We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge—and with good reason. We have never sought ourselves—how could it happen that we should ever find ourselves?Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals
Is it possible that in their endless quest for knowledge scholars have neglected to know or even try to know themselves? How could they have overlooked—how could they have avoided—so fundamental a task? Have they perhaps convinced themselves that it is impossible to bring themselves into the field of knowledge, or that self-knowledge, no matter how useful for individuals, is unnecessary for them in their role as scholars? If scholars have refused to acquire self-knowledge, are we then to understand that scholarship is something that people can do without knowing what they do, or what they are when they are doing it? These questions are especially pertinent with respect to the field Nietzsche was describing, which today would be called the humanities. If humanistic scholars were to know themselves as scholars, what would they know? Or, to put the question in a somewhat more manageable form, what are the humanities? When humanists practice their craft, what are they doing?
In our time, as in Nietzsche's, such questions are rarely asked. There are defenses of the humanities, lamentations about the state of the humanities, critiques of the humanities, and historical accounts of the humanities without number, but very little in the way of a positive account of what humanistic scholars actually do. There is no Department of the Humanities in any institution of higher education [End Page 509] where novices might be taught the rules of the game. And since the various humanistic disciplines have developed individually, without reference to the others, it is not at all clear that there are any rules. Always in the plural, the humanities can appear to be a collection of scholarly practices linked by nothing more substantive than administrative convenience to form a unit comparable in size to the natural and social sciences. One becomes a humanist by default, in the course of becoming something else—a literary scholar, a theater historian, a student of philosophy—in the same way that newborn humans are also mammals. Perhaps mammalian unconsciousness is enough, but on the Aristotelian premise that the desire for knowledge is an attribute of the human species, and ought, a fortiori, to be an attribute of humanist scholars, whose primary business, after all, is to contribute to human self-understanding, I would like here to try to describe the assumptions, procedures, goals, and effects of humanistic scholarship. My argument is that the humanities in their modern form—that is, the form they have taken in the American academy since the end of the Second World War—reflect a definite concept, a disciplinary specificity that encompasses all the humanities disciplines and distinguishes them from other, nonhumanistic disciplines.
That is the argument. But the context is important as well. At a time when the humanities, along with the tradition of mass liberal education that they anchor and the public sphere to which they give shape, depth, and meaning, are all under attack—when the humanities are often portrayed as if they were a curio, an irrelevance, or a luxury incompatible with the new realities and therefore dangerous to young people, the economy, and the state—at such a time, it is important to pause for a moment to undertake a precise description of what it is we are being asked, or urged, or—if these fail—forced to abandon. And at a time when technology is said to be reconfiguring the form of knowledge itself, we should make an effort to understand the character of the humanities that is being subjected to refashioning so we can decide whether or what or how to resist. And, finally, at a time when many of the most animated conversations are taking place between the humanities and such disciplines as neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, so that convergence, consilience, and the unification of knowledge seem more compelling concepts than disciplinary integrity, we should mark what would be lost by the...