“A good way of knowing things”: Eric Hayot’s defense of the humanities

by Jeroen Bouterse

Unfortunately, it is always worth your time to read a book in praise of the humanities. Given the unenviable position of the humanities in public education and in contemporary cultural and (especially) political discourse about valuable expertise, any author that comes to their defense has to find a strategy to shift the narrative, and will thereby almost invariably do something interesting.

They move our focus from economic value to democracy and citizenship, for example. Or they argue that there is not actually a mismatch between the skills provided by a well-balanced liberal arts curriculum and the demands of technocapitalism, or that the humanities themselves produce the same kinds of intellectual goods as the natural sciences with which they tend to be contrasted.

These apologies are intellectually creative, though with luck some of them may grow to be new clichés. In their diversity, they also have something in common, which is that they project a rather straightforward view of the knowledge that the humanities and (other) sciences produce. One point on Martha Nussbaum’s agenda in Not For Profit, for instance, is to “teach real and true things about other groups”.

I feel slightly uneasy about this. Maybe this kind of book is not the place to get all difficult about the words “real and true”, but whenever elevator words like those are used with such confidence, part of me is inclined to get difficult about them – to look for the social and cultural interests that put them there, for instance. What is more, the place where I learned to ask those questions was during my history major; they seem to me to point to something that is particular about the humanities, something that gets lost in these defenses.

Of course I don’t want apologists to needlessly undermine their arguments with academic subtleties, but I also want a defense of the humanities to defend something that I recognize, something that reflects what my own education actually did for me. Is it too much to ask for both? An exciting new book by Eric Hayot, titled Humanist Reason, proves that it is possible to launch a full-blown defense of the humanities that is centered not around discrete humanistic results or skills, but around what they contribute to the way in which we view and construct knowledge altogether.

That does require shifting the narrative. Hayot patiently explains that my reflex to frown upon naïvely realist self-descriptions of humanistic scholarship may actually be unhelpful: “the humanist critique of truth”, he says, “seems to lead humanists themselves into a metadiscourse about their own practice that makes it harder for them to advocate for that practice.” It is part of the problem in so far as the current problems of the humanities are cultural and intellectual: “There exists a widespread, complex metadiscourse about the humanities that aims to marginalize or delegitimize the work humanists do as teachers and scholars; and […] humanists often participate in that discourse, even when they are trying to resist it.”

Point taken, and apologies. However, by itself this would just be a matter of tactical expediency. If Hayot’s book were a self-defense course for humanists, he could tell them to accept that a lot of their writings look like truth-claims, in spite of their own inclinations towards contextualizing and historicizing truth-claims. What makes his book really interesting, and more than pragmatically relevant, is that he goes further than that: he chooses to spotlight these very inclinations as reflecting one of the main insights that the humanities have on offer. Yes, we say that everything is context-embedded. The reason is that it is true that everything is context-embedded. This is not a self-undermining confession about scholarship in the humanities; it is the thing that the humanities say, emphatically and confidently, about everything. There is a humanist “theory of truth. We ought to lay claim to it, and recognize and write its long and complex history, which is part of the general history of truth, full stop.”

However, there is a fine line between embracing the existence of such a humanist theory of truth on the one hand, and buying into the pernicious narrative that knowledge in the humanities is not fully knowledge, not on a par with real scientific knowledge, on the other hand. Hayot has his work cut out for him to trace some of the wrong turns that discourse about the humanities has made in the past centuries, and use this historical insight to shift the way we talk about knowledge in the humanities.

His point of departure is a lecture by the 19th-century neo-Kantian philosopher Wilhelm Windelband (about which I have also written a column here on 3quarksdaily), in which Windelband proposes to distinguish the humanities from the natural sciences on the basis not of their different objects (‘nature’ versus ‘mind’), but on the basis of a fundamental dichotomy between generality and uniqueness. Sciences can study particular phenomena in a search for general laws and patterns (in which case they are nomothetic, or ‘law-arranging’), or they can study them as unique phenomena, as a one-time occurrence in a history that itself happens only once (in which case they are idiographic, or ‘particulars-writing’).

What are the stakes here? Windelband is responding to the encroachment of positivism in the university, and his interests in carving out an autonomous institutional sphere for the humanities lead him at crucial points in his lecture to steer away from the most exciting radical implications of his own innovation. His distinction between general laws and patterns, precisely because it explicitly does not overlap with a distinction between nature and mind, could have led him to call into question “the science/culture dichotomy that organizes the modern university”, says Hayot. Instead, Windelband uses it to rationalize this very dichotomy, stipulating that the natural sciences always aim at generality and the historical (human) sciences always at particularity, thereby effectively defining two quarters of the possibility space out of existence.

This disappoints Hayot, but he does not fail to appreciate the affective and ethical core to Windelband’s choices here. They form the epistemological counterpart to the Kantian maxim that we ought to see people as ends in themselves. By way of illustration, Hayot has us imagine a relationship therapist who contextualizes all of a couple’s problems as a common ‘seven-year itch’ rather than as the result of a complex set of circumstances that is, in this particular constellation, unique to the couple. Zooming out so much from the historical individual seems to amount to not taking it seriously anymore; the therapist is not doing justice to the situation, both epistemically and ethically. Wholly subsuming all meaningful human phenomena under general laws seems to be taking too much away from us, not least the room that seems to be required for free human agency. Accepting concepts like a ‘seven-year itch’ means naturalizing deeply moral phenomena, and that seems cold. None of these ethical, existential objections come into play when it comes to atoms. Atoms are already cold and lifeless; we don’t take anything away from them if we describe them in alienating ways.

That Windelband considers idiographism proper to humans, and nomothetism to natural objects, is now understandable, even relatable. That doesn’t make it absolutely, categorically, Kantian-y, universally obvious – or, in Hayot’s words: “it is probably not the case that some nineteenth-century German guy spoke for the entire historical population of the planet”. Perhaps late-19th-century German philosophers were unusually into moral agency, and perhaps to other people in other times and places it seems less wrong to replace strong talk about culture, value, uniqueness and individuality by more naturalizing, generalizing concepts, taking away power from individual agents and transfer it to policymaking processes and scientific and medical expertise. Reading Hayot’s example, my first thought was that couples may prefer straightforward solutions over affirmations of their own uniqueness, and may even be relieved to hear that they are experiencing a natural ‘seven-year itch’ that they can just sit out.

In this particular case, Hayot is more convinced that people tend not to like “getting treated as an instance of a more general principle”, but he is clearly happy to destabilize the confident distinctions that Windelband makes, including the absolute dichotomy between nomothetic and idiographic perspectives. After all, there are lots of ways of schematizing the relations between the concrete and the abstract, or between an example and a theory, or the particular and the general, all of these schemes are subtly different – Hayot effectively out-Kantianizes Windelband in pointing out that not only are his infinitely particular events themselves at an unreachable limit (that at least would surely have been on Windelband’s mind on a daily basis), but that the very definition of the scale on which they occupy that extreme requires a lot of abstract work.

The upshot is that it is just a bit too easy to say that any discipline aims at “the particular” or “the general”. This is a subtle but important correction to Windelband: Hayot is clearly out to do at least part of the work that Windelband left undone, of developing a less essentialist metanarrative about the relations between the sciences and the humanities. He sees a lot of Windelbandian sensibility in the contemporary humanities: distrust of totalizing theories and resistance to cliometrics and the digital humanities can be explained by similar affective underpinnings as Windelband’s desire to keep lawlike sciences at an arm’s length.

Behind this sensibility Hayot sees more Kantianism. To be more specific: the reverberations of Kant’s theory of aesthetic judgment, which is the topic of Hayot’s second chapter. In Kant, aesthetic judgment is at once singular and universal: it concerns a particular object, but it at least potentially universalizes the judgment that this object is beautiful. This universalizability is predicated precisely on the object’s uniqueness: it can never turn the object into an example of something general – aesthetic judgment in Kant is decidedly nonconceptual.

Hayot believes that humanist self-descriptions and anti-nomothetic tendencies owe a lot to this Kantian view of aesthetic judgment, and that this is in the end a mistake, although it is a mistake  that Hayot can again muster quite a lot of sympathy and appreciation for. The theory of the artwork as singular, he reasons, is intuitively attractive because its resistance to generalization seems to amount to a resistance to capitalization, transactability – in short, to modernity. Like a person, a work of art is an end in itself. They are so in different ways – the person a priori, the work of art a posteriori. Only a person can be a source of ideals of beauty, and this opens a rift between persons and objects after all.

It is this Kantian order that Hayot now wants to call into question, arguing that there are lots of nonhuman animals, other living beings and inanimate object in our life-worlds too, and that giving humans a special ontological status seems unwarranted; and that in practice, we often treat others as means rather than ends. Hayot is not wrong in insisting on acknowledging these facts, although opening the gates of empirical and historical observations so wide also seems to beg the question why the book is set up in dialogue with Kantianism to begin with. Why not converse with phenomenological or hermeneuticist thinkers from the outset?

The plausible answer seems to me that Hayot means to keep some of the inclinations he has studied in the first two chapters. So, what stays and what goes? Is there still room, for instance, for Windelband’s idea: that there is a way of knowing and describing that treats its object as an end, in its own terms, with methods that take into account its unicity or singularity? Though he often emphasizes that Windelband is the philosopher that he is arguing against, many of Hayot’s most powerful paragraphs are readings of Windelband, and he does not radically break with him. His own position effectively collapses the nomothetic into the idiographic, and expands rather than undercuts the possibilities of Windelband’s argument.

He has also collected some major objections to it, however. First, knowledge can never be idiographic description all the way down; that is an established impossibility, and there has to be space for generality even if Hayot roots this possibility in social use rather than pure nomothetic abstraction. Second, any tendencies to associate idiography with the properties of specific objects (namely humans and their creations) are unwarranted: humans and artworks are “by no means the only kinds of things that either have singularity or make it visible”. Finally, since idiographic description is not the only proper mode of knowing human beings, nomothetic knowledge is not an epistemic or ethical violation. Humans are not qualitatively more singular than other entities, ontologically speaking, nor are they more ‘deserving’ of thick description. “[N]o mode of analysis [is] inherently inimical to the integrity or dignity of a phenomenon.”

Hayot reasons that what nomothetic knowledge by nature cannot do, it is quite superfluous to forbid it from doing. If a certain method does not work on humans because it was meant for a different kind of object that it cannot completely escape, then that impossibility is enough – “‘should’ doesn’t really come into it”. His consistent message is that, intellectually speaking, there is nothing that the humanities need to fear a priori. (They have plenty to fear from right-wing politics and neoliberalism.)

Hayot’s liberal-minded view on method resonates well with Max Weber’s interpretation of Neo-Kantian philosophy of science. Hayot touches base with him in his third chapter: like Weber, he believes that the world allows itself to be cut in many ways, and that we can try to reason about it even if we start out from vantage points that are essentially subjective. Humanists are in fact, in actual practice, not eschewing truth or objectivity, or even method; on the contrary, they have, in the course of their historical practice, learned a thing or two about them.

They have learned, for example, that all human activity is context-embedded, if not thereby context-determined. They have learned, or they ought to, that disciplinary boundaries are not absolute, that life takes place at different scales simultaneously but that we have to be super-careful about reifying these scales; that historical causality is complex and language is ambiguous. These and other ideas are codified in the rest of the third chapter into a series of ‘articles’ of humanist reason.

If they sound like information-free truisms, cop-outs even, they do not play that role in the argument. Hayot is not speaking in a tone of resignation or skepticism; he is not complaining that history is just too difficult, as if apologizing for humanists’ lack of results, or as if inviting the aid and assistance of proper scientific method; he is saying that this is how things are. We need to deal with complexity and ambiguity, because they are, in fact, everywhere. They are not just the problems of the humanities.

Humanists, like scientists, are in the business of knowledge, and they bring their own kind of reason to the game: one that is not, except by misunderstanding, soft on truth or objectivity, or weak on abstractions and general concepts (“humanists tend to value strong theories over weak ones, even when they say they don’t”), but one that does tend towards ‘rich’ descriptions, because humanists have for historical reasons assumed their own objects to be particularly incompressible, and in doing so they have hit on modes of knowing that work.

This is an assertive view of the work done in the humanities: Hayot wants to break down the barriers around human agency and creativity, “the residual forms of protection that circle our beloved objects”, but he does it not so much to let the scientists in as to let the humanists out. Institutionally, Hayot regrets Windelband’s legacy because it is so defensive and defeatist.

“[T]he humanities matter because they’re a good way of knowing things, and because their way of knowing things has often produced substantial changes in the way all of us think, live our lives, organize our social spheres, and plan for the future.”

Hayot’s last chapter spells out what a more expansive view of the humanities could look like, in practice; what it means to teach students to ‘think humanistically’. It is not always a picture that thrills me – I am not as eager as Hayot is to find out how the chemistry department is going to benefit from “someone who describes a single chemical reaction”; that sounds a bit frivolous and silly. Even if Hayot’s vision for the sciences and humanities is much more sympathetic than most current ones, I am still not sure I would take the risk of radically reshaping the university around it – but then, Hayot is mainly illustrating his ideas here, reflecting on how they would play out “if I were king of the universe”. No objection; my point is that once chapter four starts, the main work of the book is already done.

That work is to assert that the humanities have developed their own recognizable practices in dealing with richly complex phenomena, and that these practices are valuable. What makes humanist reason peculiar is that it is not out to deny this richness and complexity and ambiguity in any way. Nor, of course, is proper scientific reason, which is why Hayot has not fenced off his ‘humanist reason’ categorically from scientific reason. Still, the university being organized the way it is, you will be more likely to encounter humanist reason in humanities courses than elsewhere.

If things go a bit wrong, then you leave your courses in history or literature not just aware that all human activity is context-embedded and that ambiguity is there to stay, but also with the vague impression that all of this means we are not supposed to talk about truth anymore. If things go right, then you realize that truth is complicated because everything is complicated, that knowledge is contextual because everything is contextual; that none of this is a priori undermining, let alone self-undermining, but that it contributes to a richer understanding of the world. If things go very right, you find a way to contribute to this richness. This is valuable, not only for its social and political effects, but because it is a better kind of understanding. That he puts precisely the epistemic value of the humanities center-stage makes Hayot’s book one of the most exhilarating defenses of the humanities of our time.