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Helen Small
Helen Small

Humanities must be willing to ask the difficult or unwelcome questions

Professor Helen Small from the University of Oxford talked about her study of modern cynicism at the Humanities Conference. In the future, the humanities must be more risk-friendly to contribute to challenges regarding for example technology and environment.

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She says cynicism has at its heart a willingness to dispute the motives that guide people to act, and that cynicism stands for a ‘serious scepticism’, a willingness to contest common agreements about morality and the good life and how to achieve them.

– Cynicism has played a marginal but significant role in relation to advocacy for the humanities and for ‘culture’. Many of their best advocates have been willing to strike a cynical note towards opponents, but also to cast a cynical eye on their own more elevated claims. My interests are in how and why cynicism has operated as an internal credibility check on expression of ideals.

She adds that she is not advocating for cynicism, but that she´s arguing that it presents the though version of the kinds of challenge we need to be willing to hear to existing views

– It´s a strong calling out of unexamined assumptions.

Take risks

She thinks this is important because there is a lot of encouragement in humanities to find meaning in easier kinds of work – and she think the humanities are in danger of being just “soft”.

– Why shouldn´t they be soft?

– It is important for answering the big questions and challenges of technology, environment and climate that we are willing to ask the difficult or unwelcome questions. The danger here is easy answers. Some questions are not solvable.

Small says the best we can do is articulate the difficulties more accurately and help find ways to do the best that is feasible under the circumstances.

She adds that answers and money for research are urgently needed. According to Small, we need the involvement of the humanities in responding to the challenges we face in the future. And for that, we must be willing to take risks:

– Humanities need to be more risk-friendly. They must say what they don´t know and be willing to explore controversial subjects that are not solvable. Keep an edge. They´re going to need this edge when they face publics that are, especially in America and much of Europe, increasingly divided.

“A handmaiden”

She said that her lecture at the conference, and the conference as a whole, is a response to the white paper (Humaniorameldingen), which sets out a vision for the role of the humanities in responding to the major social challenges ahead.

– I was putting in front of the audience the importance of meeting those challenges while remaining true to the critical complexity of what we do and the fact that a lot of these problems do not have a simple solution. What we often do is to clarify the problem and the nature of our disagreements.

– The white paper recognises the danger that humanities will just become blend and be ‘a handmaiden’ to the sciences and hard social sciences as they do ‘the real work’..

How should we contribute?

So how should humanities contribute to society? Small thinks the question is so big that graduate and Ph.D-students should not reflect too much on this question in the beginning of their studies.

– Let the subject and attraction to the subject take you in. Find out where the difficulties lie. You are not equipped to answer the question “why does this matter to society” in the begging, but maybe halfway through.

So why should you even study humanities? Small is interested in the arguments for the humanities that have been most influential in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2013 she published a study of the defences of the humanities titled “The Value of the Humanities”.

– In the study I identify the main arguments that have been used historically to defend the humanities and put each of them to a critical test. My aim was to understand what we say we do best, turn a critical eye on those claims, and figure out which of the arguments are really workable.

She found five main value claims: 1) the humanities do a distinctive kind of intellectual work, interpreting the meaning and practice of the human culture, 2) that work is useful to society in various ways, 3) it increases human happiness, 4) democracy needs the humanities and 5) they have value for their own sake.

– My conclusion is that each value claim stands, but each needs refining and a better understanding of what it means and what its limits are, she says.

She would ask graduate and Ph.D-students to be critical, but also to be aware of the need to mediate between their own critical insights and an intelligent wider public hungry for ideas and insights.

Tekst og foto: Kamilla Rudberg