Where the humanities come from

In my previous post, I claimed that “the humanities are good for contextualizing and interpreting texts and other text-like human artifacts, particularly artifacts that are regarded as especially authoritative or masterful and that belong to an identifiable intellectual or artistic tradition.” Clearly people have been engaging in activities of this type in a variety of settings for as far back as we have written records. Yet I want to suggest that there is a common root or model for most if not all of the humanities disciplines as academic discourses, a kind of Ur-discipline: namely, modern biblical scholarship as it existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

(Now before anyone freaks out, I don’t mean to say that humanities disciplines are “secretly religious” in any simplistic way — I’m referring to modern biblical scholarship specifically as a secular discipline. Nor do I mean to say anything about contemporary biblical scholarship, which has changed a lot since the period I’m highlighting.)

The primary goal of modern biblical scholarship during its classical period was to undermine and disqualify traditional theological claims based on Scripture as corruptions of their true historical meaning. Yet this was not primarily a Protestant-style call to return to the pure message of Scripture as opposed to traditional corruptions. Rather, the effect was to render Scripture increasingly irrelevant to any contemporary religious or political project. At its most rigorous, biblical scholarship even disqualified the mobilization of Scripture on behalf of the secular liberal project, as when Johannes Weiss demonstrated that Jesus’s apocalyptic preaching on the Kingdom of God had nothing to do with contemporary visions of gradual progress.

The result was a kind of de-activation of a Scripture that had become the property of a strange kind of negative magisterium that, if it remained true to the immanent logic of its practice, would disallow any and all contemporary usage of the Bible. The Bible becomes an object of pure study, and a new, imposing tradition of interpretation displaces the old. The political and religious authorities — not to mention the actual people! — always necessarily misunderstand and misconstrue the Bible, and so the biblical scholar must reject their claim to have any access to the Bible’s meaning.

Hence the Bible is enshrined as worthy of endless attention, precisely as irrelevant to contemporary political and theological disputes. We can see the same types of dynamics in other major humanistic disciplines. In literary studies, the privileged object was the modernist text, misunderstood and reviled by the traditional literary establishment and the public at large, and yet supportive of endless commentary. In philosophy, the ancestors of both the analytic and continental traditions argued that the very task of philosophy had been completely misunderstood and that only a self-selected elite could engage in the new and much more esoteric project that they imagined.

Whatever the object of study, it is endlessly productive, but only in the academic context — everywhere else, the object brings forth nothing but abortions.

Now just as biblical studies has changed since then, so have all the humanistic disciplines. Yet it seems naive to me to say that either biblical studies or the humanities at large have put these tendencies completely behind them. Fan cultures, for instance, are not completely wrong to be suspicious when an academic comes sniffing around, because that academic may very well wind up claiming that the fans have it all wrong and that the cultural artifact has a true meaning that is accessible only to the academic gaze. And we can see why humanities departments have served so poorly as a material site for radical politics — the signature move of removing texts from their institutional and populist advocates and enshrining them as an object of commentary is an ever-present danger.

I don’t imagine that we can remove this quasi-theological heritage of biblical studies from the humanistic disciplines, any more than biblical studies was able to remove its own “properly” theological heritage (it is definitely, if weirdly, Protestant in orientation, for instance). This basic structure, not despite but because of the features that we might find undesirable (elitism, political quietism), has produced much that is of value, much that we would not want to do without. Purging the religious impurity, as so many contemporary thinkers seem to want to do, is the perfect example of how denying one’s religious inheritance allows it to run wild — after all, isn’t the quest for purification a classically religious one? We need to learn to live with the religious impurity, and that means learning to use it differently.

15 thoughts on “Where the humanities come from

  1. There is, I think, a certain sense of engagement with any particular text or tradition, that somehow eludes the constraints of both the populist & academic imagination. By this, I don’t mean simply to plop onto the warm lap of praxis, or privilege some abstraction like beauty (amongst several others). What I have in mind is more simple than that, but in its simplicity gets under the fingernails and between the teeth: an intense, crunching proximity to what is enjoyed or studied. Set all these many ‘proximities’ (yours & mine) into a single shared space, say, a Twitter timeline, or even more happily mundane, fertile conversation in its various forms, and you’re liable to hear a certain crackling of fire.

  2. I’d even push the structure of the modern humanities back to Lorenzo Valla’s historical contextualization of the “Donation of Constantine” based on linguistic grounds, which proved it as a creation of the medieval period (and so made it an object which had absolutely no application for contemporary politics and religion). It also makes your point, but a few hundred years earlier, and Valla’s discovery prompted the use of linguistic data to contextualize the Bible — hence the distinction of sources in the Pentateuch as the first step in the process.

  3. I’d say, though, that I don’t think the humanities make texts useless per se. I think they destroy any sense of the possibility of a simple and univocal purpose for texts and artifacts. Perhaps Kant’s purposiveness without a specific purpose is what I’m thinking about.

  4. The humanities are jealous, in a Derridean sense: they guard their secret (the secret of literature, which is theirs to produce) jealously. What we mean by “the humanities teach critical thinking” is that the humanities know how to produce and safeguard the critical difference between their own jealously-guarded secret and what “everybody knows” about a topic. Whatever can be known otherwise than through the humanities is not the true secret: it is insufficiently-theorised, critically inert or (to flip the metaphor) radioactive with an ideological toxicity that only critique can contain. The object of critique is produced as occluded, visible only through the blinds…(rambles on in this vein for another 20 pages of increasingly self-referential wordplay…)

  5. I agree with your analysis, Adam. The Bible became central to critical discourse because scholars measured their modern identity against their attachment to it. Critical biblical scholarship helped to create an ostensibly neutral public sphere and outlined in reverse the limits and conditions of modern reason. I don’t think this is what you were getting at, Brennan, but I do think there is something Kantian about that critical operation. I’m thinking particularly of Kant’s moral interpretation of biblical texts in Religion within the Limits. The basic idea is that we engage biblical truths in a tenuous, symbolic form, not as objects of theoretical reason. So the truth of Jesus lies in his function as a symbol of human ideals, not his particular historical existence. Critical scholars of the Bible like Reimarus demonstrated as much when they showed (anticipating Weiss) that he was in fact a first-century Jewish apocalyptic thinker. So historical criticism did get at truth, but not in the events or facts that it uncovered–only by proving that we had to search for truth elsewhere. Hence Lessing’s conclusion that truth is not a matter of historical contingencies.

    I think it’s also worth considering that the effects of de-activation are the most powerful when scholars do not set out actively to dismiss or reject the meaning of the texts. I’ve been writing on D.F. Strauss lately and his Life of Jesus offers a case in point. He repeatedly says that he only means to do justice to the true meaning, intention, and plain sense of the texts. This rhetoric is steeped in German Pietism and romanticism as much as in enlightenment criticism. He explicitly identifies his points of proximity with orthodox interpreters. But he only takes the texts seriously, on their own terms, in order to mark out the modern person’s distance from them. To me this seems to be very typical of modern scholarship on religion. We engage texts, beliefs, and experiences earnestly and afford them a degree of relative, contextual legitimacy–unlike people who dismiss religious belief outright as stupid, disingenuous, or deluded. But we presume a materialist ontology etc. that defines their limits in advance. We deactivate them even more effectively as a result. It’s also clear that Strauss and other scientific and critical biblical scholars at the time were fighting to determine who had the best claim to mediate spiritual truth, even if they rejected positive revelation.

    And I do think similar operations can work in any critical field. It’s very modern and I think pervasive even in popular culture. It is possible to be pretty cynical and say this is a standard modern ironic posture: ‘I’m going to take this thing totally seriously and appreciate it in the most evidently sincere way possible but in doing so show its flaws or, at best, allow it to break down and transform into something new–and in that way I’ll show just how savvy and critical I am.’ But of course that posture also has incredible value, especially when it comes to staving off institutional claims to authority.

  6. While Michael Legaspi’s _The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies_ is agenda-driven to a problematic degree, he does do a nice job of showing how these conversations also revolved around nationalist interests in Germany (biblical literature as the upbuilding of a national cultural inheritance).

  7. Is this tradition of biblical scholarship separate from philology? I know nothing about bible scholarship. Just curious.

  8. How can “the root” the “Ur-discipline” of the humanities be something from the late 19th or early 20th centuries? This is like the Influence of T. S. Eliot on Shakespeare, but without the humor. Exemplary case, maybe; root, no.

    Also, your so-called “primary goal” is historically untrue. Only in rare cases within historical biblical studies has the goal been devoid of religious aims. They just weren’t the same religious aims as those held by other users of the Bible. Jonathan Sheehan oversimplifies in the same direction.

    Eric – biblical studies of the 18th century applied the same methods as had earlier been applied in Homeric studies.

  9. You’re the one who’s being anachronistic. The academic humanities as we know them did not exist until around the turn of the 20th century. I say in the very first paragraph that people have been doing similar kinds of stuff through all human history, so you should have been able to pick up from context clues that I was making a narrower claim rather than saying something obviously stupid.

  10. That’s an innovative position, so I’d be interested in how you defend it.

    If you’re picking a date for the origin of the humanities “as we know them” today, then please tell me: what are the grounds for selecting “the turn of the 20th century”?

  11. Deane, see Dilthey, Introduction to the Human Sciences (1883), Wilhelm Windelband, “History and Natural Science” (1894), and Heinrich Rickert, The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science (1902?)

    It’s not an innovative position at all. Prior to Dilthey, Windelband, and Rickert, philosophy regarded “the human sciences” either as not scientific at all in the sense that there was no non-arbitrary way to establish historical knowledge or positively (as in positivism), attempting to abstract “laws” of history and society from the empirical particulars as natural science derives concepts and laws from its empirical particulars (i.e. Auguste Comte). Windelband and Rickert especially were instrumental in establishing how a “historical science” was possible by demonstrating the limits of natural sciences in conceptualizing history (which is by definition unique, unrepeatable–the very opposite of the aims of natural science), clearing the way for both the humanities and social sciences to develop in the early 20th century.

  12. I see. And yet this concern to put the humanities on a scientific footing also appears within philology in the early nineteenth century and in modern English lit in the early 20th century? I still don’t get why the late nineteenth century (and biblical studies) can be so important in this regard. But hey, at least I understand the basis for asserting it, so thanks.

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