- We should not try to define ‘the humanities’ by asking what the humanities departments share which distinguishes them from the rest of the university. The interesting dividing line is, instead, one that cuts across departments and disciplinary matrices. It divides people busy conforming to well-understood criteria for making contributions to knowledge from people trying to expand their own moral imaginations. These latter people read books in order to enlarge their sense of what is possible and important — either for themselves as individuals or for their society. Call these people ‘humanistic intellectuals’. One often finds more such people in the anthropology department than in the classics department, and sometimes more in the law school that in the philosophy department.
- If one asks what good these people do, what social function they perform neither ‘teaching’ nor ‘research’ is a very good answer. Their idea of teaching — or at least of the sort of teaching they hope to do — is not exactly the communication of knowledge, but more like stirring the kids up. When they apply for a leave or a grant, they may have to fill out forms, but all they really want to do is to read a lot more books in the hope of becoming a different sort of person.
- So the real social function of the humanistic intellectuals is to instill doubts in the students about the students’ own self-images, and about the society to which they belong. These people are the teachers who ensure that the moral consciousness of each new generation is slightly different from that of the previous generation.
The humanistic intellectuals: eleven theses (1989), Richard Rorty