long . lines and ripples

Claiming Humanism


“Who is a humanist?” is a question that I have asked myself again and again. This time because my Ph.D. is finally, officially, in the rear view mirror. Now I am contemplating academic life as an independent scholar. I can visualize it right now: working on 1-2 academic articles at a time, for the remainder of my productive life, while holding a day job. Maybe I can manage a few alternative-format, digital projects of some kind. Maybe if I am lucky I will have one or two monographs that I will work on over many years. In any case, I am fine with all that. I can accept, and probably even enjoy, being at a remove from the life of the university.

During graduate school, there was a part of my intellectual identity that was connected with my academic life, but also bigger than it. I have always called myself a humanist, with an enthusiasm that someone who gets a Ph.D. in the modern humanities is supposed to eschew. I was proud of the title. Something about the idea of a humanist suggested everything that was richer, better and ultimately more humane than the positivistic pursuits (STEM, etc.) that more responsible people pursued.

“Humanist” as a title did not seem as ridiculous to me as maybe it should have. Yet, despite my pride in the term, I don’t think I ever really came up with a complete account about what it meant. You have to explain what a humanist is in a way that you don’t have to explain being a chemist, a physicist, or a mathematician.

I realized that I might have neglected the idea about a year ago, when I came upon a passage about the methodological origins of the modern humanities in an essay by Habermas.1 This is how I summarized that section when I discussed it in the conclusion of my dissertation:

Jürgen Habermas notes the unique status of the knowledge claim made by the human sciences, which developed from what were once “specialized professional knowledge.” For “the humanistic tradition of poetics,” one finds a lineage in “historical narratives and theories of language and literature;” and “the new sciences of the state and society developed out of the classical doctrines of politics and economics.” But what constitutes the uniqueness of these disciplines’ knowledge claim is that methods that were once “professional practices” are now used for the study of general, pre-theoretical human realities negotiated through a process of symbolic reciprocity and everyday taken-for-granteds in the social world.


This is a great idea that doesn’t get enough attention today: the humanities can claim to descend from a body of knowledge that was once “professional” in nature. It was practical knowledge. As in, it could get you a job. To explain why this is, you would need to go back to a world before printing presses and the mass production of texts, when all writing had distinctive traces left by its author. There was no such thing as two “copies” of any piece of writing. Every text–even the same words written by the same writer–was unavoidably unique. If, for example, two legal or bureaucratic documents had substantive differences, it took training to decide which one was right.

One example: the third-century scholar and theologian Origen made his living as a grammateus, or a teacher of Greek literature. Joseph Trigg writes that when Origen approached interpretation, the first thing he did was to “criticize” the text, which meant simply checking that he had the same text as his students.2 Then they read it out loud, a necessity to achieve basic understanding: since texts of that era lacked basic guideposts like punctuation marks. This was vital preparatory work, part of his claim to expertise. Only then could they move on to interpreting it in the higher sense of deciding what it really means.

In the modern humanities, especially at is practiced in the undergraduate classroom, most of this preparatory expertise has been rendered invisible. We just launch straight into interpretation.

Another word for the preparatory work is philology, the systematic study of texts.

Textual study has always been divided between technical aspects and interpretative arts. On the technical side, the most obvious requirement is to know the language: understanding its regular rules, grammatical exceptions, and so forth. Interpretation can also be systematized, to an extent. The most well-documented example of a rigorous interpretive tradition is probably biblical hermeneutics. But it is still true that one cannot learn to just apply interpretive skills, like a teacher grading the grammatical exercises of students. In the same way that the text contains traces of the author’s singular writerly persona, interpretation always contains something of the reader’s persona.

Philology professionalized the process of interpretation. It created professional readers. Today the closest analogue we have to an interpretive profession is the study of law. Law is charged with the interpretive authority over a text with social force: the force of law. But lawyers are not generally understood to possess technical skills. They possess experience, judgment instilled by training, and accreditation. But they are not technical experts like, say, software engineers. Their profession works more like an exclusive guild (e.g., passing the bar is the sine qua non for most legal work)

I am interested in whether philology was a “technical” skill because I think it can help us in our present moment. Where philology succeeded was in creating a credible link between technical and interpretive arts. If you master the languages, codes, and grammars of philology, you have the credibility to engage in subjective interpretation.

In his book Philology, James Turner gives a nice summary of how we got from these ancient textual practices to our current situation:

Greeks began systematic speculation about language; they invented rhetoric; they commenced methodical scrutiny of texts; and out of all these materials they then fabricated grammar. Ancient Greeks gave birth to the European tradition of philology…[a]nd philology eventually gave us our humanities.

James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origin of the Modern Humanities, 3

Turner makes a case of the historical progression from philological practices to the modern humanities. But how much of the scaffolding on which this interpretive tradition is built have we lost? Certainly not the theological concerns of an Origen.

Today the humanities still have the interpretive stuff, but without much of the technical backing to confer credibility. Here is a claim about what the wider world thinks of humanists: that they engage in whims of subjectivity, but they don’t have the “hard skills” to back it up. This is a problem. These critics (who can be anyone from your employer to your parents) are really making two arguments. First, that the humanities today are constituted by the final step in the philological chain: the exercise of subjectivity in an interpretive act. To some extent, they are right about this. Second, that subjectivity is just a private phenomenon, and that it has no specific value in a public sphere or marketplace. On this they are wrong.

The humanities I want to defend, and want to help bring into being in the future, will do two things:

  1. Finds new technologies, or grafts itself onto old tech, so that the humanities has the perception of being more than just a “subjective” pursuit.
  2. Discovers new ways to assert the value of subjectivity, to argue that it is not the illegitimate intrusion of the personal.
  1. See “From System To Lifeworld” in the English-translated essay collection Postmetaphysical Thinking II (2017)[]
  2. See Joseph Trigg’s introduction to Origen in the “Early Church Fathers” series (Taylor & Francis, 2012)[]