I just returned from a multidisciplinary conference on “meta” issues in the humanities: how various humanistic disciplines have shifted over time, various assumptions made or discarded by academic practitioners, and basically any of the stuff you’d come to find if you took humanists and their work as your object of study. The conference featured historians, literature scholars, art historians, and even a few philosophers. It was held on the gracious grounds of Somerville College in Oxford.
It was a welcome chance for people from different disciplines to see what one another is up to. Many of the comments or questions had the form, “I see you’re talking a lot about X. But have you thought about Y as well?” It really was a model of people trying to help round out each other’s perspectives.
My own presentation was the drum I’ve been banging on lately: that philosophers need to read more widely and make use of insights from history and the philological disciplines. But I added that philosophers also have something valuable to contribute to everyone else, with their focus on the logic of arguments and “the problem space of problems” – in other words, getting a sense for what is and isn’t possible in trying to grapple with a contentious philosophical issue. Philosophers need to think more about historical context, and the other humanists need to be less skittish about seeing the same idea popping up in different contexts.
Of course, there was also the requisite field work of sampling cask ales in charming pubs. Cask ales, to the American palate, are generally warm and flat, but one nods appreciatively over each pint, acknowledging that for all one knows, this really is a good beer, temperature and taste notwithstanding. (Truth be told, one must sometimes adopt the same attitude at some conference sessions: warm and flat, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.)
I tacked on a day in London at the end, visiting with a friend/student, and walking all over the place, with respites at the British Library and (naturally) more pubs. One must be diligent in one’s research.
This sounds like an especially good conference. Was there any talk about the dwindling in importance of the humanities?
There was a talk arguing that the numbers of humanities majors relative to STEM majors has been largely stable (though both groups are shrinking relative to business majors), but nothing directly about the importance of the humanities. With this group, there was very little doubt about that!
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