Guiding light in death's shadow

Greats back humanities' role in democratic health and personal consolation. Matthew Reisz writes

December 23, 2010

Scientists and philosophers rallied to the defence of the beleaguered humanities at a panel discussion organised by the British Philosophical Association last week.

Speaking at the London School of Economics on Valuing the Humanities, Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund distinguished service professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, said the arguments for the disciplines "should persuade anyone committed to democracy, even if the arts are not important to them personally".

"Studying Plato, for example, helps you to accept nothing on trust and to think things through - and that can help democracies survive the present onslaught of sound bites and moral insults," she said.

Lord Rees, master of Trinity College, Cambridge, agreed that "a liberal education can help us get beyond tabloid slogans". As president of the Royal Society, he said, he had made common cause with his counterpart at the British Academy, Sir Adam Roberts, in defending the humanities - even though he had stopped short of joining him on a sponsored cycle ride from Land's End to John o'Groats.

Richard Smith said he wanted "to defend the humanities on behalf of medicine - which is engaged in an unwinnable battle against death, suffering and pain". Dr Smith, the former editor of the British Medical Journal, is now an honorary professor at the University of Warwick and director of the Ovations initiative to combat chronic disease in the developing world.

We seem to be adopting the Californian view that death is optional, so where can we turn to think creatively about it? "It is people in the arts and humanities who often have deep and meaningful insights" into such matters, Dr Smith said.

"Even huge medical textbooks have virtually nothing to say about health," he added. "The World Health Organisation defines it as 'complete physical, psychological and social wellbeing'. Poets have much more interesting things to say than that. We need to think of other ways to live."

Asked about alternative cuts, Dr Smith said Britain should think the unthinkable and look at the NHS, where the vast sums spent on end-of-life care seem to do little for the experience of dying patients.

James Ladyman, professor of philosophy at the University of Bristol, claimed that the humanities were "cheap in policy terms" and had instrumental value, since "if Britain has the fastest-growing creative culture in the world, that is clearly related to its intellectual culture".

But that did not mean that the academy should focus on such value as its proximate goal, just as "football managers don't motivate their players by telling them to get out on the pitch and increase shareholder value", he added.

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