Humanists own the fourth dimension, and we should take pride in it.

This is going to be a short, sweet, slightly-basic blog post, because I just have a simple thing to say.

I was originally trained as a scholar of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature. As I learn more about other disciplines, I have been pleased to find that they are just as self-conscious and theoretically reflective as the one where I was trained. Every discipline has its own kind of theory.

But there is one thing that I still believe the humanities do better than any other part of the university: reflecting on historical change and on the historical mutability of the human mind. Lately social scientists (e.g. economic historians or physical anthropologists) can sometimes give us a run for our money. But humanists are more accustomed to the paradoxes that emerge when the rules of the game you’re playing can get historicized and contextualized, and change right under your feet. (We even have a word for it: “hermeneutics.”) So I think we still basically own the dimension of time.

At the moment, we aren’t celebrating that fact very much. Perhaps we’re still reeling from the late-20th-century discovery that the humanities’ connection to the past can be described as “cultural capital.” Ownership of the collective past is something people fight over, and the humanities had a central position in 19th- and 20th-century education partly because they had the social function of distributing that kind of authority.

Wariness about that social function is legitimate and necessary. However, I don’t think it can negate the basic fact that human beings are shaped and guided by a culture we inherit. In a very literal sense we can’t understand ourselves without understanding the past.

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I don’t think we can afford to play down this link to the past. At a moment when the humanities feel threatened by technological change, it may be tempting to get rid of anything that looks dusty. Out with seventeenth-century books, in with social media and sublimely complex network diagrams. Instead of identifying with the human past, we increasingly justify our fields of study by talking about “humanistic values.” The argument implicit (and sometimes explicit) in that gesture is that the humanities are distinguished from other disciplines not by what we study, but by studying it in a more critical or ethical way.

Maybe that will work. Maybe the world will decide that it needs us because we are the only people preserving ethical reflection in an otherwise fallen age of technology. But I don’t know. There isn’t a lot of evidence that humanists are actually, on average, more ethical than other people. And even if there were good evidence, “I am more critical and ethical than ye” is the kind of claim that often proves a hard sell.

But that’s a big question, and the jury is out. And anyway the humanities don’t need more negativity at the moment. I mainly want to underline a positive point, which is that historical change is a big deal for hominids. Its importance isn’t declining. We are self-programmed creatures, and it is a basic matter of self-respect to try to understand how and when we got our instructions. Humanists are people who try to understand that story, and we should take pride in our connection to time.

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