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In October 2008, Rens Bod, Thijs Weststeijn and I (at Rens's initiative) organized the conference 'The Making of the Humanities'. A volume of papers presented there has been published by AUP in 2010.
The second conference in this series was held in October, 2010. A volume of papers appeared in 2012.
The third conference took place in Rome, in November 2012. A volume of papers appeared in 2014.
The fourth conference, also in Rome, was an even greater success than the previous ones. No volume of papers appeared. Instead, a new journal was founded: History of Humanities.
The fifth conference was held at Johns Hopkins (Baltimore), 5-7 October, 2016.
The sixth conference took place in Oxford, 28-30 September, 2017.
In November 2018, the Making of the Humanities (nr VII) returns to Amsterdam: 15-17 November.
Together with David Cram, I edited a notebook that came to light in 2008. It was written in the 1660s for a boy born deaf. In the introduction, we describe the history of deaf education before and in the seventeenth century, exploring the legal, medical, philosophical and linguistic context.
L'absurde et déplorable scission des "lettres" et des "sciences" ne compromet pas seulement l'avenir de la philosophie; elle fausse son histoire et rend son passé inintelligible, en l'isolant des spéculations scientifiques où elle a toujours pris racine.
- Louis Couturat, La Logique de Leibniz, 1901.
People who use their erudition to write for a learned
minority ... don't seem to me favored by fortune but rather to
be pitied for their continuous self-torture. They add, change,
remove, lay aside, take up, rephrase, show to their friends,
keep for nine years and are never satisfied. And their futile
reward, a word of praise from a handful of people, they win at
such a cost-so many late nights, such loss of sleep, sweetest
of all things, and so much sweat and anguish ... their health
deteriorates, their looks are destroyed, they suffer partial or
total blindness, poverty, ill-will, denial of pleasure,
premature old age and early death.
-Desiderius Erasmus, Praise of Folly, ch. 50 (1509).
It may be unpopular and out-of-date to say -- but I do not think that a
scientific result which gives a better understanding of the world and makes it
more harmonious in our eyes should be held in lower esteem than, say, an
invention which reduces the cost of paving roads, or improves household
-Alfred Tarski, The Semantic Conception of Truth, 1944
You can hardly admire an author and at the same time go beyond him. It is
like water; it ascends no higher than its starting point.
-Francis Bacon, preface to 'The Great Renewal' (1620)
I was invited to give a talk of 5 - 7 minutes to a rather large group of students commencing their studies in one of the programmes offered by the Faculty of Humanities on 26 August, 2015.
This is more or less what I said:
You are all new master's students and exchange students at the Faculty of Humanities. The theme for today is 'the importance of the humanities'. You are all enrolled in a specific subject which is supposed to belong to that very broad range of disciplines known as the humanities, so it is obvious that the humanities are somehow important for you. And we're teachers, we are devoted to at least one of those subjects, so the humanities are obviously important to us too. So if I want to do more than state the obvious, and if I believe, which I do, that THE HUMANITIES ARE IMPORTANT, not just to those who happen to love them, but important - period, then I am not done yet.
I'll first ask a question which sounds very much like a typical philosophical question: do the humanities actually exist? A silly question, because there is no doubt that they do. History, linguistics, art history, musicology, media studies, modern languages, ancient languages and so forth, even philosophy - they all exist. But still, I'll argue that the answer is NO. Let me explain: what I mean by the question is: do the humanities exist in the sense that they form a coherent whole, do they belong together not just because the university administration thinks it is convenient to put all these fields together in a single faculty, but because there is something inherent, either in the objects they study, or in the method in which they study their objects, which separates them off from other fields? Your fellow students who have enrolled in other subjects: physics, medicine, biology anthropology, business studies are not in this room, they are elsewhere at the AMC or the Science Park or the Roeterseiland. Is this because there is something intrinsically different in what they do from what you and your fellow students are doing? I say NO. You are a student in German literature, or medieval history, and you are in the same room now with students in philosophy, and media studies and art history. Is there something essential that you share with these other students that you do not share with those at Science Park? I say NO.
I'll tell you why. It is because all those subjects now known as the humanities are, and have always been, closely connected with other fields of investigation. Boundaries between subjects may be drawn in many ways, and they are to a large extent arbitrary. What we know, and what we are curious about, is intertwined with things we believe and take for granted, and all that is constantly in flux. I'll illustrate this with an example.
Some years ago, I became interested, by sheer coincidence, in the history of the education of deaf people, more in particular, in how deaf people were taught how to speak in the seventeenth century. In studying this subject, I was studying the history of linguistics, wasn't I, perhaps a special branch, the history of language teaching, more or less a typical humanities subject. But was I? In order to understand what happened and why it happened in that particular way I had to take a number of other fields into account as well. For example, theology played its part. It is written in the Holy Bible that "faith comes by hearing" - did not this mean that those who lacked hearing, necessarily could have no faith? Philosophy was important too, as always. Some philosophers maintained that the cognitive capacities of a person who lacked speech had to be very poor and just like those of animals, while others pointed out that since the deaf had a rational soul, they spontaneously invented a language of their own. There were important legal aspects: the deaf could not act in legal matters, such as owning and selling land and making a will, if they could not prove that they understood language. And there was the medical side of course: what were the causes of deafness? Could it be cured? Was muteness always an effect of deafness or did it have independent causes? When people came to the conclusion that it was in fact possible to teach speech to the deaf, they made careful study of the production of speech sounds, which involved anatomical knowledge. One of the early writers on phonetics called his treatise on the subject 'a physico-grammatical' treatise: it combined grammar and anatomy.
I can assure you that this is a fascinating story, which I don't have the time to tell, but the important point in this context is that I could tell the very same story elsewhere in the university, as part of the history of the subjects that are taught there: the history of law, the history of medicine, the history of the social position of the disabled, and in our own good old faculty of humanities of course, to linguists, philosophers and even some residual theologians.
Don't let anybody ever tell you that what you are doing as a student in the humanities faculty is less important than what other students do. We do science, we are scholars because we are interested and curious to know about everything that surrounds us. Ultimately, all that knowledge hangs together.
If knowledge is important, then the humanities are important.