On Finding the Mortal World Enough: Value, Extinction, and the Crisis of the Humanities

In: Contemporary Pragmatism
Author: Nir Evron1
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  • 1 Assistant Professor, Department of English and American Studies, Tel Aviv University, Israel, niron@tauex.tau.ac.il

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This essay isolates and critically assesses the motivation behind the current backlash against the broadly culturalist and historicist paradigm that has structured research in the interpretative humanities since the 1980s. That motivation, it argues, has less to do with the noble desire to rescue the humanities from the alleged absurdities of the postmodernists than it has with a reluctance to face up fully to the secularism that many of the humanities’ contemporary critics (conservatives as well as progressives; insiders as well as outsiders) profess. If historicism and constructivism are under attack today, it is not merely because they offend certain entrenched epistemological or metaethical views. Rather, and more pointedly, it is because these secularist thought styles foreclose traditional sources of spiritual consolation, which many of us (perhaps all of us at certain moments in our lives) intimately rely upon. To make this case, the essay stages a confrontation between William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) and Sigmund Freud’s “On Transience” (1915), two texts that take a long hard look at the prospect of extinction and then diverge in their reactions.

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