arrow-right cart chevron-down chevron-left chevron-right chevron-up close menu minus play plus search share user email pinterest facebook instagram snapchat tumblr twitter vimeo youtube subscribe dogecoin dwolla forbrugsforeningen litecoin amazon_payments american_express bitcoin cirrus discover fancy interac jcb master paypal stripe visa diners_club dankort maestro trash

Shopping Cart

by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

The de(con)struction of the humanities (and of truth)

Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb on the skeptical tendencies of the postmodern academy

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

The de(con)struction of the humanities (and of truth)

A 1997 anthology edited by Alvin Kernan — What’s Happened to the Humanities? (Princeton University Press) — included an essay by historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. Best known for her studies of Victorian England (e.g., Victorian Minds, Marriage and Morals among the Victorians, Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians), Himmelfarb also directed attention to the ways in which her academic discipline had been radically transformed in the late twentieth century.

Her essay in Kernan’s volume is titled “‘Beyond Method,’” a phrase taken from Richard Rorty’s claim in Consequences of Pragmatism (1982). Himmelfarb precedes her text with an epigraph from Rorty:

“Dewey and Foucault make exactly the same criticism of the tradition. They agree, right down the line, about the need to abandon traditional notions of rationality, objectivity, method, and truth. They are both, so to speak,
‘beyond method.’”

Himmelfarb sees in this postmodern “beyond” a doorway to chaos and confusion in her discipline, and for higher education more generally: “For the journalist, the medium is the message. For the scholar, the method is the message. On this one proposition, traditional and nontraditional scholars may agree. Methodology does not dictate the conclusions that any particular study may come to, but it does dictate the parameters of the study: the way the research is conducted, how the findings are presented, even what are suitable subjects for study. A revolution in methodology is, therefore, of more than ‘academic’ interest, as the invidious phrase has it — more than a technicality or formality. And it is all the more momentous if it affects a wide variety of disciplines throughout the university.

“We have recently experienced such a revolution. The dominating force in that revolution is postmodernism, an omnibus term for poststructuralism, deconstruction, new historicism, semiotics, and the like. These, in turn, give philosophical credibility and legitimacy to such other movements as feminism and multiculturalism. The effect, on both the subject matter and the methodology of the humanities, has been nothing short of revolutionary. This is not just another ‘revisionism’ of the kind that has always been the lifeblood of the academy. A revisionist thesis about the origin of World War II or the meaning of Huckleberry Finn offers a new interpretation of that particular event or work occasioned by new evidence, a new insight, or a new theory. Postmodernism is a new way of thinking about all subjects and all disciplines.

“Imported from France (which had acquired it from Germany), postmodernism made its appearance in the United States in the 1970s, first in departments of literature and then in other disciplines of the humanities. Its forefathers are Nietzsche and Heidegger, its fathers Derrida and Foucault. From Jacques Derrida postmodernism has borrowed the vocabulary and basic concepts of deconstruction: the ‘aporia’ of discourse, the indeterminacy and contrariness of language, the fictive and duplicitous nature of signs and symbols, the nonreferential character of words and their dissociation from any presumed reality, the ‘problematization’ of all subjects, events, and texts. From Michel Foucault it has adopted the idea of power: the power structure immanent not only in language — the words and ideas that ‘privilege’ the ‘hegemonic’ groups in society — but in the very nature of knowledge, which is itself an instrument and product of power. Thus traditional discourse and learning are impugned as ‘logocentric,’ ‘phallocentric,’ and ‘totalizing.’

“In literature, postmodernism entails the denial of the fixity of any text, of the authority of the author over the critic or reader, of any canon of great books, and of the very idea of greatness. In philosophy, it is a denial of the constancy of language, of any correspondence between language and reality, indeed of any essential reality or any proximate truth about reality. In history, it is a denial of the objectivity of the historian, of the factuality or reality of the past, and thus of the possibility of arriving at any truths about the past. And so with the other disciplines: it induces a radical skepticism, relativism, and subjectivism that denies not this or that truth about any subject but the very idea of truth — that denies even the ideal of truth, truth as something to aspire to even if it can never be fully attained.

“If literary critics have been in the forefront of the postmodernist movement, it is in the field of history that its revolutionary effects may be seen most clearly. For postmodernism reverses two centuries of scholarship designed to make of history a ‘discipline’ — a rigorous, critical, systematic study of the past, complete with a methodology designed to make that study as objective as possible. Before there was postmodernist history; there was ‘modernist’ history, as it may be called — the discipline as it evolved in the past two centuries under the influence first of Enlightenment rationalism, then of Germanic scholarship, and in this century of academic professionalism. Modernist history is not, pace its present critics, positivist history. It does not profess to be a science (although some early enthusiasts occasionally fell into that rhetoric). On the contrary, precisely because it is not a science, its practitioners have felt it all the more necessary to devise a methodology that compensates for its inherent weaknesses, that makes it a discipline in spite of the fact that it is not a science.

“Modernist history may be understood as an attempt to resolve the ambiguity in the word history: history in the sense of the past, and history meaning the writing about the past (‘history’ and ‘historiography,’ or ‘history-as-actuality’ and ‘history-as-record,’ as they are sometimes distinguished). For the modernist, the ambiguity itself, the fact that the word encompasses both meanings, suggests that there is an inherent, if only proximate, relation between them. To bring the historical work into the closest correspondence with the past requires a conscious effort of self-discipline on the part of the historian. And it is this self-discipline that is the basis of the ‘discipline’ of history. . . .

“This is the meaning of Leopold von Ranke’s famous and much-derided phrase: to know the past as it ‘actually happened.’ It now sounds like a vainglorious boast, but in its context it was modest enough. Distinguishing his own work from that of his more ambitious contemporaries, Ranke wrote: ‘To history has been assigned the office of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages. To such high offices this work does not aspire: It wants only to show what actually happened.’ Ranke himself had no illusions about the ease of that task or his own success in realizing it. ‘I know to what extent I have fallen short of my aim. One tries, one strives, but in the end it is not attained.’

“The present-day modernist is even more painfully aware of the vulnerability of the historical enterprise: the fallibility and deficiency of the historical record, the fallibility and selectivity inherent in the writing of history, and the fallibility and subjectivity of the historian. As long as historians have reflected upon their craft, they have known that the past cannot be recaptured in its totality, if only because the remains of the past are incomplete and are themselves part of the present, so that the past itself is, in this sense, irredeemably present. They have also known that the writing of history necessarily entails selection and interpretation, that there is inevitable distortion in the attempt to present a coherent account of an often inchoate past, that, therefore, every historical work is necessarily imperfect, tentative, and partial (in both senses of the word).

“Historians have also known — they would have to be extraordinarily obtuse not to — that some of the ideas and assumptions they bring to history derive not only from their own culture and place in society, but also from the ideas and beliefs to which they are committed. A century ago, the lead article in the first issue of the American Historical Review informed the profession: ‘History will not stay written. Every age demands a history written from its own standpoint — with reference to its own social condition, its thought, its beliefs, and its acquisitions — and therefore comprehensible to the men who live in it.’ Relativism in this sense, however, was not taken to absolve historians from the duty of being as objective as they could be. On the contrary, it obliged them to make the most strenuous efforts to be as objective as possible, to rise above their natural conditions and inclinations. . . .

“Just as the postmodernist historian dissolves the connection between the past and the writing about the past, or the postmodernist literary critic the connection between literature and criticism, so the postmodernist philosopher annuls the relationship between reality and language — denies, indeed, the ‘essential’ nature of reality. ‘There is no way,’ Richard Rorty declares, ‘to get outside our beliefs and our language so as to find some test other than coherence.’ Like Derrida, for whom ‘metaphysics is nothing more than mythology,’ Rorty derides the ‘real live metaphysical prig’ who still believes in reality and truth, who thinks that there is some essence or foundation in reality from which truths can be deduced: ‘You can still find philosophy professors who will solemnly tell you that they are seeking the truth, not just a story or a consensus but an honest-to-God, down-home, accurate representation of the way the world is. A few of them will even claim to write in a clear, precise, transparent way, priding themselves on manly straightforwardness, on abjuring “literary” devices.’ Philosophy, Rorty insists, should not be ‘taken seriously’ because it teaches neither wisdom nor virtue. The proper role of philosophers is to cultivate a ‘light-minded aestheticism, . . . dream up as many new contexts as possible, . . . be as polymorphous in our adjustments as possible, . . . recontextualize for the hell of it.’ Echoing those historians who would fictionalize history, Rorty pays tribute to the ‘wisdom of the novel,’ because the novel, unlike philosophy, is not burdened by ‘transcultural notions of validity.’

“The effect of postmodernism has been to create a genuinely interdisciplinary academic culture — or not so much interdisciplinary in the old sense, in which one discipline inspires and vivifies another, as transdisciplinary, in which each discipline loses its distinctive character and all become indistinguishable. ‘The historicity of [literary] texts and the textuality of history,’ ‘the historical text as literary artifact,’ the aestheticization and fictionalization of both philosophy and history, the problematization and feminization of all the disciplines — this confusion and amalgamation of genres is the hallmark of postmodernism and, perhaps, its greatest triumph. And it is here that one can see most clearly the methodological implications of postmodernism. For the loss of a distinctive disciplinary character necessarily involves the loss of a distinctive methodology — or of any methodology. . . .

“The most recent interdisciplinary trend is subjectivism, or the ‘nouveau solipsism,’ as it has been called. (Among French historians, it is known as ‘égo-histoire.’) In this country, it has been adopted mainly by feminists who have made it part of their methodology. It does not merely ‘engender’ scholarship; it personalizes it. ‘The I’s Have It’ is the apt title of a recent article describing this tendency. The approach to any subject is insistently personal, dwelling upon the feelings, emotions, beliefs, and personal experiences of the scholar. The point is not that professors have taken to writing their autobiographies, nor that they are indulging themselves in occasional reminiscences or personal reflections. What is new is the dominating presence of the author in the scholarly enterprise itself: in a study of Japanese society, or a comparison of primitive and Western culture, or the life of a Mexican peddler, or the analysis of a French painter. The traditionally impersonal, objective voice of the scholar — the ‘footnote voice,’ as it has been disparagingly called — is replaced by the ‘I,’ the triumphal personal voice of the author. ‘George Eliot, c’est moi,’ declares a biographer of the great Victorian novelist.

“It is hard to assess just how far and how deeply these new (or no longer so new) developments have penetrated into the study of the humanities. It may well be that traditional scholars still outnumber the nontraditional. But intellectual life cannot be quantified; Marxists in the 1930s and 1940s constituted a small proportion of the professoriate, yet they were influential far beyond their numbers. It may also be true that in their own research and writing a good many scholars continue to adhere to traditional methods and standards (although not, perhaps, as rigorously as they might once have done). But they are often unable to translate their own practices into their teaching, to transmit to their students methods and standards that are no longer observed in the profession as a whole.”

— from Gertrude Himmelfarb, “‘Beyond Method,’” in What’s Happened to the Humanities? edited by Alvin Kernan (Princeton University Press, 1997)

Related Products

Manners and the Civil Society
Regular price

Manners and the Civil Society

Unit price per