Hayden White on the Humanities

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Hayden White (1928-2018)

Hayden White, the author of Metahistory and the champion of narrative history, died in 2018.  The Chronicle of Higher Education has published a transcript of a radio interview he did in 2008 with Stanford literature professor Robert Pogue Harrison.  Here is a taste of the interview:

Harrison: A few weeks ago, Stanley Fish posted an article on The New York Times titled “Will the Humanities Save Us?,” which got a lot of attention. Would you like to begin by telling us the gist of Fish’s argument and why you think it is so misguided?

White: Fish, who likes to be provocative, insisted that the humanities have no practical utility at all, that it is 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. As far as I’m concerned it’s not a matter of utility versus pleasure, but a matter of practicality. The humanities are eminently practical and belong to the practical life, by which I mean the ethical life….

Harrison: On the question of love, do you think Socrates was the greatest teacher in the history of the world? Because love was not only the medium that he used as a teacher, but he thought it was one of the foundational ingredients of philosophy.

White: No, I think Jesus was the greatest teacher of all time.

Harrison: Because of his doctrine of love?

White: Well, his doctrine of love is a very complex one, is it not? “Love your parents, but follow me.” His whole notion, at least as Saint Paul explicates it, that the fulfillment of the law is to recognize that love is the dominant principle in the quest for both knowledge and life.

Harrison: I was thinking more just specifically in terms of the process of learning.

White: I tell my students, “Look, we’re here to discuss the meaning of life.” The meaning of life is that I’m alive for the time being. I’m in a world which is making contradictory demands upon me. What do I do?  

Read the entire interview here.