Are the humanities useful for democracy or should they be?

Humanities & Democracy

When we think about reasons to justify the existence of Humanities departments at universities, one of them has been that they are essential to maintain democracy. This reason, however, could limit the humanities to their practical usefulness, which would leave out the study of some areas whose political or economic usefulness is not so obvious.  This is one of the matters I address in my article “Lo relativo y lo universal en la defensa de las humanidades para la democracia” [Relativity and universality in the defense of the humanities for democracy], published by the Universidad Nacional de Colombia journal Literatura: teoría, historia, crítica. In such article, I approach this argument used to defend the humanities, according to which they are necessary for democracy. One of the main exponents of this argument is the philosopher and literary critic Martha Nussbaum who, in her book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities which she called a “manifesto”, defended the humanities —especially in high school— as something necessary for a true democracy. Yet, this argument entails problems and questions about the autonomy of humanistic disciplines, as well as the assumptions upon which this idea is based and which do not question whether democracy is the best possible form of government or whether there is something called humanity that would be common to all of us in the midst of cultural differences.

For Nussbaum, there are certain features that all human beings share. One of the most important is the ability to put oneself in somebody’s place and the humanities —literature in this case— allow us precisely to educate this ability. Although we may criticize the fact that Nussbaum does not cast doubt on democracy as the best government or attack capitalism, or that she considers that all human beings share certain characteristics, we must also acknowledge that she is able to believe in something and defends the existence of certain universal truths that are not negotiable. The idea that democracy needs the humanities recognizes cultural differences, but does not feign an extreme cultural relativism in which anything —any tyranny or crime— would be accepted out of cultural respect. Moreover, the idea of ​​democracy goes beyond the simple fact that citizens exercise their right to vote and, thus, they govern themselves.

For Nussbaum, democracy is related to critical thinking and the ability to see others not as figures —at best— or as a means to attain economic ends —at worst—, but as complex beings whom we cannot objectify or apprehend through knowledge —we cannot establish homogeneous identities— or economic exploitation. In addition to broadening the concept of democracy (or its fundamental characteristics), Nussbaum’s approach makes us expand a little the set of disciplines we understand as the humanities. From her argument, we can see that the humanities are not only composed of philosophical, philological or literary studies, but also include all social sciences: Economics, history, geography, political science, anthropology and any area that allows us to reflect on ourselves and others.

One of the criticisms made to the argument that democracy needs the humanities is that it seems to deny the humanities the possibility of having their own value, beyond their political role. It looks as though the argument is no longer that democracy needs us, but that we need democracy to justify our existence. The humanities —some of those who defend them want to say— are not just an ornament of universities, or something beautiful and strange without relevance. We would not want to say either that their only raison d’être is to serve democracy but, on the contrary, we would like to advocate their autonomy. The quest for absolute autonomy, however, is perhaps absurd if we remember that the humanities —even those that speak of non-existent worlds or create linguistic games whose meaning we barely grasp—always have to do, in some way, with life. And the humanities, as Edward Said suggested in his book Humanism and Democratic Criticism, should return to philology, understood not as a strange science dedicated to deciphering incomprehensible ancient texts, but as the critical exercise of unveiling what is underneath preconceived ideas, of revealing the world from another perspective, of showing us what we cannot see, even when it is in front of us.

Rather than forcing humanists to go out into the world to talk about “useful” or “real” things, it would be necessary to remember that origin of the humanities as a critical and self-critical study. For Nussbaum, democracy relies precisely on the ability to argue; an ability which, while being an intellectual exercise, also requires empathy to put ourselves in the other’s position to understand the reasons for his ideas. This argumentative ability, which Nussbaum comprehends through the Socratic tradition, is joined by self-criticism as mentioned by Said. Democracy, then, would no longer be a mere debate of fixed arguments, but a constant reflection on those arguments susceptible to transformation. Such study not only contributes to the definition of the humanities, but also of the university itself as an educator of individuals, which not only have specific knowledge but also know how to think in the sense that they know how to reflect on and question themselves about what they know or think they know and the history of the knowledge they possess and its implications for life.

Liliana Galindo Orrego

Literata de la Universidad de los Andes y Magíster en Literatura de la Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Actualmente es doctoranda en el departamento de German and Romance Languages and Literatures de la Universidad Johns Hopkins en Baltimore, Estados Unidos. Uno de sus campos investigativos es la literatura latinoamericana del siglo XX.