Cultivating Spirit: The Goal of the Humanities

A weird encounter happened between a colleague of mine and myself. My colleague is a political scientist; he is rather straightforward and remains unconvinced about the various critiques that have been offered about capitalism. At one point, I was accused of having a bogeyman view of capitalism while this colleague wax and waned about the positive consequences of capitalism more generally. I have been here before with the very same person, but I am sure others reading this blog might have been in very similar circumstances. There is an active distrust of some colleagues in the social sciences about what the humanities might say about capitalism.  Admittedly, these things are many. Arists, poets, writers, English lit scholars doing work in cultural studies, historians following Howard Zinn’s example, and feminist approaches studying the effects of market mentality on sexuality and gender would all qualify and by no means should this even be considered an exhaustive list. Not only did this distrust apply to me, as I was explaining how Scheler regarded both liberalism and socialism, but he has dismissed all of these approaches as Marxist when in all honesty I was coming from the angle of Scheler’s sociology of knowledge, personalism and value-deceptions studies–an area that could probably be better dubbed the philosophy of culture.  Such a view of the humanities is rather dismissive about what the humanities can do and do well when compared to the social sciences. So, for the purpose of this post, I would like to show how the humanities should work in tandem with any social science, but also where they part ways on the general level.  As I am a philosopher, I will be working from that angle. Let’s start by explaining the most general difference between the humanities and the social sciences.

The humanities function very differently from the social sciences, but by no means are any less rigorous. For the social scientists seem blind to the most fundamental and conceptual things they must assume in order to do science. At the very minimum, every scientist must view reality as causally-structured all the way down. Every event is an open invitation to experimentation because of this belief in the uniform causality in nature. However, these are prima facie philosophical presuppositions. We do not place burdens upon scientists to explain their view of causality and metaphysical beliefs about the uniform causality found to be underlying the natural world. Moreover, I do not think we would want scientists assuming differently. Science cannot get off the ground if it could not model reality using its various research methods and tools to apprehend (and in some cases posit) causal relations between natural phenomena. Social scientists are the same way. They could not study human beings and the various institutional and group dynamics if they did not assume human beings are disconnected from nature. Instead, human beings are part of nature. Our behavior is caused, and when generalized to large aggregate groups, human beings can be predicted and the findings can be replicated by social scientist. The social scientist seeks to view human beings causally, as one object amongst many other objects that must be explained from this third-personal empirical standpoint. It is third-personal since the social scientist strives for a comprehensive, objective “bird’s eye view” of how the phenomena behave.

Given that we have established at least one philosophical belief about how science must proceed, the social scientist now must accept that her work is based on some philosophical beliefs. Philosophical beliefs often cannot be tested, but merely believed since they make scientific practices intelligible. The social scientist would be stuck without the causal uniformity of nature. Moreover, even if the metaphysical belief in nature is false and we were never in a position to know that there is no such thing as the uniform causality inherent in nature, then scientists would still need to make those assumptions about the parts that could be tested as such. The belief in practice cannot be shed when engaging in scientific inquiry (it is the heart of the problem). If the social scientist can accept this, then it certainly follows that the dismissive attitude of the humanities collectively cannot be maintained. There’s at least one relevant aspect of philosophy that the scientist should know. Philosophy can conceive of the limits of scientific inquiry. This limit is apprehended because from the perspective of the humanities, the scientist achieves knowledge as a subject. She is not an object from this point of view, rather the humanities take the opposing viewpoint of what I earlier called the third-personal empirical standpoint. The scientist is apprehended as a subject, experiencing the world and described from the point of view of lived-subjectivity. The humanities conceive of humans as experiencing their existence and offering insight into the various modes of experiencing our humanity as a living-subjectivity. The problem is that social scientists sometimes forget and take for granted their own standpoint without so much as thinking there are ways of investigating the world apart from the empirical standpoint. Simply because social scientists believe in the uniformity of nature does not mean that this belief grounds or exhausts all types of inquiry.  Let me describe this difference in greater detail.

Whereas all the social scientists seek to control through measure and prediction the phenomena they study (human beings), the humanities-scholars impart self-reflection to those exposed to their study. The living-subjectivity is actively engaged with the world, and this point of living-subjectivity need not be isolated to understanding humanity in the singular, the same point of view can disclose the “spirit” of a people or the spirit lurking behind an artist’s possible motivations–just to name a few. But, the point of the humanities is to direct our attention to what it means for us to experience this world in the horizon of what has come before. In this way, the various humanities connect us up to the threads that influence, bind and condition the possibilities we understand before us. The fact that somebody in history has tried what we are trying now is very relevant to our present just as much as the fact that earlier languages had a word to describe what we do not but no less find desirable to make sense of in our present experience. Hence, it is my contention that the humanities be regarded as primarily a cultivation of spirit, and this cultivation requires a multi-disciplinary sensitivity that cannot be cultivated in sciences from the empirical standpoint. I know the reader may think this a fanciful term of art, but cultivation is the best word for it. Not only that, but the point of the humanities at the university level is to make us better people, and we improve our understanding of each other when we can think of ourselves as sharing in experience alongside others. The humanities, therefore, direct the spirit and seek the cultivation of spirit whereas science cannot.

Left to its own devices, science seeks to operationalize its understanding, but this is exactly the danger. Scientific understanding is exercised as control. As soon as we can understand how two phenomena relate, we can devise innovations and technology from that understanding. A new theory allows us to predict and measure what we could not otherwise harness before. In the worst case scenario, science is concerned and obsessed with its own independence such that it would go on blindly without regard to history, beauty, justice or any of the 10,000 words that  originate from the irreducible experience of living-subjectivity and the humanities that study our shared experiencing of the world. Now, as some might reckon, I consider myself an ethicist, someone engaged in lines of inquiry about what the good life requires, how moral beliefs are known, how we decide amongst the best of those moral beliefs, and what the content of our duties are. I am particularly fond of these questions, as I think they are best addressed in the philosophy classroom and relevant to how students live out their lives in future professions. By no means are these questions any less important than the study of foreign languages, knowledge of past art movements, or understanding Milton’s Paradise Lost. They are just my example, and I would ask my listeners if they regard my use of philosophy as such. With that said, imagine a science that simply assumed nature as something to be understood for human control and like anything else humans are part of that order. Imagine if you will that such a place and time in human history that objectified other human beings so as to measure, predict and control other humans at any cost. History provides us with a few examples where the cultivation of spirit is actively avoided: Dr. Mengele at Auschwitz stood on the selecting ramp of the rail cars. He thought that the twins held the answer in determining how racial characteristics could be successfully passed down and he justified his medical experiments in pursuit of the Aryan racial ideal. So, he instructed the SS Officers to select anybody with a unique genetic trait: club foots, dwarfism and twins were all appropriate targets. Now, I won’t appropriate the Holocaust anymore than I must to drive home the point. There are times in human history where no spirit is cultivated, the experience of others is not important to those being cruel to others. In fact, there is a death of spirit, and no where is this more clear about Auschwitz than Elie Wiesel’s first experience of the camp:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one ling night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those famles that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I foget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I foget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God himself.
Never. (Elie Wiesel, Night trans. Marion Wiesel. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), p. 34.)
Wiesel is a powerful writer and survivor of this experience. When we listen to his words, he transforms us by simply sharing and inviting us to listen. And, this experience is inappropriate to understand any other way. Social science could use the Holocaust as a case study. Sociology and political science could offer powerful insights into understanding the logistics of the Holocaust, but the empirical standpoint could not seek to transform us about the irreducible meaning inherent in how visceral the experience was. Rather, the transformation of that sharing pours into us from without. To acquire an understanding of it without being there, we must look to history, the narrative and in this case, Holocaust literature. No amount of philosophy can produce the powerful words of page 34 I have carried my entire life from the sophomore year when I first encountered it in Introduction to Ethics. 
The cultivation of spirit requires that we listen to others, and that we develop a sensitivity to another’s living-subjectivity as well as engage in sharing our own experience with others. In so doing, the sharing of experience opens up the seeing of how others directly experience their own living-subjectivity. We find common understanding where we thought differences divided, or where we thought unity common, we find that unity conceals the need to acknowledge difference. Part of that sensitivity, I think, is the relevant treatment of other human beings, and this sensitivity to another’s suffering is especially made clear in the ethics classroom. In that space, I reveal to my students ways of determining what is right independently of the appeals of authority that may conceal injustice. I do not tell my students what to think, but merely reveal to them what philosophy can offer them in determining right and wrong. In the end, I offer them various ways to self-reflect about what is good and just such that they might be morally responsible in the future. I care little if Paul becomes a utilitarian or deontologist beyond my classroom or that Cindy is now a decided virtue ethicist. Being outspoken for those that cannot defend themselves and the active resistance of those that seek to exploit another for profit or gain only come along with a cultivated sensitivity of shared experiences. Ethics is central to making this world a better place, but by itself it makes little sense. The humanities make sense only if they are integrated together by a culture receptive to cultivating spirit.  Being ethical requires not only the application of central moral concepts like rightness, justice but it also requires understanding the situation and the history surrounding a dilemma. If the dilemma is religious, then having a good grasp of relevant theology or how various past writers have imagined the same situation differently than oneself benefit those within the situation. The ethical situation might require conversing in different languages, and the differences of how the usage of certain words apply across cultural contexts might avoid painful consequence. Now, let’s bring this back to the dismissive social scientist.
Science  independent of the humanities would absolutize itself, seek domination and control over nature, and unwittingly be led astray by the fact that it does not cultivate the spirit. Maybe this is why the social sciences should first address the questions of spirit before employing methods that discern how to control nature. Certainly, this distrust of how events or cultural systems act can be somewhat quantified. It would be naive for the humanities scholar to eschew the social sciences and what the social sciences could help understand. Yet, it would be equally absurd for the social scientist to deny the explanatory power and the cultivation of spirit that connects us to each other. Scientific inquiry must value the truth such inquiry fosters, and in respecting the value of truth and the need to share knowledge with others, the social scientist cannot deny these are common values of the humanities scholar as well. The simple trick is to be conscientious of the constraint each possesses in relation to the other.