Expressions of the Human Mind

By age 16, I had a passion for Plato, Shakespeare, and Dostoyevsky, was reading (quite haltingly) The Odyssey and Aeneid in the originals, and carried T.S. Eliot’s Selected Poems in my back pocket the way other kids carried baseball gloves. I was, as C.S. Lewis described himself, a surviving example of Old Western Man. So I was intensely interested in this issue’s question about the fate of the humanities. After some reading and reflection, I’ve concluded that what’s happened to the humanities is exactly what the humanists above said in one way or another: they’ve changed with the times, and we’ve changed with them.

In the Socratic tradition, I’ll begin by asking, “Can we define the humanities?” The first humanists were Renaissance philologists trying to recover the exact meaning of ancient works by rigorous analysis of texts. (W.B. Yeats had an opinion of their successors: “Old, learned, respectable bald heads/ Edit and annotate the lines/ That young men, tossing on their beds,/ Rhymed out in love’s despair.”) But by “humanities” most of us today mean a set of academic disciplines that have fallen out of favor, at least at the college level, in the past 50 years. The first book announcing a crisis in the humanities appeared in 1964, which now seems like their golden age. In fact, as Geoffrey Galt Harpham says in The Humanities and the Dream of America, an essential work for anyone wishing to understand the humanities’ past and present, “The history leading up to and including the modern humanities is characterized at every point by tensions, divisions, and conflicts both internal and external. It is impossible to discover anywhere in that history a moment that would not deserve the name of crisis.”

Remember, Socrates, the first professor of the humanities, was killed for his troubles.

Are humanities departments really in trouble? Maybe, at least at the college level. It’s helpful to recall, however, that their disciplines are younger than the airplane. The first professorship of English at Cambridge University was established in 1911, 187 years after the first chair in Arabic. The first United States program in humanities was created at Princeton University in 1930, and the 1911 Britannica had no “humanities” article. But even here, the humanities are changing, not disappearing, as online learners eagerly seek them out. Among the 50 most popular MOOCs to date, 14 — including “A History of the World Since 1300” (Princeton), “God, Knowledge, and Consciousness” (MIT), and “Greek and Roman Mythology” (University of Pennsylvania) — fall into the humanities category, only two fewer than those devoted to technology itself. Nearly 6 million students have registered for these courses — more than 750,000 for philosophy courses alone.

Both inside and beyond classroom walls — venerable or virtual — the humanities exist as a set of concerns, questions, topics, or methods that seem unlikely ever to disappear. Here are a few among the many definitions of the humanities. Whichever definition you pick, it’s hard to claim that the humanities have lessened in their hold on our attention:

“The term ‘humanities’ includes, but is not limited to, the study and interpretation of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism, and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment.” —National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965

“The humanities — including the study of languages, literature, history, jurisprudence, philosophy, comparative religion, ethics, and the arts — are disciplines of memory and imagination, telling us where we have been and helping us envision where we are going.” —American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2013

“What are the humanities? It is like the notion of ‘time’ in St. Augustine: If you don’t ask, we know, but if you ask, we are left empty-handed. Since the 19th century the humanities have generally been defined as the disciplines that investigate the expressions of the human mind.” —Rens Bod, A New History of the Humanities, 2013

So the humanities, like the languages that they study, have always been changing, and are now adopting forms no less surprising to us than the novel, existentialism, impressionism, and the third actor in Greek drama must have been in their day. These new mutations are, to me at least, as exhilarating as they are surprising and are cause for applause not hand-wringing.

Take theater. Through Greek drama, the mystery plays, Elizabethan tragedy, and theater of the absurd (not forgetting Noh and Kabuki), humans have explored life’s meaning by way of staged performance, often combined with music, from the Greeks to Wagner and beyond. And now comes Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning Hamilton — as implausible a hybrid form of biography, politics, scandal, and musical as any before it, and as great or greater a popular and critical success as such earlier innovations as verismo— Gilbert and Sullivan and Les Mis.

You may say, “but that’s a special case from the performing arts.” So let’s examine some current scholarly books, the paradigmatic incarnations of the humanities. Their authors all studied at familiar liberal arts schools: Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Amherst, Barnard, the New School, and New York University. But their academic appointments are astonishingly varied: one holds appointments in law, English, and classical studies at The University of Michigan; another — yes, one person —in law, philosophy, classics, political science, South Asian studies, and divinity at University of Chicago. A third, after a doctorate at Columbia Teachers College and a postdoc in comics studies at Calgary University, now teaches at the School of Humanities and Liberal Studies at San Francisco State.

Their forms, too, mix the traditional and the innovative, including not only essays and treatises but also novels, philosophic dialogues, commentaries on nonexistent books, and works in mixed graphic and text modes, even the first graphic novel ever accepted as a doctoral thesis — and later published by Harvard University.

Consider Rebecca Goldstein, a philosopher who has also written novels with such titles as The Mind-Body Problem and 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Her latest book, Plato at the Googleplex, imagines the father of Western philosophy arriving at Google headquarters for a lunch talk, joining a panel on child-rearing at New York’s 92nd Street Y, taking on a talk show host, and offering himself as a subject for a brain scan. At Google, Plato examines whether Google’s search algorithm can discern “the Good” by analyzing clicks, or whether the majority should yield to the trained mind. Before his MRI, Plato challenges the notion that brain patterns can tell us all we need to know about thinking (as he did, in his age’s way, in the Phaedo). In each case, the ancient Socratic/Platonic techniques expose the shallow thinking of our contemporaries just as thoroughly as they did 2,500 years ago. Read this book and you’ll see, as Goldstein’s subtitle advises, “Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away.”

In The Edge of Meaning, lawyer and scholar James Boyd White offers the thesis that “each of us constantly seeks to imagine the world, and the self and others within it, in such a way as to enable us to engage in coherent and intelligible speech, valuable and effective action.” To illustrate his point, White shows the difficulty of ascertaining the meaning of a single Homeric sentence (taking four pages to point out the challenges in translating the first two words, “Then he”), then turns to the ways in which novelists, epic poets, philosophers, attorneys, and painters each are “among other things, a system of attracting our attention to difficult questions and holding it there.”

For instance, White sees Walden, Huckleberry Finn, and the The Odyssey as different examples of characters (and authors), trying to make sense of their worlds: Thoreau taking a step back from his, Huck struggling over the debased moral code that enslaves Jim, and Odysseus fitting into a post-Heroic world whose values have changed since he left Ithaca decades ago.

Martha Nussbaum, she of the sextuple appointments, has not only written directly about our topic in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, but also about the Greek worldview (The Fragility of Goodness), contemporary biases (From Disgust to Humanity and The New Religious Intolerance), the rights of those outside the so-called social contract, from the mentally disabled to foreigners to nonhuman species (Frontiers of Justice), and the obligation of states to care for each of their citizens (Creating Capabilities). Throughout all these wide-ranging works, Nussbaum balances the classical philosophers’ emphasis on rational examination of our beliefs and prejudices with the importance of cultivating what were once called our moral sentiments, or the moral imagination. We need both to see the rightness and justice of a course of action, and to feel the impact of wrong action on others unlike ourselves. As she puts it in the subtitle of another of her books, “Love Matters for Justice.”

The chief obstacles to such dual learning are twofold: our egocentricity and our tendency to accept our initial perceptions of the other, whether these arise internally or are taught by our society. The chief means to removing those obstacles is, essentially, a humanities education — which for Nussbaum includes Gandhi and Tagore as surely as it does Dewey and Mill, The Republic, and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (Nussbaum is also a trained opera singer).

Each of these authors tests conventions — reviving philosophic dialogue, remaking the musical, or mixing artistic works from opera to painting— and presents it allwith the linguistic discourse usual to the humanities. Our last three authors confound expectations even more daringly.

In The Manhattan Project, philosopher David Kishik offers a treatise more like one of Jorge Luis Borges’s Fictions than a typical prose text. Imagine, he says, that the great culture critic Walter Benjamin, who spent years on a work about 19th century Paris, had not died fleeing the Nazis in 1940 but escaped to America where he lived in obscurity, spending 30 years on a similar project about New York. Kishik invents — discovers? — this fragmentary work and uses it to study both the man and the city he never saw. Even more than our other authors, Kishik exemplifies the classical doctrine of Nil humanum (“I am human and see nothing human as alien to me.”) He draws on theology and philosophy, literature, painting, photography, and science. How many books, for example, would list consecutively in their “Name Index” Foucault, Michel; Francis, Saint; Freud, Sigmund; Friedman, Milton; and Fuller, Buckminster? (Or in their “Place Index” Heaven, Hell, Hollywood, Hudson River?)

A single sentence must suffice to show how Kishik connects places and times: “The 19th-century aristocracy’s fear of the amorphous mob, which turned into the fascination of 20th-century media with the obscure mobster, is mutating today into the government’s watchful eye over the elusive terrorist.”

Other authors directly question the role of the written word in the humanities and in our mental lives. Peter Mendelsund, a leading contemporary designer of physical books, considers a topic we may never have thought about: What We See When We Read. When we read Anna Karenina, Ulysses, Madame Bovary, or To the Lighthouse, he asks, “What do we see… (other than words on a page)? What do we picture in our minds?” Mendelsund asserts, “We imagine that the experience of reading is like that of watching a film. But… this is neither what reading is, nor what reading is like.”

Among the things he convincingly asserts: Reading conjures up sounds and behaviors better than forms and faces, descriptions are character indications more than visual aids, and “narratives are made richer by omissions.” Reading him, I realized that the fullest descriptions — the sexy client who walks in the detective’s door, the bulking bouncer at the club, the rotund villain at his desk — often come from mystery novels because the genre is so closely allied to film.

To build his case, Mendelsund uses images as often as words — possible portraits of Anna K. (one from police sketch software), line drawings, chess boards, book illustrations, blueprints, even equations. He concludes, “Writers reduce when they write, and readers reduce when they read. The brain itself is built to reduce, replace, emblematize…. So we reduce. And it is not without reverence that we reduce. This is how we apprehend our world. This is what humans do.” What humans do: ergo part of the humanities.

Nick Sousanis offers a final challenge to the primacy of the text. Unflattening, which might best be called “a work between covers,” is both visually overwhelming and intellectually dis- or perhaps re-orienting. Although it now exists as a static work, its form and content suggest a future appearance in dynamic video form.

Sousanis’s work is a critique of what William Blake called “Single vision and Newton’s sleep.” Opening with a montage of images influenced by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and the art of Edvard Munch, K├Ąthe Kollwitz, and Alberto Giacometti, he depicts our mental and social world as a one-dimensional prison. Like the character “A Line” in Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland, we are unable to imagine perspectives beyond our own. For Sousanis, this “flat” perspective is linked to the linearity of language, which forces us to place ideas in a one-directional sequence, whether temporal (as in speech) or visual (as in print). Our salvation is to recognize the multiple perspectives from which the world can be viewed: the binocular vision of our left and right eyes; the orbital parallax that allows us to measure the depth of the universe; the double helix that makes life possible; the contrasting points of view of literary texts; and most of all, the holistic manner in which we absorb both art and life, taking in multiple stimuli simultaneously before beginning to dissect them.

Of all our writers, Sousanis delves the most deeply into almost every realm of the humanities, from philosophy (Descartes, William James, Maurice Merleau-Ponty) to literature (James Joyce, Italo Calvino, Arthur Koestler), aesthetics (Ernst Gombrich, Rudolf Arnheim), and language (S.I. Hayakawa, George Lakoff), and from Eratosthenes and the Code of Hammurabi through Galileo and Vesalius to Art Spiegelman and Eric Carle.

Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” and “About what one cannot speak, one must remain silent.” These new humanists have stretched my world, through new ideas and new languages. In the end, I can only point, as if to say, “Read and rejoice.”

Richard Barbieri

After 40 years as teacher, administrator, and school head, Richard Barbieri is now helping schools deal with a range of interpersonal and organizational communication issues. He can be reached at