The Death of God and the Decline of the Humanities

by Eric Schliesser on October 29, 2022

The decades long decline of the Humanities – the academic study of texts and/or the academic practice of criticism* – is often blamed on the latest fad in it, or its faddishness, when such diagnosis is not altogether ground in ideological, political, or theoretical culture-war score-settling (with structuralism, deconstruction, queer theory, critical race theory, etc.) To be sure, in North America and Europe, the decline is very real when measured along a whole range of intrinsic and extrinsic measures: relative undergraduate enrollments, the hiring of freshly minted PhDs, starting salaries of its college graduates, and cultural prestige.

By contrast, I suggest that the decline of the Humanities indicates a more general shift away from the cultural significance of texts in our societies. And put like that allows the real underlying culprit of the decline of the Humanities to come into view: it is fundamentally due to the declining significance of the Bible and of getting its meaning right among those that seek out higher education and social forces that are willing to sponsor the academy. The unfolding death of God — understood (with John 1:1) as the Word — is the source of the decline of the Humanities.

My diagnosis is compatible with religion, even so-called ‘religions of the book,’ being politically highly salient and even to some degree with increasing numbers of the religious population. To be precise, then, mine is not a general secularization thesis. (My argument is also wholly orthogonal to claims about the utility or social futility of the Humanities.)

One may well be suspicious of the claim in the previous paragraphs for two reasons: first, while theology and the philology it spawned are undoubtedly important to the historical development of the Humanities in general, today there is a lot more to the Humanities (even on my relatively narrow definition) than theology and philology (or Biblical hermeneutics). Of course, this is true.

Second, if we look at the historical sources of the study of profane literature, we find it intimately tied to the development of what we might call bourgeois culture: it is all about acquiring the markers of social prestige and respectability previously reserved for a (natural) aristocracy of birth. Even in the eighteenth-century Scottish university, which pioneered the teaching of belles-lettres, the study of English literature and manners is, in part, an attempt to overcome the sense of given linguistic backwardness relative to the developing commercial society of the wider imperial Britain. It’s no coincidence, then, that the theorist of commercial life and social status (and critic of military empire), Adam Smith, yes that Adam Smith, was, in fact, among the very first professors of literature, if not the first.

As an aside, Smith’s account of the topics that are treated as significant in profane literature (and he has a capacious understanding of its genres) presupposes that those social institutions that generate high stakes (divorce-free marriage, property, etc.) also shape the topics of interest in such literature (see here for more on this; and here). This is also why épater le bourgeois is a feature not a bug of literary culture.

My response to the lines of criticism one may develop from these two suspicions is essentially the same: the manner by which profane literature is approached in the Humanities is essentially derived from, and infused with the aspirations of, the study of sacred texts. I don’t mean to be original in claiming this for it is intuitively and phenomenologically obvious if we look at the practices and virtuosity of close reading (in a circle or carré) under the guidance of a skilled mentor in a seminar or tutorial. These are not far removed from what one may encounter in a yeshiva or the priestly seminary. Something similar can be said about the aesthetic experience valorized by the most violently anti-Christian or indifferently non-Christian modern associated with the literary avant-garde which is still fundamentally ascetic (in the way, say, Nietzsche diagnosed).

While the etymology of ‘seminar’ — derived from the Latin for ‘sowing of seeds’ (of knowledge) – is indicative of good breeding and not intrinsically connected to sacred (or profane) texts at all, that the seminar is the essential pedagogical format of the Humanities is, thus, on my view no accident at all. Its very intelligibility piggybacks on the cultural salience of the study of sacred texts. The very frisson of transgressive-ness co-constitutive with literary culture is, after all, derivative of sinning (and confessional). The mechanisms I am describing are not limited to the Humanities, of course; I am by no means the first to note that Marxist sectarianism has much in common with its Protestant and Jewish counterparts. And when French intellectuals of a past era announce the death of the author, they can count on also being understood in a theological register (as they were).

Once bible reading and study disappears from bourgeois culture, as it by and large has, the whole network of practices constitutive of the Humanities start to look ridiculous not in a comic sense, but in the more dangerous sense of lacking all intelligibility for most. And this is so because society refuses to develop the skills and cultural practices that provide basic entry into the academic study of texts and practice of criticism. (I don’t mean to be misunderstood on this point: as Zena Hitz shows in her Lost in Thought: the Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life reading of books in solitude can still be highly meaningful to individuals in all kinds of social ways.)

And while our society is still infused with texts (and some legal-constitutional cultures have taken on the partial trappings of the Humanities in virtue of its past significance), the more dominant cultural form has become the iconic image. I put it like that, of course, in order to sever my claim from a general secularization thesis; the icon is, after all, itself intrinsic to many forms of religiosity. I do not deny that Humanities programs can be places where cultural iconography is studied and taught (even as a form of ‘reading/interpretation’ or semiotics), but there is no intrinsic connection between it and the Humanities. (After all, cultural iconography is very much at home in social sciences like anthropology, sociology, and communication departments.) And so is itself part and parcel of the decline of the Humanities.

That the icon has displaced the text is, in my opinion, not so much caused by capitalism or neo-liberalism (as you may expect), but rather an effect of the mass or enmassed nature of modern society (or what the Germans call Massengesellschaft). I suspect this on broadly Platonic-Spinozistic grounds; that is, icons are a way to convey abstract teachings to the many.+ And while this kind of claim was developed among the elitist, bourgeois critics of mass society (e.g., Huizinga, Ortega Y Gassett, Röpke (etc.)) and may well give rise to a treatment of icons as idolatry, it is worth noting that the empirical diagnosis of the significance of icons to mass society was shared by Otto Neurath, who enthusiastically and esthetically developed ISOTYPE–a kind of visual ‘grammar’ for pictorial education of concepts.

It doesn’t follow from my analysis that the traditional Humanities will go extinct. It may well enjoy recurring bouts of being fashionable again (say, in periods of certain kinds of cultural nostalgia). It also does not suggest there is nothing it can do to help itself to survive in a niche: it may well have to reinvent itself however, despite its current commitment to emancipation, as guardian of tradition or as a site of hidden, refined pleasures and mysteries at odds with the larger culture but worth acquiring.






*This excludes disciplines like history, art-history, and philosophy, which are often grouped with the Humanities, and share some, but only partial, genealogical intertwinement with philology (the ancestral source of the Humanities). I leave aside here the fascinating fact that the development of critique (as a method and genre in philosophy) and the significance of (literary) criticism seem to spring from the same linguistic root (from the Greek ‘to judge’ or ‘to decide’) and cultural roots; and that such criticism is distinct from what is known as ‘poetics’ in Aristotle.

+I have been influenced by Aaron Tugendhaft’s The Idols of Isis, which draws heavily on Al-Farabi.



J, not that one 10.29.22 at 9:47 pm

It is interesting to think that literary study might only seem important to someone whose religious background led them to expect to find ultimate truth in texts. I might consider re-reading some books of criticism I have under that assumption – I wonder what I’d discover? But I think the idea of treating secular literature in the same way as a sacred scripture has to consider what is to be done about false scriptures. It never occurred to me before, though, that an eighteen year old might study English literature because she believed she was going to learn something about an American or English pseudo-religion.

Interesting post!


Stennglien 10.29.22 at 11:10 pm

Judeo-Christian mythology & superstition have no place in higher education … other than as historical markers of some very routine human failings in the evolution of rational thought.
The irrational embrace of mysticism is always couched in vague nonsensical terms.


John Quiggin 10.29.22 at 11:32 pm

Welcome to CT, Eric !

I’ll restate my view that much of the decline in the academic humanities relates to complex but prosaic features of the academic and general labour markets.

On the one hand, the academic labour market wants technically innovative work. It would, I think, be very difficult to make an academic career doing criticism based close reading in the style of, say, Empson, even if this was applied to contemporary texts.

But what undergraduate students want from a humanities degree hasn’t changed nearly as much (except for expansion of the canon to include a wider range of literature, as well as film and other media). They want to know which texts are important, and the ability to talk intelligently and intelligibly about them. If their future work is related to their education, it will probably be something like school-teaching or publishing. And this demand is not growing as fast as that for other, more directly job-relevant courses – it may be declining, but that’s less clear. .

So, I don’t think the decline in relative enrolments in the humanities tells as much about the place of the humanities in society as a whole.


John Quiggin 10.29.22 at 11:44 pm

On the bigger issue, I’ll push back on the claim that images are supplanting text. Here’s a link to a piece I wrote in 1995, about the way the Internet would bring about a new golden age of text. I think that has been borne out, notably by social media, which has engaged masses of people who would once have got their info from TV/radio and never picked up a pen to write anything longer than a shopping list.


Alex SL 10.30.22 at 12:16 am

The definition of ‘humanities’ used here is so narrow that it seems difficult to have a strong opinion on the hypothesis. Maybe “close reading (in a circle or carré) under the guidance of a skilled mentor in a seminar or tutorial” merely to acquire “the markers of social prestige and respectability” is on its way out, but put like that, it deserved to be on its way out in the late 19th century. As long as the humanities in the usual sense of the study of history, economics, languages, governance, etc., continue, will anybody notice or care?


LFC 10.30.22 at 12:51 am

A terrific début post (whether one agrees with it or not).


JPL 10.30.22 at 12:53 am

I had resolved to get away from commenting on Crooked Timber, which I had started doing a few days ago, but now here comes this very interesting post of yours with a bold explanation. Before I comment further, however, could we possibly have an example or two of the “iconic image” which has become the new object of interest for the audience of the mass, probably social-media- enabled, culture (as opposed to the audience of the expert, and even credentialed, few of the pre-interweb era) other than Neurath’s ISOTYPE pictograms? (Certainly students seem less willing these days to grapple extensively with the written language-texts. (Does that change have a different source than the one you’re concerned with, or is it part of the same phenomenon?))


Jake Gibson 10.30.22 at 2:17 am

I noticed you didn’t address the negative effects of
the death of the Humanities on society in general.
If the Humanities do die we are well and truly fucked as a Civilization.


Eric Schliesser 10.30.22 at 3:48 am

Jake, I agree it dramatically changes (and has changed) our culture. I am unsure it’s all for the worse (as you imply).


Eric Schliesser 10.30.22 at 3:55 am

Thank you for triggering my first post, John (and the warm welcome to CT)!
I agree there is no simple relationship between academic humanities (the subject of my post) and wider role of humanities in social life. And undoubtedly the former are not neceessary to the latter, although I would probably want to argue that they play an important role in a wider ecology.
We may disagree about the relationship between the Humanities and labor markets, although it’s possible the connection has always been tighter in Australia (than I am tacitly denying for North America and Europe). On my view — anticipated by Veblen, by the way — the fact that there is no such tight relationship was one of the attractions of the Humanities in a prior era.


Eric Schliesser 10.30.22 at 4:00 am

John, our positions are closer than you think (because of my bad wording): where I wrote that our society is “infused with texts,” I meant to convey that texts are everywhere. (But clearly didn’t.) So, yes, texts are everywhere as you presciently foresaw (and i meant to say), but we get pointed to different kind of texts (and the kind of readership they demand from us). And I do think texts have been displaced by icons in cultural significance.


Eric Schliesser 10.30.22 at 4:01 am

Merci, LFC!


Eric Schliesser 10.30.22 at 4:09 am

Thank you, for your kind words JPL.
With regard to your final two sentences, I am probably pointing to the same phenomenon, although I prefer not to speculate on the internet about ‘students…these days’ (which I would re-phrase in terms of preparation and cultural status).
On your demand for a modern example. First, I used Neurath as an example in virtue of his socialism (to counterbalance the elitist, bourgeois pessimists). Second, while your demand for contemporary examples is fair (and certainly would merit a follow up blog post), I don’t think of myself as especially insightful on what the right iconic images toda are to help you think about this. But Google image ‘Lady Gaga Icononic looks’ alongside ‘David Bowie Icononic Looks’ and you get some stimulating suggestions.:)


David in Tokyo 10.30.22 at 5:23 am

JQ wrote: “On the bigger issue, I’ll push back on the claim that images are supplanting text.”

This holds for Japan as well.

As I’ve said before, here in Japan, the written word seems to be doing well. Really well. If you only count as “literary mags” one’s that are firmly committed to “literature” as opposed to entertainment, there are four monthlies (ranging from 350 to 650 pages every month) and several quarterlies. These are all hard going, even for someone with 30 years experience translating full time. Sigh.

Oh, yes. Question for you literary cogniscentia: Is there anyone doing serialized fiction in English nowadays? Do things like LRB include serialized fiction? My impression was that serialized writing in English went out with Dickens…

(The question is because the Japanese love serialized novels. All the above lit rags and all the below entertainment rags have serialized novels, as do the newspapers and weekly news mags.)

And then there are an even larger number of entertainment literature monthlies.

Somewhere there should be statistics on how many books are published each month, but it feels like the number is enormous, at least to someone who would like to get his head around the prose fiction world here…

This all may seem rather strange, Japan being the home of Manga and Anime, but the Japanese seem to enjoy reading Japanese. A lot. Which itself is rather strange, given that it adopts one of the weirder (and hardest to learn (two 50-letter alphabets and 2000 official (and another 4000 sometimes used) Chinese symbols)) writing systems around.

Oh, yes. Since the OP argues for religion helping literature, Japan is a counterexample, being one of the least Christian countries in the world. For some reason, Christianity just doesn’t sell here. The Japanese do have their problems with insane cults, though. The latest inconceivable craziness is that it turns out that the leading political party here (the LDP, which holds commanding majorities in both houses of their parliament) is in bed and cahoots with a cult everyone here (I’d guess) thought was nothing other than an old joke from a bygone era: the Unification Church. To make matters worse, said Church is specifically anti-Japanese in their founding documents. Like I said, “inconceivable craziness”

David, swamped in Tokyo, L.


John Quiggin 10.30.22 at 6:41 am

Australia is, I think, just about as irreligious as Japan. Even when nearly everyone was a nominal Christian, “god botherer” was a standard pejorative for anyone who took it too seriously.

And we’ve never really had a literary avant-garde. Realism (socialist or otherwise) has always been dominant.


Zora 10.30.22 at 7:09 am

Eurocentric much? Emphasis on Christianity (with token nods to the other Abrahamic religions)?

This is not my world, which also encompasses East Asian, South Asian, and Central Asian texts, religions, and cultures. Cultures which have their own traditions of close reading and textual criticism.

I won’t claim these as my natal culture (which is Western and Christian), but as a Zen Buddhist, I am conversant with the South Asian matrix for Buddhism (one of the dharmic religions) and Buddhism’s East Asian transformations. Also fairly well read in East Asian literature in translation.

I’m not the only one. Don’t ignore us.


Peter T 10.30.22 at 8:53 am

On serial publishing, the internet has many authors who ‘publish’ serially – many with large followings eager for the next instalment. And, as well, an enormous amount of ‘fanfic’ – all plain prose, also often published serially. I owe this knowledge to my granddaughter, who has a dozen authors bookmarked.


1soru1 10.30.22 at 10:03 am

So, I don’t think the decline in relative enrolments in the humanities tells as much about the place of the humanities in society as a whole.

If society valued humanities more, it would give humanities majors more jobs.

What you are describing is the mechanism by which something like Eric’s point plays out.


engels 10.30.22 at 10:42 am

Here’s a link to a piece I wrote in 1995, about the way the Internet would bring about a new golden age of text. I think that has been borne out, notably by social media

Isn’t social media becoming more and more image and video-based (eg TikTok)?


engels 10.30.22 at 10:57 am

I thought art history was part of the humanities (Obama seemed to think so).


nastywoman 10.30.22 at 1:05 pm

Yeah – it’s… sad –
NOT that God is dead –
(as he actually isn’t and very much ‘alive and kicking’) BUT that it has become so difficult to work with…. ‘god text’.
As there is this nonprofit in Germany which currently sponsors the production of 22
(gods) waitingrooms –
BUT after there were… objections of two Art collectors – who out of religious reason not even believe in HEAVEN or HELL and who already have reserved ‘their’ waiting rooms –
for a lot of ‘Mullah’ -(money-dough) – ‘god’ now has been dropped – and it’s just:
‘the waiting rooms’
(even for the HUUUGE ‘mobile one’ – installed into a 1997 Ford 350 – where for a few dollars y’all could ponder all y’alls sin’s and find out if y’all finally will be allowed into HEAVEN)

BUT who doesn’t want to get into some kind of HEAVEN -(even if its just a Parable for ‘THE better place’ and y#all might NOT belief in HELL)

So – guys – and especially Prof. Schiesser –
(are you in any way related to the underwear?)
– would you like to help US –
(the German nonprofit) –
As after the first… ‘experiments’ with the ‘mobile’ waiting room even a Right Wing Racist American Science Denier came out – refreshed –
(after being locked in WITH A BIBLE for about an hour) – seriously promising NOT to vote for ‘THE DEVIL’ anymore.

In other words:
(and GOD will be very, very mad at you – if you don’t post this comment)


oldster 10.30.22 at 2:49 pm

The following not intended as a tu quoque, but earnestly:
to which discipline would you say your own essay belongs?
Again, my point is not to say, “but yur doing a humanities, too!” My point is just to get a clearer sense of how you divide up the various disciplines and disciplinary families.
It’s seems, for instance, that you do not count art history as among the humanities. But I don’t think you meant to write an essay in art history? Neither does it seem like philosophy or history. How would you place it?


PatinIowa 10.30.22 at 3:46 pm

While the definitional issues with “humanities” pose daunting problems here, I’d like to point to another definitional issue that bothers me.

What do we mean by “decline”? Surely it can’t simply be the facts that people who major in the humanities (again, whatever that means) don’t get paid as much after college as engineers and that administrative largesse goes to laboratories and business colleges.

Chaucer was on to to this six centuries ago, when he introduced the Clerk:

“He had but little gold within his coffer;
But all that he might borrow from a friend
On books and learning he would swiftly spend.”

As my career as a university instructor wound down, before I retired, I think I would have put “decline,” thus: The ruling class has fallen out of love with higher education in the US, something that started at the end of the baby boom. The humanities, historically the most vulnerable departments, are showing the signs first. They’ll get around to the sciences in due course. It’s already started–look at who is teaching basic math.

I’d be interested in knowing where the humanities are declining from. My guess is that their “peak” coincided with the moment the humanities professoriate was most ideologically conservative, relatively speaking.

The above is very, very local. I’m talking about an impressionistic view from a state flagship university.

People haven’t stopped reading and thinking, here or elsewhere. None of us will see a time when they have.


Anders Widebrant 10.30.22 at 4:43 pm

Here’s another possible way forward for the humanities, perhaps:


Eric Schliesser 10.30.22 at 6:49 pm

Hi Anders,
I find that approach genuinely interesting and sometimes illuminating. But it’s de facto a kind of social science and so an illustration of my argument.


Eric Schliesser 10.30.22 at 6:51 pm

Hi Oldster,
Fair. So let me answer earnestly. I do think of what I do as philosophy (even when my professional peers shake their head no). And I think of the essay you are responding to as a (feeble?!?) attempt at doing philosophy of the present.


Peter Erwin 10.30.22 at 8:01 pm

if we look at the historical sources of the study of profane literature, we find it intimately tied to the development of what we might bourgeois culture

I can’t help thinking this is leaving out a lot of traditionally studied “profane literature” — to wit, the pre-Christian Classical (Latin and Greek) literature that was so dominant during and after the Middle Ages. Even those without Latin or Greek could read translations. “Profane” texts were culturally important long before the “death of God”.

(And “humanities” as just “the study of texts” is ridiculously, absurdly narrow. When I read historians and classicists, for example, worrying about “the decline of the humanities”, they’re not talking about English-language literary hermeneutics.)


John Quiggin 10.30.22 at 9:26 pm


Tiktok certainly has a huge number of users, but I haven’t been able to figure out how significant it is. Partly, that’s because I don’t know about whether most users create videos themselves, or comment or just scan through. Also, if I have the numbers right, the bulk of users are in China (more generally, East Asia), which I know little about.

Are there any good links on cultural significance of Tiktok


JPL 10.30.22 at 11:32 pm

I’m wondering how you might have responded to the work of Roman Ingarden (e.g., The Literary Work of Art), e.g., wrt the ontology of the meaning expressed by the expressions making up literary texts, or the methods of critique, to use the Kantian term, of texts (and the meanings expressed by them) from a pragmatics point of view. (Of course, iconic visual images, insofar as they are intentional artistic expressions, also express meanings, but they probably differ from the linguistic texts in the way they relate to the categories of systems of “meaning potential” (e.g., on the level of norms for natural languages) or the kinds of meanings they can effectively express (e.g., they may not be propositional in internal structure).) (BTW I took up your suggestion for examples of what you called “Icononic looks”, and then I did a similar search for Janelle Monae and FKA Twigs: no “Icononic”, but still interesting “looks”.)

Sorry, my comment is off the main point about the explanation of the decline in the perceived significance of the Humanities, but what intrigued me “behind the scenes” in your post was your interest in “… the manner by which profane literature is approached in the Humanities”, the idea of “the seminar [as] the essential pedagogical format of the Humanities”, and the current absence in society of “the skills and cultural practices that provide basic entry into the academic study of texts and practice of criticism”. And for my own selfish purposes I am sincerely interested in what you might have to say about Ingarden.


AnthonyB 10.31.22 at 1:39 am

Linguistics is part of the humanities, and at the University of Chicago is in that Division. (Other places put linguistics into the same area as anthropology or cognitive science.) Linguists always prioritize speech over writing: speech preceded writing, and most of the world’s languages have no writing system. If primary focus on texts is what defines the humanities, then perhaps we linguists merely inherited our humanities status from our predecessor Departments of Philology.


Eric Schliesser 10.31.22 at 4:31 am

Hi Anthony, I didn’t intend to set off a classificatory debate (although I understand that my definition of the Humanities is narrow, and for some unduly narrow). Has, on your view, linguistics participated in the crisis of the humanities? (FWIW: my guess is no.)


Eric Schliesser 10.31.22 at 4:36 am

Oh, yes on Janelle Monae and FKA Twigs!
I have not thought carefully about Ingarden, although I have a low level awareness that some of my own (inchoate) views in aesthetics (and the metaphysics of art) have a kinship to his. Thank you for nudging me in his directions.


Eric Schliesser 10.31.22 at 4:46 am

Hi Peter,
I am not especially motivated by classificatory questions in this post. So feel free to reject mine.
In so far as there is a crisis in classics, its origins/roots strike me as very different than the kind facing other nearby fields. I am not aware of history facing a general crisis, so I left it outside my purview.
That profane texts were culturally important long before their academic study is beyond doubt. But my post is about academic humanities, and I am unfamiliar with university/academic study of such literature before the 17th century (unless you have a mind the role of antiquity in the middle ages and the renaissance). I’d be delighted to learn otherwise!


Matt 10.31.22 at 7:27 am

On TikTok, at least in the US the % of people who “regularly get news” from it is going up, especially for people 18-30. It’s still not close to a majority, and is less than twitter or facebook, but those are trending down while tiktok is going up, at least according to this (which, perhaps ironically, I saw on someone’s twitter feed):

What larger conclusion to draw, and what’s happening in other places, I’m happy to leave to others to discuss. (I’ve only seen maybe a dozen or two tiktok videos in my life, and those mostly of silly little things.)

On history, at least as a major in (US) universities, it is on hard times, having declined greatly from the 1960s, and going down even more since 2011. It is arguably the hardest hit major since then. Whether this is a “crisis” more generally is maybe unclear, but it’s certain to be very bad for the academic study of history (again, in the US. Maybe the situation is better in other countries, but I’d be a bit surprised.) See here:


engels 10.31.22 at 11:03 am

Besides TikTok ofc there are image-based platforms like Instragram and Tumblr and an audio one, Clubhouse (all Greek to me though).


Jonathan Monroe 10.31.22 at 12:21 pm

I think John Quiggin @3 is very close to the correct answer here – the decline in the humanities is tied to way academia has changed from the Liberal Arts model (which is an update of a medieval seminary) to the Research University model (which is an update of a 19th century German engineering school).

When I both studied and taught undergraduate physics at Cambridge, it was obvious that both the Oxbridge tutorial system and the seminar were wrong for the material, and that lecture plus office hour would probably work better. Some form of small-group teaching was necessary to provide targeted support to struggling students with the specific topics they struggled with, but the fact that I was able to do this as a grad student suggests that going through a problem set with a tutor is different to the experience of defending your essay against a genuine subject matter expert which is supposed to be the heart of the system. But when I got into the lab as a research student, it was my humanist colleagues who were lost – they had entered the academy first to acquire and then to pass on humanistic knowledge, but

Has their been a general decline in humanistic learning in the wider society? My preferred humanity to dabble in is history, and my impression is that semi-scholarly history books are still reliable midlist sellers (I am on a Tom Holland binge at the moment), and that Paradox are making enough money selling history sims (at several hundred dollars including all the DLC, and serious players buy all the DLC) to fund the enormous cost of developing them.

In the world of serious literature, MFA programmes are a boom area for money-grubbing universities, which may not be good but definitely indicates public interest. I would be interested to see what was happening to sales of serious literary novels in the Anglosphere, but I don’t know how to find comparable numbers. The Booker prize definitely still moves books.


SusanC 10.31.22 at 1:47 pm

I;m not sure if this post is actually serious or if it’s a deadpan postmodernists joke. (Maybe I’ve read too much Derrida, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and have started suspecting this of everything….)

But anyway, Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition partly blames the computer scientists for postmodernism.

At any rate, computer programs (seen as texts) clearly exhibit the problems of interpretation that dogged the theologians … at a much greater rate of decay. We may have difficulty understanding the Vedic Sanskrit of the Rig Veda, or knowing what the writers of the Gospels really meant but a program that worked just fine with the previous release of Widnows might not even compiler any more.

So, we have a renewed secular interest in really caring about the underlying philosophical issues. (An example research frontier – proof repair. Suppose you have a very long and elaborate mathematical proof. But the axioms are not something eternal and self-evident, as someone once …before non-Euclidean geometry .. might have thought, but a vast pile of highly socially contingent stuff. So your axioms have changed, yet again, but the conclusion of the theorem is probably still true. The challenge — automatically build the new proof, with the old proof as a hint.[*])

So the philosophical problems are hotter topics than ever.

But .. somehow .. most of the traditional methods of textual criticism didnt make the transition to the new world order.

[*] cf. Kronecker, “God created the Integers, all else is the work of Man,”


SusanC 10.31.22 at 2:00 pm

An alternative take on this…

somewhere around the beginning of the twentienth century (I’m going to point to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus as a key text), we just stopped believing that you could get the truth about the world from some kind of a priori logical argu,emt.

It might very well be the case that there wasn’t a rhinoceros in the room when Russell and Wittgenstein had their famous argument. but axiomatic mathematics is not going to tell you about the presence or absence of the rhinoceros.

But if we no longer believe that that kind of enquiry is going to give us truth, the value of having a social class of people trained in it starts to look dubious.


Dave in Austin 11.01.22 at 3:39 am

I read CT but have never before commented. On the Bible:

Catholicism and Judaism have “final authorities” who determine the correct meaning; the Protestant tradition is more “Here is the book and we all should study it”. When times change the interpretation of the Bible must also change. Catholicism came to accept interest because capitalism required it. Religious Russian Jews found ways around the “No work on the Sabbath” because winters demanded a fire and created an expanded definition of “home” because people wanted to visit the neighbors. These are treated as interpretations and clarifications, not changes because the Bible does not change.

Which brings me to the US Constitution, our text which is fixed but must change. Catholics and Jews have a model for dealing with the obvious contradiction and both traditions created classes of people who were employed to interpret and clarify while pretending that nothing had changed since, after all, the text was the Word of God.

Could that be why almost all the Justices appointed in the past 30 years have come from a Catholic or Jewish background? The almost complete absence of people from Protestant backgrounds is otherwise hard to understand when 2/3 of the population comes from that background.

The humanities face the same problem with few consequences. The modern “close reading” in the humanities is designed to instill in the students the correct, “modern” understanding of the text, but without the sanction of a God, Truth or even Beauty. The crisis in the humanities is that we have Popes and Texts, but we have no God to explain why the views of the Popes should be taken seriously.

Real close reading of historical texts often leads to profoundly un-modern alternative views being presented to students or the public because they represent a plain reading, and in our modern society that isn’t encouraged. So to some degree the problematic text must vanish so we can carry out the image of the Golden Calf to be worshiped in its place.


MFB 11.01.22 at 8:12 am

This is interesting, but I don’t believe that its core thesis holds water. It is no doubt true that the Bible is less significant as a source of meaning than it was — Christian fundamentalists seem to use it primarily the way that Marxist fundamentalists used Capital, as a source of material to support their current prejudices rather than as something to analyse and debate — but it’s hard not to see that there are plenty of other texts which have replaced it in other spheres, such as economics and the sciences. Indeed, if the humanities depend on adherence to a sacred book, then the Islamic world ought to be a centre of humanities research, which so far as I know isn’t true.

It has been pointed out that more text is being generated now than ever before in history, courtesy of social media. Most of that text is gibberish, but then that’s always been the case. The problem, perhaps, is not so much a single vision, as the gradual collapse of the notion that this text requires serious analysis. The world-text is seen either as incomprehensible, or else as something incredibly simple — it’s the Jewish conspiracy, or the white master plan, or the Russian secret service, or whatever your chosen demon is, which explains absolutely everything.

While this is happening, of course, the university humanities have seen sidelined, not because they are obsolete or unBiblical, but because university managements prefer to make money out of business schools and similar capital-friendly activities, and there isn’t much money to be made even out of the most Arnoldian/Leavisite humanities department. And so far as I can see the university humanities cooperate with that, and so there’s no force to stand up for the humanities in the wider world.


TM 11.01.22 at 4:50 pm

“the more dominant cultural form has become the iconic image…
the icon is, after all, itself intrinsic to many forms of religiosity…
icons are a way to convey abstract teachings to the many…”

Icons were always used to convey teachings to the many, and churches used to be painted all over with comic-like frescoes that told religious stories to illiterate believers. So how is the use of icons in modern mass society new or different?


Eric Schliesser 11.01.22 at 5:24 pm

Hi TM,
My argument relies on the fact that icons were always used to convey teachings (to the many), including in religion. (Hence my denial that I am offering a secularization thesis.) Rather what’s new (in the era of academic humanities) is that the icon is shaping elite culture and central to it and thereby displacing the significance and status of texts in it.


TM 11.02.22 at 8:09 am

“Rather what’s new (in the era of academic humanities) is that the icon is shaping elite culture and central to it ”

What is the evidence for this claim, or to put it differently, what kind of obervation would you accept as refuting it?


engels 11.02.22 at 12:51 pm

And while our society is still infused with texts (and some legal-constitutional cultures have taken on the partial trappings of the Humanities in virtue of its past significance), the more dominant cultural form has become the iconic image.

I’m not sure what this refers to: memes? (It’s certainly not true that the 1%ers who lost interest in Shakespeare became passionate about Titian instead ime.) And I don’t think your story explains why iconic images won’t be studied (I take it) with the same seriousness literature once was.


engels 11.02.22 at 1:03 pm

I think neoliberalism and/or the good old “icy water of egotistical calculation” might have something to do with all this.


Tim Sommers 11.02.22 at 6:33 pm

Late to the party and some of this has been said, but (1) You’re not talking about the humanities. The close reading of texts is a small enough fraction of the humanities that if it completely disappeared it wouldn’t explain the overall decline of the humanities. (2) The link between the close reading of religious v. secular texts was severed in the 19th Century. The formation of “English” and related departments were explicitly linked to the secularization of moral and other development via the study of texts. Decline since then have lost any direct link to religion. (3) The decline of the humanities at university’ pretty much explains itself. Universities are businesses now, and despite what some of said on this thread, for the most part, that stuff doesn’t pay the bills.


AWOL 11.03.22 at 4:44 pm

“Could that be why almost all the Justices appointed in the past 30 years have come from a Catholic or Jewish background? The almost complete absence of people from Protestant backgrounds is otherwise hard to understand when 2/3 of the population comes from that background.”

A few of the fascists on the SC used to be Protestants. Like the Grevious Gulllah Guy. They’re exploring their Inner Sixties and bopping from Jesus Kult to Jesus Kult to try to find a meaning to their sad-sack lives. Certainly, just being on a reactionary SC destroying millions upon millions of lives via faulty and corrupt means must leave one parched for some nonflatulent oxygen for their tiny, evil brains.


engels 11.06.22 at 10:06 am

I came across this last night in The Dyer’s Hand by WH Auden:

Secondly, in a society governed by the values appropriate to labour (capitalist America may well be more completely governed by these than communist Russia) the gratuitous is no longer regarded — most earlier cultures thought differently — as sacred to Man the Labourer, leisure is not sacred but a respite from labouring, a time for relaxation and the pleasures of consumption. In so far as such a society thinks about the gratuitous at all, it is suspicious of it — artists do not labour, therefore, they are probably parasitic idlers — or, at best, regards it as trivial — to write poetry or paint pictures is a harmless private hobby.


LFC 11.06.22 at 5:16 pm

engels @48

The odd thing is that capitalist America funnels a certain amount of money, albeit a very small part of the federal budget, into the humanities, via, e.g., the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Located a very short distance from the Capitol building is the National Gallery, where the free admission is in effect subsidized by taxpayers (as it should be). There may be something symbolically significant in the fact that right next to the corridors of power in Wash DC one finds the corridors of art. (Or then again, perhaps not. These things are subjective.)


Colin Danby 11.08.22 at 8:24 am

The broad argument makes sense (Allan Bloom says something similar) and fits my experience with undergrads — those who are religiously serious are usually excellent critical readers. But I am a little hung up on “Once bible reading and study disappears from bourgeois culture” mainly because it gestures to a previous age in which such reading was widespread. Was there such an age, and among how many? What I remember as a kid 50-odd years back was that religiously-observant households (bourgeois or not) owned bibles, but they were not routinely read.

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