Brain Pickings

Philosopher Judith Butler on the Value of the Humanities and Why We Read

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“We lose ourselves in what we read, only to return to ourselves, transformed and part of a more expansive world.”

Joining the year’s crop of notable graduation speeches — including Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, Greil Marcus on “high” and “low” culture, Arianna Huffington on success, Joss Whedon on embracing our inner contradictions, and Oprah Winfrey on failure and finding your purpose — is philosopher and author Judith Butler, who received an honorary degree from McGill University and delivered the commencement address.

Butler opens with a case for literature as a tool of empathy:

[The humanities allow us] to learn to read carefully, with appreciation and a critical eye; to find ourselves, unexpectedly, in the middle of the ancient texts we read, but also to find ways of living, thinking, acting, and reflecting that belong to times and spaces we have never known. The humanities give us a chance to read across languages and cultural differences in order to understand the vast range of perspectives in and on this world. How else can we imagine living together without this ability to see beyond where we are, to find ourselves linked with others we have never directly known, and to understand that, in some abiding and urgent sense, we share a world?

Echoing Virginia Woolf, she offers a meditation on the ideals of reading:

Ideally, we lose ourselves in what we read, only to return to ourselves, transformed and part of a more expansive world — in short, we become more critical and more capacious in our thinking and our acting.

Reverberating Ray Bradbury’s faith in reading as a prerequisite for democracy, Butler argues:

An active and sensate democracy requires that we learn how to read well, not just texts but images and sounds, to translate across languages, across media, ways of performing, listening, acting, making art and theory.

Much like ignorance drives science, Butler suggests, the willingness to not know also propels the humanities:

We have to continue to shake off what we sometimes think we know in order to lend our imaginations to vibrant and sometimes agonistic spectrums of experience.

In reflecting on how a humanities education has prepared these young people to take on the world for which they are about to assume “a rather awesome and exciting responsibility,” Butler makes a beautiful case for critical thinking as the foundation of nonviolence:

You will need all of those skills to move forward, affirming this earth, our ethical obligations to live among those who are invariably different from ourselves, to demand recognition for our histories and our struggles at the same time that we lend that to others, to live our passions without causing harm to others, and to know the difference between raw prejudice and distortion, and sound critical judgment.

The first step towards nonviolence, which is surely an absolute obligation we all bear, is to begin to think critically, and to ask others to do the same.

Pair with Butler on doubting love, then complement with some of history’s finest commencement addresses, including recently revisited gems like David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on making good art, Bill Watterson on creative integrity, and older favorites by Ellen DeGeneres, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos.

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