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Vendler on the Humanities

Helen Vendler urges that the arts be made the centerpiece of teaching in the humanities (in “The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar”, the online version of her Jefferson Lecture). Unfogged expresses disapproval; Brian Leiter offers gossip and (at second hand) a nasty review of Jorie Graham. What follows is an examination of Vendler’s proposal.
Here’s how the lecture starts:
When it became useful in educational circles in the United States to group various university disciplines under the name “The Humanities” it seems to have been tacitly decided that philosophy and history would be cast as the core of this grouping, and that other forms of learning—the study of languages, literatures, religion, and the arts—would be relegated to subordinate positions. Philosophy, conceived of as embodying truth, and history, conceived of as a factual record of the past, were proposed as the principal embodiments of Western culture, and given pride of place in general education programs.
Only the wonderfully evasive agentless passive construction in English makes it possible to tell what is ostensibly a historical story without ever saying who decided, conceived, or proposed these things. The division Vendler mentions seems in fact not to have been an American but a German invention, the result of organizing the philosophical faculty of the university (traditionally the fourth, after theology, medicine, and law) under the ideal of Wissenschaft—of “not merely methodical, but systematic, unified knowledge” (Merz, History of thought 1:170n2, in reference to Fichte).
The life of the German universities had in the earlier centuries begun with classical studies; it had been reformed under the influence of the theological and juridical requirements of the Protestant governments; and ultimately it had been entirely renewed under the influence of the classical and philosophical studies centred in the fourth or philosophical faclty. These classical and philosophical studies combined to create the ideal of Wissenschaft, or science, in the broadest sense of the word (Merz 202).
The pre-eminence of philosophy was taken over from the earlier organization of the baccalaureate curriculum around the teaching of Aristotle. The new element is the enlargement of classical studies into the all-embracing historical discipline of philology, which included not only the study of classical languages and texts but of all aspects of Greek and Roman culture. Placing the two disciplines at the head of what came to be known as the Geisteswissenschaften was, no doubt, a “decision” of some sort, but it was far from tacit. The organization of knowledge and of instruction was a central topic in German philosophy at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
American universities, as they became, like their German counterparts, “research institutions”, probably took over aspects of the ideal of Wissenschaft. Here I must wave my hands, since I don’t know much. What is odd is the implication that the pre-eminence of philosophy and history continues even today. Arts and Sciences faculties are dominated by the sciences, because that’s where the money and the majors are; next come lucrative-seeming disciplines like economics and political science; the traditional “humanities” come after that. (My postgraduate academic life has been spent in universities with a strong pre-med component, which may skew my perceptions.) The pecking order varies from one kind of institution to another. Major research universities, a large portion of whose funding comes by way of grants for scientific research, differ greatly from liberal-arts colleges which depend more heavily on tuition. Within the humanities, the relative positions of departments seem to depend on local factors. In general English and History have an advantage by virtue of the usually larger size of their faculties, but institutional history and personalities count for a great deal. In the current academic world, then, I don’t see any strong presumption in favor of history or philosophy.
Confidence in a reliable factual record, not to speak of faith in a reliable philosophical synthesis, has undergone considerable erosion. Historical and philosophical assertions issue, it seems, from particular vantage points, and are no less contestable than the assertions of other disciplines. The day of limiting cultural education to Western culture alone is over. There are losses here, of course—losses in depth of learning, losses in coherence—but these very changes have thrown open the question of how the humanities should now be conceived, and how the study of the humanities should, in this moment, be encouraged.
This needs unpacking. The argument implicated in the first two sentences is this.
The pre-eminence of philosophy and history was owing to an authority based on a unique relation to truth (philosophy) or to facts (history).
Those bases have been eroded by arguments purporting to show that philosophical and historical assertions are issued from particular vantage points.
Hence neither philosophy nor history can claim any greater certainty for their claims than other disciplines; and the authority based on that greater certainty has diminished.
Vendler must know that that ‘hence’ is controversial. Kant wrote the Critique of pure reason as a Protestant German-speaking philosophy professor at Königsberg in the 1770s. Nothing follows from that alone concerning the “contestability” of his claims, no more than the mathematics of his colleague Euler. “Contestable” is in any case not precise enough. The Critique met with objections as soon as it was published: was it contested?
There is an issue here, and even one of authority. But it has to do with philosophical pretensions to offer a synoptic, critical view of human knowledge. Kant, like many of his predecessors in modern philosophy, thought that the principles of physics needed a justification that physics itself could not provide, but that philosophy could. That way of conceiving the relation of philosophy to other disciplines has indeed been contested, both by those disciplines and from within philosophy itself. Perspectivist and relativist arguments had some role in convincing philosophers that their discipline cannot stand in judgment of the principles of others; but more important was the development within physics and the other sciences of methods by which either to answer their fundamental questions or to continue fruitfully even when they could not be answered. From Merz we learn that biology established a great many claims about living things without ever answering the question “What is life?” People are now less inclined to believe that the essences (or essential definitions) of life, matter, space and time, or even of literature and art, can be discovered a priori by reflection.
Vendler later observes that “scholarly and critical interpretations may not outlast the generation to which they are relevant; as intellectual concepts flourish and wither, so interpretations are proposed and discarded”. If the absence of consensus, hence of authority, were the basis for removing philosophy and history from their (largely fictitious) pedestal, then criticism is no better off. And let’s not even try to imagine how people might be brought to agree on which works of art will be taught…
But perhaps it suffices for Vendler’s purposes that many people have come to believe that something does follow. Even if it was on dubious grounds, the authority of philosophy and history have been undermined. What then?
I want to propose that the humanities should take, as their central objects of study, not the texts of historians or philosophers, but the products of aesthetic endeavor: architecture, art, dance, music, literature, theater, and so on. After all, it is by their arts that cultures are principally remembered. For every person who has read a Platonic dialogue, there are probably ten who have seen a Greek marble in a museum, or if not a Greek marble, at least a Roman copy, or if not a Roman copy, at least a photograph. Around the arts there exist, in orbit, the commentaries on art produced by scholars: musicology and music criticism, art history and art criticism, literary and linguistic studies. At the periphery we might set the other humanistic disciplines—philosophy, history, the study of religion. The arts would justify a broad philosophical interest in ontology, phenomenology, and ethics; they would bring in their train a richer history than one which, in its treatment of mass phenomena, can lose sight of individual human uniqueness—the quality most prized in artists, and most salient, and most valued, in the arts.
What would be the advantage of centering humanistic study on the arts? The arts present the whole uncensored human person—in emotional, physical, and intellectual being, and in single and collective form—as no other branch of human accomplishment does. In the arts we see both the nature of human predicaments—in Job, in Lear, in Isabel Archer—and the evolution of representation over long spans of time (as the taste for the Gothic replaces the taste for the Romanesque, as the composition of opera replaces the composition of plainchant). The arts bring into play historical and philosophical questions without implying the prevalence of a single system or of universal solutions. Artworks embody the individuality that fades into insignificance in the massive canvas of history and is suppressed in philosophy by the desire for impersonal assertion. The arts are true to the way we are and were, to the way we actually live and have lived—as singular persons swept by drives and affections, not as collective entities or sociological paradigms. The case histories developed within the arts are in part idiosyncratic, but in part applicable by analogy to a class larger than the individual entities they depict.
This is one standard account of the value of the arts, Romantic boilerplate for the most part. But set that aside for the time being. Vendler offers a negative case against “centering” the undergraduate curriculum around history or philosophy, and a positive case for centering it around the arts (which in practice would seem to mean basing courses upon exposure to particular artworks, and then discussing them with the aid of “scholarship” and eventually of the now “peripheral” disciplines of history and philosophy). Let’s start with the negative.
Against history
Against history, Vendler argues that it neglects the individual in favor of the “massive canvas” of world events; it considers them only as elements of “collective entities” or as instances of “sociological paradigms”. So much for microhistory, so much for the bulk of intellectual history and the history of art. Evidently Vendler has in mind the kind of history whose explanations are cast in terms of large-scale geographic, demographic, and economic conditions. I’m reminded of a scene in Denys Arcand’s Decline of the American empire in which one of the characters, a professor, insists in lecture that what will determine the fate of South Africa is demographics and nothing more. Mandela may have hastened the end of the apartheid regime, and helped to shape the character of the government that took its place; but that apartheid was bound to collapse was a matter, if the professor was right, not of his or any individual’s acts but of numbers. A conclusion of that sort may be disagreeable, but if geography, demography, and economics are indeed the engines of history, an education based upon the arts, as Vendler conceives it, will be incomplete at best, misleading at worst.
Do we live as “collective entities or sociological paradigms”? Of course not. But understanding how we (or they) live may require subsuming ourselves under generalizations, it may require seeing oneself as a type, even while recognizing that no type completely comprehends the individual. And if “living our lives” includes not only looking out the window of a train and reflecting on “the narrowness of the way in which people inhabit the earth” but also, let’s say, attempting to secure justice in the workplace or equity in the funding of education, it may well be necessary to understand the conditions of action in something other than individual terms. Suppose we agree with Wallace Stevens that “we have forsaken the Earth”. How did this happen? Under what conditions might people cease to forsake the earth? There are no doubt works of art that exemplify the “death of nature”, as Carolyn Merchant called it, but examples are not arguments. A work of art may move us to act, it may help us to imagine, for example, the destruction of American wildlife over the last two hundred years (read Bartram’s Travels or the Journals of Lewis and Clark), in a way that a historical explanation of the economic and cultural reasons for that destruction likely will not. And perhaps that is what Vendler has in mind: to study, let’s say, industrial capitalism by first reading Blake, Dickens, Frank Norris, and Upton Sinclair, and then, in discussing those works, draw on Marx or E. P. Thompson. The arts and the sciences (including, I take it, the human sciences) complement one another, she says, which would indicate peaceful coexistence rather than competition. But her exordium places the emphasis on feeling, not on understanding, and moreover on an individual “heightened response”, as if that were the sole function of art.
Against Philosophy
Against philosophy Vendler remarks (the argument is inchoate at best) that the philosopher suppresses individuality in favor of “impersonal assertion”, and that it doesn’t help us much to live our lives because “the consolations of philosophy have never been very widely received”.
No doubt Kierkegaard and Nietzsche would be surprised to find that they had managed only to utter impersonal assertions. (Or were they, in fact, artists?) Whether it is the sole or principal purpose of philosophy to theorize (and whether, as Aristotle says, there can be no science of the individual) is a long-disputed question within philosophy itself. Pierre Hadot has argued that ancient philosophy was rather a way of life than a theoretical enterprise, Miles Burnyeat that even as late as Hume’s day, skepticism was not merely an academic question but a component of the virtuous life. The oppositions Vendler takes more or less for granted—between intellect and sensation, thinking and feeling, theory and practice, science and art—have long been, as she must know, the subject of philosophical debate. Perhaps at Harvard only one side of that debate has been represented recently (though Cavell would certainly be an exception); but philosophy at Harvard and philosophy generaliter are not quite the same.
As for the consolations of philosophy: first of all, consolation is not the whole of what philosophy has to offer on the matter of how to live. There is ethics, after all. But suppose that philosophy has indeed consoled only a few. It’s not clear why that should be a reason to relegate philosophy to the periphery of undergraduate education. Ever since philosophy proper (which includes what had been the subject matter of Aristotle’s Organon, his Metaphysics, his Ethics, and various topics from the works in natural philosophy like the immortality of the soul, along with æsthetics, which became a distinct branch of philosophy only in the eighteenth century) parted ways with natural philosophy (which in the 19th century became “science”), it has tended to occupy an ambiguous place between the humanities (i.e. the successors to the study of the classics) and the sciences, a place made still more ambiguous by the twofold character of philosophy as a theoretical discipline and a repository of practical wisdom. Not surprisingly, the literary productions of those who call themselves philosophers have varied from systematic, “impersonal” treatises hardly distinguishable from scientific texts to books of wisdom in the tradition of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Descartes’s Passions of the soul and Spinoza’s Ethics illustrate quite well the difficulty of maintaining the sort of distinction Vendler seems to rely upon: they are not “personal” in the sense of being presented as the idiosyncratic production of an individual creator, but they certainly do embody human experience, help us live our lives (Vendler may find them less effective than Wordsworth or Stevens, but that, it seems to me, is in part a matter of what one has learned to respond to), & so on.
Vendler tends, when praising the arts, to make assertions true only if one considers the arts in their totality, culturally and historically; in making points against history and philosophy, she construes them narrowly, one might say parochially. Only if taken in their totality can the arts be said to “present the whole uncensored human person—in emotional, physical, and intellectual being, and in single and collective form—as no other branch of human accomplishment does”. The art of Stevens alone doesn't do so, nor that, say, of William Carlos Williams or Emily Dickinson. But philosophy, too, taken in its totality, could claim very much the same thing: we are then including not only Quine and Nozick but also Socrates, Lao-Tse, Augustine, Machiavelli, Sade…
For Art
I would be quite happy to have students well-versed in the arts. That isn’t really the issue. Vendler proposes that “the humanities should take, as their central objects of study […] the products of aesthetic endeavor: architecture, art, dance, music, literature, theater, and so on”. Notice the ‘central’. The metaphor continues:
Around the arts there exist, in orbit, the commentaries on art produced by scholars: musicology and music criticism, art history and art criticism, literary and linguistic studies. At the periphery we might set the other humanistic disciplines—philosophy, history, the study of religion. The arts would justify a broad philosophical interest in ontology, phenomenology, and ethics; they would bring in their train a richer history than one which, in its treatment of mass phenomena, can lose sight of individual human uniqueness—the quality most prized in artists, and most salient, and most valued, in the arts.
It would be nice, I think, if at least one school—Harvard, maybe?—did adopt Vendler’s proposal. Like the Great Books program at St. Johns, it would produce a distinctive type of student. Leon Botstein has argued that undergraduate education in America is too uniform (see his Jefferson’s Children, esp. ch. 5). Though in my experience undergraduate cultures do differ from school to school, in most the four-year curriculum consists in a major together with various distribution requirements which, as time goes by, become more and more a mere patchwork in response to competing interests among various divisions and departments. One could equally well propose a curriculum oriented around philosophical issues. That too would yield a distinctive sort of student; it’s not clear why Vendler’s proposal should yield a better sort of student. My students would be well-versed not only in contemporary philosophy but in the history of philosophy; they will have studied art and literature in connection with æsthetics and ethics; they will have learned some science and mathematics by way of studying epistemology and metaphysics, hence the foundations of the sciences; as a result they will be good at drawing out consequences, at understanding relations among concepts, at weighing arguments, and so on. Vendler's will have acquired “sensuous responsiveness, a trained eye, fine discrimination, and a hunger for learning,” (not that mine won’t be hungry too). How does one decide between the two outcomes? The best answer, it seems to me, is that given the immensity of the university system in the US there’s no need to decide, but only to find ways of making experiments possible.
2. The pattern of study under Vendler’s proposal, at least in the humanities, would look something like this: the student reads (or looks at, or listens to) a major work or collection of works, then some criticism, then perhaps general works on the genre or branch of art to which those works belong, and finally some relevant philosophy and history. It isn't clear whether the works of art would be taken in some sort of order, or if so what that order might be. The risk is that teaching history or philosophy “around” art would make hash of them. Would students read a bit of Plato while reading or watching the Greek tragedies, and then later on a bit of Aquinas while studying the Roman de la Rose and Chaucer, and after that Descartes while reading Molière? Where would a systematic ethics or metaphysics course fit in? A course on colonialism and postcolonialism? The set of philosophical and historical works one might take up as being relevant to a given artwork is not likely, in short, to be a “natural kind” within philosophy or history, and so to teach them around the arts would be to make them even more snippety and haphazard than now.
Art for
Vendler has a definite notion of the purpose of the arts. Or maybe several. The arts “exist to relocate us in the body by means of the work of the mind in aesthetic creation; they situate us on the earth, paradoxically, by means of a mental paradigm of experience embodied, with symbolic concision, in a physical medium”. They “restore human awareness by releasing it into the ambience of the felt world, giving a habitation to the tongue in newly coined language, to the eyes and ears in remarkable recreations of the physical world, to the animal body in the kinesthetic flex and resistance of the artistic medium”. They also “confer a patina on the natural world” (though apparently history has this power too).
Over Stevens's giant earth, with its tumultuous motions, there floats every myth, every text, every picture, every system, that creators—artistic, religious, philosophical—have conferred upon it. The Delphic oracle hovers there next to Sappho, Luther's theses hang next to the Grunewald altar, China's Cold Mountain neighbors Sinai, the B-minor Mass shares space with Rabelais.
This sounds like the strip in Las Vegas. One of the tics of—what should I call it?—“middlebrow mandarinism”?—is these heterogeneous lists, which are supposed to convey a generous diversity of tastes; to me they sound more like high-end shopping lists. But never mind. Consider the purposes on offer here. Shorn of all the pretty words (and you know how much philosophers like to do that sort of thing) we have:
1. The arts educate the senses.
2. The arts put us back in the body and on the earth.
3. The arts confer significance on otherwise indifferent bits of matter.
All good things, no doubt. But limited. After all, some artists have thought that the purpose of the arts is
1. To derange the senses.
2. To lift us away from our earthly vessels toward God.
3. To exhibit the absurdity of human existence.
I’m not going to argue the merits of either set of proposals. Instead I note that insofar as Vendler sticks with her version, she is either going to give short shrift to a fair amount of art or else fit it in somehow by tendentious interpretation. Wallace Stevens works nicely for her, but what about the nastier bits of Horace and Martial, Baudelaire, the sound poems of Hugo Ball and Hans Arp, the Lettristes, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets? Where do Balthus, Francis Bacon, Warhol, Hans Bellmer, Joseph Beuys fit in? If you make Vendler's proposed purposes vague enough, or if you are willing to moralize ruthlessly enough, I suppose you can shoehorn them in somehow. Or else you can deny that their work is good art.
There is an interesting moment in Vendler’s essay. After her first go at promoting the arts, she stops short, and asks: “If the arts are so satisfactory an embodiment of human experience, why do we need studies commenting on them? Why not merely take our young people to museums, to concerts, to libraries? […] Why should we support a brokering of the arts; why not rely on their direct impact?” It is evident why this should be troubling. Only the philosophers and historians were supposed to take a back seat, not the critics and scholars. But here we have experience of the arts being by itself sufficient.
Vendler, sensibly enough, doesn't want to argue herself out of a job. Critics and scholars are needed (i) to recover and revive neglected works; (ii) to establish in people a sense of their “cultural patrimony”, though it’s not clear why critics are needed, unless it is to select the works to be accounted patrimonial, and keep them nicely polished; (iii) to do something or other connected with the fact that the arts help us to live. The options seem to be: offering lots of transient interpretations, imparting the skills needed to understand works of art, mediating experience (which, oddly enough, not only the arts themselves but interpretations of them can do “directly”), and leading students gently “ from passive reception to active reflection”.
It’s true that critics and scholars do perform these functions. The imparting of skills (languages, the principles of prosody) at least is certainly necessary for the appreciation of many kinds of art. It’s nice also to have people unearth forgotten old things for us to appreciate, though why that should take precedence over learning how to argue or understanding the past historically is unclear. But those functions leave the greater part of what critics do unaccounted for. Critics mostly earn their keep by offering interpretations, as Vendler herself does of Stevens. To judge from her practice here and elsewhere, interpretation consists not, for example, in structural analysis, nor in historical explanation, but in explication du texte, paraphrase. It is this that keeps the work alive, this production of a kind of para-art, whose transience relative to its objects Vendler emphasizes. If we follow out her reading of Stevens’ “Somnambulisma”, the poet, poor thing, can do no more than wander about trying to grow wings and scratching stones only to have its marks washed away; the scholar alone, with God-like powers of creation, gives permanence to “the fine fins, the gawky beaks, the personalia” that the poet-bird is incapable of producing or making persist.
Set aside a passing worry about how interpretations that “may not outlast the generation to which they are relevant” confer permanence on anything. Consider instead the implied position of the critic.
The restless emotions of aesthetic desire, the wing--wish and inscription--yearning of the bird, perish without the arranging and creative powers of intellectual endeavor. The arts and the studies of the arts are for Stevens a symbiotic pair, each dependent on the other. Nobody is born understanding string quartets or reading Latin or creating poems; without the scholar and his libraries, there would be no perpetuation and transmission of culture.
Despite the claim of mutual dependence, the poet-bird is clearly much worse off without the scholar than the scholar (who, in Stevens’ poem, is self-sufficient and separate from the birds) without the poet-bird (who here stands for something like inarticulate, hence impermanent feeling). Of course it may happen that the two are conjoined, as with Coleridge, in one human being, but in every case the critic seems to occupy the top rung.
It is certainly true that the artist needs to know his craft, and that many artists have an extensive, though often biased and partial, knowledge of the history of their art. For the artist, the labors of the scholar are viewed strictly through the lens of use; they supply inspiration, techniques, raw material (Bacon’s version of Velazquez, Lichtenstein’s Pop reworkings of abstract expressionist motifs, Stravinsky’s appropriation of Pergolesi).
This brings me to one last point. Although Vendler says we ought to foster “young readers and writers, artists and museum--goers, composers and music enthusiasts”, her standpoint is not that of the creator but of the spectator.
Emotion, desire, generative energy, and learned invention--these, replies the poem, are indispensable in the artist. But there is another way of thinking about art, focusing less on the creator of art than on those of us who make up art's audience. What do we gain in being the audience for the arts and their attendant disciplines?
Philosophy too tends to take the standpoint of the spectator. Kant’s æsthetics is wholly concerned with taste, with judging works of art. The artist shows up only as a rather exotic being through whom “nature gives the rule to art” but who must be restrained not only by the “academic”, that is to say by the rule-governed characteristics necessary for an artwork to be recognized as such, but by the canons of taste, by criticism. I am inclined to think that the an artform is healthy only when a fair proportion of its audience is actively engaged in making art of that sort (I suppose architecture would be an exception: not many of us design buildings, but most people do alter their living space in various ways). The refinement of the senses Vendler values will not be accomplished by appreciation alone, nor even “active reflection” unless that includes making as well as looking and listening.

LinkMay 9, 2004 in Academic Affairs · Literature