mean (1) a person who has chosen to study a subject may be expected to value that subject, and not just out of self-serving rationalisation; (2) and more conclusively, it is vanishingly unlikely that either Nussbaum or Aristotle would be unaware of the fact that their arguments favour their own choice of subject/lifestyle, reflect their own views, etc. – if there’s bias involved, it’s not going to be unwitting. What next – the irony of a socialist arguing for socialism?

17

Chris Bertram 09.30.10 at 9:29 am

Slightly depressed at the news of this book, because I’ll have to read it …

I’ve not been averse to putting the democracy/citizenship argument myself in the past, but I think that there’s something a little desperate about it. We are useful for _something_ you know!

The trouble is that that something (citizenly virtue) is paid lip-service to by a broader spectrum of people than actually care about it and the only people who put it front and centre are those who don’t need convincing: in fact the kind of liberal brahmins of whom Nussbaum is one of the most prominent examples.

And then there’s the matter that it is still an instrumentalization argument, just with a different choice of end than wealth maximization.

Actually the humanities shouldn’t need this kind of defence, because what they are about is, to borrow a phrase, the study of our extended phenotype in a large variety of its manifestations. To be sure, human culture is also susceptible to social-scientific study, but I don’t see social scientific treatments of art, religion etc as competing with humanistic ones, but rather as complementary. (And one of the ways in which social scientific treatments go wrong is in failing adequately to grasp the nature of the object they’re trying to explain.)

Nobody thinks (actually I withdraw that … but I wish it were true) that we should only study those parts of the Naturwissenschaften with plausible engineering and/or for-profit applications. The Geisteswissenschaften (parts without such obvious applications) similarly need no more justification than abstruse parts of pure mathematics and physics do. Which isn’t to say, of course, everything presently taught and studied in humanities departments is defensible. Because it isn’t.

18

dsquared 09.30.10 at 10:57 am

I’m actually rather surprised (again, still without having read the book) at how weak the instrumental case is. In the UK at least, the media and creative industries are actually very large employers, taxpayers and export earners. Humanities scholarship is the equivalent of “basic research” for the advertising and media industries (the connection is somewhat less direct but it’s definitely there – I don’t think Simon Cowell reads Zizek, but Charlie Parsons did).

I think the best case for the humanities is made in the conclusion of “The Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren”.

19

ajay 09.30.10 at 11:19 am

In the UK at least, the media and creative industries are actually very large employers, taxpayers and export earners. Humanities scholarship is the equivalent of “basic research” for the advertising and media industries

Is this actually true? Most of the advertising copywriters I know studied psychology, which makes a disturbing sort of sense. I’m sure there are a lot of humanities types in the media industries, but is there any reason for supposing that they need to be humanities types – why should three years writing essays about French literature be better preparation for a career as a TV producer than three years writing essays about anteaters?

20

dsquared 09.30.10 at 11:34 am

It’s a matter of what’s in the air though – Adam Smith used to say that the fact that talking about the finer points of metallurgy and knife-making was normal pub conversation in Sheffield was the source of increasing returns to scale in that industry. And knowing about the sort of things you learn on humanities degree courses is what they talk about in restaurants in Soho (in the pubs it’s all lenses, digital sound recording and so forth). If you look at the big TV hits of the last decade, a lot of them really are enacting the sorts of things that theorists were talking about at the back end of the 1990s. I really need to do a post about Soho, and how people tend to make the mistake of thinking that it’s an entertainment district when it’s actually an industrial cluster.

21

jonah 09.30.10 at 12:23 pm

Ingrid R:
“Also, relatedly: has anyone recently written a good (philosophical/theoretical) book on why we need universities in the first place, or (more narrowly) whether their services/products could be considered ‘public goods’ or else creating lots of positive externalities?”

There is a chapter on universities in Seumas Miller’s The Moral Foundations of Social Institutions (CUP 2009)

22

Chris Bertram 09.30.10 at 12:53 pm

_I really need to do a post about Soho, and how people tend to make the mistake of thinking that it’s an entertainment district when it’s actually an industrial cluster._

Would the post involve an economic model?

23

dsquared 09.30.10 at 1:03 pm

I suppose that would be one way of expanding it to have more content than the single sentence “people think Soho’s an entertainment district but it’s actually an industrial cluster”, which is currently the stumbling block.

24

engels 09.30.10 at 1:11 pm

‘has anyone recently written a good (philosophical/theoretical) book on why we need universities in the first place’

Louis Althusser?

25

dsquared 09.30.10 at 2:09 pm

I’ve just been gently reminded that “model” is the local euphemism in Soho for a prostitute, and that there is a “third sector” based there along with the entertainment and media industries. Sorry Chris.

26

burritoboy 09.30.10 at 2:47 pm

The problem with this discussion is all yous aren’t being blunt enough. The brutal fact is that we’ve been suffering through a global recession for three years already precisely because the vocational academic disciplines are too shallow to be able to critically examine themselves. At the end of the day, they’re not really vocational, they’re just trivial nonsense based on arguments from authority. They’re really just sophists.

Let’s look at the whole law and economics racket, for one. It’s now pretty clear that it’s practitioners had no deep understanding of economics at all. They were just vulgarizing Chicago School economics, whose foundations they were unable to question. The vast majority of the practitioners seem to have unable to even be capable of understanding what the act of examining those foundations might look like. The whole thing was a superficial and shallow waste.

27

Davis X. Machina 09.30.10 at 5:04 pm

The whole thing may be, and have been a superficial and shallow waste, but it was, and is, a superficial and shallow waste that attracted, and continues to attract, funding.

To the extent that the shallowness and superficiality make the product easier to pitch, shallowness and superficiality are features, not bugs. Babbitry for Babbits keeps the lights on.

28

burritoboy 09.30.10 at 8:17 pm

Davis,

Of course. And the necessary response is to hammer these sophists as hard as possible. They claim to know and they don’t know. It’s precisely because these sophists don’t know that they guided us to losing money – they are the true non-profits (or rather, they guided us to massive losses, much less getting us actual gain). (Most people don’t lose money listening to poetry – they lose money listening to those who pretend to know how to get profit).

29

Ingrid Robeyns 09.30.10 at 8:40 pm

Thanks for the references!

30

Davis X. Machina 10.06.10 at 2:29 am

SUNY Albany cutting Classics, French, Russian, Theater…

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/04/suny-albany-to-cut-langua_n_749437.html

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