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  • Context-Sensitivity and Its Feedback:The Two-Sidedness of Humanistic Discourse
  • Wolfgang Iser

What follows is not a closely reasoned argument, but rather a string of statements that will try to describe the shifting manifestations which humanistic discourse has assumed in its fairly short history. For this purpose, I have singled out significant issues that highlight both its functions and its predicaments within the development of the humanities in the West. It is, however, important to realize that the expression does not refer to a well-defined construct; it is rather a blanket term for the multiformity of shapes that humanistic discourse has taken.



  1. 1. The nearest German equivalent to the term "humanities" is "interpretierende Geisteswissenschaften" —basically an interpretive activity —which already implies that the discourse equated with this activity does not have a fixed subject matter but is always open to changing objectives. For this reason shifts both in thematic orientation and in methodological approaches have occurred since the inception of the humanities at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

  2. 2. The term "humanistic discourse" designates a dual operation which, on the one hand, views the function of the humanities from a contextual perspective and, on the other, feeds its assessment back into these contextual realities. This two-sidedness is a hallmark of humanistic [End Page 1] discourse, which is meant not only to grasp the significance of its subject matters, such as literature and the arts, from a stance outside themselves but also to channel them into what originally conditioned the viewing. Thus humanistic discourse becomes an interface between contextual realities and humanistic subject matters.

  3. 3. Contextual realities provide frames, thus setting parameters for the humanistic discourse through which literature and the arts are to be conceived. These frames, in turn, are subject to diversification insofar as the discourse transmits to them what has been revealed by its grasp of the subject matter. Such reciprocity brings the two-sidedness of humanistic discourse to full fruition, not least as it also tends to highlight the limitations of the frames.

  4. 4. Frames, therefore, are not paradigms in the Kuhnian sense, because they are not "predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like."1 Instead, they condition the focus of the humanistic discourse, which is meant to elucidate the function or even the nature of literature and the arts for the outside world. Although the scholarly community may work for a certain period of time within the parameters of a dominant frame, this does not mean —as is the case with a scientific paradigm —that basic assumptions must be defended "if necessary at considerable cost."2 This is due to the context-sensitivity of humanistic discourse, which reacts to the requirements of a reality outside the humanities.

  5. 5. For this reason such discourse has a diversification of its own, which reflects the specific nature of the contextual guidelines under which it operates. However, what the different manifestations of the [End Page 2] discourse share is a link-up between the contextual frames and the responses to be fed back into them by what literature and the arts have revealed.


Historical preliminaries

The humanities entered the stage when at the end of the eighteenth century rhetoric came under stress, as it finally became obvious that the art of persuasion could not be taught.3 The clearer this observation became, the more inevitable was the demise of the study of rhetoric in the liberal arts schools. A major response to this decline was the growing interest of the romantics in the national heritage and the vernacular tradition, out of which gradually arose the national philologies that to a large extent still form the institutional structure of the humanities.4

The Nation-State

  1. 1. Philology, born out of the spirit of the nation-state, was for a long time taken for granted, since the nation was to find and secure its raison d'être through the study of its own literature, history, and philosophy. The idea of the nation-state legitimized the humanities, just as the latter seemed to render an ideal expression of the former.

  2. 2. The nation-state, however, not only provided...


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