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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

versión On-line ISSN 2224-7912
versión impresa ISSN 0041-4751


HOFMEYR, Benda. Utility or spirit? The state of the humanities in South Africa. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2012, vol.52, n.4, pp.719-731. ISSN 2224-7912.

This contribution critically considers the findings and recommendations of the report published in 2011 by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) on the state of the humanities in South Africa. The study concludes that the humanities are in crisis, but despite the crisis situation in which they find themselves it is undeniable that they are indispensable. The humanities are indispensable because of their use or instrumental value as providing "the glue of Ubuntu" (ASSAf 2011:32) and nurturing "the intellectual lifeblood of a democratic project" (ibid., pp. 14, 137). In other words, the humanities are of vital importance because they teach us how to be truly "human" and how to live with other "humans" in "society" by uncovering our mutual dependence and fostering a feeling of solidarity (ibid., p. 25). The fact that the humanities convey essential analytical, interpretative and problem solving skills is constitutive oftheir human- and community-building capacity. According to ASSAf this ideal model of what it means to be "human" and what constitutes "community", which the humanities are equipped to realise, is premised on the humanistic philosophy of Ubuntu that defines the essence of being human in terms of our mutual connectedness. The study opposes this "ideal" model to the neo-liberal model that engenders competition, individualisation, self-responsibilisation and fragmentation instead of a sense of solidarity and fellow feeling. In other words, the study defends the humanities on the basis of their instrumental value in the realisation of the ideal (Ubuntu-inspired) model of community. They teach essential communication skills that facilitate "being truly human" or a "human-centred community", which the study considers to be the heart or "spirit" of the humanities (p. 33). Ubuntu - essentially the idea that we are truly human only through other people - is not a politically neutral concept or philosophy, however. It is fundamentally complicit with the neo-liberal politico-economic policy which the post-apartheid government took over from their predecessors. Hence, the crux of my critique against the ASSAf-study is that it defends the humanities on the basis of their instrumental value and at the expense of their intrinsic value that supposes an autonomous position independent of political, economic or ideological prejudices or affiliations. The instrumental nature of their exposition undermines the "spirit" of the humanities, which they claim to defend and rests upon the very neo-liberal logic which they in principle oppose. The critique levelled against the ASSAf-report proceeds by first critically assessing the methodology of the so-called "consensus study". Attention is subsequently drawn to the various presuppositions that underlie the wider debate on the state of the humanities. The findings of the study, which form the foundation for a number of recommendations as to how the diagnosed crisis of the humanities might be addressed, aim to uncover the problematic nature of these presuppositions. Upon closer investigation, however, these attempts at problematisation prove to be more of an apparent than a real protest against the instrumentalist logic of the existing neo-liberal order, which in reality animates the argumentative thrust of the entire study. The most important presuppositions include the following: (1) the presupposed rigid demarcation between the humanities and the natural or hard sciences; (2) the uncritical assumption that all forms of science (including the humanities) should have a "direct" or immediately apparent use-value. And finally, (3) the presupposition that "the humanities" refers to a consistently defined and coherent whole, while in actual fact it serves as an umbrella term deployed differently in different contexts (in this study as opposed to other reports as well as the wider debate, for example), often grouping a slightly different collection of disciplines together that conflates the difference between "abstract" (e.g. Philosophy) and "applied" (e.g. Education or Law) forms of knowledge. In the final instance, an argument is put forward in favour of the "indirect utility" of the humanities, an argument that is fleshed out with the aid of the deconstructivist strategy that challenges the binary logic of "utility-or-nothing" with a "both/and" approach that insists that the indirect utility of critique serves as necessary condition for practicable alternative solutions.

Palabras clave : humanities; crisis; South Africa; use; indirect utility; instrumentalism; neo-liberalism; Ubuntu; spirit; consensus study; Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf); critique; deconstruction; binary logic; double bind; both/and.

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