Toril Moi spoke at the Future Humanities Conference, organized by Laura Mandell, at Texas A&M on March 29, 2018. She began her paper by showing that there are three ways of defending the humanities: (1) We can align the fate of the humanities with the fate of the institution we call the university. Then the question becomes: What should a university be? (2) We can argue for the instrumental value of the humanities, which essentially means claiming that the humanities are good things because they are useful for some other activity. Or (3): We can argue for the substantive value of the humanities. Since several audience members at Texas A&M asked for a copy of Toril’s “substantive” account of the humanities, we thought we’d make it available here at PAL’s own website:


The third option is to argue for the substantive value of the humanities. (I take for granted that the concept of the “humanities” is a network without clear boundaries. I am not trying to lay down one essential definition; I am just reminding us of some of the things humanists actually do.) We humanists work with language, literature and the arts. We preserve and transmit the knowledge of cultural expression in history. We teach budding artists the history of their forms of expressions. We learn languages so as to understand other cultures, both in the past and in the present. We analyze the records and traces of human activity in history. We ask how people lived in other times, and other places. We ask about the role of religion in society and culture. We work with ideas. We try to understand the thoughts and values that men and women have lived for—and been willing to die for—through the ages. We ask about a culture’s self-understanding. We show how the past informs the present. We ask about power, justice, love, desire, and the meaning of life. We are the custodians and interpreters of the records of human existence in history. A nation without the humanities would be a nation deprived of the keys needed to understand its own identity. A world without the humanities would be a world without self-knowledge.