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How can the humanities help us cope with uncertainty?


Mohammad Jangda | CC BY SA 2.0

Nikola Krestonosich Celis - published on 04/05/18

The study of the liberal arts teaches us important emotional lessons.

A lot has already been said about the contributions the humanities can make outside of academia. Those who have written on this subject usually point out two things, critical thinking and eloquence, and there are good reasons to see these skills as the core strength of the humanities outside of academia. They are basically what current philosophers, writers and other people with a degree in the humanities contribute to their non-academic jobs. Their training gave them a peculiar way of thinking that helps them discriminate accurately between sources, to sort through what is relevant in an argument or a debate, and to express their thoughts in a clear manner. As Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack and proud holder of two degrees in philosophy, has said:

“Studying philosophy taught me two things, I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings. And when I studied the history of science, I learned about the ways that everyone believes something is true–like the old notion of some kind of ether in the air propagating gravitational forces–until they realized that it wasn’t true.”

It has also been claimed that these two basic skills guarantee a bright future for the humanities as a whole. With all the changes taking place in the labor market, with automation and artificial intelligence roaming the land, most professions and college degrees based on a very narrow and specialized set of skills are in danger of becoming irrelevant in the near future. But because the humanities mostly rely on the general skills of critical thinking and eloquence, they seem to be better prepared to face the uncertain future of the labor market. In this sense, Jonathan Rosenberg, an adviser to Alphabet’s CEO Larry Page, has in recent interviews been making the point that jobs requiring strong cognitive abilities and analytical thinking will be very difficult to replace with artificial intelligence.

But there is another aspect of the humanities that makes them not only currently useful, but of everlasting value, and that has been so far neglected in this debate. In times like ours, where every aspect of life seems to be descending into anarchy and utter confusion and where predicting the outcome of an event gets more difficult with each passing day, the humanities have important emotional lessons to teach us. The practice of a humanistic discipline helps to strengthen the character and to deal with the common uncertainty of the human condition. In their constant interaction with the past, the humanists develop a peculiar disposition towards the world. Their acquaintance with the way this or that series of events developed, their familiarity with how past humans behaved or how they reacted to this or that fact, have helped them understand life as an never-ending adventure always subject to change and this, in turn, has helped them to better understand what can and cannot be achieved by human efforts. This humanist perspective was perhaps best captured by Paul Oskar Kristeller in a beautiful passage in his book Renaissance Thought and Its Sources:

“We have no power over the future. Our hopes may be deluded, and the fruits of our labor rejected or forgotten. We should like to believe that the past and the present will always contribute to the future and be encompassed in it, and also that what is past has a life in itself and a potential future. This is a faith which we cannot prove, though it may sustain us. We can only know and do what is given to us, and we must leave the outcome to the natural and human forces that govern the world and that we hope may be guided in the end by a higher law and providence.”

This understanding of the past, this faith in the future, and this virtue of, as Odo Marquard once put it, surviving confusion without discouragement is, I am sure of it, of everlasting value in academia and in jobs outside of it.

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