How the Humanities Went Wrong

Daniel Brown on the dangerous pleasures of "insight"

"It isn’t impossible to say something new and true, just very hard, which is as it should be."
                                                                                              —Charles Rosen

A HISTORY OF insight could do worse than begin with Copernicus, who saw beneath geocentric appearances—the wheeling across the heavens of the sun, moon, and planets—to heliocentric reality. It might fast forward to Newton, who saw beneath the motions of bodies heavenly and mundane alike to the workings of gravity.  Next stop, Darwin, who discerned the single principle of natural selection beneath the dizzying variety of life. These geniuses all saw beneath the surface of things. An ability to do this isn’t necessarily what we mean, or all that we mean, by insight, but it’s what insight is going to mean here.

On to Marx—and a problem. Marx saw class struggle as the tectonic force beneath the roiling surface of history. For present purposes, the problem with this view is not that it’s open to question (let’s just say), but that, unlike the views of the abovementioned greats, it wasn’t scientifically substantiated (as though it could have been). And yet Engels characterized Marx’s putative insight as, precisely, scientific (as in “scientific socialism”). It’s hard to imagine that this characterization didn’t reflect admiration for, and aspiration to, the triumphs of science.  

The same problem arises with Freud. To his credit, he admitted that the myriad insights he propounded—to take an especially sub-surface one, that the purpose of dream “symbolism” is the protection of sleep from thoughts that would disturb it if uncamouflaged—lacked scientific substantiation. (He looked forward to a day when they would receive it from researches in biology and chemistry). But that didn’t stop him, or his disciples, from presenting his putative insights as revelatory in the great tradition of science. 

It’s a rare study by any humanist in the last hundred years that doesn’t purport to reveal some hidden dynamic or connection.

Having been carried by Marx and Freud from the sciences to the threshold of the humanities, insight (as an ideal, at least) was promptly brought across. In the decades that followed, attempts to “see beneath” dominated every branch of humanistic inquiry. In his “frontier thesis,” Frederick Jackson Turner sought to explain the better part of American history in terms of an underlying expansionist drive. William Empson found ambiguity wherever he looked beneath the verbal surface of poetry. Heinrich Schenker portrayed musical masterpieces as “foreground” elaborations of deep, skeletal structures. Clement Greenburg argued that representational art has less to do with its ostensible subjects than with an abstract underplay of line, form, and color. Claude Levi-Strauss maintained that the Oedipus myth harbors a subtext concerning some of its characters’ outcast status.  (These characters all have names denoting physical deformity—‘Oedipus’ itself, for example, meaning ‘club-foot’.) Michel Foucault saw a symbolic projection of state power beneath the nominal purposes of asylums and prisons….

I wouldn’t want this roll of luminaries to suggest that an impulse to insight has been exclusive to humanist superstars. It’s a rare study by any humanist in the last hundred years that doesn’t purport to reveal some hidden dynamic or connection. (As, admittedly, I’m purporting to do in saying so; this insight stuff is catching.) It’s as if, the bar for intellection having been set by the towering insights of the hard sciences, humanists have felt compelled to reach, in their own “softer” realms, for nothing less. 

Everyone will have his own sense of the track record of humanists in this endeavor; to me it seems uneven at best, with no shortage of serious misfires. To take an especially egregious one, in a discussion of Willa Cather’s novel The Professor’s House, the critic and theorist Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick writes that the book “might seem, on the surface, ‘heterosexist,’ but…its underlying rebellion against heterosexism can be discovered by deconstructing the last sentence of the book—specifically one word in that sentence, ‘Berengaria,’ the name of the ship on which the professor’s wife and daughter are sailing home for Europe.” Kosofsky-Sedgwick offers an unpacking of this word:

Berengaria, ship of women: the {green} {aria}, the {eager} {brain}, the {bearing} and the {bairn}, the {raring} }engine}, the {bargain} {binge}, the {ban} and {bar}, the {garbage}, the {barrage} of {anger}, the {bare} {grin}, the {rage} to {err}, the {rare} {grab} for {being}, the {begin} and {rebegin} {again}.

In a rational world, the comment on this “analysis” by Joan Acocella in her book Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism would have shut down literary studies, Kosofsky-Sedgwick division, on the spot:

This list of anagrams, which must have taken a while to work out, supposedly reveals the maelstrom of lesbian energies churning beneath the surface of The Professor’s House, energies that Cather was venting when she gave the ship that strange name. Yes, Sedgwick says, the name has a historical meaning—Berengaria was the wife of Richard the Lion-Hearted—but otherwise it is a “nonsense word.” She apparently does not know that it was the name of a real ship, a famous Cunard ocean liner, on which Cather had returned from Europe immediately before starting work on The Professor’s House

As with this folly of Kosofsky-Sedgwick’s, so (if rarely so floridly) with all too many humanistic “insights” of recent years.

In a rational world, the comment on this ‘analysis’ by Joan Acocella in her book Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism would have shut down literary studies, Kosofsky-Sedgwick division, on the spot...

How did things come to this pass? The roots of the problem go back at least as far as the abovementioned Marx and Freud, “scientists of the human” who bequeathed to humanists proper not just an aspiration to science-style insight, but a cavalier stance toward its substantiation. The embrace of this stance by the humanities, while hardly defensible, is nonetheless understandable. Humanists, as humans, are heirs to the frailties of the type. Prominent among these is a weakness for pleasure. Insight offers several pleasures (all of them heady). The fundamental one—familiar to anyone who’s solved a riddle or puzzle—is the pleasure of revelation per se. If what’s revealed is a beautiful order or mechanism, a second, aesthetic pleasure, follows so hard upon the first as to be all but indistinguishable from it. There may be pleasure as well in knowing that one has perceived what others haven’t. (The genuine humility in Newton’s famous words—“If I have seen further than other men, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants”—doesn’t efface the sense of an equally genuine, giant’s pride.) An insight may involve the perception of something not only hidden but dark: the perception, say, that little boys want to kill their fathers and sleep with their mothers. The perceiver of such a horror may feel pleasurably superior not only in vision but in courage (the courage to take, in Hardy’s words, “a full look at the Worst”). Or consider the comparably dark perception that our sense of personal autonomy is an illusion foisted on us by an exploitative elite. In this case, a pleasurable sense of superior wisdom and superior courage may be conjoined with a sense of superior virtue: a belief that one’s concern for the exploited surpasses that of one’s fellows. 

All of these are potential pleasures of insight. Not that we actually need to achieve an insight in order to experience them; we need only believe we’ve achieved one. The danger, of course, is that we may believe this simply because the belief feels so good. You’d think we’d be on guard against this danger, that in recognition of it we’d go out of our way to put our putative insights to stringent tests. But why, really, should we expect such scruple of ourselves? 

You’d think we’d be on guard against this danger, that in recognition of it we’d go out of our way to put our putative insights to stringent tests. But why, really, should we expect such scruple of ourselves?

Our tendency, rather, is to be all too uncritical of our insights. The culture of science combats this tendency by applying rigorous standards to the substantiation of insights: quantitative evidence, replicability of experimental results, and a formalized process of peer review . (Peer review has come under legitimate fire lately for a susceptibility to careerism and corruption, but even its critics tend to see enough value in it to call for its reform rather than its elimination.) In some ways, humanistic studies have come to resemble scientific ones—when we speak of today’s “research universities,” we aren’t just talking about their science departments—but humanistic fields enforce nothing approaching scientific standards of substantiation. In the absence of such standards, humanists are free to proffer even the unlikeliest insights with little fear of challenge from their peers (lest the challenger seem hidebound, benighted, or otherwise unadvanced). 

Even in this benign intellectual environment, humanists still face the inconvenience of coming up with prospective insights in the first place. But they’ve addressed this problem by approaching any and all subjects from the same “revelatory” perspectives of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. In authorizing this recourse to what might be called the automation of insight, humanists have put the finishing touch on an intellectual (and, it must be said, professional) paradise they’ve spent the better part of a century creating for themselves.

Of course it’s easier to say what’s broken about something than how to fix it, and what’s broken about the humanities is the furthest thing from an exception. Not that the remedy wouldn’t seem to be straightforward: a recognition by humanists that there’s a serious risk in the pursuit of insight; that appetite and ego may drive one all too easily to an unwarranted belief in the truth of one’s notions. (This recognition need not involve an abandonment of the pursuit of insight, just a willingness to conduct that pursuit responsibly.) But history tells us that such a recognition is more easily espoused than achieved. Maybe a little leverage would help. Could humanists perhaps be shamed into a renunciation of Kosofsky-Sedgwick-esque absurdities? So one might imagine, though the fact that the notorious “Sokal hoax” (involving the respectable publication of a nonsensical paper on a “hermeneutics of quantum gravity”) failed to bring about such a renunciation doesn’t augur all that well for the possibility.  Another and perhaps more promising kind of leverage would press for not a reform of, but an alternative to, the existing order in the academic humanities: for the creation of colleges—or at least departments—that promote rigor in humanistic studies.  (This is in fact the aim of at least two American organizations, The National Association of Scholars and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.) Any of these options would bring a bracing addition to the pleasures of insight: the pleasure of telling yourself, when you’re talking honestly with yourself, that you might actually have discovered something.


DANIEL BROWN's latest book is What More? (2015). His work has appeared in Poetry, The New Criterion, and Parnassus.

WHAT TO READ NEXT: "But be careful what you wish for, or, at least, commission; our contributors held us to our word and dared to have opinions."