MS and ~MS

At some point I was made head of humanities at my school. So far no problems have arisen from the fact that I don’t believe humanities exist.

Clarification: Literature, Philosophy, Theology, History, Classical Languages, etc all exist, (duh) and I know all sorts of persons see them as so unified that they teach all of them in one course, but I disagree with the approach and think it reflects a brokenness in modern curricula that ultimately stultifies both the humanities and math/science

As a purely negative description, humanities is non-math/science (~MS). One could just divide the curriculum into MS and ~MS, but to leave it at this gives us no reason to include ~MS in the curriculum and no standard by which to exclude all manner of nonsense. Say what you will about (insert wacky university humanities course here) that it’s ~MS is beyond reproach. It’s not surprising that (whatever) found its way into the program, if all it had to be was unscientific and/or knowable by the innumerate.

Presumably the word “humanities” is supposed to be more than a negation, like the topics of the study that humanize students. But why assume that the point of teaching theology/ classical languages/ history is some generic humanizing influence common to all of them? I teach theology because theology is worth teaching, not because it is the delivery vehicle for a humanization that might just as well come from philosophy or classical languages.

More problematically, why is MS not part of this humanizing project? My own experience is Plato’s, that it’s hard to learn what an argument is without spending at least five hours a week for a year with Euclid, and half of what gets called humanities is just extended argumentation.

The division of MS and humanities probably felt natural because there is enough of a difference between  quantitative and verbal intelligence to teach the two topics separately, but the separation between them has led to a ~MS that has little sense of argumentative rigor and to an MS that understands itself exactly as Russell did:

Pure mathematics consists entirely of assertions to the effect that, if such and such a proposition is true of anything, then such and such another proposition is true of that thing. It is essential not to discuss whether the first proposition is really true, and not to mention what the anything is, of which it is supposed to be true…[M]athematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.

While MS is the paradigm of human knowledge, what so many students find infuriating is this sort of arbitrariness. Some subjectively-felt-arbitrariness is essential to any kind of learning, since if students could perfectly understand the material at the beginning they wouldn’t even be students, but Russell’s account is way stronger than this. It demands smothering any fundamental understanding in order to get on with the work of constructing the biggest formal system we can, and if that’s what MS comes to it’s hard to see why it should be viewed as anything more than a hobby for eccentrics. Why not dedicate twelve years of compulsory study to playing chess or writing clever palindromes?

Ah, but MS gives us technology! Our indifference to the truth of MS is tolerable because it works, and often impossible things work better than possible ones.  Engineering works great if you believe both that  the earth is both infinitely small and infinitely large, or that the sun moves and stays still, or that small amounts of friction or wind resistance don’t exist, etc (The puzzles of QM might amount to nothing more strange than the indifference engineers have always had to incompatible models that both work) I don’t want to sharply distinguish the engineer’s indifference from speculative understanding: what works is probably the ultimate sense of truth among things existing in matter since the fieri* of matter is a coming-to-be because it is a being made. If this is is right, however, it’s being very poorly taught in our own MS curricula, since we can’t teach MS as pre-engineering unless the students are learning it with their hands. As a rule, they aren’t.

The division between MS and humanities is downstream from a fissure that gave us a Russellian MS and a “humanities” where we could still be allowed to ask what we are talking about and whether what we are saying is true. As plausible as this division seemed by the division of types of intelligence, it is fundamentally unsustainable and leads to the perversion of both MS and ~MS. While it’s easy to joke about the ways “humanities” have collapsed into silliness, lack of rigor, and gullible theorizing, they are simply the canary in the mine. More than one observer has noticed that the science of the last forty years has been living off past glory and given to faking its results.


*”To move” and “become” are paradigmatic middle-voice verbs, as “to move” in material things is always ambiguous between agents and patients. But agency and reception are categorically different despite being welded together in matter. Puzzles about spiritual or even formal activity both in God and creatures trace back to an attempt to give everything the obscure and ambiguous existence and activity of material things.

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