Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age

Paul Reitter and I are finishing up our new book Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age. Last month (November 2018), I turned my attention to revision and the key elements of the larger story we’re telling. In a talk I gave at the University of Richmond, I made an initial stab at something like an introduction. Here is the text of that talk. [The featured image above is from Ben Schmidt, “The Humanities are in Crisis,” The Atlantic (August 23, 2018).]

In 1929, just four years before the National Socialists assumed power and ten years after Germany and the Allied Nations had signed the Treaty of Versailles, the self-identified humanist philosopher and pedagogue Eduard Spranger reflected on a past decade that which saw Germany’s first democracy and a flourishing of artistic, literary, and philosophical imagination and thinking as well as festering resentments against the (for many) humiliating terms of Germany’s capitulation to England and France and the gradual increase in political violence. But Spranger, in a lecture before the Prussian Academy of the Sciences, discussed none of this; instead, he wrote about the “crisis” of the humanities––something that many German intellectuals and scholars in the first decades of the twentieth had come to regard as an underlying cause of a culture that seemed near collapse. And Spranger gave dates and names.

Soon after the sociologist Max Weber delivered his lecture on Scholarship as Vocation in 1917, claimed Spranger, younger intellectuals and scholars had organized themselves in opposition to what they understood to be Weber’s basic claims in that now famous lecture: that scholarship (Wissenschaft) was meaningless [sinnlos] and that it should be conducted without presuppositions or value-free [Wertfreiheit].[1] They objected, however, neither to the purported incapacity of the natural and physical sciences to provide meaning––their total silence in response to questions about how one ought to live; nor, to the insistence that natural and physical scientists conduct their research and thinking free of presuppositions or values. (Both bad readings of Weber but…) Natural and physical scientists sought the invariant structures of the natural world in order to make predictions about the future. And so they had nothing to say about how one ought to live; and they certainly shouldn’t project their, necessarily human, values onto that inert mechanism known as nature. None of this, suggested Spranger largely agreeing with his younger contemporaries, was controversial.

[Arguments concerning the distinctive epistemological and ethical capacities of the humanities require a distinct image of nature or Naturbild: as an inert, passive, and, thus, meaningless mechanism. And this requires, in turn, a particular history of science, a history that usually begins with the emergence of natural philosophy and natural scientific methods in 17C, with Hume and Bacon playing the bad guys putting nature in the “rack” of human instrumental reason etc. until the dialectic of enlightenment. There are no modern “humanities” without a history of science.)

But what Spranger and his younger contemporaries did find controversial (and simply wrong) was the extension of Weber’s claims to the humanities [comment on Geisteswissenschaften and translation of term, conceptual difficulties and why we translate simply as ‘the humanities’ in order to emphasize that it was a functional category]:

1) that the humanities were meaningless, that is, that they, like the natural and physical sciences, couldn’t directly answer the question about how one ought to live

2) that presuppositions (or value judgments that were prior to scholarly inquiry) ought to be prohibited in the humanities.

Weber’s real goal, they suspected, was to argue for and help institutionalize the “Weltanschauungsfreiheit” of the humanities.[2] But world-views [Weltanschauungen] and value claims [Wertentscheidungen], argued these younger intellectuals, were the very “roots of the humanities.”[3] Moral, religious, and political commitments grounded scholars in particular communities and allowed them to shape their lives into integrated wholes. And these values and commitments did so “above” scholarship.

And Spranger thought they were right. The time and place in which scholars thought, taught, and wrote––the conditions of their world-view––shaped the content, form, and ends of their research. (They, like us, were good German historicists.) But the real issue, he contended, was that as a consequence of such historicizing fervor the humanities now seemed doomed to a “Babylonian” conflict of values and world-views (168).

And, around 1930, most German intellectuals and scholars saw two paths out of this “Babylonian” confusion of modern morals, what Weber called the “polytheism of values.”

First path:

a “new” humanities, as imagined by the younger intellectuals and scholars, that finally abandoned the epistemic and ethical ideals that had oriented the modern German research university for a century: the pursuit of the unity, integration, and consilience of knowledge (Einheit der Wissenschaft). In its place, they imagined “Weltanschauungshochschulen”––universities, academies, and schools defined by their explicit and comprehensive commitment to a particular Weltanschauung. (A new era in which the conflict among values and traditions would take place not within (Kant’s conflict of the faculties) but between and among distinct universities. Think of them like post-secular, post-liberal institutions.)

Second path:

advocates of the older, more established model of scholarship and the university (call it the liberal order) argued instead for a “scholarship squared” [Wissenschaft zweiter Potenz] (168), a knowledge that through a re-doubled commitment to discipline, self-critique, shared purpose, and truth would ultimately bring about a historical resolution of the conflict of values, world-views, and cultures….a knowledge (to use a language well-established in Germany and by the 1930s would become increasingly common and influential) of the “crisis of man” and the historical and civilizational task of its resolution. If the humanities were to live up to their historical task, they could not allow, concluded Spranger, people to “persist in the eternal discontent of the unresolved dialectic.” [4] The meaning, authority, legitimacy, and institutional success of the humanities required a secular eschatology, an expectation, however deferred, of the consilience of disciplines, world-views, religions, value commitments, and moral imaginations––a resolution to the permanent crisis of the humanities through the promise of reason and history and, ultimately, humanity––the bearer of objective spirit.

I’ve tarried with this particular moment from 1920s Germany, because it crystalizes what Paul Reitter and I are trying to do in Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age. We’re trying to give an account of the irresolvable tension of the modern humanities: the conflict between the persistent desire for a more “human,” morally efficacious education (“deeper, meaningful, transformative etc.”), on the one hand, and the ethos of the modern university that seems to demand detachment from any particular moral tradition, on the other.

the humanities as both a moral resource for being human and a form of disciplined, modern knowledge.

Our intention is not simply to historicize the contemporary sense of crisis after reading Ben Schmidt’s latest analysis of majors and enrollments. We don’t intend to console by showing that we have been here before and, then, meekly promise that this current calamity will soon pass.

[Aside: The genre of the humanities jeremiad and the melancholy of the mandarin courses through the book––from Adolph Diesterweg’s 1836 Die Lebensfrage der Civilisation, oder Ueber das Verderben auf den deutschen Universitäten and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ueber die Zukunft unserer Bildungsanstalten (1872) to J.H. Plumb’s Crisis in the Humanities (1964) and the explosion of the genre (mostly male, English professors) over the past 20 years in work by Mark Edmundson or William Deresiewiecz, whose Excellent Sheep rehashed a New Republic essay that was the most clicked-on piece in the magazine’s history].

But we are also not suggesting that our current conditions (in the humanities or higher education more generally) are an effect of a particular and more proximate “crisis” whose causes can be more or less identified: political agendas to defund and dismantle American higher education, the unconstrained forces of neoliberalism, or technological change. [Although, again, all of these have certainly have played important roles and are causes.]

Our claim about the permanent crisis of the humanities is, at once, more focused and expansive: ‘permanent crisis’ refers not to a specific or limited set of conditions that will be overcome, reversed, or redeemed (through collective action, history, objective spirit, more enlightened administrators, or better educated politicians); rather, ‘permanent crisis’ refers to a basic and irresolvable tension in what has come to be known as “the humanities.”

[Aside: Crisis, as Reinhart Koselleck put it . . .And we mean….]

The tension is basically this:

The very conditions that allowed for the modern humanities to be established and then flourish (in modern institutions that sustain them and those who ply them with salaries, health insurance, parking permits, retirement plans) also came to imperial them.

Today I want to elaborate on this ‘permanent crisis’ by talking broadly about what we mean by “the humanities”? (Several possible responses)

1. Method

Recently, the “history of the humanities” has become a distinct field, with its own journal, international conferences, and a founding father. In his 2014 book entitled A New History of the Humanities, Rens Bod, a computational linguistic with an abiding interest the humanities, traces what he calls an “unbroken tradition in the study of humanistic material,” stretching from the Roman artes liberales through early modern European studia humanitatis and the emergence of “modern humanistic disciplines.”[5]

Bod bases his sweeping history on method. The history of the humanities, he explains, is a history of the “methodological principles” that scholars have used to reveal the patterns inherent in the artifacts and objects humans make, such as musical scores and novels. Central to such a history is the premise that scholars and intellectuals carry methods across disciplines, cultures, and time, adopting and adapting them to solve different problems, whether the various forms of structural analysis that linguists and literature scholars have used or hermeneutic methods that Biblical scholars as well as literary critics have applied.

Bod’s notion of method echoes, in some important respects Descartes’ account of method in his Discourse on Method. Descartes insists that it is his method, and not his person, that is “worthy of imitation” (112). And method is a series of articulated steps directed to a particular end that are more repeatable, reliable, and sure than the all-too-human, idiosyncratic efforts of any one person. For Bod and Descartes, the unity and integrity of knowledge is embodied less in a knowing subject but in the process of empirically based knowledge production by means of a universalizable or, at least, highly mobile method. Methods can be plucked from one point in space and time and put to different ends in another. And, for Bod, the conceptual integrity and historical continuity of the humanities consists in the methodological “quest for patterns” (7).


If inclined to generosity, one could argue that one effect of such a “history of the humanities” is to shift the focus away from particular objects (disciplines defined by distinct objects of study) and towards scholarly practice––to focus on what scholars actually do instead of what they say they do. To follow practices across settled taxonomies, institutional categories, and epistemic orders.

And yet, this would be to conflate method with practice. And this is precisely where the current project to write a “history of the humanities” has, thus far, tended to come up short. Practices, I would argue with big nods to Aristotle and my more idiosyncratic appeals to virtue ethics and virtue epistemology, are not only what several scholars do; they are also how they understand what they do, with whom the do it, and to what end. And it is these types of questions that a focus on method alone obscures.

Consider, for example, Friedrich Ritschl, one of the foremost 19C German philologists and Friedrich Nietzsche’s dissertation advisor. Ritschl described method, as practiced in the seminars of nineteenth-century German universities, as a form of catechesis. It focused students’ attention not only on texts but also on themselves. Method cultivated in students a constant reflection on their own actions, desires, and personality. The end of method, in Ritschl’s case the critical-historical method, was not simply the production of new critical editions of Latin or Greek authors or lexica but the formation of a student into a philologist. Philological virtue had to be instilled through, as Ritschl referred to it, Zucht (breeding).

Just as importantly, shared method brought philologists together. It instilled in them, as Ritschl put it, a “consciousness” that their capacities and activities were “only a link in a much bigger chain” (5:15). Scholarly virtue––intellectual rectitude––was oriented toward transcendence in the form of a timeless community of scholars, towards a truth always deferred. Practices are situated in communities; they form people. Scholarly, knowledge practices entail particular epistemic ideals, virtues, and techniques. But method, understood more as practice, is not easily universalizable, even if particulate practices can be adopted, adapted, and transformed in different contexts and put to new ends.

The wager of 19C German higher education was that Wissenschaft was Bildung, modern, specialized knowledge was itself a moral culture––that specialized scholarship was a self-sustaining moral resource.

By the final decades of the century, however, confidence in this wager had begun to wane, as intellectuals and scholars worried that Wissenschaft had become untethered from Bildung, that method had come to predominate over practice, the production of knowledge had begun to occlude moral education.

One of the first and most thorough-going critiques of this collapse in confidence was Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1872 lectures, On the Future of Our Educational Institutions, in which two frat boys, a cantankerous old philosopher, and the sage’s younger companion discuss the sorry state of Prussian education. Just a few sound-bites: the predilection for practical study that “hates any education that suggests goals above and beyond earning money,” or, mocking philologists as “etymological roman candles.”

Nietzsche provided a perspicuous account of the predicament of the modern humanities under the conditions of modernity: the forces that would allow for the humanities to flourish in new unprecedented ways––secularization, institutional rationalization, and democratization–would also come to imperil them.

And, for Nietzsche, the most immediate, if less awesome, threat was that most modern of forces––bureaucratic rationality. In Nietzsche’s day, the disenchanted university was embodied by Prussian state intervention and incursions against academic freedom, the Großbetrieb der Wissenschaften (Mommsen & Harnack), scholars who had become “workers,” and the division of intellectual labor (academic specialization). The university no longer formed philologists; they produced workers and citizens for the state.

[Aside: Between 1870 and 1910, however, German universities were transformed. Over a period of only four decades, enrollments quadrupled, state expenditures for research activities increased even more dramatically, entrance requirements were changed, woman were admitted, many of the tools and technologies with which the disciplines were plied were transformed, and natural scientists ensconced themselves as institutional and cultural authorities. ]

It is important to note that these complaints about specialization, alienation, bureaucratization, and rationalization, preceded the ascendance of the natural sciences as the dominant forms of knowledge both within and outside the university. Philologists began complaining about hyper-specialization and the “micrology” of university scholarship in the first decades of the nineteenth century, decades before natural scientists such as Rudolf Virchow could confidently proclaim that “the age of natural science” had finally superseded the age of philology and philosophy. [Natural science as an institutional authority with labs, periodicals, funding, faculty positions…all second half of the 19C….after philology and history]. The anxieties about the innervating effects of method, the division of intellectual labor, and the bureaucratization of knowledge, that is, were not a unique effect of the sciences.

3. And this leads me to the third conception of “the humanities” and how we ultimately conceive of them in Permanent Crisis: The modern humanities were a compensatory project

Around 1850, most German scholars and intellectuals remained committed to the prospect of a unified knowledge project as embodied in the university and scholarship [Wissenschaft]. They believed, as the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey put it, that Wissenschaft had liberated them from theological dogma and “metaphysical fantasy.”

And yet there was still something missing. One of the first to observe this was neither a philologist nor a philosopher, but a physiologist: Hermann Helmholtz. In 1862, addressing his faculty colleagues who had just elected him rector at the University of Heidelberg, Helmholtz said that although the natural sciences helped ensure human dominion over the earth by accruing knowledge, developing technologies, and, thus, freeing man from natural necessity, it was the “privilege of the humanities [Geisteswissenschaften] to deal with a richer material that touches more closely the interests and feelings of humans, namely, the human mind itself in all its various drives and activities.”[6] The humanities made mental life “richer and more interesting” (143); theirs was the “higher” task (139). The modern humanities satisfied individual psychic needs, whereas the natural sciences met social needs and propelled human progress over time.

It was this perceived moral lacuna in which the modern humanities [die Geisteswissenschaften] took on institutional form.

Over the second half of the nineteenth century, scholars (Dilthey, Windelband, Rickert et. al.) described this lacuna as a social need and argued that the humanities could serve a distinct social function: moral compensation the stultifying and enervating effects of modernity.

The philosopher Heinrich Rickert put it best in the 1890s when he told a group of colleagues at the University of Freiburg that what was needed was, quite simply, the “nichtnaturwissenschaftlichen disciplines”––the not-natural sciences.[7] [And this at a meeting of faculty members who had gathered simply out of a desire to organize a “counterpart” to the long-standing society of natural scientists at the university––this “Mangel” [lack], said Rickert, bound them together.]

 Whether in the form of the Geisteswissenschaften, cultural sciences, or the humanities of early twentieth-century American universities and colleges, on our account the modern humanities refer less a particular set of related disciplines, methods, or forms of knowledge and more a moral claim about social needs and the assertion of an institutional solution.

Casting the modern humanities as a reactive, compensatory project designed to manage the corrosive effects of modernity doesn’t fit well with a host of common assumptions and arguments about the humanities. For many scholars, both today and more than a century ago, the cultural and institutional success of the natural sciences came at the expense of the humanities. Allied with the corrosive forces of modernity––capitalism, technology, and industrialization––the natural sciences eroded and eventually usurped the cultural authority and legitimacy that the humanities had long enjoyed.

Our contention is just the inverse. The modern humanities first assumed institutional shape and gained conceptual coherence in late nineteenth-century Germany as a reaction to the rise of the natural sciences.

 [Aside (premise of our account that I can discuss in greater detail in Q&A):

1) the modern humanities are not continuous with the studia humantatis or earlier forms of humanistic scholarship/knowledge.

2) “the modern humanities” are institutionally, epistemologically, and ethically distinct from the myriad disciplines that eventually came to be organized under them.]

And it’s this effort to fill out the not-natural-sciences that gave us what now, even a century later, seem like intractable institutional oppositions not only between the natural sciences and the humanities (nature-culture) but a canon of other distinctions: nomothetic and idiographic, universal and particular, nature as the realm of invariant laws and necessity and culture as the realm of freedom and spontaneity, facts and values, is and ought, universalism and constructivism, necessity and contingency, objective and subjective, quantitative and qualitative. These distinctions, in turn, came to organize a set of epistemic ideals, idioms, and values that would gradually come to be refer to not only to the not-natural-sciences but to the humanities.

These nineteenth-century descriptions and distinctions were neither simply the fruits of epistemological acuity, nor simply the fruits of pragmatic labor. They were also a rhetorical act meant to forge identity and affiliation and compel others to commit to a vocation and cultural project. They helped form a moral program and exert a moral force; it lives on today in the presumption that something called the humanities are uniquely positioned to study meaning making, value, and the subjective, uniquely capable of accounting for with human action and intention, human agency and purpose.

The Humanities in 20C America:

Between 1930 and 1950, something similar happened in the United States. After the ascendance of the research university and the demise of the classical college curriculum in the last decades of the nineteenth century, scholars from previously disparate disciplines––philology, literature, arts, art history, history, philosophy, and religion––joined together to cast “the humanities” as a cultural compensation for the moral and spiritual deprivations of the modern sciences and technology.

Between 1928 and 1941, American colleges and universities introduced at least 30 distinct “humanities” courses and 17 comprehensive programs. The administrators, scholars, and intellectuals who invoked “the humanities” did so out of a desire for wholeness, synthesis, unity, and recovery of human moral status and value. And they juxtaposed this desire to the more utilitarian values associated with modern science and technology. [The negative, social function of “the humanities”: in late 19C Germany it was the not-natural-sciences, then it became the not-value-free-sciences. In the United States, it was more often not-technology or not-instrumental-rationality.

The emergence of “the humanities” in American universities coincides with what Mark Greif has termed the “age of the crisis of man”––a period in which intellectuals and scholars feared that new technological and social conditions of Western modernity threatened to “snap the long tradition of humanism, the filament of learning, human confidence, and respect for human capacities.” It was also the age of utopian visions of human belonging and unity––declarations of human dignity and attempts to codify them in universal human rights.

The (American) humanities were a related project. Scholars from heretofore disparate disciplines committed themselves and their institutions to asking again and again: What is the human? Despite its interrogative form and claim to curiosity, however, the question, insofar as it was correlated with the rise of The Humanities, doubled as an assertion that a limited set of academic disciplines could claim a legitimate monopoly over what counted as a serious answer.

 Conclusion: On Humanities Talk

 I want to conclude by considering one doleful effect of all this––what I call Humanities Talk––a fairly fixed genre of how we talk about The Humanities in public. The genre grants an author or speaker legitimacy, but only if she accedes to its demands to explain why the humanities matter and for whom. But that they exist and are valuable in their current institutional form generally exceeds the imaginative “grip of the genre” (Helen Small, 37).

Consider some recent idioms of Humanities Talk: “We consistently and necessarily turn to the humanities and arts for answers, for healing, and for resolution in the most difficult and trying times.” The humanities are a “secular version of human being and human flourishing.” The task of humanities departments is “cultural psychoanalysis.” The humanities are where “we locate our own lives, our own meanings; we need the advanced study of the humanities so that we might, some day, become advanced human beings.”

The question of the humanities has often been put to me. And yet whether I was struggling to justify low enrollments in my German literature classes, making the case for the NEH, trying to convince my colleagues to vote for a new undergraduate curriculum, or simply thinking about what goods the humanities might afford, I found myself making claims that felt more like wishes. I claimed the humanities satisfied all sorts of social needs, but I couldn’t rid myself of the nagging sense that I was defending them in a morally-tinged language that far outstripped their capacity to deliver on the promises I was making. I wanted to believe all the things I asserted that the humanities did––make our students better people, sustain democracies, cultivate critical reflection––but couldn’t deny the gap between my rhetorical assertions and what I actually think the humanities can do in light of my work as a scholar and teacher.

And what I think they can legitimately do is to create disciplined, specialized knowledge. That’s about it. And I think that because the modern humanities are distinctly university-based practices and, thus, enjoy its goods but also its constraints. (I think of this difference as a difference between proximate and ultimate goods.)

But it is in this gap––oftentimes between public-facing justifications about what they humanities can or ought to do and what they actually do as a practice with internal goods–– that the more explicit questions of value takes particular shape, acquires its more immediate force.[8]

Humanities Talk is always hortatory, exhorting audiences to appeal to the humanities not only for knowledge, but moral authorities in a world thought to have none, therapies for cultured elites coping with a feeling of disenchantment or dehumanization, the singularly capable source of critical insight. Humanities Talk conjures up the humanities as a form of moral compensation for the ills of modernity––modern science, technology, and capitalism––and ties both their form and function to one institution––the university.

And herein lies the permanent crisis of the humanities with which I began in Germany in 1929: the humanities as a moral project––defenders of human agency, intentionality, and meaning-making––have consistently failed in their quixotic effort to become a religio, of functioning as coherent surrogates for religious and cultural traditions that tell people how to live. But a key element of that failure is their success as disciplined, specialized forms of university-based knowledge. Because at the core of disciplined, university-based forms of knowledge, as I’ve tried to suggest, is a deep ambivalence about values, notions of the good, and their very moral status.

The problem with Humanities Talk is that it obscures this deep moral ambivalence, veiling a bad conscience. It’s also just disingenuous because the gap between what the humanities promise and what, as a set of university-based disciplines designed to encourage the acquisition of discrete skills and forms of knowledge, they actually do is plan to all, especially, for me at least, those who indulge in Humanities talk.

We can endorse the anger, frustrations, and fears motivating these defenses and apologies without committing ourselves to their assumptions and terms. But in order to loosen the grip of Humanities Talk, we first need a better understanding of how and why it came to be: we need to better understand the discourse of The Humanities, its institutional situation, and its epistemological and ethical assumptions and effects. If we can better clarify the ends of our arguments––particular institutional arrangements or the epistemic and ethical possibilities of art, literature, philosophy, or history––then we might be able to renew and reinvent something like a humanistic knowledge for the 21C and finally free ourselves from the yoke of Humanities Talk. That’s what Paul Reitter and I are trying to do in Permanent Crisis.


[1] Eduard Spranger, “Der Sinn der Voraussetzungslosigkeit in den Geisteswissenschaften” in Eduard Spranger: Gesammelte Schriften. Volume VI (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1980), 151-184, 155, 152.

[2] Spranger, “Der Sinn,” 151.

[3] Spranger, “Der Sinn,” 155, 152.

[4] Spranger, “Der Sinn,” 180.

[5] Bod, A New History of the Humanities (Oxford University Press), 2-3.

[6] Helmholtz, “Über das Verhältniss,”

[7] Kulturwissenschaft und Naturwissenschaft (Tübingen: Mohr, 1910), 1.

[8] Amanda Anderson draws a similar distinction in Pschye and Ethos: Moral Life After Psychology, 103.


chad wellmon

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