“What is man?” In his ambitious new book, Mark Greif assures us this is a valid question that we shouldn’t be ashamed to ask.
The Age of the Crisis of Man:
Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973
by Mark Greif
Princeton University Press, 2014, 448 pp.
Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man is an unusual book. It stands out in part for the grandiosity of its ambitions: Greif tries to provide an expansive new framework for the midcentury trajectory of American ideas. Still more audaciously, he suggests that his findings might help to overcome half a century of factionalism on the left. A founding editor of n+1, he aims to mine the texts of an earlier generation for social philosophies that can serve the political needs of the present day.
Greif pursues these goals by exploring the history of responses to a question that is at once simple and expansive: “What is man?” This, of course, is a line of inquiry that has long proven difficult to address. Its portentousness posed challenges for even the most capable philosophers and humorists; earlier attempts to address it rendered Kant unusually vague and Mark Twain unusually earnest.
Greif argues that this question was suddenly everywhere in the midcentury United States: in the sermons of theologians, the screeds of radical socialists, the discourses of philosophers and émigré intellectuals, and the fiction of both paragons of the canon and members of the literary vanguard. Until the 1960s, it provided a knotted center to a disparate collection of threads. Then the question rapidly receded from public memory. Leading intellectuals came to see it as misguided; historians, perhaps reluctant to pursue such an unfashionable subject, emphasized other concerns.
The Age of the Crisis of Man both chronicles and attempts to rehabilitate this line of questioning. Greif returns to the high points of the so-called “discourse of man” in part to remind us of the formidable literature it inspired. Beneath sometimes abstruse prose, he offers a reassuring message: this is a valid question that we shouldn’t be ashamed to ask.
But while Greif admires those who dared to ask such a question, his distaste for their responses is palpable. Marveling at their relentless earnestness, he feels the need to clarify that their “seriousness was not a hoax.” Considering their philosophical output, he emphasizes “how unreadable it is, how tedious, how unhelpful.” Having completed a substantial and challenging history of responses to this question, he frankly concludes that it “really might have deserved its neglect.”
Reading The Age of the Crisis of Man requires working through some puzzling antinomies. Greif has written a history of philosophy that is skeptical of the philosophical enterprise. The resulting book is alternately perceptive and incoherent, ambitious in its argument and ambivalent in its interpretations, reverential toward the vernacular and mired in abstractions.
Scholars have a name for what Greif describes as the “discourse of man:” humanism. A number of European intellectual historians, most recently Stefanos Geroulanos, have chronicled the debates humanism inspired in the midcentury decades amid the rise of atheism and existentialism. A different version of Greif’s book might have explored the echoes of these conversations in an American context, as homegrown and émigré theologians and philosophers attempted to develop a humanistic worldview that suited the needs of their moment.
The early chapters of The Age of the Crisis of Man venture in such a direction, providing a brief overview of the social and philosophical crises that theorists of the 1930s and 1940s were eager to address. Faced by the specter of totalitarianism abroad and the failures of democratic capitalism at home, some groped for the firm philosophical ground that religious orthodoxy once provided. Blaming such modern philosophies as pragmatism (with its emphasis on uncertainty and the impossibility of any final “truth”) for a global descent into chaos, figures like Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler called for a return to absolutes. And as Greif observes, even many of those who were less confident in the bedrock of religion saw promise in a renewed inquiry into the category of “man” itself.
But Greif quickly discards explicit reflections on this subject as vacuous and unfruitful. Traversing across the era’s leading social philosophers—the Austrian émigré and business writer Peter Drucker, the social critic Lewis Mumford, the radical public intellectual Dwight MacDonald, and especially the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr—he gently mocks the solemnity and certainty that the “discourse of man” inspired.
The sole theorist who elicits his unqualified admiration is Hannah Arendt, who combined a harsh “practical critique of the pretensions of the rights of man” with an emphasis on “the necessity for their new or renewed basis.” She acknowledged the dynamic connections between local practices and universal rights, and recognized that theories of the “human as such” were both contingent and indispensable. According to Greif, this careful balancing act made her a “master” of the discourse of man, capable of preserving its characteristic line of inquiry without succumbing to false certainties or absolutes.
Greif’s argument here suggests that he appreciates the philosophical impulse but is skeptical of the theorizing it tends to inspire. His term for an approach that preserves the former while eschewing the latter is “maieutics.” Those who engage in maieutics are primarily interested in the “questioning of the human.” Their writings make “you work on yourself and your own thought,” and inspire readers to generate new ideas without prescribing their content. He is interested in theorists who posed the question “What is man?” primarily because of their fixation on the question itself, rather than any specific solutions they may have provided. To Greif, the discourse of man was meaningful only to the extent it was unresolved.
This suspicion of theorizing leads Greif to privilege the novel over more conventional philosophical modes. Fiction, in his view, possesses two crucial advantages. First, it provides an entryway into “vernacular thinking and practice,” allowing authors to break out of the abstractions of academic prose and engage with the language of everyday life. Second, it forces authors to test their ideas against lived experience. Midcentury fiction writers “had to take stock of truths of American life that the abstract discourse did not—life as a Jew or an African-American, life with an orthodox religious faith or hemmed in by pervasive technology.” This attention to the relationship between ideas and experience gave novelists a unique grasp of complexity and paradox. Whereas theorists repeatedly lapsed into “belief in belief for its own sake, or an alternative, tepid skepticism about all dogmas,” novelists were able to adopt the language of “universal man” while bringing its contradictions into full relief.
Of course, many novelists fell short of this potential too. The late-career Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, as refugees from the Lost Generation who found themselves struggling for public relevance and literary recognition, foregrounded the themes of their work in overtly humanist and grandly allegorical terms. Faulkner’s famously brief Nobel Prize acceptance speech embodied the worst qualities of this style. (Expressing vague nostrums in a somber tone, he proclaimed his refusal “to accept the end of man.”) And both authors’ late novels—Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Faulkner’s A Fable, for example—relied on strained biblical metaphors in order to expand on similar themes. But Greif cites even these pretentious products of the midcentury “discourse of man” as examples of the novel’s corrosive effect on abstractions. Hemingway’s old man eventually returned to the world of human society, in which the meaning of his experiences was misunderstood, and Faulkner’s general seemed to satirize the very language used by the author in his own Nobel speech. The dialogic structure of the novel enabled the authors to subvert their own pompous solemnities.
The height of the maieutic form, according to Greif, arrived the decade before its decline. Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow dwelled on the search for the nature of man while acknowledging the inadequacy of all universal “categories and abstractions.” Flannery O’Connor juxtaposed the declarations of secular theorists with a deeply charged sense of the divine, creating a satire of the discourse of man that acknowledged the importance of its inquiries. And Thomas Pynchon, by revealing the fragmentation of the individual in a world of rapidly circulating material goods, brought the discourse of man to a climax even as he acknowledged its inability to solve the problems it posed.
The Age of the Crisis of Man succeeds in finding a thin strand that runs through much of midcentury American literature: in Greif’s telling, writers as diverse as Adler and Pynchon shared a common problem, although their attempts to address it markedly diverged. His readings demonstrate both a remarkable breadth of knowledge and a sensitivity to the instability of texts. And many readers will sympathize with his desire to salvage aspects of this discourse while shedding its pretensions and excesses.
The virtues of The Age of the Crisis of Man, however, are tempered by its parochial approach to genre. Greif moves between the abstract treatises of philosophers and theologians and the more textured writings of midcentury novelists, but he devotes little attention to the many other disciplines that contributed to the “discourse of man.” Sweeping boldly across midcentury intellectual life, he glances only briefly at the historians, social scientists, and literary critics who explored universal ideals while preserving a commitment to the study of experience. One can’t help but wonder, for instance, what he would make of the emergence of American Studies, a midcentury enterprise whose leading practitioners—including Perry Miller, Leo Marx, and Henry Nash Smith—were deeply affected by the “discourse of man” but suspicious of its more grandiose ambitions. The irony is that Greif’s own work descends from the methods those scholars pioneered. By creating a stark binary between theory and fiction, he leaves readers with little sense of the possibility (and justification) for other narrative and analytical forms—including, most strikingly, his own.
Greif creates this binary to express his reservations about the quest for philosophical truths: wary of excessive abstraction and suspicious of all claims to certainty, he prefers the novel’s vernacular language and dialectical form. In a postmodern age, this preference is unsurprising. The originality of Greif’s work lies instead in his emphasis on the importance of continuing to ask the questions posed by the “discourse of man,” even as we abandon the search for definitive answers. He preserves his greatest sympathy for those who managed to navigate this tense, and perhaps paradoxical, divide. But many readers will wonder how one can sustain the desire to question without preserving the prospect, however distant, of approaching an answer. In The Age of the Crisis of Man, the “masters” of the discourse of man are permanently engaged in preparations for a philosophical enterprise that can never truly begin. Why busy ourselves sowing the seeds for a garden that we no longer hope to grow? Maieutics becomes a hollow undertaking unless one preserves the very faith in abstractions that Greif asks us to eschew.
Greif exhumes the midcentury “crisis of man” in the service of an underlying political project. In his view, leftist intellectuals have long since divided into two camps: those who share a universalist commitment to humanitarianism and human rights, and admirers of continental theory who eschew such universalisms in favor of a critique of the subject. Like others, he sees the 1971 debate between Chomsky and Foucault as emblematic of this rift. Whereas Chomsky described his universal politics as rooted in “something biologically given, unchangeable,” Foucault remained attached to a critical standpoint founded in a “mistrust [of] the notion of human nature.” Greif hopes that the contemporary left might shed the considerable baggage of these competing philosophical lineages and return to the original act of questioning from which they both emerged.
In Greif’s view, the notion that we must choose “universalism or difference, human rights or political liberation, law or critique, normativity or the struggle for power and representation” is a sign of our misguided responses to “a tertium quid, the discourse of the crisis of man.” His sympathies are with those members of an earlier generation who were courageous enough to ask the question “What is man?” but unwilling to mask the emptiness of the answers they provided.
It is, of course, precisely that embrace of emptiness that will lead many to find Greif’s book dissatisfying. Why should advocates of humanitarianism and human rights set aside their shared commitments in favor of the more minimalist and quiescent maieutic form? Why should the heirs of antihumanist theory suddenly embrace the universalist ideal implicit in even the most modest examples of the “discourse of man?” Greif asks these communities to rethink the foundations of their beliefs, but offers in return only the futile pursuit of irresolvable questions. Such an approach may have its appeal when dressed up in the trappings and ambiguities of the novelistic form. When presented as the final cri de coeur of an ambitious new history of ideas, however, Greif’s escape from philosophy becomes a symptom of, rather than a solution to, the ideological fissures he observes.
Angus Burgin is assistant professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and author of The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets Since the Depression (Harvard, 2012).