On what the humanities are for

Rowan Williams insists that we are not just problem-solving machines.



Rowan Williams insists that we are not just problem-solving machines.


The whole idea that it’s worth spending time and money and putting resource into the arts is not very popular in or out of universities. It reflects an idea that our primary job as human beings is problem-solving. We need, all the time, to increase our capacity to solve problems – so we need to increase our technological reach, our scientific exactitude, because all problems reduce to problems of managing the stuff around us. And that sounds very simple, until you realise that of course no actual human being works in that way, and that the problems that are most resistant to solution are problems for which you need not information but imagination.

Simone Weil, the great French philosopher of the 20th century, said we have to learn that most of our problems are solved not by will but by imagination. So we have to nurture in ourselves that capacity to see ourselves from a different perspective, to see our human world through the eyes of others. We have to develop, in the broadest sense, an empathic understanding of our world and our neighbours. And that is what the arts and the humanities do. They open our eyes to perspectives we had not thought about; they connect us with the connections of things that we hadn’t seen; they tell us that the resources for finding meaning and resolution in our lives are larger than we expected, certainly larger than just a set of problem-solving techniques.

And of course this goes along with what a number, and a growing number, of influential neuroscientists say about the different ways in which the brain works. To assume that problem-solving is it is to ignore a huge amount of how the brain maps the territory it looks at, in ways that are not just focused on little bits of problematic material but constantly moving to a large picture in which we can make the connections. We can see, as they say, not just the features but the face.

So to suppose that the only worthy recipient of human energy, public money, all those other things, is technology-oriented science is really to shrink what we think about human capacity pretty radically. I’m not in the least opposed to technology or scientific advance, but it also strikes me that really good scientific research is itself imaginative, risk-taking, frequently much more like artistic endeavour than it’s like what some people think science is. The tragedy is, we live in a culture where science itself has been reduced to a level of small-scale problem-solving, at least in popular perception. So I think part of what a religious presence in culture today needs to be about is challenging what we think about knowledge, what we think about the intellectual life, helping us to see that the very word intellectual – which causes lots of people to come out in spots – is really about the imaginative as well as the intelligent engagement with the wholeness of our world. I think that’s a religious point, not just a social or cultural one.