Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Historians in the Philosophy Department: a Response (Part IV)

(Part I, II, III)

I would like to say a few words about the issue of post-modernism and why I object to it.

This is a picture of me at the Museum of Modern Art in Los Angeles (MoMA). I am standing next to one of the exhibitions, which consisted of the New York Daily News covered in bird droppings. Now I am not opposed to the message of the work, namely that the Daily News is a load of bird droppings; I agree. I also agree that this work raises a valuable issue in that it challenges us to consider the nature of art; what is the difference between a work of art such as the Mona Lisa and page of newspaper covered in bird droppings? The problem with this is that, while this is a great point, it is the enemy’s point. The conclusion to be drawn from being unable to distinguish between the Mona Lisa and a page of newspaper covered in bird droppings is not that the page of newspaper with bird droppings should go up in a museum and that we should have a museum of modern art devoted to such work but on the contrary, that we should not bother sticking up the Mona Lisa in a museum and that we should send the Mona Lisa and all the rest of the works housed in the Louvre in the trash bin along with the page of newspaper with bird droppings, thus allowing us to use the Louvre for something that actually benefits people.

At the Barcelona debate in 1263, Nachmonides was forced to respond to Christian charges that the Talmud confirms the truth of Christianity. At the beginning of the debate Nachmonides admitted to being puzzled by this; how it could be that the rabbis of the Talmud, living centuries after Jesus, could believe in Jesus and still reject Christianity? It seemed to be a matter of course for Nachmonides that, if the rabbis of the Talmud believed that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God, they would have done the intellectually honest thing and ceased practicing Judaism and converted to Christianity. Obviously Nachmonides never met a post-modernist.

Post-modernism thrives on people undermining the legitimacy of their own work and still having the chutzpa to ask that society fund them in their endeavors. It is called deconstruction. If post- modernists really believed in what they were doing and were intellectually honest they would admit that the entire humanities field, including their own particular slice, was worthless and they would pack up their things and leave academia. Frank Donoghue wishes to blame our business-oriented society for killing off the humanities and he is right. What Donoghue does not ask is why the humanities have so utterly failed to defend themselves and make their case to society in the face of the business suits and number crunchers. For that, you need Allan Bloom. Bloom, in his Closing of the American Mind, blames the modern left, with its worship of cultural relativism and its deconstruction of values, for bringing about a situation where even the humanities have no value. If all values are relative and there are no ultimate questions let alone ultimate answers than why should someone spend years of their lives studying Plato and Aristotle; why not just go to law school and make as much money as you can. Bloom was a tenured professor at the University of Chicago so his main concern was attracting students. As a graduate student, who made the choice to study history instead of going pursuing law school, my concern is getting a job at the end of the day. If the humanities have no value then why should a university bother to make the investment in hiring me.

I have a suggestion for all post-modernists out there. If you do not believe that the humanities have intrinsic value and if you do not even believe in ultimate questions and in ultimate truths then please have the intellectual honesty to leave the university system; pack your bags and get a job in the real world. There are few enough jobs in the humanities as it is; the least you can do is leave those jobs to those who actually believe in what they are doing.

1 comment:

RVA said...

First of all, thanks for the responses, they were very interesting. I plan on posting a few reactions soon.

But I was hoping you could clear up some confusion in your explanations. In Part II you state, "The humanities have no utilitarian." In Part III, you state that history-buffs are of "no practical use to anyone" because they do not analyze primary/secondary sources and do not use the historical method, which in turn implies that the work of historians does have practical value. In Part IV, you challenge post-modernists who do not believe that the humanities have intrinsic value.

My confusion may be cleared up if you could explain the relationship between those statements. Does your assertion that the "humanities have no utilitarn value" exclude history (i.e. Does history have utilitarian value? Practical value? Non-utilitaran value?). Also, is History part of the Humanities or is it a Social Science? Does it make a difference as to whether History has utilitarian value if you classify it as one or the other?