Humanities

A discourse can’t be both timeless and progressive. Where knowledge is progressive, we’re interested only in what is most up-to-date and we expect the level of insight to be inversely proportionate to the temporal distance from now. If we want to establish whether someone is an authority in a progressive discourse, it suffices in large part to simply be told when he wrote.

Few contemporary persons would require a justification of  progressive discourses. We are all impressed that, in them,  knowledge is continually improving; the consensus of truth gets larger and larger; the technical vocabulary becomes more and more exact, verified, and powerful; the literature becomes more objective, detached, and even oracular. One gets the sense that the discourse is really getting somewhere. But this isn’t every possible perfection of a discourse – there is also a value in a discourse that stretches throughout all time. It is precisely by discoursing on things that we are most human, and so a complete absence of timeless discourse would leave us without an insight into the humanity of our ancestors, and it would leave our descendants with no insight into our own humanity.

This division between progressive and timeless discourse is one of the better divisions between the sciences and the humanities, and it helps to explain why the humanities is such a terribly mixed bag. There is almost nothing intrinsic to the subjects of Latin, History, English Lit and Philosophy that links them all together other than that they are all particularly good paths into timeless discourse. This seems to hone in on just what we love most about the humanities, sc. those moments when we feel we get an insight into the way things have always been and always will be, or an insight into things that deserve to be never superseded but remain forever. For all of its power, this is one perfection that must be denied to the sciences. For them, failure to advance is not a perfection, but a sign of death and stagnation.

Two small qualifications:

It’s impossible to keep the progressive and timeless entirely distinct. Even philosophy makes real progress in certain areas, and even the sciences can learn by going back to the first insights made into a theory. But  one can only mix the progressive and timeless to a very limited degree. The division is about as close to a bright yellow line as one gets in a field this broad.

Philosophy, literature, and the other timeless discourses have some ability to come to a final or definitive expression. I doubt very much that we will ever improve on the 19th century novel, Shakespearean lyric and psychology, the scholastic disputed question,  Baroque-Romantic musical composition, etc. There are golden ages and centers of genius in timeless discourses. But this simply means that the timeless character of the discourse isn’t spread evenly over all history. There are clumps and bald-patches.

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