Mailbag: The value of humanities research

2 minute read

Re: “Is humanistic research a waste of time?”

Dear John, Criticisms of humanities research like Bauerlein's may have merit in some cases, but number of citations of recent work is not the right measure of relevance. Here are several interrelated points. First, what matters is the network of influences. Within the humanities, as in the sciences, there are scholarly communities, more tightly connected within communities, and more loosely connected between communities. A scholarly work may influence distant nodes of the network in ways that don't lead to citation. To take the extreme case, suppose that only one person, X, reads work A by another author, but X's A-influenced writing is widely read by others. Work A might never merit a citation from anyone but X, even if what is so interesting about X's work depends in essential ways on what X learned from A. Sometimes the network goes through a single individual: X cites A in an early work, but X's subsequent, more influential work, only cites X's own earlier piece in which X's ideas were being developed partly in response to A. (Suppose that only Husserl read Frege, to whom he responded in an early work. How many Continental philosophers these days have read Frege? Some might not even have read Husserl, I suppose, despite his indirect influence on their thought.) Second, a work can influence thinking in respects which are more subtle than those which merit citation. Reading someone else's work may suggest patterns of thought, styles of research, etc. Or a work might convince you that certain paths are not worth following, leading to research of a different kind. This influence won't necessarily warrant citation. (I've gradually become aware that pervasive aspects of my research were loosely inspired by ideas in works I read years ago. I want to give credit where credit is due, but according to academic standards the connection between my current research and these works is simply not direct enough to warrant citation in some cases, however. I'd describe these connections in print only if I were writing an intellectual autobiography or writing for a Festschrift on the author of the influential works.) Third, some works might have significant influence decades after their publication. (I recently became aware of a 19th Century engineering professor who has written on ideas related to mine.) You can quote me by name if you want. Best wishes, Marshall

Thanks for writing!

I don’t disagree with your point that citations are not a perfect measure of relevance. Possibly we should ignore citations entirely.

And yetFrege has a whole lot of citations every year. Probably anyone we can name off the top of our heads counts among the most widely cited of scholars.

I have sympathy for your argument that every single interaction has the potential to unexpectedly influence someone down the line. The principle is that any action may be the tipping point. But it seems like a horrible marginal use of time. A semester with the chance to touch and influence 20 students is on balance a better chance of attaining that tipping point than a never-read research article.

I would argue that we should value research, and we can do this by doing research that people find relevant. Easier said than done, though!