Humility and Method.
The Humanities in the Age of Technology is a profession of faith in the humanities as a mental disposition: a disposition which employs rigorous discourse, favors holistic over partial truths, and thus contributes to an ethically grounded companionship of human beings. The author's lofty aim of proving his case for the abiding, indeed the indispensable, presence of humanistic thought is balanced by his intellectual humility (in an Erasmian sense), by his respect for the range of human achievements and human dispositions, and by his careful methodology.
Employing classification, description, and literary examples, the author develops his case over the course of fifty-five sections grouped into larger chapters, of which the ones entitled "The Interdisciplinary," "Reading," "Understanding," and "Knowing"-the latter three forming the core of the book-deserve special attention. If the method employed in setting up the topic appears labored at times-- the description of the individual humanistic disciplines in Chapter Ills almost necessarily less brilliant than the claim about their shared discourse at the end of Chapter I--the professions of faith that punctuate this book and breathe life into its pages are, remarkably, devoid of dogmatism and fired by conviction and intellectual maturity. The author nimbly negotiates the borderlines between literature and philosophy, politics and ethics, life and the metaphysics of life.
Ciriaco Moron Arroyo is a professor of Hispanic Studies and comparative literature at Cornell University. Besides making important contributions to scholarship on perhaps the greatest Spanish authors in theater and prose fiction, Calder6n de la Barca and Miguel Cervantes, Moron has also investigated the larger questions of the humanities over the course of his career. The ideas underlying The Humanities in the Age of Technology were generated in the mid1970s, and the first complete manuscript publication was in Spanish (Oviedo: Ediciones Nobel) in 1998. This new English edition from the Catholic University of America Press is a translation of the Spanish original, cast in language that stands on its own. And in a general way, Moron takes into account the turn to theory that has dominated literary studies in the past thirty years.
Moron's intellectual patrimony is European. He consciously places himself in the tradition of Ernst R. Curtius and Erich Auerbach, scholars who sought to synthesize the European literary tradition in its various lines, reaching from the epics of Homer to the political pragmatism of the Roman Empire, and from the Catholic Middle Ages through a humanistic Renaissance and Reformation up to the threshold of the twentieth century. Among modern thinkers, Mor6n acknowledges his debt to Martin Heidegger, both for the latter's linguistic subtlety and for his comprehensive view of the responsibility of humanists. Moron attempts to rescue Heidegger from the possibility of odious association with totalitarian thought by pointing out that Heidegger, by defining human life as Da-sein , "substitutes existence for life" and thus "preclude[s] any biological approach to human existence and therefore any possibility of racism." Yet Heidegger's important contributions notwithstanding, and even agreeing that racism is essentially absent from his philosophy, it remains difficult to dissociate Heidegger from his choice of having accepted a comfortable university post while refraining from openly criticizing the Nazi regime.
Moron's practice of drawing his "prooftexts" largely from the Spanish literary tradition makes for truly enjoyable reading in a comparative context, even if the reader's literary training has concentrated on other national literatures than those of the Iberian peninsula. In every case, Moron references aspects of his texts which point to his larger aim, the illustration of humanistic discourse, allowing the reader to multiply the experience with texts originating in his own literary tradition. The wide net cast in this manner signals that the author's assertions about the shared discourse of the humanities have their basis in fact.
Moron defines the shared discourse of the humanities as encompassing three ingredients: (1) a holistic approach, (2) the subject as a whole, and (3) the ethical dimension. The first two provide correctives to the ambitions of self-proclaimed humanists who are really technocrats and who, with their specialized knowledge, however admirable it may be, never take the time to contemplate the human being as a whole--who is after all the agent, the subject, and finally the legitimizing authority of the humanistic enterprise.
The "holistic approach," in particular, refers to the state of mind desirable in humanistic search: a generous mind that is cognizant of the ultimately personal vision it presents and offers up for inspection. The "subject as a whole," Moron postulates, must remain in the searcher's eye, and any particular work performed on some part of it--say, a precise metrical analysis of a poem, in itself not humanistic work in a strict sense--must eventually give way to the larger view. For Moron's humanist, it is axiomatic that the whole poem will be more than the sum of its parts. "Ethics," finally, is the necessary acknowledgment that all humanistic discourse results in acts of valorization, of valuing. Beyond description, classification, and analysis--the purview of the "natural" sciences and of most "social" sciences--humanistic disciplines come together in the ethical sphere, the place where human beings transcend their monadic singularity and act as members of the species.
At first reading, Moron's vision has the utopian appeal of Schiller's "Ode to Joy": a grand conspectus of humanity, sweeping away doubt with the broad brush of optimism. The charge of grandiosity inevitably suggests itself, but Moron is fully aware of that possibility. Never obscuring his own rootedness in a traditional Catholic faith, Moron clear-headedly realizes that religious sectarianism is so potent and so virulent that any ethical system based on faith "may unfortunately divide." In its place, Moron suggests a pluralistic world ethic "at the honorable level of ideas" that would be "apt to unite."
Moron defends against a second charge of grandiosity--that "holistic approaches" and "subjects as a whole" will be intuitive rather than precise--by repairing to the humility and method that characterize his entire book: "We human beings are limited... [b]ut we know the ideal, and can grope for it."
In his chapter entitled "Reading," Moron demonstrates the complexity and contextuality of humanistic work in a focused interpretation of Calderon's Life is A Dream (1635). A cursory comparison with, respectively, Mortimer Adler's and Harold Bloom's meditations on "how to read" reveals Moron's predilections: no matter what the formal complexities of a text may be, humanistic reading begins when the reader transcends the formal qualities of the text and begins to engage the human questions evoked by it. In the case of Calderon's play, such questions range from the nature of human identity and integrity to those of appearance and reality, freedom to choose, and the limits of external determination.
In the chapter entitled "Understanding," Moron makes his best case for the legitimate variety of readings a text can elicit in different readers. He holds that these differences need not be mutually exclusive and that their abundance is an instance of the rich "perspectivism" that characterizes human thought. Such perspectivism is not to be mistaken for relativism, however. In the intelligent curiosity that characterized the thinking of the Renaissance Moron sees the most effective antidote to the contemporary scourge of relativism. Yes, "[t]ruth, as a human experience, is limited. Total truth is outside of man's reach, and this limitation makes all conquered truth a springboard for further research. But this experience of limitation, far from evoking relativism, shatters it--because the very experience maintains us in a longing search for greater knowledge and clarity."
In the chapter entitled "Knowledge," finally, Moron recovers the systematic character of humanistic knowledge that proceeds, not in a linear fashion as in the sciences, but in a circular or spiral form. Moron here essentially follows Gadamer's concept of the "hermeneutic circle."
In a few instances, Moron invites criticism. For example, in section 15, he anatomizes the titles of some books and finds them wanting because of the divergence between their titles and their contents, implicitly inviting the reader to perform the same operation on his book. Indeed, while the humanities are explained, classified, and praised in Moron's book, the section of the title that refers to the "Age of Technology" seems to remain an unfulfilled promise. The author asserts that we live in an age of technology, and that technology's self-evidence has freed it from the need to justify itself, which in turn makes the justification of the humanities necessary. But not all readers will agree with this initial position.
The overwhelming presence of technology in our contemporary world may, after all, only be instrumental rather than essential (in the Thomistic sense). In its own way, the late nineteenth century in Europe was as much enthralled by technology as our own time, even while the humanities still strove for encyclopedic completeness of self-expression. Technological advances compelled Walter Benjamin in one of the twentieth century's darkest moments to offer a cogent analysis of the politicization of art in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." The English translation of the title is notoriously misleading: Benjamin was referring to the work of art "in the age of its mechanical reproducibility." He sought to make an argument about authenticity in a technological age, not about mechanics.
Moron reasonably excludes the arts from his discussion of the humanities but, mutatis mutandis, similar questions of legitimacy arise in the two fields. By attending only marginally to the political relevance of humanistic studies in this technological age--funding, the public's sense of their importance, the current tendency of some to indulge in private pleasure rather than public use--Moron risks at times the charge of unfounded optimism. His description of the life of a contemporary humanities professor, "not formally tied to more than ten hours of class and office hours per week," does not conform to my or my colleagues' experiences of the teaching life at American four-year colleges and universities, even though the author is correct to praise the intangible rewards of our line of work. Moron's penultimate chapter on the "Usefulness" of the humanities is the shortest of all, except for one other.
In the final analysis, these decidedly minor shortcomings are not completely Moron's.The humanities simply must not be measured with the yardstick of technological usefulness: doing so inevitably shows them wanting. The humanities are, in essence, an invitation to human beings to become themselves more fully. Ciriaco Moron Arroyo's passionate and reasoned explanation of the spirit and the method of the humanities on their own terms constitutes the high merit of this thoughtful book.
THOMAS AUSTENFELD is Chairman of the Department of Language and Literature at North Georgia College and State University in Dahlonega, GA. He is the author of American Women Writers and the Nazis (2001).
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2003|
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