flower of your contempt:
Second, I am somewhat surprised at the number of people that ask the question the usefulness/benefit of the humanities (Ezbez, EtzHadaat, et al). I tend not to read the forums, so this may have come up a few times before, such as in the "Purity" discussion. The basis of the argument against the pursuit of humanities, or seeing the humanities as nothing more than codified opinions, seems to be utilitarian. That is, if the pursuit of a particular knowledge has no obvious benefit to society, it is more problematic to pursue such a knowledge if a more beneficial knowledge is available.
I've kinda extrapolated the argument against the utility of the humanities, and what seem to be the implied conclusions (P means premise, C means conclusion...in case any of you skipped the english or philosophy class where they taught about constructing arguments):
P1: Production of things is of benefit to society.
P2: Production of things or technologies that are based on theories that permit the production of things, are useful and valuable.
P3: The natural sciences are the means by which things are most effectively produced, or making things that are produced better.
C1: The natural sciences produce things, or make the production of things better. Therefore the natural sciences are useful and valuable and are of benefit to society.
P4: The humanities do not produce things.
P4: The humanities do not produce things or technologies that are based on theories that permit the production of things.
C2: The humanities are not of benefit to society, nor are they valuable or useful, because they do not produce things nor do they make the production of things better.
Now, correct me if I'm wrong in the premises as stated. It seemed most folks were reluctant to define what they meant by useful. Material things and some how making them better seemed to be the only measure that I could find as to why science was more useful than the humanities. Knowledge about the universe seemed conspicuously absent as a valuable contribution of science.
The issues I take with a utilitarian argument against the humanities are as follows. The first is that one must have a means of concretely and discreetly measuring usefulness. The second is that a utilitarian assessment of worth or value can only be applied over a clearly marked period of time and with omniscience. The position is ultimately untenable largely on account of the inability of anyone, at present, to develop a concrete and discreet measure of usefulness for knowledge that is not contentious or to acquire omniscience.
Like Phil, I think it supports a "nature of benefit is different" conclusion, but I also think it takes a different form. So, I'll present that form.
P1: The social value of any endeavor is directly proportional to the number of people it benefits.
C1: Activities that benefit the self are of less social value than activities that benefit others.
P2: A person's actions can only provide benefit to others in terms of material benefits.
P3: Performing actions of benefit to others requires the ability to perform that action.
P4: The ability to perform any action is acquired through training in the necessary skills and methods.
C2: The most socially valuable fields of knowledge, study, and education are those that pertain to the skills and methods involved in performing actions that can provide material benefit to others.
P5: The skills and methods required for performing actions that provide material benefit to others are based upon known facts about the material world.
P6: It is possible to improve the provision of material benefit to others through refinement of known facts about the material world.
C3: Fields of knowledge, study, and education that pertain to the refinement of known facts about the material world are of indirect benefit to society through their improvement of actions that provide benefit to others.
C4: Fields of knowledge, study, and education that pertain to the refinement of known facts about the material world are the second-most-socially-valuable category of such.
P7: Fields of knowledge, study, and education that pertain neither to the skills and methods for performing actions that provide material benefit to others nor to the refinement of known facts about the material world are variously termed "the arts and sciences", "the liberal arts", "the humanities", and "the social sciences".
P8: No other categories of knowledge, study, and education than those described above exist.
P9: Only the arts and sciences/liberal arts/humanities/social sciences provide direct benefit to the self.
P10: Only the arts and sciences/liberal arts/humanities/social sciences provide non-material benefit to anybody.
C5: The arts and sciences/humanities/social sciences, while of greatest value to the individual and of value to society, are the least socially valuable branch of knowledge, study, and education.
That, I think, is the full utilitarian argument: that a ploughman's part is more socially valuable than a philosopher's, and thus trade schools are more socially valuable than university sociology departments. In sneering terms, "The humanities are valuable, but only to the individuals participating in them since despite their academic content, they're just glorified hobbies, and natural sciences are only valuable because they let farmers, factory workers, and engineers do better work." In (semi-discredited) psych terms, "The social value of a field of academia is directly proportional to how low on the Hierarchy of Needs it's most directly applicable: self-actualization related academia is least valuable while physiological needs related academia is most valuable." In theatre department terms, "Acting, Directing, and Design classes are all more valuable than Theatre History classes since they teach you how to do theatre instead of teaching you about theatre."
Now, are all the premises and conclusions valid? Well, C1 kinda seems like a restatement of P1, but I've already spent too long writing this. Beyond that, I have the most doubt about P2, and P9 & P10 also seem dubious to me. P1/C1 are both certainly very contentious, though I agree with them. After all, things that enrich my life mean a great, great deal to me but ultimately mean squat to everyone but me and |People who are not me| > |people who are me|.