The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 13, No. 2 (Summer 2011)

Reflections on the Crisis in the Humanities

Richard Wolin

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 13.2 (Summer 2011). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.


The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2011

(Volume 13 | Issue 2)

In the late 1990s, George Steiner published a thought-provoking study on “The Humanities—At Twilight?” At points, his tone was veritably Spenglerian. Steiner’s narrative, as prefigured by the title, surveys a cultural landscape suffused with loss, decline, and stagnation. “There has also been a ‘down-marketing,’ a vulgarization of culture on an unprecedented and now ever-accelerating scale,” Steiner laments. Heretofore, the humanities were predicated on a quasi-theological linkage between signifier and signified, word and meaning. Today, Steiner argues, that nexus has been permanently severed. We now subsist in an aleatory discursive universe in which “dissemination”—a random proliferation of signification—has triumphed at the expense of “real presences”: transcendent instances of value and meaning, impervious to both the ravages of time and the seductive blandishments of fashion. As a method of interpretation, deconstruction, Steiner continues, “demonstrates the…endlessly mobile, self-ironizing texture of propositions; it points to the abyss of nonmeaning across which metaphor and symbol…would span their bridges.” In conclusion, we are instructed in the values of remembrance in anticipation of an enigmatic “homecoming” and informed that it is the humanities’ mission “to instruct us that there can be, even in the unknown, there perhaps above all, a homecoming.”1

The crisis in the humanities today has been borne out by a mass of statistical data. Today higher education is taking on an increasingly vocational, pre-professional caste. Between 1967 and 1987, at North American universities the percentage of business and management majors doubled to 25 percent. During the same period, the number of English majors declined from 7 percent to 3 percent. During the 1960s, approximately 18 percent of students were humanities majors. As of 2007, this percentage had shrunk to 7 percent. According to figures provided by the Modern Language Association, in the past two years the number of positions available in English Departments has fallen 44 percent, from 1,800 to 1,000—the lowest number in 35 years.2 

Yet it would be misleading were we to construe the crisis as a strictly intra-university affair. Like all of life today, the contemporary university is a plaything of larger social forces. More generally, the ever-escalating pace of social acceleration adversely affects the condition of democratic political culture, which is the crucible in which a humanistic education takes place. Both democracy and democratic education are predicated on communicative openness and the, at times, painstaking and laborious process of mutual understanding. Conversely, under conditions of the “high-speed society,” the dizzying tempo of technological change, electronic communications, and air and rail travel combine to accelerate temporality and “shrink” social space in unprecedented ways.3 These transformations threaten to render the discursive core of democratic political culture—including the communicative preconditions for humanistic study—obsolete. It is as though the relentless augmentation of technological innovation has left democratic political culture standing still.

Ideas take time to ripen. Literature that aspires to be more than pulp fiction takes time to compose. To read and assimilate significant literary works requires ample quantities of what the ancient Greeks called scolē or leisure time. Today, however, we live in a culture of the instantaneous, the momentary, and the fleeting. Sociologists have coined the term “liquid modernity” to describe the ephemerality, the inconstancy, and the fluidity that pervades contemporary social relations. As the French poet Paul Valéry observed nearly 100 years ago:

Interruption, incoherence, surprise are the ordinary conditions of our life. They have even become real needs for many people, whose minds are no longer fed…by anything but sudden changes and constantly renewed stimuli…. We can no longer bear anything that lasts. We no longer know how to make boredom bear fruit.4

Suffice it to say that the sociological predicament so well depicted by Valéry is not conducive to the patience, the concentration, and the meditative focus that are required for significant humanistic achievement. And if we lack devoted humanists, our commitment to the humanities will prove impossible to sustain.

In “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1908), Georg Simmel portrays the modern urban denizen’s imperviousness to affective considerations—the emotional requirements of human intimacy—via the figure of the “blasé” attitude. According to Simmel, the pervasive shock-experience of the modern city yields a condition of mass neurosis—a veritable “neurasthenia” pandemic. In Simmel’s tragic view of life, the fragmentation of experiential wholeness characteristic of modernity results in the “death of personality” in the substantial, Goethean-Burckhardtian sense: the eclipse of the capacity for rich, profound, and enduring cultural achievement.

The consciousness of the modern subject is no longer, à la Simmel, merely indifferent or impervious. It seems positively fragmented or decentered. Paralleling the challenges of globalization and the hyperreality of a digital age, social differentiation—the process whereby social roles are subdivided into progressively finer increments—has accelerated correspondingly. As Tzvetan Todorov has pointed out in The Imperfect Garden:

The new forms of communication and information do not necessarily facilitate human interaction: everyone is seated alone in front of his computer screen, and even when several of us are watching the same program together on television, our gazes remain parallel and have no chance to meet…this increasing solitude, this social autism does not lead, as we might have expected, to a greater differentiation between individuals…. Liberty is illusory when behaviors take the same forms and seek to conform to the same images.5

Today a wide range of decisions and life choices that in traditional societies were more or less habitual now of necessity become objects of explicit attention. Individuals must now consciously decide where to live, what career to pursue, how to dress, what to believe, how and whom to worship, what to consume, the sexual orientation they wish to pursue, and so forth.

Traditionally, the virtue of the humanities has been their capacity to counter the stultifying specialization that pervades modern life, and instead to provide an overview of the scope and expanse of life as a whole. Thus, whereas the natural and social sciences instruct us in the prerequisites for technical world mastery, the humanities focus on questions of “ends” (in Greek, telei): an evaluation of the pathways and modalities that make life intrinsically meaningful.6 The humanities’ mission is to provide an answer to Tolstoy’s existential interrogative: what should I do and how should I live? In a late essay, “Science as a Vocation,” Max Weber observes that, strictly speaking, science is meaningless insofar as it is incapable of providing an answer to Tolstoy’s question concerning how we might choose a fulfilled or meaningful life. The prerogative of science, in the sense of Wissenschaft or technical scholarship, is the domain of instrumental or formal reason. Science determines the most efficient, rational means to achieve a given end. As to whether such ends themselves are intrinsically worth pursuing, science is agnostic. It consigns such queries to the reverie of poets on starry nights.

In light of the discourse of twentieth-century German Kulturkritik, in which the question of the “soul” figures so prominently, we are justified in posing the question: does the contemporary crisis of the humanities portend a situation where we are at risk, quite literally, of losing our souls?

The Republic of Letters

What aspects of the human condition do we risk sacrificing or distorting should we allow humanistic study to flounder in the face of the imperatives of globalization: the ever-expanding quest for the accumulation of wealth and technical expertise? We can obtain a preliminary assessment of the potential losses and gains by reviewing the attributes of the early modern Republic of Letters, for this was the context in which our modern conceptions of literature, learning, and the vocation of “man”—as distinct from the study of theology or nature—crystallized into an intelligible and meaningful whole.

The Republic of Letters was genuinely international or, at the very least, pan-European. Its denizens favorite locations

included Strasbourg, a cosmopolitan and tolerant border town; Leiden and Amsterdam, the Dutch trading centers in which Catholics and Calvinists, Anabaptists and Jews rubbed elbows in mutual tolerance, and where all joined to reject what they called “the Genevan Inquisition” when doctrinaire preachers tried to carry out an ideological cleansing; and, of course, Basel, where Erasmus and other irenic souls found a spiritual home in a city ever hospitable to Christian refugees from oppression in their native countries.7

Unlike today what motivated its partisans was not trade or commerce, but a selfless devotion to classical texts. As such, the dominant spirit entailed a veneration of antiquity and the spirit of inquiry it embodied. It was an allegiance based on the conviction that these texts contained insights that were intrinsically elevated and noble: the most exalted ideals that humankind had contemplated or conceived. To disseminate and preserve them was perceived as the ultimate calling. At stake was the question whether cultural and civic life would be suffused with higher ideals of virtue or whether it would instead be allowed to languish in a type of indigent and uneventful immediacy—a condition aptly described by Hegel as “the prose of the world.”8

The Republic of Letters was explicitly egalitarian. It refused to discriminate on the basis of class, nationality, or gender. Throughout the capitals of Europe, its members provided refuge for one another, in keeping with the time-honored maxims of hospitality. They also engaged in lively and vigorous epistolary exchange, thereby sharing their latest intellectual discoveries and archival findings. Representative in this regard was Erasmus, widely acknowledged as the Republic’s primus inter pares [first among equals], whose correspondence runs to twelve volumes. Of this network of letter-writing, Renaissance scholar Anthony Grafton notes:

The vast series of letters that fill dozens of volumes in every great European library are the relics of a great effort…to create a new kind of virtual community that was sustained not by immediate, direct contact and conversation so much as by a decades-long effort of writing and rewriting.9

The qualification for admission to the Respublica litterarum was a principled devotion to arts and letters and a concomitant desire to ensure their advancement and diffusion. For these impassioned humanists, a commitment to letters mandated an aversion to specialization. As a rule, the best and the brightest among them were proficient in Greek and Latin, as well as several modern languages. In this regard, narrow specialization—the constricted mentality of the modern Fachmensch [specialist], so well exposed by Weber—was not only anathema; it was virtually unknown. In the course of their apprenticeships and training, the humanists regularly mastered a wide variety of disciplines: philosophy, rhetoric, history, classics, as well as developments in natural philosophy and the sciences. During an age of turbulent religious and political conflict that coincided with the cataclysmic dislocations of the Reformation and Counterreformation, via their devotion to letters, humanistic scholars were able to safeguard and conserve prospects for a cosmopolitan European future, thereby offering a glimmer of hope in dark times.

What would we be missing should the humanistic ethos of the Republic of Letters be eclipsed? In the opening pages of Worlds Made by Words, Grafton provides a wonderful example. He describes the founding of an independent learned society in the early years of the sixteenth century, the Venetian publisher Aldo Maurizio’s New Academy. Its seven members made a solemn vow that they would only speak Greek in each other’s company, agreeing to pay fines should they slip up. In a Socratic spirit, the sum of these proceeds was devoted to a lavish banquet, modeled after Plato’s symposium, where wine flowed freely and the oratory was inspirational. As Grafton observes:

Long before the age of the Enlightenment “public sphere,” long before Immanuel Kant identified the work of the scholar who addressed the entire reading public as the preeminent example of the public use of reason, learned Europeans used the systems of communication at their disposal—above all, their letter writing and print—to bring new public worlds into existence.10

In many important respects, these representatives of the early modern Respublica litterarum were vital precursors of the salons, the reading groups, the café societies, the literary cenacles, and the correspondence societies of the age of Enlightenment.

Renaissance Italy

The crisis we are experiencing in the humanities today was preceded by an analogous crisis in Renaissance Italy. The similarities between these two watershed moments in the history of Western humanism are worth examining insofar as the Renaissance crisis helps us to understand the origin and significance of humanism’s appropriation in the modern world.

Renaissance humanism developed in opposition to the perceived ossification of the classical tradition at the hands of St. Thomas Aquinas’s scholasticism. The lines of conflict were established as early as the Trecento [fourteenth century] when the battle cry had become: Padua vs. Florence. In the humanists’ eyes, Padua signified a bastion of scholastic orthodoxy. Florence, conversely, had become a vital locus of neo-Platonic innovation—a hub of learning in which all things classical were cherished and revered.

Renaissance humanism was a reaction against the scholastic view that “first philosophy”—that is, metaphysics and ontology—represented the keys to understanding the human condition: the misplaced assumption that human affairs could only be explained via reference to a series of transcendent, other-worldly truths. What Leonardo Bruni and company valued about Plato was less the theory of the forms, which they found speculative and abstruse, than the dialogical process itself. In his dialogues Plato showed that philosophical inquiry had an ineffaceable practical side—that philosophy was not a matter reserved for specialists, but addressed questions of everyday life. Hence, Plato’s colloquies and debates took place chiefly in quotidian settings: the marketplace, the seaport, a chance encounter, a banquet gathering. His favored protagonist, Socrates, would, in an egalitarian spirit, eagerly debate all comers: nobles, merchants, politicians, as well as rival philosophers such as the Sophists. Moreover, the topics of the dialogues focused predominantly on this-worldly, ethical, and practical considerations: above all, what it meant to live a life in accordance with virtue or right reason. The relationship between philosophy and ethics, insight and human practice, was epitomized via the Socratic maxim: the unexamined life is not worth living.

For the Florentine humanists, the Socratic love of conversation and the corresponding desire to make philosophy worldly stood in marked contrast to scholasticism’s sterile disputations as well as the Stagirite’s (that is, Aristotle’s) predilection for didactic treatises, in which truth seemed to be ontologically frozen and which thus displayed scant attention to the ambiguities of the human condition.11 The Nichomachean Ethics famously ended with praise for the bios theoretikos, or contemplative life, as the path to the “highest life.” From a humanistic point of view, the shortcoming of this approach was that it renounced worldliness: the variegated richness of lived experience. Conversely, Renaissance humanists stressed that knowledge was rooted in the virtues of human sociability rather than isolated, monastic introspection. Renaissance thought embraced the Platonic Socrates and the dialogic spirit in the hope of humanizing ancient wisdom, rendering it serviceable for the ends of “man.” In this way, the humanists challenged the Schoolmen’s purported monopoly on truth, thereby democratizing and pluralizing knowledge: constructively exposing thought to the disciplines of history, rhetoric, and philology. This new focus on the practical side, or use-value, of wisdom also helps account for the transition from Latin to the vernacular: a crucial way-station in the democratization of knowledge.

The result was the birth of modern humanistic study. Those of us who teach in humanities departments today are the direct and fortunate heirs of this reconceptualization of the goals of human knowledge. The Florentine humanists sought to promote the establishment of “an ideal republic in whose soil our spiritual life strikes roots and finds its nourishment.” It was for this reason that they stressed that “civic and political discourse are prepared, illuminated, and sustained through culture.”12 In opposition

to the type of humanistic scholar who defended [monastic] withdrawal on the double ground that it was apt to minimize his contacts with the inferior modern world and could serve him as a bridge to religious contemplation, there was henceforth to be a type of humanist who found the crucial subject for his studies in history, politics, and [literature], and who, following the ancient model, was expected to be not only a man of culture but also a better and more useful citizen.13 

It is important to keep in mind that Renaissance Florence was much more than a disembodied crucible of classical learning. It was also home to a robust city-state that, in the eyes of many, had become republican virtue incarnate—a reincarnation of the Republica Romana. In this way Florentine humanism reflected a fundamental conflict over the meaning and direction of humanism: whether humanism’s basic values were contemplative—that is, wedded to a disinterested love of learning for its own sake—or whether they were necessarily tied to the republican ideals of the city; in other words, whether the ends of humanism were ultimately scholastic or civic. The Florentine cognoscenti rightly feared that, should the goals of humanistic study become overtly separated from worldly purposes—should the pursuit of humanistic ideals turn its back on practical life and become narrowly self-referential—human excellence would suffer correspondingly. It would be tantamount to a betrayal of the relationship between self-knowledge and human flourishing that, since the time of Socrates, has been integral to the humanities’ self-understanding.

The Florentine ideal of humanism was existentially bound to the early modern Italian city-state. Today, this conception needs to be expanded outwardly in a cosmopolitan direction. Cosmopolitanism softens the latently intolerant contours of ethnocentrism and provincialism, thereby facilitating what Kant referred to as the capacity for “enlarged thought”: an aptitude for unprejudiced thinking that derives from our ability to “think from the standpoint of everyone else” and thus to attain the sublime plane of universality.14 The production of this “enlarged mentality” is in many respects the raison d’être of what Goethe referred to as Weltliteratur. As such, world literature is a continuing exercise in de-provincialization. In learning about the mores, habits, and aspirations of different cultures via the vessel of literary form, I defamiliarize my own culture, thereby gaining valuable insight into its narrowness, limitations, and eccentricities. The path to world citizenship is achieved by working through and surpassing the constraints of national identity. In this process, world literature plays an invaluable role by helping us to surmount the boundaries of ethnic and regional belonging in the direction of cosmopolitan citizenship.

Autonomy, Fortuna, and Virtú

The debate over the ultimate mission of humanistic education is, of course, one that has remained very much with us today. The civic and practical goals of humanistic learning are necessarily related to the project of human autonomy, for there can be no autonomy apart from the provisos and attributes of self-knowledge. And this is precisely what a humanistic education provides: the tools of self-mastery that allow us to live a self-directed life, a life that transcends the contingencies of fate. Humanistic study is an antidote to the temptations and seductions of fatalism: the externally imposed constraints of history, nature, or providence. Since its inception, humanistic learning has provided us with mechanisms of self-understanding that permit us to surmount the trammels of a blind and meaningless destiny. It does this by nurturing the virtues of human intentionality, by furnishing us with the means of endowing fate with human purposes.

The study of history allows us to come to terms with the achievements as well as the depredations of our collective past so that we might experience a future that is free of injustice. The study of rhetoric furnishes us with the capacities of linguistic self-expression in order that we might persuade our fellow citizens about the worth of our most cherished beliefs and convictions. The study of literature introduces us to imaginary worlds and new experiences, so that our conceptions of human possibility transcend the boundaries and limitations of what was heretofore conceivable. The study of philosophy instructs us in the virtues of reasoning and moral judgment: how to distinguish the substantive from the superficial, what is cogent from what is slack, the convincing from the merely suggestive, the just from the unjust. Through these examples we can see that the ideal of education toward autonomy has functioned as the raison d’être of humanistic learning then and now.

A contemporary representative of the humanist tradition has aptly characterized its meaning and purport as follows:

The term humanist has several meanings, but we can say in a first approximation that it refers to the doctrines according to which man is the point of departure and the point of reference for human actions. These are “anthropocentric” doctrines, just as others are theocentric, and still others put nature or tradition in this central place. The term humanist figures, perhaps for the first time in French, in a passage by Montaigne in which he uses it to characterize his own practice, in contrast to that of the theologians…. The specificity of human affairs (in contrast to those that relate to God) is therefore the point of departure for humanist doctrine.15

Renaissance humanism’s preoccupation with the value of autonomy echoes clearly in one of the key debates of the quattrocento: the conflict between virtú and fortuna. Here, fortuna signifies the prevalence of arbitrary fate—of accident and chance—whereas virtú connotes the capacities of intellect and will to bend destiny to human purposes. This opposition between virtú and fortuna is one of the central leitmotifs of Machiavelli’s oeuvre. A gifted interpreter of Machiavelli’s oeuvre has characterized its relevance to the humanist tradition as follows:

[Virtú] denoted the fundamental quality of man which enables him to achieve great works and deeds. In the ancient world man’s virtus was placed in relation to Fortuna; virtus was an innate quality opposed to external circumstance or chance. Virtú was not one of the various virtues which Christianity required of good men, nor was virtú an epitome of all Christian virtues; rather it designated the strength and vigor from which all human action arose. In his writings Machiavelli used this concept to reflect the insight…that political success depends not on the righteousness of the cause nor on the use of intelligence, but that victory could come “against all reason” to those who were inspired by single-minded will-power or by some indefinable inner force.16

Yet, by the time Machiavelli composed his Discourses on Livy (1513), the terminological opposition between virtú and fortuna had forfeited much of its intricacy and subtlety. In fact, the passage just cited betrays a distinctly late-Renaissance resignation. Moreover, at this point virtú had become colloquially associated with virility, with martial prowess and the ability of human will to master hostile external circumstance.

In the work of the quattrocento humanists, conversely, virtú conveyed a more nuanced set of attributes related to the ancient Greek ideal of prudence or phronesis: the capacity for acting circumspectly in keeping with the provisions of right reason. Leon Battista Alberti, brimming with self-confidence, wondered aloud whether, when all was said and done, fortuna was really so powerful in human affairs. Instead, it was assumed that, “man himself [was] the cause both of his misfortunes and of his good fortune [and that] virtue always defeats fortuna.”17 Thus virtue and effective action were associated with humanitas:

a humane, prudent, wise and virtuous form of behavior, which, thoughtfully planned, can be adjusted by subtle intuition to fit into the play of all earthly forces…. [Virtú thus] signified human deeds in the fullness of their moral and political value.18

The crisis of Renaissance humanism in the late quattrocento reflected the fear that knowledge for its own sake—a learning that was self-referential, unworldly, and thus divorced from the needs of the city—could give rise to a new scholasticism and thereby yield a new complacency. The Florentine humanists realized that scholarly learning must take place as the critical appropriation rather than as the passive fetishization or glorification of Great Texts. It seems that one could apply the same insights and criticisms to the nineteenth-century humanistic ideal as promoted by the age of German classicism. Under the guise of Bildung, the new conception of humanism celebrated not the Renaissance idea of the citizen-scholar but the refined personality or Kulturmensch, whose virtue consisted in his or her serene detachment from the ends of the city. This was the conception of personality glorified by titans of Weimar classicism such as Goethe and Schiller. It was the same ideal praised by Jacob Burckhardt in his landmark study on the Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. It was brought to its logical, if disturbing, conclusion by Burckhardt’s Basel colleague, Friedrich Nietzsche, who in the Genealogy of Morals expressed the view that, “mankind in the mass sacrificed to the prosperity of a single stronger species of man—that would be an advance.”19 One might even go so far as to say that the tragedy of the German Bildung ideal lies in the alienation of the Kulturmensch from the modern city. In this respect, too, the virtú-doctrine of the Renaissance humanists has much to teach us.

Autonomy and Education

In our postmodern times, Enlightenment-bashing has become something of an intellectual blood-sport cum academic fashion. Yet, as the eighteenth century drew to a close, Kant made an important attempt to redefine the meaning of humanism via the prism of the Enlightenment. His efforts still resonate today.

One of the great virtues of Kant’s “Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784) is that the Königsberg sage perceived the essential correlation between autonomy and humanistic education. (The literacy rate in eighteenth-century France was a mere 37 percent.20) It was in this spirit that Kant defined Enlightenment as the “emergence from self-incurred tutelage.” Here, “tutelage” means the inability to use one’s reason without the guidance of another. As Kant explains: “If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all. I need not think, so long as I can [enlist the services of others].”21

Kant’s text is an allegory for European politics in the age of absolutism—an era of so-called Enlightened despotism. In this period, the idea of autonomous citizenship remained an abstraction, a delusion spawned by the overheated imagination of philosophers. Instead of citizens, the peoples of Europe were primarily “subjects,” who were regularly exposed to the whims and dictates of their rulers. Should persecution or injustice occur, they had little legal or political recourse. As a philosopher of autonomy, Kant realized that citizens who were deprived of the means of forming their own judgments were doomed to remain in a condition of immaturity. They were predestined to lead truncated existences, with most options and prospects a priori foreclosed. For Kant, the virtues of humanistic study were pivotal in educating citizens toward maturity and thus countering the cultural deprivations resulting from ignorance and superstition.

In Kant’s view, the interrelationship between education and autonomy was crucial insofar as a people kept in a state of immaturity are incapable of self-rule. They are also, as a rule, systematically prevented from leading fulfilled public lives. Instead, the more circumscribed happiness of private life was, in most cases, the only contentment they would know. Humanistic learning furnishes citizens with the cultural and intellectual prerequisites for both individual self-realization and collective self-determination. It provides them with the knowledge of history, language, and logic necessary for them to assimilate the past and to develop informed political opinions.


How might one best remedy the constraints of a technologically mediated society that abets social conformity, cultural leveling, and the complacency of passive citizenship? The intellectual corollary to this society is “thoughtlessness”: an incapacity for sustained, critical reflection. Such incapacity diminishes citizens’ ability to lead self-directed and meaningful lives. They become instead the playthings of heteronomous and impersonal social forces. And thus, the ethos of self-determination, one of liberal democracy’s raison d’êtres, threatens to shrivel, to the point of self-caricature. Today,

all of us, including those who think professionally, are often enough thought-poor; we all are far too easily thought-less. Thoughtlessness is an uncanny visitor who comes and goes everywhere in today’s world. For nowadays we take in everything in the quickest and cheapest way, only to forget it just as quickly, instantly.22

Today, one of the essential roles of the humanities is to counteract thoughtlessness and thereby to aid in replenishing the public’s capacity for sustained and intelligent deliberation. One symptom of thoughtlessness is the decline of print journalism, which has traditionally served as the backbone of the democratic public sphere. Instead, citizens increasingly turn to the internet and to the unedited, unregulated blogosphere as their primary source of information. Humanistic study can restore integrity to the public sphere by resisting at every turn the reifying and banalizing temptations of the information age. Confronted with the simplifying tendencies of the high speed society, the humanist’s task is to ensure that arguments and issues are reframed with the measure of complexity and subtlety necessary to arrive at nuanced and considered judgments.

As a humanistic discipline, philosophy has a modest but no less indispensable role to play. To be sure, it has forfeited the position of cultural primacy it formerly possessed as “queen of the sciences.” Despite Heidegger’s pretensions, philosophy can no longer claim privileged access to Being or truth. Today, we live in a post-metaphysical, post-Kantian age. Some two-hundred years ago, Kant declared that “the critical path alone is open to us.”23 His assertion proposed that the age of philosophical dogmatism had definitively come to an end. Henceforth, the insights of humanistic study must be redeemed exoterically, via arguments and concepts—that is, publicly and democratically—rather than through linguistic bombast (one of Heideggerianism’s temptations) and unsupported declarations about the ultimate nature of Reality, as with the Scholasticism of yore. Consequently, humanism’s judgments must be preponderantly skeptical and critical. As an approach to wisdom, humanism aims to puncture and deflate truisms, commonplaces, and idées fixes. It seeks to disrupt the sensus communis, which is always in danger of congealing into an inflexible body of inherited belief. In this respect the goals of humanistic study hark back to their Socratic origins in the elenchus as a mode of critical interrogation. Philosophy—and the humanities in general—must ceaselessly challenge the received wisdom concerning truth, justice, and piety in order to prevent the demos from succumbing to the lures of a technologically administered somnabulence.


  1. George Steiner, “The Humanities—At Twilight?” PN Review 25 (1999): 23–4.
  2. These figures are taken from Peter Conn, “We Need to Acknowledge the Realities of Employment in the Humanities,” Chronicle of Higher Education (4 April 2010): <>. See, also, “What Is the Crisis in the Humanities?” The Common Review 8.4 (Spring 2010): 4–5.
  3. See William Scheuerman, Liberal Democracy and the Social Acceleration of Time (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).
  4. Cited in Zygmunt Baumann, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2005) 1.
  5. Tzvetan Todorov, The Imperfect Garden: The Legacy of Humanism, trans. Carol Cosman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002) 229.
  6. On this point, see Max Horkheimer, The Eclipse of Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947).
  7. Anthony Grafton, Worlds Made by Words (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009) 19.
  8. G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics, trans. T. M. Knox (New York: Clarendon, 1988).
  9. Grafton 23.
  10. Grafton 1.
  11. Aristotle’s treatises, of course, were compiled from notes dutifully taken by his students.
  12. Eugenio Garin, Italian Humanism: Philosophy and Civic Life in the Renaissance, trans. P. Munz (New York: Harper and Row, 1965) 40. Garin’s views have been contested by Paul Oskar Kristeller in Renaissance Thought: The Classical, Scholastic, and Humanist Strains (New York: Harper and Row, 1961).
  13. Hans Baron, The Crisis of the Early Renaissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955) 451.
  14. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. James Meredith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961) section 49. Kant was undoubtedly familiar with the following passage of David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals: “Again suppose that several distinct societies maintain a kind of intercourse for mutual convenience and advantage, the boundaries of justice still grow larger, in proportion to the largeness of men’s views, and the force of their mutual connexions. History, experience, reason sufficiently instruct us in this natural progress of human sentiments, and in the gradual enlargement of our regards to justice, in proportion as we become acquainted with the extensive utility of that virtue” [(La Salle: Open Court, 1966) 25].
  15. Todorov 6.
  16. Felix Gilbert, Machiavelli and Guicciardini: Politics and History on Sixteenth Century Florence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965) 179.
  17. Garin 62.
  18. Garin 62–3.
  19. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufmann, Basic Writings of Nietzsche (New York: Modern Library, 1968) 514.
  20. For a discussion of this, see John Markoff, “Literacy and Revolt: Some Empirical Notes on 1789 in France,” The American Journal of Sociology 92.2 (1986): 323–49.
  21. Immanuel Kant, “Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” trans. Hans Siegbert Reiss, Kant: Political Writings (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 54.
  22. Martin Heidegger, “Discourse on Thinking,” Philosophical and Political Writings (New York: Continuum, 2006) 88.
  23. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003) A832 B860.

Richard Wolin is Distinguished Professor of History and Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. His books include The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s, which has recently appeared with Princeton University Press. His articles have appeared in Dissent, The Nation, and The New Republic.

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