in situ: part 5

The in situ series of posts is excerpts from an online conversation I had with two friends who are readers of my private blog. These posts may best be read serially, and with some leisure time at hand. Links to the previous posts are at the end of each post.

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Ah, Sharanya! Meine Liebe! THIS is what I mean by great conversation! I got so excited reading it, my heart went aflutter. Believe me when I say I actually jumped out of my chair, paced my room twice and because the excitement couldn’t be contained, ran downstairs and up again. Twice!

Now, THAT is the extent of my mental starvation. You may not empathise/understand completely because I doubt you’ve ever faced something like this. I know your family and the places you’ve lived in. You have been very fortunate. And while I had not modeled the post as a philosophical argument, and hence I was loose with words, I will try and defend what I can. Also, I hate having this ‘conversation’ in a comment window.

Firstly, there is a redundancy in your claim that only those who study/are interested in humanities will talk about humanities. That applies to every conversation in the world. Only those who study/are interested in medicine will talk about medicine (unless you are forced to have a conversation you aren’t interested in). That said, medicine/engineering/technical fields are subjects about which you require special knowledge to talk. Humanities is just a post-Industrial phrase to differentiate all the “non-productive” disciplines from the “productive” ones (modern geniuses have found a way to make them profitable too, but that’s a different story). Therefore, a study of humanities isn’t prerequisite to talk about it. Nehru, in letters to his daughter, speaks of literature, music, visual arts, history, pre-history. Here was a man of the world who hadn’t necessarily studied these disciplines and yet, spoke of them with such passion. I don’t expect Nehrus around me, but a med student passionate about current affairs isn’t too much to ask for.

‘Humanities’ is a label too. Simply put, it is the our story, of mankind, of cultures, of thought itself. We are naturally drawn to stories of identity, to know who we are. Humanities is about being human, being sensitive to a host of things we are naturally inclined to, though it is stifled out of many of us because such interests don’t yield. It’s great if you have awesome medical conversations with fellow medics, but a great conversation can be had without specialist training/education. I’ve had some with kids as young as five!

Secondly, we move to identities. Everything we know/don’t know has empirical identity. And for all the things that don’t know that they exist, that should be fine. We know we exist (Descartes) and that is the problem. Empirical identities don’t suffice. The realisation of our own existence and the ability to process this realisation in terms of thought is our biggest strength and weakness. Till date, the one method (apart from torture, which threatens one’s existence) that is most often employed to break a man down is solitary confinement. It is used on the hardest criminals. Now, you could console them saying that being alone doesn’t mean they don’t exist, they exist empirically. But empirical existence is just that, empirical. Our pursuit here, in our finite world, is to give meaning to our identities. No one is happy being “a mass of flesh and blood”. You’ll lose your mind.

Lastly, I’ll tackle the trickiest, subjectivism/labeling. But, first, I’ll go have lunch and think while I munch on food.

(Post-Lunch) While I understand your aversion to labeling and subjective classification, all language is labeling. For no word truly represents what it is supposed to, it is only an arbitrarily assigned label. The repulsion to subjectivity is also picked up post-Industrialisation which assigned science as the ultimate arbiter of ‘truth’; therefore, anything that was within the doubt of subjectivity or opinion had to have its existence questioned or qualified science. But, that’s the thing with great music, art or literature – it doesn’t have absolutes and yet it is definable. Nails screeching on a blackboard is not music. How do we know? Why do some sights/smells soothe and inspire while others don’t? Because there are not scientific explanations for all these things doesn’t mean you bundle nail-screeching with Bach.

Room for opinion, yes. But there is something about beauty that comes through without explanations. Science needn’t justify it, it needn’t be absolute. There is a level of empiricism in abstract notions like beauty (I know how contradictory that sounds) and science is yet to get to all of it. I’m not waiting for science to catch up and give it a spot of objectivity (like it did when it uncovered the Golden Ratio or when it established how Jackson Pollocks paintings were complex manifestations of Chaos Theory and had identifiable fractals – I’m not well read there); I have established notions of beauty and greatness (“and in our own universes, that is really all that matters”). And truth be told, great art is recognised without us knowing what makes it so. And yes, there will be people who find it repulsive and horrible, but hey, there are people who say God exists! (Okay, if you want a non-controversial example: there are people who believe killing a 5-yr-old girl and drinking her blood will give them powers and there’s a surprisingly large number of them).

You have special education in Literature and I have none. Yet, we’ve had great conversations about the subject; never mind that I haven’t had much to add. None of us are classically trained in philosophy (we know the nuts and bolts maybe) and yet, this conversation is possible. A “trained” philosopher (whatever that means) might laugh at this, but we’ll get better and that’s what matters.

Part1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

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