Tag Archives: interpretation

Stanley Fish Slashes the Tires of the Humanities

That’s an overly dramatic title, but it sounds like Bonfire of the Vanities.

I always appreciate Stanley Fish’s point of view, even when I don’t agree with him. I think he is on the wrong side of the free-speech debate, but his recent essay, “Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, has a lot to love and consider.

Wait a sec—in case you don’t know what “the humanities” are, I like a definition from the Stanford Humanities Center, which reads in part:

“The humanities can be described as the study of how people process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world.”

So as much as I like Fish’s recent essay, it is a bit painful for me when he says:

I hate to be the one to tell you, but there is no generalizable benefit to having led a life centered on great texts. It is sometimes thought that those whose careers are spent engaging with beautiful and stringent works of literature and philosophy will become, perhaps by osmosis, better persons than they otherwise would have been. Anyone who believes that hasn’t spent much time in English and philosophy departments.

That last sentence is supposed to be funny, in a darkly humorous way, and it really is.

Fish also analogizes the age-old faith and reason debate with one of the predicaments faced by universities today, that is, whether to continue supporting the humanities at all while demand for science and technology training grows. After considering some of the justifications for the humanities, he writes:

This line of humanities justification has taken many forms, usually involving pointed distinctions between body and soul, letter and spirit, techne and art. A number of famous debates — between Thomas Huxley and Matthew Arnold, C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis, Alan Sokal and the editors of Social Text — participate in a long conversation between those who believe that science and the scientific method provide the way both to knowledge and the betterment of mankind, and those who believe that without the informing spirit of the humanistic perspective, scientific knowledge is a dead letter. (One can see this opposition in all of its variety as a subset of the larger, perdurable opposition between reason and faith.)

Just for clarity, the parenthetical comment is his. Considering these broad tensions sometimes described as sciences versus humanities, take a look at theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s questioning of the tension between Athens and Jerusalem.

My excerpts here could be misleading, taken by themselves, because Fish believes in the humanities and loves them. The question is whether they can be defended from the outside, or only from within. (Sometimes people will say, for example, a religion is internally coherent, yet open to external critique.)

While I don’t want to “side” with Fish against anyone I know in the digital humanities (and while I didn’t previously quite understand “digital humanities” in the way Fish describes), I really loved this helpful, insightful, foundational humanistic perspective within his critique of the digital humanities:

Think of puffs of smoke seen on a distant ridge; they could be just puffs of smoke, they could be smoke signals. How do you know? Not by just looking at them; it is only when you are persuaded—not by the data but by extratextual information—that a particular someone has designed the sequence that you will ask what message that someone might have wanted to send. Interpretation can’t get started without the prior identification of an intentional agent, and brute data, no matter how it is sliced and diced, cannot produce that identification by itself. 

I take that to mean, humanities people understand or are persuaded—in numerous situations and through numerous media—someone is trying to send a message, and that message should be comprehended and evaluated. If you and I give time and effort to intentional messages, are we acting in mere faith?

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Try to be objective about this

“…without a subject, nothing at all would exist to confront objects, and to imagine them as such. True, this implies that every object, everything ‘objective’—in being merely objectivized by the subject—is the most subjective thing possible.”

— Medard Boss, in The Analysis of Dreams (1958), quoted in this intriguing overview of phenomenology

The Boss quotation could explain a lot of things, especially, in terms of this blog’s typical themes and audience, the world’s 8,196 Protestant denominations based upon the same Bible.

When You’re Certain You’re Right

Is it possible to know you’re right on a controversial subject and not be proud? Are certainty and pride just peas in the same pod?

Is it possible to believe in a position, stance, doctrine, law, worldview, etc., with certainty while also having real empathy and understanding for someone who does not see the same way? If you are certain about a stance on a controversial issue, do you really have the capacity for empathy and understanding of someone who differs?

Is it possible to write a blog post without a sense of certainty?

Are certainty and pride, or certainty and humility, always operating together? Is either pair ever operating together?

If I say I am submitting to the authority of a school of thought, or to the authority of a text, doesn’t my appropriation or my interpretation ultimately reflect back on me, the appropriator, the interpreter?

Does my decision to submit to an authority, of any kind, ultimately become self-referential? (I decided to submit, after all.)

Can I make my way in the world with contingent operating beliefs that are open to correction, clarification, modification, and addition?

If I make my way in the world with contingent operating beliefs, am I certain? Hopeful? Squishy? Humble? Indecisive? Uncommitted? Judicious? Poor in self-esteem?

Maybe just arrogant enough to get through the day?

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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.

Related:

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

 

Worldview

A single interpretive tool can save you from the work of understanding.

Easily repeatable narratives often become absolute truths.

When an easily repeatable narrative becomes a socially accepted truth, beware and be wary.

— Question it.

If someone claims to know your motives, be suspicious of his motives.

— What might he gain from your agreement?

So, there’s no point in listening to sermons?

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Stay in bed on Sunday mornings, folks. Just read the Bible and whatever you make of it is cool.

Anglicanism, Episcopalians, and gay rights

Food for thought, from an 8-year-old book entitled Anglican Communion in Crisis: How Episcopal Dissidents and Their African Allies Are Reshaping Anglicanism:

In their conflicting positions on homosexuality, both sides view their positions on this issue as part of their religious identities and faith commitments. Although conservatives sometimes describe the liberal position as an adoption of secular humanist values from the surrounding culture, proponents of both the conservative and the liberal positions ground their arguments in understandings of God, scripture, and the church….

Liberal Christians generally do not take a literalist view of Scripture and offer less condemning readings of the biblical passages that conservatives take as denouncing homosexuality. One example comes from the book What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality, by Roman Catholic priest David Helminiak. Helminiak writes: “Somehow God must be behind the fact that some people are homosexual. Then why should God’s word in the Bible condemn homosexuality? . . . There must be another answer. The mistake must be in how the Bible is being read.”

Helminiak’s statement hints at a second liberal argument, based on humanistic ideas about the naturalness and goodness of human nature. This argument holds that since some people experience themselves as homosexual, and since presumably God made them that way, then expressing their sexual orientation cannot be inherently wrong. Such views also rest on an incarnational theology that sees Jesus Christ’s taking on human form as validating humanity in a fundamental way. Human nature is seen not as negative and inimical to faith and purity, but as God’s gift, sanctified by Christ’s sharing in it. An element of liberation theology is present here as well, in the conviction voiced by many liberal Episcopalians that the gospel’s central message concerns freedom from oppression. [emphasis added]

— Miranda K. Hassett, in Anglican Communion in Crisis : How Episcopal Dissidents and Their African Allies Are Reshaping Anglicanism, Princeton University Press, 2007

In both of the above-boldfaced cases, notice how sovereignty, that key term for Reformation theology, is implied in the liberal Christian perspective.