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Five Minutes for the Humanities

A view from Brendan George, Senior Commissioning Editor for Philosophy at Palgrave Macmillan

One of the most interesting things about life is how different people are and how varied the situations they find themselves in are. This doesn’t mean that the discovery of generalisations about life (or laws if you like) aren’t possible or desirable but still it seems to me that it is the humanities that seek to portray people in all their extraordinary diversity. Some people are cautious, some people need to take extreme risks; some people thinks societies should be ordered and secure, some people want radical change; some people seek life-long friendships, others need to constantly move on; some people are very content with life; others find life troubling and distressing; some think that nature is benign; others that nature is indifferent or even hostile. And between all these extremes there are endless intermediate points and all these different kinds of people face situations that although perhaps similar to the situations that others face (or have faced) are also in many ways unique.

It is this bewildering variation that film, literature, religion, drama, media, history and philosophy seek to capture and portray. This would itself be fascinating enough but in addition these cultural forms seek to portray this diversity in well-crafted or even beautiful ways.

I’m Palgrave’s philosophy editor and it might be thought that philosophy is a bit different to other humanities subjects. Isn’t philosophy perhaps more like science – trying to arrive at definitive answers, at answers that are commensurate with the finding of natural science? Well it is certainly the case that some philosophy is like that. And that type of philosophy is of immense (even perhaps of paramount) importance. But still, thinking about reality in scientific ways is (and - because of the diversity of people - always will be) only one possible way of thinking about reality among very many other ways. So philosophy is as diverse as people are diverse, with all the variety that that entails.

But are other justifications for the humanities needed? The most obvious one (and probably the one most of us most quickly reach for) is an ethical justification. Perhaps the humanities have the power to improve us – to make us kinder, better people? But people’s views as to what a better world would be like are just as diverse as everything else which makes this further justification problematic. It is though perhaps possible that the humanities might enable us to sympathise with others more though the evidence for this seems mixed.

So my own view is that the humanities are immensely important because they seek to portray the human condition in all its complexity and that they seek to do so in an appealing manner. And this for me is recommendation enough.