The Humanities’ Constant Need for Self-Justification

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By Bashshar Haydar (Philosophy, American University of Beirut, Lebanon)

The Asymmetry between the Humanities and Natural Sciences

Bashshar Haydar. Photo by Judith Affolter.

It is not uncommon for people working in the humanities to feel the need to demonstrate the significance or, even, the relevance of their disciplines. There is not a matching pressure in the fields of natural sciences, whether applied or theoretical. The wisdom of investing human and material capital in the latter disciplines is rarely put into question.

The above asymmetry in attitudes calls for explanation, in light of the undisputed significance of the humanities in our lives, at both the individual and the communal levels. A brief reflection on the central role of the arts and literature in framing our values and norms, and the institutions that embody them, is enough to assert the vast and deep impact of the humanities.

To a large degree, the asymmetry in question between the humanities and the sciences has to do with the way we experience the fruits of these two realms of inquiries. Scientific achievements often manifest themselves in tangible technological advancements with which we have direct experiential engagement whenever we seek medical treatment, take a flight, do a google search, or communicate across the globe via our smart phones.

The Invisible Hand of the Humanities

On the other hand, and despite their profound impact on our lives, the fruits of the humanities do not manifest themselves in the same experientially clear and distinctive manner. Achievements and innovations in the humanities shape and inform our practices, traditions, institutions, and the values that govern them. They provide the underlying, and often unnoticed, structural backbone of our individual and social experiences. Yet, we are in constant need to be made cognizant of the role of the humanities and their achievements. This need stems not from the doubtful nature of these achievements but, on the contrary, from their foundational nature. It is the relative invisibility of the humanities’ hand that partially explains its liability for being taken for granted and hence for being underappreciated.

Despite their foundational nature, the achievements of the humanities require continuous maintenance, examination, and justification. These foundations of the historical and cultural narratives that inform every generation always need to be rediscovered and reemphasized. In other words, every generation needs to acquire the moral and intellectual rationale necessary for assessing the aptness of their institutions and the values that uphold them. Acquiring such understanding involves asking deep and foundational questions about the justification of the humanities and the role they play in our lives, institutions, and societies. Hence, the humanities’ constant need for justification is part and parcel of what enables them to fulfill their function.

The Contested Nature of the Humanities

Another explanation for the asymmetry between our attitudes towards the natural sciences and the humanities has to do with the contested nature of the fruits of the latter. It is not uncommon for many of these fruits to be deemed unhealthy, or even poisonous, by people working in the same disciplines. This is not usually the case for natural sciences, or at least not to the same extent. Overall, the natural sciences tend to enjoy a relatively high degree of consensus.

It is not difficult to see why the contested nature of the humanities’ achievements tends to threaten the perception of their value and invites continuous demands for their validation. The intensity and zealousness with which one side attacks the products of another in the market of the humanities are likely to inspire questionable faith in the value of the whole market. This strong contestation inside the humanities however forms an essential component of their nature and value. It is by subjecting the fruits of the humanities to rigorous self-and-other scrutiny that they achieve the kind of self-awareness needed for fulfilling their function. Such awareness is central to the humanities and essential for the preservation of their relevance and dynamism. Hence, paradoxically, the very same aspect that tends to raise doubts about the value of the humanities is itself part of what makes them valuable.

Markets, Technology, and the Humanities

What also feeds this perception of the humanities as being in need of justification is the fact that the connection between them and the job market is not a straightforward affair. This is significantly less so in the case of the natural sciences. This advantage for the natural sciences over the humanities might however shrink or wither away with the rapid scientific advancements, particularly in artificial intelligence. Sophisticated self-learning machines are poised to take over a vast range of science-based professions such as medicine, engineering and others. More important, the main challenges that might confront us as a result of these advancements in artificial intelligence, in addition to the disturbances they are likely to cause to the job market, will be social and political in nature. In this respect, such challenges can be adequately addressed only by rethinking our social and political institutions and the norms that govern them, a task that primarily belongs to the various fields of the humanities and social sciences.

Independently of the above technological advancements and the changes and challenges they bring with them, one should not underestimate the indirect but vital connections between the humanities and the job market. The various fields of the humanities and social sciences are the main suppliers of types of public goods that are essential for a flourishing society and healthy economy. Goods like the rule of law, civil and human rights, and democratic practices and institutions, to mention a few, are important for the establishment of just, transparent, sustainable, and flourishing economies, while condemning populism, racism, sexism, and hard nationalism. The promotion of the former set of values, and the condemnation of the latter, is an essential component for a flourishing economy and vibrant job market. However, these values are the kind of public goods that are unlikely to be adequately provided by the free market. The provision of these goods takes a robust and prolonged work and education in the various disciplines of the humanities and social sciences.

The New Challenge Facing the Humanities

What is said so far does not imply, of course, that the humanities can afford to sit on their glories and refuse to engage in any effort to demonstrate their relevance and significance. On the contrary, and as I have argued above, demonstrating their relevance is an important part of the way the humanities live up to their nature and fulfill their role in our societies. Moreover, the recent challenges facing our world today show that the humanities cannot fulfill their role through a highly specialized academic elite. Relying on a core of specialists could make sense in the case of the natural sciences but not in the humanities.

The democratization of the means of communication, through various forms of online publication and social media, marginalized the role of elite gatekeepers. This, however, gave credence and popularity to a wide range of potentially dangerous and destructive views and attitudes. Fake news and conspiracy theories have become threatening features of our current political landscape. Attempts to introduce new gatekeepers by the operators of leading social media platforms are unlikely to provide a feasible solution to the problem at hand. The only viable solution, to use a timely metaphor, is to vaccinate the population at large against the possible abuses of social media. Such vaccination consists of equipping individuals, especially at the various levels of pre-university education, with critical intellectual and moral tools to enable them to weed out a vast variety of media deceptions and distortions. The latter can be accomplished only through substantial changes in curricula and various pedagogical tools. These changes include, among other things, developing an invigorated and dynamic student-engagement with the humanities and social sciences and, accordingly, allocating a bigger role to both.

Societies can afford not to turn most of its population into scientists, or even not to equip most of them with robust understanding of the natural sciences. They cannot, however, afford not to turn most of their populace into good citizens that are armed with a robust and dynamic understanding of the most important moral and political values. The latter task falls squarely under the dominion of the humanities and social sciences.

Bashshar Haydar (بشار حيدر) is Professor of Philosophy and Mohammad Atallah Chair for Ethics at the American University of Beirut. He has published widely on the topics of duties of justice and assistance, global justice, poverty alleviation, the ethics of war, and aesthetic value. He is a frequent contributor to international popular and policy platforms.

This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here.

Citation: Bashshar Haydar, The Humanities’ Constant Need for Self-Justification, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 25.03.2021,

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The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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