Humanities Recap, This Time with Some Weber and Nussbaum
Sitting in on a couple of Weber lectures these past few weeks has put me in my historical place. An ambivalent mourner of disenchantment, Weber noted in his 1918 lecture “Wissenschaft als Beruf (Science as Vocation)”[pdf] that the American university in particular represented the modern condition: an efficient system with little place for personality or a deep sense of culture, imbued with a spirit of capitalist professionalism, promoting utter mediocrity. Sound familiar?
Of course Weber had different demons to combat than I or many of my fellow PhDs. I for one don’t feel quite so constrained by our (post)modern, disenchanted condition, think great wallops of creativity and meaning can burst forth from it, believe it has allowed different groups of people to gain a foothold in society, am more a critic of parts than the whole. And Weber of course was looking at the American system through the lens of a German academic, and personally I’d much rather be part of the former rather than the latter, at least today.
Part of Weber’s lament was that we could no longer find “meaning” in the Academy. By this he meant that we had arrived at a point of the absolute relativity of value: any concept can be instrumentalized for one value, or for another. We could no longer find God in History as Ranke once tried to; we were post-metaphysics. Today, embedded in our profession is the attempt to historicize things we may consider fundamentally “human,” to analyze the historical process by which we grasped onto “human rights” as the foundation of human encounter, to understand when and why humans began to “empathize” (Sam Moyn has a new book out on the former, Martha Nussbaum and Lynn Hunt see the entrance of the novel on the historical scene as necessary for the arousal of the latter).
So what would Weber say about Martha Nussbaum’s proposal (one I’m largely on board with) in Not for Profit that we need the humanitis and arts for the following:
the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a “citizen of the world”; and finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.
Nussbaum is no radical of course. For Nussbaum, these abilities are “crucial to the health of any democracy internally, and to the creation of a decent world culture capable of contructively addressing the world’s most pressing problems.” While we may see her proposal as a rescue plan from the economic instrumentality that currently reigns throughout our university system, the cultivation of these meaningful human abilities are to be deployed for the sake of what is, at heart, a moderate program: the bolstering of a democratic state, in the hopes that this state might in turn be able to reach out to solve “the world’s most pressing problems.” There is an interesting slippage going on here and as ever I become uncomfortable with “imagining” the predicament of another person rather than speaking to that person (but perhaps she emphasizes language skills and communication and I am just forgetting this).
This is after all still a program of instrumental rationality. It is one that I largely support, since the value is care for one’s fellow humans rather than individual net-worth, and it’s a process that I feel very much a part of. Education for me has been about expanding my initially narrow understanding of the world, challenging my preconceptions and prejudices. Yet perhaps it’s worthwhile to bring in Weber here to check some of Nussbaum’s impulses, to remember that the concept of imagined empathy can be deployed in the service of many different, conflicting values, as demonstrated so well by recent US foreign policy.
And to think about how much economic instrumentality can become spiraled together with other forms of instrumentality:
The Puritans wanted to be men of the calling—we, on the other hand, must be. For when asceticism moved out of the monastic cells and into working life, and began to dominate innerworldly morality, it helped to build that mighty cosmos of the modern economic order (which is bound to the technical and economic conditions of mechanical and machine production). Today this mighty cosmos determines, with overwhelming coercion, the style of life not only of those directly involved in business but of every individual who is born into this mechanism, and may well continue to do so until the day that the last ton of fossil fuel has been consumed.
In Baxter’s view, concern for outward possessions should sit lightly on the shoulders of his saints, “like a thin cloak which can be thrown off at any time.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become a shell hard as steel. As asceticism began to change the world and endeavored to exercise its influence over it, the outward goods of this world gained increasing and finally inescapable power over men, as never before in history. Today its spirit has fled from this shell—whether for all time, who knows? Certainly, victorious capitalism has no further need for this support now that it rests on the foundation of the machine. Even the optimistic mood of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems destined to fade away, and the idea of a “duty in a calling” haunts our lives like the ghost of once-held religious beliefs. Where “doing one’s job” cannot be directly linked to the highest spiritual and cultural values—although it may be felt to be more than mere economic coercion—the individual today usually makes no attempt to find any meaning in it. Where capitalism is at its most unbridled, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, divested of its metaphysical significance, today tends to be associated with purely elemental passions, which at times virtually turn it into a sporting contest.
No one yet knows who will live in that shell in the future. Perhaps new prophets will emerge, or powerful old ideas and ideals will be reborn at the end of this monstrous development. Or perhaps—if neither of these occurs—“Chinese” ossification, dressed up with a kind of desperate self-importance, will set in. Then, however, it might truly be said of the “last men” in this cultural development: “specialists without spirit, hedonists without a heart, these nonentities imagine they have attained a stage of humankind never before reached.”
(The Protestant Ethic, Penguin edition, pp.120-121).
Sidenote: Part of the reason I like Weber so much is that he was one of the hardest working academics out there — to the point of nervous collapse. When asked once why he worked so hard, he responded, “I want to see how much I can bear.” This is always a good reminder not to be such a crazypants.