We Other Humanists: On Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon’s “Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age”
By Michael MeranzeFebruary 1, 2022
Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age by Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon
To make the situation even more galling, this crisis marks a fall: the humanities, so the story goes, can trace their roots back to the Renaissance and had been the heart of the university till recently. Indeed, merely a few decades ago enrollments were increasing and English, as Geoffrey Galt Harpham has argued, was crucial to the formation of national and civic identity. From the 1960s through the 1980s, humanities disciplines held central place in the discussion of the university — a controversial place to be sure, but in the era of civil rights, second-wave feminism, and decolonization, humanist learning and teaching helped open up spaces to imagine new ways to organize society and live together. But now that is all gone, sidelined by entrepreneurial rationality and the preeminence of the biosciences, and the humanities have been forced to the edge, holding on to a cliff by the tips of their fingers.
Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon want us to rethink this narrative. Their new book, Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age, does not seek to refute the crisis argument (there is too much truth in it) as to resituate it. Instead of seeing the current moment as an unprecedented crisis in a mode of learning centuries old, they want to shift our attention to the long history of crisis thinking itself. As they tell it, proponents of the humanities have told a story of its crisis forever; indeed, this sensibility lies at the heart of the modern humanities. From their emergence in the 19th century, the humanities have always seen themselves as responding to crisis even as the knowledge they produce has helped create the crisis itself. In a “disenchanted age,” the humanities claim to be the source of meaning, but they cannot help failing to provide it. Crisis is both the driving force and the false consciousness of the humanities.
As the editors of Charisma and Disenchantment (a recent edition of Max Weber’s “Vocation Lectures”) and of an important sourcebook on the rise of the research university (with Louis Menand), Reitter and Wellmon are well situated to challenge our conventional wisdom about the humanities. And as scholars of German literature, they offer us a dramatic account of the debates over the humanities and their meaning from late 18th- through early 20th-century Germany. From Kant’s assertion of the importance of the humanistic disciplines in The Conflict of the Faculties (1798) through Humboldt’s elaboration of bildung and Nietzsche and Dilthey’s contradictory efforts to regain some place for the spiritual in a world increasingly dominated by the natural sciences, up to the debate over Weber’s controversial Science as a Vocation (1919), Reitter and Wellmon demonstrate that many German academics and politicians were profoundly concerned with the problems created by a modern, mechanistic, scientific understanding of the world. As science and capitalism increasingly “disenchanted” human experience and reduced the realm of meaning and the supernatural, the humanities were put forth as the arena within which questions of ultimate meaning might be addressed and the spiritual life of the community reinvigorated. But there was a problem. Rooted in the developments of textual and historical criticism and philological knowledge, the modern humanities stripped the classical sources of meaning, whether Platonic or biblical, of any possibility of transcendence. Reitter and Wellmon tell this story of recurrent crisis and failed reconciliation skillfully across a series of chapters that sketch the history of efforts to characterize and justify the humanities in Germany.
Their account is predicated upon, while attempting to retroactively justify, two important historical claims. The first is that we have been mistaken in trying to trace a direct line from the Renaissance studia humanitatis to the contemporary humanities. The Renaissance rebirth of classical knowledge alongside new forms of philosophical and scientific endeavor have provided humanists over the centuries with a sense of stable grounding. Although the ethos of Renaissance humanism has become a site of contention in recent years, even its critics assume a continuity in the history of the humanities. But that claim is a false one, Reitter and Wellmon argue. Instead, the modern humanities are a chapter in the history of the modern university that emerged in Germany after the French Revolution. As they put it, “In essence, the development of the modern humanities both depended on and played a crucial role in the rise of the modern research university [emphasis in the original].” It was in this institutional context that the disciplines of history, philology, and philosophy took their disciplinary forms and began to constitute an interconnected and institutionalized mode of knowledge. Importantly, their connection to the university meant a linkage between professionalization and scholarly norms.
This inherent linkage, Reitter and Wellmon argue, placed a contradiction at the heart of the modern humanities: the humanities became part of the very disenchantment process they simultaneously insisted they could overcome. One can see this development most clearly in the history of philology and biblical criticism. The Renaissance’s recovery of the classical world purported to give people access to a nobler form of life; the Protestant Reformation’s recentering on biblical text claimed to provide people with a purer truth of the primitive church. The discipline of textual criticism’s contribution to this history of philology and biblical criticism reduced classical texts to historically specific traces and contradicted claims that the Bible was the direct word of God. Under the increasingly precise scrutiny of philological and historical analysis, nobility and divinity faded away to the endless stream of immanent events.
Not surprisingly, Max Weber is crucial to this accounting. Permanent Crisis treats him as both guide and example. On the one hand, Reitter and Wellmon’s definition of modernity is essentially Weberian — they lay stress on the processes of disenchantment via modern science, bureaucracy, and capitalism, along with a focus on “reenchantment,” the always failed effort to overcome disenchantment with some new system of meaning. It is this framework that enables Reitter and Wellmon to track the modern humanities as deeply symptomatic of modernity itself; as they tell it, the humanities have defined themselves as being able to both diagnose and overcome the discontents of disenchantment. Of course, they cannot achieve this aim. It is this structural impossibility that ensures the “permanent crisis” of the humanities.
On the other hand, they treat Weber as a participant in the ongoing German debate over disenchantment and knowledge. They devote a fascinating chapter to Weber’s intellectual vocation lecture (they translate it as “The Scholar’s Work”) and the heated responses it produced in Germany across the 1920s and 1930s. In that lecture, delivered in November 1917, Weber famously told an audience of politically active students that university disciplines were not going to help them overcome the contradictions of modern life or reach deep into true experience. The most that scholars could do was demonstrate the choices that could be made and their social and political outcomes. Needless to say, this message was not a widely popular one. German humanists were deeply concerned (some were outraged) by Weber’s scholarly ascetism and his insistence that professional norms and duties demanded that professors not seek to answer the fundamental questions of the meaning of life. Weber’s critique of the desire for prophecy and reconciled wholeness was both prescient and powerless as German universities were swept up into the maelstrom of the Third Reich.
Their deep roots in the German literary tradition enable Reitter and Wellmon to tell this story with great power and insight. But it serves them less well in their effort to transplant Permanent Crisis across the Atlantic. Their final chapter, “Crisis, Democracy, and the Humanities in America,” attempts to embed both the current crisis of the humanities and the history of the humanities in 20th-century America within their accounting of German contradiction. But the result is somewhat scattershot: the Harvard Red Book in a paragraph; a page or two on poststructuralism and its aftermath; an enticing — if brief — discussion of the Gauss seminars at Princeton; and, not surprisingly, a powerful account of the humanism of European émigré scholars. This criticism, admittedly, may be a bit churlish. After all, Permanent Crisis does sustain its core notion that the modern humanities are constantly facing a crisis that is in part of its own making due to their central role in the research university. Their account of the German debates is stimulating and left me, at least, wishing for the time to read their historical subjects through the lens that Reitter and Wellmon provide. And the authors could not really be expected to do for 20th-century America what they did for 19th-century Germany.
But as reasonable as these critical caveats might be, they would mean avoiding the actual claims of Permanent Crisis. After all, the authors do not claim to be providing a study of German intellectual history; instead, as they repeatedly make clear, their subject is the “modern humanities” in an “age” (ours) of “disenchantment.” Consequently, they deploy the particular case of Germany as the touchstone for the wider situation of the humanities. The transferability of their claims, therefore, is an important question, and on this question, they are less persuasive.
For one thing, the American academy (and this would be true of others as well) was not simply an offshoot of the German, and the problems taken up in the humanities drew upon more varied intellectual traditions. As the authors are well aware, when the American research university took shape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it drew not only on aspects of the German experience but on the British system and the impulse of the American Land-Grant tradition. Moreover, the research university in the United States did not occupy the same place of authority as it did in Germany — at least not until after World War II. Admittedly, Reitter and Wellmon make clear that they are not discussing humanities practice so much as a discourse about the meaning of the humanities. But the tensions between scholars and critics, or the struggles to assert the importance of the humanities themselves, have different patterns in different institutional contexts. Given the importance that Reitter and Wellmon justifiably place on situating the humanities within their institutional context, it is striking that these differences play so little a role in their comparative accounting.
But there is another issue that needs to be raised. Permanent Crisis approaches the question of meaning through the lens of Weberian disenchantment. Given the centrality of the Reformation to the German philosophical tradition, this position makes good sense. But is that the only way of approaching the issue? What if instead of disenchantment we approached the problem of the humanities through the object of culture? What, for example, would our understanding of the place of the humanities look like if we took Raymond Williams and the “Culture and Society” tradition as our touchstone? After all, as Williams adumbrated that tradition over 60 years ago, culture and society emerged at roughly the same time as the humanities that Reitter and Wellmon describe and also engaged (in terms of figures like Coleridge and Arnold) with the German tradition. And it responded to the increasing mechanization of thought and society — not in terms of “disenchantment” but rather critiquing the way that industrial capitalism disrupted inherited ways of life. In this way, as Williams showed, the “Culture and Society” tradition moved both inside and outside of the English university while providing a basis to confront the changing contours of modern power. The parallels with the tradition that Reitter and Wellmon consider are clear; but so are the differences.
Importantly, while “Culture and Society” ideas can be faulted for residing more in sensibility than in philosophical formulation, they did lead, in the figure of Williams and his compatriots, to contemporary cultural studies. What began as a response to the disruption of traditional society became, in the hands of radicals and socialists like Williams, a tool to explore new forms of social and ecological criticism as well as the democratization of culture itself. Importantly, as the figure of Stuart Hall and those he influenced demonstrate, British cultural studies connected up with the Black radical tradition that developed in opposition to both British imperialism and American white-supremacist culture and politics. Granted, these Black radical movements were not always located within universities, but their links to university-based humanistic inquiry are clear.
Although cultural studies scholars saw themselves as responding to crises in society, these were not necessarily crises of modernity nor were they far removed from the questions animating what we call the social sciences. One need only think of the ongoing critique of the idea of “culture” within anthropology, or the emergence in the 1960s of ethnic and women’s studies programs, to see that any consideration of the modern humanities cannot take place without attending to their status adjacent to the interpretive social sciences. Indeed, one needs to look no further than the discipline of history (sometimes placed in the humanities, sometimes in the social sciences) to see the point clearly. And once you recognize how much the modern humanities share with parts of the modern social sciences, not only the crises of the humanities but the nature of their projects will have to be reconfigured. In such a telling, the centrality of Weberian disenchantment would not loom so large.
Ironically, some of these problems could have been averted with a more capacious reading of Weber. In both Charisma and Disenchantment and Permanent Crisis, Reitter and Wellmon (in conjunction with translator Damion Searls) translate Weber’s “Wissenchaft als Beruf” as “The Scholar’s Work,” in opposition to the more conventional Science as a Vocation. They do so, as Searls explains in Charisma and Disenchantment, because Wissenchaft “means any systematic or cohesive body of knowledge,” as opposed to “science” as we use the term. But while this may be a justified critique of previous translations, it only replaces one problem with another because, as the conventional pairing of “scientists and scholars” makes clear, in English common usage scientists are scientists and not scholars. In fact, there is good reason to think that Weber was not talking about the problems of the humanities in any particular way but rather the problem of the professor in the university in a general way and that the problems he addressed were most intensely faced by those in the sciences.
Consider the way that Weber opened his discussion in “The Scholar’s Work.” Weber informed his audience that, from the perspective of someone working in a university, the most important thing to understand was that German universities were becoming “Americanized” — by which he meant more bureaucratized and capitalist. In this development, where the worker was separated from the means of production, it was the sciences that led the way while those in the social sciences and humanities had not succumbed yet. Nor were the contradictions and challenges that Weber outlined particularly acute for the humanities. He was, after all, a professor of economics and law, and his most salient outlines of the problems that disenchantment posed drew from the sciences and the social sciences (with a touch of philosophy here and there). The great danger for Weber was the intermixture of politics with scholarship, in the sense of substituting charisma for conceptual analysis. But that was not limited to the humanistic disciplines, as the devolution of Steven Pinker makes all too clear. Rather than providing the tools to dissect a “permanent crisis” of the humanities, Weber helps us understand the permanent temptations and challenges of intellectual life within capitalist universities. Reitter and Wellmon, to be sure, understand this point. But their framing prevents it from achieving the visibility it deserves.
I do not, however, want to end on a negative note. Permanent Crisis is a significant and stimulating book. It offers an account of the philosophical dilemmas of the modern humanities that anyone concerned with the history of humanistic reason will want to contend with. It is filled with provocative readings of both well-known and forgotten figures. It is also bracing in its determination to deflate some of the larger pretentions of contemporary rhetoric about the humanities. But it is not a full account of the “Humanities in a Disenchanted Age” nor of the problem of the humanities in general. It is, however, an important piece of one.
Michael Meranze is professor of history at UCLA. He co-edits the blog Remaking the University.
Michael Meranze is a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he specializes in US intellectual and legal history, and a member of the American Association of University Professors Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. He is the author of Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution, and Authority in Philadelphia 1760–1835 (North Carolina, 1996), co-editor (with David Garland and Randall McGowen) of America’s Death Penalty: Between Past and Present (NYU, 2011), and numerous essays on legal and intellectual history. He also co-edits the blog Remaking the University.
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