The Humanities: Relationships with others and with the world are essential to freedom

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Susan Babbitt, Queen’s University
Guest Contributor

“Humanities” refers to human beings and to the human condition. In the Humanities we raise questions about what it means to be human. But, at least in my discipline of Philosophy, we teach mostly the work of philosophers from North America and Northern Europe, most of them male and white. We look for wisdom in only some human experience. The Humanities, especially Philosophy, should look beyond Europe and North America.

The ethics we teach are mostly based in liberalism. Philosophical liberalism teaches, roughly, that we are free when we can choose for ourselves from a wide array of meaningful choices. We are free when we can live our lives according to deep-seated desires and preferences, without unnecessary interference from others.

Liberalism gives primacy to dreams and desires that come from me just because they come from me. Of course, it is more sophisticated than this, but ultimately it matters what my actual psychology is. And the view is attractive. Just consider the “follow your dreams” view of the good life. There is something powerfully appealing about the idea that people should follow their cherished dreams, even ones held since childhood. Of course, dreams matter, but why should they be important just because they are mine?

This view says nothing about how to understand dreams, about how to be sensitive to and aware of the world that explains such dreams and nothing at all, of course, about what it might mean to be free of them.

Sometimes, when we are running everywhere following dreams and desires, we are being pushed blindly along by the world.  If I were to say to a young person, “You’d be better off following someone else’s dreams,” I’d be misunderstood. And yet, there are possibilities for human existence that have been thought of and lived by others that cannot even be imagined by people living in certain societies today. We might be better off pursuing sensitivity and awareness, so we have some real choice about what motivates us.

Feminists and anti-racists have been arguing against the foundations of philosophical liberalism for decades but it is still possible for some political philosophers to assume without argument (in respectable presses) that there are no alternatives to liberalism, that without liberalism we give up on “moral equality, autonomy, self-realization, equality before the law, due process, freedom of expression, freedom of association, voting rights, and so forth” as if these values are owned by liberals. They are not.

Some Asian and Latin American philosophical traditions have recognized that it is precisely the centrality we give to the affirming, choosing, desiring self that cuts us off from the world of causal relations that is the source of our understanding. When the ancient Chinese philosopher, Chuang Tzu, advised people to grow quietly in the humility of a simple, ordinary life, he was not telling us how to behave; he was talking about how to find out how best to behave. When we are stuck on ourselves, we are “cut off” from a source of learning, the only source of discovery for ethics, which is the experience of human existence itself.

The Cuban philosopher José Martí said in his “Prologue to the Poem of Niagara” that “we come into the world like wax and chance pours us into prefabricated molds.” Martí said freedom requires a “Herculean struggle” against our very own nature. The way we see the world is largely the result of traditions we did not choose. And there is no reason to think that just because they are my ways of seeing the world, they have some special status in determining how I should best live my life.

Now, certainly, some European philosophers have had such insights. Marx was one. Marx thought human beings are motivated, not by the endless satisfaction of desires, but rather by relentless striving to change the world that changes us. Creativity is more important than satisfying desires, and relationships with others and with the world are essential to freedom. But Marx’s ideas were abandoned in 1989 in what Tariq Ali describes as an “abject prostration” before history and the reigning dogma. Marx suggested that human beings, unlike other beings, have the capacity to become better as the beings we are: to more fully realize our humanity. How much more interesting and challenging a goal than endlessly running after dreams, and perpetually seeking new distractions!

Cuban philosopher Armando Hart Dávalos points out that one difference between European philosophy and traditions from the South is that Europeans never needed to change the world; they only needed to describe and interpret it. The peoples of Latin America, for example, at least for the past five hundred years, have needed to change it. Certainly now we need to change the world. Maybe it is time to look beyond Europe and North America for relevant wisdom and stop giving so much philosophical space to the elephantiasis of liberals’ supreme perceiving, judging, choosing and desiring self.

Susan Babbitt is an associate professor in the Departments of Philosophy and Education, and a faculty member in the Cultural Studies Program at Queen’s University in Kingston.


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