Thursday, May 19, 2011

Homi on the Humanities

Homi Bhabha, director of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard, has some helpful (and lucid) remarks on his director's welcome page in regard to the nature of and need for the humanities. Check out the website for his center and watch this short video where he articulates similar ideas:


Bhabha makes several statements in the video that are central to his understanding of the humanities and, I think, key in expanding what our view of the humanities can be. He says for example (the following quotations from the movie are "cleaned-up" and not verbatim transcripts):
We need to make a distinction between the humanities as a certain set of disciplines which have always been associated with the humanities--literature, religion, philosophy, classics of various cultures, language--these are the disciplines we usually recognize as the humanities disciplines. But the humanities also provide a climate of opinion or a culture of knowledge, something wider than these disciplines.
Reread that last line and you will see what Bhabha is driving at. I am not sure that I would limit the creation of a "climate of opinion" or a "culture of knowledge" to the humanities. But the humanities certainly are central and perhaps even the key area of academic knowledge and investigation in the creation of the academic climate/culture. Bhabha goes on to give three reasons for this; I have noted a keyword for each reason in bold.

First, "The humanities focus very much on interpretation, how we take information and through interpretation create what we call knowledge."

Second, it is particularly through the humanities that we find ourselves "reflecting on moral values, social values, cultural values in times of transition."

Third, "The humanities are extremely important in making connections between the human sciences, the social sciences, and the hard sciences. Why? Because it features interpretation and transition so centrally."

I like how he ties together the essence of the humanities (interpretation and transition)--an essence that remains whether one is studying literature, language, philosophy, or theology--with the ability to relate the humanities to other areas of knowledge. Of course, as Sokal and Bricmont reminded us, we must be extremely careful when trying to draw such connections, especially between the humanities or social sciences and the hard sciences. This is something that critics tend to say Bhabha has not done well in his own work on postcolonialism and cultural studies.

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