St. Justin Martyr

Chapter 2: Philosophy and the Humanities

Face to Face with Everything

How Philosophy Looks at the World, and What It Sees

Jumping over Chapter 1 to Chapter 2 from the new book. The Introduction is here.


2. Philosophy and the Humanities


We began, in Chapter 1, by philosophizing about philosophy itself, an exercise sometimes called metaphilosophy. In the present chapter we will pass on to philosophize about the first of what I am enumerating as seven “interfaces” of philosophy, that is to say, seven areas of human experience that are distinct from philosophy as such, but which the philosopher – if intent on being true to the synoptic vocation – sooner or later must encounter and evaluate.

This chapter’s meditation pushes back somewhat further in the pedagogical order from what we usually understand as liberal education. Addressed here is something anterior to the full curriculum of that proposed ideal. I fear today that many enthusiasts for classical education end up entering into more advanced studies prematurely, and easily become – to use the popular phrase – “educated beyond their intelligence.” This chapter proposes to counter this danger.

More often than not, liberal education enthusiasts have yet to recapture what ought to be prerequisite to becoming well-versed in the Great Books, namely, an immersion in what I will call here a “short list” of the humanities. I am presuming my readers have been raised within the embrace of a culture still Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian in its roots, however much its foliage and flowers may have faded. Even when contested, the themes and values of this legacy are hard to avoid. Present in this patrimony are certain basic principles of human existence and its situation within a given order of reality.

Familiar notions of Greek philosophical vintage (such as principle, cosmos, idea, substance, accident, the true and the good) and of Biblical, or Christian theological origin (such as creation ex nihilo, history, freedom and personhood) are of at least tacit presence in European-based discourse throughout modernity. They left their mark not only in philosophy and theology, but also on our understanding of the humanities. I will propose that it is only by first recognizing our three-fold rootedness in reality – a service provided by the humanities at their best – that authentic reconnection with our legacy of a traditional liberal education can be conducted in a fruitful way. Otherwise, we may find ourselves engaged more in nostalgia than in true education, and, regrettably, becoming rather arrogant about it in the process.

The term humanities is itself a modern expression. It has come to refer to a broad area of human study and formation, with a long history, at least since the Renaissance. What exactly is included under its heading will, understandably, vary according to the prevailing view of what it means to be human. When we look back at the history of the term, what falls under its aegis has often been determined more by contrast than by explicit inclusion. Today we find within its enclosure just about any and every activity of human experience that is not clearly subsumed under the sciences, whether natural or social, or embraced by training in one of the useful arts or common professions (like journalism, medicine, law or architecture).

Most university institutes, schools or programs of the humanities at times appear to be no more than catchalls for modes of human knowledge and study not contained within – or perhaps not even recognized by – the hegemonic sciences. This is especially true when the matter is adjudicated by the “hard” sciences. Indeed, philosophy itself typically gets tossed into this grab-bag of orphaned disciplines. The love of wisdom is often regarded as simply one more of “the humanities,” with no particular cognitive distinction of its own. The same can be said of theology – that is, if it has survived academically at all.

Such an epistemic sequestration of philosophy typically deprives it of the right to purvey any true knowledge at all, supplying at best mere catalogues of its historical systems in long-winded rehearsals of a “history of ideas.” After all, having ideas about things is just one more form of human behavior, and psychologists, cognitive scientists and evolutionary theorists will be eager to uncover reasons why we behave this way to begin with. The blurred line between the new social sciences and recent reconfigurations of the humanities may also result in philosophy being colonized not only by one or the other, but more likely by both.

For various reasons, at modern universities, the fine arts tend to break loose into free-standing academic units of their own. We shall deal with them in the following chapter. The Brazilian university where I teach has an Institute of the ciências humanas (human sciences), in which my own Department of Philosophy cohabits with Geography, History and something called Social Service. As will become clear later, the first two should very much be included under the rubric of the humanities, whereas philosophy, as understood in this book – being neither one of the humanities, nor a social or hard science – should stand clear of these groupings altogether.

If any academic area of secular study should have its very own institute, it is philosophy. Its inclusion instead in either of these categories rests on an unspoken agreement that we no longer expect solid knowledge from philosophy at all, and certainly not synoptic truth. The most we are allowed to hope for are interesting explorations of human behavior and how and why we fashion ideas the way we do, the practices by which humans think today or ways they have thought in the past. But if it is genuine knowledge we covet – so ordains the implicit dogma – it is at the doors of the science departments that we must knock.

As we shall examine in a later chapter, ambiguity in translating the German compound term Geisteswissenschaften (organized knowledge about the movements and the products of Geist – a word suggesting both spirit and mind, among other things), which was the pioneer term for what we anglophones will most frequently translate as the “social sciences” (although we do run into other candidates, such as the “cultural” or “human sciences”) will bring the arrangement of and distinctions among these areas of research into ever-recurring conflict.

Fingering through the academic catalogs of a dozen or so prominent American or European universities will be enough to show there is no consensus on what exactly to include and exclude when we speak of the humanities. Even their distinction from the sciences will at times be questioned, as one or the other of the powerful disciplines of mathematics, physics, biology, psychology or sociology, for instance, venture to lay cognitive claim on what is really happening in the so-called “humanistic” world.

In particular, evolutionary theorists are often found trying to “get to the bottom” of our love for poetry, narrative and beauty or the mysterious worlds of creativity and art, hoping to discover at their root something that only biology can adequately understand. Once you have delivered mind and soul to it, scientism is a tough ideology to crawl out of, and a very hard addiction to beat. As we shall see, a proper appreciation of and immersion in the humanities before embarking upon either philosophy or the sciences, has shown itself to be the best safeguard both against absolutizing the sciences, on the one hand, or falling into skepticism regarding any truth at all, on the other. And even after embarking upon a scientific or philosophical career, the humanities should ideally continue to serve as a salubrious counterpoint to our more abstract and systematic efforts. It serves above all to keep us in touch with concrete reality in all its here-and-nowness, taming our flights of abstraction to keep them at least minimally grounded. It is, after all, that very reality, in its existential particularity, which most of the sciences aspire to understand in the first place.

The still useful Encyclopedia Britannica (surviving today through a recent digital reincarnation, accessed here in 2022[1]) identifies the humanities as “those branches of knowledge that concern themselves with human beings and their culture or with analytic and critical methods of inquiry derived from an appreciation of human values and of the unique ability of the human spirit to express itself.” I would prefer to excise the phrase “analytical and critical methods,” and leave those to the sciences, but we can leave that matter for a later chapter. The key phrase for us at present is “human beings and their culture.”

That last word has become notoriously protean in its definitions, and disrespectful of consecrated boundary lines between the disciplines. After all, cultural anthropology, as a social science, usually does not find itself in humanities curricula; and even more obviously, technology itself – in all its manifestations – is obviously a product of human culture, but hardly part of the humanities. And again, evolutionary science has been laboring for years to draw the entire Lebenswelt of human culture under the sway of biological mechanisms. But here as elsewhere, in the absence of an accepted foreknowledge of what exactly humans and their culture ultimately are, a disciplinary free-for-all is hard to avoid.

The only comment I will make now – and that we will repeat when treating of the social sciences in a later chapter – is to paraphrase what an eminent anthropologist once wrote. He wished not so much to give a definition of culture, but rather to acknowledge it as a phenomenon that puzzles and mystifies. Richard Geertz wrote that the very vocation of the anthropologist centers on trying to make sense of the conundrum, not encountered – even remotely – in any other species of living being, namely, of humankind’s highly determined biological unity, counterintuitively cohabiting with its fractious and irrepressible cultural diversity. We will return to this famous claim later.

As already mentioned, from Antiquity through the Middle Ages, and on into the so-called Renaissance, a clear distinction between philosophy and the sciences – at least in Latin and the languages linked to it – did not yet exist, much less between either of these and what we would today call the humanities. There was of course language learning with the accompanying study of grammar, and there was a study of rhetoric (understood often – as in Augustine’s day – as a kind of general training in the arts of higher literacy, important for those destined to “clerical” vocations in religion, law or government). When used in an educational sense, in the Roman world, the term humanitas came to signify what we would today call a well-rounded cultivation of the mind and manners of a young student. The model was still that of the celebrated paideia presented by Plato in the Republic, later further outlined by Cicero, and notably examined in depth by the 20th century German philologist Werner Jaeger.[2]

However, these ancient forms of education would normally include mathematics, which today we would not consider a humanistic discipline. It is true that the rise of the system of the Seven Liberal Arts in late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages would formally separate the “trivial” disciplines of grammar, logic and rhetoric – the language arts – from the four “quadrivial” mathematical arts of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. But they nonetheless made up one course of study. After all, you could not even count the three trivial disciplines without using the quadrivial art of arithmetic to count them with, nor could you teach geometry to a student without employing rhetorical tools to make the subject assimilable. The seven arts tended to stick together; therefore, an identification, tout court, with the humanities seems ill-suited.

But after the Aristotelian revolution in the 12th and 13th centuries, bringing the full compass of the Stagirite’s overview of philosophy to increasingly dominate the structure of the rising university curriculum, the liberal arts were absorbed into a fourth division of the new educational institution. Now, alongside of Law (for the polis), Medicine (for the body) and Theology (for the soul), came the Arts Faculty (in a sense, for the whole of the “trivial” linguistic man living in his “quadrivial” mathematicised world). This last saw the septenary order of the arts in the older monastic and cathedral schools gradually give way to Aristotle’s vision of the Organon (for Logic and the study of discourse), the Philosophy of Nature, the Philosophy of Life (including the Philosophy of Man), the Philosophy of Being (Metaphysics), the Philosophy of Human Acts (Ethics) and the Philosophy of Human Making (Philosophy of Art and Technology).

The Fall of Constantinople in 1453 saw a library of ancient manuscripts and a bevy of Greek scholars migrating west, provoking new interest in the literature of the pre-medieval world. Along with this, however, came a new aversion to Catholic scholasticism (associated with Aristotle) and what seemed to be an overly abstract and schematized approach to theology. Thus, a new humanism arose in the 15th and 16th centuries, presuming to reconnect with the paideia and humanitas of the ancients. It bore, however, a new focus on letters and language, leaving mathematics and the inchoate new world of empirical science and its associated arts to a corps of new specialists in astronomy and mechanics – progenitors of today’s scientists.

In this way our modern term, “the humanities,” was born, a spin-off from the Latin term studia humanitatis, the “study of humanity” (also called litterae humaniores, “more human literature,” at Oxford), over against the still prominent studia divinitatis, the “study of divinity,” theology. The term, “humanity” – much like the Chinese term ren – refers not just to human nature as such but also, and more programmatically, to its proper cultivation. This tighter focus on language and history has survived in later centuries in what became known as “the classics,” particularly strong in Britain. Predictably, however, much of today’s interest in the classics of literature and ancient languages has evolved into philology and critical scholarship about the material, rather than a full appropriation of its content and recognition of its cognitive value.

Since the “humanity” emphasized in early modernity concerned the non-divine, the emphasis has shifted in late modernity, with the eclipsing of theology in higher education, to the non-scientific. This is part of the definitional quandary of these studies. It has been a hallmark of the humanities to contrast its subject-matter with another, contemporaneously conspicuous form of knowledge. It is as if the humanist in early modernity would preface a humanistic statement with: “Now, we are not talking here about God,” whereas in more recent times, he might say: “Now, we shall try to look at things from a non-scientific point of view.”

As already hinted at, the somewhat fluid boundaries between rhetorical studies in antiquity, liberal arts studies in medieval times and “humanistic” studies in the Renaissance, has resulted in a number of overlaps. One was between humanities, literature and (as we will discuss more thoroughly in the next chapter) the liberal arts themselves, which often morphed into an even more ambiguous term: Liberal Arts and Sciences. And then there is another more recent overlap. Today we see the humanities either invade, or be invaded by, one or the other of the social sciences, such as anthropology, archaeology, historiography, cognitive science, behavioral psychology and sociology. Here too we will need to be patient and await closer discussion of these last in a later chapter.

For the present, I am going to propose a somewhat simplified understanding of how we can best understand the humanities for the purposes of philosophy. Today – in a world overflowing with multiple sciences, old and new religions, burgeoning new cultural and artistic manifestations and the ever-metamorphizing world of the digital – we would do well to pursue the most upstream fountainheads in the study of things human. Accordingly, I will endeavor not only to acknowledge the traditional boundary line between these studies and theology, but also between them and philosophy, and also – and here perhaps more provocatively – between them and the liberal arts, on the one hand, and the fine arts, on the other. I will defend the view that these last two ensembles of arts deserve their separate stations, precisely because they are indeed arts. I am suggesting that there should be something distinctly pre-artistic in our first encounters with humanistic education – making it a good deal more spontaneous, even if less neat and systematic. I hope the reasons for this become clear in what follows.


2.1. Your Place in Space

To be human means to be born into a certain place, to hear and then speak a certain language and also to pass your allotted time on Earth during a certain defined period. These three milieus both precede us and receive us, and are not in any way our own works, our own creations, or due to our own initiatives. They are always already there, even before we were conceived; they were already outfitted, preconditioned, loaded with history, charged with possibilities and hopes, with evidence of seeds already long sprouted, and patiently awaiting our un-ceremonial arrival. All these matrices are ready – even eager – to work their magic upon us (or, as the case may be, their curses). We instinctively respond to all of these circumstances and are deeply beholden to them precisely because they are givens; it is within them – and only within them – that we live, move and have our being.

My point is that we are not dealing here with “arts,” because we do not make or construct these preexistent conditions; they make us. They do so not in the sense of affording us our human nature (although that, in a far deeper sense, is also pre-given!), or of comprehensively determining all that will become of us, but in the sense of providing the minimal wherewithal that our nature needs in order to unfold itself in a truly human way. These antecedent determinants are factors without which, quite simply, we would not be true to our nature. Accordingly, the name we give them is well chosen: “the humanities.” The language we hear and speak, the particular place in which we stretch our limbs, and the years and decades of our personal story, are the triadic trademark that marks us as humans – not as beasts, not as angels, and not as anyone who should aspire or pretend to be divine. We are, and should aspire to be ever more singularly, mysteriously and irreducibly human.

It is inevitable that many will continue to count the fine arts as belonging to the humanities and this is perfectly understandable. For the purposes of this book, however, I choose to exclude them, both visual and performative. I do this because these arts all necessarily follow and presuppose our formation in the short list; it is upon this basis that the fine arts grow, a basis they require but cannot provide. I also exclude the liberal arts, at least as proper disciplines, with their methods, exercises and programs. Of course, a certain measure of the three R’s of “reading, writing and arithmetic” will be a part of every child’s basic education, but rather than programmatic, these are highly pragmatic in the life of the child. They come naturally. They belong to the fundamentals of infantile growth, like smiling, giggling, learning to crawl and beginning to point. And beyond these more spontaneous developments, there are above all three skills to be gained, and these are precisely what I am calling the short list of the humanities: 1) learning one’s mother tongue as regards words and numbers, meanings and sizes, growing articulate in language and numerate in math, gaining some rudimentary eloquence in language and numerical aptitude in keeping track of things (simple acts of counting and measuring, often pursued in the context of games and play); articulacy and numeracy grow in tandem; and: 2) beginning to explore the space one lives in, becoming familiar with the norths, souths, easts and wests of your world, the here’s and there’s,  and later with the lay of the land you live in and the horizons that point beyond it: 3) learning to negotiate the divisions of time mandated by our age and activities, appreciating more and more how temporal and history-based our experiences are. There is a reason children tell us their age with such engagement and zest.

Studying Donatus, Boethius, Quintilian, Euclid, Nicomachus or Ptolemy (just a few of the canonical authors of the liberal arts) is obviously beyond this “short list.” But any longer list will only make sense, and become an organic part of our education, if it can first find its bearings in the shorter list.

So what are these rudimentary humanities I am claiming to distill from all this effervescence of paideia, Renaissance humanism, studia humanitatis and the like? What is the specific difference, or differences, which mark off this area of human experience and education and keep it shy of the arts, and only propaedeutic to philosophy, science and theology? The answer is simple in the extreme. It lies in the manifest fact that there are three ambiences into which all human beings are born, with no personal responsibility as their authors, but with inevitable future appointments as their curators. They are the inalienable coordinates of a human existence. In abstract terms, they are space, language and time. They are, at best, gifts with which we are endowed at birth, but viewed somewhat more neutrally, they are our destiny, our fate. Of course, negatively viewed, they can also be experienced as tragic misfortune, or nemesis. But in all cases, they are the one real and inescapable world into which we are born, and from the parameters of which all further enterprises in knowledge must embark.

These three ambiences into which we are delivered at birth (into which we are “thrown,” to use the somewhat abrupt, but not inappropriate, metaphor of Heidegger) are the womb on Earth where we shall first gestate, be born and mature; they are the mis en scène of our personal drama. Although geography has certainly developed into a modern social science of high sophistication, few geographers will grudge me for saying there is a more immediate, experiential sense of geography that belongs in these basic humanities. It simply concerns the initial positioning of our body in space. The horizons around us are as defining as the outlines of our bodies.

Our “place in space,” our home – the hills or plains, the mountains or forests, together with their climates, their rivers and streams, their draughts and floods, their heat and cold, or even, for many, our city with its buildings, its streets, its parks, schools, churches and museums, and maybe too its slums and ghettos – all these make up the environs into which we are born and which, together of course with their human populations and varieties of vegetation and wildlife, make up our first “world.” Human geography (which should be literally crowned by an elementary grasp of observational astronomy, that is to say, a basic orientation regarding that part of our world that is above us, and from which come light, water and warmth) is one of these minimal humanities I identify in my short list.

You cannot be human without being somewhere. And our first somewhere is our inaugural familiarity with that pregnant idea just mentioned – the “world” – an idea which will have multiple growths and modulations in the arts, as well as in philosophy and theology thereafter. But long before we start imagining the globe, let alone the solar system or the Milky Way, we need to appreciate that which I suggest is at the very heart of, and constitutes the deepest value of the humanities: namely, contact with the concrete, the individual, the particular – that which is unique and unrivaled about your own corner of the cosmos. There is something quite literally irreplaceable about place.

We sometimes hear the remark, or perhaps make it ourselves: “There is something about this place!” It may be a lovely grove, a mountain scene, even a desert scene, or the interior of a church, of a supposedly haunted house, a corner of a town square, a place you used to play as a child – or maybe just your own home. An part of this is, of course, all the resonating meaning that emerges from that word, just as momentous as the word “world.” I mean, of course: “home,” the occasion for the most searing variety of emotional sickness known to our kind. The ancient Romans spoke of an indwelling spirit that turned a simple place into the special spot of geography that it was: the genius loci (the “genius,” that is, “spirit,” of the place). The expression has survived to evoke that inexpressible but unmistakable quality about certain places. Ask any experienced landscape artist, or seasoned architect, and you will learn that not all places are the same. This is also what inspired the ancient Chinese tradition of feng shui (geomancy). There is much more to place than just geodesy. Another way of putting it is to say that space, like time, is not merely a quantitative reality; despite accurate measurements of more or less, bigger or smaller, straight or curved, we instinctively suspect that different spaces, like different times and season, also have inherent qualities. Often it will be a special building – a temple or a simple cottage, the Roman Forum or the Empire State Building – that creates the magic. But whether by nature or culture, a place is more than just longitude and latitude.

This geographical dimension of the humanities needs to be highlighted because our contemporary spaces have been over-quantified and over-mathematized through our habit of allowing modern science to always have the last word about everything, including space and time. We are taught that space is space – ten square meters of it here are equal to ten square meters of it there. We pretend it is fungible, when in fact our experience teaches that it most definitely is not. It is helpful to note that the great Aristotle curiously speaks very little about space, but quite a bit about place. As always with Aristotle, he will have had his reasons.


2.2. Mother Tongue and Primary Literature

The second constant a human being encounters upon entering the world – again, without choice and without asking permission – is to find oneself immediately, and audibly, in a world of language. It is said that the 13th century emperor Frederick the Second (of the Holy Roman Empire) once sequestered a small group of infants, made sure they had not yet heard a word of human language, and kept them well fed and supervised in a small dwelling. They were carefully prevented from hearing nary a word of Latin or any dialect. He had hoped in this way that the children would spontaneously produce the pure tongue of Adam and Eve and teach us all to talk our way back into innocence. The children all died.

After leaving our mother’s womb, it is not only our lungs that need oxygen to breathe, but our ears need language to drink, especially after listening for months only to the comforting drone of our mother’s heart. We will listen, without speaking, for up to a year before our tongues will finally be loosened. But, as parents all know, the baby may well begin smiling after a couple of months, and then after four or five months begin giggling. Although they do not yet speak, enough language is getting through to them to recognize, in their own baby way, that punch lines are as essential to our humanity as scientific conclusions. And there is more.

From the very start, we are made to breathe, to drink, to eat and….to look and listen. But during this long probational period, the infant does not really do anything and does not really say anything. Embryologists tell us that the first of our five principal senses to develop is hearing. And, aside from touch, hearing is the only sense in which we are physically moved by something beyond us (mechanical waves, in this case).

Babies tend to start pointing instead of slapping and clapping, and to start talking instead of babbling and gurgling, towards the end of their first year of life (or shortly thereafter). But they are only able to focus their attention and find something of interest to point at, or identify a pertinent matter to comment on, after they have spent the better part of that first year just looking and listening, looking and listening. They move on to be “first persons,” grammatically, only after a year’s training as “second persons,” and it seems they use the first person singular as the last of the pronouns they appropriate. First, “thou” and “they,” and only at the end “I.” Unfortunately, we abandon this sequence fast. All three acts – listening, pointing and speaking – are interlocked dimensions of language, and seem to develop in roughly that order.

The mysterious role of pointing, and the further use of the hand in conveying meaning, is proven by the eloquence exhibited by the world’s many and amazing sign languages. Even outside of sign language, Italians are conspicuous examples of what can be said with a palm and five fingers. A man in Rome once told me he was amazed and perplexed that an American professor could practically deliver a whole lecture with his hands in his pockets. I assured him this was not always the case (but only after removing my hands from my pockets).

It is only in recent times that language in the abstract has become an unavoidable topic in philosophy. Of course, Plato and Aristotle had something to say about language, as did the Stoics, and later the Muslim, Jewish, Indian and Chinese philosophers, and indeed the Latin Scholastics as well. Their reflections, however, normally concerned just one language, their mother tongue or perhaps their classical tongue, but in either case habitually treated as language per se.

Once the modern world lifted the curtain on languages in the plural and we realized that they have existed, and still exist, not just by the dozen, but by the thousands, comparative studies became unavoidable. Indeed, to underline a point made earlier, no other contrast pushes the issue of understanding the dialectic between nature and culture more than the identical, uniform, highly determined biological vocal apparatus found in all human organisms, and the countless varieties of phonetics, morphologies, syntaxes and semantics of the world’s tongues, seemingly undetermined – not to speak of the even greater diversity of what people then choose to say when they open their mouths in their particular idiom.

Today theories to explain the origin, development and astounding variety of languages abound (current statistics run between 6 and 7,000 documented tongues, not including the countless no longer spoken), but no one theory is even close to commanding consensus among experts. Although manifestly useful, indeed necessary for our survival and communication, language is obstinately and profoundly enigmatical as to its origin and its ultimate implications. The most obvious and indisputable feature of language seems to be precisely its mystery.

Thus, this second of the three main constituents of my short list of the humanities is simply language. However, this is not yet the systematic study of grammar (which would be part of the liberal arts), much less the social science of linguistics, nor even the study of foreign languages as such. Meant here is simply the inaugural acquisition of one’s mother tongue, and the efforts one makes to learn it more deeply and more fully. One must learn to appreciate its range, identify its resources, even its various regional accents (here geography lends a hand), and begin to fill the memory with thousands of words, phrases, archetypes, meanings, suggestions, allusions, poems and classical sayings and tropes. All this enables us to unlock the multiple doors of experience around us and within us, having been ourselves named, addressed, commanded and loved before. We discover that our human vocation involves living in language even more than it includes living in time and space. We might even feel that we exist in time and space only in order to be able to speak. They seem more stage than drama, more context than text. Time and space seem uninterested in us, but language is interested in everything.

Nursery rhymes and children’s songs are an essential component of language, even a first foundation, as are the fairy tales and countless sayings we hear from our elders, all in our mother tongue. But these are words that come to us not yet analytically, philosophically, abstractly or with belabored erudition, but as directly and as warmly as our mother’s milk. And there is a reason why we call our first language our mother tongue. Mothers are not made to be analyzed, and at this stage, at least, neither are our mother tongues. One should learn to not only speak that nurturing language, but also to love it, and to stretch one’s mind and imagination within it, since this is the matrix that will give birth to our knowledge just as our mothers gave birth to our life.

Hearing and memorizing tales, poems, limericks, jokes and names of places are all exercises children delight in. A seven-year-old boy, son of my neighbor, once visited me with his father and saw a world map hanging on my wall. He promptly and proudly walked over to the map and pointed out, one after the other, the names of dozens of countries and their capitals. Here again, language and geography intersect. Naming things and taking delight in all the different (and often amusing) names, is a deeply human experience, one archetypically exemplified, in a theological vein, when Adam names the animals in Genesis.

As we grow older and live through adolescence, ideally, we will take our first steps into the worlds of the arts (broadly understood): for some, the crafts and manual vocations, for others, the liberal and the fine arts. However, continuing on from childhood, our poetic and musical education should perdure, mature and develop – for all of us on an amateur basis, and for some few as professionals. The humanities provide a steady and growing counterpoint to everything else we eventually do in a more disciplined mode and with more consciously directed use of our intelligence.

Listening to rap and hip-hop artists of our day, I am impressed how they give vocal witness to a youthful thirst for word, language, articulation and expression. The frequent profanity seems a reactive protest over how impoverished our daily speech has become. What if they had learned hours’ worth of memorable poetry when they were kids, or songs from the great songbooks of our cultures? We have poetically starved them by overfeeding them with premature science and analysis, and the explosion, almost fist-in-the-face, of this very verbal and gesticular form of musical protest is the rather predictable result.

The lack of learned archetypes, models and classical motifs in childhood, to which the adolescent mind would then turn and find vibrant paradigms of the new experiences one encounters, leaves instead our youth uttering unending litanies of “like, like, like…” The imagination wants to compare, but finds no footing in its earliest education, and this overused preposition witnesses to the helpless search for significance, futilely canvassing its impoverished memory for connections and context. We have all heard it: the tiresome mantra of the disoriented 15-year-old, who literally no longer knows what things are “like.”

In the early 1970s I participated in an experimental humanities program at the University of Kansas. One of the assignments of the four-semester course was to memorize, each semester, ten famous English poems (some of them very long, such as Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, or Oliver Goldsmith’s Deserted Village – beautiful, haunting poems, still resounding in the corridors of my memory). We were also encouraged to walk in the Kansas countryside and to attend nighttime sessions of stargazing, learning to identify the planets and constellations, thus giving us bearings upon the dark Earth by appeal to the bright stars. We also had wonderful lectures and a superb program of readings. Still, I have often thought that those poems we memorized were the most effective and transformative part of the curriculum.

But there is a dual aspect to this inevitable presence of language in the humanities. It results from the already millennia-long coexistence of its oral and written formulations. Best current guesses as to the invention of script and the rise of written record date back to between the third and fourth millennia B.C., so that we have well over 5,000 years of experience of pictorial, cuneiform, hieroglyphic, runic, logographic, alphabetic (phonetic) writing, to mention only the better known. Alongside the manuscripts, however, lie the incomparably more ancient oral traditions, but not on papyrus, parchment, pottery or turtle shells, but only in the concordances of human hearts. For eons, language only survived by passing audibly and volubly from tongues to ears. And we must not forget that most of today’s thousands of tongues have never been committed to script. This matter deserves a chapter of its own, but we shall here settle with the simple fact that writing is the obvious status quo in which our languages today live and are transmitted. That is to say, literature and language are now correlate realities, each in turn a mother to the other.

Although as with geography, literature too has a sophisticated incarnation beyond and distinct from my quintessential version of the humanities, it should be as readily evident why a certain and quite basic form also belongs here. Nonetheless, as was the case with geography, the two forms of the matter will eventually feed into each other. They are not hermetically sealed compartments. The disciplined study of literature and the attendant training in the accompanying languages belongs to the Trivium and to anyone’s program of reading great classics, but none of that can grow except on the previous soil of our elementary absorption of speech, story and song.

I said we inherit our language, as we do our place and time. We receive them. They are, all three, in a most direct way, our tradition. Tradere, in Latin, means to pass on, to deliver over a period of time. Truths and values are also transmitted in space, geographically (from Palestine to Europe, for example, or from Greece to Rome, or from Europe to the Americas). But our ideas and writings are also translated in language (from Greek to Latin, from Hebrew to English, and across a host of bridges between the linguistic cousins of history). Tradition through time, transmission through space and translation through language are the three trajectories of human culture, the three migrations of our ideas and values. It is in getting yourself well-placed in these channels of imaginative and intellectual life that is the very purpose of the study of the humanities.

There is also a category of literature that belongs to this first welcoming of our mother tongue into our memory. We all have, in the place and time in which we are born, a certain minimal deposit of literature that is ours. We receive it from the mouths of our parents when they read from Hans Christian Anderson, Mother Goose, Kenneth Grahame, from the Brothers Grimm, later from maybe James Fenimore Cooper, Jane Austin or Charles Dickens. Still before we embark upon any ordered study of the Great Books, we simply receive as part of our linguistic heritage a few written staples of its most foundational specimens.

A small family library of basic written masterpieces that are first read to us as toddlers, that we then read ourselves as children and later discuss as adolescents certainly are an integral part of our primary education. They insert us ever more deeply into the language that greets us when we begin to listen to the world into which we were born.


2.3. Our Time and Our History

A third component of this initial exposure to the humanities has to do not with space, nor with language as such, but with time. The world into which we are brought by the union of our parents is irreducibly positioned in a certain century, a certain period, a specific timeframe with all its coordinates linking us with a remembered (and sometimes forgotten) past; along with it come the hopes and needs that point us towards a future that will most probably surprise us. Our temporal existence demands that we not only know where we are geographically, that we not only learn the tongue into which our mind has been nested linguistically, but that we also accept the thousand contingencies of times past which have converged upon the well-defined period of our terrestrial life. Thus, in addition to the geography of our homeland (with some observational astronomy), and the hearing and speaking of our mother tongue (with a bit of traditional literature), we have as the third dimension of my short list of the humanities the knowledge of our familial and local history.

As there are scientific forms of geography and language study, so too do we find disciplined and complex varieties of the study of history (historiography itself, historical criticism, philology, archaeology, biological and cultural anthropology, even the so-called “Big History” of astrophysics, and more). But the knowledge of history I am placing in our initial humanistic formation is the simple learning of the narratives about our own family’s past, that of our town, our country, our nation, our language, our religion. Already as a young person, humanistically well-formed individuals should develop a healthy and abiding interest in the backstory of the historical drama into which they have been born.

What we call the past is not principally a load of reality that has “passed away,” or disappeared somewhere “behind” us (an inappropriate spatial metaphor to begin with). We will examine this more fully in a coming chapter when we discuss modernity. For the time being, it is enough to emphasize that what has been has not receded from us at all, or been engulfed by some black hole of chronological distance. It has passed indeed, but rather than passed away, it has passed within. It has passed not into an imagined yesteryear, but rather into our very interior, into that fearful treasury we call the human heart, the unassailable vault of our memory, both individual and collective.

Contemporary Jungians often speak of a so-called “collective unconscious,” but – without commenting on the rest of Jung’s ideas – in this case, he was certainly on to something. I suggest he was just approaching, with the circuitous analytical methods of psychoanalysis, the mysteries of the human memory. Those mysteries finally transcend an artificial distinction between past and present, and even between past and future, as we read in the tenth book of Augustine’s Confessions. The memory is, in some sense, the great boundless alluvium of possibilities, of archetypes, of models deposited by the history of the race (or perhaps put there by its Creator) – as much at home in the world of Platonic Forms, as in the akasha chronicle of Hindu tradition, or simply, on a theological note, within the recesses of the Logos that is the second Person of Christianity’s Holy Trinity. There, every concrete thing, person or event, remembered or foreseen – past, future, yet or even never to come – makes the world as a whole vibrate with a universal meaning, as the entire spider’s web does when you touch any one of its filaments.

In more immediate and personal terms, to be ignorant of your past is to be ignorant of yourself – yourself in all your particularity and, as the scholastics would say, “incommunicability.” This term does not refer to communication as we normally understand it, but to the uniqueness of the individual as individual, most especially when those individuals are persons. The point is that no one but you is you, and this is the deepest reason why you can only be in one place at one time (even if you have been and will be in many), only speak one language at a time (however many you may also speak at different times), and be, in a large, though not deterministic sense, the product of your own personal history (however many episodes you may share with others).

That is the thing, the particularity that is incommunicable, that cannot be transmitted and appropriated to another. That is your irreducible “thisness” (what Duns Scotus will call haecceitas). Persons are unique and cannot be shared ontologically. Even a human clone, were it to be produced, would not be the same person, but only a twin, incongruously of a significantly different age than its sibling. However, that very ontological uniqueness and lack of transferability on the ontological level provides the basis for another kind of sharing: a moral, interpersonal giving of oneself. In other words, it establishes the very possibility of love.

To draw these meditations together, we can sum up what we have said in three affirmations. We discover it is endemic to the human condition – something available to everyone upon minimal reflection, even children (although the latter component only matures in adolescence) – that there are three basic givens in our humanity. We need to remain still for a moment, in silence, in order to identify them properly, for they are, like most important philosophical insights, things we already know, but seldom attend to. Our incessant fussiness with other matters pushes them beneath the radar of our consciousness. And even when we quiet down, their very obviousness and proximity to our spontaneous experience can cause them to blend inconspicuously into the background.

But let us try to rephrase the essential points we have made and summon them into the foreground:

1) we are situated in a particular place in space, meaning we are not and cannot be everywhere, but the somewhere we find ourselves in is a place full of potential meaning and which stands in relationship to absolutely everything else – a place linked to all space by giving the vastness of extension a personal focus (for even outer space only makes sense if we, in contrast, occupy an inner space); and

2) sooner or later, although we must use language both to secure and express knowledge, we also use it to act and choose; we recognize that all sorts of things, both good and bad, will result from these choices; in other words, although highly determined in our nature, in our faculties of hearing and in our linguistic apparatus, we are not determined or predestined at all in what we come to know, what we decide to say, or which acts we choose to perform or omit. Through language, we are to a significant extent the authors of our own destiny; and,

3) we are derivative and underway, that is, we come from somewhere or someone, and we are on a journey that is far from over. We are not original; and we are forever proceeding to a new stage of life, to other places, conditions, problems, etc., meaning we are not perfect, that is, we do not yet possess our final form. In a word, we live in time.

When we turn to the social sciences, we shall examine the temporal dimension of our lives in greater depth, and also understand our relationship to space in a surprising, but obviously fitting manner. Again: 1) we live in a specific place with its own particular character, its own genius loci; 2) our minds and imaginations unfold within a given language that mothers us mentally as much as our human mothers did so biologically; and now: 3) we are born into an historical context that pre-existed our own life story, and to a considerable extent will condition it and invite us to choose our way into a creative future.

Great Books programs, which rose to prominence in the 30s and 40s in the United States, today are still active, especially in small liberal arts colleges. They have programs with varied emphases, sometimes religiously affiliated, sometimes not. Referring to the curriculum of such programs, the British Victorian poet, Matthew Arnold, coined the well-known phrase: “the best which has been thought and said” to highlight grand past achievements of the human mind. To this, we would add that which has been composed, painted, sculpted, erected, danced and narrated as well.

The attention we give to history in the humanities is neither nostalgia nor simple laus temporis acti (praise for times past), and, as we shall see with Rosenstock-Huessy, no mere retreat from present challenges. It is rather a recognition of greatness already achieved, the proverbial shoulders upon which we today stand (whether we know it or not), gaining insights not just into the past, but into the present and future as well.

The humanities, above all, establish a firm grasp on the concreteness, particularity and individuality of things, highlighting them in geography, language and history. This will be important later when one rises to philosophical and theological vistas, which remain hollow and lost without a memory full of the embodied realities of the objects one studies. Another property, no less important in tempering our young in the crucible of the real, is the unsystematic character of our immediate experience and all that falls under the governance of these initial encounters with reality. Direct, tactile, visual and aural contact with real things and events, and an ordered submersion in the narrative mode of knowing, are in the foreground here. System in the organization of our knowledge comes later; contact with the unsystematic world of the real comes first.

Geography’s oceans, rivers, streams and lakes follow curves only loosely traceable by geometry. The natural world possesses its beauty precisely because it does not follow rigorous symmetry, but instead a free and unpredictable landscape of hills and mountains, plains and valleys, forests and deserts – all of them almost willful in their disobedience to plotted graphs and metrical canons. Language and its literatures, even more, move in a world not dominated at every turn by syllogisms or rational explanations, but are full of surprises, ambiguities, paradoxes and at times virtually bottomless mysteries.

All this is no less true of history itself. Any attempts to make of history a formula rather than a narration, a scheme rather than a story, a pattern rather than a picture, a predictable equation rather than an intractable epiphany of the unexpected, will hardly ring true to anyone who has already passed a few years on our Earth.

The humanities deal with the unplottable, the in part unexplainable, irreducible and yet inalienably human. They fill our memories to the brim with the ultimately unplumbable mystery of where we are in such an enormous world and universe; of what is said and can be said in the language we imaginatively and intellectually inherit; and the thousand stories that led up to our own moment in time and framed it with a context we are invited to explore and acknowledge, but which we will never be able to encompass.

One way to distinguish between what happens in the experiences presented in this chapter when compared to what occurs in the three varieties of arts (to be discussed in the next chapter) is that in the short list of the humanities, it is the world around us that is the artist, and we are the works. We are the results of the effects of place, time and language upon our budding humanity. Gradually, however, as the child matures, it slowly becomes agent and artist as it begins to build and model (whether a boy’s little fortress or a girl’s doll house), and thus enter into the world of the useful arts. It will begin to hum its own tunes, play-act its own fantasies and paint its own pictures, stepping forth into the fine arts. Finally, the junior human will begin to clumsily argue, persuade, count and measure, and thus take first steps into the world of the liberal arts.

It has been said that the deepest experiences of our lives are undefinable, and yet unmistakable. Before we try our hands at the arts, and long before we dare perform the full philosophical act, entertain a science or two, or even respond to a transcendence that bids us theologize as well, we very much need the great propaedeutic of the humanities. But I suggest it first be reduced to the minimal novitiate I have proposed in this chapter. In this way we will be humanly tempered and predisposed to truth in all its variants, alerted to dangers and humbled in our cognitive ambitions, and so be braced for the voyage of knowledge yet to come.


[2] Werner Jaeger. Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, 3 vol., Oxford, 1945.

Share / Compartilhe