Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Anahid Nersessian reviews Humanist Reason

Eric Hayot. Humanist Reason: A History. An Argument. A Plan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021. 324 pp.

Review by Anahid Nersessian

1 December 2021

One side effect of the jobs crisis in academia has been the emergence of a scholarly subfield devoted to coming up with reasons why the humanities are foundering but ought, all the same, to exist. These debates are often associated with the so-called method wars, but they tend to boil down to the redescription of preferences as norms: the scholar who considers herself or himself a close reader argues for close reading as the key to disciplinary salvation; digital humanists make the same claims for digital humanities, historicists for historicism, and so on. None of this has had any effect whatsoever on the slow death of the American university, which is dying not because people are bad at scansion or programming or archival research but because it has no money.

In Humanist Reason, Eric Hayot embraces what Abigail Boggs and Nick Mitchell have called “the crisis consensus,” identifying “the university as the protector of time-honored and -tested values . . . whose defense requires a temporality characterized simultaneously by urgency and nostalgia.”[1] It is certainly possible to hold this position amid a commitment to the social facts on the ground—Stefan Collini’s excellent Speaking of Universities (2017) does just that—but Hayot takes a different view. For him, “epistemological questions” may be treated as “fundamentally separate from institutional ones,” the defensive crouch of the humanities observed in isolation from its proximate causes (p. 166).

The problem, says Hayot, is that the humanities need to “produce more compelling self-justifications” for the value of humanist reason, such as the capacity to assess civilization and nudge it toward “the creation of a democratic social welfare planet, in which health, well-being, and the opportunity to explore one’s full capacities as a being (human or otherwise) do not depend as much on the exploitation and diminishment of others as they do now” (p. 16). In terms of its methodology, humanist reason appears not so different from environmental science or hotel management, because like them it is “a truth-generating activity whose research results ought to be taken into account by social actors” (p. 8). But the idea of “truth” (according to Hayot) makes humanists anxious, and that is how our troubles began.

It is with his assertion that the humanities comprise “an entire field . . . of people making truth claims” that Hayot’s troubles begin as well. Take two of his examples of such claims: “Reading George Sand this way teaches us something new about the nineteenth-century French novel,” and “a man named Albert Dreyfus lived at such-and-such a time, and did not commit treason” (pp. 6, 7). The latter is not a claim but a fact and in no way apprehensible only by humanist discourse or method. The former is a more recognizable example of something a literature professor might say, but its terms are nonspecific and unconstrained: doing anything can teach us something about whatever. As for “humanistic questions” as opposed to claims, these include “Why are people so mean?” which evolutionary biologists would consider firmly in their territory (p. 180).

Hayot remains vague even as he goes on to define humanist reason in terms of “particularizing kinds of attention” or as “the mode of the singular, whose most fundamental task is to relate the particular to the universal in a certain kind of way” (pp. 90, 91). We are forbidden any “mode of analysis inherently inimical to the integrity or dignity of a phenomenon,” but What are we supposed to do (p. 91)? This resistance to making the mission or manner of the humanities clear stands out compared to some jaw-dropping things Hayot says about their influence and efficacy:

What percentage of people living today have had their general sense of the workings of gender altered by the history of feminism and queer theory? Most of the readers of this book to be sure . . . but I would suggest nearly every human being alive today has had their thinking, and their sense of their own gender, influenced by that work, whether or not they’ve ever heard of Sue-Ellen Case, or Chandra Tapalde Mohanty, or Leo Bersani. [p. 10]

Of the more than 7.753 billion people on this planet—the vast majority of whom have had not even a glancing encounter with “the history of feminism and queer theory” as produced within the elite American university—I’d like to begin by introducing Hayot to my six-month-old and also my Uncle Dave.

There is no mistaking the sincerity of Humanist Reason, which laces its prose with expletives, exclamation points (“Freedom!”), and brackets inside parentheses inside sentences that are often half a paragraph long or longer (p. 42). Hayot is no cynic, and he has flatteringly high expectations of the reader’s patience for difficult subjects: there are chapters devoted to parsing the difference between the nomothetic and idiographic sciences as laid out in an 1894 speech by the neo-Kantian philosopher Wilhelm Windelband and to the notion of singular judgments in the writing of Kant himself.

Still, Windelband and Kant are at best obliquely connected to the proposals Hayot makes in his last chapter. These are laid out in numbered and/or lettered lists and with bullet points, and the chapter ends with an outline of nine “general epistemological principles” like “Human Life Does Not Follow Disciplinary Boundaries; Neither Does Scholarship” (p. 183). Such principles are opposed to the “concerted effort by right-wing politicians to combat institutions that they see as supportive of liberal or democratic values”: “having come for the unions,” he adds, “they come now for the university” (pp. 177, 178). This is partly true, but the opposition to unions transcends party, and anyone who has read an email from a university president knows that liberal and democratic values are fully compatible with budget cuts and hiring freezes.

There is a reason why Humanist Reason struggles to describe the humanities in terms that distinguish them from other disciplines: it is just not sure what they are or, more crucially, what would be lost without them. No matter: on the latter front, we'll all find out anyway.


[1] Abigail Boggs and Nick Mitchell, “Critical University Studies and the Crisis Consensus,” Feminist Studies 44, no. 2 (2018): 434.