table of contents


Hayden White on the Vocation of the Humanities

Hayden White is a historian and literary theorist. He is professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he taught for many years in the History of Consciousness program, and he is currently a professor of comparative literature at Stanford University. His many books include Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973), […]

download transcript [vtt]
This is KZSU Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions. My name is Robert Harrison
and we're coming to you from the Stanford campus.
Whatever the tax onomers had in mind when they called our species
Homo sapiens sapiens. The term points to two different kinds of sapiensia in human beings.
One is the intelligence that invents, experiments, discovers,
calculates and brings about wholesale change through innovation
and manipulation of the external world.
The other is the understanding that gave birth to the gods, the graves of the dead,
the laws and scriptures of nations, the memory of poets, and the archaeology of scholars.
Of these two kinds of sapiensia, one is older than the other,
not because it has a prior genesis, but because it takes the prior,
or what comes before into its memory and safekeeping.
Let's call one kind of sapiensia our genius, and the other our wisdom.
There's a lot of talk these days in the university about the role of the humanities,
the place of the humanities, the purpose of the humanities.
Those of us who are said to be humanists fret a lot about our institutional
vocation in ways scientists do not.
That's in part because we live in an age that is so much under the sway of science.
So completely dominated by the innovative drive of genius,
whose youthful outlook does not quite understand the claims of wisdom.
One could say that the sciences are their poor or child of the university,
while the humanities are the old man or cynics.
Everything about the age favors the young and new and scorns the old,
and it's no different in the world of the university,
but we should never forget the following historical fact
that whereas human societies can survive without genius,
they cannot survive without wisdom.
Because unlike animals that start the cycle over with each new generation,
humans are thrown into an ongoing story.
Wisdom is what gives the past a future,
and gives the future a past.
It keeps open the channels of communication between the dead and the unborn.
In human culture, the dead live on in the laws, customs,
creeds, institutions, and knowledge they hand down to posterity.
Wisdom is the ancient of their afterlife.
By enabling us to repossess our patrimonies and access the legacies of the past,
wisdom confers on us an age that takes its measure from the span of generations,
and not from our biological years alone.
In short, it renders us historical.
A genius by contrast seeks to throw off the shackles of tradition
and to remain unburdened by memory.
It affects breaks into cultural continuum through its creative capacity
to resist the dictates of precedence and generate the new.
Be it new tools, new knowledge, or new modes of thought and expression.
Through its innovations and revolutions it modifies, confounds, and adds to the reservoir of legacies
that wisdom retrieves for transmission.
The domestication of fire, the casting of iron, the discovery of bronze,
the invention of print, the rise of the steam engine,
such events in the history of genius multiply and differentiate the ages,
putting wisdom under greater pressure to re-inherit a complex, dynamic,
and heterogeneous past.
Wisdom could hardly meet that challenge if it were not in some sense ingenious.
Nor could genius build upon its past achievements if it were not in some sense wise.
In other words, the relation between wisdom and genius is not simply dichotomous,
for there is a wisdom at the heart of genius, which enables genius to reap the rewards of its history
without having to reinvent the wheel every time it invents something new.
By the same token, there is a genius at the heart of wisdom, which allows wisdom to creatively transform
and rejuvenate the past, and to give a measure of continuity to the otherwise fitful history of genius.
I think it's fair to say that never in the history of Homo sapiens
sapiens has genius been in such a state of overdrive, and never as genius found itself reeling so badly
from the pace and scope of the changes brought about by genius.
This is not great news for human culture, for culture flourishes most,
where there is a productive synergy between wisdom and genius.
And to get back to the question of the humanities, I believe that at this stage,
only an infusion of genius can rejuvenate the decaying wisdom of the humanities,
and that only a rejuvenated wisdom can lead the sciences to a much-leated level of cultural and moral maturity.
How is such a transfiguration to come about?
It is difficult to say, but certainly one more or even a hundred more academic conferences on the topic of the two cultures
will not get us very far.
But let's turn now to my guest Hayden White to see what his thoughts are on this matter.
Hayden White's name is well-known in the humanities across the nation and the world,
thanks to such groundbreaking books as the content of form, meta-history, and the tropics of history.
He taught for many years in the history of consciousness program at Santa Cruz University,
and has been a professor of comparative literature here at Stanford for the past several years.
He joins me today to talk about the vocation of the humanities, a subject on which he has been reflecting for many decades.
Hayden, welcome to the program.
Thank you Robert, then. Please be here.
A few weeks ago, Stanley Fish, a colleague of ours was a literary scholar,
posted an article on the New York Times blog titled "Can the Humanities Save Us",
which got a lot of attention. I gather that neither you nor I was very impressed by his statement.
Would you like to begin by telling us what the gist of Fish's argument is and why you think it is so misguided?
Well, Stanley Fish raised the issue of whether the humanities were useful,
or whether they were merely and primarily pleasurable,
whether they gave pleasure to those who practiced them, and therefore justified professors being paid to teach this topic,
as against the argument made by prominent law school dean to the effect that the humanities were useful.
You tell it to me that people should study the humanities, which I take to be history, philosophy, language, literature, primarily,
but now added to by modern anthropological and archaeological studies,
and Fish who likes to be provocative insisted that the humanities had no practical utility at all,
that it was merely a matter of taste whether one wanted to either teach them or practice them.
I don't know how you could practice them exactly without teaching them, although I'll argue later on that as far as I'm concerned,
it's not a matter of utility versus pleasure, but a matter of practicality, that the humanities are imminently practical and belong to the practical life by which I mean the ethical life.
Yeah, and I believe that the lawyer, I don't remember his name now,
and his argument was that there was something uplifting about studying the humanities, that it was a storehouse of examples that were edifying to students,
and that the humanities enhanced the horizon of the meaning of life, and that short of this sort of education about the meaning of life,
and everything else in our society that's dominated by science and technology becomes almost like a wasteland because it's deprived of meaning.
Well, the idea of elevation, of course, is crucial here uplifting is a kind of put down of the idea of elevation.
It seems to me uplifting is associated with very self-help movements, as you know.
And in my view, the humanities are not so much elevating or uplifting as rather practical in the sense of teaching one how to get along, how to get through the day with minimum hurt to others in the interest of cultivating civility in discourse.
As far as I'm concerned, the humanities have a great deal to teach us about the relationship between genius and wisdom as you indicated while neither, while not exactly falling on either side of that divide.
So it sounds like you still want to keep the link between the teaching and learning of the humanities with some sort of moral mission, ethical as you say.
But let's go back here to Stanley Fisher's point for a minute where he says that the humanities cannot live up to this expectation, especially when you consider that in his statement there that if it were the case that there was something morally instructive or let's use a word, edifying about the humanities.
And people who taught the humanities should be a lot more noble and moral and ethically exalted than they actually are.
And he says that there's, in his experience, 40 years of teaching, there's no indication that people like you and me and our colleagues in the humanities are any better than anyone else for all our study of humanities.
I don't know whether individuals are made better by studying the good. One can study the good without being good. In fact, many people who study the good effectively are not particularly good themselves, saying Augustine as you recall, felt that his training in the humanities helped him to appear to be good even when he wasn't.
And that when he really became a devotee of the good, he had to put aside his profession as a teacher of rhetoric.
Now, I think that Stanley Fish is not a good example of the teaching of the humanities as being edifying of the person who teaches them.
But I said ethics rather than morality because I regard ethics, of course, as the humanities do, as the discussion of what constitutes the good.
Moralists think they know usually what constitutes the good and gives you rules for pursuing it.
It seems to me that an ethicist might be very, very bad as a person and still have much to say about. It's not only in matter of the ethics, it's not only in matter of good and evil or good and bad.
It has count teaches us, it raises the question, what should I do? What should I do today now?
And we don't have a science of that, and there can't be a science of that.
The utilitarian response to what should I do is make money prosper, do all these things, but then the question arises as with Job.
I've done all the right things, I'm still afflicted. How should I respond to this?
And that's a question of ethical awareness about one's relationship to the good, to questions of good and evil.
Good and bad, I make that niche and distinction between the classification of the good as the opposite of evil and the classification of the good as the opposite of what is bad, namely unpleasurable.
But it seems to me that what the humanities deal with aren't necessarily examples of moral edification.
So much as example of a whole range of ethical comportment and people who come a foul of the rules or the laws of good and evil of good and bad and how they respond to it.
What are the possible range of responses, human responses, peculiarly human responses, not animal responses, not angelic responses.
It seems to me that this is what the humanities cannot so much teach you any more than Kant thought that he could derive actual principles of action, but could only justify ethical awareness in a theory of the practical reason, he's called it.
I think this is what the humanities do. They filled a gap between genius and wisdom.
Yeah, and of course in historiography we're told, or I was told when I was studying history, that the birth of modern history as a discipline was the moment when it began to free itself from the moralization of the past, where even someone like Makhivelli,
who was scandalous because he was engaging in history, not just looking for a whole archive of examples to be emulated and examples to be avoided.
And therefore this idea that now we're going to have objective historiography where we're going to demoralize our study of history to find out what the facts for, what the causalities are, and of course you may,
a lofty reputation for yourself, for among other things, arguing that you can never really engage in the discipline of history or historiography without there being some residual moralization going on, whether the historian is aware of it or not.
Am I reading you correctly on that?
I've argued that the best reasons for accepting a given interpretation of a given moment of the past, the best reasons finally, but when I say accepting, crediting them when you choose among continuing interpretations, the best ones are ethical and or aesthetic.
Well, I would like to go back just for a minute not to fish, but to the suggestion that I mean I don't buy into fishes argument, you know, one bit because this idea that pleasure is the ultimate
and justification or not even justification, the ultimate reason why we engage in the humanities. It strikes me as so fatuous as not to be taken serious. I can't believe all the hundreds of responses.
That statement actually elicited.
Well, but they were both negative and positive, but it's still according to him a kind of authority there, which I don't know where it comes from.
However, he's good, I know, and my friend was telling me when he came to her college back in the late 70s and he expounded this whole theory of the humanities. It's just about pleasure, your taste,
I'll relive, and someone in the audience asked him, "Why do you do what you're doing then?" And he said, "Well, they're paying me $70,000 a year to do that." But with, you know, cynics like that, we don't need them to be our apologists for the humanities. However, the idea that perhaps the study of the humanities can be demoralized, or let me put it this way.
When I think about what is the purpose or role of the humanities or why we engage in it, I don't see it primarily in ethical terms. I see it more in terms of enrichment.
One can either remain an orphan of history, or one can become the heir of a millennia, tradition in the plural, Greek and Roman antiquity, even prior to that world cultures, the medieval Christian culture of modernity, that the more one engages in the study of the past.
The more one becomes an heir to it all. And the question would be, why would one not want to become an heir and remain an orphan when one could be an heir? So I don't know if that's a moral consideration, but I think primarily in the final analysis, I think that's one reason why so many people, even outside of our profession, are still drawn to the humanities. I think it's the same reason you can't get into the metropolitan area.
The same reason to the Metropolitan Museum in New York on weekends, the same reason there are people listening to the show that aren't academics at all.
The past must have a present and a future in the humanities. For me, are that medium, but that doesn't necessarily make it, certainly doesn't make it necessarily a moral mission, maybe an ethical one.
Well, as I said, you study ethics without being yourself ethical. And the question is whether by associating yourself day in and day out, the classics are reading the classical works of literature or studying history, ran across some person recently, so I read a history book every day, because he said, prepares me to kind of measure up to.
The responsibilities of a citizen, which seem to be perfectly a good reason to read history if it's a school of citizenship, if it's taught that way, then I don't see why in the public schools.
For example, I remember when I was in elementary school, my great insights into history, six of grade came in the civics classes.
I don't think they teach civics anymore. I think they should. Why? Because it tells you about the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy, and it shows you different kinds of democracy and different kinds of citizenship, different interpretations of that role.
So, I'm my argument about, is congruent with your conception of the heritage, but your metaphor of being an heir is a little skewed, because remember, you could only be an heir of someone who puts you in their will.
And it's not true that everything inherited from the past is, or that comes down to us from the past, is either intended for us, all.
It may be a selective, it may be a selective in the way that Jesus told us that parables are. You recall it when he's asked by his disciples, "Why do you speak in parables when we ask you a question?" And he tells them another story.
And they say, "Well, why do you tell us another story?" And he says, "Well, you have to realize that in telling a story, the aim is to distinguish between those who can hear and those who cannot."
That it's a way of selecting out people who are prepared for very difficult truths and those who are not.
But it's an education for the means by which we overcome this exclusionary logic of the patrimony and force oneself into the position of inheritance.
I mean, for example, I know that you came from a certain background before going to college.
Yes. That was a working class, a working class background that didn't necessarily predispose you or legitimate you to be the heir of the humanist tradition of the Italian Renaissance.
And you became quite engrossed by Italian humanism and other things.
And I think that you forced your way in there and became demanded your rights to citizenship in that ideal public.
Well, that's a good example of what you have in mind, I know.
But you know, I became a medievalist because for me, once being introduced to medieval culture coming from working class Detroit during the Depression, this was so different from anything I'd ever encountered.
And my experience that I became fascinated about how could a culture in a society develop over a thousand years and sustain itself on the basis of such presuppositions that as those that inform Roman Catholicism.
It's a conundrum. It's a puzzle. It seems like some kind paradox.
But this was exactly the question that you recall that Machiavelli asked of Livy. I mean, his commentary on Livy is about why did the Roman Empire last so long and extensive far in space? What were the principles which without the help of the Christian God or except in some providential sense, not direct revelation, the Romans were able to perdure and to flourish for so long and over such great.
Well, now that kind of question seems to me to be this interest in the other and things that are totally different from anything you've encountered in your experience.
This is one of the great attractions of learning, it seems to me.
And people who are not interested in the different can be very great cultivators of the same, but do not derive from it, I think, the sense of enlightenment.
And by enlightenment, I mean the kind of thing that Prus does when he says, when you finally solve a problem, he says the enlightenment is doubled by the sense that you've overcome an error.
That is to say, you've got it right, you think now, but you've also put aside some error that inform your thinking and your consciousness before that moment.
So I believe that the humanities with this requirement of learning long, sustained, and ever pouring over what is for most part book knowledge does have the effect of first of all raising questions that are seen paradoxical and then allowing you to make some kind of adjustment to your own ways of thinking to accommodate them.
It's not quite the same as becoming the heir. I was a media novelist and I worked in the Vatican Library for many years and I found that a large number of the people there not only studied the Middle Ages, they believed in them.
I mean they were converted to them. I heard people praise the Inquisition after studying, it's a complexity of its organization, the gentleman admiration for it as an institution.
There's a little bit different converting yourself to a cultural tradition as against studying it. But there's a difference between studying it in a completely amoral and scientific way where you only what happened here.
You only concern that question. And another thing to ask, how does this affect me? How does this knowledge about a time and a place that I knew nothing about before?
How does it in some way force me to question my own?
I have to say, listening to you, that there's one element in the equation that almost no one that I know who engages in this endless discourse about what is the role of the humanity ever seems to mention.
I would call it love. I think most of us have at a certain point fallen in love with a book or tradition or a way of thinking or a middle age, the Middle Ages.
And that if first the humanities inculcate a kind of love and that kind of allegiance to want to learn more about something, there's an attraction.
Desire is so much of a vehicle for the acquisition of learning.
And it's through maybe the power of love or desire that one takes possession of, perhaps even illegitimately, maybe not as a legitimate heir.
Well, expropriates appropriate.
So that if I were here with another three or four people from different disciplines who have all read their Augustan earlier in their lives.
And if I were to read the prayer a little hymn in the confessions, we would probably all recognize and go, "Oh, yeah, that's so beautiful."
And we would feel that that's part of the patrimony that we've acquired through our exposure to a Gus. That's all I mean.
Well, there's some kind of equivalence to, I take your point about love and I believe we come back to that. I think we should.
So the idea was very common prior to modern scientification of knowledge that you only know that which you loved.
And conversely, you could only love that which you genuinely knew or saw into, right?
And I believe that's true of a certain kind of erudition.
I mean it motivates people studying the most remote civilizations or cultures.
So I believe that that's something that we should, we might be reluctant to raise it in the current scientific atmosphere, but I'm not.
Because I tell my students that we're here to discuss the meaning of life.
Yeah. Well, that's good. But what do you do when there is a conflict of claims between the claims of love on the one hand to inculcate the love of something.
And on the other to maintain what has been called a certain hermeneutics of suspicion.
That's to say you don't just read everything on its own terms.
You don't just buy into what's being said that you have a certain interpretation of it that sometimes is suspicious of the motivations of the author of the teleology of the text and that you need to what you used to be called deconstruct the discourse.
And you are certainly one who has done plenty of that in a brilliant way.
And we all have to do that if we're going to be good readers.
And if we're not good readers and we're not going to be good lovers, I think either.
But I think it's a very fine line between the disenchantment, a certain attitude mindset of Nolimi Tangida.
I'm not going to be touched by this. And at the same time allowing oneself to be moved by it.
And I'm not sure that everyone always manages to negotiate that.
It's very difficult. It's very difficult, especially in modern universities, which puts so much value on research and production of books, articles and so forth as quickly as possible as many as possible.
So that one hardly, if you take a certain model of productivity, for example, they can never understand how Frederick Jameson can write so many books, long books so quickly.
Paul Richer was like this. There are many others. The one can think of it. I can never keep up with Deredy Dha. The books came out quicker than I could read them.
Yeah, no, there's an obscene heaviness to the shelf when you stack all these books together.
But coming back to affection and the engagement of the emotions I always tell my graduate students never work on anything you don't love.
Why waste three years of your life or four years of your life on your dissertation doing something that you've picked my chance?
But failing love, work on something you hate. That is to say even on the way the Marx has studied the old regime.
Right, right, right.
Because at least it negates the emotions as well as the reason and your will. Because without that emotional charge, I remember days, you know, in which I spent in the Vatican archives, you know, you go in early in the morning, you had to because they opened early in the morning, closed early.
But you would spend days there and they have one toilet in those days for the entire group of people working in the Vatican.
So you had to have a very strong kidneys and you also had to be enduring a lot of stuff that dust, you know, it was heated.
You had to be willing to suffer a great deal. So there had to be a motivation that made it into less into labor and more into work by which I mean some kind of productive activity.
People who begin in their dissertation, dissertations to feel it's heavy labor usually don't last long or become embittered and feel that they have been, you know, some sense betrayed by the materials you've seen it in many of your colleagues, I'm sure.
They reach a certain age and they wonder, they've forgotten why they went into this business.
I know that's another aspect of this issue that we're discussing, which is to what extent are the so-called humanists or those who are supposed to practice the humanities, how many of them are responsible for the disenchantment or state of demoralization, not in the technical sense in the humanities in the university, because there is a surrender of that affection.
Well, a lot of it has to do with the false notion of what scientific investigation entails.
I've heard Bruno Latour speak about the social sciences failing because they were trying to implement a false version of what physical science, objectivity, consisted of.
And he says the humanities became afflicted when they started to imitate the social sciences, so it was error twice removed.
But I believe that the loss of enthusiasm, I mean that in religious sense, the sense of being in spirited among a humanist in modern times is not only attributable to personal limitations.
But also to the ideals that are held up as to what represents a responsible cognition and cognitive learning and so forth.
And so I don't think that, but to come back to love, people are chari of that because, you know, draw Freud transformed love into a myth.
I mean, whatever else one may say about psychoanalysis, one becomes suspicious of loving in the insubarious psychoanalysis represented in that a two that was already widely diffused in the society.
It contributed to the undermining of the notion of love by its reduction to sexuality under the problems that arose in the bourgeois family, intimations of incest and so forth.
So in many respects, you see, this has not happened in literature, in literary writing, in artistic writing.
It still engages the emotions, the whole range of emotions.
You mean creative writing? Yes, yes, right. Well, I mean literary writing. You don't mean literary criticism.
No, I mean writing in a literary way. Of course, I mean in the sense that some criticism is a work of art in itself.
Susan Stewart's work, for example, is a good example of this. Susan Stewart is as lyrical in her literary criticism, which is fabulous as she is in her poetry.
Shall hear of this program, she's a big fan.
Alrighty, well, heist.
I see students who come with full of love of philosophy or of literature into either graduate school or sometimes even undergraduate, especially when they go to the analytic philosophy department.
And within half a year, everything about their affection has been extinguished or there's such an assault on the emotional Robert.
But it's not only in the philosophy departments, it's also in literary criticism. I see it with our own students, where especially graduate students, where there's a certain naive enthusiasm and of course one of our purposes as educators at the higher level is to de-enthusiasts, de-enthusiasts, if I could use that word, and get them to make much more plausible arguments about what's going on in the literary work.
To professionalize themselves, so professionalization does, you have to be able to sustain or put up with a certain degree of disenchantment without letting it get to the core of the commitment, I think.
I agree with that. It's one thing to teach undergraduates, I think, so another thing to teach pre-professionals. After all, one of the reasons that people don't know it, to graduate school, they kind of love reading as an undergraduate, so I think I'll go into graduate school and find out that we're interested in everything but reading.
That older mode of reverie sitting in a window seat curled up with a good book is about the last thing that we try to teach them in graduate school, maybe we should go back to it though.
But that would lead you back to the fish doctrine about taste and that really teaching of reading is teaching one to do tasteful reading.
I think there's something to that because I believe in your passion.
For fish it was just a set of techniques. He says when you learn a discipline, you just learn a set of techniques, there's no emotional investment, there's no moral, practical or utilitarian.
It's just like a little science.
Well, I don't think that's quite true. It seems to me when you learn a discipline, you learn a number of rules about what not to do for professional purposes and not what to do because no one can teach you how to think creatively and right creatively.
But they can tell you that when you write an essay like this, you violate some principle of professional performance and you don't want to do that if you want a job and if you want to practice the discipline instead of just do casual reading.
The enthusiasm for reading has to be an enthusiasm translated into an enthusiasm for a whole range of learning and learning experiences.
So I believe that for what is worth, that we teach undergraduates one way because we're interested in producing citizens.
I mean, well informed citizens, I still believe that my daughter would be much happier than she has turned out to be in her love life if she had read more novels.
You know, it used to be thought of as bovacies, my right, and a mistake.
I believe that the novel in the modern novel is our great school room for teaching about how to deal with the emotions in practical life.
No disagreement here.
On the question of love, just to go wrap up on that issue, do you think Socrates was perhaps the greatest teacher in the history of the world?
Because love was exactly the medium that he not only used as a teacher, but he thought it was one of the foundational ingredient of philosophy.
I think Jesus was the greatest teacher of all time.
For the same reason because his doctrine of love is a very complex one.
Is it not that it's to say love your parents but follow me?
His whole notion, at least this is St. Paul, explicates it.
That the fulfillment of the law is to recognize that love is the dominant principle in a quest for both knowledge and well life.
I was thinking more just specifically in terms of the process of learning.
Well, when I said that I tell my students, "Look, we're here to discuss the meaning of life."
I said, "The philosophers won't discuss that anymore."
I mean, not the analytical philosophers because they think it's a metaphysical question.
Myologists won't even discuss it except in terms, but the meaning of life is, "I turn out that I'm alive for the time being."
What do I do? This brings me back to the conse formulation of the fundamental question of ethics.
Namely, what should I do? I'm in a world in which is making contradictory demands upon me.
What should I do? I mean, how...
So, I believe that the question of meaning, how to live a meaningful life, a life that is in some sense fulfilled cognitively, intellectually, as well as in other ways.
But we humanists are concerned with the intellectual life primarily in the aesthetic dimension.
I believe that people who are attracted to the humanities are attracted to that question, but not to the religious and the metaphysical answers that have been given to that question.
For me, I remain the same way that origin, or no, Saint Cyprion did, with respect to Tertalian and Oregon.
He said, "What's wrong with Oregon?" Is that in order to be saved, you've got to know 12 languages, you know, and study all of the great arcana of the world.
And he says, "What's wrong with Tertalian?" You don't have to know anything.
So, he said, "The church and his wisdom must steer between these two extremes."
I feel the same way about these hermeneutics of love and hermeneutics of suspicion that we can become lovers of love, and that's a mistake.
And we can become in love with love. That's Madame Boverer's mistake rather than reading romantic novels.
Remember how she says, at last I have a...
At last I have a lover.
She doesn't say I love whatever's name is. No, exactly.
Yes, she is. No, no, no.
Yes. You immediately said the thing that I would think that an educated or a cultivated person in our time would be able to say.
You know, you pointed out the distinction to me saying, "I'm in love and I have a lover."
That's the kind of thing we deal in, it seems to me.
And I believe that unless we can't give better readings, not only the classics, but of contemporary discourses, novels, and so forth,
than would be found in any other, could be produced by any other discipline in the university or any other division.
I mean, I'm a Paul sometimes by what I read by sociologists until I stop and think they're speaking a certain kind of language.
And this means that there are certain things that are not allowed to say certain topics they can't even address and still remain orthodox in some way.
So, for me, it's all about education of the young as against professional pre-professional.
Education of the young is trying to give them some. No, not give them.
Expose them to different ways of construing the human condition.
I mean, that's what made Hannah Arendt such a great philosopher in spite of the fact that he's quite old-fashioned when he comes right down to,
and she thinks that Socrates was the greatest teacher, and she thinks that, you know, that the invention of politics is an invention by the Greeks, is really what makes possible a kind of humanistic approach to political questions that make the whole attempt to create, to make politics, the object of scientific study, rational choice theory and so forth.
I mean, who can believe that sort of thing? Rational choice theory? Unbelievable. Unbelievable. I agree.
And there again, Hannah Arendt, we did a show last year on her, and the role that love played in her education was huge.
Yes, it was. And so was saying honesty. Yeah, of course.
Yeah, and so how does a modern secular humanist, what does he derive from the study of the great religious class, actually, say?
I mean, what you learn? For example, let me ask you that same question in a more specific way with regard to one of your most recent books called "figural realism," which is basically a study of how history writes itself.
I guess written, gets written, and there you are retrieving something from, I guess, your medievalist background, which is the notion of Figuora, which in the Christian tradition is a kind of typological, it's reposes on a typological understanding of the relationship between what we used to call the Old Testament and the New Testament, and figure out fulfillment within the new dispensation with Christ and so forth.
Well, I think you're an example in that book of someone who has taken your reading of the religious tradition into a domain where it didn't necessarily intend it to go and views it very fruitfully, no?
Well, look, whatever else they may be, religions offer meaning. I mean, that's one of the interesting, mean, how do they do it?
What would be a meaningful life understood in terms of what you call typology? I think that modern conceptions of figuration really have that the notion of fulfillment has to do with the idea not of self-realization in the old or teleological sense in which the acorn must become an oak if it lives long enough, which means you have a determined end.
In advance that you may or may not reach, but rather the idea of fulfillment understood as fulfilling a contract or fulfilling a promise, namely in some sense it's the choice of an end that might be open.
And that may be revised in the course of one's lifespan, but which has to do with realization, has to do with real, rest with self-realization in the Aristotelian sense than the fulfillment of a promise in the Christians sense.
Is that what you mean by realism in the title of that book? Yeah, what I mean by realism is that people assume that when someone uses a figure of speech to say something about the world, that they're making a mistake.
I want to point out that in our discussions with one another, when we're referring to some third thing out there that we describe, we may use figurative language to describe it.
That doesn't mean that we have ceased to refer to that thing.
My realism, I wanted to suggest that a great deal of modern thought in both literature and in philosophy as well in the social sciences has to do with how do we properly speak about the referent, about whatever it is we are object of study.
And my argument is this seems to presuppose for many people that we must speak literally, only and only literally. That's for example we must develop a technical language that will tell us what is literal, what is figurative.
I think that what we're concerned with here is what is proper speech in this situation for talking about that thing.
And this is the relationship between figuration which has to do with the ethics of language use. When does it proper to use literal speech or technical speech when is it improper.
It's improper to use technical speech if someone comes in and says, "What is my father? My father is dead. Tell me what he died of. You want a technical discourse there."
If someone says, "This guy died because he was a mean person. He died of vile or something like that."
Then you're making a difficult judgment of some kind. And somewhere between those two possibilities are a whole host of deaths that turn out to be self-destructions, suicides in some way, all annoying to the person who is undergoing them.
So you had to do with something like how did they conceive themselves and what was appropriate for themselves as living organisms endowed with consciousness.
And for one of a better word a soul. Is there a way in which that concept of figure does a lot of the work that in traditional historiography is done by the concept of cause?
I believe that traditional historical work was always a narrative. Modern scientific history need not be a narrative. It just be a report about what you found in the archives.
It doesn't have to be a narrative at all. Here's what I found. Here are some new facts that you didn't know. That's what I call the scholarly report from the archival report.
As far as you're going to make a story of it, you've got to infigorate the persons who become characters in a story.
And that's the... And figureation is the best antidote to stereotypification in my view.
Most of my very critics are saying, don't mistake the character in the book for a real person in a book or a conviction.
But if you're writing a book about Napoleon, I mean, he appears there even as a figure in the book.
He has both a narrative function and there is some effort to kind of... The name is attributes in such a way as the conjure up the Napoleon type without being reductive.
And stereotype to mean, to concretize, to figure in a novel or a figure in a history is not the same as a stereotype.
This came up recently in the class where someone said, all these figures are stereotyped. And I said, no, there are some are and some aren't. Frequently even in the writing of history, we will stereotype a given person.
And that's what we don't want, as far as we don't want that kind of reductiveness.
Do you think that what I was talking about in my introduction about wisdom versus genius, that maybe it's one of the purposes of wisdom, one of the functions, or one of its particular talents is to narrow device or tell the story.
So, mythologize in a way that does the necessary work of interconnection and inclusion, creating founding collectivities, giving a society or groups or nations a particular sense of itself.
Well, I believe so. I think that myths provide meaning and meaning structures, and that one of the ways you can... I think the function of narrative is to dramatize, to transform a conflict into a drama.
So, when is real life that we're concerned with? And this means producing accounts of the figures involved in terms that would be recognizable as stage persona.
I mean, as masks of a certain kind, because to act publicly, and again, this is on our own teaching, to act publicly is to assume a mask.
I mean, when you come out of the private domain, onto the public stage, you can see it in the Obama Clinton.
This is Clinton's got an image problem primarily, rather...
For some people, yes.
Well, yes, but that's the point we mean by an image, see it taking the image for the thing.
Someone said to me, "How could she counter this, this hate Clinton thing?"
I said, "You got to change your image. It's not a matter of her deciding to speak more frankly."
I mean, the weeping on that one occasion and was it no Hampshire.
There's one tact to take, but I think she needs to be recognized if she weeps every time she doesn't know where to get very far.
Yeah, change your image is a dangerous proposition because people are also very sensitive to authenticity and you know how that's right.
And they want their persona to be real persons.
What we mean is what you want is an authentic mask.
But that just means, assume, you don't want your politicians to...
This is what was wrong with Bill Clinton, as far as I'm concerned.
He brought his private life over into the public domain and in our faces with it.
We don' people keep pointing out with the Kennedys and so forth.
We don't really want to know that much about your private life.
When you enter the public stage, you're're in a different game.
There are different rules.
And it's like talking about what is an authentic actor as a Gatsafake actor.
Someone who always signals that he is acting a role.
Or someone who is unable not to be Marlon Brando, you know, if you're Marlon Brando.
So wisdom, I would say...see, I would prefer the word "prudence."
That's an old-fashioned.
I know I'm not crazy about the word wisdom either, but prudence comes with a lot of baggage as you know one of the cardinal virtues.
But I wasn't necessarily relate to this function of interrelating the generations or weaving stories and narratives and so forth.
That's right.
But I like prudence because it're in the situation and you have to assess different possibilities.
And you want to choose the one that carries you through the situation rather than the one that puts you in the role of Achilles,
or the great heroes.
Because we don't live our lives as great tragic heroes.
The tragic heroes, I mean, like Beth and so forth, are all very interesting characters, but larger because we don't want to be that.
But certain secondary characters, you know, become possible models and so far as they show something less than heroic valor.
But something more than cowardly, you know, kind of conformity.
And prudence has to do with the notion of laying in particular situations that difference between what is proper and what is improper.
And that's a very difficult, most of modern popular culture puts that in your face.
Do you think it's teachable?
Well, real, some of the political scientists or theorists are a big problem.
Is the loss of civil society?
I agree with that.
The public sphere that Hana Hana Hana basically took for granted as a constant.
That's right.
It has dwindled to the point where the actors who act in the public sphere no longer know their rhetoric.
No longer have the judgment necessary to engage in this kind of interchange.
And the way in which the private sphere has the incursions of the private sphere into the public have done a lot to corrode the, what Hana Hana aren't called the radiance of that sphere.
That's right. That's right. And you know, back to Mr. Obama, people say, well, he's very rhetorical.
And I said, so is Mrs. Clinton. She's got the wrong rhetoric.
I mean, what you want is not someone who is authentic, but who also appears authentic.
I'm sure Mr. Huckabee is in his own way is quite authentic, but he doesn't appear to know what authenticity is.
That's true. Well, we're going to have to see how that plays out.
Many of the listeners of the show here here are the shows in with a certain delay.
So this whole suspension might be an old story by the time some of them kind of tune into it.
But nevertheless, Hayden, we got to the end of our hour successfully.
I want to remind artists who have been speaking with Professor Hayden White, who has been part of the Stanford faculty here at Stanford for the last decade or so.
Oh, yeah, over ten years. Over ten years. And we look forward to having you with us next week at the same time.
Thanks for coming on, Hayden. We're going to leave you with a song by a new band called J.S.A.R. from their first and to date only album.
And titled All Our Symbols, spelled H-O-U-R, C-Y-M-B-A-L-S. All Our Symbols, the track is called Sunrise. We'll be with you next week.
(upbeat music)