The ambition of this book—Mark Greif’s first—is to identify a set of ideas from the relatively recent past, dated with arresting precision to the forty years from 1933, which bear on the present we now inhabit. It is an American past, or very largely so, and its defining feature as a passage of thought, Greif argues, was a proliferation of attempts at a universalist account of human nature—far from outdated, even if it is, in many circles, wholly discredited. He begins with the observation that a great many of the mid-twentieth century’s prominent intellectuals concerned themselves with the fate of ‘man’, or ‘mankind’, mostly seen as in a state of urgent crisis. The first part of his argument offers a history and interpretation of this compulsion. For Greif, the ‘crisis of man’ debate acted as a kind of ‘unseen principle of determination’ throughout this period, exerting a gravitational force across ‘the whole space of public thought’ in the us from the thirties to the seventies. If this has so far gone unrecognized, it is in part because the different aspects of the ‘crisis of man’ discourse have hitherto only been seen inside their own intellectual-historical compartments: the ‘nature of man’ as a foundational problem for political theory since Aristotle; the critique of capitalist modernity as a problem for ‘man’ since Weber, or Marx, or the Romantics; the inter-war ‘crisis of liberalism’, both economic and democratic; liberalism’s (troubled) post-war reaffirmation; the ‘Free World’ defence of the individual against totalitarianism, as leading ideology of the Cold War.

Yet during the four decades of this long ‘midcentury’, Greif suggests, these strands came together to constitute an identifiable ‘discourse of man’. Across this period, American intellectuals commonly held to ‘a renewed inquiry into the majoritarian, unmarked human subject’, and to an ‘autonomous humanism’, even if during the thirties and forties they were generally looking to threats from outside, whereas in the fifties and sixties they were more preoccupied with threats from within. They aimed at a re-enlightenment on a fourfold front, taking in ontology, theology, history and technology; a reaffirmation, at once humbled and ambitious, that could offer potential resistance to the peopling of the world by totalitarian man, through the revaluation of an agency that was individual, yet exercised on behalf of the whole. Greif is aware that this gesture has a certain ‘emptiness’ about it, so the reader of today is likely to find these writings ‘unreadable’, ‘tedious’ and ‘unhelpful’. But he bravely construes this emptiness as a ‘maieutics’, or midwifery, on the model of Socrates’s bringing forth wisdom from others by dint of his provocations. In the case of the ‘crisis of man’ discourse, the midwifery involves establishing the value of its questions, rather than supplying definitive answers to them.

The result is a striking construction, bringing together an array of thinkers and intellectual traditions whose synchronicity has gone largely unremarked. The American careers of Lewis Mumford, Martin Buber, R. G. Collingwood, Erich Fromm, Reinhold Niebuhr, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mortimer Adler, R. M. Hutchins (and the University of Chicago), Sidney Hook, Karl Mannheim, Dwight Macdonald (and Partisan Review), Hannah Arendt and Herbert Marcuse are discussed in interactive detail, at least insofar as they pronounce on the ‘crisis of man’. Camus and Sartre play a part, and there is a leading role for Susan Sontag. Lionel Trilling exercises a sort of ‘kingmaker’ function in arguing the case for the power of the novel; and along with Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow, there are extended readings of Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Pynchon. Beneath and behind all of these are the ghostly presences of the philosopher John Dewey and the anthropologist Franz Boas, and their respective paradigms of progressive experimentalism and cultural pluralism, which served as test-sites for the new rhetoric. Along with the influence of the Jewish and German émigrés before and during the war, there was a jump-start postwar role for French existentialism as ‘the means by which the discourse of man entered the secular and political core of New York intellect’. For a brief period after 1945, Greif suggests, the United Nations appeared to offer a public solution to the crisis of man, but it proved a ‘painful disappointment’, cynically dominated by the veto-wielding powers of the Security Council. Human-rights discourse provided longer-lasting ideals, still current indeed. But the Boasian anthropologists were already opposed to all universalist gestures, while Arendt argued forcefully that there was no usable concept of human nature that could be accessed independently of local community conditions.

All of this makes for lively reading. Yet to what extent can this ‘empty’ maieutics really be read as purposive method, as opposed to reflecting the vacuous space of an untenable ideology? Greif is tactful about this; he sees that the case for universal man is one that glosses over matters of race, gender and economic inequality, and indeed he shows how the novel, as written by Bellow and by Ellison, is too closely attentive to the experiences of the Jew and the Negro (to use the word then current) to offer any simple endorsement of the rhetoric of ‘mankind’. At the same time he shows that the language of universality remains desirable and even redeemable in the languages of these same novelists and their protagonists. They test the language of universality, but do not quite reject it. The central chapters of Age of the Crisis of Man explore how the novel, as a ‘discipline of the concrete’, did and did not parallel and endorse the methods and assumptions of the historians and social scientists, theologians and philosophers. Here the book comes closest to the genre of the doctoral dissertation, although constant reference to the wider intellectual and political history means that it is much more than a formal-aesthetic exercise. And if we are told, as we are, that prose fiction inevitably ends up looking more complicated than most social science, there is thankfully nothing here of the disciplinary triumphalism that so often accompanies such assertions. Indeed, the novel matters because of the preoccupations it shares with the ‘crisis of man’ writers, and not because of some generic exceptionalism.

A 1948 essay by Lionel Trilling is taken by Greif to embody the case for the American novel as the bearer of the challenge to redeem the condition of man. But, once again, categories of the human are under stress in Bellow and Ellison, even as they are nonetheless adumbrated by way of what the author calls a ‘characterological Platonism’ or ‘type idealism’. (The ideal is plural, but limited in its variety.) The Catholic Flannery O’Connor’s case for the impossibility of a merely secular optimism is also explained as a response to ‘discourse of man’ rhetoric, and her attention to the vulnerable body as troubling liberal idealism appears here as an early instance of the technological syndromes governing later fiction, Pynchon’s especially. By the end of the 1960s ‘man’ has almost disappeared, to be replaced by an assemblage of body parts whose soul-function is significantly cybernetic. Greif’s discussion of ‘the sixties’ as a critical challenge to ‘midcentury’ universalism wisely leaves behind the novel as its primary source for analysis and returns to a wider intellectual history—and to the large-scale entry into liberationist activism. This provides for one of the most insightful parts of the book. The new disunity that Greif now sees at the centre of the intellectual agenda expresses itself in a heightening of attention to matters of race and gender (although rather less to the Vietnam War). Man and mankind have given way to ‘the Man’ as a negative incarnation of everything that is ‘frozen, monumental, petrified, lethal, or sealed off to inner difference or change’.

Enter theory, as we now know it. This came in French, by way of Susan Sontag, among other early enthusiasts. Greif considers the ascent of ‘theory’ as the enabling interpretation of an experiential ‘Big Bang’ that mainstream American philosophy had signally failed to provide, when it chose not to take up the socio-political agendas of the Vienna Circle, pursuing instead a narrow scientism that was ‘apolitical, masculine, presentist and Anglo-liberal’. On Quine, Greif comes up with one of his best one-liners: ‘rarely can any philosopher have thought himself more cosmopolitan or have been more parochial’. Philosophy departments were poorly equipped to respond to the challenges of the sixties, and they duly underperformed. Before the Derrida generation there was Lévi-Strauss, who arrived in New York in 1941, which gives Greif licence to speculate that the key moment in what would produce ‘theory’ for both France and America—Lévi-Strauss’s encounter with Roman Jakobson—had occurred ‘in New York by 1945’. It was Lévi-Strauss’s emphasis on the culture of ethnocentrism, in line with the Boasian tradition, that above all threatened the discourse of man, and indeed the opening of Derrida’s path-breaking Of Grammatology (1967) references ethnocentrism as one of the besetting conditions that the new grammatology must challenge.

So where are we now? Any book that aspires to take up—and take in—as much as this one does is almost duty-bound to come up with its own set of recommendations, and here I have some reservations. Greif regrets that analytic philosophy and continental theory have set themselves up as antagonists in the campaign for appropriate ways to pursue justice and liberation. And he sees no signs that defenders and critics of the idea of the subject are about to effect a meeting of minds. The ’blind antinomy’ of universalizing philosophy and ‘anti-humanist theory’, that stubborn though not demonstrably necessary difference evoked here in the poignant stand-off between Chomsky and Foucault, is the cautionary topic of Greif’s concluding meditation on ‘the starting point for twenty-first century thought’. His conviction is that these traditions ‘belong together’, especially because the novel is no longer, it seems, the place where the limits of the ‘sentimental and methodological individualism’ latent in the crisis of man discourse can be tested.