This post was written by Gabbie Schwartz, a Humanities Center student fellow and the BYU Humanities Center Intern.
It was 4:30 p.m., and I was getting dinner with a friend at the Olive Garden—which is how all great stories start.
Excitedly, my friend told me about her senior capstone, an electrical engineering project in which she and a team were to build a laser tag system. And just for kicks and giggles, they decided to import sound effects from Star Wars.
This was obviously great fun and an excellent way to cap off her experiences at BYU, but my friend had larger ambitions. She would take all the skills she acquired in her STEM classes (including her upcoming classes in graduate school), and one day apply them to the medical sphere. The technology she produced would hopefully benefit the lives of those it served. She then asked me what I was working on.
I launched into an explanation of, what was then, my most recent paper on Old English poetry—a reading of Andreas and the Siege of Jerusalem. As I explained the intricacies of the paper’s organization, the interreligious tension I found in the texts, what I meant by the term “othering,” and much more unneeded detail, I simultaneously watched the light (and interest) fade from my friend’s eyes. It drew me to a premature and rather abrupt finish of my explanation.
“Oh,” my friend said. “That sounds cool.” And after a brief pause she added, “What does that do exactly?”
I could almost hear the Microsoft Windows shutdown sound my brain made at the question. She was looking for the tangible results of my paper. Some sort of impact factor, I guess. I remember briefly reiterating the concluding section of the paper, where I discussed the potential lessons we could learn from the text in order to promote interreligious harmony rather than interreligious tension.
She nodded thoughtfully and said, “Well it sounds like you’ve put a lot of good work into it.”
After dropping her off back home, I realized that—beyond myself, my professor, and my peer-review group—no one else was going to read that paper. When the class was finished and the paper turned in, it would begin collecting digital dust on an abandoned word document tucked into a folder marked “Winter 2022.” Unlike my friend’s work, it wouldn’t be doing much.
I started reading The Alchemy of Air that Summer, wondering at the way a scientist’s brain worked, how they somehow converted the nitrogen in the air into ammonia. Out of that process came the very tangible result of synthetic fertilizers and, by extension, a solution to what would have been a mass food crisis. I finished The Alchemy of Air in late Fall as I tucked another one of my “audience-of-two” essays into a folder marked “Fall 2022.”
4 days ago, I got a notification from the BBC of their latest article: scientists had found potential evidence—dimethyl sulphide, methane, and CO2—of life on another planet. At the moment of reading the article, I wondered what it might be like to be them. That is, to know the language of the physical world and be able to communicate with it. Their work felt real, somehow more immediate than the papers I was revising for my own graduate school applications.
Like my friend, I had my own ambitions to train my mind with post-grad education, and while I also aimed to help the world in some way through that education, my goals seemed a bit more intangible than hers, both in my capacity to achieve them and in the sense that the work I did wouldn’t yield technological wonders. I wouldn’t be solving the climate crisis with my rhetorical analysis of William Wordsworth. So this semester I’ve been wandering around campus with a gnawing question in the back of my mind, lugging it around to all of my classes.
What was it all for? Spending hours familiarizing myself with poets who are long dead that nobody outside the academic world knows, spending even longer hours parsing through dense texts that nobody outside the academic world probably studies, and then crafting a paper over the span of days and weeks that nobody but myself and my professor would read. I was a student of the humanities, and yet I felt an extreme distance between myself and—well—humanity.
This litany of thoughts was fresh on my mind as I puzzled my way through the writings of the French Philosopher, Merleau-Ponty. With every dense, convoluted, and extremely lengthy sentence, I found my frustration growing, the familiar question of “why” echoing louder and louder in my head.
That is, until I arrived at this passage: “The ‘human world’ ceases to be a metaphor in order to become again what it in fact is, the milieu and, as it were, the homeland of our thoughts” (25-26).
Merleau-Ponty emphasizes our full and complete integration with the world. We cannot regard our perception of the world as something distant from ourselves while we reduce the world to mere physical and chemical explanations in the name of “objectivity.” Now, please do not misunderstand me. These objective, physio-chemical explanations and approaches are certainly needed, important, and even beautiful. But human essence also includes our ability to understand, say, “the anger or sadness that I nevertheless read on someone’s face, the religion whose essence I nevertheless grasp in a hesitation or a reticence, the city whose structure I nevertheless know in the attitude of an officer or in the style of a monument” (25)—to provide some tangible examples from Merleau-Ponty’s own writing.
In that moment while reading Merleau-Ponty, I realized there are many things my humanities education has given me. Among them is certainly the consideration of the social contexts Merleau-Ponty references, and the ways these contexts illuminate the many intersections of our situatedness in the world. But my study of the humanities has also allowed me to be granular: I am allowed to look closely, to investigate details and concern myself with each little, situated epoch of human thought and its trajectories. It is through this study—the writing and reading and thinking and puzzling—that I myself find myself refined.
This is not to say that the humanities aren’t expansive. They are. Even in wrestling with the work of one—a single text, thought, or individual—I am afforded expanding horizons, my vision not limited to the narrow beam of me, myself, and I, but all those other people I encounter working in the “milieu” of human thought. We’re in real good company here with the entirety of humanity to pull from.
But at the risk of sounding too grandiose or dramatic, I return to my more simple and distilled truth, something much smaller in scope. If I could go back to that moment with my friend and her question—“What does that do exactly?”—I think I would respond differently. I’d say that the real, tangible work of the humanities is me and you. And I think it’s more than okay to start there.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception, translated by Donald A. Landes. Routledge, 2012