Humanism and Democratic Criticism

Edward W. Said. Foreword by Akeel Bilgrami

Columbia University Press

Humanism and Democratic Criticism

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Pub Date: April 2004

ISBN: 9780231122641

192 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $26.95

Humanism and Democratic Criticism

Edward W. Said. Foreword by Akeel Bilgrami

Columbia University Press

In the radically changed and highly charged political atmosphere that has overtaken the United States—and to varying degrees the rest of the world—since September 11, 2001, the notion that cultures can harmoniously and productively coexist has come to seem like little more than a quaint fiction. In this time of heightened animosity and aggression, have humanistic values and democratic principles become irrelevant? Are they merely utopian fantasies? Or are they now more urgent and necessary than ever before?

Ever since the ascendancy of critical theory and multicultural studies in the 1960s and 1970s, traditional humanistic education has been under assault. Often condemned as the intolerant voice of the masculine establishment and regularly associated with Eurocentrism and even imperialism, the once-sacred literary canon is now more likely to be ridiculed than revered. While this seismic shift—brought on by advances in technological communication, intellectual specialization, and cultural sensitivity—has eroded the former primacy of the humanities, Edward Said argues that a more democratic form of humanism—one that aims to incorporate, emancipate, and enlighten—is still possible. A lifelong humanist, Said believed that self-knowledge is the highest form of human achievement and the true goal of humanistic education. But he also believed that self-knowledge is unattainable without an equal degree of self-criticism, or the awareness that comes from studying and experiencing other peoples, traditions, and ideas.

Proposing a return to philology and a more expansive literary canon as strategies for revitalizing the humanities, Said contends that words are not merely passive figures but vital agents in historical and political change. Intellectuals must reclaim an active role in public life, but at the same time, insularity and parochialism, as well as the academic trend toward needless jargon and obscurantism, must be combated. The "humanities crisis," according to Said, is based on the misperception that there is an inexorable conflict between established traditions and our increasingly complex and diversified world. Yet this position fails to recognize that the canonized thinkers of today were the revolutionaries of yesterday and that the nature of human progress is to question, upset, and reform. By considering the emerging social responsibilities of writers and intellectuals in an ever more interdependent world and exploring the enduring influence of Eric Auerbach's critical masterpiece, Mimesis, Said not only makes a persuasive case for humanistic education but provides his own captivating and deeply personal perspective on our shared intellectual heritage.

Said writes an impassioned apologia for a cosmopolitan, playful and rigorously inquisitive brand of humanist practice.

Laura Ciolkowski, New York Times Book Review

Illuminating.... A poignant reminder that reasonableness and partisanship are not always the enemies that some leftists seem to think they are.

Terry Eagleton, The Nation

The late Said here provides a powerful defense of humanistic disciplines and democratic ideals in global civilization.... Highly recommended.

Library Journal

[This] noble volume shows Said taking stock of the ideals and principles that sustained him as professor, activist, and critic.... [His] reasoned advocacy is a reminder why literature and criticism are equipment for living.

Matthew Price, Bookforum

Said was the model of an engaged critic. His writings are marked out by a palpable vitality, an infectious curiosity in everything human and a set of particular concerns with exile, east and west, intellectual independence and truth telling.... These lectures, given in New York in 2000, are vintage Said. They begin with an argument for an expansive, unaligned and above all releveant version of literary criticism, aimed at tackling prejudice, exposing oppression and interrogating simplified ideas of identity.

Ben Rogers, Financial Times

As the widely acknowledged father of post-colonial studies, Said has inspired a wave of interest in the study of cultural difference.

Laura Ciolkowski, International Herald Tribune

If one can only read one of Said's twenty books, then I would recommend this one. In it, Said pulls together threads and metaphors from his different works—literary, political, academic, activist, musical—to weave a humanist landscape in a style that is between that of an academic speaking to peers and that of an activist addressing an audience. It combines passion with rigour—the hallmark of Edward Said.

Al-Ahram Weekly

A distillation of what Said called his late style, informal, freely ruminative, personal, and tirelessly reexamining his thinking.

W. J. T. Mitchell, Critical Inquiry

In his final book, Said leaves with head held high, penning his last testament as a fire-and-brimstone humanist.

Len Edgerly, Rain Taxi

Said's book walks a tightrope, in other words, between the latest rages in academic criticism and the conservative reactions to them... Death will not silence his voice, and humanism of the sort he espoused will never die.

W. J. T. Mitchell, Journal of Palestine Studies
Humanism's Sphere
The Changing Bases of Humanistic Study and Practice
The Return to Philology
Introduction to Erich Auerbach's Mimesis
The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals

About the Author

Edward W. Said (1935-2003) was University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He was the music critic for the Nation and the author of numerous books, including Out of Place, Culture and Imperialism, and Orientalism. His books with Columbia University Press include Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, Humanism and Democratic Criticism, Beginnings: Intention and Method, and Musical Elaborations.

About the Author

Akeel Bilgrami is the Sidney Morgenbesser Chair of Philosophy and the Director of the South Asian Institute at Columbia University. The contributors to the volume include Irfan Habib, Amiya Kumar Bagchi, Utsa Patnaik, Charles Taylor, Prabhat Patnaik, Aijaz Ahmad, and Partha Chatterjee, among others.