Poetry (and Apparently Prose Too) Makes Nothing Happen

Stanley Fish over at his NYT blog, Think Again, asks “Will the Humanities Save Us?” and answers “No.”:

Do the humanities ennoble? And for that matter, is it the business of the humanities, or of any other area of academic study, to save us?

The answer in both cases, I think, is no. The premise of secular humanism (or of just old-fashioned humanism) is that the examples of action and thought portrayed in the enduring works of literature, philosophy and history can create in readers the desire to emulate them. Philip Sydney put it as well as anyone ever has when he asks (in “The Defense of Poesy,” 1595), “Who reads Aeneas carrying old Anchises on his back that wishes not it was his fortune to perform such an excellent act?” Thrill to this picture of filial piety in the Aeneid and you will yourself become devoted to your father. Admire the selfless act with which Sidney Carton ends his life in “A Tale of Two Cities” and you will be moved to prefer the happiness of others to your own. Watch with horror what happens to Faust and you will be less likely to sell your soul. Understand Kant’s categorical imperative and you will not impose restrictions on others that you would resist if they were imposed on you.

It’s a pretty idea, but there is no evidence to support it and a lot of evidence against it.

Joseph Kugelmass responds over at The Valve:

It my sincere belief that this argument is worthless. I hope, when I am finished, that it will be ashamed to show its face again. It is hardly original with Fish; rather, it is everywhere, since it makes scholars in the humanities feel humble and forthright, and it makes people hostile towards the humanities rejoice.

To begin with, there is no universal standard of behavior to which Fish can appeal in order to prove his point. Instead, one of the foundational principles of much study in the humanities is the idea of incomparability: we give up trying to decide whether one individual, or one culture, is essentially superior to another.