American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 44
The Humanist on Campus:
Continuity and Change
Copyright © 1998, Lucius Outlaw
Humanism, Bio-cultural Diversity, and
Our Unfinished National Project
T. Wistar Brown Professor, Haverford College
There are immense challenges for me in trying to settle on an appropriate definition of a "humanist," in struggling to be a "humanist," on terms that maintain continuity, in some appropriate sense, with previous traditions of humanism that have changed in quite important ways-traditions that many of us, I dare say, have felt ourselves compelled to question and to change as part of efforts to refashion our humanistic disciplines, learned societies, and campus communities. Of course, these challenges of working out a viable and acceptable understanding of a "humanist" can readily be cast as yet another case of an old, recurrent, and formidable venture in thinking: the "philosophical" task, if you will, of determining how to conceive of and understand something as both "the same" in important respectsthose that establish the essential identity of the object of thoughtand as "changed" in no less important respects, but not in ways that alter its essential identity. Personal aspects aside, then, the challenges posed for our consideration by our topic are not extraordinary. Rather, they are of a kind that define the efforts of teachers, researchers, scholars, and administrators who do the work of the humanities, endeavors that are defined to their very core by the continuous need to contend with historicity, both human and natural, and with the all so necessary work of maintaining life-preserving continuity through inevitable processes of inertia, progress, slippage, setbacks, and decline. On the occasion of this symposium, however, there is the promise of joining others on the panel and in the audience in the rewarding intellectual and social adventure of wrestling with the always vexing issues of "continuity and change" with regard to what it means to be a humanist, on campus and elsewhere. I am honored, indeed, by John D'Arms's vote of confidence in asking me to be a panelist. My sincere thanks to John for inviting me to participate.
But not just for the pleasure of intellectual company. At issue are identitiesthus the ordering of lives, agendas, and the practices of personsand the cultures of institutional communities devoted to learning and to the mediation of learnedness in service to structuring the identities and character of successive generations of young people. In my own case the matter is especially challenging: how can Ito the extent that I take myself to be, in significant part, a person of African descent (the challenges to be met in partially identifying myself in this way require their own ongoing consideration)knowingly and willfully identify myself with traditions of the humanities that, in important ways and instances, have provided significant intellectual and practical resources for what Paul Gilroy, in his book The Black Atlantic,1 characterizes as the rational and rationalized "excessive barbarity" of European peoples in their dealings with peoples from Africa, and elsewhere? This particular challenge is all the more compelling when, guided by this question, I attend to the traditions of intellectual endeavor organized for study and engagement as Western philosophy, and of the Enlightenments especially, since the latter helped to define and administer the holocaust inflicted on African peoples by peoples from Europe. Yet, truth be told, the modern European and American Enlightenments continue to be mined for very valuable resources to assist the ongoing efforts of African and African-descended peoples (and of European and European-descended peoples, as well) to recognize and secure the full humanity of us all.
What, then, to continue, what to change, in the collections of traditions and endeavors we call the "humanities" in light of this historic "dialectic of Enlightenment": that is, the linked, conflicting, even contradictory commitments and practices constitutive of humanism, liberalism, racism, invidious ethnocentrism, sexism, class exploitation, and imperialism that defined the projects of modernity in the West?
I do not wish to throw out hand-grenade questions and run for cover by declaring that I do not have enough time to work through these questions toward even a provisional resolution. However, it is the case that I have time only to pose questions that I find compelling, the resolution of which requires more time, attention, and vigorous, disciplined, civil discussion than can be summoned on this occasion. Still, in begging off a bit, I promise to remain committed to working with others, whenever opportune, on these and other matters raised in the context of the theme for the symposium; and, in doing so, to insure, as best I can, that difficult, compelling questions not become explosives that destroy prospects for mutually beneficial collaboration. Rather, I urge that we regard these questions as challenges we must work together to resolve, in concert with persons in our local communities, organizations, and institutions as well as in our academic gatherings, so as to advance the American experiment in the very human venture of getting on with living in ways that maximize the possibilities for realizing human flourishing.
It is the commitment to human flourishing that, for me, defines what it means to be a "humanist." What, then, is required if one is to be a humanist today and tomorrow? I remain convincedthough I am open to being persuaded otherwisethat the terms and values of humanism can no longer be taken, simply and exclusively, from what for centuries have been institutionalized and honored as its informing traditions: in particular, those complex intellectual and practical legacies of Western Europeans I have alluded to that are narrated as the Renaissance, Enlightenments, and modern Judeo-Christian traditions. These truly revolutionary developments were also part of the intellectual, moral, and pragmatic infrastructures of rapacious capitalist imperialism accompanied and informed by racism and invidious ethnocentrism. Together these ventures have comprised a complex project of projects that Samir Amin, among others, characterizes as "Eurocentrism": a theory of world history, developed during the Renaissance (which he regards as a decisive "qualitative break" in the history of humanity), that becomes a global political project when "Europeans become conscious of the idea that the conquest of the world by their civilization is henceforth a possible objective. They therefore develop a sense of absolute superiority, even if the actual submission of other peoples to Europe has not yet taken place."2 This project to conquer the world and peoples was driven, according to Amin, by several motivations and aspirations: a commitment to the rational ordering of virtually all human life and conduct; and a commitment to universalismthat is, to extending this ordering both geographically and temporally so as, eventually, to encompass the entire globe. An ideology of white racial superiority was deployed to assist the legitimation of this venture in globalizing capitalist expansion and imperialism: to legitimate, especially, the inequalities that continue to constitute it. Other elements of this ideology included construals of Christianity as a decidedly European religion; what Amin terms the "myth" that Europeans are the direct descendants, culturally and biologically, of Greek ancestors; and the construing of virtually all non-European peoples as less than fully human, if human at all.
It is because modern humanism in the West developed in and came to define, in large part, this historical matrix of Eurocentrism that I am compelled to worry about the legacies of meanings, convictions, and practices that might be informing notions of what it means to be a "humanist" today; and why I claim that those legacies alone are inadequate for forging a notion of a humanist that will be both appropriate and adequate to the challenges we face today. However, while declaring the legacies of Western humanism inadequate, I do not wish either to claim or to suggest that this important collection of commitments (i.e., humanism) is without redemptive value because its meanings and possibilities were completely synonymous with and exhausted by the invidious aspirations and inhumane results of Eurocentrism. Rather, my concern is that we recommit ourselves to the work of identifying and taking up those redemptive values as part of a critical and honest engagement with the informing legacies of the conflicted, distorted humanism that was part and parcel of Eurocentrism while continuing to affirm and refine, if need be, those values that have helped to make possible human flourishing to whatever degree.
In the course of that engagement, we might, however, be tempted to conclude that the humanisms of the Renaissance and the Enlightenments of Western modernity were hijacked by the mutually supportive European projects of globalizing capitalism and the quest to impose white racial supremacy. But that, I think, would be too easy. A harder question to explore, but one that I think we are obliged to explore, is whether the humanisms were integrally related to these projectswhether in fact the philosophical anthropologies of humanism were the defining core of the color-coded racial and gender hierarchies by which European peoples, certain classes of men in particular, sought to order the larger world of peoples and individuals as well as their own decidedly "modern" nation-states. If we conclude that Eurocentrism was integral to Western humanismand I am convinced that it wasthen those of us who take ourselves seriously as "humanists" must be very, very wary after having been educated by way of and into the canonical traditions of institutions that for centuries were organized and maintained to be sites for the construction, validation, legitimation, and mediation of authoritative traditions of Truthfulness, Beauty, and Excellence all taken as exemplified, virtually exclusively, in the best efforts of "white folks." Many of us are still engaged in struggles to renovate "the humanities," to rehabilitate the very idea and ideal of "humanism" through critical reconstructions of some histories, recoveries of various excluded histories (in particular of women among virtually all peoples), and reconstructions of curricula as part of a revised national agenda.
This important, ongoing work has produced historic results, particularly many of the efforts that today tend to be gathered under the flag of "multiculturalism," though it would be more appropriate, I think, to regard such efforts as continuations of centuries-old struggles to be free of the inhumane aspects of Western modernity and its perverted humanism. One measure of the significance of these more recent efforts, understood as aspirations to secure the respectful recognition of the multiplicity of cultures and of peoples constituting this world, is that even Nathan Glazer, a much respected scholar and influential advisor to policy-makers, has been compelled to concede that "we are all multiculturalists now[:]. . . I mean that we all now accept a greater degree of attention to minorities and women and their role in American history and social studies and literature classes in schools. Those few who want to return American education to a period in which the various subcultures were ignored, and in which America was projected as the peak and end-product of civilization, cannot expect to make any progress in the schools."3
Even if we assume for the sake of discussion that Glazer is right, what are the implications for how we are to take stock of the now canonical modern humanist intellectual and social projects as ventures in establishing the norms for Truth, Beauty, and Right Livingventures that have been institutionalized in the various disciplines of higher education in continental Europe, Great Britain, and throughout the Americas? A sober regard for anthropological and cultural diversity, human historicity, and for the structured dynamics and transformationsas well as the unpredictable happeningsof natural and social orders, microscopic and macroscopic, will defy efforts, I believe, my own included, to validate any articulations of absolute and universal truths in any field of endeavor, including formal systems such as mathematics. (In driving home to Haverford, Pennsylvania from Boston on the afternoon before the symposium, I listened to an interview on National Public Radio of a cosmologist participating in a meeting at Fermi Labs in Batavia, Illinois, where scholars had gathered to consider the results obtained by two teams working independently indicating that the universe is expanding at an increasing rate, rather than slowing down as had been predicted by some theorists. If "true"that is, if confirmed by the best methods available at presentthis finding overturns some of the most settled and important "opinions" [no longer "true knowledge"] regarding the very origins, nature, and future of the cosmos. It seems that Einstein's already troublesome "cosmological constant" may now have to be discarded altogether and other important aspects of his theories revised.) The collections of legacies and endeavors we call "the humanities" are not, and cannot be, the repository of permanently settled absolute and universal truths about anything, though they should provide important resources for the on-going work of fashioning always contingent, provisional norms by which to order human lives, institutions, and communities in favor of providing the best possible conditions for living well under prevailing conditions.
Such recognition, however, does not settle the vexing questions, always to be confronted and settled provisionallyalways to be revisited, by succeeding generations certainlyregarding what forms of life are most appropriate for satisfying criteria for the good life? How, then, to decide which among the many cultural projects of the world's peoples best exemplify the norms to which we should commit ourselves in order to be both guardians and practitioners of forms of "humanism" more in service to human well-being than the forms of the past?
This will not be accomplished, I am convinced, by ardent intellectual endeavors devoted to discovering a priori, universal "laws" of Right Living, whether in Reason, the Natural Order of Things, histories of Western Enlightenments, or in the Revealed Word of some Supreme Being whose existence, thereby the veracity "His" Word for us, we claim to know with certainty. Still, how? I propose by accepting, for starters, a view of human existence as always contingent and structured by varying rates of continuous change, crucial aspects of which are the vagaries of belief-commitments and behaviors of evolving humans as well as of chance. And, as a consequence of this acceptance, daring to take up the awesome and exhilarating responsibilities, challenges, and opportunities to fashion, in some casesto revise or recover in othersstructured, institutionalized practices for the democratic production, validation, justification, legitimation, mediation, and social distribution of knowledges devoted to continually posing and answering the question "How best to live and flourish?" Put differently, we humanists, I contend, must be committed, sometimes radical, liberal-democratic conservators and courageous relativists without being either irresponsible nihilists or anarchic individualists.
In being such we mustat least I muststruggle to bring about a consensus regarding answers to the question "Is it possible, and if so on what terms and through what practices, to be both an appropriately principled 'humanist' who affirms individuality, and an equally principled and convinced pluralist with regard to human bio-cultural diversities and their legaciesthat is, one who accepts and affirms the social-natural diversity of human bio-cultural social groupings as essential to the well-being of the species while doing so on terms consistent with recognition of essential human similarityand to do so on terms and in ways that do not violate appropriate norms for moral and intellectual coherence and consistency?" Along these lines, is "multiculturalism" now an appropriate term for a concept and a set of convictions and practices partially constituting a historically distinctive form of humanism suitable for our times, thus for our colleges and universitiesa set of convictions that includes increasingly better informed, explicit rejections of the hierarchic racism, invidious ethnocentrism, class exploitation, and sexism of Eurocentrism, among other sins, that have shaped the very traditions and institutions informing our legacies?
I believe that the answer to each of the questions should be "yes." But I am equally firm in my belief that the work of forging a consensus out of our diverse cultural life-worlds and their legacies on behalf of a set of unifying convictions and agendas for personal, professional, and social life to be shared by enough of us to secure the viability of the American Experiment, as well as of our institutions, disciplines, and learned organizations, as ventures devoted to the realization of human flourishing, is the most difficult yet important challenge facing us today. It is also most exhilarating: because the stakes are so high, success, to whatever degree, is so very rewarding.
What to continue, what to change, what to fashion anew in constituting and mediating "humanist" legacies for succeeding generations? Those are, indeed, the orienting questions for all who would be humanists. An orienting answer is quite easy to articulate: whatever promotes human flourishing. And what shall we settle on as constituting "flourishing"? Well, there's the rub, is it not? Settling on viable answers to this question, answers that are in keeping with the ideal of flourishing itself, requires, I offer, ongoing democratic discussions in search of a consensus that will underwrite a shared civic culture sufficient for a stable, just, liberal, and democratic nation-state made up of persons and peoples of diverse life-orienting convictions.4 Among the challenges to be taken up by us humanist teachers, researchers, scholars, and administrators is that of working outlikewise in democratic yet rigorously critical, sensitive, and knowledgeable ways, drawing on our cultural experiences as well as on the forms and legacies of the arts, our disciplines, and learned organizationsthe terms, conditions, and practices of human flourishing that are most appropriate for our time and our places in the world.
1 Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 1993. [Back to text.]
2 Samir Amin, Eurocentrism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989), pp. 72-73. [Back to text.]
3 Nathan Glazer, We Are All Multiculturalists Now (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), pp. 13-14. [Back to text.]
4 For a very insightful and commendable effort at setting out the need for and possible approaches to such a consensus, see John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993). [Back to text.]