How humanities changed_the_world

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These are the slides of a talk by Rens Bod presented on January 18, 2012 at WERELD BEELD, Amsterdam University College. The title is: How the Humanities Changed the World, Or why we should stop worrying and love the history of the humanities.
The humanities are under severe pressure worldwide. While the humanities have been viewed for centuries as the pinnacle of education, during the last forty years or so the study of art, history, literature, language and music is typically seen as a luxury, both by policy makers and the public. The humanities are an ornamentation of life but useless for technology, economy and industry. Humanities scholars have been unable to come up with a convincing answer to their marginalization. Arguments in favour of the humanities are defensive and get lost in mantra-like repetitions like: the humanistic disciplines are important for self-cultivation (Bildung), they are relevant for cultural and historical consciousness, and they form the basis for critical thinking and democracy. While these arguments may all be true, most scholars overlook the possibility that the assumption behind the image problem itself may be wrong.
Humanities scholars seem to have taken for granted that the humanities are economically irrelevant. Yet a quick glance over the history of the humanities shows the opposite: humanistic insights not only radically changed the world but they also resulted in concrete applications. As if humanities scholars have no idea of their own history – or decided to neglect a part of it -- these applications are attributed to the sciences. Here something has to be rectified, where the attack is the best defense.

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How humanities changed_the_world

  1. 1. How the Humanities Changed the World Or why we should stop worrying and love the history of the humanities Rens Bod University of Amsterdam Institute for Logic, Language and Computation
  2. 2. Let’s start with a small survey Which disciplines changed the world more profoundly? (1) The Humanities (2) The Sciences
  3. 3. The humanities are under greatpressure world-wide Humanities are increasingly marginalized and are viewed by policy makers as useless for technology and economy Most reactions are defensive:  Critical mind and cultural awareness  Bildung (self-cultivation)  Social responsibility (E. Said)  Democratic consiousness (M. Nussbaum) It is often forgotten that the humanities have led to world-changing insights and discoveries
  4. 4. The humanities should guardthemselves against misconceptions Insights in the humanities have been attributed to the sciences – also by humanities scholars! Academic institutes, students and scholars have a responsibility to show the relevance of the humanities – even if just to survive themselves..  The comparative history of the humanities is of great help here
  5. 5. The history of the humanities islargely uninvestigatedE.g. Dutch minister of Science, Culture and Education, Ronald Plasterk, claimed: “The humanities write history, but the sciences make history”  Is he right or wrong?
  6. 6. Definition of ‘humanities’ W. Dilthey (1911):  “The humanities study the expressions of the human mind” such as the study of music, language, art, literature, theater, texts…  In 21st century there are many different ways to investigate expressions of the human mind  Not only historical and hermeneutic methods but also digital methods
  7. 7. Humanities vs natural sciencesand social sciences  Natural sciences study nature Physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology,  Social sciences study human behavior in their social environment Psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics…
  8. 8. What is this talk about? These are my main questions: In what way did insights from the humanities change the world? And where do the preconceptions about the humanities come from?  Such as: “The humanities are a luxury without economic impact” I will guide you through 25 centuries of history in 25 minutes…  We should keep in mind that humanities are seen as separate branch of disciplines only since 19th century
  9. 9. Linguistics: notion of “Grammar” (600 BCE) One of the most important discoveries of all time is the notion of rule-based system for human language, a ‘grammar’  A finite number of rules describes all infinitely many correct (‘grammatical’) sentences The Indian linguist Panini developed in 6th century BCE such a rule-based system for Sanskrit using the notion of Recursion  +voc  +len /- +voc +savarNa  rAma-s- + ShaShTha  rAma-Sh-ShaShTha  ya-t- + nAsti  ya-n-nAsti etc.
  10. 10. Recursion is known as the “Droste effect”
  11. 11. The impact of the notion of‘Recursion’ Thanks to recursion, a finite number of rules can cover a infinite number of sentences  E.g. the sentence: I see the man that hits the cat that is chased by the dog that is spotted by the photographer that is…  i.e. the rule for subclauses is used in the rule for subclauses itself: one can go deeper and deeper using recursion Panini’s grammar-formalism was used as a model for first higher-level programming languages  ALGOL60, Panini-Backus Normal Form  Panini’s formalism made ICT formally and technologically possible!
  12. 12. Music theory: Pythagoras (6th c. BCE) Pythagoras not only investigated mathematics but also music perception His discovery: harmonic intervals (‘consonances’) coincide with simple number ratios: octave=1/2, fifth=2/3, fourth=3/4  According to Pythagoras the third was not consonant (but since late middle ages, the third is perceived as consonant)
  13. 13. “Mind and nature consist ofnumbers” Pythagoras’s idea to describe musical harmony in terms of numbers (which Aristoxenus extended to musical melodies) may have had an even greater impact than the discovery of ‘grammar’  Led to the insight that the world (both mind and nature) can be understood bu numbers: e.g. Harmony of the Spheres  This world view emerged from the Study of Music which for a long time was seen as cosmological
  14. 14. Philology: Lorenzo Valla’s ‘discovery’ (1440) Philology: on the basis of correspondences and differences (errors) in variants of transmitted texts the original (archetype) can be reconstructed The philologist Lorenzo Valla shows in 1440 that the document “Donatio Constantini” (“The Donation of Constantine”) is a forgery According to this document the Roman emperor Constantine would have donated the West- Roman empire in the early 4th c. to the Pope!
  15. 15. Impact of Valla’s discovery Valla’s discovery caused an enormous shock in 15th and 16th century Europe  It was taken up by Luther and and others and was one of the motives for the Reformation The very idea of philological source reconstruction (Poliziano, Bentley, Lachmann a.o.) by figuring out the errors in transmission even influenced biology centuries later (i.e. DNA analysis – see Dawkins 2008)
  16. 16. Underlying idea of sourcereconstruction When there is an error in a copied document – e.g. a missing word – then descendents of the document will have the same common errors  Thus all variants with a certain error can be traced back to a common ancestor where this error occurred for the first time  If there are more common errors, a genealogical family tree can be constructed, a stemma
  17. 17. Example of a stemma
  18. 18. Common errors point at commonancestors Compare this with determining the heridity of a unique illness or a DNA sequence that is transmitted from parents to children  Deletion, substitution and insertion of words (in texts) and nucleotides (in DNA) are surprisingly parallel  The method of reconstructing the original data from copies was first developed in philology (Lachmann), and later literally applied in the new booming field of genetics
  19. 19. Art theory: Leon Battista Alberti First description of linear perspective (1435) A representation of reality is achieved by imaginary lines which link the eye of the artist with the subjects in the depiction and which, when they are intersected by the picture plane (the window, the painting), result in the portrayed compositionAlberti’s analysis of perspectivealso led to new design techniquesin architecture.Representations that do not followlinear perspective are nowadaysperceived as ‘wrong’(It literally changed our world view)
  20. 20. Historiography: Joseph Scaliger Formalization of historical time reckoning (‘chronology’) on the basis of the principle of oldest source (1606) Scaliger discovered from Egyptian sources that there had been pharao’s living before the Creation of the World (which according to Bible was estimated at 4000 BC)  Scaliger tried to ‘save the phenomena’ by placing these pharao’s in a ‘mythological era’: tempus prolepticon Scaliger’s discovery results in a debate about the Bible as ‘true’ source, which via I. Vossius, La Pereyre and Spinoza leads to the Enlightenment
  21. 21. Interaction between theoryand empiricism The early-modern empirical study of art, music and texts results in a new, critical view on the world  Empiricism gets the last word, how beautiful the theory may be…  Study of consonance in music theory, perspective in art theory, and text-reconstruction in philology influence and shape the early natural sciences  Influenced especially Galileo, Kepler and Snellius
  22. 22. Interaction humanists &natural scientists  Thanks to the thorough musical string experiments by Galileo’s father, Vincenzo Galilei, the combination of experimental and mathematical research was directly transmitted to Galileo  Thus the discovery of the empirical cycle is due to the 15th and 16th century humanists who analyzed texts and music in a critical and empirical way
  23. 23. 19th century Linguistics: Discovery of Indo-European Discovery of sound change laws (Grimm,1822) Hypothesis of Indo-Euro- pean (1835) Evolutionary language tree (1850) Possibly influenced Darwin Century later: confirmed by genetic research (L. Cavalli-Sforza) But is also led to the idea of Arian race…(M. Muller a.o.)
  24. 24. Grimm’s sound change law pbf t d th kgx ↓ ↓ ↓ fbp th t d xkg ↓ ↓ ↓ bfp dzt gxkShift from voiceless to voiced consonants E.g. treis  threis  drei (t  th  d)Grimm predicted a cycle from voiced back to voiceless!
  25. 25. The Computational Shift in the Humanities The Digital Humanities are changing our world, e.g. computational linguistics:  Automatic Speech Recognition (bv. Dragon speech)  Automatic Translation (bv. Systran, Google Translate – only useful as intermediate result) This development would not have been possible without theoretical linguistics, which brings us back again to Panini, which reaches via N. Chomsky the field of computer science and internet technology
  26. 26. Discoveries in the humanities thatchanged the world Linguistics: Panini’s Grammar, theoretical linguistics  programming languages, Internet revolution Music Theory: Pythagoras’ harmonic music theory  numerological view of the world Philology: Valla’s debugging  Reformation, via stemmatic philology  Genetics Art theory: Alberti’s linear perspective revolutionary design techniques in architecture Historiography: Scaliger’s discovery that the earth is older than according to the Bible  Enlightenment All humanities: Discovery interaction between theory and empiricism  Scientific Revolution Computational and Digital humanities: Many computational applications  e.g. speech recognition, creative industry
  27. 27. Impact of the humanities The humanities have led to: Reformation, Enlightenment, Scientific Revolution Genetics Information technology and Internet revolution
  28. 28. Why are these great humanistic feats notgenerally known? Two highly influential philosophers W. Dilthey & W. Windelband wanted to emancipate the humanities around 1900:  Natural sciences: focus on explanation (nomothetic)  Search for the law-like and the universal  Humanities: focus on understanding (idiographic)  Seach for the special, the unique However, this distinction does not correspond to what many humanities researchers actually do Most humanities researchers are empirical and search for patterns and regularities in their data. But Dilthey’s idea is still dominant…
  29. 29. Humanities suffer fromcontinuous self-criticism Important insights and feats in the humanities are criticised by humanities researchers themselves…  Continuous criticism on earlier theories  Too bad: we are also still teaching and using Newtonian mechanics even if it is not 100% correct Good old theories such as stemmatic philology, historical source criticism, formal grammar, and music theory must be kept alive and taught!
  30. 30. Example of importance of good old theory:Historical source analysis  Historical source analysis & philological source reconstruction are used for truth- finding in court  E.g. International Criminal Court in The Hague  Discovery of forged sources in genocide research  The Dutch cabinet Kok II fell in 2002 due to historical research into the fall of Srebrenica, on the basis of historical source analysis (NIOD report)
  31. 31. Let’s now go for a second survey Who has changed their mind about which disciplines changed the world more profoundly (humanities/sciences)?
  32. 32. Let’s now go for a second survey Who has changed their mind about which disciplines changed the world more profoundly (humanities/sciences)?  Perhaps my question could better have been: Which disciplines changed the world more profoundly? (1) humanities? (2) sciences? (3) the interdisciplinary humanities/sciences/social sciences?
  33. 33. Conclusions Insights in the humanities have dramatically changed the world (for the good and the bad)  There is no lack of impact It is important to know the general history of the humanities, so as to guard ourselves against misconceptions against the humanities  Next to the importance of the humanities for Bildung etc, we must also stress the world-changing nature of the humanities to policy-makers!
  34. 34. There is a responsibilityfor academia Stress major turning points in the history of the humanities and their impact (at parties, discussions with your parents and friends!) Publicize the humanities like scientists do:  “You can never predict whether certain ideas and theories will be applied in society or industry”  “But history shows ‘scientific’ ideas are useful” Investigate the history of the humanities! See upcoming conference The Making of the Humanities, at KNIR, Rome 2012
  35. 35. The Making of the Humanities IIIThird International Conference on the History of the Humanities, 1-3 November 2012, Rome http://makingofthehumanitiesIII.blogspot.com/
  36. 36. For a first attempt of a full’ history of the humanities: Thank you!

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