Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

No Matter:  Humanist Scholarship in the 1990s

John Bedell

To be a humanistic scholar in the 1990s is to be a bit of flotsam swirling in a backwater of history's river, swept aside by the main stream of global capitalism, technological profiteering, and heroic self-promotion.  Ours is not an age for thinkers.  Literary studies are particularly bankrupt; there is no more careful textual scholarship left to do, and no ideas but ideological claptrap.  History rumbles on, because the texts are infinite and there is always more work to do, but big issues seem few and far between.  Philosophy has split into bits that seek to merge with science, such a logic and studies of the mind, and historical studies.  Grouchy conservatives moan on about the spread of relativism and the denial of meaning, blaming the decline of rigor on everything from left-wing politics to Heidegger to rock music.  The real issue, it seems to me, is boredom.  Scholars embrace outlandish ideas because those are the only ideas we have that aren't worn out from centuries of use.

Yet the system demands that scholars publish, and publish they do. They publish so much that nobody can read the tiniest fraction of it, even within a single discipline.  To get into print they must convince somebody that their work is new, and when this can't be done by dressing up old ideas in revisionist language--the "New Historicism," the "higher naiveté"--one has to fall back on saying something the editor or reviewer hasn't heard before.  Given the enormous mass of material in the libraries of the world, the chance that any new idea will actually be good or insightful is woefully small.  In history, again, one can always come up with something new by sufficient digging in sufficiently obscure archives, so the historian's curse is not absurdity but irrelevance; it is a rare book on, say, the trade union movement in Sheffield in the 1870s that actually leaves one feeling more knowledgeable about the nineteenth century for having read it.

I don't mean to say that there is nothing more to be done in humanistic studies.  I think, on the contrary, that we can't perceive even the outlines of the answers to our biggest questions. What was it like to be, say, a medieval peasant? A noble woman of fifteenth-century Florence? A Chinese bureaucrat forced to submit to European imperialism?  What can the fictions written by such people, or paintings of or by them, tell us about their interior worlds?  To what extent are we the captives of historical forces beyond our control, speaking lines written by the age and situation into which we were born?  Can we ever truly understand people of other cultures and other ages?  Are there points of view, such as the artist's, or the woman's, or the aristocrat's, that have something in common across the cultures of world history?  Can the experience of being human ever be put on paper, in any form?

I have read, and I still sometimes read, books and articles that make me feel closer to the answers to these and other questions.  Yet I often have the sense that the successes of our scholarship are more accidental than planned, and that our system is set up more to foil true understanding than to promote it.  Because I think the confusion of humanistic studies is but one part of the confusion of our whole age, I am not optimistic that the situation will get better any time soon.  But let us fight for sanity wherever we may, and struggle against the worst sorts of nonsense even when we suspect that their own authors do not take them seriously.  We may not have the answers, but at least we can demand honesty and a reasoned approach to learning, for without those things we have nothing at all.

February 3, 1999

From the 
Commonplace Book

"I abhor the dull routine of existence.  I crave for mental exaltation."

--Sherlock Holmes


Commonplace Book
On the Dead 
About us



Raymond Aron, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the Limits of Being Right

Wild Swans

Why We Fight


The Ghost Dance

Changing the World



What is Education?

René Guénon

Which Primitives?

Terrorism and Freedom

Indian Freedom

Susan Haack & Intellectual Integrity

Richard Lewontin


Humanism in the 1990s

The "Wilding"
How the Mind Works

Ba'al Hammon and the Unitarian List of Suggestions