Verslag: The Making of the Humanities IV: Connecting Disciplines, 16-18 October 2014, Rome

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.

Previously the Making of the Humanities conferences focused on particular periods, but this year the conference was concerned with the bridging of gaps between various disciplines. Several approaches to such an interdisciplinary history can be distinguished. First of all, some speakers propagated a more philosophical view, with papers on the philosophies of Brentano and Carnap, and their relevance to the search for an encompassing framework for the humanities and the sciences. Another paper on Ostwald’s ‘energetics’ sought to revisit Weber’s critique of Ostwald in order to revitalise the latter’s encompassing potential.

Another group of papers, in line with Rheinberger’s keynote-lecture on historical epistemology, focused not on philosophical programmes or encompassing frameworks, but rather on deep structures and models of thinking. One paper argued for viewing the scientific and scholarly developments from the 1800s onwards as a historicising of the world picture, thus constituting a second scientific revolution, while another approach focused on styles of reasoning in the humanities. A great a many papers also focused on the practices of the humanities and experiences of historical actors, and on the ways these practices and experiences were guided and constituted by ideals, thus providing an interdisciplinary approach from the bottom up.

Perhaps truly interdisciplinary was the large amount of work on global humanities, with papers on Chinese philology, Peruvian pre-Hispanic history, Thai musical scholarship and cross-cultural comparisons between the West, China and Japan.  In these papers one of the major challenges of an interdisciplinary history of the humanities came to the fore - the danger of anachronism in the use of modern analytical and often Western concepts.

In her keynote lecture for example, Fenrong Liu addressed Chinese Logic in comparison to Western logic, thereby projecting the Western notion of ‘logic’ onto Chinese traditions. In comparing and bringing together disciplines from different times and places, problems of this kind seem hard to evade. However, in line with Fenrong Liu’s argument that these concepts should not be discarded, but creatively appropriated, I would like to point to Nick Jardine’s distinction between vicious and conceptual anachronisms in the history of science.  Other challenges to the history of the humanities include the digital, and the tension between practices and the longue durée, already present in the papers given. I am convinced that the making of a society and a journal for the history of the humanities, in addition to this thought-provoking conference (to be held in two years at John Hopkins University), will be able to address these challenges in a fruitful and inspiring manner.

Léjon Saarloos (Leiden University)



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woensdag 29 oktober 2014 - 11:27