Is a “starvation diet” the cure for the crisis of the humanities?

Turner_PhilologyIt may seem strange, but as James Turner argues on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Conversations blog, the modern humanities may not be at “death’s door,” as so many commentators imply. He says that a longer view–one that extends back to ancient times–tells us that what we are seeing is a reemergence of a generalist, philological approach to the humanities. Back to Philology indeed!

Turner details the “forgotten origins of the modern humanities,” in much greater detail in his new intellectual history, Philology. You can read a free chapter here [PDF].

Listen to the dire talk around colleges and universities, read op-eds and magazines, and you might think the humanities were in greater danger than the earth’s climate. In fact, despite the overheated rhetoric, the humanities are not at death’s door. Contemporary pressures will more likely push them into a new shape, even ultimately a healthier one.

That claim might seem bizarre. The proportion of college students majoring in the humanities has sunk to an all-time low. Students have turned their backs on art history and literature in favor of studies, like accounting and nursing, that lead directly to jobs. Governors like Florida’s Rick Scott have worked to undercut fields of study not tuned closely to employment. President Obama wants education to stress science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Funds for research in disciplines like history and linguistics are drying up. Congress has already slashed the budget of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and now Rep. Paul Ryan wants to kill it.

Analysts of higher education paint a more ambiguous picture. How many years ago you start counting—either majors or research dollars—determines how gloomy the humanities numbers look. And with more and more Americans going to college only to qualify themselves for work, most time-honored fields of study have taken a hit, not just the humanities. But even at a traditional, elite institution like Stanford, majors in humanities disciplines have fallen so low as to alarm faculty members into unprecedented missionary efforts.

To see how, paradoxically, a starvation diet may rejuvenate the humanities, it helps to take a long view. First of all, the humanities disciplines familiar in American higher education today did not even exist 200 years ago. Sure, in 1814 students learned the Greek and Latin languages, but no discipline called “classics” devoted itself to ancient Mediterranean civilizations. Yes, a college president in that era was likely to lecture on moral philosophy, but the broad range of topics covered by a modern philosophy department had no place in his institution.

Continue reading at The Chronicle of Higher Education web site: http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2014/06/09/yes-the-humanities-are-struggling-but-they-will-endure/

Untranslatable Tuesdays – Politics

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To mark the publication of Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, we are delighted to share a series of playful graphics by our design team which illustrate some of the most interesting terms from the Dictionary. For week seven in the “Untranslatable Tuesdays” series we present politics, policy (excerpted from the full entry by Philippe Raynaud):

In French, the noun politique refers to two orders of reality that English designates as two different words, “policy,” and “politics.” In one sense, which is that of policy, we speak in French of la politique to designate “an individual’s, a group’s, or a government’s conception, program or action, or the action itself” (Aron, Democracy and Totalitarianism): it is in this sense that we speak of politiques of health or education or of Richelieu’s or Bismarck’s politiques in foreign affairs. In another sense, which translates as the English word “politics,” la politiques designates everything that concerns public debate, competition for access to power, and thus the “domain in which various politiques [in the sense of “policy”] compete or oppose each other” (ibid.). This slight difference between French and English does not generally post insurmountable problems, because the context usually suffices to indicate which meaning of politique should be understood, but in certain cases it is nonetheless difficult to render in French all the nuances conveyed by the English term, or, on the contrary, to avoid contamination between the two notions that English distinguishes so clearly. On the basis of an examination of the uses of the two words in political literature in English, we will hypothesize that their respective semantic fields are not unrelated to the way in which scholarly theories (and academic institutions) conceive what French call la politique.

 

 

Untranslatable Tuesdays – Media

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To mark the publication of Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, we are delighted to share a series of playful graphics by our design team which illustrate some of the most interesting terms from the Dictionary. For week six in the “Untranslatable Tuesdays” series we present Media/Medium (of communication):

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the recognition of a family resemblance between the various “implements of intercommunication” meant that they could be compared and contrasted in profitable new ways. . . . The term “mass media” found its niche in scholarly articles by such influential American midcentury thinkers as Hadley Cantril, Harold Lasswell, and Paul Lazarsfeld. But European philosophers resisted this tendency. . . . For Sartre, Adorno, and their contemporaries, “mass media” was less an untranslatable than an untouchable sullied by intellectual and institutional associations with American cultural imperialism. . . . This resistance was soon exhausted. . . . Cognates like “multimedia,” “remediation,” and “mediality” proliferate globally. This reflects less the dominance of English than the collective urgency of an intellectual project. (Ben Kafka)

 

Untranslatable Tuesdays – Work

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To mark the publication of Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, we are delighted to share a series of playful graphics by our design team which illustrate some of the most interesting terms from the Dictionary. For  the fourth in the “Untranslatable Tuesdays” series we present Work, with an abridged entry by Pascal David:

FRENCH       travail, oeuvre

GERMAN     Arbeit, Werk

GREEK       ponos, ergon

LATIN         labor, opus

The human activity that falls under the category of “work,” at least in some of its uses, is linked to pain (the French word travail derives from the Latin word for an instrument of torture), to labor (Lat. labor [the load], Eng. “labor”), and to accomplishment, to the notion of putting to work (Gr. ergasomai [ἐϱγάζομαι], Lat. opus, Fr. mise en oeuvre, Eng. “work,” Ger. Werk), which is not necessarily the oppo­site of leisure but can be its partner. With Hegel, work (Ger. Arbeit) becomes a philosophical concept, but it designates self-realization (whether the course of history or the life of God) rather than a reality that is exclusively or even primarily anthropological.

What does work mean to you?

Untranslatable Tuesdays – Kitsch

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To mark the publication of Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, we are delighted to share a series of playful graphics by our design team which illustrate some of the most interesting terms from the Dictionary. This second week in the “Untranslatable Tuesdays” series we present Kitsch (German):

ENGLISH      junk art, garish art, kitsch

The word Kitsch is German in origin and had previously been translated into French as art de pacotille (junk art) or art tape-á-l’oeil (garish art), but the original term has now become firmly established in all European languages. Used as an adjective, kitsch or kitschy qualifies cultural products intended for the masses and appreciated by them….As a kind of debased popularization, it offers a decadent model that is all the more alluring for being so easily accessible. This is, at least, what its detractors say.

Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood discuss the Dictionary of Untranslatables [VIDEO]

Earlier this week, close to one hundred humanities lovers gathered for a discussion around the Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon with editors Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood, due out this month from Princeton University Press.

Please enjoy this video of the entire event, the first in this season’s Great New Books in the Humanities series co-sponsored by the Humanities Initiative and by the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University: