Philosophers move to take humanities back to the future

Arnold Davidson and Julia Kristeva, both polymaths, each advocated for a new approach to the humanities in their discussion Friday in Swift Hall.

By Jon Catlin

[img id=”109359″ align=”left”/]Sitting in Swift’s third floor lecture hall Friday afternoon waiting to hear two esteemed, multinational, multilingual, multidisciplinary humanists discuss a topic as broad as “the future of the humanities,” I had no idea what to expect, from the very language they would speak in, to where the conversation would lead. But as a throng of eager audience members piled in around me to sit on the floor and stand in the back of the packed space to hear such a deliberately open-ended discussion, the event’s tentative subject line seemed validated before the speakers had even opened their mouths.

Organized by the French Club and Alliance Française de Chicago, which webcast the event to locations across the Midwest, the star speaker at the event was Julia Kristeva, a feminist psychoanalyst and philosopher who teaches at the Université Paris Diderot and has authored nearly 20 books. Her conversant, Chicago’s own Arnold Davidson, is in a class of his own, being fluent in all the Romance languages and having appointments in five departments, including philosophy and the Divinity School. The two have crossed paths before; Davidson has taught in Paris, while Kristeva—who was educated in France—said that she was “adopted” in the early ’70s by American universities, which were more receptive to her progressive work than those of the more traditional French system. Kristeva was also the first recipient of the Holberg Prize, which has been described as the Nobel Prize for the humanities.

Born in 1941 in communist Bulgaria, Kristeva admitted to being influenced by the catastrophic events of the 20th century in Europe—the Shoah, the Gulag—and framed her remarks on the future of the humanities, not as a defense of particular disciplines or institutions, as many American academics seem to, but rather toward a broader “crisis of civilization.” “I have witnessed the messianic return of a number of cults,” she said. “I see today a new awakening of religions—dogmatic, fundamentalist religions.”

The only way to resist these dangers, Kristeva said, is to reach back to our “cultural heritage,” though she qualified this: “I say cultural heritage, but I am not advocating some return to roots, or seeing sources as origins of absolute truth. Sources do not always speak to us as statements, but instead as questions. European culture, of which we are the heirs, is unique, as at its best moments, it has been able to turn every identity, whatever it may be, not into a cult but into a question,” she continued, noting question-oriented traditions from the Platonic dialogues to the Jewish practice of reading the Talmud. “We find this understanding in humanism, which is not the cult of man in the place of God, but an evolution of the philosophy of the last few centuries that raises a great question mark in the most serious of places—that is, the god’s place.”

Kristeva diagnosed our times as troubled by lack of belief, which is associated in psychoanalytical models with adolescents who have outgrown their childhood sense of curiosity. Adolescents look for something to latch onto, but when they lack outlets, it results in what she called an explosion of the death drive, noting the Muslim fundamentalist teenagers responsible for shootings in Toulouse, France and the Boston Marathon bombing. Citing the Psalms, “I believe, therefore I have spoken,” Kristeva defended the need for belief as fundamental, but resisted fundamentalism: “The jump humanism makes is asking questions also of what you believe.

“A devaluing of the humanities says, ‘We can do without the human,’” she went on. In what she called “the age of the death of the human,” people now see the iPhone as an instruction manual for life, which results in a “narrowing of the psyche,” directing it outward in search of tools for its own instrumental use. “Violence, then, results from rushing to the toolbox in search of answers and rushing to the megamalls of extreme spiritualities also.” Kristeva’s form of humanism leads one in the opposite direction—inward, rather than outward: “The ego is in need of permanent reconstruction. It is a personal abyss that needs a safe harbor in order for one to learn how to open oneself to that interiority.”

In his response, Davidson defended Kristeva’s definition of humanism as refounding, from its association with the past uncritical, ideological humanisms that fueled racism and violence. He also seconded her imperative: “If such questions don’t get asked, we end up in a world like the one Kristeva described, with all its catastrophic consequences,” he said, going on to advocate contemporary humanistic approaches, such as the French philosopher Pierre Hadot’s radical suggestion that reading classical texts is a spiritual exercise and that philosophy is a way of life.

In this spirit, he suggested that we “think of great advances in the humanities as moments in which profoundly new questions get asked,” even if those moments are characterized by disorientation. “As long as we ask, ‘How should I live?’ there will be a future for the humanities,” he said. “The question of humanism is inevitable, not exhausted.”