Barbara Herrnstein Smith Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory.
Harvard University Press, 229 pages, $22.50

When historians look back over the state of Western thought during the closing decades of this century, they may well call it the Age of Nihilism. From religion to anthropology, the primary goal is no longer to understand the world but rather to question hostilely the nature of understanding itself. Thus, instead of building upon the foundations of rational discourse, we are confronted with claims that these foundations are illusory. The most public focus of such skepticism has been directed, of late, toward the college curriculum. Why, we are asked, should universities continue to teach the traditional canon of Western civilization? Is not our habit of granting special or, to use the term in vogue, “privileged” status to some things over others merely an attempt by certain...

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