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With some quite personal purpose

December 8, 2014

One only reads well that which one reads with some quite personal purpose. It may be to acquire some power. It can be out of hatred for the author. –Paul Valéry

Those of you who follow this blog, not because you deem it to be Most Incredibly Wise, but because you know me well enough to judge my judgments (which, according to my most recent post, ought to be all of you) will be pleased (or irked, depending on the valence of your relationship with me) to hear that I passed my Fundamentals exam, and so will continue to wind my may slowly through graduate school a while longer.


While doing poorly on an exam in the liberal arts feels like an actual failure, the converse is not true; doing well brings with it a curious feeling of insubstantiality. You have not, after all, actually done anything useful, like built a house, or a computer program. You have not even (as in the sciences) contributed to the ability of others to do something useful; in the liberal arts what you do serves, by definition, no useful purpose. You have simply submitted to the evaluation of one’s elders, and been found worthy. What makes them worthy to find you worthy? If you’re prone to vanity or self-doubt (which are really the same thing), acing an exam in the liberal arts will provide no solace.

In other words: the liberal arts, unlike both trades and sciences, have no reliable feedback mechanism. Within a trade, you have a goal: make things that work; and if they don’t work, you’ve failed. Within a science, you have a goal: advance our scientific understanding of X; and, while you will be evaluated according to somewhat arbitrary criteria (i.e. whether your colleagues think your work “interesting” and “worthwhile”) you have good reason to believe (cf. again my most recent post) that success according to these metrics is at least strongly correlated with advancing towards the goal. But within the liberal arts, it’s not clear that you even have a goal–didn’t we say that there’s nothing they’re supposed to make happen?–and so, while the feedback mechanism resembles that of science, there’s no reason to think it correlates with anything.


Scientists often view humanities professors as mere careerists, as opposed, presumably, to the scientists, who do what they do For Science. In one sense, this is silly. Humanities professors probably seek career advancement to just the same degree as do scientists; no one wants to ‘sell out,’ everyone wants to put food on the table. The difference is that, for the scientist, career-advancement and Science-promotion go hand in hand, in a way that, for the humanities professor, they do not; but since the liberal arts don’t claim to be scientific, is this surprising?

Still, the ‘careerist’ accusation, while misguided, gets at something true. The activity of humanities professors is directed towards oneself in a way scientific inquiry is not. Again, as Valéry said, “One only reads well that which one reads with some quite personal purpose.” I borrowed this quotation from an essay of W.H. Auden’s titled, simply, “Reading”; he soon follows it up with the following:

Though the pleasure which works of art give us must not be confused with other pleasures that we enjoy, it is related to all of them simply by being our pleasure and not someone else’s. All the judgments, aesthetic or moral, that we pass, however objective we try to make them, are in part a rationalization and in part a corrective discipline of our subjective wishes.

To study the liberal arts is, among other things, to seek to purify (which is not to say expunge) one’s personality, one’s wishes and desires. Foremost among the desires to be purified is the desire for someone else to tell you what to desire. This is another reason why exams cannot tell you anything about your progress towards liberality. Other persons are almost never in a position to judge whether your desires have been made free, and if someone (more a psychoanalyst than an academic examiner) somehow arrives at that position, then the last thing he should do is reveal the judgment he have formed.


So why study the liberal arts in an academic setting at all? Well, yes, that is the question. It’s akin to another question, “why write poetry?”, which Auden answers in another essay, called “Writing,” as follows:

The condition of mankind is, and always has been, so miserable and depraved that, if anyone were to say to the poet: ‘For God’s sake stop singing and do something useful like putting on the kettle or fetching bandages,’ what just reason could he give for refusing? But nobody says this. The self-appointed unqualified nurse says: ‘You are to sing to the patient a song which will make him believe that I, and I alone, can cure him. If you can’t or won’t, I shall confiscate your passport and send you to the mines.’ And the poor patient in his delirium cries: ‘Please sing me a song which will give me sweet dreams instead of nightmares. If you succeed, I will give you a penthouse in New York or a ranch in Arizona.’

But it’s far from clear that such an answer gives us any aid. Philosophy and philology and literary criticism are not poetry.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 8, 2014 10:59 am

    After I got my PhD in Education (on the effect of globalisation on systems of mass education), I felt much the same way. I’d told my story, I hoped it would be of some use to someone looking at the broad sweep of the human narrative—but what was the use of it all? :)


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