The New York Review of Books, February 14, 1991

To the Editors:

As one of the authors of the pamphlet, Speaking for the Humanities, which both Roger Kimball and his sympathetic reviewer, John Searle, seem to regard as intellectually contemptible, I feel impelled to speak out against Searle's misrepresentations, implicit or otherwise. I find it sad and odd that Searle can talk about both Allan Bloom's book and Kimball's and end by finding only the pamphlet "smug."

None of us who wrote it wants to make very large claims for it, and it is remarkable that it has been resurrected so somberly and with such hostility, two years after it was published and had, for better or worse, done its momentary work. It was not a philosophical tract, nor even a defense of the positions Searle claims, by implication, that it represents. It was intended only to provide a small counter against the very popular and politically significant attacks on the humanities within the academy, which, its authors believed, impugned not only the intellectual quality of the humanities but their moral integrity as well.

The pamphlet was not a defense of philosophical "anti-realism," an attack on "objectivity," an attempt to politicize teaching, a rejection of bourgeois political repression, or any of the rest of that stuff. It was, rather, an effort to say that what is going on in the humanities these days is serious and valuable. It claimed that the humanities are being responsive to precisely the sorts of changes in the world and the student body that Searle reasonably describes (he might have been quoting us on these matters), and it argued that they do not claim to have the answers but that their business is raising the questions. Within its very few pages, the pamphlet attempted to address issues such as academic specialization, objectivity and ideology, the core curriculum, and teaching, and its conclusions are hardly startling. It even argued that the "canon" should continue to be taught, although one couldn't infer that from Searle's representations. It recognized that the canon is not and never has been monolithic, another point that Searle makes as though the pamphlet hadn't made it already. It built its argument on the recognition that current debates about the canon are characteristic of the whole history of the humanities, whose function has consistently been—as it is at this moment—"critical."

It would be disingenuous, to say the least, to suggest that the pamphlet did not have its biases, although it was, of course, a compromise document. But the authors all believed that one needs to be wary of claims of objectivity and disinterest because such claims are more often than not invoked in a way that disguises real interests. The pamphlet was not a political tract against "patriarchy" and male, white "hegemony," or the other clichés of the theoretical left that disturb Searle. But the authors did make the point—and Searle seems to agree—that marginalized people should also be represented in what is read by all students, not simply because they are marginal but because their cultures are themselves interesting; moreover, as Searle himself says, you can't know your own culture without knowing another. In addition, they argued that it makes sense to see as part of the reading and critical process essential to the humanities the ways in which social and political forces contribute to the meaning and development of all writing. Most of Searle's recommendations at the end of his "review" are at least as banal as our own might seem. I, for one, would accept all of them, but I wouldn't pretend, as Searle does, that this is all simple and that each of the recommendations would not be extremely difficult to work out in the real curricula of real students in the reality of their schedules and against the demands of specialized majors.

Searle pretends to be taking a position between lunacies. It would be a comfortable position, but it's an impossible one. His distortion of the claims of the pamphlet is a minor matter. But his pretense that difficult issues are easy is dangerous. (Breathtakingly, for example, Searle suggests that the ontological question of "metaphysical realism" is not debatable, and he makes his case for that difficult position in a few easy and implausible paragraphs. I put aside here the question of the smugness of this argument, which has its own strenuous and unacknowledged history in Searle's career. But hot after the authors of the pamphlet, Searle also would catch in this net such diverse philosophers as, say, Richard Rorty, or Bas van Fraassen, or Larry Laudan, or Hilary Putnam.) Searle implies that all the combatants in this "crisis" of higher education are loony except him and perhaps Hirsch, Kimball, and Bloom (the last two, to be sure, having their faults): all arguments (except Searle's, of course) fall too far left or too far right.

But the pamphlet was directed against easy categorizing and easy solutions. It argued that there are reasonable grounds for not accepting the (now even more intense) conservative critique, and for valuing the critical work of the humanities in academia in these bad days. Its major point—directed particularly then against the politically significant arguments of William Bennett and the apparently popular ones of Allan Bloom—was that the humanities are a vital, critical, and creative presence in the university. I am sorry it seemed "smug" because much of it is devoted to arguing that the questions are difficult and unresolved.

          George Levine

Center for the Critical Analysis
of Contemporary Culture
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, New Jersey