What Matters? The Question of Value in the Humanities, HUMS 288b (Spring 2020)

Meeting Time: 

The question of value—of what matters, and why—is fundamental to humanistic inquiry and yet it seems impossible to ask. How can we make judgments of value that transcend personal or group prejudice? What makes one thing—an idea or a work of art—better than another? What makes some works inexhaustible sources of insight and pleasure? The main ambition of the course will be to discover how great works of art from across modern culture (poetry of Wordsworth, Keats, Dickinson, Rilke and Stevens; music of Mahler, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, Thelonious Monk and Bob Dylan; film of Terrence Malick) embody ways of valuing persons, things, and existence itself. We will also read powerful theorists of ethical and aesthetic value (Hume, Kant, Schiller, Emerson, Nietzsche, Dewey, Adorno, Stanley Cavell) and distinctive critics (Hazlitt, Ruskin, Pater, Empson, James Baldwin). In developing our own methods of judgment, we will ask: What criteria of value can we bring to bear upon works of art and thought? What is the relation between evaluation and fact? What counts as an insight? What does it mean to “get it right” in the humanities as opposed to the sciences? What is the relation between acknowledging—being responsive to—a text and a person? Above all, we will seek to grasp how the activity of valuing is central to what it means to be a person.

Led by:

Professor Benjamin Barasch is a Postdoctoral Associate and Lecturer in the Humanities Program at Yale University. Having received his PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University in 2019, he is delighted to be returning to Yale and to the Humanities Program, from which he received his BA in 2009.

While his scholarship is rooted in nineteenth-century American literature and European aesthetic and ecological thought, he is also committed to wide-ranging inquiry into questions such as the nature of value and the status of the human in an age of environmental catastrophe. His book project, Living Thought: Form and Vitality in American Literature, argues that authors such as Walt Whitman and Henry James held a paradoxical conception of the imagination as both the mark of human uniqueness and the source of our closest intimacy with the nonhuman world. He proposes the irreducible doubleness of the imagination as a corrective to the academic critique of the human subject.

He has taught classes on American visionary art from Emily Dickinson to David Lynch; on the question of value in humanistic study; and a yearlong survey in political philosophy from Plato to Foucault. His paper “Emerson’s Discovery of Life” was the 2019 winner of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society’s award for the best graduate student paper. A performing pianist and guitarist, he also studies the history and theory of classical and popular music; particular favorites include Gustav Mahler, Charles Ives, and Bob Dylan.