Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Shall we place a gold scale on the table and weigh a man to find if he is worthy of life?

382. January 7th, 2008 8:14 pm As an anthropologist
who routinely works between the humanities and sciences I agree whole-heartedly with Jeffrey Sachs and so many others in noting the reductionist, tautological essay by Fish. If disciplines could be so narrowly circumscribed by functionalist decree the world would have far fewer lawyers. Fish seems blissfully unaware of humanistic sciences such as archaeology. To suggest the pursuit of knowledge does not impart wisdom seems uninformed, anti-intellectual, even slightly senile coming from such a well-educated man. We can all breathe a sigh of relief Fish does not oversee our university’s budget. The question should be raised as to WHY his absurdist ‘think again’ columns continue to be carried here; what ‘use’ is it? The answer may lie in the large number of critical reponses he elicits - the ‘business’ of provocation and controversy. — Posted by M. Rees
383. January 7th, 2008 8:19 pm Regarding the January 6 column by Stanley Fish:
What is the measure of the human condition today? Shall we place a gold scale on the table and weigh a man to find if he is worthy of life?
If a man has only the barest necessities; is his life less valuable than the rich man’s? What part of the body can be weighed on the scale to prove our value within society? The stomach? The brain? The heart? The hand?
Are the things in life really more important than the people?
Is Man the measure of all things? And if so; do we find the measure of Men by comparing how many things they have?
What is the value of a child? A tree? A stream of clean water?
Is war a means of freedom or the promise of more gain? What is the value of war?
Do you measure the sky in gulps of air per hour of your life?
How useful is the color green; or blue; or black?
Have we always believed as the post-modernists do? What mottos and bon mots have they written? Do their writings “justify” the poor?
Should we continue to rifle through the pantry of nature? Are we fulfilled? Are we “justified”?
Which of our human drives have been overturned by knowledge? By technology? By science?
Must we weigh the starry sky? What purpose must it fulfill to justify its existence? It seems a little large for our human scale. How can we diminish the night lights and make the universe more equitable? — Posted by Ted Kmiecik
385. January 7th, 2008 8:29 pm I take it that
Mr. Fish is arguing against the “affirmative action program” that parades under names such as “distribution requirements” and “core curriculum”. Without a mandate from the university - and presumably the university will not mandate mere pleasures - there will be far less enrollment in myth, history, literature and philosophy classes! And this will mean far fewer people like Mr. Fish and his unimprovable colleagues around - they all do seem to be rather in the nature of dead weights after all (with all their - what a horrid phrase! - “disciplinary knowledge”.
As for myself, I like the argument Basil Gildersleeve, the famous professor of Classics at Johns Hopkins made in Hellas and Hesperia. Why should there be students and professors of Classics in the modern university? For the same reason there should be schools of business or departments of physics: because, in this democratic land, anything anyone wants is just dandy, and just as there are people who want to study management, or physics, there are people who want to study languages or music.
A free market system in education might mean far fewer philosophers and literati, and, I believe, far fewer good men and women, but those few would be much better. The certainly wouldn’t be caught dead enlarging “disciplinary knowledge”!
I wonder if the current university system’s affirmative action program for the humanities has afforded Mr. Fish the leisure to read Plato’s Philebus? Might it do so? — Posted by Don
386. January 7th, 2008 8:36 pm Professor Fish,
I read your literary criticism as an undergraduate English lit major years ago and enjoy your columns now. Are some of your NYTimes readers misunderstanding that you’ve spent your life in the humanities? A few keep making reference to your title in “law” as if you’re somehow apart from the humanities?
On a more substantive note: Any chance you’ve seen Camille Paglia’s “Religion and the Arts in America” in _Arion_ 15.1, 2007? She is taking up questions similar to those you frame here about the tendency to discount the humanities.
Paglia seems persuasive to me as she traces Cultural Wars and, particularly, when she writes in her conclusion:
“For the fine arts to revive, they must recover their spiritual center. Profaning the iconography of other people’s faith is boring and adolescent.”
She goes on to identify a Culture Wars source for assumptions and foundations which I believe continue to be relevant to the plight of the humanities (not simply the fine arts) today: polarized camps of those who espouse a “parched and narrow view of culture” on the one hand

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