Category Archives: humanism

Paul Krause has a heartier take on the humanities than Stanley Fish

In my last post, I found several thoughtful, salient points in Stanley Fish’s recent article, “Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities,” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

But Paul Krause, writing at, makes a new defense of the humanities anyway, and I loved it. Fish lit up parts of my mind, but Krause lit up my heart.

His definition is useful because I think many people just don’t understand what the humanities are and do:

The name humanities has “human” as its basis. The humanities are about us. In a way, the humanities are the study of what it means to be human along with the fruits of human genius and the creative spirit. The humanities ranges from philosophy—that most sublime and supreme queen—to literature, art, music, religion, language, and all the disciplines and topics that inform, build, and constitute what people have long called “culture.” Humanist studies is not, however, an outright celebration of every aspect of the human spirit and endeavor. It can be just as critical as it is appraising. Its study can inform and instruct—pointing out errors, as much as pointing out goodness, virtue, beauty, and other such things to strive for.

And later, Krause gives an example of what the humanities accomplish by demonstrating how key texts are integrated with each other—in ways that both form our intellectual understandings and our experiences as creatures with historical antecedents:

In the first book of Politics Aristotle makes a direct reference to the ninth book of Homer’s Iliad. When Augustine penned City of God he assumed his readers to be familiar with the works of the Platonists, Virgil, Cicero, Sallust, Varro, the Bible, and the great stories of Rome’s founding mythology: Romulus and Remus, Lucretia, and Aeneas. Dante’s Divine Comedy is not simply allegory of his own tumultuous experiences in Florence; it is also journey through the very soul of Western literature, philosophy, and theology from start to finish. Shakespeare is riddled with Biblical and literary references that lessen the greatness of Shakespeare when missed by the reader. Jonathan Swift, that great satirist, was engaged in his own cultural criticism in satirizing the philosophies of Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke when Gulliver meets the Laputans.

Building on the past, referencing and critiquing influential texts, understanding the origins of the cultural and intellectual flooring (however mismatched some of the boards) on which we stand—these are good reasons for the humanities. You don’t have to believe or accept everything you read in the great books (that’s the “critical” part of the humanities). Sometimes the point is simply to learn why other people saw things the way they did (why they currently see things the way they do) to better understand the excellencies and errors of today. To do so, one must understand other metaphors and stories, and see how they inform nuances of moral principles. To understand another culture’s metaphor or story is to be able to understand motivating forces and forms of thinking in other people. As John Stuart Mill once said, if you don’t know another point of view, you really don’t know your own.

Babel, Tower Of

In The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense, John Ralston Saul offers this opening to his entry, “Babel, Tower Of” —

“Multilingualism remains the source of movement and growth in a civilization. The ability to fill the house of reality, intellect, and imagination with different furniture is a great pleasure and a great strength.”

Marilynne Robinson on ‘The Accidental’ as a Basis For Interpretation

In her book Absence of Mind, in the essay “The Strange History of Altruism,” Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson reviews some of the popular books about science. In the excerpt that follows, she makes an interesting observation about the consequences of two outlooks. I’m guessing most of my readers will agree with her point of view, but even those who won’t agree could see something valuable in her take:

“The comparison that is salient here is between the accidental and the intentional in terms of their consequences for the interpretation of anything. In the course of my reading, I have come to the conclusion that the random, the accidental, have a strong attraction for many writers because they simplify by delimiting. Why is there something rather than nothing? Accident. Accident narrows the range of appropriate strategies of interpretation, while intention very much broadens it. Accident closes on itself, while intention implies that, in and beyond any particular fact or circumstance, there is vastly more to be understood. Intention is implicitly communicative, because an actor is described in any intentional act. Why is the human brain the most complex object known to exist in the universe? Because the elaborations of the mammalian brain that promoted the survival of the organism overshot the mark in our case. Or because it is intrinsic to our role in the universe as thinkers and perceivers, participants in a singular capacity for wonder as well as for comprehension.”

Food for thought.

Meanwhile, Robinson has written an interesting analysis of Donald Trump for the Guardian.


Marilynne Robinson on ‘the felt life of the mind’ and beauty and strangeness

Marilynne Robinson’s Calvinism is an alternative to The Gospel Coalition’s Calvinism


Vague Terminology Linked To Poor Science – Neuroskeptic |

OMG! Language skills matter in the sciences, too! Now what?

Vague Terminology Linked To Poor Science – Neuroskeptic |

Christian Humanism: A Helpful Explanation

In the current edition of Image, the impeccable quarterly of art, faith, and mystery, editor and publisher Gregory Wolfe suggests that Christians reconsider the value of the Renaissance. In the process, he makes a valuable explanation of central ideas within Christian Humanism. Here are excerpts from Wolfe’s essay:

[I]t has been shown that many of the greatest Renaissance thinkers and artists were already at work trying to find a new synthesis of self and cosmos and bring healing to modern consciousness. The conditions they faced were strikingly like our own.

The rediscovery of pagan culture involved the question of how to approach the dialogue between secular and sacred. As the Christian humanists argued for the importance of learning from pagan culture, they deepened the theology of the Incarnation, attacking the sort of dualism that compartmentalizes experience and denies the unity of truth. “For Erasmus wisdom does not consist in despoiling a humiliated paganism, but in collaborating pedagogically with its highest expression,” writes [Marjorie O’Rourke] Boyle.

The age of exploration began the process of globalization, and while the record of western engagement with other cultures has been checkered at best, the greatest religious order to emerge out of the Renaissance — the Jesuits — offered some of the most humane forms of intercultural exchange on record, including the mission to the Guarani’ in South America, recounted in the film The Mission. The Jesuit missionaries to China dressed as Mandarins and learned both the language and Confucianism before breathing a word about Jesus….

At the risk of some anachronism, I think it can be argued that the struggle between hell-for-leather Reformers and reactionary Catholics during this period can be seen in the light of what have recently been dubbed the “culture wars.” Eventually, these conflicts would erupt into shooting wars that would engulf Europe in an orgy of division and destruction for over a century. What gets lost in dwelling on this conflagration are the achievements of the humanists on both sides of theological divide: the emergence of biblical criticism and philology, the first stirrings of the discipline of history, pleas for tolerance and understanding of Jews, and programs for the education of women.

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