Monday, January 14, 2008

The Problem of Utility

Stanley Fish started a fairly interesting discussion here, arguing in his usual (and rather glib) contrarian fashion that what he actually does for a living serves no useful purpose, except to him. It's basically an unarguable point, because it starts with an unargued premise: that there is, or should be, a fundamental utility to all human endeavors, and the measure of that utility should be both material and functional. So that even a perfectly dreadful movie like "Terminator 3" or "Top Gun" (watched some of both of them last night on TeeVee), or a seemingly pointless event like the Golden Globe Awards, are actually valuable because they generate so much money by the creation of so many jobs. So Mr. Fish's basic question is: where's the trickle down for the humanities? And his basic answer is: there isn't any.

It is, in other words, a nice utilitarian argument. And it's my humanties education that allows me to say so. Which, not to put too fine a point on it, is a rather different order of critical thinking from that done by politicians, political pundits, or sports commentators (three groups Mr. Fish cites as counter-examples of the importance of learning critical thinking via the humanities. If they can do it, Mr. Fish avers, who needs philosophy professors?). But still, I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

What is the utility of the humanities? What, indeed, is the utility of morality, or justice? My main problem with the jurisprudence of John Rawls, to pick an example for comparison and contrast, is that his theory of justice simply tries to salvage the worst aspects of utilitarianism by giving them a slightly more palatable justification. Mr. Fish's arguments function in much the same way: in his quirky contrarianism he purports to save the worst parts of the status quo from themselves, when in fact he doesn't advance any argument at all, except the argument of his own cleverness. Well, that's making it too personal (but Mr. Fish loves to be personal; the only argument he advances for the humanities as an academic pursuit, is the pleasure it gives him, and his opportunities to share that pleasure with others). Let's back up and try to come at this as a topic, not a subject for gossip.

Rawls' theory of justice has always bothered me precisely because it assumes utilitarianism is basically sound, and it simply must be tweaked to make it slightly less inhumane. The fundamental appeal, to human selfishness, is taken as a given: it is the presumptions such selfishness leads to that Rawls tries to adjust. The premise here is basically Calvinistic, or at least Calvinism as it is popularly understood; which is to say, it is not the Calvinism as expounded by Jean Cauvin (the Frenchman from Switzerland known in English as "John Calvin"). Calvin was far subtler a thinker (they usually are), and more aware of human nature's proclivity for self-justification (a basic tenet of selfishness: the ability of the subject to justify any action which it deems a benefit). His solution had far less to do with accepting this atate of affairs than with establishing a system for restraining it. Utilitarianism is not the apotheosis of Calvin's thought, but its perversion. Calvin saw human selfishness as a given; an evil, and so one that needed to be restrained. Utilitarianism takes selfishness as a given, too, but regards it, not just as a necessary evil, but simply as necessary. Selfishness is not harnessed under a utilitarian model, it is the essential condition of a utilitarian model. And from there it is a short step to reducing everything to a rubric of utility: Do I need this? Does it benefit me? If not, why do I have it?

So Mr. Fish considers that no one needs his analysis of the poetry of George Herbert; that the only reason to read such poetry, for him anyway, is to delight in its word play, to delight, too, in one's ability to appreciate such word play. It's a sort of reductio ad absurdum that lowers literature to precisely the level I tell my students not to take poetry (especially) to; to treat the reading of a poem as "like solving a puzzle." Sure, you can do that, but already you've reduced the poem to a binary object: it is either of use, or it isn't. David Hume might be pleased (he reduced philosophy to two types of statements, analytic and synthetic, and then showed both were useless pursuits) and Wittgenstein might even be sympathetic (he was the most anti-philosopher of professional philosophers), but the fundamental error remains unexamined: why should works of art "mean" at all?

Because, Mr. Fish would respond, it keeps academicians in business. This is the work of the academy after all, he says: to read texts and find interesting puzzles in them and show off their cleverness to their students. It's a line of argument that's only about 100 years old (actually), and its signal product in the humanities (other than the disgust with it of people like Auden, who actually wrote a poem once to prove a critic of his work wrong about what Auden could, and could not, write) are the two novels by James Joyce, both self-consciously "literary" works which came into existence just as English professors were discovering they could stop teaching the greatness of "authoritative" works, and start teaching their "meanings" (perhaps we should blame the French Symbolistes, too; but then, you can blame the French for everything, if you try hard enough). It may come as a shock, but the "humanities" was not always synonymous with treating literary works as either "texts" nor puzzles to be elucidated, and philosophy and theology to this day (both academic fields within the humanities) are still not taught by seeking out the clever word play and puzzles of Aquinas or Kant (O, the exploding zeppelin that attempt conjures up!), or Heidegger or Derrida. So there's another problem with Mr. Fish's argument, or rather another possible response: Speak for yourself, Mr. Fish. Some of us have slightly better things to do than solve the wordplay of George Herbert's "sunbeam."

But still, we should get away from this idea that all human endeavor is about utility, or it's about nothing at all. Here, for example, is an interesting question that could easily come up in a Freshman philosophy class: What is "real"? :

Lynne Matallana, president of the National Fibromyalgia Association, a patients’ advocacy group that receives some of its financing from drug companies, said the new drugs would help people accept the existence of fibromyalgia. “The day that the F.D.A. approved a drug and we had a public service announcement, my pain became real to people,” Ms. Matallana said.
Interesting problem there. Was Ms. Matallana's pain not "real" before the FDA approved a drug for "fibromyalgia," a condition defined in the article as "characterized by chronic, widespread pain of unknown origin" which "primarily affects middle-aged women." Now, Mr. Fish would immediately respond here (I imagine) that he carefully delineates a distinction between the humanities as an academic concern, and the interest of the non-academic realms; and point out (I'm sure) that I'm blurring those distinctions, as some of his critics did. Well, his distinction is valid, but his point is not. Let's go on a moment.

In that hypothetical Freshman philosophy course, this would make a good topic for discussion: what, after all, is "real"? I've used the movie "A.I." before to illustrate the problem of the reality of the self. The child-robot in the story is not "real" because he is an artificial construct; yet he behaves like a human being. Is he "real," or not? If not, why not? If so, how? Ms. Matallana insists her pain is real, and certainly it is. How do we define pain, after all, except as what the mind (whatever that is!) perceives. But there is chronic pain from physical trauma, and there is pain with no known source or cause. Is the latter less real, simply a matter of insufficient will-power or a psychological state? And are psychological states "unreal" because they have no physical basis? Pain, after all, is utilitarian. It tells us to remove our hand from the hot stove lest we burn the skin away completely. But chronic pain goes from utility to debilitating; it becomes anti-utility, not just useless but damaging. In my legal practice we spoke of "soft tissue injuries," like neck pain from whiplash. This was the worst kind of pain, because it could neither be proven nor disproven. A broken shoulder blade would show up on X-ray, and certainly produce pain. But a "soft tissue" injury betrayed no source for pain; yet, was the pain "real," or imagined, or even pretended to?

Ms. Matallana's problem is physical, but perhaps also psychological, but perhaps also philosophical, even sociological. How do we define pain, and give credence to those who claim it? Is pain entirely personal, or is it also social? Her sense of self is caught up in this situation, and the analysis of that sense covers many disciplines, not all of them "hard" sciences. But many of those disciplines, including the humanities, even literature, might have something to offer to her self-understanding. Would any of those offerings rest on the ability to discern word play in a poem? Well, perhaps the pleasure of the discernment might be of some value to Ms. Matallana; one can never be sure. But is that all the humanities are, discerning cleverness? Is it cleverness that leads me to ask "what is real?" or "what is the self?" Or are these real questions which a situation like Ms. Matallana's calls up? Is my answer, or any answer to those questions, of utility to her? Perhaps not. Are they, then, merely dilletantish pursuits which I have no grounds for asking society's support? Well, perhaps if I ask as Socrates did at his trial; but otherwise, am I really asking for so much? Is there really no need for careful consideration of these questions at all?

Ms. Matallana's sense of her self, and of her place in her community, and even of her community, is not a simple and unitary one which has existed without change in form or substance for all of human existence. Who exists who can point out these questions and provide this information except scholars in the humanities? One might as easily ask about the utility of biblical scholarship, or any scholarship for that matter. Of what use is it to preserve the text of "Beowulf" or "Gilgamesh," except when it provides the basis for a movie script (which is certainly of greater good to a greater number than Tolkien's touchstone essay; even his novel is of more utility than the work he actually devoted his life to)? What is the good of trying to understand Aquinas or Augustine, except to Catholic scholars and theologians no one else pays attention to? Part of the answer, of course, is that Aquinas and Augustine are so central, so fundamental, to the way the Western world thinks, that to understand them is to better understand ourselves. But the non-utilitarian part of the answer is that in the work of scholarship we see the preservation of what it is to be human; not what it means, simply what it is. If there is something uniquely human among the animals, it is the creation and enjoyment and necessity of culture, and the preservation and passing on of that culture is both a good thing and a necessary thing and a valuable thing, even if it doesn't make me richer or happier or a better parent or husband. Perhaps, like morality (as distinct from Aristotelian ethics), it is simply good; and perhaps good is sometimes simply good enough.

Certainly the field of humanities is at least more than Stanley Fish's delight in his cleverness at discerning George Herbert's use of the word "sunbeam" as a metaphor.

No comments:

Post a Comment