How does someone judge which is his right and which his left hand? How do I know that my judgment will agree with someone else’s? How do I know that this colour is blue? If I don’t trust myself here, why should I trust anyone else’s judgment? Is there a why? Must I not begin to trust somewhere? That is to say: Somewhere I must begin with not-doubting; and that is not, so to speak, hasty but excusable: It is part of judging.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty
For years, I played basketball with a humanities skeptic. He was an endowment manager at the Ivy League university from which he had graduated with a degree in economics. He knew I was a professor of literature, and one day he asked what I taught—and did I by any chance teach Moby-Dick? I nodded, and he said, “You don’t believe the hype, do you?” His proudest moment in college had come when, required to read the novel for a first-year class, he developed a firm belief that Moby-Dick’s reputation was explainable chiefly by its obscurity. The emperor had no clothes: The novel was taught because it was revered, and revered because it was taught. Baffled readers took their incomprehension as a sign of its elusive greatness. Teachers followed blind tradition and enjoyed the aura of solemn stupefaction.
“Now mystery had brushed them with her wing; they had heard the voice of authority”: So Virginia Woolf’s Londoners felt when they spotted a car, its windows curtained, transporting royalty. The intimations of majesty are pleasant, but there is a deeper pleasure in unmasking authority. The memory of pulling back the curtain still pleased my basketball partner fifteen years later. He was unwilling to suppose that the gap between his perceptions and the novel’s qualities might be explained in terms of the perceptions rather than the qualities. Yet this was a soft-spoken person and not particularly contrarian. Over a decade of weekly games, I never heard him grind another ideological ax.
Had I been his teacher, what would I have said? A persuasive argument has been made that the modern humanities were always a secularized version of belief in something sacred—a religion for those who had lost religious faith. If the humanities are now disenchanted, how can we explain the value of an old poem or painting to students to whom such materials may be unfamiliar? As Michael Clune, a professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, writes in his new book, A Defense of Judgment, “A student who asks, ‘What is so great about this poem?’…is asking for a kind of knowledge that cannot be fully disclosed, or in some cases even partially disclosed, in advance of a sometimes lengthy educational process.” Clune’s effort to understand the practices by which such knowledge may be disclosed was prompted, he relates, by “a small rebellion” in his “spring seminar on American poetry.”
For some, disenchantment is the harvest of a long labor of rationality. For others, it is the fruit of a penurious rationality trained to recognize only facts and uses. Does the loss of confidence in the humanities suggest a problem about knowledge or a problem about value? Eric Hayot believes it is a problem about knowledge. To defend the humanities, he says, is not to defend any particular objects as worthy of study, but to espouse a mode of thinking captured in the title of his latest book: Humanist Reason. Hayot, the director of Penn State University’s Center for Humanities and Information, wants humanistic scholarship to count as knowledge. He is annoyed that scholars in the STEM disciplines advance research agendas in blithe ignorance of serious humanistic work. The humanists are not consulted. But Humanist Reason was not written for the merchants of rational choice theory. Its target audience is Hayot’s own tribe. “In the humanities today,” he writes, “the assertion that one is saying true things, or attempting to, is likely to be met with a great deal of suspicion.” Humanists, as Hayot argues, should not confuse their subtle convictions about the contingency of truth with a general antipathy toward the claim to possess objective knowledge. In his book, he aims to develop a model of “humanist reason” that will clarify the self-understanding and invigorate the practices of humanities professors. This conceptualization, in turn, will allow humanists to recognize the “social effectiveness” of their work—and to play offense on the field of public relations. To do so, however, humanists need to overcome their instinctive distrust of the idioms of truth and rationality.
Hayot traces the principles of “humanist reason” to the Methodenstreit (“methodological dispute”) of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century German discourse. Faced with the incontrovertible authority of natural science yet skeptical of the sweeping ambitions of positivism, thinkers like Wilhelm Dilthey, Wilhelm Windelband, Heinrich Rickert, and Max Weber strove to articulate frameworks for the sciences of the human. Hayot isolates an 1894 address by Windelband as a particularly fine-tuned account of the differences between the sciences of nature and of the human.
We cannot be satisfied, according to Windelband, by law-governed (“nomothetic”) accounts of historical events, works of art, or human persons precisely because of their importunate particularity; the humanities are attached instead to the “idiographic” dimension of human experience. The idiographic paradigm received further support from Kantian aesthetics and moral philosophy, which treated artworks and persons as ontologically exceptional: Unlike everything else in the world, they are intrinsically valuable “ends” rather than means. These powerful models induced humanists to believe that their objects were “singular” and should not be subjected to generalizing explanations. Thus, humanists, according to Hayot, have traditionally celebrated the particular against the general, the concrete against the abstract, and the exemplary against the quotidian. But for him, this view of humanistic objects is untenable.
The great humanist temptation, Hayot argues, is to imagine that a special class of objects enjoys distinctive being. Against this mistake, Hayot offers two principles: First, “there is no ontology except in social practice, and therefore all objects or concepts are socially produced and maintained reiﬁcations”; second, “all social practices function to meet explicit human needs, making these latter, therefore, their ground or cause.” For Hayot, these principles warrant a revolution in humanist self-understanding. In fact, they recapitulate an older revolution called “sociology.” It is hard to see how his program differs from that proposed by Émile Durkheim or Bronislaw Malinowski a century ago. “The social,” he tells us, is the dynamic “field” of our existence. We hear about “the work of the social,” the “labor of the social,” and the “practice of the social.” Everything happens “‘in’ the social”; concepts are “actively produced in the social.” It is the agent of agents, the element in which we live and move and have our being.
Hayot contends that humanists can discard their attachment to the singularity of certain “objects” (e.g., historical events, poems, paintings) once they realize that these things are not distinctive. He argues persuasively that the concepts by which objects are analyzed are inextricable from their status as objects. But he seems unable to recognize that in calling for the singular object to be relinquished, he is only replacing it with a mega object called “the social.” He does not evade ontology; rather, he constructs a new ontology for which “the social” is the elementary unit. Nor does he see that the appeal to “human need” suffers from the weakness of all sociological functionalisms. To identify a need as basic is already to elaborate a specific anthropology in which the coordinates of human experience are dictated from the outset. To trace a social practice back to a “need” is to commence the project of disenchantment. The internal logic of a practice—its value—is reduced, for a need is neither a desire nor a motive. A need cannot recognize a reality—it can only be driven by one.
For anyone involved in the academic humanities over the last generation, it may seem that Hayot is preaching to the converted. Humanist reason is already sociological reason in many quarters. But has he confronted a serious counterargument from someone closer to the alternative disciplines whose authority he invokes? In A Defense of Judgment, Michael Clune observes that “literature professors frequently have no idea of the nature of the objections” their social-theoretical arguments might encounter “because they insulate themselves from meaningful exchange with those disciplines.” Hayot, for instance, accepts a Foucauldian conviction—“Truth is a function of social power, and not the other way around”—as a cornerstone of humanities scholarship. But he does not consider that Foucault’s concept of pouvoir/savoir, or “power/knowledge,” was contested philosophically by Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, Amanda Anderson, Richard Bernstein, and the later Foucault. A number of awkward questions are not addressed. For example: How do we “take gods and spirits” as “existentially coeval with the human” while also taking them as “productions” of “the social”? How is an ongoing commitment to power/knowledge compatible with an insistence that humanities theories “prove” or “demonstrate” things? Pierre Bourdieu said that the sociologist’s work should “reduce the absolute humanist to despair by showing him necessity in contingency, by revealing the system of social conditions which have made a particular way of being or doing possible.” Hayot, by contrast, detects no friction between humanist ideals and the vision that conjures, in Bourdieu’s words, “the wretchedness of man without any God or hope.”
The philosopher Gillian Rose argued that sociological thinking has always grappled with two unresolvable antinomies: “validity” and “value.” Validity for Durkheim and value for Weber were the a priori categories needed to explain everything else but could not themselves be explained. Hayot finds himself in a similar predicament. He is (quite reasonably) impatient with the modern fact/value distinction, especially when it is used to expel the humanities from the domain of fact. But his dismissal of singularity yields a problem of value. If the value of humanistic objects is not derived from their singularity, why does one value them? His solution is to cull a fugitive term from Kant’s Critique of Judgment: Affektionspreis, or “fancy price”: “a price that one places on something one fancies, a mark of sentimental or affective value…that imbues it with a historical or personal aura.” It is this concept, rather than the ontological singularity of the person, that must undergird “human dignity.” Singularity is not “out there”; rather, objects are only experienced as singular when they are invested with Affektionspreis. “All social objects, including the objects that are databases or strings of numerical observations, as well as the objects or partial objects that give themselves to be measured in those numerical ways, are worthy of particularizing kinds of attention.” In this affective democracy, any object may attain an idiographic aspect and become a source of value. And to the question, Why do I value this object? the answer is always and only Affektionspreis: “There is just Affektionspreis, all the way down.”
In emphasizing the affective dimension of evaluation, Hayot sidesteps the inescapably normative element of evaluation. How are we to distinguish those features of “the social” which are “almost entirely an eﬀect of the projection and distribution of power” and those enriched by the zest of Affektionspreis? How can we distinguish between higher and lower values, or authentic and inauthentic values? At what point does the “affective value” generated by an intense “relation” become a fetish, or crowd out other, long-standing affective values? Why not invest my Affektionspreis in a personal sidearm, or indulge my “disaffection”—because “not all emotions are positive”—with other people? Aren’t these questions, in fact, the prerogative of humanistic study?
Most of Hayot’s “articles of reason” shoehorn conceptual necessity into the left-progressive ethos; the ultimate good, therefore, is equality, and this needn’t be argued for. Hayot descends in this respect from Durkheim who criticized philosophers for seeking “to know, of the nature and origin of social phenomena, not what they actually are, but what they ought to be; their aim was not to offer us as true an image of nature as possible, but to confront our imagination with the idea of a perfect society, a model to be imitated.” But unlike Durkheim, he does not grasp that the modern sacralization of equality—Clune calls it “dogmatic equality”—is not an automatic deliverance from the testimony of reason, but is itself a contingent valuation.
Hayot believes that humanists should defend their work, not on the grounds of left politics or of the beauty of their objects, but on the premise that the humanities provide “good ways of knowing things.” He does not accept the conventional distinction between the hermeneutical work of “understanding” and the scientific imperative of “explanation.” The difference, he thinks, between the sciences and the humanities is mainly about “scale” rather than discrepancies of objects and methods. Since value has its source in human affect, and since humans can establish affective relations with any objects (imagine, he proposes, an auditorium seat for which someone develops an affinity because he regularly sits in it), there is no clear rationale for the selection of some objects rather than others. The eighteenth-century moral philosopher Joseph Butler famously proposed that “every thing is what it is and not another thing.” For Hayot, any thing is also and always another thing. He would have us remember that we cannot understand “humanist objects” without understanding, for example, “geological forces,” “biological and evolutionary history,” “social [and] psychological perspectives,” “ideological norms,” “sociocultural discourses,” “intellectual movements,” “shifts in labor markets,” “legal or social practices,” and “new media technologies or structures of feeling.” It is of course true that, as Henry James wrote, “really, universally, relations stop nowhere.” But Hayot does not attend to what James calls “the exquisite problem of the artist,” which “is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which [relations] shall happily appear to do so.” Like it or not, we have objects that we value because they have successfully organized, exquisite patterns of relations. And what is valuable about them cannot be referred to the presence of “relationality” as such.
Yet when Hayot distinguishes between “good” and “worse” “ways of knowing things,” a selection is being made: Knowledge per se is being submitted to some evaluative standard. The problems of value and ends are inescapable. In response to the question, “Why do we want good knowledge?” Hayot points to values like “democracy” and “justice.” Unless those values are posited as self-evident, some account must be provided of their existential cogency.
Michael Clune’s A Defense of Judgment takes up the burden of such an account in an ambitious attempt to justify the work of judging “value” in humanistic study. Clune’s frame of reference is specific—he writes as a scholar of literature—but his arguments have broad implications for the humanities. Like Hayot, Clune aims to rehabilitate humanist self-understanding. But for Hayot, the paradigm for humanistic thinking is the elaboration of theories, whereas for Clune, it is the capacity to make judgments.
Literary academics, Clune argues, have been living a contradiction for decades. At the level of theory, many scholars have accepted that the discourse of aesthetic value is driven by a game of social distinction and that “artistic judgments…necessarily codify racial and sexual prejudices.” The broader culture, meanwhile—of which students are often spokespersons in the classroom—tacitly accepts that “judgments of artistic value are subjective.” The correlate of this conviction is that “all judgments of artistic value are equal.” Yet the everyday practices of literary academics, notes Clune, belie these assumptions. The construction of a syllabus demands some principle of selection, which requires an assessment of value. The act of assembling a course in a department of “Literature” or “English” implies a conviction that students cannot “get the same insights from a history or economics or sociology or philosophy course.”
For Clune, to abdicate judgment by the intellect is finally to concede judgment to the market. Contemporary commercial culture is thoroughly evaluative: Social media, and increasingly all media, are built on the systematic tally of likes and dislikes. The market covets our preferences. “All the market wants to know from you,” Clune writes, “is what you want and how much you are willing to pay for it.” And we cannot understand consumer culture’s capacity to shape judgment without understanding the hegemony of the abiding value that underwrites it: “equality.” Indeed, Clune’s most provocative argument is that the concept of “equality” currently masquerading as the ethical basis of democratic culture is the barely disguised voice of the market. How is it, he asks, that the notion of “equality” has expanded from the social or political standing of persons to encompass every attitude, belief, attachment, or value a person might hold? Clune calls this voracious and permeating notion “dogmatic equality.” He urges his readers on the left to consider that equality was not a central value for Marx, nor a key ingredient in his understanding of social justice. Human flourishing is a “central Marxian evaluative concept,” but Marx saw the liberal concept of “equality” as coeval with the principle of “capitalist exchange,” for which “different values, objects, and persons” are “reducible to a single level.” For Marx, Clune argues, “equality” is synonymous with sameness and fungibility.
“The equality of all consumer preferences” was founded, Clune says, not “on egalitarian grounds,” but as a “a value necessary to the unimpeded flourishing of markets.” At the same time, egalitarian rhetoric has been employed to reinforce market needs. Market partisans have increasingly relied on the ethical prestige of democracy to press their claims. Updating Marx’s insights into the power of capitalism to hasten revolutions of social convention, Clune observes that entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos consistently emphasize the affinity between market processes and the egalitarian subversion of settled authority. To promote its tools for self-publishing, for instance, Amazon describes its offerings in the same way an academic scholar might describe her efforts to bring marginalized, noncanonical voices into the mainstream. Amazon’s self-published authors can circumvent the taste-making elitism of “establishment publishing channels” and serve “communities of readers” ignored by highbrow institutions. This unsettling homology between the egalitarian idioms of the marketplace and those of elite cultural institutions eases the capitulation of the latter to the market’s coercive power. It is much more likely now than it was fifty years ago, Christian Lorentzen observed in his 2019 Harper’s essay “Like This or Die,” to hear the sovereigns of these institutions professing an implicit faith “that whatever the marketplace sends to the top must be good.”
This conviction resuscitates the neoclassical view of market processes as analogous to natural selection. The market is the final arbiter of value because it does the sifting and sorting for us; it looks into our hearts and reports on the desires that are hidden therein. The relativism of preference the market finds at the input stage is organized by its mysterious agency. But this agency is a form of majoritarianism: We can trust the products that make it to the top because they have survived the gauntlet of likes and dislikes. In this way, subjective preference rules only collectively, for it is ultimately subordinated to the normative standard of the market’s wisdom. And in the great feedback loop of capitalist desire, the market’s ability to give me what I want becomes an ability to anticipate what I want, and so to slide those desires into precurated grooves.
Is the market standard the only one we need? Clune acknowledges that in certain scenarios, the market can actually refine desire. We did not know that gas station coffee was bad coffee until Starbucks gave us better coffee. But while the market can give us better versions of the same commodity, it cannot, Clune insists, introduce us to a new value that would qualitatively reorder desire. The problem is that “commercial culture, by declaring all preferences equal, gives me no reason to be skeptical about my own values.” Commercial culture views all desires as arbitrary; its job is to satisfy them, not to question them. It can only view modifications of the underlying stasis as equally arbitrary: What I might see as the development of my values is, from the market’s perspective, simply the efflorescence of different values—to be satisfied by a new set of objects.
Commercial culture refuses to question my preferences; it assumes, rather, that I haven’t yet been introduced to the most satisfying commodities. Liberal egalitarianism underwrites this message by supplying the principle of “dogmatic equality.” To doubt the integrity of my preferences is, in this view, to subject myself to the “pernicious ideological delusion” of extra subjective standards for taste, which are really the hegemonic tastes of social elites. For Clune, however, “dogmatic equality” inevitably promotes market hegemony. “This,” he writes, “is equality’s paradox: it denies people the opportunity of surpassing the modes of subjective preference shaped by the contemporary capitalist environment.”
The antidote to this static, self-satisfied model of desire is “aesthetic education,” which, Clune writes, “by denying that all preferences are equal, gives me reason to be skeptical about my existing values. The perspective developed by aesthetic education discourages me from identifying with the preferences generated by the commercial environment. It shows that it is possible to evaluate my existing values and to acquire new ones.” Aesthetic education is structured by a state of desire that Clune, following the philosopher Agnes Callard, calls “aspiration.” It sets before me a number of valuable objects and helps me cultivate the dispositions and perceptions necessary to recognize them. That they are valuable is an attribution that must initially be ventured on trust, for aesthetic education is not instruction about the relative worth of individual objects, but training in the capacity to discover value for oneself. According to Clune, consumer culture, dogmatic egalitarianism, and behaviorist models of preference and decision can only understand “education in one of two ways. Either the individual [has] a preexisting preference for the subject in question—Renaissance literature, for example—or the preference isn’t the subject’s at all, but the result of indoctrination or social pressure.” In this dichotomy, the relation between preference and value is always static. Aspiration, by contrast, is a process of becoming.
An education into value is by definition an education of judgment. But for egalitarians, judgment has been associated with the history of exclusion, in both the conventional taste of the elite and the “cultural capital” that produces social distinctions. Clune overcomes this prejudice against judgment by following a thought about judgment from Hume rather than Kant. As Clune reads him, Hume understood judgment not as a natural endowment but as the fruit of an educational process. Neither Kant nor Hume, he observes, believed we can “discover aesthetic qualities with reference to objective qualities.” But this does not mean that judgment is arbitrarily subjective. “A skilled jazz pianist improvising on a tune doesn’t perceive the keys before her the same way I—a deeply unskilled pianist—would. I might see a set of keys whose alternating black and white colors are associated with a scale of notes while I hear the beat of the drum and the notes picked out by the bass. The pianist, however, might perceive a certain pathway among the keys.” In a strong sense, the objects before the skilled pianist and the objects before the novice are different. The expert’s capacity for judgment allows her to recognize both the possibilities latent in the keys and the enhanced meaning of these possibilities. If this pianist were a practitioner of aesthetic education, her aim would be to help the novice discover that pathway and the meaning that inheres in it.
It is uncontroversial to observe that the novice cannot value jazz in the same way the expert pianist does. Yet it would not make sense to say that their divergent experiences of value can be simply indexed by their divergent subjectivities. The expert pianist perceives something intrinsic in the music; the novice is not yet capable of that perception. Moreover, Clune argues, the value is “tacit”: It is “bound up with the recognition of the relevant features.” What Hume calls the “fineness of the stroke”—in the example, the fineness of a sequence of notes—“is disclosed along with its salient features,” Clune says. “The fineness isn’t something added to it, a ‘value’ placed on top of a form. To perceive the form is also to perceive its value.” It is profoundly misleading, he emphasizes, to construe judgment as a mere assertion of value. Value is not a fiat imposed by my arbitrary subjectivity. Nor does it require an appeal to unchanging properties residing in the object, accessible to any dispassionate view. The recognition of value in the object is coeval with my capacity to discern its meaningful aspects.
Although Clune traces his model of judgment to Hume, his deepest debt is to the underappreciated biologist and philosopher Michael Polanyi. In several books over the latter part of his career (Clune focuses on the 1966 work The Tacit Dimension), Polanyi developed an account of the personal, embodied, and “tacit” dimensions of knowledge. His principal antagonist was scientific positivism, but as Clune shows, his arguments are consequential for the humanities. It is axiomatic for Polanyi that “we know more than we can tell.” Our tacit background knowledge and our embodied, participatory awareness are the sources of our capacity to form reliable judgments. These judgments are essential components of all knowing, in both experimental science and the humanities.
If we accept Clune’s contention—deriving from Polanyi’s idea of tacit knowledge—that the very character of the object depends on the subtle, heightened subjectivity of the expert, how can we be sure most literature professors are in fact looking at the same objects? Clune abandons his contrarianism when he assures us that everything necessary is at hand: First, by virtue of the training literary scholars receive, their capacities for judgment are merely dormant and ready to be rekindled; second, these scholars still share a coherent, tacit background knowledge consistent with a view of literature as a repository of value. There is an incongruity between Clune’s dissent from his field and the role of that field in his expert “ecology of judgment.”
A more fundamental incongruity may be discerned between Clune’s rhetoric of expertise and his determination to make literary study a path to “a better life.” Does the expertise developed in PhD programs—and exercised in peer review, that keystone of Clune’s “ecology of judgment”—have any bearing on the capacity to live well? Clune persuasively argues that evaluation is an inexorable feature of aesthetic education. But a deeper concern is detectable. “The hard problem,” he writes, is “how to make the case that some forms of life, and some kinds of desires, are superior to others.” For Clune, aesthetic education is finally an education of desire. In a world dominated by the market, desire debases itself by chasing vapid objects, and fools itself into believing that the chase is an exercise of sovereign subjectivity. Marx can tell us what’s wrong with this world, but only art can elaborate rival “forms of life.” Clune’s implicit hope is that aesthetic education can summon the ascetic energy by which desire can find alternate objects and reorder itself.
Given these high stakes, it is unsurprising that Clune’s discussion of aesthetic education finally becomes a discussion of moral education. A book remains to be written, he says, on the “equally venerable” view of literary study as “a form of moral education.” Has Clune already written it? When literature is involved in the assessment of “forms of life” and in the education of desire, it is inevitably the terrain of the moral imagination. Clune inherits the idea of aesthetic education from Friedrich Schiller; and for Schiller, the aesthetic is the exemplary domain of human freedom. Freedom, in turn, is the habitat of moral beings. Only a denuded concept of the “moral”—as, say, the space in which we make tough decisions about who to save from a runaway railcar, or whether we will put our aging parents in a nursing home—would permit us to think that judgments of value aren’t permeated by moral judgments.
Not all encounters with value disclose a form of life. The value detected in a “fine stroke” on a canvas may be a fugitive perception. But Clune readily expands the scope of judgment from fine strokes to ideal objects of desire, or from experimental sensations to “literary ideas” that imagine broader patterns of living. When we judge a “form of life” admirable, we cannot easily disentangle the aesthetic aspects from the moral features to which we respond. The dignity or gravity of that form of life is inseparable from its attractiveness. Although Kant segregated morality and aesthetics into separate domains of “practical reason” and “judgment,” he regarded the vehement admiration we feel for courage as an aesthetic judgment. Those unpersuaded that the moral life is best described as a series of discrete, rational decisions might think, in fact, that the affirmation of courage as a moral good involves the aesthetic testimony of feeling. Aesthetic judgment helps us envision courage as good, for, as George Santayana observed, “all values are in one sense aesthetic.” When no more can be said about the “practical utility” of a form of goodness, it seems to be “for itself” in the same way beauty is “for itself.”
Can the humanities renew the project of aesthetic education? The Schiller who first envisioned “aesthetic education” as a coherent practice was the same poet who coined the phrase Die entgötterte Natur—“the disenchantment of the world.” For Max Weber, “disenchantment” describes an antimony between the arbitrary world of subjective value and the necessary world of rational fact. Aesthetic education is a project of reenchantment insofar as it restores the communion between value and fact. Hayot’s “affective value” remains arbitrary: The arbitrariness has merely migrated from individual subjects to the collective subjectivity of “human need” or to the contingent formation of “relation.” By contrast, Clune’s aesthetic education is a process of “disclosing” the value of objects rather than projecting value onto fundamentally neutral objects. Yet if the renewal of aesthetic education implies the possibility of enchantment, the reenchantment of the humanities may be impossible without some reenchantment of the world itself. Clune shares Michael Polanyi’s belief that we cannot conceive of an act of knowing unmotivated by “the conviction that there is something there to be discovered.” But Clune omits the ontological dimension of Polanyi’s argument. For Polanyi, all exploratory perception is underwritten by the further conviction that the “aspect of reality” that is perceived is a disclosure of the “boundless” and “undisclosed” profundity of reality. For Polanyi, “reality” is indexed by depth: A phenomenon enlarged by meaning and complexity is a phenomenon of enhanced reality. The necessary supposition of all knowing is that the world is meaningful; to penetrate its reality is to encounter these “meanings.” In this sense, knowing demands an enchanted world.
As “hard problems” go, this is the hardest. It will not be adjudicated by humanities professors. They are faced with a problem at once more prosaic and precarious: the relation between judgment and authority. Polanyi observes that if a “teaching which appears meaningless” has “a meaning which can be discovered,” the path from meaningless to meaning requires the student to cultivate “the same kind of indwelling as the teacher is practicing.” This effort, he says, “is based on accepting the teacher’s authority.” If, for Hayot, humanists must overcome their instinctive aversion to “truth,” for Clune, they must overcome their instinctive aversion to authority.
Around the time my basketball companion told me his story, I was teaching Montaigne’s essays “On the Art of Conversation” and “On Books,” in both of which he questions the authority of his own judgments. On the one hand, judgment for Montaigne is an act of mind by which knowledge or truth becomes mine; it is both reason and sensibility, concretized in the self. Learning has no force until it is converted into judgment, and “the judgment is applicable to all subjects, and has a hand in everything.” On the other hand, because judgment is the personal dimension of thinking and evaluating, it is also the aptitude by which the thought of others can become authoritative for me. At one pole, judgment is the freedom of the self to take a personal view; at the other, it is the intuition by which I doubt my own perspicacity and yield to the view of a trusted authority. Montaigne mistrusts his own low estimate of Plato’s Axiochus because his previous reading has inclined him to admire Plato. (Judgment performed some sharp work here; scholars soon identified Axiochus as apocryphal.) Again, Montaigne works through his dissent from a handful of Tacitus’s judgments because he believes Tacitus to be generally honest and penetrating. And it is precisely the background of agreement that makes him parse his objections carefully and give sound reasons for them. “Let us always have this saying of Plato’s on our lips,” he commends: “‘If I find a thing unsound, is it not because I am myself unsound?’”
“Judgment,” however, was not an operational word for my students. Initially, they saw no meaningful difference between a judgment and an opinion. Nor could they sympathize with Montaigne’s predicament about Plato’s authority. He felt what he felt. I asked them to entertain the possibility that authority played a more substantial role in their intellectual and aesthetic lives than they surmised. Can you say that all of your convictions and tastes were formed spontaneously, through an unadulterated encounter with the relevant objects? Consider the influence of your peers, your family. The task, I suggested, is first to bring the role of authority to full consciousness. If you disavow the imprint of authority, you will not achieve meaningful emancipation from its sway. The next task is learning to cultivate a dialectic in which you notice your responses aligning with a particular voice. By this process you clarify the cast of your own thoughts and discover how a sympathetic mind could expand them. A few classes later, one of the best students in the class announced that Moby-Dick was a horrible book that had been inflicted on her in high school—an opinion close to that of my basketball companion, but delivered with less pomp. A year later, I had her in class again. She pulled me aside on the first day and told me she had read Moby-Dick again that summer. The experience had been much different.