Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age, by Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon

Johann N. Neem enjoys a sharp historical analysis of why the humanities always seem to be overpromising on what they can do

September 9, 2021
headless statue illustrating review of ‘Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age’ by Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon
Source: iStock

The humanities are in crisis. Book after book bemoans the utilitarian students and political leaders who cannot understand why the humanities are essential. The crisis of the humanities is itself proof, defenders proclaim, of our society’s decay. Only the humanities can save us.

In Permanent Crisis, Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon trace this narrative back to the origins of the research university in 19th-century Germany. A work of intellectual history rather than advocacy, it asks readers to understand the humanities as modern disciplines with the idea of societal crisis baked into their DNA. The humanities cannot exist without the crisis that imperils their existence and leads apologists to publish siren calls that the authors consider “often peevish, self-serving, lacking historical perspective, and antithetical to the careful thinking and scholarly virtues to which humanities scholars otherwise typically aspire”.

“The modern humanities are not the products of an unbroken tradition reaching back to the Renaissance and, ultimately, to Greek and Roman antiquity,” Reitter and Wellmon write, but inventions of the modern scientific industrial age. Advocates of what would become the humanities argued that in a world in which technique trumps purpose and religion no longer ensures meaning, the humanities must compensate. The humanities were therapeutic from the beginning. They provided spiritual sustenance in an instrumental world. Articulating the crisis and the humanities’ mission was the project of thinkers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Alexander von Humboldt and Friedrich Schelling.

The figures examined in this book thought the humanities would save souls and society; the humanities would be spirit in a disenchanted world. But not Max Weber, the true hero of this story. In a 1917 lecture and later in his published essay “Scholarship as Vocation”, Weber punctured the rhetoric of humanities advocates then and, Reitter and Wellmon believe, now. The humanities, Weber wrote, are united by technique and subject matter. Their disciplinary methods test myth against expertise. They cannot save us.

The humanities offer authoritative knowledge using disciplinary methods. For Weber, being a scholar meant devoting oneself to seeking truth through the “self-restraining mastery of a specific set of ethical and technical abilities”. Perhaps that’s enough. Reitter and Wellmon worry that “the crisis discourse in the humanities has promoted overpromising” and that the humanities need some “productive unburdening”. Weber was condemned by humanities’ defenders who wanted their subjects to do more. Weber – and Reitter and Wellmon – instead ask humanities professors to focus on what they do well: train people in disciplinary methods and knowledge.

I agree that universities should focus on the particular goods they offer. The humanities can’t save the world; they are tools to help us understand that world. Yet even if humanities scholars are at their best as Weberian specialists, shouldn’t we expect them to be inspired or troubled by the texts and traditions that they study? No matter how hard one tries, questions of value and meaning will arise.

Johann N. Neem is professor of history at Western Washington University and the author of What’s the Point of College? Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform (2019).


Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age
By Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon
University of Chicago Press, 320pp, £25.23
ISBN 9780226738062
Published 13 September 2021

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: The odyssey of a salvation myth

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Reader's comments (2)

Both the authors and the review demonstrate an alarming ignorance of the history of universities, the humanities amidst the other disciplinary clusters, and developments over the past 50 or more years that challenge many of the new myth-making attempts. This is an amazing example of neglect of our history, all in the effort to promote what amounts to new myths.
Neither the authors nor reviewer are aware than Max Weber was a social scientist nor that the humanities have changed considerably over a century and a half.

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