I’m Rubber, You’re Glue

Definitions of the Humanities are themselves a curious thing, inasmuch as they often raise more issues than they settle. For example, consider this definition as found on the website for the US’s main Federal funding source for research in this area, the National Endowment for the Humanities:
Heritage? Traditions? History? Why only one in the plural? And are these real, objective things, lurking out there somewhere–making the Humanist a devoted conservator–or, as more critically-minded scholars might tell us, could it be that the impression of each results from a series on ongoing strategies, successfully working in the present, that create the impression of an uninterrupted lineage by picking and choosing, by directing or distracting attention, within the virtually limitless archive that we call the past? And thus we ought to invent gerunds to study the production of their nouns–studying not traditions but (pardon the neologism) traditioning. For any two things can be connected in any number of ways, no? The trick is in portraying the connection as inevitable and thus worth repeating.

But are you a Humanist if this is what you study…? Possibly not, according to the NEH.

The language of the original Act of Congress (1965) that established what we today call the NEH is curious for reasons of its own, inasmuch as it is typically concerned with distinguishing wisdom (the apparent purview of the Humanities) from mere knowledge (or, more specifically, roll up your sleeves can-do know-how). Consider the following two declarations of Congress as contained in the Act:

The legitimacy of the Humanities is apparently premised on what we bring to the table of this inevitable distinction.

Now, this is a pretty common distinction, found in literature dating back at least to antiquity; for instance, the ancient Greeks thought that there was a difference between knowledge that was confidently held because it was based on rational argumentation (i.e., justified knowledge), or what they called ἐπιστήμη (in English, episteme, from which we get the word epistemology: the branch of philosophy devoted to the rational study of knowledge systems), on the one hand, and τέχνη, on the other (techne, in English, from which we derive such words as technique and technology). While the sciences are today thought to offer us the knowledge to do things (knowledge that is justified based on its results and thus its practical application), only the Humanities help us to know whether this or that is a good thing to do (just because we can, should we…? Like cloning dinosaurs, perhaps?).

Or at least that’s how the old argument goes.

Though not all ancient texts that use these two terms mean what we might want them to mean today, we seem to find here an early version of the now common distinction–and for some, opposition–between what we call theory and practice. While the coach might know how to talk about doing this or that move on the field, only the player has the real know-how, the actual experience, to pull it off. Anti-intellectualist rhetorics, not hard to find some days, often pit these two against each other, perhaps not quite as the 1965 Act does, above, but in a way not unfamiliar to it; it’s not difficult to find those who argue that we don’t need more egg-heads but, instead, we need more strong backs, on the ground, to just get things done. It’s part of the “wasteful and inefficient Washington bureaucrats” versus “the free market’s job creators” rhetoric that’s been so prominent in the 2012 Presidential election.

Ever hear someone called “a desk jockey”? Implicit here is the distinction between work that is disconnected from the real world and practical, hands-on experience–the engine that drove the narrative of the movie, “The Other Guys” (2010). A cop who is an accountant? Who ever heard of such a crazy thing….

In the study of religion, we see this same spirit present in the distinction between method (i.e., the tools you use to do your work) and methodology (i.e., the systematic study of these tools): there are those who do comparison, for example, and those who talk about people who do comparison. And it isn’t difficult to find scholars of religion who chastise theorists for being disconnected from the real data of religion, for idle navel-gazing that’s really of no consequence. Given my own interests (in the history not of religion but, instead, of the category “religion” itself–of the very fact that some people call certain things religion or not), I’ve been on the receiving end of such critiques quite often throughout my career–so much so that I recall once remarking at a conference that if I’m to be indicted for being out of touch with the real stuff of our field (so-called religious people and the things that they do), then, inasmuch as a fellow on the panel had gotten a few lines on his c.v. by criticizing me for not studying real people, he must be in an even worse situation than me, since he studies me!

As the old saying goes, if I’m rubber, then you’re glue….

Which beings me back around to my point: inasmuch as methodologists–say, scholars studying the history of the comparative method itself–juxtapose more than one comparativist while doing their work, then they too are comparativists doing comparison in their very study of comparison, which means that there’s a method to the methodology, suggesting that seeing the two operations as somehow opposed is the result of rather sloppy thinking. In place of the theory/practice opposition, some have therefore instead suggested the term praxis, defined in a particular way, communicates that theory is not disconnected from the world but is itself a form of practice and so-called practice is the business end of theory. While analytically distinguishable, perhaps, they are part of the same activity–each presuppose the other.

If this is how you see things, if there’s no necessary reason why studying religious people is any less interesting than studying the scholars who classify them as religious, then what do you make of those classic definitions and defenses of the Humanities, as bringing a necessary but sadly absent element to the craftsman’s table? For it may have been there all along. If so, then the question might not be “What are the Humanities and why do we need them?” but, instead, “Why do we distinguish the Humanities from the Natural Sciences and who benefits from the distinction”?

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