Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Why Humanities? Talks from the Birkbeck College Conference

Cover image from  C.P.Snow's The Two Cultures, the starting point for philosopher  Onora O’Neill's keynote lecture The Two Cultures Fifty Years On
Event held: 4-5th November 2010
Link to Recording of the keynote address at the Why Humanities? Event,
Birkbeck College, November 4, 2010, by: Professor Onora O’Neill, Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve
In his 1959 Rede lecture The Two Cultures C.P. Snow contrasted what he called ‘the traditional culture’ of literary study with the culture of natural science, and judged them wholly different in approach and achievements. The scientific culture, as he saw it, was rigorous and productive; the literary culture was neither. However, if we consider the approaches and methods actually used by inquiry in the humanities and in the natural sciences we find many similarities. In both domains inquiry relies on interpretation and inference, makes and seeks to support empirical truth claims and deploys and defends normative assumptions. It is hardly surprising that no single or simple conception of ‘impact’ can do justice to the diversity of work undertaken in either culture.
Onora O’Neill writes on ethics and political philosophy, including the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, questions of international justice, issues of trust and accountability, as well as medical and research ethics. She was Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge from 1992-2006, is professor emeritus in the Faculty of Philosophy in Cambridge and was President of the British Academy from 2005-9. She is a crossbench member of the House of Lords (Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve).
Further Talks from this Event:
Stefan Collini (Cambridge) ‘Holding our nerve’ - (AUDIO HERE)
Current attempts to "justify" the humanities always begin on the defensive and generally adopt an alien or inappropriate vocabulary. This paper suggests that we do better to focus on what we regard as distinctive about good work in our fields and then to characterise that in its own terms.
Iain Pears (Historian and Writer)
‘Taxes, banks, loans, and students’ – (AUDIO HERE)
Initial thoughts on the impact of Browne and the Comprehensive Spending Review on the Humanities.
Francis Mulhern (New Left Review)
‘Humanities and University Corporatism’ – (AUDIO HERE)
What if the emerging organizational tendencies in UK universities are by their nature at odds with the best traditions of the modern humanities? What then would be the terms of a realistic defence of humanities?
Joanna Bourke (Birkbeck)
‘La Fontaine’s Cat, Kafka’s Ape, and the Humanities’ – (AUDIO HERE)
Through prayer and love, La Fontaine's cat was transformed into a woman and Kafka's ape was catapulted into human society with his inebriated "Hullo!" This talk argues that the Humanities does not describe "the human" but creates it.
Raimond Gaita (Kings, London)
‘Callicles’ Challenge’ - (AUDIO HERE)
Callicles challenged Socrates to show that a lifelong devotion to the life of the mind could be worthy of a human being who has more than mediocre aspirations. Academics in universities, I argue in this essay, are under a defining obligation to try to make authoritatively living in their practice an adequate response to Callicles challenge. That, I argue, should be part of a deepened understanding of what it can mean to pursue a subject for its ‘intrinsic worth’. A failure on the part of academics to articulate the intrinsic value of university study as something deeper that a higher pleasure is one reason why universities have been unable to resists the pressures to justify themselves in vocational terms. Those pressures, and acquiescence of academics in a managerial newspeak have debased the ways academics speak of what they do, deny students the means to identity the treasures that a university education can give them, and makes it almost impossible for students and their teachers to resist become children of their times.
Kate Soper (London Met)
‘Rhetoric, Reality, Revisionings’ – (AUDIO HERE)
Current risks to the Humanities have to be placed in the context of a longstanding mismatch between the professed adherence to the value and importance of the Humanities for social and individual well-being, and the failure to allow those values any very central or practical role in social life. My talk will focus on this gap between the rhetoric of endorsement and the reality of marginalisation, suggesting that it has reached a particular crisis point. The defence of the role of Humanities for the future is best linked now to a call for radical revision of our ideas about ‘prosperity’ and the ‘good life’.
Quentin Skinner (QMUL)
‘Why the history of philosophy?’ - (AUDIO HERE)

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