Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

The Future of the Humanities

Dinner Talk, June 19th 2006

That a German university president is speaking in London about the future of the humanities may, at first glance, seem rather curious. Either the humanities are growing and blossoming in Germany, in which case there is no cause to travel abroad and complain about their future. Who ever talks about the „future of chemistry“ or the „future of biotechnology,“ for example? Or, the humanities are wilting and withering, in which case, it doesn’t help to complain about that future either, because their affliction is obvious. A prophetic speech about the precise shape of the future of the humanities, either positive or negative, for example on the research priorities of the next years and decades, is certainly not expected of a Theologian, perhaps from a sociologist of science. And there’s a good reason for that: the prophetic abilities of theologians have been on a steady decline since the Middle Ages.

I selected tonight‘s theme of „The Future of the Humanities“ because this issue is highly controversial in Germany and is being debated from the most diverse perspectives. I also sought it out because I suspect that this German debate is not well known in Britain and because I am attracted to the idea of commenting about it on „neutral territory“, so to say.

Therefore, in the first portion of my speech, I will attempt to provide an overview of the debate which has taken place over the last few months. In the second portion I will ask if we can extract some fundamentals of discussion from the five hundred years of German discourse on the Humanities which pre-date this debate. Finally, in the third portion, I will bring together some of my own comments on the current state of the fields of study which we in Germany have called „the humanities“ since the middle of the 19TH century. Although the substance and subject matter of this concept have changed considerably since then, we need not trace those changes here. By the way, an important factor in the spread of the German term „Geisteswissenschaften“, or „Humanities,“ was the fact that the German word was a translation of „moral sciences“ from John Stuart Mill’s 1843 work “A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive,“ and that Mill recognised a duality of „natural sciences“ and „moral sciences.“ It could therefore be said that the English language at least played a metaphorical role of a midwife in the establishment of humanities as a concept in Germany – and this would be justification enough for a speech in London on the future of the humanities. Today, however, we do not wish to trace the history of the term humanities, or chronicle the various attempts to define it in the past. Instead, we would like to take the years 2005-2006 as a starting point and describe the debate over the humanities which has recently broken out in Germany, keeping with in a time frame of about a year.

(1) The Most Recent Debate over the Humanities

When a public debate breaks out and it is covered in the feature pages of newspapers, something fundamental is unclear or uncertain. There are many signs of a present state of fundamental uncertainty and lack of clarity within the Humanities in Germany. Before I analyse the recent debate, I will give you an example of this uncertainty and lack of clarity. Since the turn of this century, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has had the habit of assigning a scientific discipline to each year, contracting with an advertising agency to develop of programme for each such „year of science,“ and organising or recommending a series of relevant events. It is hoped that by doing this, the public will become interested in scientific issues. After several successful years which were devoted to themes such as physics and technology, in 2005 the „Einstein Year“ was celebrated and Einstein’s most important publications from the year 1905 (which were published in Switzerland, by the way) were remembered. In Berlin, immense, bright red “E”s marked places where Einstein had left his mark, and a very-well regarded exhibition by the Max-Planck-Society presented Einstein’s life, as well as his scientific discoveries. That 2006 has been dedicated to computer science is known – if I am not fooling myself – to representatives of this discipline and to those who attended the opening gala. After seven years which have been dedicated to various natural sciences, 2007 is finally supposed to focus on the humanities and publicly present the accomplishments of German scientists under the rubric of “Language.” An advisory board has been established, a coordinator has been hired by the Ministry and an advertising agency has been retained. This would normally be cause for joy – public financing beckons and we can now begin with the detailed planning for the “Year of the Humanities” 2007. Instead, more than a few scholars, as well as large scientific organisations, are complaining that instead of one humanities discipline, such as history, being on display, an entire group of disciplines is being made the theme of the year. They see in this a symptom of disadvantages faced by the humanities in the German research and education system, a symptom of a crisis in the humanities.

Most contributions to this recent debate on the humanities, which have been made largely in the newspapers over the last two years but have also included some longer essays, begin with this keyword „crisis“. As an example, I will give you some details of two speeches recently published by the philosopher and former Minister of Culture Julian Nida-Rümelin, who now lives in Munich. Symptomatic of the German discussion, however, is the large public influence of two expert reports on the state of the humanities in Germany which appeared around the end of 2005 and the beginning of 2006, and which were widely discussed in the press. One group, assembled around the Constance Philospher Jürgen Mittelstraß and the Frankfurt Legal Historian Dieter Simon, published on its on initiative a small „Manifesto of the Humanities“, which was met by an extreme backlash. Shortly thereafter, the Science Council, or „Wissenschaftsrat“, a coordination and evaluation council made up of German scientists appointed by the German president, published a disproportionately long report entitled „Recommendations for the Development and Promotion of the Humanities in Germany“ within the framework of its regular evaluations. As different in length and orientation as they are, both reports are identical in rejecting the crisis rhetoric. Mittelstraß and Simon initially formulate, somewhat crudely, that the „crisis of the crisis“ has now been added to the discussion of the „crisis.“ For its part, the Science Council more sombrely states that while the “general rhetoric of crisis is misplaced and inappropriate,” “indeed real deficits, flaws and challenges are recognised.” That which Mittelstraß and Simon have clothed in the form of an after-dinner discussion has been addressed by the Science Council over many pages, including examples of the international presence and national performance of the German humanities. For tonight, it is enough to mention the great reference projects underway, for example German contributions to a comprehensive inventory of medieval glass painting, the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi, or the bound editions of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and Friedrich Nietzsche, to name two antipodes of program funded by the state and federal Governments.

But what is the origin of these diverging perceptions? Do they perhaps have a fundamentum in re? Are humanities disciplines disadvantaged in the German research and education system? Can one speak of a „crisis in the humanities?“ Regardless of whether 2007 should be celebrated as a „Year of History“ or a „Year of Languages,“ the perception of being disadvantaged is widespread among German humanities scholars. Many colleagues even believe that their backs are to the wall. Even if the DFG, the German Research Foundation, never tires of employing figures to demonstrate that the share of humanities receiving financial support has risen somewhat (to about ten percent), many intelligent contemporaries of mine suspect discrimination by these central funding organisations. When many humanities projects lost out in the first round of the nation-wide competition for funding for Graduate Schools and Clusters of Excellence, which was organised jointly by the state and federal governments, many suspected that the humanities were at a structural disadvantage in the competition. Barely considered was the question of whether these decisions, made by foreign experts, were perhaps cause for a critical evaluation of the German humanities, something well worth thinking about. I will return to this point later.

As widespread as the perception of a structural disadvantage among the Humanities is, there is no statistical basis for this belief. For example, the share of beginning students who select humanities disciplines has constantly risen to one quarter of all beginning students, and some disciplines such as English and Romance Languages have been able to increase the number of their professors despite an overall decrease in the number of professors in Germany. Only some disciplines have experienced a drastic decline, mostly because the reductions in funding for the so-called „smaller disciplines“ were not co-ordinated between the various German states. Slavic studies was especially affected, and this in the face of the eastward expansion of the European Union, something which was especially painful. The number of professors has also not kept up with the increase in the number of students, thereby worsening the unsatisfactory faculty to student ratio at German universities.

If there are no statistical grounds for the admittedly widespread perception of a structural disadvantage on the part of the humanities, and, if in light of their performance, there is no reason to talk of a „crisis,“ where then is this perception coming from, what is causing this rhetoric? Interestingly, the two reports from 2005 and 2006 do not address this question or address it only indirectly. In the manifesto of the Mittelstraß and Simon group, in a rather melancholy tone, it is proposed that the famous historisation of the German humanities in the 19th century supplanted the previously central question of truth by pushing it into the realm of the discipline of philosophy, thereby making philosophical theoretical frameworks largely irrelevant for science as a whole. Why this process of historisation of the humanities and the accompanying decline of the „idealist model“, which is described in the manifesto in a solely negative way, should constitute an important part of the present systematic and institutional weakness of the humanities is only hinted at by Mittelstraß and Simon (17). One must suspect that the authors would like to suggest to humanities scholars that the reintroduction of the idealist paradigm would allow them to re-establish the primacy of the humanities in the analysis of reality and the methodology of science, and thereby to replace this sense of disadvantage with a happy sense of analytical expertise and authority. It is clear that, against this background, a constructivist theory of science, or a linguist or cultural turn, must simply be discounted as a mistake (17). In contrast, the report of the Sciences Council avoids such idealist knee-jerks. It seems apparent that in the 19th century the humanities were still accorded a central role in educational canon and were not required to present proof of „immediate social utility.“ (10) To formulate it more crudely: at that time, someone who was unable to recite certain passages from Goethe was considered socially unsatisfactory. This attitude lasted as long as the requirement that all academic speeches be peppered with quotes from the poet of Weimar, meaning well into the Weimar Republic. A knowledge of chemical or binomial formulas was, on the other hand, not required; the Romance Scholar Ernst Robert Curtius turned down an appointment to the Technical University of Aachen in 1920 because he feared being addressed as „colleague“ by a Professor for Heating and Ventilation. The therefore satirised and explicitly new humanist educational ideal, to which the humanities owed their special position and under which they were also canonised, broke down in the 20th century for various reasons. Not only the thetic paper of the Mittelstraß and Simon group, but also the Science Council’s report neglects to name the supposedly final renunciation of the humanistic educational ideal, the strengthened self-confidence of the natural sciences, or the broader public’s increased fascination with natural sciences research as reasons for the humanities‘ loss of the scientific throne.

Both reports refrain from posing the question of whether in times of pluralisation there can even be one dominant group of disciplines: Mittelstraß and Simon attempt, without making many bones about it, to restore the central position of the humanities, or more accurately the position of Philosophy in the idealist-dominated scientific system of the first half of the 19th century (in the era of Hegel). The report of the Sciences Council prefers to establish a profile for the humanities as „a science among sciences“ (14), as a part of a „community of integral research“, (13) without specifically defining what humanities are. In the end, both approaches remain unsatisfying. In one paper the humanities are reassigned their central role in a problematic way, in the other the humanities disappear in a plurality of sciences in which, metaphorically speaking, all cats are grey. In contrast, the Munich philosopher Julian Nida-Rümelin attempts to identify the specialness of the humanities by their inherent reference to people and so, in the classical sense, to define them as studia humaniora, sciences in which the perception of people leads to lifeworld orientation. This knowledge, drawn together with research results from natural and social sciences, leads „back to a scientific worldview“ (65). But are the humanities not about a comprehension of the world which always seeks to overcome, relativise, and transcend the necessary central anthropological perspective? Nida-Rümelins recourse to a traditional self-image is also not unproblematic, even though, by concentrating on the humane, it acquires a closer connection to English and French terminology.

At this point, we can break off our overview of this most recent debate, as its characteristics have already become recognisable enough. This debate is characterised on the one hand by the fact that the wide-spread perception of a structural disadvantage of the humanities within the German research and education system and the rhetoric of crisis are emphatically contradicted, and very clearly so. On the other hand, to a certain degree, this perception and rhetoric must have a Fundamentum in re. Otherwise, there would not be such an energetic attempt to define a reserved, unmistakable responsibility for the humanities, such as the attempts of Nida-Rümelin, Mittelstraß and Simon, as different as they are. There would also no attempt to develop new, specifically designed funding forms for the humanities. To name some examples, I will mention the “Initiative Pro Humanities” program “Opus Magnum” of the Thyssen and Volkswagen Foundations, which is intended to relieve academics of their university responsibilities so that they may compose great works. I can also mention similar initiatives by the DFG and the large foundations, such as Lichtenberg Professorships and Dilthey Fellowships. In any event, it is certain that a certain amount of the depression among humanities scholars and the crisis rhetoric which they cultivate are a result of their concerns about the loss of their once- impregnable central position in science.

Now, in a second shorter portion of my speech I would like to show that the difficulties with a substantive definition of the humanities, which distances them from the natural sciences, and which in an analysis of the prescription of Nida-Rümelin, Mittelstraß and Simon we can regard as paradigmal, have shadowed this debate over the humanities. Again, from a large number of contributions to this debate I will only be able to select two.

(2) The old Discussion about the Humanities

Difficulties in defining a distinct, substantively distinguished understanding of the humanities have characterised the debate from the beginning – they do not first appear at the end of the 20th century, or more exactly in 1990 when an exposé entitled „The Humanities Today“ was produced under the direction of the German Studies Scholar Wolfgang Frühwald. No, these difficulties have existed from the beginning. Ever since the term „Geisteswissenschaften“ or „Humanities“ was first used, it has been burdened, something which has led philosophers of science to eagerly come to the conclusion that a classification of the humanities based on its subject-matter cannot produce a satisfactory result. This radically sceptical position becomes more plausible when you realise how closely interwoven subject-matter-based definitions really are. We have already seen this in the idealist knee-jerk in the Manifesto of the Mittelstraß and Simon group. This is also true for the Berlin philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911). Not only did he popularise the term „Geisteswissenschaften“ in Germany, but defined it in three different ways. First, he saw this group of disciplines as the other half of the globus intellectualis (GS I, 5), contrasting with the natural sciences, so that all non-natural sciences are included in the term humanities. Second, he defines the humanities very traditionally as studia humanoria. „All of these sciences relate to people, their relationships with each other and with the external environment.“ Third, he consciously assigns „understanding“ (on the basis of irreducible individuality) as the dominant method in the humanities. Explanation (based on cause and effect relationships) is assigned to the natural sciences. This differentiation requires an awareness of Dilthey’s concept of understanding, although we need not address it here in great depth. In short, life is individual and does not follow rules of causation; it therefore cannot be comprehended in a real sense. Dilthey’s attempt to define the humanities not by their subject matter, but rather more by the nature of their interaction with subject matter, was controversial even among his contemporaries. Whether explanation can even exist without understanding was questionable, even to Dilthey: „ultimately, understanding is not so different from explanation…and explanation requires a complete understanding“ And today we know, of course, that a physicist can understand changes in entropy when he explains them with the help of the second law of thermodynamics. We also know that a historian explains something when he understands the effects of the failure of the Weimar Republic (Mittelstraß, BBAW.BA 2, 227). In the end, we can only use Dilthey’s rather unsatisfying differentiation between explanation and understanding as a way to distinguish the humanities - the supposedly deeper approach to scientific interaction with the world - from the natural sciences, as Günther Patzig remarked some time ago.

Another contemporary possibility of defining the specifics of the humanities, which was discussed in contrast to Dilthey’s disassociation, requires a philosophic framework, just as by Dilthey. This framework requires the collapse of the ontological paradigm and its transfer to a functionalist proposition. (The transfer of the proposition: this is an after-dinner talk in the sentence: this functions as after-dinner talk). In 1985, the Giessen Philosopher Odo Marquard proposed the theory that the responsibility of the humanities is to compensate for lifeworldly losses which occur as a result of technological advances. (Marquard and Lübbe are therefore also known as compensation theorists). Within a rationalised, demystified society, as described in the characteristically colourful language of thinkers, a need for „colour,“ „sensation“ and „trust“ develops. This need is addressed by the humanities, which explains histories and brings traditions into the present. In their Manifesto, Mittelstraß and Simon have correctly remarked that such a theory readily assumes and sanctions a „diminished role in which the humanities seem to only survive in compensatory culture„ (19). At another point in their manifesto, Mittelstraß formulates it even more pointedly: he who thinks he can play a „diminished role as compensatory accompaniment to modernisation processes“ is living out „a type of humanities death wish,“ an existence based on the death of one’s own institution. (BBAW:BA 2, 222).

So much for some observations on two proposals from earlier debates on the status of the humanities, which should demonstrate that any definition of the specifics of this discipline group which are too strongly oriented on the subject matter or methods that supposedly separate it from the natural sciences, has been problematic from the beginning. In any event, such a definition, absent a true crisis, should not be revived, because it would succumb to a dualistic decision between two completely separate areas of science. This has become even truer as many classic distinctions between the natural sciences and humanities have lost their meaning. For example, empiricism can hardly be assigned to the natural sciences, as we now have scholars in the humanities who use empirical methods (such as in certain types of historical research), so that the constant debate over the thesis of C.P. Snow about two cultures has become rather like a continuous ceremonial burial.

During the time in which the humanities were still known as studia humaniora, one would have said Bis repetito non placet. The biologist Hubert Markl, former President of the Max-Planck-Society, spoke pointedly of a „two culture illusion“ and translated this diagnosis immediately, as it should be, into Latin: dementia dichotoma. In the case of Wolf Lepenies, the sterile dichotomy is translated into a model of three cultures, as the sociologist incorporates sociology as an intermediary. In any event, we cannot follow this interesting trail now, although the volume also contains an intelligent essay about John Stuart Mill, which shows that our initial characterisation of this thinker as a representative of a duality between the natural sciences and the humanities is in need of correction, at the least.

At this point, having arrived in the present time, we can round out our remarks with a short closing segment. It has the same title as the speech as a whole.

(3) The Future of the Humanities

The recent fierce debate over the position and condition of the humanities in Germany has, as we have seen, concentrated heavily on the question of whether the discipline is in crisis and if so, how this crisis can be resolved. Much noble sweat and paper has been invested in the rejection of the rhetoric of crisis. At the same time, a sober analysis would have revealed that the word „crisis“ is only „a lay term in search of a scholarly meaning“, as it is defined by the „International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences“ (III, 510). If one follows this definition, it could be said that the constant talk of the crisis in the humanities is an attendant circumstance of the difficulty of defining this discipline group by its subject matter or by a specific methodology which has been adapted for the subject matter.

In my opinion, the humanities have a future if they do not define their subject matter dualistically in opposition to the natural sciences, but rather act as bridge-builders, helping to span the existing gap between the humanities and natural sciences. I will therefore not formulate, as the Mittelstraß and Simon manifesto did, that the humanities are where the world understands itself „in a scientific form,“ but rather ascribe this understanding to the natural sciences as well, while adding the sentence that „taking considerations of explanation and orientation into account, this understanding is necessary for a world which itself has a scientific (and technical) nature“ to the natural sciences as well as the humanities. Building such a bridge between the natural sciences and humanities is difficult. Bringing together the differing terminology alone will require much time and patience and many curious scientists. At Humboldt-Universität, we are trying to create an institution at which life sciences research will be organised in such a way so as to serve this goal. We are eager to see if we will be successful in building this bridge, if we can refute Snows assertion of mutual ignorance on a daily basis. The humanities can afford to build such a bridge, because they are dependent on the natural sciences in the fulfilment of their original responsibilities. Two examples: if, as the Sciences Council formulated it, the humanities dedicate themselves to the research of the historical, philosophical and creative foundations of culture and society and the transfer of these results to society, then in the contemporary era they must also know how a brain functions and how it regulates its behaviour. When the humanities seek to create, raise or provide orientation on issues and questions in culture and society, they must know what sickness and health mean. Some time ago, Aleide Assmann pointed out that the term “humanities” has, since its rise in the 19th century, been liberally and deeply associated with opposition to the natural sciences, and indeed with dualities (such as explain/understand, spirit/matter, subject/object and history/nature). She therefore pleads for a transformation of the humanities into cultural sciences. Whether such a cultural turn is called for or not would be a topic for another speech. Tonight I would just like to note that, in addition to the close attachment to dualities which has characterised the humanities since Dilthey, the problem posed by such concepts in these disciplines – also and especially in regard to reflections about terminology - has been broached. I do not see the necessity of speaking of “cultural sciences” rather than the traditional “humanities” from now on. To the contrary, Ms. Assmann must consider the question of whether the cultural sciences have not also now entered a crisis. At the least, a cultural turn will not provide escape from the rhetoric of crisis.

A similar maelstrom was unleashed by the demand – which was closely associated with the name Jürgen Mittelstraß – to not only engage in interdisciplinary work, i.e. in association with several disciplines, but also to abandon disciplines altogether, regarding them as structures which hinder humanities research - Mittelstraß speaks of „transdisciplinarity.“ Thankfully, in its January 2006 recommendation, the Sciences Council pointed out that it is only possible to conduct transdisciplinary work when disciplinary standards and core competencies are maintained (6). A prominent German contemporary historian, who helped compose the report, made these recommendations even more precise and radical at the first meeting of the advisory board for the 2007 Year of the Humanities in Bonn. In many humanities disciplines, there has been no consensus on disciplinary standards in recent years. As a result, these disciplines have come into decline. This diagnosis is, as a generalisation, surely not the case, but does draw attention to the problem posed by the hostile approach to disciplines taken by the philosophy of science and rhetoric during the final decades of the 20th century. In essence, during the first round of the Excellence Initiative of the Federal and State governments, the foreign experts have again reinforced this critical turn against the dominant practice of interdisciplinarity within the humanities in Germany. They have done so by pointing out the lack of clearly focused lines of central questioning and overly broad themes, out of which, for good reason, nothing more can be removed (for example, “Inside and Outside”, “The own and the other” or “Oral and Written”). Such comments should, of course, not be taken as fundamental positions against interdisciplinarity. Yehuda Elkana recently reiterated his belief that all interesting problems of the present age that scholars in the humanities are currently working on, or at least should be working on, cross classical disciplinary lines – also between the natural sciences and humanities, by the way. AIDS and Malaria are diseases which must first be explained by a physician. But to really come to terms with them and defeat them, the role of poverty in their spread and the meaning of certain forms of social organisation must be studied – tasks which would naturally overwhelm a physician. But without disciplinary standards, there can be no fruitful interdisciplinarity.

In an elementary way, the future of the humanities will naturally depend on whether the respective disciplines are better able to present themselves to the public and to transfer the results of their research to people who do not like to read books or listen to long speeches. To mention my own university one last time, we are attempting, in the Schloßplatz in the Center of Berlin, to bring to life a concept in which the differences between exhibition hall, museum and university are removed. This will allow the Berlin State Museums and the Humboldt-University to organise joint presentations and exhibitions on specific themes, in which science can to a certain extent be staged, so that we can campaign for more science funding in a relatively poor state of the federal republic. For only when the humanities are able to fascinate people will they have a future. Arguments alone will not be enough.

Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Christoph Markschies
President of Humboldt-Universität


Abteilung Kommunikation, Marketing und Veranstaltungsmanagement (VIII)