What’s Wrong With Being A Humanist?

Image of Erasmus
Erasmus doing humanist things

I occasionally use the label “humanist” to describe myself. This behavior sets me apart from most professors of humanities, according to a recent article in Antigone Journal by Eric Adler:

It is one of the many oddities of contemporary academic life that few humanities professors would deem themselves humanists.

This article prompted a scholar I follow on Twitter to wonder, “why don’t faculty in the humanities self-identify as humanists?”

A good answer appears in the replies (an example of the phenomenon: “someone is correct on the internet”).

One could stop here: asked; answered. I have no good excuse for exploring in greater detail “humanism” in Adler’s essay and its relation to the more detailed discussion in Adler’s book, The Battle for Classics, a theme I passed over in my earlier treatment of his ideas.

I find Adler a frustrating author to discuss fairly because he slips frequently between descriptive and normative modes. The essay proceeds as if “humanism” represents an obvious thing existing in the world. His discussion, however, makes more sense as normative: humanities scholars today should base their identity and practices on an educational world-view that began in Rome with Tully and continued to Irving Babbit. We can call it Babbitism, thought New Humanism is the name scholars give to Babbit and his comrades. It is one thing to look back to the past to explain present practices by showing their historical contingency; it is another to create a charter myth to support a specific scholarly habitus. In his BMCR review of Adler, Simon Goldhill has much valuable to say about the construction of traditions and scholarly identity.

In reading Adler’s book, I struggled to know when he was being descriptive and when normative. It looks like a descriptive project (this is humanism), but one can understand it best as normative (humanism should be like this). It is for this reason that I didn’t discuss it when reviewing the book. Instead, I focused on the central argument: humanists should not focus on skills but on content (good as far as it goes, but raises a whole new set of problems, as I point out in my review).

The article version was more frustrating because it asserts that contemporary humanities faculty do not know or misunderstand what humanism is.(1) Like in his book, Adler cannot be simply describing humanism: there are many and sometimes conflicting humanistic traditions. Translating his apparently descriptive language back into its underlying normative form, the introduction says “people do not identify as “humanists” because they are ignorant of my view of the humanist tradition” (i.e. Babbitism).

I am not criticizing normative claims based on a selective reading of the past. Many ‘humanist’ movements (The Renaissance of Petrarch, the Neuhumanismus, the dritte Humanismus, etc.) look to the past to find material for present purposes. Indeed, (small c) conservative innovation commonly present itself as a return to a lost, better past. This backward-looking innovation risks eliding its selective quality, easily slipping from the claim that “we should model ourselves on these elements I found in the past” to claiming the authority of the past: “this is the past; we should model ourselves on it.”

I must, therefore, show that the humanist tradition Adler invokes is necessarily a construct, an “invented tradition” that selects and frames elements of the past to create an “imagined community” of scholars. In alluding to Anderson and Hobsbawm and Ranger, I am suggesting that nationalism might be a good framework to evaluate Adler’s humanist tradition, i.e. Babbitism. One could find useful comparanda in Maurizio Bettini’s careful analysis of the search for roots (Radici, summarized here), which shows the dangerous interaction between the imagined “true origins” of the west and identity. (2) In his book, Adler similarly presents his discussion as discovering the true origins of humanism (hint, it is not the Greeks, as some scholars wrongly assert, but Roman humanitas).

Babbitism is an invented construct. Yet invented construct does not mean made up entirely. Adler selects and arranges material to highlight aspects that support his view about the proper practices of the humanities. The Roman studia humanitatis, as reconstructed, featured a curriculum based on particular content, precisely what Adler suggests modern humanities should do. Is particular content the salient feature of Roman educational practice? Perhaps. It is the most salient feature of the kind of teaching Adler advocates.

Adler’s views are not idiosyncratic. His perspective comes from sifting through various scholarly discussions of past educational ideas. Given his citations, I believe that Robert Proctor’s Defining the Humanities: How Rediscovering a Tradition Can Improve Our Schools holds a special place. I’ve been waiting for ages for ILL to find me a copy of this book. The fact that many people believe in a tradition does not make it less constructed, less a product of selection. The problem comes from pretending to “rediscover” what you are in reality creating and in believing that this created tradition is somehow more real, more relevant, and more determinative than other ways of organizing the relation to the past.

I was initially surprised that Adler rejects Neuhumanismus from his humanistic tradition. His dedication to Babbit’s New Humanism perhaps bares some of the blame. Although Babbit’s position partially resembles elements of German New Humanism, particularly its early 20th century revival, Babbit seems to reject Wissenschaft(scholarship) and the ‘problematic’ research university. Babbitism’s hostility to Wissenschaft requires the rejection of German New Humanism since it frequently retains connections to the corrupt modern research university. (3)

Aside from the unsightly connection of scholarship (Wissenschaft), Adler condemns these German Geisteswissenschaftler for failing to live up to their ideals of humanism in their teaching. But surely the same charge would seem to apply with equal, if not greater force, to the Greek, Roman, Medieval, and Renaissance humanists (on the latter’s failure, see Robert Black Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy).

Although German New Humanism is the most revealing absence, Adler excludes or passes over many humanisms. See, for example, the varieties discussed in Tony Davies’s Humanism (Routledge, 1997). Even more perspectives open up in different approaches to the histories of humanities such as Rens Bod’s A New History of the Humanities (Oxford, English Trans. 2013). I call attention to these alternatives not to claim that they more correctly describe humanism or the humanities, but to underscore my assertion that Adler’s presentation is, for all its apparent neutral description and footnotes, a normative view of what humanism should be.

It is not just selectivity. One can look at the same historical material and come to opposite conclusions about what humanism is and should be. Adler connects Roman and Renaissance ‘humanists’ in a way that reflects his view of the proper way to teach in the humanities: great works for moral improvement (since “style” is not important for Babbitism, Adler does not stress this aspect of studia humanitatis).

For both the Romans and the Renaissance humanists, the humanities were grounded in substance — works of great wisdom that could perfect students’ character and style.

Jennifer Summit, reviewing recent scholarship on Renaissance humanism in light of normative claims for the humanities, finds that the tradition supports the opposite conclusion. Renaissance humanists provide a counterbalance to the focus on…

the humanities’ objects of study with an emphasis on their methods, such as reading, writing, speaking, and interpretation. Putting “humanitas” back into the humanities asks us to define and defend not what we study (“what does it mean to be human?”) but what we want an education grounded in the humanities to be and do. Seen as a vital component of a larger educational project, rather than an isolated and embattled interest group, the humanities could thus be positioned not against the natural and social sciences but as part of an interlocking system, in which the vital question is not what the humanities are that the other disciplinary formations are not, but what they bring to a collective and collaborative enterprise of learning and knowledge. (emphasis mine)

What the Renaissance humanists show us, in Summit’s view, is a humanism that focuses on skills and is happily within rather than in conflict with the other, scientific ways of knowing. It does not make sense to try to determine who is right. Renaissance humanism contains multitudes, making it an ideal place to look for normative models. The same, indeed, is true for another central text for Adler, Cicero’s Pro Archia. Reading this complex and unusual speech with Hannah Čulík-Baird (Archias the Good Immigrant) might perhaps lead to a different view of Cicero’s humanism. The truth is that we can easily find what we want when looking to the past; the price is ignoring what we don’t want to see.

I have one last point to make about the way constructed traditions work. We frequently obscure the continuity of past and present by using vague language that conceals the social embeddedness of ideas. It is a commonplace to say that Cicero’s view of education has a strong moral component and tends towards the anti-utilitarian and anti-vocational. True so far as it goes; but Cicero’s utilitarian, vocational, and moral do not map precisely onto our versions of those words. The famous vir bonus, dicendi peritus, aside from being only male (vir), assumes a moral world in which “good” men own human beings! Being a skilled speaker can be seen as non-vocational only because Cicero understands oratory as correctly “utilitarian” for the “vocation” of an elite Roman man. And we must ignore how much Cicero focuses on the utility of literary interests in the Pro Archia. It requires an effort of myth-making to gloss over the contextual differences to construct a continuous tradition. We can only see ourselves as a humanist in this tradition by strategically forgetting the original contexts.

I admire Adler, and Babbitism has some appealing elements. Still, I remain unconvinced that the humanities should be remade in the image of Irving Babbit. My purpose here lies primarily in countering the implication that anyone who disagrees with the author’s view of humanism is ignorant. I’ve spent so much time showing the complexity of “humanism” not to reject Adler’s approach, but to challenge the charge of ignorance laid against those who do not claim the mantel humanist. What even IS a humanist, given the variety of meanings attached to it? (4)

I read Adler’s book; I have some sense of what he means by “humanist.” But I wonder about the readers of his article: how did they understand Adler’s ‘humanism’? Were they just “vibing” on Kristeller’s “elusive label of praise,” happy to fill the imprecise shibboleth, “the humanistic tradition,” with their own concepts, secure that they are in the know? Adler suggests it is ignorance that keeps people from identifying as humanists. Is it not equally possible that those most likely to identify as “humanist” do so precisely because they are ignorant of its traditions?

Davies points out that

all humanisms, until now, have been imperial. They speak of the human in the accents and the interests of a class, a sex, a ‘race’.

It seems to me eminently reasonable, given the multifarious and often unpleasant traditions of humanism, that a person might refuse to identify as “humanist” not because of ignorance, but because of knowledge!

But, Maximus, did not you start by saying that you identify as a humanist? No, in fact, I said that I occasionally use the label. There is a difference. I’m a US citizen, and so in certain contexts, I use the label “American” to describe myself. But I don’t identify as such. I’m not proud to be a US citizen; nor am I ashamed. I simply fall into that category in our current world political order. I hate and reject most of what the US does, both in foreign and domestic contexts. It does not make me not-American. So, I refuse to identify as American except in the loosest possible way. Similarly, humanist is a label that describes much of what I do (I recognize much of myself, for example, in the second half of Eric Hayot’s Humanist Reason Columbia, 2021). And so, I use the label at times, as a descriptive term, not an identity that I am proud or ashamed of. So, should you be a humanist or anti-humanist? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. The label is not that important; what you do is.

(1) It was bizarre to find Paul Kristeller invoked in an essay that asserts a continuity of humanism, since he rejected instrumental interpretations of Renaissance humanism, particularly the simplistic way scholars in the United States did it. Kristeller’s studia humanitatis was less an educational ideal than loosely related set of practices. The article makes it seem as if Kristeller would support Adler’s position. I’m not sure he would.

(2) In nationalism, belief in the founding myths often serves to separate the patriot from the traitor. Since I here show myself skeptical of his “humanism,” Adler rejected any further discussion with me, a traitor to humanism. Obviously, Adler does not owe me discussion. Yet, I’ve disagreed with him before (in my review) without leading to a rupture. This turn of events, as unfortunate as I find it, reveals much about how Adler wants “humanist” to function.

(3) Reitter & Wellmon, Permanent Crisis (Chicago, 2021), describe the birth of the modern humanities within the rise of the research university. Their discussion of humanities crisis discourse is an excellent contextualization both of Babbit’s project (pages 226–7) and the particular form of Adler’s humanism.

(4) Davies, Humanism p.130–31:

“The several humanisms — the civic humanism of the quattrocento Italian city-states, the Protestant humanism of sixteenth-century northern Europe, the rationalistic humanism that attended at the revolutions of enlightened modernity, and the romantic and positivistic humanisms through which the European bourgeoisies established their hegemony over it, the revolutionary humanism that shook the world and the liberal humanism that sought to tame it, the humanism of the Nazis and the humanism of their victims and opponents, the antihumanist humanism of Heidegger and the humanist antihumanism of Foucault and Althusser — are not reducible to one, or even to a single line or pattern. Each has its distinctive historical curve, its particular discursive poetics, its own problematic scansion of the human. Each seeks, as all discourses must, to impose its own answer to the question of ‘which is to be master’.”

The online pseudonym of the other online pseudonym Leopold “Poldy” Bloom. Really, tho, who I am doesn’t matter.