Thinking Like a Humanist

me and dave

“C’mon, Dr. Panza, what is the answer?” Oh, how I dread that question! Still, over the years, I’ve come to expect it – a familiar ritual that plays itself out each semester. At the beginning of every Humanities course I teach, I watch students grimace, shift around uncomfortably in their seats, and impatiently question why I don’t just write up on the board the facts that they think I want them to memorize. I never do, and for a reason – while I don’t doubt that facts are important, I’d argue that training in the Humanities is more about developing a way of thinking – one that is grounded ultimately in the cultivation of wisdom. That’s a very different mission, and it requires a different approach to learning and to thinking about the world. I’ll explain below.

To explain what that different approach is, it helps to compare and contrast the aim of the Humanities with the aim of natural science*. As the name suggests, natural science aims to understand the natural world. That’s the world of molecules, iguanas, water, and moons – the objects that would exist even if people did not exist. To the natural scientist, facts about these human-independent objects are fixed, stable, and are unaffected by historical or cultural context. As a consequence, it’s not surprising that natural scientists view progress as measured by whether science is getting closer to explaining what those fixed and human-independent truths about the natural world really are.

The Humanities also tries to explain things, but it focuses on the human world. That’s the world that exists because people do. It may sound weird to say that there’s a “human world” in addition to the natural world, but if you think about it, it does make sense. People use phrases like “the art world” or “the business world” all the time in ways that suggest that one can inhabit those worlds, and that when one does, one sees things as meaningful or valuable in ways specific to them. After all, place an artist and a businesswoman in the same “natural world” and they’ll have vastly different experiences! The human world is really just the sum total of all of those smaller worlds, and in studying it the humanist focuses her analysis on the meanings and values (and their combinations) that make those human worlds inhabitable for us. Like the natural world, the human world has a constant impact on us. So it demands a thorough and rigorous analysis!

Analyzing the human world by focusing on the meanings and values that compose it is an incredibly complicated process, and it demands a particular kind of thinking. After all, humanistic meanings and values are not like the objects of natural science; they are not fixed, precise, or definitive, they are continually in flux, and their forms are continually reshaped by the ever shifting conditions of history and culture. For this reason, humanists can’t possibly envision a “good analysis” as producing a final definitive account of what is studied, as natural science does. Nor can the humanist think that progress will be measured by how “close” one gets to providing that final timeless description.

Go ahead and say it. I know what you’re thinking – so how do these mysterious humanists think? What is a good humanistic analysis to these odd folks? What’s progress look like to a humanist? Does this contrast with science mean that there’s no right answer – so all students should get “As” in their Humanities classes?

Hector_vs_Achilles_by_GENZOMANAll great questions, and thankfully there are answers. To start, a good humanistic analysis requires contextualizing the object being studied. So let’s say that that you are studying Achilles (fierce looking dude on the right in the picture), and you suspect that he killed Hector (the other dude, and sorry for the spoiler) at the siege of Troy because he was motivated by honor. That’s superficially right, but should we assume that Achilles was motivated by honor in the same way that we might be? After all, what we mean by “honor” and what Achilles meant by it are not the same. An analysis that fails to account for that wrongly assumes that honor has a fixed shape across time and culture. By doing so, such a (bad!) analysis falsely treats honor like a scientific object, when it’s really a humanistic object.

This means that you’ll have to approach honor not as a natural scientist, but as a humanist. You’ll have to learn to leave your human world (the meanings and values you are accustomed to) and immerse yourself in the human world as it was experienced by the ancient Greeks, to see how honor played a role in making that ancient world intelligible for (or inhabitable to) them. In fact, doing that isn’t even enough – the ancient world of Greece is still too big a world, as “honor” has a different form depending on whether you inhabited the world of the warrior, or of the slave, the worker, the world of men or women, or the world of the wealthy or the poor. Clearly, understanding Achilles (or anything human!) requires a tremendous amount of contextualization. An analysis that fails to do justice to the complexity of the human experience is a poor one, and contributes little to humanistic study or to its “progress” as a field. It goes without saying that it definitely won’t earn an “A” in a Humanities class!

These realities about humanistic thinking and analysis reveal why looking for a final and succinct “answer” is so foreign to the Humanities. Such “blackboard ready” answers falsify human reality by ignoring that human worlds are tremendously complex, ambiguous, and in a constant state of change. Humanists instead challenge and interrogate the viability of simple analyses and replace them with ones that seek to do proper justice to the complexity of human life. This makes the object of humanistic education a lot more about mastering a process, or a way of approaching the world, than it is about generating a final product or answer.

SKYDIVER 12-22-95This point brings me back to what I noted at the start — that the Humanities aims at instilling wisdom. Wisdom, in my view, can be understood as the ability to approach the world in ways that are sensitive to reality. Jumping out of a plane without a parachute is unwise because it ignores certain facts about the natural world, like gravity and the fact that you are (unfortunately in such a situation) susceptible to it. Being sensitive to the human world requires cultivated admirable states of mind that reflect and honor the nature of the human. The humanistic thinker effortlessly leaves her world to see things from the standpoint of other ones, displaying open-mindedness. She exhibits intellectual curiosity by asking increasingly complex questions about the human experience, thus embracing and respecting the mystery and ambiguity of human reality. She displays intellectual courage by challenging the fixed and stable ways others have been taught to think about human meaning and value. Perhaps most importantly, she is intellectually humble. She knows that her analyses are always partial ones, that there is depth and complexity that she fails to see, and she knows that future humanists will add to the richness of the questions she asks in ways she cannot hope to comprehend or imagine. She knows that she cannot capture the essence of the human, as a natural scientist tries to captures the essence of the natural world. Mirroring Socrates’ famous claim, she embodies the truth that human wisdom is knowing that one knows nothing (see the cartoon below!)trial_of_socrates_sjpg232.

If wisdom means knowing that you know nothing, you might be asking: is humanistic thinking and training valuable? Absolutely, and it doesn’t matter what field you choose. Humanistic training – particularly when it is paired up with the skills of a particular profession – create a powerful thinker able to take on the world. It’s no surprise that CEOs are desperate for employees with these integrated skill sets, or for students who immerse themselves in the humanities. As President Manuel noted in his post yesterday, CEOs are looking for thinkers not just with technical skills, but armed with virtues of the mind. CEOs want independent, autonomous, critical thinkers – employees who are creative, open-minded, and willing to think out of the box. The benefits extend further: given the rigorous training the Humanities offers in reading, writing, and analyzing, it’s also not surprising that Humanities majors tend to destroy standardized tests like the GRE, the LSAT, and the GMAT. If you’re pre-med minded, be mindful of the fact that the Humanities helps you to apply technical skills in ways that respect the human beings that you hope to positively effect. With that in mind, it’s obvious why advice on successful admission to medical school often points out the benefits of pairing science and the humanities.

However, even in the absence of those very real practical benefits, the kind of thinking and habits of mind that the Humanities cultivate are valuable simply because you are human. After all, Socrates was right when he said that the unexamined life is not worth living. It’s a beautiful human world, but it’s complex and it’s not easy to examine it properly. We’ll help you learn to do that (and more) not by supplying with you a bunch of answers, but by teaching you to think like a humanist.


* = (from the beginning of this post) the proper contrast here is with natural science, not social science, since the social sciences mix the methods of natural science with the subject matter of the Humanities. This means that social scientists have the hardest job of all, as they must master both disciplines!

Chris Panza is Chair of the Humanities Division and an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Drury University



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