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[This text was presented as an invited paper at the Calgary Humanities Institute Research Network on the

Justification of the Humanities, University of Calgary (10-11 March 1995). The organizers had made it clear that
their own orientation was conservative or neoconservative; this paper proposed to upset their applecart. Plans to
publish the proceedings of the conference fell through by early 1996: by that time, my book Lunar Perspectives:
Field Notes from the Culture Wars had appeared, and due to overlaps between this piece and several sections of
that book, I left this text unpublished. Some parts of its argument, however, may retain a separate interest.]

[Index: political correctness, critical humanism, literary theory, higher education]

[Date: 1995]

Humanism, Theory, the Humanities:

The (Dis)function of Criticism at the Present Time

Michael Keefer

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it the way
it really was (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes
up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that
image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by
history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the
tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of
becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be
made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to
overpower it.
Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, VI

We are here to discuss the justification of the humanities. But what meanings does
this phrase carry? Let us ignore, for the moment at least, the earliest attested (and now
long obsolete) sense of justificationa word which in the legal discourse of the
fourteenth and fifteenth centuries denoted the execution of a sentence, or capital
punishment. We are engaged, I take it, in something diametrically opposed to stringing up

or beheading the humanities: an exercise, rather, of exculpation or of apologetics, of

vindication, defence, and legitimation.
But should we perhaps also admit, in a figurative sense, that further meaning
which justification carried in printing shopsthe adjustment or alignment of the
borders of a type-face within the printer's forme, bringing (as Moxon wrote in his 1683
disquisition on printing) the Right and left-sides of a Matrice to an exact thickness?1
Though the allegory may be blatant, it is not frivolous. For in undertaking to
justify the humanities, we are very clearly entering the domain of cultural politics.
Whether we acknowledge the fact or try to conceal it from ourselves, we are by
implication embarking on a process of alignment and adjustment, of definition and
delimitation, one result of which will be a determination of what is to count as belonging
to the text of the humanities, and where precisely the discursive space assigned to this
category will end, giving way on the right and on the left to the blank margins that
constitute its boundaries.
Justification, then, implies a politics of delimitation, of adjustment and
alignment, as well as a politics of legitimation. And there may well arise within this
cultural politics of delimitation, which operates as an inescapable counterpoint to the
politics of legitimation, some shadow of that earliest attested meaning of justification.
For if certain notions of what belongs within the humanities are to be consigned to the
margins, either quietly or by main force, then they are in effect being justifiedgiven
the chopin something like that archaic sense.
If time permitted, I would want to pose in the main body of this paper a number of
linked questions about what precisely is to be justified, in the sense of vindication or
legitimationand to whom, and for what purposes. As it is, I will be able only to touch
upon these areas of inquiry. But before doing so, I would like briefly to consider the
context within which any attempt at a justification of the humanities must now be
situated. The fact that current work in certain areas of the humanities has during the past
five years become the object of a sustained campaign of vilificationone might almost
say of demonizationis not something that any serious discussion of the justification of
the humanities can evade.

1 Oxford English Dictionary, Justify, 9.

The great game of PC-bashing began in 1990. According to the NEXIS database,
the term political correctness, which did not so much as appear in the American print
media in 1985, was mentioned by a total of thirty-six articles during the next four years,
and by sixty-six articles, some of them very widely noticed, in 1990. Then came the
explosion. The number of articles referring to this term rose to 1,553 in 1991, to 2,672 in
1992, and to 4,643 in 1993, with a further 1,427 in the first quarter of 1994. 2 A large
proportion of these references have occurred in the course of attacks upon university
scholars in the humanities (most especially in the fields of literary and cultural studies),
who have thus for half a decade been on the receiving end of a rising chorus of criticism
and abuse from neoconservative journalists, think-tankers, government officials, and
fellow academics in the United States and Canada. (And then there are the radio talkshow hosts.)
The flow of brickbats has of course not been entirely one-way. But as Ellen
Messer-Davidow has shown in her exhaustively documented study of the institutional
framework of the attack on what she calls liberalized higher education, the resources
available to neoconservative participants in the debate have been of a different order of
magnitude than those accessible to their opponents.3
The situation in Canada is in at least three respects crucially different from that in
the United States. For example, in 1987 conservative academics in the U.S. formed the
National Association of Scholars; between 1989 and 1991-92, NAS's support in grants
from conservative foundations (including Olin, Scaife, Coors, and Smith-Richardson) and
other donors rose from $611,000 per year to almost $683,000substantial subsidies for
an organization which by 1993 claimed some 3,000 members. Thanks to this support, to
its affiliation with the Madison Center for Educational Affairs, and to its close ties with
conservative think-tanks like the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation, NAS has
been able to exercise a significant influence upon the unfolding of the political
correctness controversy.4 NAS's Canadian equivalent, the Society for Academic
2 The NEXIS database figures are quoted from Democratic Culture 3.1 (Spring 1994): 2.
3 Ellen Messer-Davidow, Manufacturing the Attack on Liberalized Higher Education, Social Text 36
(Fall 1993): 40-80.
4 Messer-Davidow, 49, 60, 63-64; see also Jon Wiener, Dollars for Neocon Scholars, The Nation (1
January 1990): 12-14; Sara Diamond, Readin', Writin', and Repressin', Z Magazine (February 1991):
45-48; and Michael Keefer, 'Outside Agitators,' Inside Activists: Who's Paying for What?, Philosophy

Freedom and Scholarship, was founded in 1992 and held its first conference in March
1993, under the auspices of the Fraser Institute and with financial support from NAS. 5
Although its more than 200 members include some distinguished (and some very vocal)
scholars, SAFS has not had a comparable influence upon public discourse in Canadain
part because there is not as yet a comparable infrastructure of right-wing foundations and
think-tanks in this country.
Another significant difference between our situation and that of our American
colleagues resides in the fact that research funding in Canada has not been politicized to
anything like the degree it has in the United States. The arms' length principle that has
prevailed in Canadian governmental funding for cultural production and humanities
research appears to have protected our Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council,
up to the present, from the blatantly political manipulation to which the American
National Endowment for the Humanities has been subjected.
Like the members of SSHRC's governing Council, members of NEH's National
Council on Humanities are supposed to be appointed on the basis of their scholarly
qualifications: the Council is congressionally mandated to provide a comprehensive
representation of the views of scholars and professional practitioners in the humanities.
But by 1991, when at least four of the Council's twenty-seven members were also
members of NAS, fears arose that Lynne Cheney, the Chairman of NEH, was seeking to
stack the Council with scholars who shared her adamant opposition to non-traditional
methodologies in the humanities. When in that year the nomination of Carol Iannone,
another prominent NAS activist, was opposed by the Modern Language Association on
the grounds that she had published less than a handful of scholarly articles, a noisy
controversy ensued, one of the highlights of which was Newsweek columnist George F.
Will's labelling of the MLA's more than 30,000 members as enemies of the people.
Claiming that MLA hostility is nearly necessary for creating confidence in anyone
proposed for a position of cultural importance, Will described Lynne Cheney as
secretary of domestic defense in a low-visibility, high-intensity cultural warand
compared her role to that of her husband Richard, George Bush's Secretary of Defense.
But according to Will, The foreign adversaries her husband, Dick, must keep at bay are
and Social Action 19.1-2 (January-June 1993): 18-23.
5 The program of the University in Jeopardy conference, held on March 12, 1993 at the Royal York
Hotel in Toronto, acknowledged financial support from NAS in bringing in the conference's principal
speaker, Dinesh D'Souza (who was accompanied at the conference by Barry Gross, the treasurer of

less dangerous, in the long run, than the domestic forces with which she must deal.6
Fears of a politicized stacking of the NEH Council were revived in 1992, when at
least half of a slate of eight new nominees turned out to be NAS members. 7 In the same
year, scholars from several disciplines, supported by former NEH staff members,
presented evidence to show that under the chairmanship of Lynne Cheney, research
applications from controversial scholars and from those who use non-traditional
approaches are routinely rejected ... even when the proposals get top ratings from the
agency's own peer reviewers. According to one former NEH staff member, Projects
dealing with Latin America, the Caribbean, some women's studies, and anything
appearing as vaguely left wing are seen as suspect; another claimed that applicants are
warned away from certain buzz words, such as social history, deconstruction, or
feminism.8 Nor were concerns about the integrity of the NEH calmed when Harvey C.
Mansfield, one of the 1991 nominees to the Council whose confirmation had gone
unopposed, declared his intention to adopt a West Point approach and sound the guns
against those in the humanities who want to destroy the greatness of our intellectual past.
In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mansfield made clear his
agenda as an opponent of multicultural curricula, affirmative action programs, women's
studies, and African-American studies. Remarking that the Constitutional principles
which shape American political life have lately come to be menaced by the increasing
democratization of politics, he added: It's ironic that conservatives have to use politics
to rid the campus of politics, but we do.9
A third difference between the Canadian and American scenes is a matter of the
extent to which the latter has become pervaded by what might be called organized
incivility. For example, on June 12, 1994 the New York Times Book Review ran a critical
review by Nina Auerbach of Christina Hoff Sommers' book Who Stole Feminism? On the
following Monday the paper's phone lines were jammed by callers angrily urging the
editor to disavow the review. With the help of an advance copy of the review and the
willing collaboration of conservative journalists, Sommers herself subjected Auerbach to
6 George F. Will, Literary Politics, Newsweek (22 April 1991): 72.
7 President Bush Names 8 Scholars to Sit on Humanities Board, The Chronicle of Higher Education (8
April 1992): A25.
8 Stephen Burd, Chairman of Humanities Fund Has Politicized Grants Process, Critics Charge, The
Chronicle of Higher Education (22 April 1992): A1, A32-33.
9 Karen J. Winkler, A Conservative Plans to 'Sound the Guns' at NEH, The Chronicle of Higher
Education (22 April 1992): A33.

a campaign of vilification, based upon the claim that Auerbach, recognizing herself as a
teacher of Sommers' nephew at the University of Pennsylvania who had been criticized in
the book, had in an act of professional malfeasance used the review to settle scores.
By June 14, Auerbach had been denounced by Jim Sleeper in the New York Daily News as
a liar, and her review had been described by Hilton Kramer in the New York Post as a
major intellectual scandal. Within days, Rush Limbaugh was informing his radio
audience of some twenty million Americans that 'militant gender feminazi feminism' and
the New York Times were trying 'to kill this book' by 'reacting hysterically.' 10 As
Auerbach herself writes,
The issue to Sleeper and to subsequent columnists became, not
politics, scholarship, feminism, her book, or my review, but their
attempts to get me to acknowledge an anonymous comment
Christina Sommers claimed was on a term paper no one in the
press ever asked her to produce.... Had Sommers lied less
stupidly, bringing in larger, more important issues than my own
self-interest; had I not had a twelve-year association with the
Book Review; had the pressure on the Times been less boorishI
might have fallen into the abyss reserved for those whose book
reviews are disclaimed and their authority taken away.11
There has as yet been no equivalent episode on this side of the border. However,
the temperature of debate on such issues as multiculturalism and gender appears to be
rising, as may be instanced by some of the more regrettable lapses in John Fekete's recent
book Moral Panic. Fekete declares, for example, that two decades of biofeminism
[have] succeeded in infecting our thoughts and feelings with the viral cancer of half truths
and the emotional tyranny of false appealsthereby uncritically succumbing, I would
suggest, to the very condition named in the title of his book.12
The foregoing glimpses of the political correctness controversy should not be
allowed to obscure the fact that, as Wayne Booth has suggested, the PC ploy has on
10 John K. Wilson, Sommers and Her Conspiracies, Democratic Culture 3.2 (Fall 1994): 9.
11 Nina Auerbach, Christina's World, Democratic Culture 3.2 (Fall 1994): 12.
12 John Fekete, Moral Panic: Biopolitics Rising (Montral and Toronto: Robert Davies Publishing, 1994),
p. 345 n.4. Do we need to be reminded that, as Susan Sontag has observed, the social application of
disease metaphors of this kind is very commonly an invitation to social surgerythat is, to violence?
Fekete's book merits close reading and commentary, but while his arguments are in some places
forceful, they are elsewhere not sufficiently cogent to support his conclusions.

occasion been used to attack something that actually deserves attack: self-righteous,
smug or repressive (and thus morally inconsistent) impositions of 'tolerance' or
'civility.'13 I hope they may suffice to show that whatever attempts at a justification of the
humanities we engage in here must be understood within a larger context, which in recent
years has been characterized by determined and well-funded attempts to justifyto realign, to legitimizethe discourses which inhabit the area bordering on the right margin
of the humanities, while at the same time subjecting those towards the left margin to a
more summary kind of justificationto something very much resembling a sentence of

One of the most commonly repeated charges levelled by neoconservative
polemicists against contemporary scholarship and teaching in the humanities appears in
what might be called its canonical form in Roger Kimball's book Tenured Radicals: How
Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education. According to Kimball,
Proponents of deconstruction, feminist studies, and other
politically motivated challenges to the traditional tenets of
humanistic study have by now become the dominant voice in the
humanities departments of many of our best colleges and
universities. And while there are differences and even struggles
among these various groups, when seen from the perspective of
the tradition they are seeking to subvertthe tradition of high
culture embodied in the classics of Western art and thoughtthey
exhibit a remarkable unity of purpose. Their object is nothing less
than the destruction of the values, methods and goals of
13 Wayne Booth, A Politically Correct Letter to the Newspaper, Democratic Culture 3.1 (Spring 1994):
2. More often, Booth adds, references to political correctness serve as a mere coverup for positions
authors prefer not to express openlysuch as mockery of (1) decency; (2) legality; (3) moral or
ethical standards; (4) justice, fairness, equality of opportunity; (5) tact, courtesy, concern about hurting
people's feelings unnecessarily; (6) generosity; (7) kindness; (8) courage in defending the underdog; (9)
anti-bigotry; (10) anti-racism; (11) anti-anti-Semitism; (12) anti-fascism; (13) anti-sexism; (14) refusal
to kneel to mammon; (15) sympathetic support for the jobless, the homeless, the impoverished, or the
abused; (16) preservation of an environment in which human life might survive; (17) openness to the
possibility that certain popular right-wing dogmas just might be erroneous.

traditional humanistic study.14

This passage deploys the first three terms of my titlehumanism, theory, the
humanitiesin a pattern whose classic paranoia mirrors the conclusion of my last
paragraph: the politically motivated discourses collectively referred to as theory, and
seen by Kimball as antithetical to the values, methods and goals of humanistic study or
humanism, are in the process of taking over the humanities. (As may already be evident, I
disagree with Kimball's diagnosis, which combines unrelenting hostility towards new
currents of interpretation with a very partial and sadly limited understanding of the
traditions he so earnestly wishes to defend.)
The mere mention of theory seems to be enough to trigger an aggressive reflex
on the part of some neoconservative polemicists: it is presumably on account of the first
word in the title of their book Theory of Literature (1949) that Austin Warren and Ren
Wellek earned the disapprobation of Dinesh D'Souza, who in one of the more idiotically
off-target broadsides of his bestseller Illiberal Education owlishly reproaches them for
having disseminated the notion that the definition of literature was problematic and
posited circumstances under which Shakespeare might be displaced by the Manhattan
phone book or by graffiti.15 Yet while reductive caricatures of theory have become the
special property of neoconservative participants in recent debates over the orientation of
liberal education, humanism appears to be more generally misunderstoodby the
theorists who typically attack it, by the traditionalists who defend it, and of course by the
public, whom one could hardly expect to make sense of a matter that has been so
thoroughly obfuscated by the experts.

14 Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (1990; rpt. New
York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. xi.
15 Dinesh D'Souza, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (New York: The Free
Press, 1991), p. 177. The joke resides in the fact that Wellek and Warren were principal theorists of the
New Criticism, which during the 1940s and 1950s became the dominant interpretive tendency within
English departments in the North American academy, and remains the basis of what is now thought of
as traditional literary interpretationeven though in 1948 the New Criticism was denounced by
Douglas Bush, then president of the Modern Language Association, for its aloof intellectuality and
avoidance of moral values (see Gerald Graff, Professing Literature [Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1987], p. 248). Criticizing the New Critics' appalling professional jargon, which makes reading
a science for experts, G. B. Harrison, another pre-New Critical traditionalist, proposed that There is a
great danger that the study of English literature may be destroyed by the new critics... (Profession of
English [1962; rpt. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1967], pp. 64-65).

The related term humanities is sometimes also misunderstood. Two years ago in
the Chteau Laurier in Ottawa, I had the pleasure of attending the Corporate Humanist
Awards banquet organized by the Canadian Federation for the Humanities as a means of
enlisting support within the private sector for humanities research and teaching.16 Mingled
and yet wholly distinct, like the droplets of oil and vinegar in an ill-shaken salad dressing,
business people and the representatives of some fifty-odd scholarly associations made
hesitant conversation under the glittering chandeliers of the banqueting hall. Yet it was
after the salad courseand after the rubber chicken and scarcely less rubbery dessert as
wellthat I was made aware by the gentleman on my right, a senior executive and a
nominee for a Corporate Humanist award, of how perplexing he found the whole
occasion. What, he asked me, did all this chatter about scholarshipabout history,
philosophy, musicology, classics, and literary theoryhave to do with the Federation for
the Humanities' humanitarian goals?
I am not going to tell you what I said in response. The genre of my anecdote must
by now be clear: in Vladimir Propp's taxonomy of folk tales there are no doubt analogues
to it among the stories told by braggarts and tricksters. This may be enough to suggest
that the probability of you being naive enough to believe any conclusion to this tale that
flatters its teller is no larger than the probability of my being modest enough to recount
one that doesn't.
Turning therefore from a narrative to an interrogative mode, let me ask you for
advice. How should I have responded? Would it have been appropriate to make a learned
allusion to the Noctes atticae of the second century A.D. Grammarian Aulus Gellius? He
explains that
Those who have spoken Latin and have used the language
correctly, do not give to the word humanitas the meaning it is
commonly thought to have, namely, what the Greeks call
philanthropia, signifying a kind of friendly spirit and good feeling
toward all men without distinction. Rather they give to humanitas
about the force of the Greek paideia, that is, what we call
16 An initiative of Professor Roseann Runte during her tenure as President of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities,
the Corporate Humanist Awards were intended to encourage members of Canada's corporate elite to provide financial
and political support to humanities scholarship, teaching and research in Canadian universities. In this the awards were
an abject failure: the derisory total of corporate donations received in 1993 came to substantially less than the CFH's
disbursements in awards to various Corporate Humanists.

learning and instruction in good or liberal arts. Those who

earnestly desire and seek after these are most highly humanized.17
It might have been undiplomatic to reveal to my dinner companion that he shared
with the corporate humanists of Nero's and Caligula's time a very basic misapprehension
about the nature of the humanities. (I can imagine his face assuming the thoughtful
expression of one who has found a scorpion in the pocket that he thought contained his
Or should I have confronted more directly the much larger question which
underlies the naive one of my dinner companionand which has very appropriately been
made the theme of this conference? What benefit is there, and to whom, in all our chatter
within and about the humanities? How are we to legitimize what we do?

One problem with the question in this form is that it presupposes a belief that we
are all doing much the same thing. But is it not the case, in the field of literary and
cultural studies at least, that a number of very different and mutually incompatible things
are being done? Is there not, for example, a radical incompatibility between those of us
who would describe themselves as humanists, guardians of a traditional literary canon
and of traditionalist canons of interpretation, and those whose interpretive practices are
inflected rather by post-Heideggerian hermeneutics, deconstruction, discourse theory,
feminism, cultural materialism, or (one of the most recent developments) queer theory?
Perhaps so, since some of the tendencies in that second list are programmatically antihumanist, in the sense of rejecting claims about human autonomy and selfhood that are
widely assumed to be implied by humanism.
And yet even the most preliminary gesture in the direction of historicizing these
terms leads to unsettling results. Take, for example, the first and last of the terms I have
mentioned: humanist and queer theory. In what appears to be the earliest occurrence
of the word umanista in Italian literature, Ariosto wrote:
Senza quel vizio son pochi umanisti
17 Aulus Gellius, Noctes atticae, xvii, translation quoted from Donald R. Kelley, Renaissance Humanism
(Boston: Twayne, 1991), p. 2.

che fe' a Dio forza, non che persase,

di far Gomorra e i suoi vicini tristi...
Ride il volgo, se sente un ch'abbia vena
di poesia, e poi dice:E gran periglio
a dormir seco e volgierli la sciena.
[Few humanists are without that vice which did not so much
persuade, as forced, God to render Gomorrah and her neighbour
wretched .... The vulgar laugh when they hear of someone who
possesses a vein of poetry, and then they say, it is a great peril to
turn your back if you sleep next to him.]18
This is satire, to be sure. Yet writings of Erasmus and other centrally canonical
humanists could be adduced in support of the view that there are important intersections
between the cultural practices of Renaissance humanism and the territory marked out by
queer theory as its own. To what extent, then, does humanism, once we choose to
remember the term's historical dimensions, remain antithetical to some of the other labels
in that list of contemporary modes of interpretation?
Consider for a moment the case of Henricus Cornelius Agrippa, whose
participation in the early sixteenth-century humanist republic of letters included active
correspondence with Reuchlin, Trithemius, Erasmus, Lefvre d'taples, Capito, and
Melanchthon. Agrippa's most frequently reprinted book, translated into English as Of the
Vanities and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences, offers a radically sceptical challenge to
the first principles of scholastic logic, and in a parodic recapitulation of the labours of
Hercules proposes a sequence of serio-comic refutationsI nearly said deconstructions
of all human knowledge. There is indeed a sense in which Agrippa's writings could be
described as participating in a proto-deconstructive countercurrent to the orthodoxies of
his age. Resonances with deconstruction will be obvious to any reader of the philosopher
Jacques Derrida's essay La pharmacie de Platon who considers Agrippa's suggestion
that his book De occulta philosophia is of quasi-medicinal value (nam & medicorum
volumina inspicientibus contingit cum antidotis & pharmacis simul etiam venena legere:
for they that look into the books of physicians, do together with antidotes and medicines,

18 The Satires of Ludovico Ariosto, trans. Peter DeSa Wiggins (Athens, Ohio University Press, 1976), pp.
152-53; qtd. from William Kerrigan and Gordon Braden, The Idea of the Renaissance (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1989), pp. 29-30.

read also poisons)19together with the vehement opinion of orthodox polemicists that
Agrippa's textual pharmakon was not medicine but, as the late-sixteenth-century
chronicler Andr Thevet wrote, [la] regorge de sa mortelle poison, and that Agrippa
himself was a witch-doctor or pharmakeusin the words of the contemporaneous
political theorist Jean Bodin, le plus grand Sorcier qui fut oncques de son aagerather
than a doctor of souls.20
This embattled humanist also stands out, no less clearly, as a male feminist. In one
of his earlier writings, De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus, he argues (I quote
from a mid-sixteenth century translation) that
betwene man and woman by substance of the soule, one hath no
higher pre-emynence of nobylytye above the other, but both of
them naturally have equall libertie of dignitie and worthynesse.
But all other thynges, the which be in a man, besydes the dyvyne
substance of the soule, in those thynges the excellente and noble
womanheed in a manner infynytely dothe excell the rude grosse
kynd of men....21
Some of the arguments with which Agrippa develops this claim are deliberately
frivolous, and yet he insistently challenges the misogynist and patriarchal legal culture by
which women, being subdewed as it were by force of armes, are constrained to give
place to men, and to obeye theyr subdewers, not by no naturall no[r] divyne necessitie or
reason, but by custome, education, fortune, and a certayne tyrannical occasion.22
Nor was his feminism merely theoretical. At a time when such interventions were
dangerous, he mocked the theological faculty of the University of Cologne for having
given its approval to that notorious handbook of witch-hunters, the brutally misogynist
Malleus maleficarum; and when in 1518 he served as municipal advocate in the city of
Metz, he put his life and career on the line by intervening in the case of a woman who had
been arrested and tortured by the inquisition on a charge of witchcraft: Agrippa secured
19 See Agrippa, Opera, ed. R.H. Popkin (2 vols.; Lyon, c. 1600; facsimile rpt. Hildesheim: Georg Olms
Verlag, 1970), vol. 1, sig. A2v; the translation is that of J.F. (1651), cited from Three Books of Occult
Philosophy written by Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, ed. Donald Tyson (St. Paul, Minnesota:
Llewellyn Publications, 1993), p. li.
20 Thevet, Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres (2 vols.; Paris, 1584), vol. 2, fol. 544; Bodin,
De la dmonomanie des sorciers (Paris, 1581), fol. 219v.
21 Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Of the nobilitie and excellencie of womankynde (London, 1542), sigs. A2vA3.
22 Ibid., sig. G.

her release and the return of her propertyand made the inquisitor who was persecuting
her answer to a charge of heresy.23

The point of these examples is not to suggest that some clearly definable ideology
called Renaissance humanism can be identified as congruent with or ancestral to such
contemporary tendencies as feminism, deconstruction, and queer theory. As is widely
known, the cultural practices associated with humanism arose out of the interactions of a
nascent (or re-nascent) Italian civic culture with the remains of ancient Roman and
Hellenistic literary, rhetorical, juristic, philosophical, and historiographical writings; and
as Paul Oskar Kristeller has rightly insisted, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the
term humanist carried no specific doctrinal or ideological sense, but referred simply to
a professor or student of the studia humanitatis, which was a well defined cycle of
teaching subjects listed as grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history and moral philosophy....24
However, I want to emphasize one crucial feature of this development: namely,
that humanism opened out within that civic culture a discursive space, which the advent
of printing subsequently made accessible across western Europe under the name of the
republic of lettersa space within which various forms of writing (among them the
highly wrought epistles with which humanists flattered, cajoled and bombarded one
another) could acquire a previously unknown degree of autonomy, and within which
thoroughgoing critiques of constituted authority and of authoritative dogma could be
envisaged and undertaken.
I am thus not seeking to identify Renaissance or early modern humanism with any
particular collection of ideological currents. The ideological and discursive complexion of
humanism can be more adequately appreciated if humanism is conceived rather as a
collection of enabling strategies, which is also to say, a rhetoric (Renaissance humanism
was, if anything, rhetorical)but a rhetoric whose general tendency and function was to
23 See Charles G. Nauert, Jr., Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought (Urbana, Illinois: University
of Illinois Press, 1965), pp. 59-61. The inquisitor had charged that the woman must be a witch because
her mother had likewise been accused of sorcery: Agrippa responded that this was evidence of heresy, in
the form of a flat denial of the efficacy of the sacrament of baptism.
24 P.O. Kristeller, Renaissance Thought and the Arts: Collected Essays (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1990), p. 3.

bring into being and to sustain a discursive space, a public sphere, within which the
power of established authority could no longer sustain its previously overwhelming
position as a criterion of judgment, and within which the goal of legitimizing established
authority no longer exercised a determinative influence upon the various forms of writing
which at one and the same time constituted and were enabled by this newly opened
discursive space or public sphere.
Thus, for example, Johannes Reuchlin's struggle against the theologians of the
mendicant orders in support of the right of Jews within the Holy Roman Empire to retain
their own books and practise their religion, which opened up a ten-year struggle, likened
at the time to another siege of Troy, was supported by a chorus of humanist writers,
among them Ulrich von Hutten with his brilliantly acerbic collections of Epistolae
obscurorum virorum. In a similar sense, the old claim that Luther hatched the egg
Erasmus laid has this much truth to it: first, that Luther took on, though with very
different inflections, a humanist project of return ad fontes; and secondly, that what saved
Luther from the fate of Jan Hus during the crucial years from 1517 to 1521 may very well
have been the fact that many participants in that humanist culture which Erasmus can
metonymically be taken to represent identified Eleutherius (the humanist cognomen
with which Luther signed some of his early writings, and a name that humanists evidently
felt to resonate with their discursive projects) as one of their own.25
One can hardly mention Erasmus and Luther in the same breath without
remembering that in 1524-25 their controversy over free-will established a clear line of
demarcation between a Platonizing humanist theology and the theology of Reformation
Neo-Augustinianism. But as I have already proposed, the most helpful way of delimiting
Renaissance humanism may be through an analysis of discursive function rather than of
ideological or doctrinal content. To take just one example, Cornelius Agrippa was active
in disseminating Luther's writings in the early 1520s, and his De vanitate (written in
1526, printed 1530) appears to contain strong echoes of Luther's doctrines, among them
the catchword sola fide, by faith alone. At the same time, however, this book has strong
affinities with Erasmus' Praise of Folly. Is De vanitate Lutheran in tendency, as some of
its less careful readers have asserted, or is it expressive rather of a radical Erasmianism?
Neither alternative is adequate, although the second may be closer to the mark. A
25 For a convenient outline of the issue, see Alistair McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European
Reformation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), ch. 2. Eleutherius in a latinized form of the Greek word for
freedom or liberty: eleutheria.

consideration of discursive function would show that for all its piety and its apparent
biblicism, De vanitate is engaged in the same project of a dispersal of originary authority
that is more clearly evident in De occulta philosophia;26 its rhetoric operates quite clearly
to open up a space within which something resembling a genuinely critical discourse
becomes possibleand, not at all surprisingly, its early reception history is marked by
attempts to close down such a space.27

In this light, the history of twentieth-century appropriations of the term
humanism is a melancholy one. One example will suffice: Douglas Bush's classic study
The Renaissance and English Humanism (1939). Bush makes clear his desire, without
denying the importance, the necessity, of the rebellious side of the Renaissance ... to
emphasize the more neglected and, I think, more truly representative elements of
orthodox conservatism.28 In what I would call a subtractive politicizing of his subject
matter, Bush identifies humanism with this tendency. Erasmus, for example, is
proleptically transformed into a follower avant la lettre of that great Victorian Matthew
Arnold: his humanism is aligned with the ideal of a universal state in which reason and
the will of God should prevail, and with the ideal of a liberal, aristocratic, and
international orthodoxy of sweetness and light. Bush insists that The two great
philosophic enemies of religion and morality, and hence of Christian humanism, were
sceptical and naturalistic doctrines29thus with the stroke of a pen banishing from the
ambit of humanism such figures as Lorenzo Valla, Gianfrancesco Pico, Cornelius
Agrippa, Franois Rabelais, and Michel de Montaigne, not to mention Erasmus himself,
whose contributions to the development of a revived sixteenth-century scepticism have
been lucidly analyzed by Richard Popkin. 30 After this, one learns without surprise that,
26 See my article Agrippa's Dilemma: Hermetic 'Rebirth' and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De
occulta philosophia, Renaissance Quarterly 41.4 (Winter 1988): 614-53.
27 The book was promptly condemned by the theological faculties of Paris and Louvain, and subsequently
by the privy council of the Emperor Charles V.
28 Douglas Bush, The Renaissance and English Humanism (1939; rpt. Toronto: University of Toronto
Press, 1962), p. 33.
29 Bush, pp. 65, 83, 85. Sweetness and light and reason and the will of God are Arnoldian phrases
which recur throughout his most famous book, Culture and Anarchy (1869).
30 See Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1979).

like the great body of continental humanists, English humanists were unanimous in
the defence of established authoritya defence which appears, however, to have been
an anxious matter. For as Bush immediately adds, this solid, all-embracing orthodoxy is
a dyke which the smallest stream of water may undermine and every hole must be
stopped. But reinforcements are available: Shakespeare himself, we are informed, is no
less attached than the most orthodox humanist to constituted authority, is no less scornful
of the mob.31
The image of Shakespeare in the role of the boy in the Dutch folk-tale, earnestly
pressing his finger into a hole in the dyke, is idiotic. But what is more substantially
wrong with this is its partiality, in both senses of the wordits tendentious and
transparently politically motivated erasure of much that belongs within English
Renaissance humanism. Bush is engaged in what I have termed a subtractive politicizing
of humanismor what might also be called, in some or all of the senses discussed in my
opening paragraphs, a justification of humanism.

In concluding, I would like to make explicit a number of points that have only
been lightly touched on in the course of these remarks. I have suggested that humanism
has been grievously misunderstood, not just by those who have subjected the term to
orthodox misappropriations, but also by those who, in the name of theory, have
criticized or dismissed it altogether. Such dismissals commonly allude to something
called essentialist humanism, which I agree deserves criticism, but which appears to be
more distinctly a nineteenth- and twentieth-century invention, the result of reading the
history of the constitution of subjectivities through lenses tinted by post-Cartesian
ideologies of human autonomy, than anything that would arise out of a scrupulous
consideration of humanist texts of the Renaissance.32
31 Bush, pp. 88-89, 95.
32 What is needed in this respect are readings of, for example, Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico that
could be more attentive than past readings to the constitution of subjectivity in their writingsand, on
the other hand, readings of Descartes that would attend more closely to the manner in which his
discursive itineraries rest upon appropriations of specifically Renaissance materials. (For an attempt at
the latter, see my article The Dreamer's Path: Descartes and the Sixteenth Century, Renaissance
Quarterly 49 [1996], forthcoming.)

Without pretending to diminish or obscure the ideological faultlines that traverse

this area of the humanities, I have suggested that the apparent bifurcation of the field of
literary and cultural studies between theory and humanism may rest upon a number
of insufficiently examined premises. One might add that theory, no less than
humanism, is a term that demands critical scrutinynot least because the word implies
an optical relation between knower and known of a kind that seems incommensurate with
the forms of intricately reflexive analysis developed by thinkers like Michel Foucault,
Jacques Derrida, and Luce Irigaray.33
And finally, let me confront the ghost of Matthew Arnold, who has haunted this
paper from the beginning (and the title of whose best-known essay is echoed in my
subtitle). Arnold's reputation as a critic and cultural theorist in the English-speaking world
has never been easy to explain to outsiders. Do we value him as a reasoner? As Gerald
Graff observes, Arnold's idea of defending reason in Culture and Anarchy amounts to
repeating catchphrases like 'reason and the will of God' with such mind-numbing
frequency that we overlook the fact that Arnold never precisely defines these terms
indeed, he actively opposes such definition....34
Or do we value him as someone who expands our mental horizons? To quote
Graff again:
Insofar as reason implies the extension of the boundaries of
consciousness as far as they can reach, Arnold is eager to curtail
it. He inherits the romantic fear that increasing self-consciousness
means the decline of cultural health, yet missing from his
constitution is any of the romantic compulsion to stretch the
limits of self-consciousness regardless of the consequences.35
It is certainly not as a spokesman for a democratic understanding of culture that
we read Arnold. When in 1866 a crowd demonstrating in support of extending the
franchise pushed down some wrought-iron railings in what became known as the Hyde
Park riots, Arnold quoted his father's opinion: 'As for rioting, the old Roman way of
dealing with that is always the right one; flog the rank and file, and fling the ringleaders
from the Tarpeian Rock!' And this opinion we can never forsake, however our Liberal
33 The Greek word theoria refers primarily to an act of looking at, viewing or beholding, and only by
extension to a process of contemplation or speculation.
34 Gerald Graff, Arnold, Reason, and Common Culture, in Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, ed.
Samuel Lipman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), p. 189.
35 Ibid.

friends may think a little rioting, and what they call popular demonstrations, useful
sometimes to their own interests....36
Arnold's true importance is an an ideologue, the inventor of a mode of argument
which subtractively politicizes culture by separating it from the categories of the
practical and the political while at the same time mobilizing it, in an eminently
practical manner, in support of a conservative and anti-democratic cultural politics
defined for Arnold by such thinkers as Burke, Coleridge, and Joubert. This, in brief, is the
argument of Arnold's most famous essay, The Function of Criticism at the Present
At a key moment of that essay, Arnold reveals in its full perversity the logic of
cultural justification which impels his argument:
Joubert has said beautifully: C'est la force et le droit qui rglent
toutes choses dans le monde; la force en attendant le droit.
(Force and right are the governors of this world; force till right is
ready.) Force till right is ready; and till right is ready, force, the
existing order of things, is justified, is the legitimate ruler.37
Which is to say that force is legitimate, both before and after it has been legitimized. And
when will right be ready? If that which has not yet been legitimized is in fact always
already legitimate, then is there any reason why its legitimation should not be indefinitely
In the opening sections of this paper, I suggested a model of justification in
which the humanities were subject to the deforming influence of forces imagined as
externalwhether in my image of writers like Roger Kimball or Dinesh D'Souza as
malicious and ill-informed ideologues, or in their image of scholars like me as, in
D'Souza's memorable phrase, Visigoths in Tweed.38 In Arnold's quotation from Joubert,
another closely-related model is evident, one in which the domain of culture (let us say
the humanities) is made to function as a means of legitimizing or justifying the existing
order of things.
But from my brief account of humanism another possibility emerges. It is
36 Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, ed. Lipman, p. 135.
37 The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, in Arnold, Essays in Criticism (London: Macmillan,
1904), p. 12.
38 See Dinesh D'Souza, The Visigoths in Tweed, Forbes (1 April 1991): 81-86; rpt. in Beyond PC:
Towards a Politics of Understanding, ed. Patricia Aufderheide (St. Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press,
1992), pp. 11-22.

commonplace enough to suggest, as I have done, that the activities of Renaissance

humanists opened out and sustained a discursive space or public sphere within which real
movement towards a freedom at once social and individual became conceivable. (This
notion is of course no novelty: it has been extensively discussed by thinkers as diverse as
Jrgen Habermas and Terry Eagleton.)
From the same text of Walter Benjamin's which gave me the epigraph to this paper
a phrase with which to describe that movement towards and into freedom comes suddenly
into mind: a leap in the open air of history.39
I close with two questions. Are such leaps ever possible? Would human life be
endurable under the presupposition that they were not?

39 Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, XIV, in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt,
trans. Harry Zohn (1970; rpt. London: Fontana, 1973), p. 263.