by Jeroen Bouterse
In one of the opening scenes of The Chair (2021), we are treated to an ideal-typical self-diagnosis of a struggling English department. Its new chair, Ji-Yoon Kim, narrates:
I’m not gonna sugarcoat this: we are in dire crisis. Enrollments are down more than 30 percent, our budget is being gutted. It feels like the sea is washing the ground out from under our feet. But in these unprecedented times, we have to prove that what we do in the classroom – modeling critical thinking, stressing the value of empathy – is more important than ever, and has value to the public good. It’s true, we can’t teach our students coding or engineering. What we teach them cannot be quantified, or put down on a resumé as a skill. But let us have pride in what we can offer future generations. We need to remind these young people that knowledge doesn’t just come from spreadsheets or Wiki entries. Hey, I was thinking this morning about our tech-addled culture and how our students are hyperconnected 24 hours a day, and I was reminded of something Harold Bloom wrote. He said: ‘Information is endlessly available to us. Where shall wisdom be found?’
The idea that a humanities department would be experiencing rough times is not a hard sell. The series uses the high-mindedness of this speech to let the silly and petty behavior of the faculty stand out more, but it also leaves little question that Ji-Yoon’s diagnosis is basically right: it is simultaneously extremely hard to defend the value of the humanities in this day and age, and especially important, because they offer something that runs counter to what we tend to believe the tendencies of that day and age to be – instrumentalism, materialism, marketability, et cetera.
Precisely what that value consists of is contested, and generic crisis talk is also a way for the chair not to become too specific – in particular, not to choose sides between the older, canon-oriented generation (the men in the scene nod in relief when Ji-Yoon name-drops Harold Bloom) and the younger, progressive staff. The main point now, however, is that this diagnosis is immediately recognizable: while there are skills that fit comfortably within the modern economy, Ji-Yoon says, the humanities are untimely; they provide a kind of knowledge that our society both needs and undervalues.
This crisis discourse is older than data about student enrollment numbers in the first quarter of the 21st century. It is also quite adaptable to different statistics: low enrollment means budget cuts, high enrollment means staff overburdened by teaching, and both jeopardize the integrity of research and thereby the special value of academic education. Crisis talk and the idea that something fragile and valuable is at stake in the humanities are something of a constant over the last two centuries. This is what Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon’s book Permanent Crisis is about. They trace the history, logic and functions of crisis talk surrounding the humanities through the nineteenth and twentieth century. They show that the notion that such talk is always responding to its age is misleading; rather, the modern university is set up in such a way that it is basically bound to generate a sense of crisis – and to define the humanities as the field upon which this crisis discourse then focuses. This is an exciting and important thesis, that Reitter and Wellmon (from now on R&W) work out with admirable detail.
The story starts in 1789, with a well-attended lecture by Friedrich Schiller about the right attitude towards scholarship. It is a lecture that makes a lot of the contrast between a genuine philosophical attitude and careerism; “not everyone can be like Schiller”, R&W wryly paraphrase the message (31). Indeed, it will not be the last time that they will have to put up with some trite scholarly virtue signaling to show that underneath it, something rather interesting is happening. In building up to a defense of the genre of universal history, Schiller’s lecture marks the dawn of the notion that rather than Christianity, it is scholarship-done-right that provides purpose to phenomena whose incoherence would otherwise be intellectually unbearable (35). The idea that knowledge is in some sense a whole is essential to this function, and early nineteenth century German reformers – Fichte, Schelling, Schleiermacher and Humboldt – identify the university as the institution that is to embody this idea.
It is here that the essence of the crisis of the modern humanities starts, long before the humanities themselves are actually invented. For built into the modern university is a paradox: it is supposedly a place of intellectual character formation (Bildung), of unity and wholeness, but it is also a place of specialized research, and a resource for the state. It produces the very professionalism and fragmentation to which the humanities will describe themselves as a counterweight, even though they are themselves a product of these same forces (52).
Unsurprisingly, then, moral panic about the closing of the German mind follows almost immediately; a 1836 book by the Prussian philosopher Adolph Diesterweg on The Rot at German Universities complained that universities utterly failed in forming independent thinkers devoted to the life of the mind, which in any case was difficult to do at scale. Professors were just gaming the system, which incentivized them to care about research output and enrollment numbers, but not to take responsibility for the intellectual development of their students.
R&W are happy to point out the parallels between Diesterweg’s nostalgic complaints and current declinist thinking. Shared surface features are “pervasive exaggeration, a critique of cultural superficiality that is itself often superficial, a near total reliance on anecdotal evidence, and a general humorlessness” (70). Again, however, they patiently look past the clichés to identify deeper fault lines. The problem with these pessimistic arguments is that they identify as the root cause of educational decline a tension between liberal education and the research university, but that in the end they don’t really find a way around this institution: “the very possibility of liberal education requires the ideals and norms that constitute the modern research university and, in particular, the research imperative and the intellectual freedom to which it lays claim.” (74)
This is simultaneously a historical claim and the linchpin of R&W’s criticism of the university’s critics: you may think that the failings of the research university stand between our culture and a classic ideal, but that ideal is actually a modern one that is inextricably tied to the very institution you are kicking against. Are you sure, then, that you know what you are wishing for when you take aim at the research imperative? For it is something different to wish for intellectually independent thinkers than to insist on proper moral formation guaranteed by a curriculum centered around a suitable canon. Research is not the same as indoctrination, and if you think (as Diesterweg explicitly did) of professors as “priests of ideas” with a responsibility for the souls of their students while also demanding critical thinking, then perhaps your criticism is at odds with itself.
In a chapter on Nietzsche, R&W show a critic of modern education who is at least honest about how much is tied up with this criticism. He has no time for any democratized version of independent thinking, and he sees a basically irresolvable tension between what Mommsen called “the heavy industry of scholarship” (106) and a proper attitude towards Antiquity that helps to “work upon our time in an untimely manner” (110). Nietzsche provides no way out of the tensions, except by wishing for precisely the type of genius that modernity is smothering.
However, R&W will remind us that it is not just the critics who are making contradictory or impossible demands; the university is effectively doing the same through its historical commitment to this highly morally charged unity of knowledge ideal. It is overpromising, R&W say repeatedly. What gets the real story going is the ambiguous relation of the natural sciences to this promise. In the middle of the century, while proclaiming triumphantly that this was the age of science, the “mandarins of the lab” also made sure to throw around the word Bildung a lot. Physiologists such as Du Bois-Reymond, Helmholtz and Virchow bought into existing humanist rhetoric, and claimed an edifying role for their knowledge culture, too; the asceticism required of the natural scientist searching universal laws of nature was precisely the kind of habit that helped develop an honest personality, perhaps even more so than traditional humanistic practices (127).
Their confidence came at a rhetorical price; on some level, even these bulldogs of materialism felt pressed to demarcate the limits of science, perhaps in the desire to pacify other loci of intellectual authority (134). They would say (as Helmholtz did) that the natural sciences had been better at finding laws because their subject material was simpler and less exalted than that of the humanities; they would say (as Du Bois-Reymond did) that there are meaningful questions that will be forever beyond the limits of scientific understanding. And yes, they conceded – pro-actively even – that the technological and industrial successes of the natural sciences were partly to blame for the utilitarianism and superficiality of the 19th-century present; for the ‘Americanization’ of culture, as Du Bois-Reymond called it. There were definitely radical monists, such as Ernst Haeckel, who overstepped these self-imposed boundaries, but they were the exception; in general, the point seems to be that science carved out a space of facts and laws for itself by restricting itself to nature.
And so they left a niche for the humanities. It is late in the story, in the last three out of seven chapters, that the notion of the modern humanities finally gets its wings, and this is precisely the point. The nineteenth century is not the time in which the tradition of ‘the humanities’ lost ground to the modern natural sciences; that conventional story, R&W say, has it “all backwards” (150). No, the humanities were invented because of a cultural diagnosis of modernity, in which the sciences seemed to require an other.
This other was itself modern; when Wilhelm Dilthey took it upon himself to divide up the philosophy faculty and write a thorough rationalization of the need for the humanities, he also made it clear that they were Wissenschaften. They were sciences, different from and incommensurable with the natural sciences, but definitely empirical and non-metaphysical. What distinguished them was their dedication to a human world of ethical and political commitments (156), which in the end made all the difference for what the proper attitude was to their subject matter. Different but – for the purposes of R&W’s story – largely convergent dichotomies were added by Neokantian philosophers: Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert. The cumulative effect was that the promise of the university – to combine rigorous scholarship with the stewardship of everything that is worthwhile about human culture and knowledge – now came to rest squarely on the shoulders of the humanities (184).
Now remember once more that R&W have described this as an impossible promise, an answer to a crisis of which the humanities were themselves a part. Germany started to expect things of the humanities in the early twentieth century; it rediscovered and/or invented the neo-humanist origins of its own universities, and its students were curious to know where precisely they could find these ideals of Bildung and intellectual freedom between all the forces of fragmentation and instrumentalism – “disciplinary specialization, state intervention, the influence of industrial capitalism, and now the war” (193), R&W sum up. There were things at stake to this generation.
And so, R&W zoom in on another lecture, now in 1917, when a little under one hundred students looked up to the famous Max Weber for answers. To many commentators afterwards, it seemed he refused to deliver: reflecting on the implications of the disenchantment of the world, he argued that scientific (or scholarly) knowledge is not here to tell us which values to embrace, which gods to serve. It can shed light on the implications of these choices, which is essential, but it can actually only do so if we don’t overburden it with political responsibilities. It will not bring us together.
This sober vision of the limits of not just the natural sciences, but all scholarship, was not the vision that accompanied the institutionalization of the humanities in American universities and colleges, which R&W describe in the last chapter of the book. American intellectuals needed the humanities to be a resource of democracy, to address spiritual needs, to provide meaning and purpose where the sciences couldn’t. German-Jewish migrants to the US were happy to contribute their own clichés to this program. They paraphrase how in the 1940s, Erich von Kahler, an emphatic critic of Weber’s 1917 lecture,
concluded his nearly seven-hundred page plod through the history of ‘man’ with a worn complaint about the fate of ‘the humanities’ in a world where, he wrote, ‘empirical facts rule indiscriminately’ even though they are ‘in themselves senseless and worthless until they are interpreted and linked together from a guiding view of the whole.’ (238)
R&W’s frustration with these platitudes is palpable. I think I get it. Times change, I think I hear them say, but precisely the intellectuals who should be most equipped to reflect these historical changes in their discourse keep spouting the same crude rhetoric about their own position in it, with no real sign of examining its sources. After nearly two centuries of the same discursive resources generating the same crisis talk, they’ve had enough. They seem to prefer Weber’s analytical attitude towards modern divisions of intellectual labor over wistful nostalgia, and rightly so.
I did sometimes wonder whether this unity-of-knowledge theme is actually a good proxy for the story that R&W want to tell about the humanities. Early in the story in particular, dreams about unity are often phrased in philosophical terms; and since this is before the explicit bifurcation of philosophy into sciences and humanities, it seems a little problematic to identify unity-discourse with the humanities – after all, the sciences will go on to develop quite a strong rhetoric of unity as well. To be sure, people say the word ‘whole’ a lot throughout the book, often in direct reference to what the humanities have to offer. But that is – as R&W also point out – a mantra. Intellectuals and scholars do not always appeal to ideas that match their own cultural and political position perfectly, and we may wonder how big a stake, actually, humanists have in the unity-of-knowledge ideal. Throughout the book, it also becomes clearer and clearer that they define themselves in opposition to the natural sciences, or something else that is itself large and clearly conceived of as some kind of unit. To the extent that they buy into this opposition, contemporary apologists for the humanities often celebrate their ambiguity and diversity rather than their absoluteness and wholeness; where the natural sciences are perceived as providing systematic, clear and reliable knowledge, the humanities can become a rallying point for skeptical attitudes and values (roughly speaking), for fragmentation and the deconstruction of grand narratives. It was not immediately clear for me how to include these tendencies into R&W’s story.
Perhaps it helps to zoom out a little. After all, the unity ideal that R&W trace was never simply about systematic knowledge; it was about establishing or maintaining an intimate relation between intellectual, social and existential goods; about encouraging full lives centered around intellectual values, rather than effectively assimilating and organizing useful information (41-42). The distinction between superficial instrumentalism on the one hand and personal and moral formation can certainly survive a few intellectual paradigm shifts. It is something that Schiller and The Chair’s Ji-Yoon have in common.
In fact, in R&W’s narrative, postmodern ideas enter the story as yet another way in which the humanities try to remain “the final guardians of meaning, value, and human being” (251), by monopolizing emancipatory criticism. Neo-humanists needed the absolute to justify this guardianship, and poststructuralist thinkers need more or less the opposite, but there is significant continuity nonetheless in the way in which they conceptualize both the necessity of the humanities and the hostility of the world in which they operate. This, I take it, is R&W’s claim.
Then again, if this is a fair description, I wonder how recent that deeper tension is. No doubt, the fact is telling that (neo-)humanist thinkers themselves implicate the paradoxes of the modern world in their diagnoses of the state of scholarship and their prescriptions for the future; and no doubt the particular discursive resources they have at their disposal in the early nineteenth century are in many respects new. However, if the continuous thread between 1789 and now is a perceived tension between the technical and the moral, between information and wisdom; the defense of “universal values against the ‘mechanism, militarism, and mammonism’ of the contemporary world” (250), then it seems that thread goes back further, to Petrarch (whose criticism of the universities in his time R&W mention (7-8)) and beyond.
The question at stake here is how strongly the self-perpetuating logic of crisis discourse is tied to the modern research university. Perhaps some of the nostalgic ‘overpromising’ actually taps into different educational ideals, such as older humanistic views which also persist in modern times. In that case, criticisms of the university are slightly less self-undermining than they may seem to R&W, and the defensive position in which the humanities imagine themselves to be slightly less of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Whether the humanities are a victim of modernity or a product of it, whether or not they bear historical responsibility for maneuvering themselves into a corner where they feel perpetually embattled and important is, in any case, a question distinct from whether they are in fact embattled and important. R&W are right to point out that the dream of unity was an overpromise. On the other hand, their own book illustrates that the humanities can be a valuable instrument of criticism indeed. Their historical study has the potential to effect a larger degree of reflexivity and self-understanding in the very intellectual ecosystem that it deals with.
That does not entail seeing R&W as priests or guardians of meaning or something similarly high-minded – and clearly they would refuse the honor. It is precisely because of their ability to help us see past the moral scare that R&W are able to salvage a major part of the original promise of the humanities; their study illustrates that there is knowledge that affects us in other ways than as information, that can change our perspective upon ourselves and what we do. We don’t have to claim that historical scholarship, or the humanities in general, are uniquely, absolutely or especially able to produce such knowledge, in order to admire their best results and strongly hope that there will remain a place for them. We don’t need crisis talk, we don’t need dichotomies between scientific and humanistic understanding in order to make the case that a book like Permanent Crisis is worth the investment in every way.
 Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon, Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age. University of Chicago Press: 2021.