Humanism, Theory, the Humanities: The (Dis)function of Criticism at the Present Time

[This text was presented as an invited paper at the Calgary Humanities Institute Research Network on the Justification of the Humanities, University of Calgary (10-11 March 1995). The organizers had made it clear that their own orientation was conservative or neoconservative; this paper proposed to upset their applecart. Plans to publish the proceedings of the conference fell through by early 1996: by that time, my book Lunar Perspectives: Field Notes from the Culture Wars had appeared, and due to overlaps between this piece and several sections of that book, I left this text unpublished. Some parts of its argument, however, may retain a separate interest.]



To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.

Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” VI



We are here to discuss the justification of the humanities. But what meanings does this phrase carry? Let us ignore, for the moment at least, the earliest attested (and now long obsolete) sense of “justification”—a word which in the legal discourse of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries denoted the execution of a sentence, or capital punishment. We are engaged, I take it, in something diametrically opposed to stringing up or beheading the humanities: an exercise, rather, of exculpation or of apologetics, of vindication, defence, and legitimation.

But should we perhaps also admit, in a figurative sense, that further meaning which “justification” carried in printing shops—the adjustment or alignment of the borders of a type-face within the printer's forme, bringing (as Moxon wrote in his 1683 disquisition on printing) “the Right and left-sides of a Matrice to an exact thickness”?1

Though the allegory may be blatant, it is not frivolous. For in undertaking to justify the humanities, we are very clearly entering the domain of cultural politics. Whether we acknowledge the fact or try to conceal it from ourselves, we are by implication embarking on a process of alignment and adjustment, of definition and delimitation, one result of which will be a determination of what is to count as belonging to the “text” of the humanities, and where precisely the discursive space assigned to this category will end, giving way on the right and on the left to the blank margins that constitute its boundaries.

“Justification,” then, implies a politics of delimitation, of adjustment and alignment, as well as a politics of legitimation. And there may well arise within this cultural politics of delimitation, which operates as an inescapable counterpoint to the politics of legitimation, some shadow of that earliest attested meaning of “justification.” For if certain notions of what belongs within the humanities are to be consigned to the margins, either quietly or by main force, then they are in effect being “justified”—given the chop—in something like that archaic sense.

If time permitted, I would want to pose in the main body of this paper a number of linked questions about what precisely is to be justified, in the sense of vindication or legitimation—and to whom, and for what purposes. As it is, I will be able only to touch upon these areas of inquiry. But before doing so, I would like briefly to consider the context within which any attempt at a justification of the humanities must now be situated. The fact that current work in certain areas of the humanities has during the past five years become the object of a sustained campaign of vilification—one might almost say of demonization—is not something that any serious discussion of the justification of the humanities can evade.



The great game of PC-bashing began in 1990. According to the NEXIS database, the term “political correctness,” which did not so much as appear in the American print media in 1985, was mentioned by a total of thirty-six articles during the next four years, and by sixty-six articles, some of them very widely noticed, in 1990. Then came the explosion. The number of articles referring to this term rose to 1,553 in 1991, to 2,672 in 1992, and to 4,643 in 1993, with a further 1,427 in the first quarter of 1994.2 A large proportion of these references have occurred in the course of attacks upon university scholars in the humanities (most especially in the fields of literary and cultural studies), who have thus for half a decade been on the receiving end of a rising chorus of criticism and abuse from neoconservative journalists, think-tankers, government officials, and fellow academics in the United States and Canada. (And then there are the radio talk-show hosts.)

The flow of brickbats has of course not been entirely one-way. But as Ellen Messer-Davidow has shown in her exhaustively documented study of the institutional framework of the attack on what she calls “liberalized higher education,” the resources available to neoconservative participants in the debate have been of a different order of magnitude than those accessible to their opponents.3

The situation in Canada is in at least three respects crucially different from that in the United States. For example, in 1987 conservative academics in the U.S. formed the National Association of Scholars; between 1989 and 1991-92, NAS's support in grants from conservative foundations (including Olin, Scaife, Coors, and Smith-Richardson) and other donors rose from $611,000 per year to almost $683,000—substantial subsidies for an organization which by 1993 claimed some 3,000 members. Thanks to this support, to its affiliation with the Madison Center for Educational Affairs, and to its close ties with conservative think-tanks like the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation, NAS has been able to exercise a significant influence upon the unfolding of the “political correctness” controversy.4 NAS's Canadian equivalent, the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, was founded in 1992 and held its first conference in March 1993, under the auspices of the Fraser Institute and with financial support from NAS.5 Although its more than 200 members include some distinguished (and some very vocal) scholars, SAFS has not had a comparable influence upon public discourse in Canada—in part because there is not as yet a comparable infrastructure of right-wing foundations and think-tanks in this country.

Another significant difference between our situation and that of our American colleagues resides in the fact that research funding in Canada has not been politicized to anything like the degree it has in the United States. The “arms' length” principle that has prevailed in Canadian governmental funding for cultural production and humanities research appears to have protected our Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, up to the present, from the blatantly political manipulation to which the American National Endowment for the Humanities has been subjected.

Like the members of SSHRC's governing Council, members of NEH's National Council on Humanities are supposed to be appointed on the basis of their scholarly qualifications: the Council is congressionally mandated to “provide a comprehensive representation of the views of scholars and professional practitioners in the humanities.” But by 1991, when at least four of the Council's twenty-seven members were also members of NAS, fears arose that Lynne Cheney, the Chairman of NEH, was seeking to stack the Council with scholars who shared her adamant opposition to non-traditional methodologies in the humanities. When in that year the nomination of Carol Iannone, another prominent NAS activist, was opposed by the Modern Language Association on the grounds that she had published less than a handful of scholarly articles, a noisy controversy ensued, one of the highlights of which was Newsweek columnist George F. Will's labelling of the MLA's more than 30,000 members as enemies of the people. Claiming that “MLA hostility is nearly necessary for creating confidence in anyone proposed for a position of cultural importance,” Will described Lynne Cheney as “secretary of domestic defense” in a “low-visibility, high-intensity” cultural war—and compared her role to that of her husband Richard, George H. W. Bush's Secretary of Defense. But according to Will, “The foreign adversaries her husband, Dick, must keep at bay are less dangerous, in the long run, than the domestic forces with which she must deal.”6

Fears of a politicized stacking of the NEH Council were revived in 1992, when at least half of a slate of eight new nominees turned out to be NAS members.7 In the same year, scholars from several disciplines, supported by former NEH staff members, presented evidence to show that under the chairmanship of Lynne Cheney, research applications “from controversial scholars and from those who use non-traditional approaches are routinely rejected ... even when the proposals get top ratings from the agency's own peer reviewers.” According to one former NEH staff member, “Projects dealing with Latin America, the Caribbean, some women's studies, and anything appearing as vaguely left wing are seen as suspect”; another claimed that applicants are warned away from certain “buzz words,” such as “social history,” “deconstruction,” or “feminism.”8 Nor were concerns about the integrity of the NEH calmed when Harvey C. Mansfield, one of the 1991 nominees to the Council whose confirmation had gone unopposed, declared his intention “to adopt a West Point approach and sound the guns against those in the humanities who want to destroy the greatness of our intellectual past.” In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mansfield made clear his agenda as an opponent of multicultural curricula, affirmative action programs, women's studies, and African-American studies. Remarking that the Constitutional principles which shape American political life have “lately come to be menaced by the increasing democratization of politics,” he added: “It's ironic that conservatives have to use politics to rid the campus of politics, but we do.”9

A third difference between the Canadian and American scenes is a matter of the extent to which the latter has become pervaded by what might be called organized incivility. For example, on June 12, 1994 the New York Times Book Review ran a critical review by Nina Auerbach of Christina Hoff Sommers' book Who Stole Feminism? On the following Monday the paper's phone lines were jammed by callers angrily urging the editor to disavow the review. With the help of an advance copy of the review and the willing collaboration of conservative journalists, Sommers herself subjected Auerbach to a campaign of vilification, based upon the claim that Auerbach, recognizing herself as a teacher of Sommers' nephew at the University of Pennsylvania who had been criticized in the book, had in an act of “professional malfeasance” used the review to “settle scores.” By June 14, Auerbach had been denounced by Jim Sleeper in the New York Daily News as a liar, and her review had been described by Hilton Kramer in the New York Post as “a major intellectual scandal.” Within days, Rush Limbaugh was informing his radio audience of some twenty million Americans “that 'militant gender feminazi feminism' and the New York Times were trying 'to kill this book' by 'reacting hysterically.'”10 As Auerbach herself writes,

The issue to Sleeper and to subsequent columnists became, not politics, scholarship, feminism, her book, or my review, but their attempts to get me to acknowledge an anonymous comment Christina Sommers claimed was on a term paper no one in the press ever asked her to produce.... Had Sommers lied less stupidly, bringing in larger, more important issues than my own self-interest; had I not had a twelve-year association with the Book Review; had the pressure on the Times been less boorish—I might have fallen into the abyss reserved for those whose book reviews are disclaimed and their authority taken away.11

There has as yet been no equivalent episode on this side of the border. However, the temperature of debate on such issues as multiculturalism and gender appears to be rising, as may be instanced by some of the more regrettable lapses in John Fekete's recent book Moral Panic. Fekete declares, for example, that “two decades of biofeminism [have] succeeded in infecting our thoughts and feelings with the viral cancer of half truths and the emotional tyranny of false appeals”—thereby uncritically succumbing, I would suggest, to the very condition named in the title of his book.12

The foregoing glimpses of the “political correctness” controversy should not be allowed to obscure the fact that, as Wayne Booth has suggested, “the PC ploy” has on occasion been used “to attack something that actually deserves attack: self-righteous, smug or repressive (and thus morally inconsistent) impositions of 'tolerance' or 'civility.'”13 I hope they may suffice to show that whatever attempts at a justification of the humanities we engage in here must be understood within a larger context, which in recent years has been characterized by determined and well-funded attempts to justify—to re-align, to legitimize—the discourses which inhabit the area bordering on the right margin of the humanities, while at the same time subjecting those towards the left margin to a more summary kind of justification—to something very much resembling a sentence of obliteration.



One of the most commonly repeated charges levelled by neoconservative polemicists against contemporary scholarship and teaching in the humanities appears in what might be called its canonical form in Roger Kimball's book Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education. According to Kimball,

Proponents of deconstruction, feminist studies, and other politically motivated challenges to the traditional tenets of humanistic study have by now become the dominant voice in the humanities departments of many of our best colleges and universities. And while there are differences and even struggles among these various groups, when seen from the perspective of the tradition they are seeking to subvert—the tradition of high culture embodied in the classics of Western art and thought—they exhibit a remarkable unity of purpose. Their object is nothing less than the destruction of the values, methods and goals of traditional humanistic study.14

This passage deploys the first three terms of my title—“humanism,” “theory,” “the humanities”—in a pattern whose classic paranoia mirrors the conclusion of my last paragraph: the “politically motivated” discourses collectively referred to as “theory,” and seen by Kimball as antithetical to “the values, methods and goals” of humanistic study or humanism, are in the process of taking over the humanities. (As may already be evident, I disagree with Kimball's diagnosis, which combines unrelenting hostility towards new currents of interpretation with a very partial and sadly limited understanding of the traditions he so earnestly wishes to defend.)

The mere mention of “theory” seems to be enough to trigger an aggressive reflex on the part of some neoconservative polemicists: it is presumably on account of the first word in the title of their book Theory of Literature (1949) that Austin Warren and René Wellek earned the disapprobation of Dinesh D'Souza, who in one of the more idiotically off-target broadsides of his bestseller Illiberal Education owlishly reproaches them for having disseminated the notion “that the definition of literature was problematic and posited circumstances under which Shakespeare might be displaced by the Manhattan phone book or by graffiti.”15 Yet while reductive caricatures of “theory” have become the special property of neoconservative participants in recent debates over the orientation of liberal education, “humanism” appears to be more generally misunderstood—by the theorists who typically attack it, by the traditionalists who defend it, and of course by the public, whom one could hardly expect to make sense of a matter that has been so thoroughly obfuscated by the experts.



The related term “humanities” is sometimes also misunderstood. Two years ago in the Château Laurier in Ottawa, I had the pleasure of attending the Corporate Humanist Awards banquet organized by the Canadian Federation for the Humanities as a means of enlisting support within the private sector for humanities research and teaching.16 Mingled and yet wholly distinct, like the droplets of oil and vinegar in an ill-shaken salad dressing, business people and the representatives of some fifty-odd scholarly associations made hesitant conversation under the glittering chandeliers of the banqueting hall. Yet it was after the salad course—and after the rubber chicken and scarcely less rubbery dessert as well—that I was made aware by the gentleman on my right, a senior executive and a nominee for a Corporate Humanist award, of how perplexing he found the whole occasion. What, he asked me, did all this chatter about scholarship—about history, philosophy, musicology, classics, and literary theory—have to do with the Federation for the Humanities' humanitarian goals?

I am not going to tell you what I said in response. The genre of my anecdote must by now be clear: in Vladimir Propp's taxonomy of folk tales there are no doubt analogues to it among the stories told by braggarts and tricksters. This may be enough to suggest that the probability of you being naive enough to believe any conclusion to this tale that flatters its teller is no larger than the probability of my being modest enough to recount one that doesn't.

Turning therefore from a narrative to an interrogative mode, let me ask you for advice. How should I have responded? Would it have been appropriate to make a learned allusion to the Noctes atticae of the second century A.D. grammarian Aulus Gellius? He explains that

Those who have spoken Latin and have used the language correctly, do not give to the word humanitas the meaning it is commonly thought to have, namely, what the Greeks call philanthropia, signifying a kind of friendly spirit and good feeling toward all men without distinction. Rather they give to humanitas about the force of the Greek paideia, that is, what we call “learning and instruction in good or liberal arts.” Those who earnestly desire and seek after these are most highly humanized.17

It might have been undiplomatic to reveal to my dinner companion that he shared with the corporate humanists of Nero's and Caligula's time a very basic misapprehension about the nature of the humanities. (I can imagine his face assuming the thoughtful expression of one who has found a scorpion in the pocket that he thought contained his billfold.)

Or should I have confronted more directly the much larger question which underlies the naive one of my dinner companion—and which has very appropriately been made the theme of this conference? What benefit is there, and to whom, in all our chatter within and about the humanities? How are we to legitimize what we do?



One problem with the question in this form is that it presupposes a belief that we are all doing much the same thing. But is it not the case, in the field of literary and cultural studies at least, that a number of very different and mutually incompatible things are being done? Is there not, for example, a radical incompatibility between those of us who would describe themselves as humanists, guardians of a traditional literary canon and of traditionalist canons of interpretation, and those whose interpretive practices are inflected rather by post-Heideggerian hermeneutics, deconstruction, discourse theory, feminism, cultural materialism, or (one of the most recent developments) queer theory? Perhaps so, since some of the tendencies in that second list are programmatically “anti-humanist,” in the sense of rejecting claims about human autonomy and selfhood that are widely assumed to be implied by humanism.

And yet even the most preliminary gesture in the direction of historicizing these terms leads to unsettling results. Take, for example, the first and last of the terms I have mentioned: “humanist” and “queer theory.” In what appears to be the earliest occurrence of the word umanista in Italian literature, Ariosto wrote:

Senza quel vizio son pochi umanisti
che fe' a Dio forza, non che persüase, 
di far Gomorra e i suoi vicini tristi...

Ride il volgo, se sente un ch'abbia vena
di poesia, e poi dice:—E gran periglio
a dormir seco e volgierli la sciena.

[Few humanists are without that vice which did not so much persuade, as forced, God to render Gomorrah and her neighbour wretched .... The vulgar laugh when they hear of someone who possesses a vein of poetry, and then they say, “it is a great peril to turn your back if you sleep next to him.”]18

This is satire, to be sure. Yet writings of Erasmus and other centrally canonical humanists could be adduced in support of the view that there are important intersections between the cultural practices of Renaissance humanism and the territory marked out by queer theory as its own. To what extent, then, does “humanism,” once we choose to remember the term's historical dimensions, remain antithetical to some of the other labels in that list of contemporary modes of interpretation?

Consider for a moment the case of Henricus Cornelius Agrippa, whose participation in the early sixteenth-century humanist republic of letters included active correspondence with Reuchlin, Trithemius, Erasmus, Lefèvre d'Étaples, Capito, and Melanchthon. Agrippa's most frequently reprinted book, translated into English as Of the Vanities and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences, offers a radically sceptical challenge to the first principles of scholastic logic, and in a parodic recapitulation of the labours of Hercules proposes a sequence of serio-comic refutations—I nearly said deconstructions—of all human knowledge. There is indeed a sense in which Agrippa's writings could be described as participating in a proto-deconstructive countercurrent to the orthodoxies of his age. Resonances with deconstruction will be obvious to any reader of the philosopher Jacques Derrida's essay “La pharmacie de Platon” who considers Agrippa's suggestion that his book De occulta philosophia is of quasi-medicinal value (“nam & medicorum volumina inspicientibus contingit cum antidotis & pharmacis simul etiam venena legere”: “for they that look into the books of physicians, do together with antidotes and medicines, read also poisons”)19—together with the vehement opinion of orthodox polemicists that Agrippa's textual pharmakon was not medicine but, as the late-sixteenth-century chronicler André Thevet wrote, “[la] regorge de sa mortelle poison,” and that Agrippa himself was a witch-doctor or pharmakeus—in the words of the contemporaneous political theorist Jean Bodin, “le plus grand Sorcier qui fut oncques de son aage”—rather than a doctor of souls.20

This embattled humanist also stands out, no less clearly, as a male feminist. In one of his earlier writings, De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus, he argues (I quote from a mid-sixteenth century translation) that

betwene man and woman by substance of the soule, one hath no higher pre-emynence of nobylytye above the other, but both of them naturally have equall libertie of dignitie and worthynesse. But all other thynges, the which be in a man, besydes the dyvyne substance of the soule, in those thynges the excellente and noble womanheed in a manner infynytely dothe excell the rude grosse kynd of men....21

Some of the arguments with which Agrippa develops this claim are deliberately frivolous, and yet he insistently challenges the misogynist and patriarchal legal culture by which women, “being subdewed as it were by force of armes, are constrained to give place to men, and to obeye theyr subdewers, not by no naturall no[r] divyne necessitie or reason, but by custome, education, fortune, and a certayne tyrannical occasion.”22

Nor was his feminism merely theoretical. At a time when such interventions were dangerous, he mocked the theological faculty of the University of Cologne for having given its approval to that notorious handbook of witch-hunters, the brutally misogynist Malleus maleficarum; and when in 1518 he served as municipal advocate in the city of Metz, he put his life and career on the line by intervening in the case of a woman who had been arrested and tortured by the inquisition on a charge of witchcraft: Agrippa secured her release and the return of her property—and made the inquisitor who was persecuting her answer to a charge of heresy.23



The point of these examples is not to suggest that some clearly definable ideology called “Renaissance humanism” can be identified as congruent with or ancestral to such contemporary tendencies as feminism, deconstruction, and queer theory. As is widely known, the cultural practices associated with humanism arose out of the interactions of a nascent (or re-nascent) Italian civic culture with the remains of ancient Roman and Hellenistic literary, rhetorical, juristic, philosophical, and historiographical writings; and as Paul Oskar Kristeller has rightly insisted, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the term “humanist” carried no specific doctrinal or ideological sense, but referred simply to a professor or student of the studia humanitatis, which was “a well defined cycle of teaching subjects listed as grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history and moral philosophy....”24

However, I want to emphasize one crucial feature of this development: namely, that humanism opened out within that civic culture a discursive space, which the advent of printing subsequently made accessible across western Europe under the name of “the republic of letters”—a space within which various forms of writing (among them the highly wrought epistles with which humanists flattered, cajoled and bombarded one another) could acquire a previously unknown degree of autonomy, and within which thoroughgoing critiques of constituted authority and of authoritative dogma could be envisaged and undertaken.

I am thus not seeking to identify Renaissance or early modern humanism with any particular collection of ideological currents. The ideological and discursive complexion of humanism can be more adequately appreciated if humanism is conceived rather as a collection of enabling strategies, which is also to say, a rhetoric (Renaissance humanism was, if anything, rhetorical)—but a rhetoric whose general tendency and function was to bring into being and to sustain a discursive space, a public sphere, within which the power of established authority could no longer sustain its previously overwhelming position as a criterion of judgment, and within which the goal of legitimizing established authority no longer exercised a determinative influence upon the various forms of writing which at one and the same time constituted and were enabled by this newly opened discursive space or public sphere.

Thus, for example, Johannes Reuchlin's struggle against the theologians of the mendicant orders in support of the right of Jews within the Holy Roman Empire to retain their own books and practise their religion, which opened up a ten-year struggle, likened at the time to another siege of Troy, was supported by a chorus of humanist writers, among them Ulrich von Hutten with his brilliantly acerbic collections of Epistolae obscurorum virorum. In a similar sense, the old claim that Luther hatched the egg Erasmus laid has this much truth to it: first, that Luther took on, though with very different inflections, a humanist project of return ad fontes; and secondly, that what saved Luther from the fate of Jan Hus during the crucial years from 1517 to 1521 may very well have been the fact that many participants in that humanist culture which Erasmus can metonymically be taken to represent identified “Eleutherius” (the humanist cognomen with which Luther signed some of his early writings, and a name that humanists evidently felt to resonate with their discursive projects) as one of their own.25

One can hardly mention Erasmus and Luther in the same breath without remembering that in 1524-25 their controversy over free-will established a clear line of demarcation between a Platonizing humanist theology and the theology of Reformation Neo-Augustinianism. But as I have already proposed, the most helpful way of delimiting Renaissance humanism may be through an analysis of discursive function rather than of ideological or doctrinal content. To take just one example, Cornelius Agrippa was active in disseminating Luther's writings in the early 1520s, and his De vanitate (written in 1526, printed 1530) appears to contain strong echoes of Luther's doctrines, among them the catchword sola fide, “by faith alone.” At the same time, however, this book has strong affinities with Erasmus' Praise of Folly. Is De vanitate Lutheran in tendency, as some of its less careful readers have asserted, or is it expressive rather of a radical Erasmianism? Neither alternative is adequate, although the second may be closer to the mark. A consideration of discursive function would show that for all its piety and its apparent biblicism, De vanitate is engaged in the same project of a dispersal of originary authority that is more clearly evident in De occulta philosophia;26 its rhetoric operates quite clearly to open up a space within which something resembling a genuinely critical discourse becomes possible—and, not at all surprisingly, its early reception history is marked by attempts to close down such a space.27



In this light, the history of twentieth-century appropriations of the term “humanism” is a melancholy one. One example will suffice: Douglas Bush's classic study The Renaissance and English Humanism (1939). Bush makes clear his desire, “without denying the importance, the necessity, of the rebellious side of the Renaissance ... to emphasize the more neglected and, I think, more truly representative elements of orthodox conservatism.”28 In what I would call a subtractive politicizing of his subject matter, Bush identifies humanism with this tendency. Erasmus, for example, is proleptically transformed into a follower avant la lettre of that great Victorian Matthew Arnold: his humanism is aligned with the ideal of a universal state “in which reason and the will of God should prevail,” and with “the ideal of a liberal, aristocratic, and international orthodoxy of sweetness and light.” Bush insists that “The two great philosophic enemies of religion and morality, and hence of Christian humanism, were sceptical and naturalistic doctrines”29—thus with the stroke of a pen banishing from the ambit of humanism such figures as Lorenzo Valla, Gianfrancesco Pico, Cornelius Agrippa, François Rabelais, and Michel de Montaigne, not to mention Erasmus himself, whose contributions to the development of a revived sixteenth-century scepticism have been lucidly analyzed by Richard Popkin.30 After this, one learns without surprise that, like “the great body of continental humanists,” English humanists were “unanimous in the defence of established authority”—a defence which appears, however, to have been an anxious matter. For as Bush immediately adds, “this solid, all-embracing orthodoxy is a dyke which the smallest stream of water may undermine and every hole must be stopped.” But reinforcements are available: Shakespeare himself, we are informed, “is no less attached than the most orthodox humanist to constituted authority, is no less scornful of the mob.”31

The image of Shakespeare in the role of the boy in the Dutch folk-tale, earnestly pressing his finger into a hole in the dyke, is idiotic. But what is more substantially wrong with this is its partiality, in both senses of the word—its tendentious and transparently politically motivated erasure of much that belongs within English Renaissance humanism. Bush is engaged in what I have termed a subtractive politicizing of humanism—or what might also be called, in some or all of the senses discussed in my opening paragraphs, a “justification” of humanism.



In concluding, I would like to make explicit a number of points that have only been lightly touched on in the course of these remarks. I have suggested that humanism has been grievously misunderstood, not just by those who have subjected the term to orthodox misappropriations, but also by those who, in the name of “theory,” have criticized or dismissed it altogether. Such dismissals commonly allude to something called “essentialist humanism,” which I agree deserves criticism, but which appears to be more distinctly a nineteenth- and twentieth-century invention, the result of reading the history of the constitution of subjectivities through lenses tinted by post-Cartesian ideologies of human autonomy, than anything that would arise out of a scrupulous consideration of humanist texts of the Renaissance.32

Without pretending to diminish or obscure the ideological faultlines that traverse this area of the humanities, I have suggested that the apparent bifurcation of the field of literary and cultural studies between “theory” and “humanism” may rest upon a number of insufficiently examined premises. One might add that “theory,” no less than “humanism,” is a term that demands critical scrutiny—not least because the word implies an optical relation between knower and known of a kind that seems incommensurate with the forms of intricately reflexive analysis developed by thinkers like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Luce Irigaray.33

And finally, let me confront the ghost of Matthew Arnold, who has haunted this paper from the beginning (and the title of whose best-known essay is echoed in my subtitle). Arnold's reputation as a critic and cultural theorist in the English-speaking world has never been easy to explain to outsiders. Do we value him as a reasoner? As Gerald Graff observes, “Arnold's idea of defending reason in Culture and Anarchy amounts to repeating catchphrases like 'reason and the will of God' with such mind-numbing frequency that we overlook the fact that Arnold never precisely defines these terms—indeed, he actively opposes such definition....”34

Or do we value him as someone who expands our mental horizons? To quote Graff again:

Insofar as reason implies the extension of the boundaries of consciousness as far as they can reach, Arnold is eager to curtail it. He inherits the romantic fear that increasing self-consciousness means the decline of cultural health, yet missing from his constitution is any of the romantic compulsion to stretch the limits of self-consciousness regardless of the consequences.35

It is certainly not as a spokesman for a democratic understanding of culture that we read Arnold. When in 1866 a crowd demonstrating in support of extending the franchise pushed down some wrought-iron railings in what became known as the Hyde Park riots, Arnold quoted his father's opinion: “'As for rioting, the old Roman way of dealing with that is always the right one; flog the rank and file, and fling the ringleaders from the Tarpeian Rock!' And this opinion we can never forsake, however our Liberal friends may think a little rioting, and what they call popular demonstrations, useful sometimes to their own interests....”36

Arnold's true importance is an an ideologue, the inventor of a mode of argument which subtractively politicizes culture by separating it from the categories of the “practical” and the “political” while at the same time mobilizing it, in an eminently practical manner, in support of a conservative and anti-democratic cultural politics defined for Arnold by such thinkers as Burke, Coleridge, and Joubert. This, in brief, is the argument of Arnold's most famous essay, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.”

At a key moment of that essay, Arnold reveals in its full perversity the logic of cultural justification which impels his argument:

Joubert has said beautifully: “C'est la force et le droit qui règlent toutes choses dans le monde; la force en attendant le droit.” (Force and right are the governors of this world; force till right is ready.) Force till right is ready; and till right is ready, force, the existing order of things, is justified, is the legitimate ruler.37

Which is to say that force is legitimate, both before and after it has been legitimized. And when will right be ready? If that which has not yet been legitimized is in fact always already legitimate, then is there any reason why its legitimation should not be indefinitely deferred?

In the opening sections of this paper, I suggested a model of “justification” in which the humanities were subject to the deforming influence of forces imagined as external—whether in my image of writers like Roger Kimball or Dinesh D'Souza as malicious and ill-informed ideologues, or in their image of scholars like me as, in D'Souza's memorable phrase, “Visigoths in Tweed.”38 In Arnold's quotation from Joubert, another closely-related model is evident, one in which the domain of culture (let us say the humanities) is made to function as a means of legitimizing or justifying “the existing order of things.”

But from my brief account of humanism another possibility emerges. It is commonplace enough to suggest, as I have done, that the activities of Renaissance humanists opened out and sustained a discursive space or public sphere within which real movement towards a freedom at once social and individual became conceivable. (This notion is of course no novelty: it has been extensively discussed by thinkers as diverse as Jürgen Habermas and Terry Eagleton.)

From the same text of Walter Benjamin's which gave me the epigraph to this paper a phrase with which to describe that movement towards and into freedom comes suddenly into mind: a “leap in the open air of history.”39

I close with two questions. Are such leaps ever possible? Would human life be endurable under the presupposition that they were not?



1  Oxford English Dictionary, “Justify,” 9.

2  The NEXIS database figures are quoted from Democratic Culture 3.1 (Spring 1994): 2.

3  Ellen Messer-Davidow, “Manufacturing the Attack on Liberalized Higher Education,” Social Text 36 (Fall 1993): 40-80.

4  Messer-Davidow, 49, 60, 63-64; see also Jon Wiener, “Dollars for Neocon Scholars,” The Nation (1 January 1990): 12-14; Sara Diamond, “Readin', Writin', and Repressin',” Z Magazine (February 1991): 45-48; and Michael Keefer, “'Outside Agitators,' Inside Activists: Who's Paying for What?”, Philosophy and Social Action 19.1-2 (January-June 1993): 18-23.

5  The program of the “University in Jeopardy” conference, held on March 12, 1993 at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, acknowledged financial support from NAS in bringing in the conference's principal speaker, Dinesh D'Souza (who was accompanied at the conference by Barry Gross, the treasurer of NAS).

6  George F. Will, “Literary Politics,” Newsweek (22 April 1991): 72.

7  “President Bush Names 8 Scholars to Sit on Humanities Board,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (8 April 1992): A25.

8  Stephen Burd, “Chairman of Humanities Fund Has Politicized Grants Process, Critics Charge,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (22 April 1992): A1, A32-33.

9  Karen J. Winkler, “A Conservative Plans to 'Sound the Guns' at NEH,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (22 April 1992): A33.

10  John K. Wilson, “Sommers and Her Conspiracies,” Democratic Culture 3.2 (Fall 1994): 9.

11  Nina Auerbach, “Christina's World,” Democratic Culture 3.2 (Fall 1994): 12.

12  John Fekete, Moral Panic: Biopolitics Rising (Montréal and Toronto: Robert Davies Publishing, 1994), p. 345 n.4. Do we need to be reminded that, as Susan Sontag has observed, the social application of disease metaphors of this kind is very commonly an invitation to social surgery—that is, to violence? Fekete's book merits close reading and commentary, but while his arguments are in some places forceful, they are elsewhere not sufficiently cogent to support his conclusions.

13  Wayne Booth, “A Politically Correct Letter to the Newspaper,” Democratic Culture 3.1 (Spring 1994): 2. More often, Booth adds, references to “political correctness” serve as “a mere coverup for positions authors prefer not to express openly”—such as mockery of “(1) decency; (2) legality; (3) moral or ethical standards; (4) justice, fairness, equality of opportunity; (5) tact, courtesy, concern about hurting people's feelings unnecessarily; (6) generosity; (7) kindness; (8) courage in defending the underdog; (9) anti-bigotry; (10) anti-racism; (11) anti-anti-Semitism; (12) anti-fascism; (13) anti-sexism; (14) refusal to kneel to mammon; (15) sympathetic support for the jobless, the homeless, the impoverished, or the abused; (16) preservation of an environment in which human life might survive; (17) openness to the possibility that certain popular right-wing dogmas just might be erroneous.”

14  Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (1990; rpt. New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. xi.

15  Dinesh D'Souza, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (New York: The Free Press, 1991), p. 177. The joke resides in the fact that Wellek and Warren were principal theorists of the New Criticism, which during the 1940s and 1950s became the dominant interpretive tendency within English departments in the North American academy, and remains the basis of what is now thought of as “traditional” literary interpretation—even though in 1948 the New Criticism was denounced by Douglas Bush, then president of the Modern Language Association, for its “aloof intellectuality” and “avoidance of moral values” (see Gerald Graff, Professing Literature [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987], p. 248). Criticizing the New Critics' “appalling professional jargon,” which makes reading “a science for experts,” G. B. Harrison, another pre-New Critical traditionalist, proposed that “There is a great danger that the study of English literature may be destroyed by the new critics...” (Profession of English [1962; rpt. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1967], pp. 64-65).

16  An initiative of Professor Roseann Runte during her tenure as President of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities, the Corporate Humanist Awards were intended to encourage members of Canada's corporate elite to provide financial and political support to humanities scholarship, teaching and research in Canadian universities. In this the awards were an abject failure: the derisory total of corporate donations received in 1993 came to substantially less than the CFH's disbursements in awards to various Corporate Humanists.

17  Aulus Gellius, Noctes atticae, xvii, translation quoted from Donald R. Kelley, Renaissance Humanism (Boston: Twayne, 1991), p. 2.

18  The Satires of Ludovico Ariosto, trans. Peter DeSa Wiggins (Athens, Ohio University Press, 1976), pp. 152-53; qtd. from William Kerrigan and Gordon Braden, The Idea of the Renaissance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), pp. 29-30.

19  See Agrippa, Opera, ed. R.H. Popkin (2 vols.; Lyon, c. 1600; facsimile rpt. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1970), vol. 1, sig. A2v; the translation is that of J.F. (1651), cited from Three Books of Occult Philosophy written by Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, ed. Donald Tyson (St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 1993), p. li.

20  Thevet, Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres (2 vols.; Paris, 1584), vol. 2, fol. 544; Bodin, De la démonomanie des sorciers (Paris, 1581), fol. 219v.

21  Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Of the nobilitie and excellencie of womankynde (London, 1542), sigs. A2v-A3.

22  Ibid., sig. G.

23  See Charles G. Nauert, Jr., Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1965), pp. 59-61. The inquisitor had charged that the woman must be a witch because her mother had likewise been accused of sorcery: Agrippa responded that this was evidence of heresy, in the form of a flat denial of the efficacy of the sacrament of baptism.

24  P. O. Kristeller, Renaissance Thought and the Arts: Collected Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 3.

25  For a convenient outline of the issue, see Alistair McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), ch. 2. “Eleutherius” in a latinized form of the Greek word for “freedom” or “liberty”: eleutheria.

26  See my article “Agrippa's Dilemma: Hermetic 'Rebirth' and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occulta philosophia,” Renaissance Quarterly 41.4 (Winter 1988): 614-53.

27  The book was promptly condemned by the theological faculties of Paris and Louvain, and subsequently by the privy council of the Emperor Charles V.

28  Douglas Bush, The Renaissance and English Humanism (1939; rpt. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962), p. 33.

29  Bush, pp. 65, 83, 85. “Sweetness and light” and “reason and the will of God” are Arnoldian phrases which recur throughout his most famous book, Culture and Anarchy (1869).

30  See Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).

31  Bush, pp. 88-89, 95.

32  What is needed in this respect are readings of, for example, Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico that could be more attentive than past readings to the constitution of subjectivity in their writings—and, on the other hand, readings of Descartes that would attend more closely to the manner in which his discursive itineraries rest upon appropriations of specifically Renaissance materials. (For an attempt at the latter, see my article “The Dreamer's Path: Descartes and the Sixteenth Century,” Renaissance Quarterly 49 [1996], forthcoming.)

33  The Greek word theoria refers primarily to an act of looking at, viewing or beholding, and only by extension to a process of contemplation or speculation.

34  Gerald Graff, “Arnold, Reason, and Common Culture,” in Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, ed. Samuel Lipman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), p. 189.

35  Ibid.

36  Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, ed. Lipman, p. 135.

37  “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” in Arnold, Essays in Criticism (London: Macmillan, 1904), p. 12.

38  See Dinesh D'Souza, “The Visigoths in Tweed,” Forbes (1 April 1991): 81-86; rpt. in Beyond PC: Towards a Politics of Understanding, ed. Patricia Aufderheide (St. Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1992), pp. 11-22.

39  Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” XIV, in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (1970; rpt. London: Fontana, 1973), p. 263.