American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 10


Peter Conn
Thomas Crow
Barbara Jeanne Fields
Ernest S. Frerichs
David Hollinger
Sabine MacCormack
Catharine R. Stimpson

The Humanistic Intellectual: Eleven Theses

Richard Rorty
University of Virginia

1. We should not try to define “the humanities” by asking what the humanities departments share which distinguishes them from the rest of the university. The interesting dividing line is, instead, one that cuts across departments and disciplinary matrices. It divides people busy conforming to well-understood criteria for making contributions to knowledge from people trying to expand their own moral imaginations. These latter people read books in order to enlarge their sense of what is possible and important—either for themselves as individuals or for their society. Call these people the “humanistic intellectuals.” One often finds more such people in the anthropology department than in the classics department, and sometimes more in the law school than in the philosophy department.

2. If one asks what good these people do, what social function they perform, neither “teaching” nor “research” is a very good answer. Their idea of teaching—or at least of the sort of teaching they hope to do—is not exactly the communication of knowledge, but more like stirring the kids up. When they apply for a leave or a grant, they may have to fill out forms about the aims and methods of their so-called research projects, but all they really want to do is read a lot more books in the hope of becoming a different sort of person.

3. So the real social function of the humanistic intellectuals is to instill doubts in the students about the students’ own self-images, and about the society to which they belong. These people are the teachers who help insure that the moral consciousness of each new generation is slightly different from that of the previous generation.

4. But when it comes to the rhetoric of public support for higher education, we do not talk much about this social function. We cannot tell boards of trustees, government commissions, and the like, that our function is to stir things up, to make our society feel guilty, to keep it off balance. We cannot say that the taxpayers employ us to make sure that their children will think differently than they do. Somewhere deep down, everybody—even the average taxpayer—knows that that is one of the things colleges and universities are for. But nobody can afford to make this fully explicit and public.

5. We humanistic intellectuals find ourselves in a position analogous to that of the “social-gospel” or “liberation theology” clergy, the priests and ministers who think of themselves as working to build the kingdom of God on earth. Their opponents describe their activity as leftist political action. The clergy, they say, are being paid to relay God’s word, but are instead meddling in politics. We are accused of being paid to contribute to and communicate knowledge, while instead “politicizing the humanities.” Yet we cannot take the idea of unpoliticized humanities any more seriously than our opposite numbers in the clergy can take seriously the idea of a depoliticized church.

6. We are still expected to make the ritual noises to which the trustees and the funding agencies are accustomed—noises about “objective criteria of excellence,” “fundamental moral and spiritual values,” “the enduring questions posed by the human condition,” and so on, just as the liberal clergy is supposed to mumble their way through creeds written in an earlier and simpler age. But those of us who have been impressed by the anti-Platonic, anti-essentialist, historicizing, naturalizing writers of the last few centuries (people like Hegel, Darwin, Freud, Weber, Dewey, and Foucault) must either become cynical or else put our own tortured private constructions on these ritual phrases.

7. This tension between public rhetoric and private sense of mission leaves the academy in general, and the humanistic intellectuals in particular, vulnerable to heresy-hunters. Ambitious politicians like William Bennett—or cynical journalists like the young William Buckley (author of God and Man at Yale) or Charles Sykes (author of Profscam)—can always point out gaps between official rhetoric and actual practice. Usually, however, such heresy-hunts peter out quickly in the face of faculty solidarity. The professors of physics and law, people whom nobody wants to mess with, can be relied upon to rally around fellow AAUP members who teach anthropology or French, even if they neither know nor care what the latter do.

8. In the current flap about the humanities, however, the heresy-hunters have a more vulnerable target than usual. This target is what Allan Bloom calls “the Nietzscheanized left.” This left is an anomaly in America. In the past the American left has asked our country to be true to its ideals, to go still further along the path of expanding human freedom which our forefathers mapped: the path which led us from the abolition of slavery through women’s suffrage, the Wagner Act, and the Civil Rights Movement, to contemporary feminism and gay liberation. But the Nietzscheanized left tells the country it is rotten to the core—that it is a racist, sexist, imperialist society, one which can’t be trusted an inch, one whose every utterance must be ruthlessly deconstructed.

9. Another reason this left is a vulnerable target is that it is extraordinarily self-obsessed and ingrown, as well as absurdly over-philosophized. It takes seriously Paul de Man’s weird suggestion that “one can approach the problems of ideology and by extension the problems of politics only on the basis of critical-linguistic analysis.” It seems to accept Hillis Miller’s fantastic claim that “the millenium [of universal peace and justice among men] would come if all men and women became good readers in de Man’s sense.” When asked for a utopian sketch of our country’s future, the new leftists reply along the lines of one of Foucault’s most fatuous remarks. When asked why he never sketched a utopia, Foucault said, “I think that to imagine another system is to extend our participation in the present system.” De Man, and Foucault were (and Miller is) a lot better than these unfortunate remarks would suggest, but some of their followers are a lot worse. This over-philosophized and self-obsessed left is the mirror image of the over-philosophized and self-obsessed Straussians on the right. The contempt of both groups for contemporary American society is so great that both have rendered themselves impotent when it comes to national, state, or local politics. This means that they get to spend all their energy on academic politics.

10. The two groups are currently staging a sham battle about how to construct reading lists. The Straussians say that the criterion for what books to assign is intrinsic excellence, and the Nietzscheanized left says that it is fairness—e.g., fairness to females, blacks, and Third Worlders. They are both wrong. Reading lists should be constructed so as to preserve a delicate balance between two needs. The first is the need of the students to have common reference points with people in previous generations and in other social classes—so that grandparents and grandchildren, people who went to the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater and people who went to Stanford, will have read a lot of the same books. The second is the need of the teachers to be able to teach the books which have moved them, excited them, changed their lives—rather than having to teach a syllabus handed down by a committee.

11. Philosophers of education, well-intended committees, and governmental agencies have attempted to understand, define, and manage the humanities. The point, however, is to keep the humanities changing fast enough so that they remain indefinable and unmanageable. All we need to keep them changing that fast is good old-fashioned academic freedom. Given freedom to shrug off the heresy-hunters and their cries of “politicization!,” as well as freedom for each new batch of assistant professors to despise and repudiate the departmental Old Guard to whom they owe their jobs, the humanities will continue to be in good shape. If you don’t like the ideological weather in the local English department these days, wait a generation. Watch what happens to the Nietzscheanized left when it tries to replace itself, along about the year 2010. I’m willing to bet that the brightest new Ph.D.’s in English that year will be people who never want to hear the terms “binary opposition” or “hegemonic discourse” again as long as they live.