This weblog is dedicated to the history of the humanities in general and to the book "De Vergeten Wetenschappen" (translated into English as "A New History of the Humanities") by Rens Bod in particular.
"A must-read for anyone interested in the history of a broad range of the humanities. It combines case studies of great historical precision with methodological considerations of historical epistemologies, with the explicit aim of matching the work done in the history of science with equivalent historical epistemologies of the various humanistic disciplines—including philology, musicology, art history, linguistics, archaeology, theater studies, history of philosophy, media studies, Oriental studies, and literary studies—often in light of their intersections with science or the social sciences (the particular innovation of this volume)."
For more information on: Rens Bod, Jaap Maat, and Thijs Weststeijn (Editors): The Making of the Humanities, Vol. 3: The Modern Humanities, see the review by Katherine Arens.
The next Making of the Humanities conference will take place at Johns Hopkins University, 5-7 October 2016. Invited speakers are Karine Chemla, Anthony Grafton and Sarah Kay. More than 100 papers on the history of the humanities and related disciplines will be presented.
Some time ago, I had a two-hour debate with James Turner (author of "Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities") on how to write the history of the humanities. Not long after this debate, Anne van Dam (PhD student at Leiden University) wrote this interesting paper on our debate.
"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."
The Dutch 'Historisch Nieuwsblad' has organized an election for the best history book ever. You could for example vote for De Vergeten Wetenschappen which is the original Dutch version of A New History of the Humanities. Enjoy!
The History of Humanities in Amsterdam will be institutionalized by the new Vossius Center for the History of Humanities and Sciences.
The Vossius Center will be officially opened on Monday 27 June, 15.00h-18.00h, at the place where Gerardus Vossius held his inaugural lecture in 1632. Speakers include Dymph van den Boom, Frank van Vree, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Haun Saussy, Joep Leerssen, Julia Kursell, Jeroen van Dongen and Rens Bod. The afternoon will be concluded with the presentation of the new journal "History of Humanities".
All those interested in attending the opening of the Vossius Center are welcome. The full program will follow soon. Since places are allotted on a first-come, first-serve basis, please register as early as possible (no later than 15 May) at http://vossius.uva.nl/
On Vossius: In 1632, the polymath Gerardus Vossius became the first professor at the newly founded Athenaeum Illustre, the precursor of the current University of Amsterdam. Besides being a historian, he was a literary scholar, grammarian, rhetorician and theologian. In his work on chronology he combined astronomical with historical evidence. He also wrote the first overview of the history and theory of classical literature. Four of his children became established scholars as well, but only Isaac survived his father to become one of the most famous intellectuals of Europe. A Fellow of the Royal Society, Isaac Vossius was prolific as a philologist, geographer but also published on tidal motions, on optics, on painting, on China and on the age of the world. He argued that the earth had to be much older than could be derived from the Bible. The internationally well connected father and son Vossius crossed disciplines, mixed methods and engaged with the past to make sense of the present. Their multi-talented Amsterdam-based family reflects the Center’s central theme to arrive at a global, post-disciplinary history of knowledge.
"These are exciting times for the humanities. The impressive corpus of knowledge that the humanities have discovered, created, and cultivated over many centuries is available for the benefit of more people than ever and evolving rapidly. Fresh perspectives open up as digital tools enable researchers to explore questions that not long ago were beyond their reach and even their imagination. Novel fields of research deal with phenomena emerging in a globalizing culture, enabling us to make sense of the way in which new media affect our lives. Cross-fertilization between disciplines leads to newly developed methods and results, such as the complex chemical analysis of the materials of ancient artworks, yielding data that were unavailable to both artists and their publics at the time of production, or neuroscientific experiments shedding new light on our capacity for producing and appreciating music."
I am very happy to announce that A New History of the Humanities will also be translated into Italian and Korean. The contracts with the publishers have been signed and the translations are expected to appear in 2017. So far, the originally Dutch book "De Vergeten Wetenschappen" has been or is being translated into English, Chinese, Polish, Armenian, Ukrainian, Korean and Italian.
Our project "The Flow of Cognitive Goods: Towards a Post-Disciplinary History of Knowledge" has two fully funded PhD positions on the following topic:
"Historiography of both the humanities and the sciences is almost invariably carried out within the confines of modern disciplinary categories. This produces a serious problem: crucial processes of knowledge transfer receive insufficient attention or are not studied at all, even though great innovations are often produced when disciplinary boundaries are crossed. Disciplinary historiography tends to obscure that academic disciplines are not static but dynamic and implicitly keeps the idea intact that the sciences and the humanities are distinct endeavours. To solve these problems we propose to move beyond the disciplinary approach and to write a, what we will call, ‘post-disciplinary’ history of knowledge. Our project will focus on the period from 1800 to 2000, because in this period the process of formation and institutionalization of modern disciplinary categories has taken place. We intend to leave disciplinary biases behind yet at the same time wish to provide the means to come to a better understanding of the construction of disciplinary categories. To this end, we will focus on what we call ‘cognitive goods’: the epistemic notions and objects (i.e. ‘goods’) that are transferred when knowledge is increased by crossing or transcending disciplinary boundaries. Examples of ‘cognitive goods’ are research methods, formalisms, virtues, theoretical concepts, metaphors, and argumentative and demonstrative techniques."
Here is a column by Alessandro Pagnini on Criticism as Science which discusses my book. It's in Italian, published in Il Sole 24 Ore:
"Recentemente un linguista olandese, Rens Bod (A New History of the Humanities, Oxford) ha insinuato che è proprio da quella differenza, poi istituzionalizzata, che nasce un chiaro complesso di inferiorità delle humanities: siccome è la scienza che, dopo Galileo e Cartesio e a dispetto di Vico, è progredita e si è dimostrata “vera” conoscenza a servizio dell’uomo, della società, dell’economia, il resto della cultura, confinato alla contingenza e, per il suo valore di verità, tutt’al più al consenso delle genti, ha voluto dimostrare almeno una sua importanza indiretta, o per l’educazione, o per la coscienza e la responsabilità civile di una cittadinanza democratica (come intende, per esempio, Martha Nussbaum)."
My book A New History of the Humanities was reviewed in Isis, the premier journal devoted to the history of science. The review turns out to be a typical history-of-science-review: it is very positive about the content of my book but the reviewer doesn't see why we need a history of the humanities after all. Clearly there is still some mission work to do. The history of the humanities is the missing link in the history of knowledge!
"In many respects this book is a remarkable achievement, and it is hard to imagine a reader who will not learn from it—such is the book’s coverage that very few will know as much as the unimaginably erudite author. Via four long chapters covering antiquity, the Middle Ages, the early modern era, and the modern period, Rens Bod provides a history of the respective developments in linguistics, historiography, philology, musicology, art theory, logic, rhetoric, and poetics. For good measure, the final chapter also includes sections on archaeology, literary and theater studies, and “All Media and Culture: From Film Studies to New Media” (p. 339). In case anyone reading this review is not yet impressed, the author takes care, under each heading, to discuss developments not just in Europe but also (when appropriate) in India, China, and the civilization of Islam. The result is undeniably impressive—and hugely informative."
While the history of the humanities can be studied as a field on its own, it is not isolated from the history of science. There have been interactions between the humanities and the sciences at any time and place, even after the infamous divide between the two areas in the early 20th century. We have just received a generous NWO grant to investigate the long-term history of the humanities and sciences, which will contain several research positions. You will hear more about it soon.
Here is a short abstract of the project:
"Academic disciplines are often seen in isolation from each other, a perception that is historically unjust: cross-pollination of ideas takes place constantly. In fact, more often than not, this is what leads to breakthroughs. In order to break down stereotypical distinctions between disciplines, historians should formulate an all-encompassing, post-disciplinary history of knowledge."
For more info, click here. (Note that the Dutch often mistranslate 'wetenschap' into 'science', which has also happened in the linked article. 'Wetenschap' should actually be translated into the compound 'humanities and science')
This is an exciting moment: the inaugural issue of History of Humanities is now in production. It will appear in March 2016, but below is already a Table of Contents. Can't wait to see this coming out!
Table of Contents History
of Humanities Vol.1 Nr.1
New Field -- Introduction to the Inaugural Issue of History of Humanities
Rens Bod, Julia Kursell, Jaap
Maat and Thijs Weststeijn
Monuments and Documents --
Panofsky on the Object of Study in the Humanities
Calling Time -- A Reply to John
John E. Joseph
Response to John Guillory
Geoffrey Galt Harpham
“On the Narration of the Past in China” --
On the Narration of the Past in
China (An Outline)
Gods, Heroes and Mythologists --
Romantic Scholars and the Pagan Roots of Europe’s
Ferdinand Gregorovius versus
Theodor Mommsen on the City of Rome and its Legends
Two Million Filing Cards -- The
Empirical-Biographical Method of Semen Vengerov
Culture and Nature in the Prism
News of the Profession
for Papers: “The Making of the Humanities V”
Alain Schnapp, with Lothar von
Falkenhausen, Peter N. Miller, and Tim Murray (eds.), World Antiquarianism: Comparative Perspectives. Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute,
Review by: Thijs Weststeijn
James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2014.
Review by: Floris Solleveld
Khaled El-Rouayheb, Islamic Intellectual History in the
Seventeenth Century: Scholarly Currents in the Ottoman Empire and the Maghreb.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Review by: Michiel Leezenberg
Thijs Weststeijn, Art and Antiquity in the Netherlands and
Britain: The Vernacular Arcadia of Franciscus Junius (1591–1677). (Studies
in Netherlandish Art and Cultural History, 12.) Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2015.
Review by: Sophie van Romburgh
Michael Gavin, The Invention of English Criticism: 1650-1760, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2015.
Review by: Neus
(Hg.), Einheit der Vernunft und Vielfalt
der Sprachen. Beiträge zu Leibniz’ Sprachforschung und Zeichentheorie.(Studia Leibnitiana, Supplementa 38). Stuttgart: Franz
Steiner Verlag, 2014.
Review by: Donald Rutherford
Reynolds Cordileone, Alois Riegl in
Vienna 1875-1905. An Institutional Biography.(Studies in Art Historiography.) Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2014.
by: Arnold Witte
Schneider & Peter Raulwing (eds.). Egyptology
from the First World War to the Third Reich. Ideology, Scholarship, and
Individual Biographies. Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2013.
by: Miguel John Versluys
Paul Taylor (ed.), Meditations on a Heritage. Papers on the
Work and Legacy of Sir Ernst Gombrich. London: Paul Holberton publishing in
association with the Warburg Institute, 2014.
My book has just been reviewed in Modern Intellectual History. This time the reviewer doesn't like my search for patterns and principles in the history of the humanities. But he does say:
"And yet this is probably a book worth reading, for there is much interesting material made available by it, often material of which most readers will be ignorant. Bod is doggedly thorough in documenting branches of the humanities less often in intellectual repertoires."
The Renaissance Quarterly has just reviewed my book:
"The current handwringing and doomsaying in academia concerning the study of humanities and its support, especially in the United States, makes Rens Bod’s book not only an interesting read, but also timely and ambitious."
"While Bod’s work shows that the humanities can be viewed scientifically, this comes at the cost of omitting valuable cultural differences and changes. The great silver lining here is that Bod’s work helps to emphasize this very aspect of the humanities by its absence. As a result he leaves the opportunity for other scholars to take up where he leaves off, bridging these gaps to create fuller historical narratives while maintaining an emphasis on the importance of patterns, principles, and comparative humanistic achievement. To this end, Bod’s work is timely, useful, and ambitious, and a new history worth reading."
Here's an article about my talk "Patterns versus Interpretations" which I gave in Copenhagen on 23 September 2015. While the article is in Danish, Google Translate does a reasonable job translating it into English:
"Clearly Bod is a researcher with ambitions. When he discovered in 2008 that no one had yet written a comprehensive book on the humanities history, he decided that he was the man for the job. And although several colleagues and peers advised him not to take on the huge project, he continued undaunted. [...]"
Our last week's symposium on what the (history of the) humanities could contribute to the refugee crisis was fully booked less than 2 hours after the announcement went online. Perspectives from arabists, historians, philosophers were mixed with those from media-studies scholars, ethicists and east-european studies scholars. There is clearly a need for scholarly information about the refugee crisis. We will repeat this approach soon with a second symposium.
To shed light on these changes I wrote fresh Prefaces to the recent fifth edition of the Dutch book and to the new paperback edition of the English book. Here I print them in full:
Bij de vijfde druk
Vijf jaar na het eerste verschijnen van De vergeten wetenschappen is het wetenschappelijke
landschap veranderd. De ‘Geschiedenis van de Geesteswetenschappen’
is van een onbestaand vakgebied uitgegroeid tot een bloeiende discipline
met een eigen tijdschrift (History of Humanities), een jaarlijkse
conferentie (The Making of the Humanities) en een groeiend aantal boekpublicaties.
In Nederland verwijzen zowel NWO als de KNAW naar De vergeten
wetenschappen wanneer zij het belang van kruisbestuivingen tussen wetenschapsgebieden
willen laten zien. Zo valt in de Implementatienota NWO-strategie
2015-2018 (‘Toekomstgerichte geesteswetenschappen’, p. 7) te lezen: ‘En omgekeerd
dragen geesteswetenschappen met hun manier van werken ook bij
aan de ontwikkelingen in die andere wetenschapsgebieden, zoals Rens Bod in
zijn in 2010 verschenen boek De vergeten wetenschappen. Een geschiedenis van de
humaniora overtuigend heeft aangetoond.’ En de KNAW schrijft in haar Contouren
van een Vernieuwings- en Stimuleringsprogramma (2012, pp. 10-11): ‘Dat
het verschil tussen beide wetenschapsgebieden in de praktijk echter minder
principieel is dan vaak wordt gedacht laat Bod zien in zijn boek De vergeten
wetenschappen (2010). Hij geeft aan dat door de eeuwen heen de grens tussen
de wetenschapsgebieden die we momenteel aanduiden met natuur- en geesteswetenschappen
flinterdun was en dat geesteswetenschappelijke onderzoekers
wel degelijk ruim hebben bijgedragen aan het verklaren van fenomenen
Deze quotes laten zien hoe nodig een overzichtsgeschiedenis van de geesteswetenschappen
was en is. De geesteswetenschappen staan nog steeds onder
immense druk en weinigen realiseren zich dat zonder de humaniora het hele
wetenschappelijke bestel ineenstort. Er is ook hoop: zo heeft het idee van de
eenheid van geestes- en natuurwetenschappen onder bèta’s een gevoelige snaar
geraakt. Het Amerikaanse tijdschrift Scientific American wijdt in het juninummer
van 2015 een column aan de Engelse vertaling van mijn boek (A New History
of the Humanities) en concludeert dat ‘Regardless of which university building
scholars inhabit, we are all working toward the same goal of improving
our understanding of the true nature of things, and that is the way of both the
sciences and the humanities, a scientia humanitatis’.
Hoe intrigerend deze ontwikkelingen ook zijn, mijn grootste bron van inspiratie
blijven de geanimeerde discussies met mijn lezers, vooral met de studenten
die mijn boek als collegestof gebruiken. Het boek en zijn vertalingen
hebben onder meer hun weg gevonden bij de studies Filosofie, Wetenschapsgeschiedenis,
Cultuurgeschiedenis, Mediastudies, Cognitiewetenschappen en
Liberal Arts & Sciences-opleidingen – van Europa en de vs tot China. Ik ben
mijn lezers buitengewoon dankbaar voor alle feedback en kritiek die ik heb
ontvangen. Nieuws en updates over het boek en over de geschiedenis van de
geesteswetenschappen zijn te vinden op het gewoonlijke weblog:
Preface to the Paperback Edition
Five years after the publication of the original Dutch book (De Vergeten Wetenschappen,
2010) and two years after its English translation (A New History of the
Humanities, 2013) the academic landscape has changed. The “History of the
Humanities” has developed from a non-existing field into a flourishing discipline
with its own journal (History of Humanities), an annual conference (The Making of
the Humanities), an academic society (Society for the History of the Humanities) and
several monographs. An increasing number of universities across the globe are
teaching the History of the Humanities on par with the History of Science, and
the premier journal in the History of Science, Isis, has recently devoted a special
Focus section on The History of Humanities and the History of Science (June 2015).
It seems that the humanistic disciplines have been brought back to their rightful
place in the family tree of knowledge.
Nevertheless, in terms of funding and student numbers the humanities continue
to be under immense pressure. Few people realize that without the humanistic
disciplines the entire academic system would collapse. A general history of the
humanities and their relations to the sciences remains thus more urgent than ever. But
there are also signs of hope: the idea of the unicity of humanities and science has
hit a nerve among natural scientists. The June 2015 issue of Scientific American
dedicated a column to A New History of the Humanities concluding that “Regardless
of which university building scholars inhabit, we are all working toward the same
goal of improving our understanding of the true nature of things, and that is the
way of both the sciences and the humanities, a scientia humanitatis.”
However intriguing these developments are, my greatest source of inspiration
remain the animated discussions with my readers, especially with the students who use
my work as a textbook. The book and its translations have found their way in courses
in philosophy, history of science, cultural history, media studies, literary criticism,
and in liberal arts programs. I am most grateful for the feedback and criticism I
received from my readers. News and updates about the book and about the history of
the humanities in general can be found on the weblogs devergetenwetenschappen.
blogspot.com (for all translations) and historyofthehumanities.wordpress.com (for
the English translation).
"… an impressive work giving an overview strongly missed – as well as restoring the humanities to a central and surprising place in the general history of science."
("… et imponerende værk, der både giver et stærkt savnet overblik - og gengiver humaniora en overraskende og central plads i den almindelige videnskabshistorie.")
From the conclusion:
"From a broad picture one can say that Bod takes the humanities back to their rightful place in the family tree of sciences. (…) With Bod's impressive work we can see that relativisms have existed as a sub-current of skeptical "anomalists" ever since the Alexandrian philologists – but also that they have always been defeated by the main tradition of the humanities: to contribute, with pattern seeking on a long series of decisive issues, to the overall development of human knowledge."
("I det store billede kan man sige, at Bod fører humaniora tilbage til dens retmæssige plads i videnskabernes stamtræ. (…) Med Bods imponerende værk kan vi nu se, at sådanne relativismer har existeret som en understrømning af skeptiske "anomalister" lige siden filologerne i Alexandria, - men også, at de altid er blevet overvundet af humanioras hovedtradition: at bidrage, med "mønstersøgning" på en lang række afgørende punkter, til den samlede udvikling af menneskelig viden.")
For my italophone friends, here's a review of "A New History of the Humanities" together with other books on the history of the humanities by Andrea Bonaccorsi in Il Sole 24 Ore:
"Un altro eccitante viaggio intellettuale è offerto dal linguista olandese Rens Bod, con una storia comparata nelle principali aree del mondo (Europa, India, Cina), dall’antichità al XX secolo, in linguistica, storiografia, filologia, musicologia, storia dell’arte, logica, retorica e poetica. Bod mostra in modo convincente che sono esistiti fin dalla antichità filoni di indagine umanistica che hanno perseguito la ricerca di leggi generali che governano il funzionamento del linguaggio, dei testi o della storia, in modo del tutto simile alle scienze naturali. In alcuni casi, come nella grammatica universale e nella logica, con enorme successo, in altri casi, come nelle ricorrenti teorie dell’alternanza dei cicli storici, con risultati superati o discutibili. Ma sempre con guadagni importanti dal punto di vista del metodo e delle acquisizioni storiche. Il libro è un importante contributo alla ridefinizione dei rapporti tra humanities e scienze, che faccia superare il vecchio dibattito sulle due culture."
Sommige begrippen lijken in deze tijd totaal achterhaald. De notie van "wonder" is een goede kandidaat om te worden geelimineerd uit ons filosofische begrippenapparaat. En toch: de afgelopen weken kwam ik het begrip vele malen tegen in de media. En nu ben ik er zelfs van overtuigd geraakt dat de notie van "wonder" essentieel is voor een goed begrip van de geesteswetenschappen, vooral als we het definieren als "een gebeurtenis waarvoor noodzakelijkerwijs geen oorzaken aanwijsbaar zijn".
Kunnen we historische gebeurtenissen uitputtend verklaren uit eerdere gebeurtenissen? In principe zou het moeten kunnen, maar waarom is daar nog niemand in geslaagd? Ik was daarom aangenaam verrast dat er eindelijk een filosofische werkje verscheen over wonderdenken: Hent de Vries' "Kleine Filosofie van het Wonder". Maar gerecenseerd werd het werk nauwelijks. Hierbij mijn recensie in NRC van afgelopen vrijdag. Het is mijn eerste excursie in die ongrijpbare maar zo fascinerende continentale filolosofie. Mijn conclusie: "Wat echter nog wordt gemist is een wereldwijde filosofie van het wonderdenken. Er ligt een immens archief op ons te wachten dat vrijwel onaangeroerd is – en dat is pas het ware wonder van de humaniora!"
In the June issue of Isis, the premier journal on the history of science, Julia Kursell and I have edited a Focus section (open access) on the relation between humanities and science. Other contributing authors are Jeroen Bouterse, Lorraine Daston, Bart Karstens and Glenn Most.
Abstract: "The humanities and the sciences have a strongly connected history, yet their histories continue to be written separately. Although the scope of the history of science has undergone a tremendous broadening during the past few decades, scholars of the history of the humanities and the history of science still seem to belong to two separate cultures that have endured through the past century. This Focus section explores what common ground would enable a study of the histories of the humanities and the sciences to investigate their shared epistemic objects, virtues, values, methods, and practices."
Scientific American writes that, after having seen my book A New History of the Humanities, "the humanities and science share the virtues of empiricism and skepticism". This is a major step for a science journal -- thanks to Michael Shermer.
“'Thus, abstract reasoning, rationality, empiricism and skepticism are not just virtues of science. They had all been invented by the humanities.' 'Too often humanities scholars believe that they are moving toward science when they use empirical methods,' Bod reflected. 'They are wrong: humanities scholars using empirical methods are returning to their own historical roots in the studia humanitatis of the 15th century, when the empirical approach was first invented.'
Regardless of which university building scholars inhabit, we are all working toward the same goal of improving our understanding of the true nature of things, and that is the way of both the sciences and the humanities, a scientia humanitatis."
Our recently founded journal History of Humanities has now its own homepage at the University of Chicago Press.
"History of Humanities, along with the newly formed Society for the History of the Humanities, takes as its subject the evolution of a wide variety of disciplines including archaeology, art history, historiography, linguistics, literary studies, musicology, philology, and media studies, tracing these fields from their earliest developments, through their formalization into university disciplines, and to the modern day.
By exploring these subjects across time and civilizations and along with their socio-political and epistemic implications, the journal takes a critical look at the concept of humanities itself."
"Bod’s book is designed as an opening salvo in a grand project to develop the history of the humanities as a subfield on par with (and potentially in close alliance with) the history of science, with a view to building a history of knowledge-making more generally.
Bod is clearly committed to a pluralist interpretation of the humanities, though his own interests tend toward the pattern-seeking and the computational. In his wide embrace, the history of the humanities can certainly serve as a welcome venue to motivate new research projects and encourage collaborations. Bod’s energetic initiatives are a fine example of the shifting categories of research"
A couple of weeks ago I had a most enjoyable conversation at Spui25 with Michael Shermer on his new book "The Moral Arc". According to Michael, science increased our moral sensibility. He argued that experimental methods and analytical reasoning of science created the modern world of liberal democracies, civil rights, civil liberties, equal justice and prosperity. In my reply I argued that he had forgotten the immense influence of the humanities in explaining the increase of moral justice -- in particular the insights from sceptical philologists like Lorenzo Valla, Desiderius Erasmus and Joseph Scaliger whom I had discussed in depth in my own book on the world-wide impact of the humanities. Somewhat to my surprise, Michael admitted that he had indeed overlooked people like Valla and others, and he agreed with my argument that both humanities and science increased moral justice. I was impressed and delighted with Michael's reaction, so here's the full text of my reply to his book:
"Thanks for this mind-provoking book. I agree with Michael that on the long run the arc of the
moral sphere bends towards justice. It’s a robust, empirical tendency, impossible
But my view departs from Michael’s when it comes to an explanation for this long-term
moral progress. Michael attributes it to science, whereas I would
attribute it to the humanities, and
science, but at least to both of them.
What does Michael mean by science? It’s great that we don’t
have to infer Michael’s notion of science from
his book – instead he gives an explicit definition himself. According to
Michael, and I quote from p.15, “Science
is a set of methods that describes and interprets observed or inferred
phenomena, past or present, and is aimed at testing hypotheses and building theories”.
Now, since this definition doesn’t explicitly state that the
phenomena are natural phenomena,
they can also be cultural phenomena like art, literature, music, languages, texts etc. So the definition
also includes the humanities! And humanities disciplines like
linguistics, philology, art history, musicology, history etc, indeed follow Michael’s
definition: “they use a set of methods that describes and interprets observed
or inferred phenomena, past or present, and is aimed at testing hypotheses and building theories”. Or don't they?
In any case I'd like to ask Michael why he doesn’t discuss the impact of the humanities
on justice. The word ‘humanities’ is not even mentioned in his book. Maybe he
believes these disciplines did not contribute to explaining the moral arc. Well
let me give some evidence to the contrary.
Let me do so by very briefly sketching the history of
secularization. Contrary to common wisdom, secularization is not an
outcome of the natural sciences, but of the critical, empirical study of texts –
a field called philology – and also the study of languages , the study of art –
in other words, the humanities
It probably started with the Italian philologist Lorenzo
Valla who demonstrated in 1440 that a
famous Latin document called the Donatio
Constantini – the Donation of Constantine -- was a forgery. According to that document the Roman emperor
Constantine had donated the Western Roman Empire to the Pope. The Latin document
was used for many centuries as a legitimization for the church's worldly power. Valla was one of the most skeptical humanists around, and he claimed that
the document was fake. But how could he prove this? Valla used historical, linguistic
and philological evidence including counterfactual reasoning for his rebuttal.
One of the strongest pieces of evidence he came up with was of lexical and
grammatical nature: Valla found words and constructions in the document that could not
possibly have been used by anyone from the time of the emperor Constantine, at the
beginning of the 4th century AD. The late-Latin word feudum, for example, referred to the Feudal system. But this system was a medieval invention, which did not exist
before the 7th century AD.
If we look at the structure of Valla’s famous rebuttal, we
notice a number of methods that would nowadays be attributed to science: he was
skeptical, he was empirical, he drew an
hypothesis, he was rational, he used abstract reasoning (even
counterfactual reasoning), he used textual phenomena as evidence, and he laid
the foundations for one of the most successful theories: stemmatic philology
that aims to derive the original text from extant copies (in fact, the much
later technique of DNA analysis was based on methods from stemmatic philology). Yet, there is no mention
of Valla in Michael’s book.
What happened after Valla’s rebuttal? Well, Valla applied the
same methods and hypotheses to the Bible. Rather dangerous at the time. Nevertheless, scholars
directly after him, in particular the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, showed that some
parts of the Bible were sneaked in by later copyists, such as a reference to
the Trinity. Clearly some copyists wanted to have a proof for the Trinity in the Bible, but Erasmus showed that older versions of the Bible did not mention the Trinity.
Other scholars, in particular Joseph Scaliger, who was active at the University of Leiden in the 16th century, used Valla’s philological approach to reconstruct the so-called King Lists of ancient Egypt. It
turned out – to Scaliger’s own dismay --
that there had been pharaohs living more than a millennium before the Christian
creation of the world, which was commonly
accepted to be around 4000 BC. Thus the earth had to be older than what could be derived from the old testament. Within a couple of generations it became accepted
among scholars that the Bible could not be used as a historical text. This biblical criticism came to an explosion in the work of the philosopher Baruch
Spinoza from whom the later Enlightenment philosophers drew their inspiration.
Thus abstract reasoning, rationality, empiricism, and skepticism
are not just virtues of science. They had already been invented by humanities scholars in the 15th and 16th century.
All this is extremely relevant for Michael’s book. For instance,
Michael uses the example of burning witches. It was once thought that witches caused
crop failures, diseases and other misfortunes. We now know, thanks to
our scientific knowledge of agriculture and medicine -- as Michael correctly notices -- what are the causes of these phenomena. But what Michael neglects to mention,
is that women were burnt as witches because they were thought to co-operate with the devil. Well it’s thanks to the aforementioned philologists like Valla and
Scaliger that we (or at least most of us) don’t believe any longer in the
Bible as an historically reliable text. It can not be proven that people co-operate with the devil. And
this insight does not come from natural science, but from philology, history
and other fields of the humanities.
My point is not limited to this example of witches, but also counts for (what Michael refers
to as) the moral science of slaves, women, and gays. The critical study of texts showed that there was no historical authority justifying slaves or suppressing women and gays. The influence of the humanities has been immense here.
So in sum: I agree with Michael’s observation of the moral arc, but not
with his explanation of it, at least not entirely. Both the humanities and the sciences
strive for finding the truth!
NRC Handelsblad published a special on the situation of humanities at Dutch Universities. I think it's pretty much indicative for the situation of the humanities in general. Especially the study of languages and language sciences are under threat.
My contribution to the special focuses on the language studies. I argue that it's risky to let the survival of modern languages at universities depend on the capricious choices made by 18-year adolescents. Already at high school, students should be taught that a language study is a scholarly discipline rather than a language course.
During the last couple of weeks, Amsterdam is experiencing lots of student protests in favor of a more democratic university and against the current budget cuts imposed on the humanities. Here are their demands (also in English). I can't agree more!
Contrary to universities abroad, there is no democratic election of university boards in the Netherlands. I believe this is a very risky situation: without being elected by students and staff, the board has no democratic mandate. Clearly Dutch law has to be changed in this regard.
The board of the university of Amsterdam could win the hearts of the students (and vice versa) if they propose to go together to The Hague to protest against current legislation and to discuss with the minister. It seems that students, staff and board want in principle the same, but are talking past each other. Please get together!
As to the budget cuts imposed on the humanities, here is an opinion article from the Volkskrant defending the thesis that a university is morally obliged to also maintain small, unprofitable studies.
Finally another Dutch opinion article on the power of the humanities -- by Willem B. Drees in NRC of January 30. It's somewhat chaotic, but absolutely relevant (and Google-translate does a great job turning it into English).
"Waarom humanities? Omdat er iets te ontdekken valt, kennis. En omdat het nuttig is, voor mens en maatschappij. Omdat we nieuwsgierig zijn en nadenken over de ander en onszelf. Kennis, nut én de eigen aard van mensen – goede redenen om aandacht en middelen te investeren in de humanities."
"Bod’s work did create a big sensation not only in the academic scene but also in the public and major newspapers in the Netherlands, England, and more generally Western Europe. Not only did he accomplish something that has not been done before, namely, a written history of the humanities, but he also takes a perspective to this enterprise that redefines the role of the humanities especially in relation to the natural sciences. His work will prove to be a milestone for the further development of both the sciences and the humanities."
While I often discuss my book "A New History of the Humanities" with students in college (from the Netherlands to the US), it's rare to find a blog where students' opinions are open to the rest of the world, until I found these blogs from Cornell College. They're thrilling to read and mind provoking. While I would of course love to reply to all their questions and thoughts, I think that's too intrusive. But if I ever meet them, I will give them a "high five" too! They made me think deeper, for which I'm really grateful. Here's a selection of the blogs:
The first fully open access journal on the humanities has been launched by Brill publishers (Editor-in-Chief: Rens Bod). The journal covers all humanities discplines:*
"Brill Open Humanities (BOH) is a principal outlet for scholarly articles in the humanities. BOH is a peer-reviewed full open access journal and provides a unique platform for theoretical debates and critical analysis. BOH offers a meeting space for international scholars across the humanities, including: archaeology, ancient near east, art and architecture, biblical studies, classical studies, gender studies, history, Jewish studies, media and journalism, language and linguistics, literature studies, music, philology, philosophy, religious studies, Slavic studies, and more."
Here’s another review essay of the English translation of my book by Seth Lerer in Postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies (2014) 5, pp. 502–516:
"Bod’s history of the humanities is thus, in some sense, a history of ‘theory’ in its various forms: that is, a story of how forms of human expression were recognized to be linguistic and how recognitions of patterns, systematizations of structure and arguments for historical progression framed themselves within this broadly linguistic approach. But Bod is no theoretical relativist. The telos of his book is not just to write a story, but to make a case for the humanities as a discipline of progress.”
"Humanities majors have taken their lumps on many fronts recently. Their defenders often respond with appeals to the ways in which the humanities add to the richness of life in nonmonetary ways. That is certainly true, but the humanities have been selling themselves short. In addition to adding invaluably to our culture, humanities majors are a wise financial investment as well. [...]"
Here's a report on the Making of the Humanities IV conference last month in Rome by one of the participants, Léjon Saarloos (thanks, Léjon!):
"For the visitors to the fourth conference on the making of the humanities, it was not just the Italian sun and the hospitality of the KNIR that offered pleasant moments. With about seventy papers read on the history of the humanities, the Making of the Humanities IV presented a broad and inspiring overview of the field. The three keynote lectures by Helen Small, Fenrong Liu and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger represented various trends within the conference, to which I shall return later.
Apart from the many papers, there was also time for celebration. The organising committee of the conference announced the founding of a society for the history of the humanities and a journal for the history of the humanities, published by Chicago University Press. This new journal finally provides a platform for the already burgeoning community of scholars working on topics in the humanities. I hope the new society and the new journal will succeed in connecting scholars from different disciplines as well as this fourth conference did. [...]"
In a recent article in Folia, my colleague Jan Don argues that humanists can promote the humanities much better than they have done so far. The cliché that the humanities don't contribute to economic growth is of the mark. In urbanized environments, like Dutch cities, the economic contribution of humanists is even larger than that of scientists.
We have just launched our new journal on the general history of the humanities, published by University of Chicago Press. Here's a part from the press release:
"History of Humanities, along with the newly formed Society for the History of the Humanities, takes as its subject the evolution of a wide variety of disciplines including archaeology, art history, historiography, linguistics, literary studies, musicology, philology, and media studies, tracing these fields from their earliest developments, through their formalization into university disciplines, and to the modern day. By exploring these subjects across time and civilizations and along with their socio-political and epistemic implications, the journal takes a critical look at the concept of humanities itself.
History of Humanities publishes work that transcends the history of specific humanities disciplines by comparing scholarly practices across disciplines, comparing humanistic traditions in different cultures and civilizations, relating the humanities to the natural and social sciences, and studying developments, problems, and transformations within a discipline that have wider significance for the history of knowledge in general."