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On the first of February the early modern historical colloquium on the history of the humanities took place in the fully packed Sweelinck room of Utrecht University. For this extended colloquium the university invited Prof. dr. Rens Bod and Prof. dr. James Turner, two authors of seminal publications on the history of the humanities. Rens Bod is a professor of Digital Humanities and co-director of the Center for the History of Humanities and Sciences at the University of Amsterdam and author of A New History of the Humanities, published in Dutch in 2010. James Turner is the Cavanaugh Professor of Humanities at the University of Notre Dame and author of Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, which appeared in 2014. The afternoon at Utrecht University was the first time the two scholars met for a lively debate on the subject of the history of the humanities.
Wijnand Mijnhardt opened the colloquium by comparing the two authors and their books. Through that, he illustrated the diversity of approaches in the history of humanities. One difference he remarked upon was their scope. Turner focused strongly on the concept of philological scholarship from ancient times until modernity, using the context of other areas of scholarship to deepen the understanding of the formative role of philology in the humanities. Bod, in contrast, approached the history of the humanities as a multidisciplinary history. The books also differ in their orientation. Whereas Turner’s scholarship was foremost concerned with the development of the Anglophone philological studies, Bod approached his topic from a global point of view: A New History of the Humanities includes discussions of humanities scholarship from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Yet for all their differences both scholars showed throughout the afternoon that their approaches were the result of careful consideration of their subject and a quest for the most productive way of answering their particular question. I found it particularly interesting how the debate between these two eloquent speakers highlighted the challenges scholars are faced with in exploring new ways of writing comprehensive disciplinary or mutlidisciplinary histories. To me, it also underscored the fascinating fact that the current concept of the ‘humanities’ has very long roots, but is at the same time a relatively new and somewhat arbitrary collection of a varied area of scholarship.
After Mijnhardt’s introduction, both scholars gave a brief introduction to their work. James Turner explained that the overview he was asked to give of the principles that guided him in writing would be quite impossible, being as he called it ‘tone-deaf’ for anything nearing philosophy and theory. Instead, he explained how he came to write Philology. The book followed an interest that emerged from an earlier project on the history of higher education in the United States and the United Kingdom. When researching the art history scholar Charles Eliot Norton for this project, Turner became fascinated with the formation of the humanities curriculum in the United States. Originally, all students at the universities followed the same standard curriculum. This changed at the end of the nineteenth century, resulting in specific educational trajectories and the modern humanities. However, it remained unclear why the curriculum changed, and this captured Turner’s interest.
Upon further investigation Turner found that his old subject Charles Eliot Norton had undertaken a wide variety of scholarship, united by an approach that treated his subjects as a text in philological scholarship. Turner’s further research demonstrated that this philological method was also common practice in other areas of scholarship. This suggested the topic of philology as an entry point, with which Turner sought to determine its role in the formation of the humanities. The singular focus on philology set some parameters for his research at the outset. First of all, Turner only considered developments that were relevant for the Anglophone tradition of philological scholarship, paying little attention to the cultures and developments outside of Europe. Second, while the humanities are now often considered as a unified field, historically this measure of unity varied. As such, it was important for Turner to be aware of this anachronism. This was also the case for the term philology, which over time included areas as diverse as rhetoric, antiquarianism and numismatics. Yet the modern focus on difference in subject matter and method between the various humanities’ disciplines is a rather recent development, where the consensus is that the disciplines are fundamentally and inherently divergent. While the humanities may not have been united historically, there certainly always has been a certain overlap between what was studied and how it was studied in the various disciplines. As such, Turner always needed to weigh this balance between the general and the particular. In closing Turner remarked that research into the origins of these disciplinary borders is an area in which he would like to continue his research.
A New History of the Humanities
As his introduction of A New History of the Humanities, Rens Bod presented a crash course on the issues scholars face when writing a history of the humanities. As a relatively new discipline that is still in development, it faces critical challenges in defining its subjects, methods and approaches. Interestingly, there was a decided similarity in these challenges and the parameters that Turner defined for his research project. First of all, Bod stated, there is a risk of presentism. While the plural humanities are a modern concept and category of studies, subjects that are now considered as constituting the modern humanities have been studied from Antiquity onwards. Even though the term ‘humanities’ is new(er), equivalent concepts denoting a similar area of studies have existed since the tenth century, creating an unbroken tradition of scholarship. This begs the question whether the term ‘humanities’ can be used to describe the earlier forms of scholarship or whether this would be problematically anachronistic. Bod pointed out that using the term ‘humanities’ for historic scholarship is an anachronism, but that the unbroken tradition of scholarship makes this less of an issue and that in this case, the use of the anachronism is conceptually productive, as it makes it possible to create a unified narrative.
The second challenge presented by Bod was comparativism. As mentioned, his work approaches the history of the humanities as cross-regional, including insights from cultures from outside the Anglo-European sphere. Comparativism is problematic because all knowledge is strongly connected to context, making cross-cultural comparison difficult. Bod aimed to negate this issue by studying larger patterns and methods that allow for a measure of objective comparison.
The last challenge Rens Bod discussed was demarcation. To what extent is it productive to distinguish the humanities from the natural sciences? Is it even possible to draw a hard distinction between the methods, practices and virtues of the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities? While the original motivation for these demarcations can be found in history, its productivity remains debatable. Aside from these challenges, Bod also discussed some of his personal convictions about writing any general history. He emphasized the importance of the ‘longue durée’ and the incorporation of a global view to be able to understand complex interactions and developments taking place over time and in different areas. These are, as Bod remarked, only a few of the problems with which the history of humanities is faced. The only way to tackle these issues, he concluded, is by making motivated choices and “making the best of it”, which seems to have been Bod’s way of saying that experiments and a scholarly rigorous pragmatism are necessary if we want to develop a connected history of the humanities and sciences further.
The rest of the colloquium welcomed questions and discussions from the audience. In the answers to the various questions and remarks by Turner, it was quite clear that his focus really was strongly confined to the study of philology, but this did not preclude connections to a wide variety of both other humanities and natural sciences. This demonstrated that even a history of the humanities written from a singular disciplinary focus does not exclude the drawing of overarching connections and may also grant valuable insights into other topics. Bod presented himself as both an extremely ‘begeistered’ speaker as well as a scientific polyglot. His wide ranging knowledge was present throughout his answers and he never failed to draw a surprising connection between seemingly disparate pieces of knowledge.
A theme which could be recognized in both the lectures and the questions was the issue of disciplinary definition. Bod strongly advocated the transcendence of the borders between the humanities and the natural sciences in order to better understand the relationship between the two. Currently they are often juxtaposed, with the natural sciences being presented as the only ‘rational contributors’ to scholarship. Yet the humanities have made many contributions to general scholarship, like the use of the stemma or genealogical tree – which are now attributed to the natural sciences. Moreover, humanities scholars are just as likely to work in a systematic, traceable and empirical way as natural sciences scholars, Bod pointed out.
This disciplinary polarization was also questioned by a member of the audience in the afternoon. Turner explained that the distinction was part of an ideological discourse from the end of the nineteenth century that aimed to maximize the differences between the humanities and the natural sciences, propagated by natural scientists to set themselves apart. Bod added that the distinction is also based on the idea that the humanities find fewer laws than the natural sciences. However, outside astronomy and physics there are few natural scientific subjects where laws are abundantly discovered, he explained. Still, this idea is often misused to argue that the humanities are less ‘precise’.
Processes of historical institutionalization have also impacted this disciplinary demarcation. Within the Anglophone area, Turner argued, there is a distinct difference between areas in the ways the disciplines are organized. Historically, the US has adopted a tripartite division between the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences. Yet this did not happen in the UK, so there is more discussion about which disciplines are part of which faculty. Even if institutional ‘boxes’ are clear, what goes into them is not so clear-cut. As such, the polarization between the humanities and the natural sciences is not always productive and historically even somewhat arbitrary. By pushing aside polarization and instead focusing on cross-disciplinary dimensions, topics, conflicts and question, discussions can be provoked that lead to very different questions and ways of looking at the world that currently impossible due to disciplinary confinement.
The contrast between the inclusion and exclusion of scholarship from outside the Anglo-European sphere by the authors led to some discussion on globalization and widening views of scholarship. A member of the audience asked whether the global turn towards history and historicization should be viewed as a global phenomenon or, rather, as a spreading European idea. On the one hand, Bod pointed out, the notion of history used in scholarship is often Euro-centric, referring to a European frame of reference. On the other hand, ideas like historicism are not solely a European province, having come up in scholarship in other countries, for example China. However, the focus in these historicist inquiries is the local frame of reference, such as Chinese history. It is therefore not easily related to European scholarship.
Another question from the audience connected to the topic of globalization of humanities research, was whether it would be useful to investigate broader histories of the humanities for future disciplinary definition by bringing together various ways of ‘doing’ humanities around the globe. This is certainly interesting for the future of the discipline, Bod agreed, because by studying what other people mean by ‘the humanities’ scholars can become more discerning about their own notions. Both Bod and Turner argued that not every investigation needs to be absolutely global, but it is no longer possible to shut out the rest of the world from humanities scholarship; this would be too intellectually limiting. I found this a refreshing and pragmatic view on a difficult topic, demonstrating the definite potential of the history of humanities as both a multidisciplinary and a global way of studying history.
Method and change
Methodology was another recurring theme during the colloquium. After Bod’s lecture, Turner asked whether he perceived a tension between comparativism as a method and the use of specific historical contexts in research: doesn’t comparativism sometimes get in the way of truly understanding a history? Bod did not agree, stating that every research project has inherent limiting parameters. These limitations make it impossible to completely comprehend all facets of a situation, although new developments like computational techniques make it possible to analyze more information and data than before. In the same vein, comparison does not necessarily limit the findings in research, as the act of comparison elicits different rather than less insight. Members of the audience were also interested in questions of methodology and changes over time. One person asked whether it was possible to point out marked differences between modern and pre-modern humanities. Both scholars remarked that it is up for discussion whether a distinction between modern and pre-modern humanities is actually productive, as it would probably not actually change anything in how we discuss them. Disregarding the question of productivity, it proved possible to discern differences for the scholars: they found that a turn to historicism and an understanding of history as essentially ‘foreign’ are two important elements characterizing the modern humanities, as well as the professionalization taking place from the eighteenth century onwards.
Another member of the audience wanted to discuss the benefits of the study of the humanities, asking what was to be gained by writing a comprehensive history. In short, both speakers answered, a lot is gained. Overarching histories allow researchers to find tendencies and patterns across larger areas of scholarship. While it is very difficult, if not impossible, to write a complete history of systematic knowledge, the humanities offer a comprehensive area to study while still potentially disclosing larger patterns. Seen like this, studying such a diverse landscape of scholarship makes it possible to spot correspondences, differences and areas of study that never crystallized into proper disciplines.
The colloquium offered many insights for those interested in the history of humanities. On the level of individual publications, the discussion of the works by Turner and Bod shows that a comprehensive history may be written from very different perspectives, both with their own merits. Taking it a bit further, the colloquium showed that a united history of the humanities is worth its weight in gold for current scholarship. Debates on the value of the humanities are raging worldwide, with the example of Japan severely cutting its humanities as a frightening consequence of an extreme view on its ‘‘irrelevance’. In all, I feel that this debate was both extremely engaging on account of the two gifted speakers, as well as extremely necessary. When studied closely, the history of the humanities shows that what are often held as strong qualities of the natural sciences – rationality, empiricism, and systematics – are just as applicable to humanities. As Bod pointed out, the humanities are not solely prescriptive or descriptive, nor singly generalizing or particularizing. It is a broad, varied, beautiful and highly necessary field of scholarship that deserves societal validation and should not be offset against the ‘utility’ of the natural sciences. It should be recognized that the humanities are not only at the core of humanity as a whole but have also contributed many insights that have truly changed the world, whether it is Panini’s grammar or the harmonic music theory of Pythagoras.