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WHY HUMANITIES?

These events took place on 4th and 5th November 2010

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One day conference – Friday 5th November   -    click here for Conference Programme  pdf format
Keynote address by Professor Onora O’Neill  - 'The Two Cultures Fifty Years On'  – Thursday 4th November

This conference gathers together some of the leading voices in the humanities today. The purpose is to discuss the value of their disciplines in the context of university cutbacks, with a view to developing newly articulated defences of the worth of research in the humanities.

Recent years have witnessed an increasing threat to any stable public understanding of the point of study in the humanities. In financially straitened times, value is too easily bound by an assumption of measurable pay-off that is best suited to the sciences, so that when government funding bodies press their question, we who value the humanities have too often found ourselves stuttering for an answer.

The conference opens with a keynote public address on the evening of Thursday 4th November:

Professor Onora O’Neill  -  'The Two Cultures Fifty Years On' 

Abstract:
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). 


The Why Humanities? conference continues through Friday, with contributions from speakers:

Joanna Bourke (Birkbeck)  -  'La Fontaine's Cat, Kafka's Ape, and the Humanities'
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.

Stefan Collini (Cambridge)  -  'Holding our nerve'
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.

Raimond Gaita (King’s College London)  -  'Callicles' Challenge'
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.

Francis Mulhern (New Left Review)  -  'Humanities and University Corporatism'
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?

Iain Pears (Historian and Writer)  -  'Taxes, banks, loans, and students'
Initial thoughts on the impact of Browne and the Comprehensive Spending Review on the Humanities.

Kate Soper (London Met)  - 'Rhetoric, Reality, Revisionings'
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?'