A weakened economy needs strengthened humanities
do the humanities have to do with the growing economic difficulties of
the world? At first sight, perhaps nothing at all. What could be
further apart than the selling of sub-prime credit on the one hand and,
on the other, the scholarly investigation of the speeches of Cicero or
the date of a drawing by Antoine Watteau?
is, however, a deep underlying connection. The long-term health of the
economy depends on the flourishing of the humanities: an important
factor in our present troubles is their self-imposed weakness.
The dependency is hard to see because the standard ways in which we
think about capitalism and the humanities are misleading. To discover
the crucial connections here we need to ask fundamental questions: What
is capitalism? What are the humanities?
Capitalism is the economic expression of individual liberty. The
humanities are the roots of social and personal maturity. To flourish
individually and collectively, we need economic liberty; but economic
liberty on its own is not sufficient and can be disastrous. Freedom is
good only when it is accompanied by maturity and wisdom.
The deep sources of wisdom and maturity lie in the humanities. These
sources have all but dried up. Wisdom and maturity have not been
flowing from the humanities into the wider fields of society; that is
why economic freedom has turned toxic. It is of the greatest
significance for our cultural and economic future -- for the future of
our civilisation -- that we understand what has gone wrong and put in
place the conditions of our renaissance.
Under capitalism the market says: Tell me what you want and are
prepared to pay for. If I can extract a profit, I will supply this to
you very efficiently. I don't judge what you want. You are the expert
in your desires. I want to tap into your longings, but I don't care
what those longings are, so long as I can make money from them.
Ease of access to capital, through borrowing, increases the scope of
most people's choices. Until about five minutes ago we could borrow not
only against whatever assets we might have, but against potential
earnings and assets projected far into the future. This is an enormous
opportunity but also an enormous risk. In other words, capitalism
essentially puts great freedom as well as great risk into the hands of
individuals. Do what you like, it's your life.
Capitalism depends for its success on high levels of individual
maturity. We can understand why this is so by considering a personal
analogy. I would not let my young children make central decisions about
their purchases (where to live, whether to buy a car); and it would be
insane to give them large sums of money or to allow them to borrow.
It's obvious that they lack the maturity to use these opportunities
well or to make these decisions. It is pervasive, socially distributed
maturity that is required for the flourishing of liberal capitalism.
In advanced democratic capitalist societies we get the economy we
deserve. The economy tracks the goods and services that many people
want and are willing to pay for. Anti-capitalist sentiment is often no
more than revulsion at the preferences and attitudes of a great many
people, expressed in their economic choices.
Capitalism is the economic counterpart of the political doctrine of
rights (although there can be marginal clashes, for example on minimum
wages). Rights essentially secure freedom of action for individuals.
They protect individual decision-making and preferences from
authoritarian interference. But rights do not guide you to a good life;
they don't positively indicate what you should do, except in minimalist
ways: don't trample on the rights of others.
Further, cultural democracy is the social version of the capitalist
spirit: you can choose whatever style of entertainment you like; it's
up to you what you watch and consume, and how you find relaxation and
entertainment. No one has any business telling you that your
preferences are unworthy, base or vulgar.
Rights, cultural democracy and capitalism are all aspects of the
great project of spiritual freedom. The origins of this project lie in
the development of Christianity and were dramatically renewed with the
advent of certain kinds of Protestant Christianity. Faith and love, it
was argued, are immensely precious spiritual goods but they cannot be
forced, they cannot be imposed or demanded. They must be assented to in
the private depths of the individual soul.
The most important things in life -- what you believe, how you act, what your motives are -- can go well only if they are free.
You can terrify someone into agreement, but that's not what's
needed. God wants the free, private assent of individuals to his love.
That's the religious root of the project of freedom. The crucial
determinants of life are what we freely do. It is logically and
practically possible to force people to act in sensible and reasonable
ways, but forcing undercuts the value. What matters is what we do when
left to our own devices.
And that, of course, brings with it the possibility of making our
own mistakes, of freely choosing things -- relationships, careers,
investments, friends or ways of amusing ourselves -- that end up
ruining our lives.
The present crisis has come about because the liberalised capitalist
economy, which has been growing since about 1980 (despite recessions),
has required more maturity than we collectively possess.
In the life of an individual, maturity indicates a group of virtues.
It suggests the anticipation of danger and the capacity to cope with
difficulties. Maturity is displayed in knowledge of one's weaknesses,
and in the tailoring of behaviour in the light of this. It builds on
education through one's own mistakes and the mistakes of others, and on
the ability to hold long-term issues in view and to plan and act
Maturity is shown in the capacity to face unwelcome news, to analyse
one's convictions and discover their blind spots. Above all, maturity
involves directing one's energies and efforts towards genuinely
worthwhile ends: building a real, solid and good life for oneself and
one's dependents. But these are only the most obviously practical
aspects of maturity. More subtly, wisdom concerns what you esteem: to
what degree are your values in touch with the real lessons of
experience? How wisely do you accord admiration to others, how
independent-minded are you, how resistant are you to cheap seduction,
flattery and group thinking?
The general level of maturity or immaturity -- of wisdom or lack of
wisdom -- has the greatest possible consequences for the economic
health of a democratic, free-enterprise society. And the present
economic crisis is a study in immaturity. This immaturity can be seen
within the financial system and more broadly in consumer societies.
to the humanities, they can be listed under a series of formalised,
academic names: history, philosophy, literature, the history of art.
But what are the projects that lie behind these academic facades?
History is the attempt to understand the past for the sake of
accumulating an understanding of the collective human condition. It is,
ideally, a school of wisdom in which one becomes mature by learning
from the experience of others. Philosophy is, ideally, the project of
piecing together our ideas about life, testing them against experience,
sorting through their internal tensions; carefully pondering why one
thinks what one thinks and attempting to improve one's view of life and
So it is too, ideally, a school of wisdom. The same
holds for the study of art and literature: the project is to become
mature, to speed up, enrich and greatly widen a process that we know
occurs in individual lives. As we live, memory, thinking, enjoyment,
worries and experiences accumulate. In making good sense of these, in
digesting their lessons and putting those lessons into practice, we
become wise. And we do so through discussion with and observation of
those we know.
The humanities are -- again, ideally -- the
more rigorous, better informed, more careful collective equivalents of
this intimate process. Only now our range of acquaintances extends
across time and space and the quality of conversation we can have, in
principle, is vastly increased. We can learn from the Roman Empire, the
French Revolution and Tolstoy; we can take up our worries with Freud
and Goethe, we can ask Titian and Mozart about the meaning of life.
I stress ideally. For this is not really what happens in practice. In
principle, the humanities are the wellspring of collective maturity:
they are the project of collective maturity carried in its purest and
most concentrated form. But in practice, these have become academic
specialisms: they have been trivialised and marginalised by their
self-conceptions. And so the project of collective maturity, so crucial
to a civilisation that is devoted to freedom, has been weakened.
a society is in the grip of a powerful, repressive and traditional
culture, there is much to be said for the role of the humanities as
voices and agents of liberty. When even to question received opinion is
dangerous, then critique is crucial. The first tasks are to create the
liberal space of speculation, to tear down the idols, to encourage
self-expression, to be sceptical of the rules, to see authority as
inherently dangerous. It's entirely understandable that, in some
societies in the past, these should have looked like the crucial tasks
of the humanities.
But we do not live in such a society. Free
expression is everywhere; for us the urgent questions are those around
quality, depth of meaning, lasting value. Self-determination is the
basic mode of modern life; we don't need to argue for that very much.
In other words, we are due an epochal change. We should accept that the
project of liberty is intellectually complete.
self-image in the humanities derives from the vision of neutral
scholarship. This has been extremely important. The humanities in this
guise were the fact checkers, the record keepers, the impartial line
judges of culture. That may have been a sufficient role once. But it
depends on having a high level of acceptance in your society.
judges hold sway only when others are playing the game. If the
population at large is playing another game entirely, then this role is
of little importance.
Maturity certainly involves care about
the facts, caution and rigour in interpretation. But it is only when
these qualities of mind find their home in experience that we become
mature or wise. The studied neutrality of scholarship often has become
cold distance, reluctance to ask why this particular application of
rigour or cautious interpretation is so important. Does it matter if
one misunderstands Kant or has a false belief about the date of a
Watteau drawing? Well, it may, but all the work now has to go into
explaining why that is the case, what these details of knowledge
contribute to life.
The questions should be much more urgent.
Scholarship takes the comfortable supposition that it does not have to
justify itself because in a civilised society the values of careful
neutrality can be taken for granted.
Two good aspects of the
humanities -- the defence of liberty and the cultivation of scholarship
-- have become, on their own, liabilities. They do not, on their own,
rise to the urgent present task.
In recent years it has been
natural, all too natural, to blame the strategic weakness of the
humanities on a shortage of funds. But that is not where the problem
lies. It doesn't matter how much money you have or how vigorously you
pursue a goal if you are pursuing the wrong goal, quickly and in
It seems as if, in a capitalist society, the premium
placed on a short-term economic return will necessarily leave the
humanities on the margins because in those terms their claim on
attention, respect and reward is slight. And, of course, it looks as if
the fault lies with capitalism. However, the problem is not with the
economic system but with the preferences and choices and attitudes that
collectively constitute it.
The humanities have had a marginal
place because they have a marginal place in most people's lives. The
causality runs in the opposite direction. It's not that capitalism has
undermined the humanities; it's that capitalism has revealed the
marginal place of the humanities. At least so one may think.
here we need to hold on to an important distinction. The humanities, as
I have been stressing, are, properly speaking, the organised, careful
and more powerful versions of standard human concerns. The drive
towards maturity hasn't gone away, it has merely been unsupported by
the things from which it most needs support. The basic problem is that,
as academic disciplines, the humanities lose a sense of genuine
purpose. Their goal becomes internal: to be more and more specific, to
find greater detail, to become more complex.
None of this need
be so bad. After all, part of maturity is coping with complexity and
paying attention to logic and the details. But the humanities pursue
these fragments in isolation. It is as if they are endlessly
discovering more about a few pieces of a large jigsaw and unimpressed
that hardly anyone is paying attention. So these valuable, though
partial, contributions get lost.
To generalise boldly: three
underlying characteristics have reduced the influence of the
humanities, and so have undercut the foundations of civilisation.
humanities have been shy of evaluation; they have become embarrassed by
the educational project of cultivating wisdom and taste. They have
lacked missionary zeal (and the abilities to make good such a mission);
they have been nervous of commerce and wealth. The ideal educational
project for the humanities is to teach depth of feeling, seriousness of
thinking and the lessons of experience to politicians and consumers.
But this has been almost the opposite of what has been happening.
least likely projects for humanities classes would have been the
cultivation of good taste, wisdom and maturity, and the last people
invited into the discussion have been politicians and mass consumers.
They have been seen as a philistine enemy rather than as the proper
focus of education.
Maturity doesn't lie just in thinking; it
depends on the relationship between experience, action and reflection:
the mere passing of time or the fact that a lot happens to you in the
course of a life doesn't on its own ensure wisdom. So, to be the agents
of the maturing process, the humanities need to pay much closer
attention to the relationship between ideas and the rest of life.
isn't that the humanities as practised in universities should become
the general portal of public maturity; it is, rather, that they could
and should play a foundational and formative role; they should shape
the climate of ideas that are then given more concrete expression in
other areas. The visual arts, for example, have completely failed to be
sources of maturity in our society. And one sign of what's so wrong
there is the lamentable internal code language and stray assumption
that masquerades as clever discussion. That fault does not originate in
the visual arts -- they are the carriers of the virus -- but it thrives
because of the weakness of the humanities.
One of the key
strategic ideas deployed by Karl Marx was that the kind of economy you
have powerfully influences the kind of culture you get.
you have an economy based on buying and selling, on financial
speculation and the amassing of private wealth, then you get a culture
that reflects this. If you are bothered about the culture, you have to
take a long road through changing the economy.
But there is
another side to the story. The kind of economy we have depends on our
collective cultural resources. What we collectively admire, love, find
exciting or admirable determines what will sell and what the profit
margins will be. It determines how much people are willing to borrow.
It determines how a successful career is imagined.
1970s the big theme in business was the creation of desire. An
essential message in advertising was: We know what will make you happy.
The message was less than candid because the subtext was: How can we
get you to want the things that will make us rich?
'90s businesses have become more and more responsive to what people
want. They aim to target more closely than their rivals exactly what
people are willing to spend their money on and to provide that more
efficiently than their rivals.
Now the essential message of advertising is: You know what will make you happy and we're listening to you.
the big opportunity for the future is going to lie in desire
leadership. It marries the two earlier trends: creative leadership in
influencing what people want, together with a service towards actual
needs. The hopeful future of business lies in serving mature needs, not
just fabricating new wants.
This is where the humanities come
in. The underlying point of the humanities -- often submerged by
scholarship -- has been the study of what it is good to desire and what
our real needs are. If the businesses of the future can focus on these
and if we can be wise enough to concentrate on them, then the
relationship between the economy and the humanities will be one of
mutual assistance rather than conflict.
We should not regard
this with suspicion. The idea of a civilised modern society should be
one in which a strong commercial instinct serves a mature and
widespread conception of the good life.
When the humanities go into recession, the economy comes loose from its moorings.
Armstrong is a senior adviser in the office of the University of
Melbourne's vice-chancellor and philosopher in residence at the
Melbourne Business School. This essay was first published in The Australian's Higher Education supplement on November 5.
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