Pluralities, Transfers, Memories: Some Reflections on the Humanities Today

تجد/ين هنا النسخة العربية لهذا النص.

By Daniel Weidner (Comparative Literature, University of Halle, Germany)

Daniel Weidner. Photo: private.

What can the role of the humanities be facing a world in crisis? However we describe that very crisis, it is clear that a lot of the assumptions that have, so far, founded the self-understanding of the humanities are no longer evident: neither the universalism of the European or western culture, nor the humanist values or even the distinction between culture and nature. What follows from this situation other than the usual lament over how the humanities are no longer taken seriously and how they fall back behind the sciences? As true as this might be, the lament is hardly productive and might actually hinder the humanities from effectively assessing their own situation, both their weaknesses and their strengths. Since this strength, as we will see, lies in the humanities’ ability to distance ourselves from the present, allow me to take a little detour from the all too pressing issues today to an epoch on which I work: The situation of the humanities at the awakening of the 20th century.

Humanities as Sites of Unrest

The epistemic situation was complex around 1900: Among other factors, the progress of the natural sciences had forced other disciplines to reflect and reposition themselves. In Germany, the conception of the humanities as Geisteswissenschaften (literally: science of the spirit) became an important and, indeed, internationally influential model. At the same time, the emergence or, as others say, the redefinition of social sciences transformed the field of knowledge as well. This resulted in a highly diverse and dynamic situation that might not be so different from our own today. In retrospect, it is, of course, much easier to see the limitations and biases, for example, that the idea of Geisteswissenschaften implied an almost ontological difference between nature and the spirit or that it often went along with a specific cultural nationalism. We should, therefore, be well aware if and how much we might have inherited from the former essentialism or the latter conservativism and if we really want that.

We can also take another perspective and stress the productive elements of such a constellation. Exemplarily, what later became the social sciences, especially sociology, had a complicated genealogy which blends Marxist political economy, history (with a prominent place for the history of religion) and cultural criticism. Similarly, other fields of the humanities became productive by the transfer of methods and concepts from one discipline to another, for the process was not merely an ongoing differentiation of different disciplines, as the textbook histories tell us in retrospect.

This is probably most evident in authors who are difficult to classify in disciplinary terms, such as Ernst Cassirer, who moved from philosophy toward the history of culture, Aby Warburg, who opened up art history for anthropology, or Georg Simmel, who took an even more radical trajectory between philosophy, sociology, cultural criticism and esthetics. Other names, such as Walter Benjamin and Sigmund Freud, could also be added. These figures have become what Foucault calls founders of discursivity, not by their personal genius alone but also by their specific positions within their epistemic field, characterized by diversity and epistemic unrest, in other words, by a fundamental uneasiness with the current division of the field.

The emerging knowledge differed significantly from disciplinary knowledge or from any conception of a unified science. In Germany, the term Kulturwissenschaft (science of culture, to be distinguished from cultural studies) served as a sort of generic category for these new forms of knowledge. However, it is indicative that Kulturwissenschaft never became a proper discipline nor has it ever been regarded as a super-paradigm, as an integrated form of study of everything that is cultural. It, instead, aims at addressing a knowledge that is no longer disciplinary but not yet systematic. While transgressing disciplinary boundaries, it does not omit them. An example of such a transfer is when ideas of ‘style,’ originally developed in art history, were used in literary criticism and in sociology. This also includes the transfer between specific national traditions, such as with Henri Bergson’s reflections on ‘life’ that were taken up in German sociology and esthetics – and vice versa. These highly hybrid discourses conceive their object as hybrid too, ‘culture’ being comprehended not as a new super object but as a complex overlapping of different styles, languages and memories, without which we can understand neither the societal order nor the production of knowledge.

Knowledge and Memory

Despite its limitations, the example of Kulturwissenschaft reveals something about the productivity of the humanities, which continues until today at a time when the most urgent questions often lie beyond the scope of a single discipline. The need to overcome disciplinary boundaries certainly bears several risks, such as a ubiquitous rhetoric of ‘transgression,’ or the fad of ever new ‘turns,’ as well as an excess of self-reflection and self-critique that eventually loses its object out of sight. However, I think the lessons we could learn from the past might indicate a way out of this impasse – namely, the historical way. Using an example from history is to claim that it is useful and perhaps necessary to take a detour to understand the present. As with so many other things, we can never truly understand the actual situation of the humanities without taking into account their multilayered genealogy.

Putting emphasis on the historical dimension is a distinct strength of the humanities. The current crisis of Europe, for instance, is not only an economic crisis and not merely a crisis of political representation; rather, it involves culture, and culture involves history, namely, the diverse histories that are often obscured by ‘the’ (one and only) European history. A historical perspective is not only an additional value but essential to understand our current situation and the actual challenges we are facing. This, however, does not imply that it is an easy one to attain since histories all too often end up in reductive great narratives, the all too obvious textbook histories or the highly fragmented knowledge of specialists. This really important task consists of connecting the memory of the past with the present, developing critical genealogies and elucidating the actual situation and its critical moments by referencing its specific history. These critical moments – the moments of disorientation, but also of potential action, the true challenges of today – cannot be grasped if one is solely focused on the future or thinks exclusively along the lines of the already established. What they necessitate is an active and creative memory. Therefore, questions of cultural conflicts, of political representations in today’s media or of cultural memory in a pluricultural world should be seen as societal challenges precisely because they cut across established boundaries of disciplines.

Diversity and Translation

Combining different approaches, drawing comparisons or even using a historical example, as I did, always implies making things comparable, translating them. Translation, I would claim, is the second potential that might be particularly ascribed to the humanities. As in language, translation is much more than the instrumental function of carrying the message from ‘a’ to ‘b’; it is, instead, a fundamentally productive, creative process. It is continually employed in our practice, and it is quite different from the widespread, meta-discursive reflection mentioned above: In translating, we do not speak about something, we essentially work on the ground, trying to understand what someone else is doing or saying; it is object-oriented and relational at the same time. Again, the question of translation here transcends the specific problem of the humanities toward more general and more political questions. If we accept the premise that our societies are based on knowledge, it is essential to translate that knowledge while being aware of what translation is and how it works. And this, in fact, is still the task and practice of the humanities.

As I have tried to show, the diversity of different approaches of the humanities is essentially not an additive diversity nor a systematic coherence but a diversity of translation in which different discourses interact in a productive way. This, for sure, does have a future, especially if cross-disciplinary approaches were to surpass mere rituals of self-reflections. We should, hence, turn to objects and try to translate them instead of looking for a new meta-language, a new integrated approach and new idioms of ‘theory’ which, all too often, prove to be short-lived fashions. Taking the concreteness of translation seriously might even have institutional consequences: It would imply that bottom-up programs are necessary to counteract the negative effect of bureaucracy, but have to be implemented, for epistemic reasons, since such programs follow the humanities’ culture of knowledge. Legitimate as the quest for new standards and networks might be, we should also sustain alternative approaches, for example, of creating cooperation between different peripheries.


Daniel Weidner is Professor for Comparative Literature at the Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg. Prior to this, he was Professor for the Study of Culture and Religion at the Humboldt-Universität Berlin, Associate Director of the Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung, and a visiting professor at Stanford, Giessen, Basel, Chicago, Zürich and Yale. His main areas of research are the interrelation of religion and literature, theories of secularization, the history of philology and literary theory, and German-Jewish Literature. His publications include Gershom Scholem: Politisches, esoterisches und historiographisches Schreiben (2003), Bibel und Literatur um 1800 (2011), Blumenberg lesen: Ein Glossar (ed. with Robert Buch, 2014), Handbuch Literatur und Religion (ed. 2016) and Prophetic Politics, a Special Issue of Political Theology (edited with Nitzan Lebovic, 2020).


This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). AGYA is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here.


Further articles in the series “The Humanities in the 21st Century: Perspectives from the Arab World and Germany”:

Bashshar Haydar, The Humanities’ Constant Need for Self-Justification, 25.03.2021

Julia Hauser, Out of the Ivory Tower: Broadening Global History in Germany, 01.04.2021

Christian Junge, Why Non-European Languages Matter to European Humanities: Area Studies and Postcolonial Philology, 08.04.2021

Amro Ali, Bringing Philosophy and Sociology to the Egyptian Public, 15.04.2021

Andrea Geier, Challenges in Literary Studies and Gender Studies or Why I Began to Talk Publicly about Relevance, 22.04.2021

Shereen Abouelnaga, The Urgency of Relocating Gender Studies Politically, 29.04.2021

Antje Flüchter, History: An Important but Potentially Dangerous Part of the Humanities, 06.05.2021

Aisha Deemas, Sharjah Museums: A Case Study on the Transfer of Knowledge in Society, 12.05.2021


Citation: Daniel Weidner, Pluralities, Transfers, Memories: Some Reflections on the Humanities Today, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/28712, 20.05.2021


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The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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1 Response

  1. 16. July 2021

    […] Weidner, Pluralities, Transfers, Memories: Some Reflections on the Humanities Today, […]

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