Are the humanities worth studying? Art, literature, and philosophy don’t do anything. They simply are

In the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote: “All art is quite useless.” Wilde meant this not in a disparaging way but rather as a compliment to all things beautiful. He didn’t want to assign any utility to something that is elusive and that cannot be possessed. Can we say the same thing about learning and the Humanities? Is learning “useless” in the same way that art is “useless?” Education and learning, of course, are not the same as a painting or a musical composition. But just like in Wilde’s view on art, we ought to ask whether we can really take a utilitarian approach when it comes to understanding and defining the Humanities.

As a teacher who has taught both high school and college English, I would always get that inevitable question from students: “Why do we have to read this?” The question itself reveals a youthful naiveté and impatience, but on a deeper level, it exemplifies many issues that we are dealing with today when it comes to the liberal arts.

Indeed, why read literature or philosophy? This question has been repeatedly asked and explored and rightfully so. Higher education is inextricably connected to the cost of education. Students are making “an investment,” and it would follow that they (or their parents) are expecting something in return.

At the same time, another problem with the Humanities is that many American universities are not teaching great and big ideas but rather ideology. Ideology is a coercion of truth and as Hannah Arendt points out in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “ideologues are not interested in the miracle of being.” Instead, ideological theories are dominating the study of the Humanities and producing activists instead of learned people.

These two very important aspects—economical and ideological—are what lead many commentators to question whether the Humanities are “useful?” Whatever the case may be, here I am not interested in those two issues. Rather, I am interested in a completely different level of the Humanities, a level that has nothing to do with higher education or the state of the university. I am simply interested in learning itself.

No matter how many times we ask, “Why study the Humanities?,” we won’t get a thoroughly satisfying response. To ask such a thing is to do literature, philosophy, or art a great disservice. Trying to squeeze the utility out of reading a novel is like trying to squeeze juice out of a dried-up lemon. The Humanities cannot be reduced to a monetary or even a moral value.

One could argue that studying the Humanities makes a human being good and happy. This may be true, but one can be entirely illiterate and still be both good and happy. To assign an ethical value—that awful question of “what is the moral of the story?”—is also meaningless.

Similarly, literature or philosophy should not be treated in a therapeutic way because we are shaping a piece of art to fit our own existential mold and our worldview. This is not to deny that a reader can have an affinity with a character in a novel or that he can see himself in it. But great books are not therapists, even if they may at times cure some ailments of the soul. If this result does occur, it is because we have allowed the text to unfold right before our eyes and mind, and it has spoken to us on a deeper level. But such a relation can’t be expected or forced.

Perhaps it’s in our nature to look for utility in everything we encounter. In her book Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor reflected upon a particular human quality: the insistence to know the exact meaning of the ineffable. Referring in particular to literature, she writes:

The fact is, people don’t know what they are expected to do with a novel, believing, as many do, that art must be utilitarian, that it must do something, rather than be something. Their eyes have not been opened to what fiction is, and they are like the blind men who went to visit the elephant—each feels a different part and comes away with a different impression.

The distinction between being and doing is crucial in what O’Connor is establishing, and it points to a problem that somehow we expect something from art. Expectation, in this case, lacks gratitude for the thing itself. Reading a novel is not like taking a prescription medication: “Take twice daily and you will begin to feel better.” The inescapable problem is that reading literature or philosophy rarely leaves one feeling better… and nobody knew this better than O’Connor.

Just as writing fiction for O’Connor was a “habit of being,” so should reading be for us. When reading philosophy or literature, when taking the time to look at a painting, or listen to music, we can’t anticipate a certain result. In order to absorb new knowledge and internalize it, we have to exercise great patience and discipline. By constantly wondering and worrying what the purpose and aim of learning is, we exercise neither patience nor discipline; rather, we make an attempt at possessing the mystery of being that is presented to us.

As a writer, O’Connor was concerned with what she called “the mystery that is lived.” To live means to relate to other human beings and to recognize the whole picture of humanity—the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful. Just as we can’t expect other people to have utility for us, particularly people whom we love, we also can’t expect art or learning to have an aim.

The truth is, we cannot engage in any kind of doing without first acknowledging the possibility of being. What this means is that our entire existence is based on an encounter—whether it involves other human beings, nature, or books. When we understand (even on a basic level) that we ought to engage the entirety of our being into every act that we do, be it small or big, only then can we enter into the aspect of life that is much deeper than superficial categories that are always appearing before us. Otherwise, we are always living on the periphery of what could be.

Ideally, the liberal arts are also based on an encounter. Make no mistake—we are forming our judgments, positions, and conclusions even when we engage in a dialogue. But this relation is not just about ideas. It is about the entirety of the person. While ideology confines a human being into a set of superficial categories, true learning offers freedom of the mind. While ideology denies being, true learning affirms the possibility of being. This is what a constant movement toward the “yes of life” looks like: by recognizing the dignity of another human being, we seek not to ridicule and decrease the other person, but to respect the person and increase knowledge and the evolution of thought. For this reason, the liberal arts and learning ought to be exercises in both the contemplative and active life. Intellectual life, as a whole, cannot reach its fullness and potential without that exercise.

It is very important to take a dialogic approach in our encounter with the Humanities. This means that we have to let literature or philosophy or art speak for itself. Whether one is trying to place a monetary value on literature, art, or philosophy, or to assault them with various ideologies and theories, both intentions annihilate the wonder of being. Ultimately, on a deeper level, we should not be asking whether the Humanities are worth studying. Art, literature, and philosophy don’t do anything. They simply are.

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Published: Sep 14, 2017
Emina Melonic
Emina Melonic is completing her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University at Buffalo. Ms. Melonic holds a B.A. in English, German, and Art History from Canisius College; an M.A. in Humanities from the University of Chicago; an M.A. in Philosophy from University at Buffalo; and an M.A. in Theology from Christ the King Seminary. Her work has been published in The Catholic Thing and National Review.
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9 replies to this post
  1. The humanities are what deepens our inner selves, rejecting the ephemeral, and being aware of the growth and insights of the educated adult. And why not?, Western history and the humanities shape the person, wrest him from the trivia that surrounds us, and engages us with the Ages. it is, plainly put, a blessing.

  2. I’m sympathetic to the need for liberal arts. But I have a question about the following remark:

    “The truth is, we cannot engage in any kind of doing without first acknowledging the possibility of being. What this means is that our entire existence is based on an encounter—whether it involves other human beings, nature, or books.”

    That’s a hard paragraph to understand. Why does “acknowledging the possibility of being” mean that existence is based upon an encounter? I’m not sure I see a logical necessity in that connection.

    • Thank you for your comment and question. I’m going to try to explain this as clearly as I can. Possibility of being in this instance refers to not only a disclosure of being – a constant opening of being – but also the “yes” of life. The reason I have connected it to an encounter is to make a distinction between Heideggerian notion of being, which only sees the meaning of being in the being itself – in other words, there is no relationality per se but a constant disclosure. Possibility of being – and in this case, possibility if the key word here – lies within the encounter. And so, what I am saying (contra Heidegger) is that the meaning of being is not in the being itself but in a RELATION of one being to another. The other reason I also say that this possibility must be first acknowledged is because I am going against Nietzsche’s nihilism. If we begin our state of being with that mindset, we will hardly see any significance of an encounter or a relationship. I really hope I have explained this as sufficiently as I could. I realize it’s a huge concept – one that most likely requires a book to explain it, rather than a mere paragraph, but this is the best I can do in a short response.

  3. Ms. Melonic,

    I am pleased you have brought up such an important topic but I am terribly troubled by your articulation of your points.

    You said “To assign an ethical value—that awful question of “what is the moral of the story?”—is also meaningless.”

    Certainly to reduce a piece of literature to the economical or ethical is impermissible, but to recognize and even to ask what is of moral value in a particular work or passage is not at all an awful question. It is an awful thing to reduce that important question to a utilitarian concern when it has the potential to be much more than that- this is also far from meaningless (outside of purely utilitarian considerations) for it is a vitally important component of exegesis.

    You said “Expectation, in this case, lacks gratitude for the thing itself” to expect a monetary or useful product from a great literary work does indeed lack gratitude but many expectations can be brought to the great works, like the expectation of edification, or leisurely enjoyment, or an encounter with truth. So maybe you are saying just this but it is not clear, to suggest that we shouldn’t approach great art with expectations sounds as silly as “random acts of kindness” doing something “nice” without an intended purpose. It is not possible to choose a great piece of literature without the expectation that it will be a rewarding experience, cathartic, elucidating etc… or really why read? Reading without a purpose lacks gratitude for the literary arts.

    You drive the confusion home with “Just as we can’t expect other people to have utility for us, particularly people whom we love, we also can’t expect art or learning to have an aim.
    Your first point is true, but it doesn’t follow that we can’t expect art or learning to have an aim, it does have an aim no matter how ideological we get about it. This appears to be a veiled denial of the final cause because even if you mean for that conclusion to be limited by the consideration that you intend only to say that art does not have a “utilitarian” aim, I think this may not be true either. All things made by men considered art have the potential to be morally, intellectually and materially sound and the finest art is all three.

    I believe your topic and thesis are very important considerations, but I am not entirely sure what you are saying here and perhaps what is necessary is for you to go back to the drawing board and work out a clearer way to articulate all of this. “Ultimately, on a deeper level, we should not be asking whether the Humanities are worth studying. Art, literature, and philosophy don’t do anything. They simply are.”

    This conclusion is simply false- for certainly the humanities “are” they exist and it might be wiser to say, out of their existence flows many things, great art inspires, it elucidates, it edifies, it delights and countless other things besides. I am afraid that what you have said here, ironically, amounts to an ideological reduction of the humanities. For what is really called for here is not a denial of final causes and the humanities or even a denial of the real usefulness of them as you have attempted, but a reversion in the order of goods- Hierarchically the humanities are and manifest an expression of the wonder of being and out of that reality comes everything else, including a subordinated kind of usefulness- the real problem is that the humanities’ being has been subordinated to utilitarian concerns and I am afraid you have elucidated a position that is not corrective but reactive. As my mentor if fond of say “the humanities may not have survival value, but they add value to survival” and to deny that the value, the edification, the joy, the soul shaping sorrow etc.. has no use is a grave oversight indeed- if you reduce all usefulness to purely material or economic concerns you might have a point, but there is more to what is useful than just material- for an example, to cultivate right judgement holds out the potential to relieve someone from making embarrassing misstatements about the nature of reality and there must be some kind of use in that that is not economic.

    • Thank you for your lengthy comment. I definitely see your point. Maybe my essay is reactive but at the same time, I don’t write in isolation but rather with an eye and an ear of what it happening at the time. I used to think that fiction, for example, has to have an ethical component. I even wrote my MA thesis at UChicago on “ethics of fiction” – Wayne Booth was my thesis advisor, but I am not sure whether I agree with it anymore. I suppose if the humanities have any aim, then what I am saying that aim will be revealed by itself, rather than for us to possess that aim. That’s really the center of my argument. I don’t think that we can try to pervert the meaning. I will admit, for example, that books saved my life. I’ve survived the war in Bosnia, lived in a refugee camp as a stateless person, and all I kept doing was reading and learning. But I never expected to be saved. It just happens that my drive for learning kept me from going insane from all the horrendous experiences I have had. I also took a cue from Flannery O’Connor (as it was obvious), but also implicitly from Eudora Welty’s and Chekhov’s approach to characters – this trio of writers let the thought open up on its own, and so that is where I was coming from. When I wrote that the humanities “are” as opposed to that they are “doing” something, I am simply affirming the primacy of metaphysics as opposed to ethics in this case. At the core, I don’t think we really disagree that much – I think that the aim of learning may be revealed – it certainly nourishes the soul, but my issue is that we have an expectation that it will. I hope I have sufficiently addressed your questions.

  4. I can admire you for many reasons Ms. Melonic. Thank you for sharing that very difficult personal story, I am quite sure most of us can never imagine the horrors you endured. Thank you for attempting to answer my inflated comment- I take your attempt as an act of charity. It is entirely possibly that at the core we do agree on many things, yet there is still profit in the dialogue, so I thank you for being more than just a good sport, but engaging with courage and humility. Keep up the good fight.

    • And thank you, Steven, for such kind words! Also, I hope that my mention of war and my experience made sense – I was just trying to affirm your argument actually. I hope that it didn’t come through as anything other that. I really dislike when people assert moral superiority over something they’ve experienced. Viktor Frankl said that a Holocaust survivor has an even more responsibility is affirming ethics and beauty of daily life than someone who hasn’t survived it. I totally agree, and I certainly try to live like that as much as I can. Thank you again.

  5. Most of today’s higher education focuses on development of the skills necessary for employment, such as the STEM courses. This is practical and very useful knowledge, but is in itself incomplete for a person’s intellect.

    What scientific inquiry and practical knowledge lack, is an answer to the questions about the meaning of life, and how life should be lived. Those questions are answered by the humanities, which examines values, raises questions, and makes us think about how we should strive to live our lives.

    Humanities is not a science, and therefore cannot be defined or measured by scientific means, so a scientist cannot explain his own desire for knowledge. Only the humanities can explain why seeking knowledge is the right thing to do.

    As our society rapidly advances in technology, we must maintain our ability to critically think about how technology should be applied. We can use the latest technology to elevate humanity, or to enslave it, depending on its application. We need more, not less, focus on the humanities.

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