The Humanities Can Get Loud

The humanities aren’t all cozy reading rooms and contemplative coffee chats. They can be a shattering, rowdy, challenging experience—but on the other end lies wisdom.

  • November 6, 2023
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  • Editorial
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  • By Stone Addington

When I think of the humanities, I think of moments both quiet and thunderous. 

The quiet moments come to mind easily: contemplative walks, a cozy bookstore, and weighty conversations over coffee. 

But the humanities can get loud.  

I recall the first time I read about Socrates, a philosopher strolling the streets of Athens, challenging those who claimed they were experts on one topic or another. He peppered them with questions—endless questions—allowing his interlocutors to tie themselves into philosophical knots, demonstrating that they did not actually know what they thought they knew. He frustrated them. The petty could not tolerate this insult and found an excuse to depart the conversation, apparently late for this appointment or that; the most aggrieved took him to court, leading to his execution.  

The virtuous, however, changed their minds, able to see their errors and correct them. Sometimes they found a new belief to replace the old one. But, often, they found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to say, “I simply don’t know.” 

For me, this first contact with philosophy did not result in a peaceful, casual interest in the subject. It was a lightning strike. I was electrified by Socrates’s obsession with knowledge and his unbridled curiosity. Philosophical questions pressed on my mind, shouting their demands for inquiry, for exploration. 

It is a challenge that is less like wonder and more like being hit with a hammer.

It can only be compared to the feeling of looking upon an endless, churning ocean, a colossal mountain, or a starry sky unpolluted by city light—it is a rapturous, humbling sense of awe and something-akin-to-but-not-quite fear. One feels the power and sheer scale of nature, a contrast to one’s own diminutive place in the universe. Philosophers have named this the sublime. 

In the same way, an idea can ignite something within you that feels like a shattering or a remaking of your mind. The world suddenly unfolds in inspiration or epiphany. This is the great gift of the humanities—wisdom. It is an illumination of what was obscured in shadow or never noticed at all.  

And, at times, the greatest benefactor of wisdom is doubt. By engaging with the humanities, one encounters the best teacher of all: smart people who disagree with you and have good reasons for doing so. It is a challenge that is less like wonder and more like being hit with a hammer. But doubt can be a blessing when it offers the opportunity to step out of one’s conviction and second-guess one’s assumptions. Socrates offered this gift to those he conversed with. Some accepted the gift; some turned it away. 

Doubt offers us the same choice that Socrates gave his interlocutors. Do you turn away these uncertainties, pretending as though they are baseless and not worth considering? Or do you think with courage? Can you face them head-on, focusing the full spotlight of your mind, looking for virtues and flaws? 

The humanities give us these challenging moments, but also the wisdom to deal with them—thinking critically, navigating ambiguity, and practicing intellectual humility. Wisdom is a precious resource, but, incredibly, one that can be freely shared with all. We at Humanities Washington seek to share this sublime gift of the humanities with everyone in our state. 

Only the humanities can provoke these transformational moments of inspiration and doubt, quiet and thunder. I ask you to wonder, what ideas are lying in wait for you? Will they be silent and serene? Or roaring and resonant? Most critically, will you be listening? 

Stone Addington, PhD, is the director of programs at Humanities Washington.

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