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Permanent Crisis

The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age

Leads scholars and anyone who cares about the humanities into more effectively analyzing the fate of the humanities and digging into the very idea of the humanities as a way to find meaning and coherence in the world.

The humanities, considered by many as irrelevant for modern careers and hopelessly devoid of funding, seem to be in a perpetual state of crisis, at the mercy of modernizing and technological forces that are driving universities towards academic pursuits that pull in grant money and direct students to lucrative careers. But as Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon show, this crisis isn’t new—in fact, it’s as old as the humanities themselves. 

Today’s humanities scholars experience and react to basic pressures in ways that are strikingly similar to their nineteenth-century German counterparts. The humanities came into their own as scholars framed their work as a unique resource for resolving crises of meaning and value that threatened other cultural or social goods. The self-understanding of the modern humanities didn’t merely take shape in response to a perceived crisis; it also made crisis a core part of its project. Through this critical, historical perspective, Permanent Crisis can take scholars and anyone who cares about the humanities beyond the usual scolding, exhorting, and hand-wringing into clearer, more effective thinking about the fate of the humanities. Building on ideas from Max Weber and Friedrich Nietzsche to Helen Small and Danielle Allen, Reitter and Wellmon dig into the very idea of the humanities as a way to find meaning and coherence in the world. 


320 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2021

Education: Higher Education

History: History of Ideas

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory, Germanic Languages


"Stimulating and informative. This is an excellent evolutionary view of a unique, significant subject. . . . Highly Recommended."


“Johann N. Neem enjoys a sharp historical analysis of why the humanities always seem to be overpromising on what they can do.”

Times Higher Education

"Today, we often hear, the humanities are in a new crisis, threatened by the dual forces of capitalist modernity and the expanding sciences. Yet this notion, argue Reitter and Wellmon, is as old as the research university itself, whose origins they place in 19th-century Germany... The authors’ style is decidedly scholarly, but with tidbits thrown in for more distractable readers, including some amusing academic repartee."

Public Books

"Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon . . . suggest that today’s preoccupation with crisis in the humanities is historically and conceptually overdetermined, less a response to current material realities than baked into the modern humanities’ self-conception."

Chronicle of Higher Education

"Anyone considering writing an essay or op-ed on ‘the crisis of the humanities’ ought to read this book first."

Suzanne L. Marchand, Louisiana State University

"Permanent Crisis is a magisterial tour-de-force of historical scholarship in the service of a powerful and timely intervention in an issue of widespread contemporary concern and deep significance. It has the potential to alter the debate over the place of the humanities in the modern university."

Warren G. Breckman, University of Pennsylvania

"Reitter and Wellmon masterfully elucidate what they argue is the signature way humanistic inquiry has participated in the modern research university: through a discourse of crisis and decline, from which it paradoxically derives its purpose and direction. The authors provide an intellectual genealogy for contentious issues in US higher education—professionalization, academic freedom, workplace inclusivity, exploitation of adjunct labor, and much more. A truly instructive study!”

Rey Chow, author of A Face Drawn in Sand: Humanistic Inquiry and Foucault in the Present

Table of Contents

1.The Modern University and the Dream of Intellectual Unity
2. The Lament of the Melancholy Mandarins
3. Philology and Modernity: Nietzsche on Education
4. The Mandarins of the Lab: The Humanities in “the Age of the Natural Sciences”
5. The Consolation of the Modern Humanities
6. Max Weber, Scholarship, and Modern Asceticism
7. Crisis, Democracy, and the Humanities in America

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